don’t say we’ll lose touch
BY EMILY YANG
In the beginning there is an overpass. It’s the overpass from the opening scene of Millennium Mambo, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s neon-lit film about Vicky, a beautiful girl disappearing her youth in tendrils of smoke, ghosting through her own life as she returns to her abusive-coercive, freeloading, jealous-possessive boyfriend Hao Hao, over and over. Played by Shu Qi, Vicky swears she’ll leave Hao Hao for good when the 500,000NT in her savings account dissipate, whiles away as a club hostess while she’s at it, drinks, smokes, floats through the same fluorescent haunts, loses people to drugs in the periphery, fights with Hao Hao, refusing and longing for movement, yet somehow always strung along, tugged not-so-gently through the unsympathetic vicissitudes of life by the men around her.
She struts through an overpass with full-moon confidence and she is beautiful as the round throb of house music holds its breath and then pulses, she takes a drag from a cigarette, she glances back at you, lets a tress of smoke tremble and furl through the night, flays her arms out with a precarious buoyancy, a vague sense of abandon, again and again, flips her hair, brushes it back, she moves and she moves, and you find yourself at the other end of the overpass, and she’s gone, and it’s gone.
Vicky narrates the film, set in the year 2001, which, she says, is already ten years ago—though the film itself was released in 2001. The turn of a century, a transformation that flits by in a single moment. She speaks of herself in third person.
The year was 2019, the wingtip of a decade. That was ten years ago, I want to write.
Then again, that really was ten years ago. Even then I had a haunting sense that the past had prolonged so deeply into the present and the future that it choked both of them out, and not in the fun erotic style kids around us were doing so much it became more vanilla than kink. The Chinese state still hovered like a sharpened blade over our throats, deploying a misinformation campaign and hordes of online trolls to back a pro-China, “populist” presidential candidate conveniently without any ideology of his own. Certain parts of the world were flooding and burning thanks to the timeless trifecta of white supremacy, imperialism-cum-colonialism, and capitalism—at least that’s what one of my college professors never stopped insisting.
In many ways, I was already grieving what I currently had. Thinking about the future often felt like watching a joss stick run its long and short-lived course toward a powder-soft oblivion. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been vulnerable to this sort of preemptive nostalgia, perhaps because I’ve always been a forgetful person. Umbrellas, the way home off the highway, my student ID number, jackets, titles for different kinds of aunts and uncles in Mandarin or Taiwanese—little was safe from my goldfish-caliber memory.
Still, that year, I felt an especially harrowing sense that I wouldn’t quite make it out in one piece, at least not on my own terms. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had read somewhere during a 3AM cup-noodling web-surfing sesh, that certain words in English such as dint—meaning to strike a blow with a weapon—or umbrage—meaning sun-cast shadow—only survive fossilized, stripped of independence by existing solely in phrases such as by dint of or taking umbrage. At the end of this year, I thought at the time, maybe I, too, would end up subsumed under a phrase not mine. Yet I would survive, I told myself over and over. What else was there for me to do?
Your name’s Vicky, too, which sometimes feels too easy, too saturated in the way those heady neons grazed Shu Qi’s cheeks, vanishing her sharp-boned shadows from sight and from memory. I didn’t want to graft your existence to something as massive to me as a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film, so I gave you different names until I settled on Guava. For no reason at all, I thought you’d taste sweet plum-powdered on the cheeks.
There are certain kinds of lighting reserved for lovers to soap one another’s backs in—lover lightings. There’s the standard slow-drip ochre of honeyed afternoons, then the flat pallor of a foggy morning in which no one really wants to head out alone. There’s the carving-knife light digging into slow, rousing bodies spewing snore and morning breath, dollops of drool our glorious morning dew. There’s lying side-by-side with the lights off mid-afternoon as a gray-lipped typhoon swallows the world outside. You saw me in every one of those lightings, you were the entirety of my mise en scène, you saw me and you were my frame in every shot, every take.
When we met that summer—around the time of the first, hushed-away outbreak—lover lighting was hardly in the picture for me. Jobless after graduating from university with a Literature degree, I part-timed at a small bubble tea stand in Shilin. To get to the Family Mart across the street for my lunch breaks, I’d have to cross a green pedestrian overpass, which snaked over the relentless Zhongzheng Road traffic. Tucked under a deep 騎樓, the tea shop was rarely graced by direct sunlight, so on clear days I would often find myself lingering atop the overpass for a snip of time, always longer than planned. There I would stand, sometimes dreaming up the next Great American Novel in misty cloud-forms, never mind the fact that I wasn’t even American. I’d stand there, letting the water-pregnant gust of summer whip my sweaty face, sunning lizard-like to the wash of cars below. Everything would gradually still without quite stopping its course, and then, without a warning, I’d be snapped awake by a blistering honk, the protest of an empty belly, or the desire to sip on whatever beverage I’d just purchased. For a minute, I would stare into space, trying to recollect just why I was crossing this skyway, even if it always was for the same purpose. Then, I would move along.
