Back to Issue Forty-Seven




The first lie I tell Cassie comes unbidden. It is sloppy, unpracticed. Not the way I prefer; I like to think I am a slow and generous liar, taking my time, letting the lie sit in my body long enough that I almost believe it myself. Sometimes a lie needs another body to fill, so I make a new body, tending to it like a child, with no past but my own mouth. My mother told me on the phone last week, when I was complaining that the doctors at work never gave me enough time to get my translation notes in, that language is a knife. Most words are useless, she said. You have to cleave through to what’s important. That’s what will get you paid. I said okay, Ma, I get it, even though that was a lie.

Cassie and I meet at a hot pot place downtown. An Ed Sheeran cover, sentimental and needling, plays as we get seated. I suggest the ma la broth base. She tells me she’s vegetarian, and it is something in her eyes, big and brown and earnest like a horse’s, that makes me say: “Me too, actually. I didn’t realize the ma la had pork bone in it. Let’s get something else.” 

A waiter comes by and takes our order. When the mushroom broth is poured, a low simmering skin of oil, he comes and asks whether we want an egg cracked in. I defer to Cassie, forgetting whether vegetarians eat eggs. I smile at her from across the rising steam, nervous. “I love eggs. I got that from my mom. She can eat like, half a dozen in one sitting.”

“Damn,” Cassie says. “Like, hard-boiled?”

I nod, even though it’s not true. A little lie, swallowed by the other. It would take too long to explain that my mother’s favorite way to cook eggs is chajidan, eggs soaked in soy sauce and black tea bags and real stick spices for hours. She peels them before marinating, so that the eggs take on a brown, skin-like color. “I think it’s because back in China she was so poor her family couldn’t even afford eggs. And here, it’s like, land of the eggs.”

Cassie laughs, her brown hair falling between her eyes, and I know that I will tell her anything, no matter the lie, to hear that sound again. Our plates come: potato and daikon radish, crispy tofu skin rolls and lotus slices. As she recalls a story about her younger sister, I puncture a wood-ear mushroom that has been in the broth too long with the edge of my ladle. It is squishy, softly and stupidly wet, easy to tear apart.

The worst thing I have ever done is with nail cutters. I am young still, tall as my mother’s skirt. Sitting crisscross on her bed, her left hand in my lap, I nuzzle the clipper between the whites of her nails. She is resting, her face lifted to the ceiling, her hair greasy as the oil patina of a black steel pan. I’m telling a story about a mean boy from school when I cut too deeply, to the quick, exposing a moon of red, bulging skin under the nail. “I’m sorry, Ma,” I say, fumbling to take her slack hand and press it against my cheek. “I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay,” she says, eyes closed. Today she seems more like my mother than usual, which is maybe why I protest so much when my father appears in the door frame to take me away.

“Is your sickness so selfish,” he says to my mother when I don’t budge, “that you would keep your daughter from school?”

By sickness, I later learn, he means sadness. My mother turns her head away from him. I do not move, still cradling her warm hand in mine. My father continues to yell cruel, disparaging things, then sweet-sounding bribes to get me off the bed. Later, I will be glad I was not swayed by the promise of homemade tang hu lu and tang yuan.

He grabs hold of my knee and I shriek, “leave us alone!”

“You have to go to your classes,” he says, scooping me up even as I flail my limbs, boxed in by his body. Scrabbling at him, I try to pry his fingers off my arm with my own, only his grip is so strong. But I know my mother needs me, so I hold the nail clippers tight in my fist and carve with an edge deep into his arm, bearing down with all I can. He bellows, and as the blood bursts from under the skin, I am already out of his grasp and scampering back to her.

“Crazy bitches,” he spits. A snake of blood runs down his forearm. “Hun dan.” An insult that I know means bastard even if it translates as “mixed egg.” 

“She’s not crazy,” I cry, but he is already gone. He’s off to work, where he manages the accounts for a pet food company. Sniffling, I sit next to my prone mother on the edge of the bed for hours, waiting as the fear curdles over and all that’s left is hurt and hunger. Only then do I delicately close the bedroom door and begin making a dinner of toasted bread and scrambled eggs for my mother and me.

