Pastor Li’s voice travels through the room like smoke. Beside him, Father shakes. He stands up, raises his hands and shakes them. “AMEN!” His voice booms past Pastor Li’s and bounces onto every wall before settling into the silence once again.
But I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was replaying last night in my head, each scene grabbing me in exactly the same way it had the first time. His words made me feel special (I’ve never met anyone sweeter than you before, baby), pretty (Whoever told you that you weren’t the finest thing musta just been jealous ), and most importantly, wanted (Man, after I meet you I bet I’ll never be able to let you go). I made sure to wear what he liked. Under the oversized Mickey-Mouse sweater my Aunties brought back from China, I wore a cropped baby-pink shirt that fringed slightly at the edge, and under that, a bra with extra padding, and under that a black corset. I felt like superwoman, kinda. Almost like one of those leads in those early 2000’s movies that could hold every man’s gaze for the next decade or so, that would be memorialized in girls’ Instagram profile pictures, that could be heard as soon as her heel hit the floor.
My phone buzzes. I see his profile picture. In it, he’s wearing a blue baseball cap backwards, his brown hair messily sticking out in small tufts. His eyes are a deep blue, almost brown in this picture, their sunkenness enhanced by dark undereye circles and newly-emerging wrinkles. I never really liked the picture.
JAX: Excited to see you tonight ;)
ME: Me too <3 I text back.
JAX: Where r u?
JAX: My good girl. ;)
I shift impatiently in my seat till the morning ends as all Sunday mornings do: quietly. The choir shakes the sermon off with the solemn-sounding benediction. Women softly shuffle away from the pews to their circles to talk about their health (Well, Yi Fei I am nearing forty, migraines are just normal), their children (Sarah received an A- in math last semester. Looks like we need to start seeing a tutor again), their jobs (It’s been a busy week, but things are slowing down). Men sit together on benches, smoke, laugh about nothing in particular.
I walk through the crowd and try to find Father and Derek, my twin brother. As I round past the halls, I give the routine Yes, Derek, Father, and I are all doing fine’s, the I'm not sure which colleges I am applying to yet’s, and the Thank you, Ms. X, I will be praying for you too’s to everyone that passes me. When I finally spot Derek, he’s talking to a pretty girl who I think is named Sarah. Just when I decide to leave him alone, Father gently taps my shoulder and I know it’s time to go. On the way to the car, he stumbles a lot, but I catch him each time. As I get into the driver’s seat, my phone buzzes. I feel the corset tighten around my ribs as I step onto the gas pedal.
Father laughed the whole way home. Derek dozed. I tightened my hand around the wheel, breathed in deep whenever the corset started to hurt.
Since I got my driver’s license, I’ve been driving Father everywhere. To 99 Ranch where they sold his favourite ricecake, where they cooked everything a little too salty, but perfectly for his “dying tongue.” To Blind Tiger Club on Telegraph where he’d smile at everyone around him, pretending he was young again. To King’s Park where he’d chase the ducks, terrify them, then name them one by one.
We sometimes walk together on nights when I don’t have much homework. He looks for birds and talks about drawing them, forgetting about his shaking hands and the paintbrushes that were gone long before even Mother was. The doctor says we shouldn’t let him walk around alone or else he’d get lost.
One time, while Derek and I were at school, he trailed all the way to El Cerrito, a small town two cities away from Oakland. After the sun had already set, the police found him sleeping by a Burger King, bird shit freshly planted on his face. Once we got home, I filled the kitchen sink with warm water and dunked his head into it, scrubbed the crusted shit and dirt away from his hair and face, and dried him off with a towel. During all of this, he was mumbling something beneath his breath.
“What?” I asked.
“It was God. He was there today,” he said beneath the running water, grinning so widely that I feared some of the dirt would leak into his mouth.
“At Burger King?”
A pause. “Yes, Burger King. God always at Burger King. Well, God everywhere, but he likes Burger King a little more. I like Burger King too. If you’re too busy studying or are too tired to cook dinner maybe we can eat there one day.”
Today, I play Beethoven’s Sonata No.8 because that’s Father’s favourite. He sways to the runs and shakes with the bangs. Derek plugs his ears. The piano runs through my ears, through the car, and through the freeway. I grit my teeth against the pain in my ribs.
Jax had never said anything bad about my body. The hundreds of pictures I’d sent him these past few months had only been received with praise. He called it the best thing he had ever seen. He said I was thick in all the right places, and that he would gladly cut off one of his arms just to touch me once, but I still had my doubts rooting back to freshman year, when all the girls in the locker room cinched their already-small waists even smaller, when they padded their bras with tissues, compared and cried over their bodies in the bathroom mirror. I was still young then. I wore a bra then a white tank top over that bra. I wore my PE shorts beneath my regular sweatpants. I would’ve never let anyone see anything more of me.