That was how things felt for me then: like I was always standing on an overpass. Suspended in the air like a cut-out moment, circumventing any of the noisy realities that life had in store for me below. Sometimes I pretend that’s just where we met, up there on that overpass.
Instead, we met over the counter of the bubble tea stand. Wearing a white top, mustard yellow shorts, and a checkered bucket hat, you approached with a tightly wound spring in your step. You looked me straight in the eye, and, without missing a beat, delivered your order in one practiced, breathless run. 「一杯多多綠茶微糖少冰加珍珠椰果仙草多多多一點謝謝。」
Finger on the ordering machine, I ran through the listed toppings in my head: tapioca pearls, coconut jelly, grass jelly. 30% sugar, less ice, more Yakult than green tea. Against all odds, I forced myself to admit, this was the exact order I would get after any sort of exercise, which ranged from two-hour long high school basketball practices to climbing two flights of stairs. In all my time as a bubble tea cashier, and all my life as a bubble tea drinker, I had never encountered someone else with this order.
“Wait, really?” you snorted. Your fingers rapped impatiently against the counter until I realized I had spoken aloud without thinking. I usually said not a single extra word to customers, and I felt a prick of annoyance that I now had to see this interaction through, even if you were a cute girl.
“喔。 Yeah,” I said. “I shit you not. I used to get this all the time after school; all my friends would make fun of me for it. Okay, actually, I still get it all the time, and people still make fun of me. Like this guy back here!” I nodded my head in the direction of Ah-tse, an irritable but kind gamer-type who shared my shift and was busying himself with a tragically basic bubble milk tea order.
「屁啦!」 you exclaimed in happy disbelief. “In high school, when my friends spotted me from a distance, they’d scream this at me. Like,『多多綠茶微糖少冰加珍珠椰果仙草多多多一 點!』 All in one breath, like it was one word. Like it was my name.”
A touch too enthusiastic, I threw my head back with a laugh. I hadn’t flirted since graduation and felt a thrill skip stones through my chest.
“Eh-ERGH-hem!” Ah-tse coughed violently through a phlegm clog, flinching me back to reality, where I entertained a wave of panic before I remembered he was wearing a face mask. I entered your order as I maintained a stiff smile. “That’ll be 75NT, thank you.”
“What? Did your prices go up recently?” You rifled hurriedly through your coin sack.
“I mean, you did order three toppings. Plus, 經濟不景氣嘛。”
I don’t exactly remember the first time we touched—it was probably when you handed me your change. What I do remember, though, is feeling a little jealous that Ah-tse got to make your order, run his hands through the motions precipitated by your words.
“Here you go, 多多綠茶微糖少冰加珍珠椰果仙草多多多一點,” I said as I slid the drink toward you. This first name for you, the one I used in my head—it always literally nabbed my breath away.
The thin, cool texture of sleep in the summer, limbs skin and cotton wound over and under each other like tree roots. How it felt to be inside two young, smooth girl-bodies in air-conditioned refuge on a hot day, cellulite meeting ground of butt and leg arched toward ceiling, toward sky.
We did more than we talked, and we talked a lot. You started coming regularly, said your parents had just expanded their food stall to a second location at 士林夜市, so you were subletting an apartment in the area to help out. I made you drink after drink after drink, made Ah-tse man the cashier during our shifts, which pissed him off because he couldn’t slack off playing Hearthstone on his phone anymore, so this was really for the betterment of employee performance. You had just graduated from 政大, and you grew up in Taipei, too, though your parents were originally from Taichung. Over the babble of drinks mixing and the clipped press of the packaging machine, I began to know the curve of your mouth, mid-laugh, the small mole drawing closer to your lips from above. The endearing pinch of your nose, and the bright, unwavering eyes under your bangs, the tips of which gathered into thicker, sweat-licked strands. When you came, I’d hurriedly scoop toppings into empty plastic cups, shake your drinks into being with unprecedented vigor. We’d have thin conversations about how beautiful the Kaomei Wetlands was, how true to life it was that most legendary Pokémon weren’t gendered, or how intolerable American and Chinese tourists were at night markets. We talked about our uselessly shiny degrees and opting for simpler forms of happiness. “The kind you can feel in your chest,” you said, lighting something up in mine.
One day, you came toward the end of my shift, bought me our signature drink. “Bet you’ve never been paid to make something for yourself before,” you said proudly, as if you didn’t know there was no way all 75NT would go to me.
Overhead, the small TV manning our stand, permanently set to a news channel, blipped from one developing story onto the next. For several days now, the news had flipflopped between updates on travel bans from fast-acting nations, attention-seeking local doctors whose specialties strayed far from virology but chipped in their two cents anyway, and repetitive but well-meaning personal narratives about the prognosis. I had trouble paying attention as these stories whined toward monotony, but I also couldn’t tear my eyes away, at least not when you weren’t around. A possible viral outbreak in China felt too close for comfort yet too far for total discomfort.