Two weeks before I’m born, my mother and father use all the money they have to fly from Beijing to Newark. It’s late summer but she dresses in heavy layers, in almost everything she owns, both to conceal her advanced pregnancy and because they could only afford one suitcase. I imagine her trailing hurriedly after my father in the airport, the thin qipao the closest to her skin so that she is silked in her own sweat. In Paterson, New Jersey, I am born to a knife, a surgeon’s scalpel, cut from her body. It is a wound sewed back to her body, sold back to her body. The doctors don’t bother to tell my father what is happening, but they let him in the operating room. In China, there is a saying: where there’s a father, there’s a son. In America, O land where our fathers died, my father looks at my mother split open on the operating table and at her stomach, this gaping mouth that spit out a daughter. He smiles, feeling he has been spared the violence of a son. 

This is what my mother tells me. On a good day, we’re peeling eggs together, squatting low to the trash can in the kitchen. The floor is lined with sheets of the newspaper we get for free outside the Asian market. “Back home, every girl gets an egg after childbirth, stained red for luck if her husband could afford it. Even when I was in labor with you, I could almost taste the yolk and bit my tongue bloody,” my mother says. “I was screaming luck.” For years, I think that this is what a mother tongue is: the pain your mother went through to have you.

On even better days, my family goes grocery shopping together. My mother prepares shopping lists, hand-written on full print paper in that spidery thin script that all Chinese immigrants seem to share, as if they all have the same hand. I sit in the cart even though I am probably too old, my gangly limbs spilling out the metal frame. Still, I love it when my father wheels me around, when he places egg cartons and milk and cuts of meat gingerly around me, like I am just another item he is purchasing. Once, clutching my mother’s list, he disappears down an aisle and reappears with a bouquet of peonies. She refuses to take them. “Flour, not flower, stupid. We can’t afford useless things,” she chastises, even though when I check later, I see the word “flower” scrawled in her pen. My father returns the flowers before we check out, but he presents one single fat bud to my mother, who pockets it without a word into her jeans. On the car ride back home, I watch from the back seat as she takes out the crushed peony, tiny petals falling all over the car floor, holding it like it’s the most precious thing in the world. We arrive back home, not to the white brick colonial with the forsythia-lined path we move into when I’m in high school, but the dinghy condo amid a row of dinghy condos, like a string of so many teeth, that we rented for years before that. When I pretend I’m asleep, my father carries me back to my room in his arms, picking me over all the groceries in the trunk, even the discounted day-old pork chops that might go bad. 

The bad days. My mother wants to go back to China, but when she tells my father he laughs in her face, says: “only fools go back to the dog that bites them.” 

“I’m leaving you, I’m leaving you!” She yells, but we all know it’s a lie. At least for now. When they fight, often over me, I learn not to interfere. I learn this from my mother, who does not do anything when he hits me, when I run to her, my arms mottled with bruises. I never say what is ringing in my head like a bell: I want to save her, I want her to save me. Even now, my mother is a gash on my gums, the most tender part of my mouth, something I worry over with my tongue over and over again.

Whenever someone asks whether Cassie and I are sisters, I laugh low and lean closer to her, saying no, not quite. I am starving, selfish, I want our closeness in all the ways two girls can have it. Cassie doesn’t ask many questions: none about the town I grew up in, about the times she wakes up in the middle of the night and I am not there, about the cake with the customized birthday message that I occasionally buy and store frozen, eating one hard piece slowly each night by the dull refrigerator light. I tell her about the patients in the community medical clinic, where I work as a translator for the Chinese folks who come in. How one woman said she had an ache in her chest, a loneliness, since her son went off to college, and the doctor found a lump in her left breast. Am I awful, I ask Cassie, when I tell her I told the woman she was fine and just needed to get a chest scan at the local hospital as soon as she could.

Cassie purses her lips. “Don’t you know the word for cancer in Chinese?”

We’re in bed, our faces inches apart, the smalls of her ankles curled around the backs of my calves. “I couldn’t bear telling her.” I do not tell Cassie about my desperation for something, for some salt lick of want, how I sometimes find it in men I let do terrible things to me; how earlier today the patient’s son, home for the weekend, came to pick the woman up, and I let him crowd me in the clinic bathroom and part my legs like tender meat that falls right off the bone. 

“I’m sure she’ll be alright,” Cassie says, with a shining cleanness in her eyes.