Last Wednesday, I told Derek I was going to the library when I was actually going shopping.
“Whatever. Just come back home to make Father dinner. I’m going to Christina’s house with Myra and Zeke. Won’t be home till you’re both asleep.”
“Your grades are not more important than Father. Have a good night.”
Then, he hung up.
Dublin is about a half-hour from our school via I-580 East and it’s where I go when I don’t want to be seen. During the drive, I avoid looking at myself in the rearview mirror. After years of avoiding shiny storefront windows, clean cars, metal railings, et cetera, I’d become quite a natural.
The last time I had been to the Target here was to buy five gallons of ice cream all for myself. In the dark of Tuesday night, I sat in the parking lot and devoured as much as I could before promptly throwing the cartons away, ashamed to look at the dents I had made. What can I say? Cam L. had just graduated without having looked at me once. My hours curating heartfelt mixtapes for the boy I loved had been flushed away to the sugar-pink tune of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” as he sped away in his girlfriend’s red 2009 Camry. And I couldn’t do anything but cry. I cried like the big, ugly, baby I was. I cried like I did in freshman year when Jerry H. ripped my love letter and wrote one back in his ugly handwriting calling me “a chinkyy greasyy pimplyyy bitch.” I cried like I did in sophomore year when Len Q. and everyone else I thought I loved and who I thought could love me back disappeared without a trace into another school, another country, or another girl’s arms without even one glance at me.
That night, Father fell down the stairs and lay there until Derek arrived back home at eleven. As soon as I returned, there was no more time for tears.
That Wednesday, I sped through the aisles and picked up just what I needed: a $3 e.l.f. mascara, a matching black lace underwear set that I ripped off the shelf as fast as I could, and a shit ton of concealer. Then, I passed by the aisle where they sold those things. I didn’t want to think about whether or not we’d need them, and I didn’t. I just remembered that Jax was older, more experienced, and that I was wasting my time by being worried.
At the self checkout station, I caught a rare glimpse of myself in the camera’s image. My thick-rim glasses rested unevenly on my bulgy nose. My Asian eyes that were “extra Asian even for an Asian”, as Derek put it, glared at themselves for a brief moment. My skin was red, bruised and patchy from my acne scars and my face was fat in every crooked, wrong place. My reflection seemed to crumble. I quickly looked away, tightened my hand around the concealer in my bag, grinned and left.
Today, Father wants minced meat noodles for lunch. Like your Mama used to make, he says. Derek helps him up the stairs up to our apartment before he lapses onto the couch, humming an unrhythmic crossover between the day’s earlier benediction and Beethoven’s Sonata. The cloudy gray light filters through our maroon curtains onto his left cheek, revealing a dark patch in the shape of a frog, a childhood scar. A fly hovers briefly over him before zooming away.
I boil the water. I put the noodles in the pot. I get out the frying pan, spoon oil into the middle. I cut the cucumbers into thin shreds. I grab the soy sauce and the Szechuan spice. I put everything together and he can’t tell there was any difference.
He chews delightfully. “If only your mother could see you now! She’d be so proud.”
I laugh and hold another forkful close to his mouth.
So proud, huh? I speed through calculus and arrive in front of the bathroom mirror. So proud, huh? I unzip my hoodie and see a stranger’s chest. Proud, huh? I grip the concealer in my hand, drown my face in the too-tan beige. Proud? I line my eyes in black, watch them sink into my skull. Proud? I remove my corset, put on a black miniskirt. I let my hair down, become someone else.
I had first met Jax on a thread for people like us. Well, a thread for people like me. Or almost like me, I’d like to think.
He was different from anyone else I had ever met there, different from anyone else I had ever met anywhere. The thread was populated with sad teenagers burnt out from bad friends, families, and lives. Compared to them, my life was a walk in the park. Whenever the occasional What’s going on in your life? came up, I just shrugged it off. Nothing much, I guess. A weird dad. A dead mom. A couple of boys that didn’t like me. College apps. I told nothing about myself and stuck to just responding to their threads of razor blades, parties, prescriptions with the customary Everything will be alright <3’s and the routine Shit sucks, man. :/ ’s.
After dull days at school of putting my head down and pulling straight A’s. After performing the same regime of conversation with Father, Derek and anyone who felt obligated to talk to me. After making dinner, saying the prayers, and doing the dishes. I dove into their pain. I swam through it, wondering what it felt like to be so alive that it hurt.