Just a few weeks ago, this wasn’t even a possibility, I thought as I wobbled out from behind the counter to join you, never taking my eyes off the slim flat screen. Back then, what was now likely an inexplicably cruel disease was just a story about a hot 豆花 vendor going viral among netizens transitioning on that screen to another about a cluster of southern Chinese people gripped by a strange new infirmity. I remember watching as a middle-aged man sat on a hospital bed, shedding sticky tears about how he had been robbed of his most important muscle memories overnight, as if they were objects that you could pickpocket from someone, just like that. “What’s the use of a cook who can’t cook, or a who can’t ?” he asked, more as a statement than a question.
After pulling our eyes away from the screen, we grabbed YouBikes across the street and cycled through an underwhelming sunset at the Riverside Park, watching the Keelung Riverglimmer from a blue gray to a suspicious segment of bubblegum blue, and then gray again, flecked with blushes of orange. While we biked, we barely spoke a word to one another. The sense that our bodies were moving in parallel, pedaling through the same tides of motion and emotion, bearing witness to the same sight—that felt like enough.
The last time we touched. Must’ve been a kiss. Or was it a hug?
By the riverbank, we rested our bikes against a hunchbacked willow tree. Lying on the grassyriverside slope, we searched for airplanes in the polluted sky—a Taipei night special. Our shoulders grazed innocently, leaving just enough room for a what if, and we pointed out distant, blinking planes as if they were stars. Across the river, the faint shouts of uniformed middle schoolers ripped through fabric stretches of silence.
“You know, I’ve been thinking for a while now,” you said.
I stole a glance at your face, where leaf-shadows quarreled like the puppets of a distant streetlight. Out of nowhere, I found myself hoping these shadows, so lively on your face, could move on and on for the rest of time, without end nor pause, even if I shut off the light source that made their existences possible in the first place.
“I’ve been thinking,” you said again. “You know how when humans love each other, they experience those feelings as warmth? People are always saying stuff like, ‘You make me feel so warm inside,’ or just talk about all these warm feelings. I was thinking, maybe that’s because we’re warm-blooded animals. So when cold-blooded animals fall in love—”
“Do you think they’d experience those feelings as cold?” I asked. For a moment, Chiu Miao-jin’s Notes of a Crocodile flicked through my mind.
You looked over. “Imagine saying to someone, ‘You make me feel so cold inside.’ With only love in your eyes.” You curled your body inwards like a comma, bent elbows folding over the heat in your core. “Maybe I’d like that. / Would you say that to me? / Can you imagine that?”
Your second name was 鱷魚. I decided this as I closed the distance between our bodies, all itch from stalks of damp grass and wind-cooled lips.
Threading thick bundles of hair in and out of one another, the loopage of you you you, you
in and you out of you, you, you. Fingering smooth the coarseness of each tuft at your edges, your tips against mine, a movement threaded into every other morning we shared. Your insistence, veiled stubbornly as liking the way I braided your hair best, when I knew you really just liked the way my hands foraged eagerly through every knot, every bolt of you. Those mornings made me forget that I could ever forget you. Long gaze, petal-smooth neck, ribs pleated under your torso, then that tongue-inviting dip of navel. The light rumbling at the bottom of your throat that had me pooled at your feet, or else the gentle crush of lace slipping to the floor. I touched you like any moment, you would go away. I touched you like there was no way you could ever go away, no way I could ever be anywhere but here, like I was willing my fingers, furled in your hair, to say We’re here, we’re here—we’re here.
Scrubbing each other’s backs slippery in your cramped apartment shower. The window pouring a slow-drip ochre over our heads, fragmenting across clouds of foam. I rubbed your tense shoulders, searching for knots.
“Focus on the scrubbing, will you?” you said with a mock edge of entitlement. “I better not have any bacne after this ever again.”
I smacked you and tried an English idiom I’d learned the other day, just to see how it’d feel on my tongue. “Beggars can’t be losers.”
You spun around, suds smeared milky across your nose. “What?”
I blinked. “What?”
“Beggars can’t be losers?”
“Oh shit,” I said, realizing. “Choosers. I meant choosers.”
You snorted, and then your breath snowballed into a full laugh, muffled only by the steam. “Beggars can’t be losers. I like it! / That’s not bad! / That’s… honestly not wrong!”
Embarrassed, I rotated your shoulders and buried my face in your nape. “Believe it or not, I’ve said way worse before.”
You whipped around again and looped your arm around my neck, the crook of your elbows snug against my shoulder blades. “Hey, me too. Once, in a college English class, I raised my hand and cleared my throat and lifted my chin all high and mighty, about to quote Marx. And you know what I said? I said History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farts.”
I imagined you dragging the last s sound through your teeth, frowning in the near-bursting bubble of an afterthought. I laughed through my nose. “Okay, that’s really bad. You should be embarrassed.”