On the phone with my mother, I am able to say things I have never told anybody. How I am jealous of Cassie’s mother, who speaks perfect English and is unafraid of water with ice in it and wears lululemon Define jackets. How there is a spot in the back of my head, the hair above the nape of my neck, that always feels greasy no matter how much shampoo I use. How I used to dream of killing my father, but now I dream of telling him I love him, of telling him who I love. How every once in a while, the lighting will catch Cassie in a certain way and I will remember all the things I am lying to her about and I will be filled with this terror that I must not love her; but then I see her goodness, and this feeling of satisfaction will come over me that makes me understand that there is not anything wrong with her but with me, that I am the rotten one. I imagine my mother on the end of the line, listening to me in her bedroom, where it has been dark for hours and she can’t bring herself up to turn on the big light. 

One afternoon I pack all my things into the most expensive thing I own, my black North Face Borealis backpack which all the girls in fifth grade have, the one I get my parents to buy by falling to my knees in the middle of the Macy’s home section and crying and yelling until strangers point and look and ask what is wrong, and my parents look at them sheepishly and I don’t fall quiet until they drag me along to the checkout line, even though I know there is hell to pay when I get home.

“I’m running away!” I announce as I unlock the door and walk out, though only my mother notices; my father is in his office, returning to his cat tax work or whatever he does after he exerts himself chasing me with his belt. 

As I round the block, I imagine that my mother is worried sick over me. I’ve been gone so long now that she is calling the police, my father is maybe even crying, they miss me so much and are so sorry they drove away their daughter, their only child. They are fearing that two people who love each other as much as anyone in the world can love each other—whose lives would have been perfect if not for the lack of a baby girl—have found me, the most precious thing they’ve ever seen, and whisked me off to their mansion. Or maybe I’ve been killed in the worst way you can possibly imagine, chopped into a hundred pieces or drowned in poison, something that makes even the gray-eyed newscaster cry when they announce my death. Yes, that will show them. 

But six hours later I am back home, my stomach gurgling. My mother takes one look at me from where she is in the kitchen and clucks, motioning for me to take off my shoes. I join her as she prepares dinner, watching her hold her hand like a claw in the water of the rice cooker pot to keep each and every grain as she drains it. I’m glad she’s making rice, which we only get on the good days, because I can never get the water levels right when I try.

“I don’t like you this way,” I say, in a small, sniffly voice. Earlier it was not a good day, and when I cried and yelled and ran from my father she screamed even louder about how selfish I was, didn’t I know how much they had sacrificed for me. “And anyways I don’t think it’s fair that a sacrifice can be used like a weapon, because then it’s not really a sacrifice. If you don’t want me anymore you should just say it.”

My mother rinses the rice water out one more time, swirling her fingers around the pearly starch the rice doggedly kicks up. “I’m sorry,” she says, and she calls me my small name. “But you shouldn’t be stupid. I could never not want you. You marked me.” She pulls my hand by the wrist to her stomach. “You’re mine. You’re wo de zuo hao de dong xi, my most good thing, and I’ll do anything for you.” She reaches for me and the steam rising from the rice cooker burns my arm. I think we both know that she is lying, that not even her love for me can save her. 

The past tense of wind is wound, as in: after Iphigenia’s father killed her for favorable winds, for glory in war, he set in motion a cycle of violence that destroyed their family. The past tense of wind is wound, as in the slam of a kitchen cabinet door. The way the shadows of a spindle dining chair move in the late morning light. The time Cassie brings home a six-pack of Tsingtao cans. It is so easy to return to the past, to learn again and again how hard it is to be a good man in America.

“Cassie,” I say one day as we’re loading plates into the dishwasher, something I only used for the first time in my life when I moved into her apartment. “I have to tell you something.”

She turns to face me. “Okay, shoot.”

I have never liked English idioms. I don’t like this kind of lie, so imprecise, unwieldy. I get them all scrambled up: break an arm. Hit the nail on the hay. Chicken in a China shop. But Cassie says shoot, so I make my mouth a bullet. “I’ve been lying to you ever since we met.” I would rather fistfight her, I would rather she knock out all my teeth, than tell her what I must. Vulnerability is too great a concession when I have lost so much. I tell her anyways: that my mother is dead, she has been dead since sophomore year of college, four months before I met Cassie. Dead of a car crash, official cause traumatic brain injury. And would she like to come with me home to Thanksgiving dinner with my dad, I haven’t seen him since the funeral, not even at graduation two years ago. He bought plane tickets for me and a friend and forwarded the confirmation number to my inbox from his Yahoo. Has my voice always been this loud? I am the girl crying wolf, I am the wolf, I am the dumb chicken who crossed the road. 

