Transcendence

I was eighteen and living on two eggs a day. I fried them in soy sauce, pleating them in the pan the way my mother showed me. Don’t break the yolk, she’d say, rolling the oil into pearls. It means you’ll have a miscarriage someday. She told me once about the baby she’d had before my older brother and me, the broken yolk in the toilet, the blood she buried. I have a red birthmark on my inner thigh, she said, where the memory is eating me. The baby, she believed, would have been a daughter. She said I was lucky, since I wouldn’t have been born if her first child was a daughter. The only reason why she had a second child after my brother was because he was a son, and she only ever wanted a girl. Because my mother had seven girls and didn’t want any of us, my mother said, pleating the egg in the pan, I wanted one. And I would tell my daughter every day how much I loved to build her bones. I joked and said she failed, since she didn’t tell me every day. This was the first time. My mother shimmied the egg onto the spatula and said, because you came too late! You made me have a dead girl and a son first. What kept you so long?

My first year of college, I ate my roommates’ garbage. I devised a schedule for stealing from them and created a set of rules for myself: I would never open an unopened package. I would only eat leftovers – curly fries gnarled together like pubic hair, congealed lemon chicken – if it was unclaimed for three days or more. If the item was individually wrapped – like a box of granola bars – I would take only one item per box. I became an expert on my housemates’ appetites: when one of my housemates bought Cliff bars, for example, she always bought two flavors, Mint Chip and Peanut Butter, but while the Mint Chip box emptied within the week, the boxes of Peanut Butter bars remained in her cupboard for months. It wasn’t stealing if she didn’t want them, I thought, and folded wrappers at the bottom of the can. Once in a while, my housemate would catch me clutching a box of leftover lo-mein in the kitchenette, and I’d say I was clearing the refrigerator of expired food. You’re so proactive, they said, thank you

The cartons of eggs were a gift from my cousin, who drove up from Flushing to visit me. Every couple of weeks, she drove a seafood delivery truck to my city and parked at the curb in front of my building, gesturing for me to get in, even when the heater was busted and we had to swaddle ourselves in tarps just to talk. I’m not going to your place, she said. Those old brick buildings are full of ghosts. She was 23 and worked at a grocery and always got to keep the cartons of cracked eggs, the ones that were expired or that no one wanted to buy because they stained your palms with their snot. It was November when I told her that my two part-time jobs were not enough, and that I was looking for another. My cousin had just bleached her hair to look like a K-pop star, but instead of blonde, it was the color of rust. I look like that fat cat from that fucking cartoon, she said, what’s his name? Garfield, I said. Yes, she said, gargling the name and spitting it out onto the dashboard. She turned up the heating, but the air came out cool and the windows pearled with our breath. She leaned back in her seat, turning to me. There was a cigarette in her mouth, but she hadn’t lit it yet. The lighter clattered on the dashboard, and as she reached for it, she said that nowhere was hiring, but she’d ask around for me. Then she turned her head toward me again, her tongue bleached white in the streetlight, and said I was looking like a gutter ghost. She fumbled the lighter, and when I plucked it up from her lap and lit it for her, I remembered the time we kissed. 

It was years ago at her mother’s apartment in Reno, where we gathered to celebrate the 100th day of her little sister. That was when the baby’s head was shaved and we were supposed to gift her gold, but instead of gold we brought Ferrero Rocher chocolates and a fake-jade bangle that my mother once stole off a coworker at the Taiwanese church. We were both five and hated the baby, the way it whined when we shaved its head, the way our mothers lifted it to the light as if it were a vase, breakable, when they always brushed our hair too hard or pinched our arms like we were made of mud. That day, we crouched together in the bathroom and touched tongues. It’s called a wedding kiss, my cousin said. You do it after you get married. She pried open my lips with her tongue, jostling loose one of my baby teeth, and I think she must have swallowed it, because when our mouths parted, the tooth was gone.