“Bitch!” you said, clicking your tongue sharply. “I was trying to cheer you up!” I shook my head.
“If I were your mother, I’d disown you.”
“If you were my mother, I’d abort myself in the womb!”
You began wrestling me, jabbing at my weak spots, and then one of us slipped—I don’t remember which—and we were one joint scrunch of bellyache laughter in your cramped shower, backs soaped slippery.
You reminded me that a slippery forgetting could swell in the belly as laughter. Your fourth name was Farce, pronounced farts.
The way my fingers circled and vortexed and unspooled you at your vertices. And then, with my tongue: how I’d spool you back together just the way I pried you apart.
We did more than we talked—that was how we were. The syntax of our time together was a muscled thing. We biked and hiked everywhere, took long walks in parks, went to movie screenings. We attended live performances at jazz clubs and music cafés, sampled tea-flavored cocktails at bars, ate through every night market and popular street food hub. Cue a low-resolution supercut of us wending our way through Taipei, a blurred mapping of our many motions—chewing, walking, crunching, climbing, swallowing, holding hands, dancing, lifting glasses to our lips, pressing our cheeks against one another. As we gathered a vocabulary of touch, the virus—one that, we now knew, squeezed the muscle memory out of people’s bodies and eventually laid waste to their sense of touch—was blooming all over China at an exponential rate, sowing seeds in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, slowly but surely. We couldn’t say why then, but every ripple of pleasure we felt in our bodies housed an aching sense of guilt under its belly. It felt like we were hoarding something people were losing everywhere, all the time. But weren’t we always doing that anyway?
One weekend, we took a bus to Yehliu, where coastal winds soughed and shaved our cheeks, the tips of our noses. At the geopark, we stared at hoodoo rocks in their funny natural forms: ginger root, beehive, the profile of a crowned princess, and, near the shore, clusters of candle-shaped rocks resting on gray-bouldered wicks, their stony flames perpetually lit. We wove through throngs of Mainland tourists—densest around the famous queen and princess rocks—who were, for better or for worse, waning in number as the Chinese Communist Party began to advise its citizens against travel. This batch of tourists had probably arrived before the outbreak blew up and were now extending their stays, or so we hoped.
Through the thicket of heads and hands wielding selfie sticks, we considered the famous Queen’s Head rock, supposedly named for its resemblance to a certain Queen Elizabeth, whichever white woman that was.
“What do you think?” I asked.
I snorted. “I think it’s interesting how her neck keeps thinning. Gets weathered down something like half a centimeter per year.”
“It’ll snap eventually, won’t it? Her neck.”
“Yeah. I say we give it ten years.” I watched as aunties in plum-colored sweater vests clambered over one another for the best shot of the rock. “She looks prettier, though. More carved out and queen-looking each year. / All slender-necked and shit, the way Asian moms probably think she should be.”
“ ,” you said—a joke, I think—and I laughed.
I don’t remember what else we talked about afterward, but I remember an ache shaving away at my chest.
I remember coastal winds shaving our cheeks, the tips of our noses. Your third name was Lizard—short for Elizabeth.
Your parents’ food stall made the best 胡椒餅—three generations strong—rivaled only by
the cart down in Raohe. You were set to inherit the stall, and this muscle memory isn’t mine, but your hands, rolled dough, scatter of sesame seeds, pork minced, your hands, oiled squeeze, flour- dusted knead, and your hands, your hands, your hands—
The route to your place from the tea stand, webbed to the bottom of my feet.
Outside of those hair-braided mornings, I never shut up about the impermanence of it all. “Can you believe this is probably our seventh to last walk to your place?” I said on one of our strolls. “Soon you’ll be working full-time at your new stall; you’ll rent out another place. I’ll find a full-time job elsewhere. And then we won’t be able to take this walk from 50嵐 to your apartment like this, ever again.”
You rolled your eyes as you slid your hand into mine. “Why do you talk about everything like it’s already gone?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I know I do this all the time already. But what’s going on in China with the camps and the outbreak / Libya with the war / Yemen with the war / Iran with the protests / Hong Kong with the protests / Chile with the protests / India with the protests / Pakistan with the protests / Lebanon with the protests / here with that stupid mayor running for president… it’s making me think too much, you know?”
“That’s okay,” you said as we turned the alley forked by the 酸辣 dumpling stand. You never tried to stoke that flame, nor would you put it out. “Still, I want you to remember that right now, I’m here. You’re here. And . And we’re walking to my place together from 50嵐. Maybe that’s not enough for you right now, but it is for me / we’ll get there somehow / you know, it is for me.”
