2018 Grand Prize Winner

2018 Essay Contest – Grand Prize Winning Essay

The following essay was submitted by Jack Zhang of Markham, ON


It happened one day during the last week of summer. I was halfway through Yuri on Ice and a bag of potato chips when my mother vaulted into my bedroom, her finger pointed. “What have you been buying?” She accused, a look sourer than my salt-and-vinegar comestibles etched into her face.

I had no idea what she was talking about. Unconsciously, I made the face I adopted whenever I was in chemistry class: bewildered, with an air of squintiness, like I’m at the optometrist’s and all the letters are in Russian. “Nothing,” I finally sputtered.

“I checked your monthly expenses; you’ve been buying something, every month now since March.”

Monthly expenses? I thought. Then I recalled that time my mom and I went to the bank. I’d needed a savings account, and when I told the advisor guy (I think his name was Gregory) I forgot what compound interest was, he recommended us a joint plan.

“Oh,” I said, scratching my head, “Wait, I didn’t buy anything.” I wasn’t lying; I’d forgotten all about the account and Greg and his lotiony-smelling cubicle. Besides, I had hardly gone out all summer—what would I have bought?

“Think. Harder.” The words came out in an acid jet of Mandarin syllables. Why’s she so angry? I thought. It wasn’t her money anyway.

“My God, mom, do you think I’m buying marijuana or something?” I asked, flippant. (In my impoverished Mandarin, that was the only drug I knew.)

“No.” She said, shaking her head, and motioned me to come.

I followed her to her room and she showed me the digital ledger. The letters and numbers blinked up at me, inscrutable as algebra. I slowly made out the word, “audio.” I muttered it aloud.

“What is that?” My mother asked.

I was about to ask myself the same question, but then it dawned on me. “Let me look at something,” I said, as I half-ran, half-walked back to my room. I opened my laptop and began rifling through emails, searching for the discarded message—the corner piece—that would solve the whole puzzle. Eventually I gave up and just searched “Audio” instead. At last, I found it. The email was dated April 23rd; it was a renewal for an audiobook service.


I was never one for audiobooks. Like pre-minced garlic and bottled lemon juice—travesties of the culinary world—they seemed to me replacements for something infinitely precious. But when push comes to shove, sometimes you have to reach for that gnarly, zit-coloured jar of the minced stuff.

The day I read my first audiobook was a queer, smoggy one in March. I might have been sick, or it could’ve just been spring break, but I recall staying home from school and telling myself: You’re going to start this essay. It was a 4000-word paper, due at the end of the year, and based on a book which I hadn’t even chosen yet. It needed to be literary but not too literary—challenging, without frying my paltry, teenage brain. I looked through the list of book recommendations my English teacher had given me. I’ll be honest; I’d read nary a fragment of her encyclopedic selection. There were the classics, sure, but there were also obscure fictions of which I’d never heard; books about autistic youths and feminist trailblazers, famous works of art, glory and revulsion—books about all the scintillating shades of life that I’d never experienced. I want to say that I was awed by their immensity, but in actuality I was kind of bored.

That was when I saw it, gleaming dully like a peanut in a bag of pistachios: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. Of course. It was so simple, so obvious compared to all the other titles. How could anyone named “Michael” ever write something that induced confabulation and hair-tearing? I read an excerpt and decided that Michael and I were a fit.

There was only one problem: None of the nearby libraries had The Hours in stock. It would take days for a copy to be returned. I didn’t have time—I wanted the book now, and I knew just where to find it.

You hear ads for audiobook services all the time, but never do you think: I need that. The offer of a free one-month trial is something, but it’s all rather unattractive in the long run. Unfortunately, these weren’t the thoughts going through my head when I signed up for an audiobook subscription. Instead, I was thinking, Wow, now I can read from my bathtub! And that’s just what I did.

The memory gets a bit foggy at this point, like steam obfuscating a mirror. What I do remember is disliking it, listening to the dryly-arranged words spoken in Cunningham’s colourless voice. After a while, even my brain had gone pruney. I stopped the recording and got out. The book just wasn’t for me.

All this I recounted to my mother, excepting perhaps the part where I took a bath. We immediately canceled the subscription, making sure to claim the accumulated credits which I then spent on such edifying classics as Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It was small consolation for the five payments I’d unwittingly coughed up. In the end, we were just glad that we’d noticed before they upgraded me to a premium membership!

What did I learn from this brush with financial idiocy? It’s probably a good idea to review your monthly spending! Also, as someone or other once said, “Don’t make promises you know you can’t keep!” Sure, free trials sound like a convenient gimmick, but if you’re as scatterbrained as I am, they can also be a ticking time-bomb of embarrassment and parental mistrust. And if a bank aid ever asks you what compound interest is, don’t answer with, “It’s that thing that gives you more money, right?”

Sorry, Greg, this one’s for you.


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