I thought about the tooth she swallowed from me, if it came out in the toilet later, if she even noticed it shrugging down her throat. We never talked about the wedding kiss, and sometimes I wondered if she remembered. I was remembering this when she said to me, Well, I have a possible job, she said. She explained that there was a man she used to screw for money, that she didn’t know anything about him, but she’d met him online and he always wore a condom and his dick wasn’t very big. How much does he pay you, I asked her. She tapped the cigarette ash into her cupholder, and I noticed a jade bangle around her wrist, wondering if it was the same one we’d gifted her baby sister all those years ago. I don’t know, she said, I guess it really depends. She mumbled a number. But it can be way more or less. He doesn’t really say. You just have to meet him. Shouldn’t you be the one to set the price, I asked her. But my cousin shrugged and said, to be honest, I kind of used to be in love with him, so I don’t really know. He calls the money a birthday gift, but it’s never my birthday. But I think maybe I’m too old. He keeps asking for someone else. Who, I said, and my cousin said, I don’t know, you could meet him, he’s always asking me, but I’m not saying it’s gonna work out.

The rest of that night, she didn’t turn her head to face me, instead squinting through the windshield like the old men in old movies. She was the kind of person who looked forward, even if she was speaking to someone right beside her: my mother always joked that she was born with eyes like headlights, directed only ahead, scattering every animal in her path. I tried not to flinch when she looked at me, tried not to get tied up in her light. There was a mole between her eyes that I used to dream about licking, the mole that my mother said was lucky because it resembled Buddha’s: she was born to be prayed to. But wait, my cousin said, lighting her third cigarette, you do know how to do it, right? She knew I’d had a boyfriend in high school, that he skittered like a lizard when I touched him. I didn’t tell her about the girls, what I knew about kneeling, how long I could hold my breath. Yeah, I told her, and it was the last thing I said that night. From under her seat, my cousin fished out a bag of moldy navel oranges – she called them belly-button oranges – and made me take them home. When I got out of the truck, it was starting to snow heavy as dandruff, and I turned back to watch my cousin through the passenger window. She was still looking ahead, swearing at the snow, and when her headlights flicked on, I ran.

I met the man on a Sunday. Back home, where the closest thing to snow was wildfire ash, my mother would be in the parking lot of the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, handing out flyers for the nativity play. My mother pretended to be a Christian to get her job, even buying a paint-by-the-numbers portrait of Jesus from the flea market, but at home she spray-painted over it with her own immortals, Guanyin saddling a cloud, Mazu perched above the sea, red-faced Guan Yu crouched in the corner. I asked how come she only drew the women floating. Because men severed themselves from the sky a long time ago, she said. 

I took the bus to meet him, crossing the parking lot to get to the hotel where he wanted to meet. The lobby was underground, beneath a Panera and an Olive Garden, both places I’d never eaten at. I wondered if he’d want to eat first, if I’d finally understand what all those commercials were about, all those white families clotted together around a table, bread beaming out of their mouths.

It was dark in the lobby. The man stood behind me like my shadow, then walked ahead of me into the elevator. He was the same height as me, in his early forties, with narrow shoulders and silver wicks in his hair, and there was nothing in his hands. That’s what my mother always told me to do, to look a man in the hands first. To see what he was carrying and calculate the chances he’d kill you with it. I should have told her that hands alone were capable of that. It was only when we entered the room that he turned to look at me too, and I was startled to see a dimple in his left cheek, the same one my cousin had. He was wearing a dress shirt and khakis, like a man in a catalogue, and his glasses were dull as coins. I couldn’t see his eyes behind them.  

The blinds were drawn, and on the sofa in the corner of the room, I saw his black backpack, the kind that businessmen wear, so many silver zipper-tabs and pockets too small to fit your fists. You don’t look anything like your cousin, he said to me in English. Then, before I could explain that my cousin and I only shared great-grandparents, that the people who tethered us together had long ago died, he asked if I spoke Cantonese. No, I said in Mandarin. He switched to Mandarin and said, your cousin could. I nodded, pretending that I’d known that, and a part of me wanted to fan my hands across his mouth, to prevent his memories of her from collaging over mine. 

He asked about my commute here, where I was working, whether it was cold. I ignored the condom on the bedside table. I thought it was strangely American of him, to talk about the weather as if he had chosen it. He shuttled our shoes into the closet and unwrapped a pair of slippers, offering them to me, but I took them without wearing them. Sitting on the bed with his back turned toward me, he unbuttoned his shirt. He told me to stay dressed. He never opened the blinds. It was dim, but I could see the moles on his cheeks, the blued one on his nose. My mother once wanted to get her moles read by a Chinese mole-reader, but she was afraid of what her skin would say about her. Pai miah, she’d say, probing the one on her chin. Bad luck. The easiest thing to own, the hardest thing to give away.