What I said next eludes me, though I remember everything I wanted to say but didn’t, couldn’t, not yet. I wanted to say, “I’m moving. My parents are sick of living in a country where they feel like they’ll lose their civil liberties at any moment, all the time, like not super strongly, but still, all the time. They’re scared about the virus, it’s breaking out at an unbelievable rate, and literally no one knows how it’s transmitted, and it’s just—out there multiplying on our west coast. But we’re not allowed to close our borders, we’re being fenced off from the latest breakthroughs because we’re not in the World Health Organization, and I mean, China just literally Trojan Horse’d our asses by sending that plane with an infected patient here, did you hear about that? Did you hear about all the military drills they’re running near us? So, I mean, I don’t know. I guess we’re getting out before shit really goes down, and my family’s had this in the works for a while now, but they just told me yesterday, and I apparently have no say in the matter, nor do I really want to go against it, and yeah, I don’t know.” I wanted to say, “I’m going to find a job in the U.S., where things probably aren’t much better, but where at least the powerful have the power to stand their ground, and maybe that’s not great either, but anyway, I’m going to find a job there and really work on my English and the publishing industry there actually pays, so—well, maybe not for people like me.” I wanted to say, “It’s just—my parents think I have no future in Taiwan, that the future is not here, not where I want to be, not where you are. They say there’s no future here.” I wanted to say, “But I don’t know. You make me feel so cold inside.”
The last time we touched. We kissed, slow like we were holding something spillingly hot between us, pressing like we wanted to somehow print our faces onto each other’s, a keepsake. In our goodbyes we tried our best not to tinge our longing with any note of desperation, not to shatter the sustained half-silence we’d hewn out of a gently closing door. Kissing you felt like pressing my face spectral into a bed of snow, the way Vicky does in Millennium Mambo when she’s in Hokkaido, taking refuge from her own life—a wondrously pointless undocumentation of the self.
I remember watching that movie alone, long before I met you, up at that theater in Zhongshan. Back then, I felt devastatingly alone in a way I almost liked. I remember imagining from time to time how it would feel to plop my face into the foreign slush of another land, if for a few seconds. When I came up for air in this imagined scene, I would always find that in the short time that I had spent face-down, everything around me had up and disappeared.
That kiss. Or was it a hug?
First, you forget the complex, less important ones—how to draw a bow so your shot is level, how to scale and fillet a whole fish. How to play Liszt feelingly on the piano, or to wind film against the chamber of your camera. How to recall the brisk rate and wrist pressure necessary to whisk your ceremony matcha to the next level. You don’t notice at first that you’ve lost anything; after all, it’s not like you gut fish and shoot arrows on a daily basis. A little forgetting never hurt anybody, you tell yourself once you notice one slip. A little forgetting cleared space out for the important things.
And then the important things would go—the route to your childhood home from school, the soy-sauce-to-rice-wine ratio of your favorite dish, the tune and words to your favorite song when you were fifteen, rolling off before they can reach the tip of your tongue. How to make your lover climax with your mouth alone. How to lace up your shoes, or pinch together a perfect, thin-skinned dumpling, how to massage the knots out of your loved ones’ backs in that specific sequence that made the most stoic of your friends drool. One by one, these tangles of movement evacuate your body, lopped off like blister-skin, a molting minus the growth, and all of a sudden, you no longer know how to run through the basics of existence. You forget how chew, how to walk, how to crunch, how to climb, how to swallow, how to hold hands, how to dance, how to lift a glass to your lips, how to press your cheek against somebody else’s. For a long while, all that’s left in your body is this throat-silt sense of disorientation, strewn here and there with pebbles of panic. You nurse this disconnect, this deep chasm of dread between what you know how to do and what you cannot do, holding on to this something that still dwells inside of you. Then, for better or for worse, you forget how to feel.
That really was ten years ago, I thought, watching the Taipei skyline flurry past the MRT windows. Travel restrictions to East Asian countries were just now loosening, and though it took me around a year to obtain the permit—even as a citizen—I was back. I hadn’t returned in ten years, and in these ten years the virus blossomed into a deadly pandemic, ravaging upwards of millions across the world, its cause and the logic of its existence eliding us at every turn. We still didn’t know the exact number of casualties—the majority died, while a select few somehow recovered, movement returned to their bodies bone-sharp and good as new. Many continued to suspect that the Chinese state was underreporting its death toll, but either way, we all kind of got the idea. Acknowledging that this illness was unlike any other we’d seen before, that it wasn’t transmitted through fluids or air or animals that Western countries thought themselves superior for not eating, or even body-to-body contact, we stopped trying to prevent infection. A vaccine had been under works for so long we no longer thought about it, only resigned ourselves to the inevitability of this ailment the way we resigned ourselves to death, or didn’t. Predictably as ever, the formerly apocalyptic waned into the territory of the mundane. Movements rallying for the rights of the infected surged around the world, gaining more and more traction as people began to understand just how futile quarantine was. This made possible my presence on this island, among the greatest victims of the pandemic. No matter what my parents or my wife said, I had to come back.
Today, summer sopped heavy on my shoulders, and the sky had nailed up a swath of ruthless blue. Even as our worlds were ending at a painfully slow pace, the world spun on its axis—full speed, no pause. I found that relieving on some level, but many of my American friends didn’t. When I let myself raise the shutters and consider all the friends back here that I’d lost touch with, and then lost, period—I understood why. I knew I should have felt far more grateful, but whenever I said out loud how lucky or privileged I really, truly was, the words would bounce off my chest, too hollow for entry.
