by K-Ming Chang
Lina and I lived together in her parents’ accessory unit, a term I’d never heard before. I thought it was a place you could buy like a bracelet, wearing the walls around your wrists. Lina’s parents owned a two-story Victorian with blond trim, just like the kind my grandmother used to clean. The plumbing was so strong that I spent hours standing in front of the toilet, flushing down fists of toilet paper, just to watch the pipes chug it all down. There was no risk to shitting, no need to bring the good pair of cooking chopsticks to stab at your shits, no need to hold half of it in and release the rest the next day. Lina had never once ladled out her own poop and carried it out in a plastic bag to be buried somewhere or flushed at the 7-Eleven. She never held any of her own heat. Lina was my first white girl, her hair the color of chicken broth, her eyes green like the sheen on a crow’s crushed wing. I thought she was beautiful, but my grandmother said she was just white. That girl’s a wrong wind, my grandmother told me, but I stopped listening to her after she bet all my manyue money on whether it would rain that Sunday.
I met Lina at church. I didn’t know any god, but someone had posted about a job cleaning the basement where they held Sunday school in three languages, none of which I spoke, and what I knew how to do was scour, soak, scrape. My grandmother and I cleaned houses and cars and carpets and retirement homes, the irony being that we never cleaned our own apartment, never once replaced the shower curtains calloused with mold, never once vacuumed up the lamp glass or emptied the mountaining sink. In our apartment, my grandmother homed things: rinsed-out chili jelly jars, reused Ziploc bags, pillowcases with thumbholes in them, emptied bleach jugs, expired horse oil, unopened six-packs of white socks, melamine chopsticks, a bamboo cricket cage, a washing machine that didn’t work but that we hauled in from the curb and up the stairs, a ceiling fan that circled stains, rolls of Saran Wrap that had been on sale, plastic bobbins that scattered the carpet like birdseed, dozens of broken blow-dryers all plugged into the wall (from the dumpster behind the salon), canvas paintings of lakes from the flea market, bouquets of red plastic carnations, soda cans in trash bags for the recycling center, jars of expired olives arranged in a row like lanterns, electric flyswatters, rolls of butcher paper. My grandmother said it was in our lineage to lose things—babies, countries, names—and so we had to keep what we could. There are some things you can control, she’d tell me, like this cup when I’ve finished sipping from it—she held up the Styrofoam Slurpee cup she’d take home, rinse out, and fill with soil to plant her scallions—and there are some things you can’t control, like my diabetes. I told her that she could control that by not drinking blue raspberry Slurpees, but she flicked the straw at me and laughed and licked the rim until her tongue looked bruised, saying that only Americans would invent raspberries that are blue. Unnatural, she said, laughing again. Like you.
I didn’t get the job at the church, but I met Lina in the parking lot. She was the first white girl I’d seen up close, not on TV, and her skin reminded me of flypaper. I was afraid my hands would be stunned by her sweat, that she would haul me somewhere and swallow me entire. The first night we lived together, she watched me writhe beneath the sheets, shrugging out of my sweat. When she asked me what I was doing, I explained that every night before bed, my grandmother told me to touch each of my limbs, my head, my belly, so that they’d still be there in the morning. Lina laughed and said my grandmother sounded like a character, and I wanted to say that she was the one who reminded me of a TV character, that I fell asleep in the blued light she plastered over me. After Lina, I stopped working: Lina said there was no rent, since this was her parents’ property, and every night I mopped the white tile floors, scrubbing at the grout with a sponge, afraid her parents would come in and accuse me of becoming rust, of dirtying their daughter.
Lina was amused by the clothes I brought in trash bags, the Saran Wrapped packs of underwear, the plastic lamps shaped like lily pads, the fake-jade collection of zodiac animals, the card table my grandmother found in a parking lot. I didn’t know how to explain my grandmother’s apartment, the broken washing machine she kept for years, claiming she’d refurbish it and finally stop scrubbing our clothes in the bathtub. Instead she ate breakfast off of it, using it as a table, duct-taping the door shut so that I wouldn’t crawl into it as a toddler and suffocate to death. She’d read about that in the newspaper, reciting to me all the stories about infant deaths, the dropped ones, the accidentally electrocuted ones, the dog-bitten ones, the abandoned-in-the-backseat ones. She clipped them out of newspapers and burned the slips, warding away the smoke to keep me safe.
I’m a keeper, I said to Lina. I thought about all the TV shows where the characters said things like that: she’s a keeper, they said. Literally, I told Lina. In bed, beneath our machine-laundered duvet, she said she knew someone like that, a keeper. Her uncle was a laryngologist, she explained to me. When I asked her what that was, she turned onto her side and smiled at me, reaching out a finger to document my cheek, her knuckle skimming the seam of my throat. A doctor of the throat, she said. Swallow. I did, feeling her finger type shadows onto my skin. He kept a collection of things he had to extract from his patients’ throats, she said. Things like pennies, keychains, doll heads, teeth, mini snow globes, one time even a pistol. I told her that sounded impossible, and she said I didn’t know what people were capable of. I know more than you, I wanted to say. How our throats were like sleeves, formless until filled. Her fingertip was still pearled against my throat, and I let it perch there, plumbing my pulse. What did he do with all those swallowed things, I asked her, and she withdrew her hand, tucking it beneath her head. In the dark, her hair looked like pickled jellyfish, the kind I’d eaten only once, at a Chinese wedding where I’d been a banquet waitress. I was there to eat seafood for the first time, to touch some part of the sea with my tongue. I wanted to slurp the strands out of Lina’s scalp, feel it glow down my throat.
