by Bonnie Chau
The boy slithered up to her and stood too close, he was tall, handsome. Even at eleven years old, he was handsome, though back then they might have said he was cute, or hot, or fine. He towered over her, thrust his head and neck forward, what, what, you have a staring problem? he snarled at her, his arms tensed slightly back behind him, as if he was about to rocketeer off into outer space on the fumes of his own adolescent, pubescent, hormonal chaos and rage. He was slender and handsome now at eleven, but at thirty he would be too many outer layers, thick necked, concussed, calcified, stiff, light gone out of his eyes in his real estate agent portrait. He’d played too much high school and college football by then, drank too much. His smile which had been sharply ascendent at eleven was now sloppy, happy, loose.
She had never been taught not to stare. They thought it was harmless, because she was a little bumbling, fumbling thing, with a little pageboy haircut. She used to have seizures, as a little girl, in which she would become lost, unseeing gaze, 發呆—fa dai, emitting rays of zombie, emitting rays of dazed. So, of course, they could not teach nor tell her not to stare. That was what it was, yes, literally she did have a staring problem. She was just a little girl, sometimes lost in the crowd, no idea who to find or how to go. Harmless though, her skin soft like a newborn petal, a tender leaf.
Later, she too changed. By thirty it was time to put her to sleep, they said. They had had enough of her vacant unseeing stare. When they tried to sit down next to her on the bench, they didn’t even know if she spoke English or not. When they tried to catcall her, or wolf-whistle her, she didn’t hear them. They couldn’t even tell if she was pretending or not. When they screamed ching chang chong chiiiiiiiiiina in her ear as they passed by her on the street, or GO HOME SUZIE WONG, they weren’t sure if they were really getting to her, because her expression maintained a rectangular blankness.
She was a tough girl. Or you could just say that she was tough. She liked the two together, tough + girl, one a wispy curl of a word, the other a brick. She could be both, or rather, she could only be one if she was also the other. All or nothing. Her mother called her a block of wood, or rather, just wood. All of it, the whole forest, all the trees, wood filling up the frame so that it continued even off the page, past the margins. Her mother called her wood, or rather, she called talking to her like talking to wood. Or rather, like talking to a wall. Playing piano to an audience of cows.
She wanted to be those things. Alive somewhere, organic at heart, but unresponsive, unmoving.
Wing lived in a house once, on a street named Vestal Avenue, with many archways. Two steps led up to the front door which was under an arched portico, and then the front door itself was arched, and then there was a room in the front, a sitting room, perhaps, and then another room, an in-between room between the front room and the kitchen, and then a kitchen sandwiched between archways as well.
At some point, there were still arches, but she stopped counting them. They became unremarkable, and then they became invisible. Once, she had her attention kept by the arched flesh of plump, glistening cocktail shrimp. Now, the arches that replicate in her mind are of her own back, in the middle of the night, as her boyfriend shifts his body around hers, and then they take turns, back and forth, facing west, facing east, curled around each other, echoing like reflections here and then there of a turning moon.
The new intern called her sweetheart. She ran into him in the parking lot outside behind the office; she had just reparked her car and was headed back to the office, and he was walking out to his car.
When she says harrowing, she says it because it mimics a narrowing, of blood, of breathing, of ability to think outside one word.
Last week, out of nowhere, after four years of nothing, she received a very long e-mail from Wade. Once, maybe five years ago, she had felt a kind of delight because he had called her sweetheart. This was not the type of language she and her usual crowd used. She was secretly pleased, even though it wasn’t like he was addressing her as sweetheart, it was just something he used in his regular vocabulary, the way she used the word dude. His e-mail was written in a series of lines. Once, she had teased a spoken word poet she was e-mailing with for work, whose e-mails were all written like poems, line break after line break after line break, a zigzagging column of exclamations. Wade’s e-mail seemed more like a list of things he had been waiting to say to her for a very long time.
What was he trying to do? The few people she relays this development to respond with things like: was he declaring his love? was he trying to get back together? All of these things, no, no no. They were never together. Certain things she says, she says because they seem like appropriate story-building progressions: We were never together + he was married. But the connection between those two sentences is hardly so direct, is really very unclear.
There is just one photo that exists, of the two of them, from before, from New York. She has not looked at it in years, but it sits there, just a few searches and clicks away in her e-mail archives, buried under layers and layers of subject titles and other attachments and spam and ads, messages, forwards. She can see it clearly enough without actually seeing it, which, really, would probably do nothing, but turn her more wooden.