A soft blade of guilt roiling through me, I scanned the rows of empty, glossy teal seats lining the train, occupied by a lone fellow passenger. Ten years ago, taking the red line during rush hour as I was right now would have seen me shrinking in the corner by one of the doors, struggling to take up less space amidst a restless current of human bodies. I would’ve had to rotate my swollen backpack so that it bulged from my belly to avoid bumping into others when I turned or moved abruptly, and there was no way I could even dream about snagging a seat as a non-priority passenger.
Ten years ago, almost every juncture of the city teemed with life, or at least suggestions of it. Now, Taipei felt like a ghost city, pocked here and there with bodies floating indecisively through the graying streets. The outbreak spun out an exodus from the capital to the rest of the island; most of my relatives had relocated to Hualien or Taitung, probably putting the indigenous peoples there out of work. “Compared to this,” my now-bald uncles said when I visited them, “SARS was a fart. This is chronic diarrhea. Without those butt-washing toilets, no less!”
The train ducked into a tunnel, lobbing shadows onto my face. I turned away from the unending strokes of concrete outside, glancing at the other passenger from the corner of my eye. Full cheeks grooved with pimple scars, the man sat limply in a large black T-shirt and plain, sagging blue jeans, tapping methodically at his phone. Light careened off the lenses of his large, thick-bordered frames, and he nudged the bridge of his glasses with two marginally bent fingers, much like an arbitrarily mysterious anime character with a one-episode comic relief role. My eyes darted toward the harsh light above, and suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking about Ah-tse, who, I now felt with a burst of certainty, used to fix his glasses just the same nerdy-ass way, revealing to the seasoned onlooker that he’d reared his physical motifs on way too many hours of anime growing up. I wondered if Ah-tse became the professional League of Legends player he wanted to be, and whether he managed to pay his mother back the way he swore he would. I wondered if he ever got laid. I hoped from the bottom of my heart that he didn’t become what my American friends called an “incel,” though he was always far too gentle and was never entitled enough for that.
Just as quickly as it had descended upon the train, the concrete of the tunnel receded, allowing an eyelash of mango-colored light to flutter in, and then an entire tide. Below, rows of yellowing buildings slipped past, the relentless glitter of Keelung River following closely behind, and I sat with my tongue against the roof of my mouth, lapping up the last of a reminiscence sweet as papaya milk, until finally, a bitter aftertaste slid into its place, darkening each breath I’d take.
“I want you to see me in every lighting, ever!” you once announced. “Even the ones I look bad in. I want you to see every part of me, every version of me possible. I know it’s stupid and pointless and a tiring request for you and for me, so it’s not a request. It’s a want that I feel, and I feel like that’s what matters. I feel like that says something.”
That’s one of the few things I remember you saying almost word for word. The moon hung low and plump that night, limning your edges with an eggshell-white glow. Before speaking, you stopped walking, paused dramatically, and gave me a long, soft look that fanned over me like a hot breath. Whenever you looked at me that way, my storage system would leap into overdrive, licking up every available detail before me and shouting Remember remember remember.
You stopped in the middle of a 東區 alley, pulling the straw of your drink from your lips, took a long breath, and laid this look upon me. I had to wonder, then, whether the you then would have consented to me seeing you like this: hollowing body anticipating decay, tethered to the world of the living by thin plastic tubes reporting back to cold metal. Your breaths rippled slow and cautious, then would suddenly catch, the sound you’d make as chopped as the thud of an overripe fruit landing its fall. The heavy-lidded white light of the care facility flattened out all the shadows on your face, airbrushing you such that you looked younger, the way ghosts always looked younger. I sat there to the right of your bed, feeling flattened myself, wondering when you would wake up. I had learned a bit of what was going on through your posts on social media; as of your last post a few weeks ago, all of your basic muscle memories remained intact. You realized that you had it when you no longer remembered how to make 胡椒餅, you wrote in your first post. You had already lost your parents to it, and you had lost so many friends that you felt it was only a matter of time before you joined them. You almost didn’t mind, you wrote.
We’d tried to stay in contact at first, video calling almost every day. We made elaborate promises and schemed to stay in each other’s lives forever, if not as close friends, at least in some capacity: calling whenever we had a thought to share, sending memes and horoscope-related news, mailing each other a letter or a care package once every two months. As long as we prioritized each other, we reasoned, there was no reason for us to lose touch.