“I just don’t know,” Cassie says slowly, “why you never told me.” From across a tiny stainless-steel jail of dirty dishes her face is stunned—she does look like I have struck her—and I am reminded again of how without guile she is, how she is my most good thing. 

I am silent, trying to think of the exact words to say that won’t make me cry. “I think I wanted to spare you.” To try and make her understand, I tell her about my childhood home, how we only knew that the dark spots all over the kitchen were toxic black mold when enough dead rats tumbled from the cabinets to our feet. I come from this: this mold, such immense rot. I have it growing inside of me still. It doesn’t matter where I go; I am what my mother made me. And the tears come anyways, rollicking down my hot face. I wipe my eyes with my fists. My mother tongue: my lying tongue, a leash to moor my mother to the living. 

Chinese people believe in hungry ghosts, beings with unfinished business that still shadow the earth. That day, after Cassie grabs her keys and leaves and I think yes, this is what I deserve, I shut myself in the bathroom and close the lights.

“Ma?” I whisper into my phone, because that’s the only thing she had with her when the police found her, with four missed calls from me on the lock screen. “I’m not scared. Come back to me. Haunt me, please! Let me make eggs for you. Let me stand on a stool and pluck your white hairs. Let me fight Baba back, let me fix you, I’ll do it this time, I promise. Just come back to me.” Language is a knife. My mother did say that to me once, didn’t she? As she held me, pressed me close to her me-scar on her stomach, after the boys at school called me awful names and she told me I could slay them all. I understand now, as my knees grieve against the cold tile, as I beg for my mother’s ghost to tell me again: how haunt and want are so similar, two faces of the same blade, the same wound.

I’m walking in the middle of the street when Cassie comes back. Perhaps this is what my mother felt, cars honking and swerving until one struck true. It’s a warm night, humid like an open mouth breathing hotly close to my neck. She parks illegally and catches up to me, yelling my name, shaking me, but I don’t register it. When my bare feet bead with blood from the gravel, I slow. Cassie wraps her arms around my waist, pulling me down to the curb of the sidewalk. 

“I don’t understand how she could go and die like that. Like she didn’t owe anything to the people who loved her.” 

“It’s alright,” Cassie says, with a gentleness I have never earned. “Let’s go home.” As we walk back, she recites to me a poem from a Louise Glück collection I got her for her birthday last year. Long ago, I was wounded…

Bracing my head on Cassie’s shoulder on the plane, I am seized with the weight of my greatest lie, the one my body held long before I met her.

“I’m glad my mother’s dead. I just don’t know how I would have told her about us.” I say, to test it out. My mouth is airplane dry, ears loose with air. I am full of hurt like a day-old dead deer is full of maggots.

“Don’t say that,” Cassie reprimands, shocked.

“You’re right,” I say. “Sorry.” I press my cheek against the cold airplane window. What do they call this again? Swallowing your tongue? 

Crumpling the newspaper at my feet in my guest slippers, I move around the kitchen, cataloguing what my father has and making a grocery list for what he does not. Vanilla extract but not granulated sugar, mung bean starch but not flour. An abundance of peaches on the kitchen countertop, which have always been both our favorite fruits. I could never believe that the pit of a peach was its seed, that such a fruit could grow out of a fist of hardness.

When we sit down to eat, Cassie’s face blanches at the duck arranged neatly with sprigs of scallions in the center of the dining table. I nudge her knee with my own and serve myself: shredded cucumber and carrots, zhajiang smeared on the rice paper wrapper. I pluck a skein of fatty meat and set it aside on my plate so it doesn’t touch anything else. I am a vegetarian in earnest now. 

My father’s English has always been better than my mother’s, and he preens at the chance to use it right now, asking Cassie questions about what law school is like, whether she could convince me to take those tests and go to medical school like I have always promised. I am quiet, trying to picture my father eating every meal by himself at this table. When it becomes clear we haven’t touched the duck, he urges us to dig in. Cassie looks at me.

“Actually, Ba, we don’t eat meat.”

He scoffs. “Don’t eat meat? That’s crazy.”

Something about Cassie’s presence makes me talk back. I remind him of a story he once told me about his childhood: how he had a pet chicken and cried for days after he was forced to kill it.

“That never happened. You must have read it somewhere in your books.” My father shakes his head, laughing. “Some dumb American immigrant story.”

I know I could not have remembered wrong. “But you had chickens back in China, right? And you ate them?”