He undressed me under the sheets, jerking at my shirt. It reminded me of the way my cousin and I used to pluck chickens in my mother’s yard, bathing their dead bodies in boiling water to loosen the roots, then yanking out the feathers in fistfuls. He should boil me first, I thought, and laughed aloud. He paused, his hand basketing my breast. I asked him what his job was, but he didn’t answer me. Later, my cousin would tell me that he used to design buildings, big ones, and I thought about the way he kept the room dark except for the screen of his phone on the bedside table, how he privatized light. He reached his hands between my legs and wormed a few fingers into me, and I forgot to make the sounds to accompany him. My cousin said he liked sounds, so I imitated the way I’d heard her grunt when she struggled to open the door of her truck, when she complained about the ache in her wrists from scalping bamboo shoots. When he shifted over me, his face too close to differentiate from the ceiling behind it, I shut my eyes. Don’t stare at him, my cousin had said, he doesn’t like that. The way she spoke about him reminded me of the way people talked about their dogs. She knew what he feared (drowning, because it had almost happened to him once when he was little, at a hotel pool in Hong Kong), what he wouldn’t eat (anything raw, he was too Chinese for that), what he answered to (just call him Uncle). 

I replaced my voice with hers, whispering the way she did when she prayed: she insisted on praying every time before she drove, because a fortuneteller once told her it was her fate to die on the road. When I asked her why she now chose to drive a truck as part of her job, she laughed and said her future was fixed, fixed like a bitch before heat, and there was nothing she could ever give birth to besides her own death. My miah, she said. You know how it is

When he entered me, I was so stunned for a moment that I flung out my arms, slapping the lamp on the table. I dislocated from my bones, sterilized into steam, and when I watched myself from above, I saw the movement of his shoulders like they were underwater. I was treading the air, searching for somewhere to surface. My cousin told me about the first time she did it. She was thirteen, back in Taiwan for her grandfather’s funeral, and the boy was a local kid who sold animals at a night market. Raccoons, my cousin said. He sold raccoons! And everyone wanted one! I didn’t tell him that in America, raccoons are everywhere, they overbreed, they’re pests, no one ever wants one. But what did it feel like, I’d asked her, and she said it felt like nothing, because long ago she’d read a book by a Taoist nun who could transcend her body, walking across flaming boughs and shattering cinderblocks with her skull. 

I thought about my cousin fork-lifted out of her body, populating the air like a flock of moths, haloing herself. I tried to scatter myself into sound, spearing through the windows, the walls, his skin. 

When he came, stilling inside me, I forgot to make a sound to commemorate it. I was still outside, knocking on my skin to get back in. His hands found my breasts and kneaded them almost clinically, as if he were trying to induce blood circulation. Later, my cousin and I would laugh about this, the way he palmed our breasts like the ladies at the grocery store who fiddled with the fruit but never bought any.How was it, my cousin said, when she called me at home. I still hadn’t counted the money he gave me, which came in a Chase bank envelope, unsealed, the cash so casual I almost wiped my lips with it. That’s how you know he’s rich-rich, she said, but he didn’t seem like one, the way his pants creased, the way he shuffled, uprooting static from the carpet. He asked if he could dress me, and I let him, feeling like my limbs were foreign, belonging on a doll. I feel that way too, my cousin said, her laughter like static. Whenever I fuck, I think, ugh, whose body is this, when is this gonna get good? Until then, I can fling away bad feeling. But I told you, it’s because I transcend. I can lend you the book about it because I stole it from the library. I told her I’d learned to be above my body, but when I’d walked back across the parking lot and sat down on the blue plastic bus seat, I flinched away, thinking I’d sat down in a pool of someone else’s piss. I got home and changed and saw that my underwear was saddled with blood, dark and sucked of its salt. I flung the fabric into the sink, rinsing it cold. He hadn’t answered when I asked him if he wanted to see me again: the last thing he told me was to learn Cantonese, at least the numbers, at least goodbye. On the other end of the phone, my cousin laughed. I knelt beneath the sink, reaching for bleach. But the trick with transcendence, she said, is that you have to get back to the ground. You can’t let go and get lost forever. Crouched on the bathroom floor, I remembered when the two of us squatting on the tile together, when she tethered her tongue to mine, when she stapled her name to my lips, when I made a fist around every feeling.

— K-Ming Chang (from The Los Angeles Review)