Then, I found a job as a librarian at a bilingual library. At bars, I made friends with queer white kids who wore their present skins like they could never stand the thought of changing out of them. Meanwhile, all I could think about was how much I wanted to slip out of mine. When I happened across the word jaundice in a book, I couldn’t help but wonder why my skin was considered a color that meant discoloration on someone else’s flesh. I felt its second definition—bitterness, resentment, or envy—pounding through every pore, and maybe that’s when I started calling you less. It was predictable, boring even, and yet. I talked to my parents less, poured hours into perfecting my American accent, and stopped correcting people when they spat on my feet and referred to me as Chinese. I stopped taking things personally, and then I probably began to take other people less personally, too, you know what I mean? I moved into my own apartment, felt out a new home, and fell into a new life. At the time, I felt I was doing what I needed to survive, shaving away at my own edges until you, too, were snipped away. For that reason, I can’t say that we lost touch. I chose, on some level, to toss that touch aside.
“We were kind of girlfriends more about physically being together,” I’d tell my friends. I convinced myself that since we leaned so heavily on our bodies occupying the same space, even a long-distance friendship between us would have eventually whittled away. I started seeing white girls, one of whom, when I drove her out to a hotpot place an hour away, almost poured the dipping sauce into her broth. All the while, I tuned out stories about the virus reaching the States, the lovers weeping over stilled partners, the businessmen grieving over the economy and dust collecting on their shiny suits while others mourned lives and livelihoods.
I couldn’t put a finger on it then, but it felt like somebody had yanked me into their oversized and over-lonely home full of moon-faced strangers, served me an overly salted carb- tomato-cheese dish for dinner, and commanded me to make myself at home! while the less fortunate of these strangers dropped dead around me, one by one. For all the days I’d spent dreaming toward America in my formative years, staring open-mouthed at photos of Nutella-covered toast, golden- haired girls in skinny jeans, and listening to the Strokes or Lana Del Rey on repeat, I was awfully unhappy. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t ask. I bit my tongue, left Taiwanese and Mandarin hanging until they were blood-rust in my mouth. By the time the next decade arrived, I had become subsumed under an entire language—not just a phrase—not mine. As fireworks cracked the sky open that day, the turn of another decade, I learned that your body had lost a thing or two as well.
Desire, I think, is a muscled thing; a many-muscled thing. Desire moves through us to move us forward. Once you cannot move, then—once your muscle loses its memories, its capacity for memory—is it still possible for desire to dwell in your body?
That New Year’s Eve, you called me, and I snapped my windows shut so I could hear you over the whorls of neon flowers that bloomed thunderously above. You were twelve hours ahead, the distance between us thousands of miles on top of a decade.
「我要去濕地。」you said without any introductions. We hadn’t spoken for nine years.
In Mandarin, 「我要」 could mean both a present desire and a future action. As yet another firework whirred skyward, I wondered whether you meant to say “I want to go to the Wetlands,” or declare “I’m going to the Wetlands.” I decided you meant both.
“Do you remember when we went?” you asked, unfazed by my silence.
I nodded, and then I remembered that you couldn’t see me. “Yeah,” I said. “That was one of the best days of my life. It’ll always be.”
The soft hush of a breath funneled through your nose. “That’s a relief,” you said. “I was just hoping you’d remember.” And then you hung up.
Desire is a muscled thing; a many-muscled thing. In Mandarin, “I want” can mean “I will.” Desire paves the way forward, moves through you so you can move. In this language, I say: I want to turn time back. I’ve built a life here, and it took a while but I am happy here, and I want to go back. Even if I translated this into Mandarin, this language I’d left behind, the words would only move me toward the future.
I hated that desire could never carry me in its basket and hurry me upstream. More than that, I hated that putting a motion into words felt like burying it. Like noticing for the first time, soil and rot between your teeth, the past damp and dark on your tongue, that your mouth has always been a graveyard. Every now and then, I’d grow arrogant and believe that I’d tugged a spirit back into my world, my here and now, and there on that graveyard I would dance and sing in celebration, only to realize seconds later that what my palms held was nothing but a couple of new, stillborn memories, and that in the frenetic expression of my joy, I had trampled all these corpses I’d meant to honor cruelly underfoot.
That day, on a day off for the both of us, we took the High-Speed Rail to the Kaomei Wetlands. Clutching paper bags of 大腸包小腸 to our chests and fighting off the battering winds, we wound our way through crowds packed onto a long, sinuous bridge. With each step we took, the sun shimmied lower and lower down the horizon, along which a row of towering windmills whirled away. When we reached the border between bridge and wetland, we sat at the edge of the footbridge to ease the shoes off our feet. Before us, a thin, silky layer of water breathed small wrinkles over fine sand, bending the sky into its own face. Everything we could see was doubled and joined at the feet; I remember thinking that I honestly couldn’t tell whether it was the sky or the water that was holding up a mirror. People frolicked and chatted, their shadow selves taking on a thick black in the undertow.
“I’ve been thinking,” you said.
“That cold-blooded animals feel love coldly?” I asked.
You smacked my shoulder as we slipped down onto the wetlands, the water chilled against our soles. “Okay, don’t laugh at me, but I’ve been thinking.” You performed a long pause the way you always did before sharing any of your slippery shower thoughts. Then, you took a dramatic breath. “Maybe… the wind is just the universe trying to touch us!” You said this with a lick of irony, but I could tell you were serious by the way you held my gaze.