“Of course, but I wasn’t all cut up about it. Would you rather I have starved?” My father and Cassie move on, talking about the Korean church in the town she grew up in. I know she is touched, thinking that I have moved forward some hurdle in my relationship with my father for her. But the truth is I am more like my father than I am like her. The truth is that I sometimes get the twenty piece chicken McNuggets at the McDonalds two towns away and sit in the back seat of my car in the parking lot and devour everything in minutes; the truth is sometimes I get scared of my own hunger; the truth is that sometimes I think I must be the worst person in the world, with the exception of my father, and maybe my mother too.

But no matter how sick and sad she got, my mother would have never let me become a vegetarian. I remember after she died, before I met Cassie, I used to despair that there was nobody in the world who would care if I ate dinner that night, if I brushed my teeth before I went to bed. Nobody to wonder where I was at 11pm on a Thursday. Now, worse, I realize: one day I will be as old as my mother, then older. I see suddenly the future, a family I will have, daughters with nothing of my own mother’s face in them, and I feel so lonely again, so bound up in a guilt and a grief shot through with shame, that I cannot eat a single bite. 

The peaches in the bowl are slightly bruised. I wonder why my father bought so many. In a few days the fruits will grow heavy with rot, wrested of their sweetness. Winter is not the time for peaches, but persimmons. Fruits sweetest when bruised. Soon there will only be the persimmon, in its lonely, cold season, protecting its ripeness.

A young boy toddles after an orange chicken. My father: we have the same wide nose, the same heavy brow that is sparse at the ends, the same anger roiling around in our stomachs. He is so small here that America is probably not even a thought in his head. He watches, patient, as the chicken bends over, pecking at a puddle of rainfall, her neck thin and lovely like a young girl’s wrist. The ground is yellow brown and tilled, damp with the smell of good earth.  “Xiaocai!” A man calls my father inside a small home with a thatched roof. He is tall and thin and slightly smudgy, like the dream of an ancestor. This is my grandfather, my yeye, a man who came to stay with us for a year when I was in the second grade and once chased me around the house, threatening to beat me, when I took the television remote and changed his wuxia program for an episode of the Winx.

My father hurries along and they exchange low, harsh words. I hear the smack of skin, an injured cry. Seconds later he runs back into the fields, seizing the chicken as she clucks sweetly, rustling her wings into his small arms. My yeye follows, wrestling the chicken away from his son and holding her with his outstretched arms.

Crying, snot running down his young, sun-dark face, my father lifts his hands and presses against the chicken’s neck. Has he never been taught that hands can be meant for more than just harm? He twists, with all the strength of the man he will become, the hunger for something so big that it can consume everything that was once dear to you. The frantic, terrific cluck. The detestable crack, the juddering sound of bone. These things I know. When the deed is done, he looks up at his father. In a few hours, my yeye will make him pluck the feathers, watch the oil spit under the body in the pot. But for now, my father sinks to the ground, clutching the body of his chicken. As I imagine this all, I think too of my mother, who he has not even met yet. My mother saying “I love you” for the first time to me on the phone as she boarded her flight to China to be there for her mother’s passing, unsure even if she was still alive or dead. Crossing waters where the last and cruelest inheritance is tenderness.

Before our Thanksgiving dinner, my father picks me and Cassie up at the airport. I text my father that we’re waiting outside. here, he texts back. do u see me? We don’t. I go back and forth with my father in curt, increasingly angry texts, before we realize that we are both in the same place, just a floor apart: him in departures, me in arrivals. ok coming to you now.

Is it supposed to be a father-daughter reunion like in the movies? He gets out the car, the same red 2005 Toyota Camry he taught me how to drive in, to help with our suitcases. Cassie sits in the back. I notice how slowly he moves. I want to tell him that I’ll get the dishes after dinner. I want to teach him how to use our dishwasher. I want to shuck the years off his body like the skin of a chestnut.

The car is the same, so old now that it is never silent, even when stalling. Even as we leave the airport terminal and the red of the traffic lights illuminate the side of my father’s face, marked with the violence of time and understanding, the motor goes on, soft and insistent.

Kelly X. Hui is an abolitionist student organizer and ghost writer (person who writes about ghosts). She is a Mellon Mays fellow studying English, Critical Race & Ethnic Studies, and Creative Writing at the University of Chicago, where she also works as a barista in the basement coffee shop of the divinity school.

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