When Jax messaged me with his first Hey, how are you :) I knew he was older, darker and ill-intentioned. I knew he didn't want to get to know me when he asked how school was, when he asked about Father, Derek, and what I was going to wear to school that day, but I didn’t care.
6:00 pm. I won’t be seeing him till two hours later, but I’m too giddy and can’t wait anymore. Each second is dreadfully long and I decide that I’m going to leave a bit early. By the door, Father is still splayed on the couch in deep sleep. His arms are dangling over the edge and his lips are drooping onto the old navy surface. I take a blanket from the closet and lay it over his body. I order some food to come a half hour later. I don’t bother texting Derek anything.
I enter the car and put my sunglasses on. As I exit our street, the sun slants into my eyes through the windshield. The sky is smoked with lilac and blush. Kids jump rope on the sidewalk. Old men sulk through the dried September grass shaking empty bottles in their hands. I drive to Bellevue Avenue and stop by the park where I had imagined I would have my first kiss, sloppily and innocently. I watch the mothers push their children on the swings to heights that I was always too scared to reach. In the little spare time she had, my mother used to bring me here too. We’d stay till dark when the stars shone brighter than the lights across Lake Merritt, fling pebbles into the shallow waters. I would get frustrated when mine would just sink directly in. She’d tried to teach me how to do it properly many times, but I was too stubborn and ashamed to learn. Instead, I would stare at couples’ silhouettes, which were so beautiful beneath the evening lights that I swore I would go home and draw them. I never ended up doing it.
As I walk around the park, a man whistles at me and I do a good job at looking as if I don’t care. I walk by the water, trying not to remember mother’s voice mounting loud enough to drown out the sound of crashing cutlery or father rushing to pick up the ceramics, vowing happiness and forgetfulness for all the days to come. I try not to remember him quitting his job as a software engineer because “it wasn’t a good life,” taking instead to handing “JESUS SAVES” pamphlets daily on San Pablo. I try not to remember him getting beat on a Thursday night and him smiling through the entire thing. I try not to remember us living off of Aunty, who owned a successful helicopter company in China, who could pay for rent and food if we promised to never call her.
The children continue swinging as I re-enter my car. They continue swinging when my phone buzzes and it’s 7:30 and Jax wants to know whether he should buy any snacks or whether we won’t be needing them. They continue swinging when Derek comes home and starts telling Father about his afternoon, detailing nothing but how the sun was shining, how blue the sky was, how it could’ve practically swallowed any worry anyone could ever have. They continue swinging when Derek unpacks the congee I ordered. They continue swinging when he spills it on the floor and gets on his knees to clean it. They continue swinging when Father pulls up a smile and doesn’t let it fall.
They continue swinging into the Sunday dark. Until one day they can’t come down and their seats fall back empty.
When Mother and Father first arrived in America, they ate at the Denny’s on Powell Street in Emeryville everyday for a month. Mother was getting her PhD at UC Berkeley, was pregnant with me and Derek, and nothing felt better to her than the soft resistance of buttermilk pancakes between her tongue and her cheek, the too-sweet tang of maple syrup clasping to the back of her throat, and the warm diner interior reminding her that everything was fine, that it would always be.
Denny’s windows dimmed now against the evening blue. Outside, kids my age submerge themselves into dark silhouettes of smoke, tongues, and laughter. I watch them as they turn small into the distance, disappearing forgettably into sky.
I drive past Chinatown, past its creaky butcher shops and its crowded restaurants where I used to hide whenever things got hard. I drive past Grand Lake Theater where my classmates passed their Sundays, had their first kisses and heartbreaks. I drive by Franklin M. High where I spend thirty hours a week hiding and dreaming. I drive by our local park where no one was ever there but me and Derek, our small church where God never decided to pick me up.
Two months into knowing Jax he told me he could never imagine me doing anything selfish, that I was an angel and that that was why I was so special to him. I wanted to surprise him. I wanted to show him and everyone else that I could be dangerous, that I could do anything I wanted to, that I could exist just as much as they did.
Jax’s car is a midnight blue that blends right into the evening sky. A thin trail of smoke floats from his window, rises into a nearby oak tree. He’s playing an Arctic Monkeys song that drowns out my Beethoven.
I adjust my skirt. I pat my hair down, wipe away at some smudged mascara, whisper to myself that it’s time. I unbuckle my seatbelt, undo the lock on the door.
8:01 pm. My phone buzzes. I anxiously pick it up.
Derek: Come back. Dad pissed on the couch again and i dk how to clean it.
I put both of my hands on the wheel, turn the car around and drive home.
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