I took it all in: glazed-over eyes, unspoken weight on your lashes; your chapped lips parted, the mole above it suddenly striking me as resembling the period in a question mark; what felt like the whole world mirrored and multiplied in all its ambivalent beauty before us, behind us, all around us; the auburn of dusk tossed in your hair, and the wind flapping that hair violently against your face; my own bangs flogging my forehead without mercy, the longer strands obstructing my vision. A vague sense of déjà vu rushed over me, the kind where I couldn’t be sure if I was reexperiencing a fantasy or an actual experience I’d had. “This ‘universe’ is a little too handsy for me personally,” I said at last.
Your expression remained serious. The corners of your lips stiffened, then loosed themselves. “Can you promise me something?”
I nodded, coiling my pinky around yours.
“Promise me, no matter what, that if I ever forget days like these, you’ll be around to remind me,” you said. “We don’t have to be the way we are now. But no matter what, I want to be able to call you up out of the blue and ask, ‘Hey, remember the time we went there and spoke to so-and-so while eating this-and-that?’ And even with your shitty memory, and even if it’s been a while, you’ll say, ‘Yeah, and then we talked about this and I remember you did that.’ And even if I forget this or that, you’ll fill me in. We’ll fill in each other’s blanks. Promise me that.”
I blinked, momentarily startled by our role reversal, but the rest came easy. “I promise you,” I said, pulling you into a tight hug and squeezing a laugh out of you. I don’t remember what we talked about after that, or if we even talked at all, but I remember that happiness felt true that day, the same way I could say for certain that the slice of the world that lay before us then was beautiful. The real thing.
When you called, I thought I heard an ending in your voice. The feeling poked at my insides, then fissured tersely like dropped porcelain. It was an ache that held its ground in the center-right of my chest, appearing whenever I sensed that something was up with you. After all these years, I thought. It was there, living somewhere inside of me.
At that point, I had already applied for a travel permit. Your call only strengthened my resolve—I’d built a life here, I was happily married, and I needed to go back, if only for a bit. It took me a long time and it shouldn’t have, but I understood now, down to my bones, that you weren’t just the poster child of a glittery past that I had to sever myself from in order to survive. You were someone I loved, made me the kind of happy I could faithfully feel in the chest.
「妳知道嗎?」I found myself saying out loud to your sleeping body. “When I first moved to the States, I would keep this notebook of all the things I heard people say wrong in English, or things I said wrong myself. The ones I could catch, at least.” The air conditioner droned, and outside, a chorus of cicadas had begun its chime of the night. “There was that song by WHYNOT, 《無法度按奈》, where they go, Caaan weee making love tonight? Things like that, you know, like that time you said, I fell on love with you. Or the way my parents would say, Well, I’m your number one fans! Then there was the shit I’d say. So many words for terrible things, easy or hard, would turn beautiful in my mouth without me noticing. Satan became satin, end became and. Obviously, the reverse would happen as well, where pretty words like exuberance would turn into something nonexistent and morbid, like exhumerance, whatever it was. And tense! Tense was so hard, I could never get it right—I mean, we don’t have anything like that in Mandarin, you know? I can’t remember how many times I said things like She really changes the course of history and advocates for good, and people would be like, You know she’s dead, right, and force me into past tense.” I looked down at my hands, pressed hard against my lap. “I was going to show it to you when we saw each other again.”
Blinking fast, I laid my elbows onto the edge of your bed and tucked my face in the dent between my limbs. There, in that little dent, I waited and waited for something to move, forward or backward, in or out, a slant or a tilt or a soft tremble, anything, and just as I thought something shifted from its place, the fog of sleep misted its fingers over my eyelids, graceful with the weight of something akin to mercy.
When you and I wake up, the sun has set itself at the tip of the sky. Through the window, light undulates idly past the leaves of a wind-rocked banyan tree. I wake, and I feel your hand on mine, and it’s cold, but to a cold-blooded animal it is surely as good as warm. Slowly, I raise my head, and our eyes meet. I bolt upward, snatch my backpack from my feet, and unzip its contents. I stand to grab ice cubes from a mini fridge at the corner of the room, add a dash of water from my bottle into a small container of tapioca pearls, which I microwave. I pull out a cocktail shaker, the steel smooth against my fingers. Out come a plastic bag filled with grass jelly, another full of coconut jelly, jars of green tea and syrup, and a tumbler of Yakult. When the microwave beeps its song, everything goes into the shaker—more Yakult than green tea, of course. You laugh, a breath sucked through your nostrils at first, and then the familiar tumble into belly-borne laughter, and you are crying, and I am doing both. As I land a gulp of air between laugh-sob, I want to say something, something like I promise you with both the past and the future attached, I promise you and I promise you, but instead I sniff the snot in, smile, and I shake, and I shake, I shake, I shake.