In the photo, they are in the middle of crossing the street, in the middle of a crosswalk, crossing some avenue in midtown Manhattan. They are both drunk, and probably high as well. In the photo, he has an arm flung around her shoulder as they walk, and he is drunkenly beaming, eyes crinkled in the corners, probably laughing. She has a look of mock exasperation on her face, her eyes comically rolled at him. In the moment before this photo was taken, while they had stood on the island waiting, he had been cheerfully striking up small talk with the other pedestrians around him.
Though there are a few photos here and there that she took of him, or he of her, no other photos exist of the two of them together. This makes it easier to question if they ever intersected, easier to question her sanity, easier to put quotation marks around the ideas of history and reality, and harder to bear.
Let it not matter.
Over the course of the week, she and Wade slowly make plans to meet up. At some point it seems like it may or may not happen. He may be around, not sure where, not sure when, she has no plans, but ends up going to the Hammer to catch the last day of an exhibit. He offers the option of rescheduling. But then it actually does seem like it will happen. She gets to the bar. She smokes a cigarette outside. And then another. And then another. Intermittent texts from him, that seem confused, lost. She looks left, she looks right, to see if she can see him coming. From how far away will she be able to recognize him? A couple of people she imagines are him are not him. Perhaps he has changed completely.
And then she wonders if maybe it’s actually not going to happen. Maybe he will cancel, be a no-show. But then he shows up. The same. He wants to walk, instead of go into the bar, so they walk, and walk to the park, and end up walking for maybe two hours around and around the park. They end up at the boathouse at Echo Park Lake, there are wedding preparations happening. They stand there on the side watching a photographer take photos of a dangling wedding dress, hung up high from the covered boat dock.
They walk, side by side. Or they sit, side by side. Maybe better, that they do not look at each other. They do not touch. At one point, when they have turned around, and are heading back up out of the park’s north end, an old man in a bright turquoise short-sleeved button-down shirt looks at them, really looks at them, and smiles, and stops and is like hey, hold her hand! right? riiiight?! You two! etc. etc. etc. They laugh. Wade says, ah, I don’t know, maybe. Wing says, no, no don’t hold my hand.
You are not a shark, Wade says as they are parting ways on the street. You don’t get points just by moving. This is news to her. Of course she gets points by moving.
Back at home, Wing’s boyfriend gives her a small pill, it is red like a blood-filled ampoule, a capsule, smooth and glassy. It glows in the pucker of her palm. It is begging to be sucked in. She was kneeling on the greasy bathroom tiles, swiping up with her fingertips webs of hair. The homeless vagrant, earlier on the street, had said to her, I am the cobwebs in your attic! Don’t wait til I come down and BITE YOU. Wing could see movement in the reflection of her body, in the flossy floor tiles. Her mother, in her own home hundreds of miles away, used a dustbuster to zoom over her bathroom floors after washing her hair. Her mother enclosed, ensconced in the master bedroom. The bedroom was so big it had double doors. It had his-and-her bathroom sinks. It had a big jacuzzi bathtub, which held a laundry drying-rack in its bowels. Her mother’s bedroom has a balcony and a fireplace and a walk-in closet the size of something obscene.
Wing’s boyfriend had come in and reached down a hand to help her up. As she stood up, he tucked her hair behind her shoulder. Had to get you up, he said, seeing you on the floor turns me on too much. Wing rolled her eyes and threw the fistful of hair into the trash can squashed into space between the toilet and the tub.
She looks at the pill. If she took it, it might change everything. Anything can happen at any time, her father had told her, how many times, countless times, when she was a kid. But nothing exciting ever usually happened, nothing ever changed. On her birthdays in her early twenties, she would read through all the birthday party cancellations and flakey apologies in her e-mail the day before, and think to herself, is this a joke? This must be a joke, there must be an elaborate surprise being planned for me, and everyone plus more will show up at my party. And someone will kiss me, and someone will long after me, and I will feel yearning and passion and something exciting will happen.
* * *
She meets Wade at the bar again. He has a friend with him, someone he used to be in a band with. Wing and Wade have been to this bar in Costa Mesa several times now, since he made his reappearance back into her life. She has concocted an excuse for urgency: it is her New Year’s resolution to learn how to play pool. And then, since it only took one night to learn the very basics, slightly modified the resolution: to not be the worst person at pool. Sometimes she sees him immediately, and then pretends for several seconds that she is still searching. Sometimes, she really is searching for several seconds. He has his jacket on still, and is wearing a pair of glasses. He doesn’t wear glasses. She walks over, and he introduces her to his friend. Actually she has already met this friend once or twice four or five years ago. His friend asks how they know each other and Wade proceeds to launch into the story of how they met. It’s not a particularly enthralling thing, the way they met, but she is charmed by his insistence, eagerness, in telling it.
