For a little over a year, I wore a thin, red, braided string tied around my waist. The string came from a moment of mistranslation between my mom and me, during a phone conversation about the Chinese New Year.
“2015 is your year,” she said. “The Year of the Goat.”
I told her I was excited. “Finally, some good luck.”
“What are you talking about?” she said. “This year is the worst luck for you. This year, you need to be careful.”
She explained that it being my year meant that there was extra supernatural scrutiny and when it came to the attention of spirits and gods, it was best to go as unnoticed as possible. “You should wear red underwear every day,” she said, and here, the miscommunication: “Or, a red string around your waist.”
What she had actually said, she later told me when she saw the string six months later, was that I should wear a red belt. She shook her head, laughing, in the women’s locker room at the worn thread rubbing against my skin, caught above the curve of my hipbone. By then, I barely remembered the extra piece of me. By then, I was glad to have misunderstood.
When I first ordered the red string online, choosing among strings with tassels, beads, and fake gold coins, I thought first of comfort. Or rather, discomfort, as I knew that no matter what string I bought, I would feel its alien presence. I picked the simplest string available–which still came in an intricate braid–and a week later, the package arrived, covered in Chinese stamps. I tied it on while looking in the mirror, pushing my stomach out to see how loose the loop should be, trying to anticipate all the ways my body might change against the string. Immediately, the string began to chafe my stomach. I had to sit straighter. I pulled at it, knowing that this would become a habit. I wondered how I was going to get through the year with this string, the equivalent of a constant wedgie.
I’ve never been good at celebrating the New Year, lunar or otherwise. It feels strange that a new year should feel strange. After all, nothing is truly changing. So I skip the festivities most years, and I wish people a Happy New Year only when they say it first. Yet, after the celebrations are over, I still find that rather than being the continuation of the calendar, the new year comes with a straight-from-the-package feel. It’s stiff and awkward, like most new things are. Then, somewhere towards the end of winter, the new year becomes the year proper, no celebration announcing its slide back into obscurity.
The red string embodied this feeling too perfectly. Except, unlike the new year, my string continued to announce itself well after winter passed, after spring, and summer. I no longer felt, exactly, its presence, and yet, there it would be, peeking out from my shirt when I stretched, getting caught by my thumb when I pulled my pants on or off. When I tried on certain clothes, I had to push the string up and tuck it into my bra. When I showered and the string was wet, it grew expansive, and slid down to hide beneath the waist of my jeans until I remembered to yank it back up. Because the string was so directly tied to the year, I couldn’t stop from thinking of the year also, how much time had passed, and how much longer I had left. I would think, “Just four months left.” And then, “Eight months have already gone.” It became, in its acknowledgement of the year, a celebration; each whisper of string against skin a small bow.
I cut the string a few days after the Chinese New Year welcomed in the Year of the Monkey. I waited the extra days because I was tentative about cutting something that had been with me for an entire year, something so passive-aggressively attached. I didn’t think the cutting would hurt—the attachment didn’t go that far. But I did wonder what I would do with the string once it was no longer a part of me. I felt as though I couldn’t throw the string away, and yet to keep the ratty thing was also unappealing. The string was an accumulation of time, had gathered the experiences of that year more accurately, and certainly less ostentatiously than any journals I’d kept, any reflections I was attempting to write. I suppose I was worried about honoring the string, which had, after all, kept my year safe and lucky. How to end a celebration that was barely a celebration to begin with?
In the end, without ceremony and with a pair of kitchen scissors, I snipped the threads that bound the string to me, and it fell off of me as cleanly as I knew it would. I left the string pooled on the corner of a table, where I kept other junk that would be thrown away in time. My torso felt no different, and I was a little disappointed.
I ate the leftovers from a Chinese New Year dinner I had reheated. As my stomach filled out, I felt, in that moment, the string. Or rather, I felt its absence. Where before, every meal was followed by the tug of the string, stretching to make room for my food baby, this meal was unaccompanied. Yet the feeling of absence was just as strong, if not more so, than presence. In the weeks that followed, I felt the not-string. I felt its phantom, and I understood the physical aspect of loss, of removal. Every time my thumb caught air, unhindered, I felt the string. Every time I shifted in my seat. Every time I raised my hands above my head and stretched. In all my attempts to think about the year that had passed, I’d never considered the year as gone. The year had simply rolled into the next one. But now, with the phantom of my red string to remind me, I saw that I could not write about the past year, all that had happened and changed, the good and the bad, without also writing about the physical year, how it had slipped over me, and then off of me, its weight replaced by a new year, but not its singular touch.
Of course, as the weeks pass, even the feeling of absence begins to fade. The new year is becoming a year again. Reflection is always, technically, an afterthought. So no wonder all my attempts to reflect, the setting aside of time, felt forced. My red string taught me how to reflect without hindering the present. How to be present to time passing. How to experience time as both a steady accumulation and a sudden erasure. I suppose I won’t be throwing the red string away after all. In twelve years time, I’ll need to tie it on again.
Lead image: Mycenaean gilt terracotta statuette of a goat. 14th century B.C. Terracotta, gold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.