Wade embellishes the story with an attention-grabbing first line. We met at Goat Hill, he starts. Wing is impressed by this opening. Who meets at Goat Hill?! is the sentiment. But then he proceeds to tell the not particularly enthralling story. What can he do, that’s the story. After Wade finishes telling it, Wing and his friend exchange glances that more or less say yup, yeah, great story...NOT. Or rather her glance says that, and his friend’s glance attempts to express some sort of interested reaction in the face of an underwhelming story. Wing says, yeah, so basically we met through a mutual friend.
* * *
After the decline had clearly marked itself, she tells herself that she knew Wade was not for her. He had three brothers, who had all married slim golden East Coast girls, with Continental names like Celine and Marie and Catherine. All of Wade’s brothers and their wives had advanced degrees in law and medicine and business, but did things like animal charities and went diving in aquamarine-clear waters. Once, she hadn’t understood that there was a difference, though maybe she had had a feeling, a submerged consciousness.
Sometimes you think you’re just going to eat breakfast at that diner Mariner’s that you sometimes go to together, and actually it is the last time you will see each other. When Wing returns home, she sits on the edge of the bed, looking at the plants. There are a lot, too many to count. Her venus fly trap has trapped a huge fly. She stares at it, hoping to not see the fly’s head. She sees fly legs and other fly body parts in the gaps between the fly trap’s sticky claw fingers.
She is like a proud parent, though she is not a parent, and though she has not done anything resembling parenting the fly trap. She feels that she has done something right, nonetheless. She reads about venus fly trap plant care online, and is upset to learn that actually, perhaps, her trap has bitten off more than it can chew. We might be impressed to see a fly trap with its trap clapped around a huge insect, but actually, if the fly is too big and the trap cannot close entirely over and around it, there’s a danger of bacteria infiltrating the trap and plant.
She had loved the venus fly trap because it seemed to come from another world. The way she loved jellyfish because they were alien, like her. She wanted to be one; it was aspirational. She was already alien, but let her be beautiful. Let her be mysterious, let her float, let her glow, let her waver, and be full of grace. She looks back at the fly trap, sad, sobered, shaking her head at it.
On Sunday, her mother’s visit came to an end. Her mother left at six in the morning, and Wing walked back upstairs, walked into her bedroom, shut the door, and poured some whiskey into a small glass jar that used to be a yogurt container. She pulled out three cigarettes and lined them up on the interior of her window sill, and smoked them in a row.
On the Thursday after the Sunday, an incision was made through the sheet that lay lightly over the protrusions of a body. The head was there, yes, the nose did not protrude so much, not really. The falling part of the neck. The breasts, not enough. In fifth grade, the boy—in her grade, though not in her class—had given her her first once-over. He had shaken his head at her nonexistent breasts. For an eleven year old, his once-over skills had been remarkably true to form. He was tall and lanky, and perhaps he might have been handsome in a slightly unforgiving way. He was often singing these few lines of a song, bad boys bad boys a whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?, and even though she didn’t know what this song was, it stayed in her head for a long, long time. She didn’t learn until much later that it was the theme song to a TV show, Cops, which she had never watched before. She wasn’t even really sure what went on on this show, it was not the type of TV that her parents would have allowed her to be watching.
An incision was made, and something red dripped in.
* * *
Back on Vestal Avenue, the hours plodded on. A squirrel skittered silently by on some exterior window sills, peering into dim rooms through the window screens at plants and empty kitchens. A girl lay curled up in the middle of her bed like a tiny dried shrimp. A goldfish swam quietly back and forth. A ficus plant moved imperceptibly toward unfurling a new, shiny baby leaf.
Wing, on Thursday, had been killed. She had died. She had been broken, cut down, made dull. She had fallen, and sunken, and had disappeared. She had been vaporized, shattered, destroyed. She had bled out. She had shut down. And yet, she moved her legs. She walked toward where she had her car parked, and later, away from it. Her fingers tapped at the keyboard still. Other things, habits, activities, did not work so well: eating, sleeping, concentrating on her work. However, she could make enough motions, she was moving enough, that the general people around her, coworkers, acquaintances, people on the street, could not tell that anything was particularly off. In fact, she had turned off. Blink. Black.
Bonnie Chau is from Southern California and has an MFA in fiction and translation from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Flaunt, Drunken Boat, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, and other publications. A Kundiman fellow and former bookseller, she is currently assistant web editor at Poets & Writers in New York City. Her debut story collection, All Roads Lead to Blood, will be published by 2040 Books in 2018.