Lina turned onto her back, explaining that her uncle died and left all the extracted objects to his daughter, but she refused to touch them, knowing that they’d been cradled in other people’s spit before being tweezed or suctioned or vomited out, that some of them had even been swallowed and shat out, given to the doctor and polished for his collection. He had this gross cabinet, Lina explained, and I could tell from the fraying of her voice that she was tired of this story and wanted to sleep. It was a glass cabinet and he had his whole collection in it. There was even a wedding ring I liked to try on, and he told me that the patient was getting divorced and wanted to shit it out in a bag and give the ring back as some kind of message, but it got caught in her. It’s never easy to leave someone, I wanted to say, thinking of my grandmother in her apartment, the insulin injections I used to give her, how before I left, I taught her how to hold up a mirror to her own stomach, navigating the needle deep.
Lina turned back on her side, this time facing away from me, and said that her uncle always gave her weird advice, like if she ever needed to swallow something, she should ease it as far down her throat as possible and then try to swallow it: don’t try to swallow from the shallow part of the mouth, because it will goad your gag reflex. As if, Lina said, I’d ever swallow anything as stupid as a ring. Good night. While she slept, I stared at the ceiling—no cracks, no spattering of flies, no popcorn—and whispered that a ring was too small to choke on, that the woman had been an amateur. There was a story my grandmother told me, about a woman who swallowed her own teeth and shat them out as pearls. She went around the city stealing children’s baby teeth and converting them into pearls, selling the milk-thick strands. When I was little and we used to watch TV together, I told my grandmother I wanted to be like the aliens and heroes and mutants on the Sci-Fi channel, shining my skin into diamonds or summoning another planet with my magnetic hands. My grandmother laughed and said that eating is alchemy, that metabolism is magic: you can turn anything into shit, she said, anything!
In the morning, I woke early and cleaned the bathroom sink, unsnarling our hair, mine black, hers rust. My grandmother would be awake in her apartment now, reading the World Journal and then folding the pages to clip them into squares of toilet paper. She saved headlines and photos she wanted to show me: look, she’d said months ago, another pair of girls in Guangzhou got their organs stolen. They went to get a manicure and disappeared and their bodies were found completely empty. Nothing inside them. You see, she said, that’s why we accumulate. So that if we’re ever subtracted from, we won’t be left empty. I told her it was impossible to accumulate organs, and she showed me another clipped headline about a woman who found out she had two wombs. Apparently, my grandmother said, it was very common. This is good, she told me. We should all be born with two wombs. One to give birth from. One to keep our most precious things. You know, when I crossed the strait, I wedged my jade cicada and gold peanut pendant up there! And it never got stolen from me! When I die, I’ll pass them on to you, she said, though I told her I no longer wanted them, thanks to this story. Don’t act like you’ve never smuggled anything, my grandmother said, turning back to her newspaper. All of us were stowaways until we were born.
Before Lina woke, I walked around the house like I’d been smuggled into it, lifting my heels so that I wouldn’t mat the carpet, baby-wiping the doorknobs after I’d used them—as a going-away gift, my grandmother had gifted me boxes of baby wipes she’d purchased in bulk. They’d expired years ago, mold between the sheets. I kept the cardboard boxes of baby wipes stacked by the foot of our bed, and Lina told me every morning to get rid of them. This morning she said that all the boxes were tripping her, and I didn’t know how to explain the coupons my grandmother had me read aloud because she couldn’t. We wheeled out carts full of baby-wipe boxes, feeling like thieves. I laughed and told her we were like the Monkey King who stole stone-fruit from the gods, each peach unblemished by need.
We don’t even have a baby, Lina said, kneeing the boxes. I caught her trying to move the boxes out, dragging them an inch closer to the door every day, but eventually she gave up. My grandmother would laugh and say it was typical of her people, to want to evict things. I ignored all her attempts to haul the boxes and turned on the shower, washing my hair with the baby shampoo that had been on sale last week. I told Lina that it was better for your eyes: it could touch the tenderest parts of me without stinging. Let’s test that, Lina said, calling a truce, and we showered together, her arms wreathing my neck, the gold-syruped baby shampoo glazing her nipples until I licked them clean again.
This morning, Lina woke up and said she wanted to plant a kumquat tree. She’d read about them online, kumquats, and heard that their bitterness could brighten skin. I told her that if she got any brighter she’d be a window. When my grandmother first came to San Gabriel, she brought with her a kumquat seed wrapped in damp toilet paper. In Yilan, where we were native, where every language fit us like a bracelet, the kumquat trees were so famous that there was even a kumquat museum built for tourists. Will you take me there? Lina said, standing in her parents’ yard with her legs staked apart, the grass gold and daggered. In front of our window, she stomped on the soil, tenderizing it with her soles, and said this is where the tree would go. I wanted to tell Lina that I couldn’t take her anywhere—I didn’t even have a passport—but instead I knelt in front of the spittle-warm soil and said that there wasn’t enough space here for the roots to grow outwards. They would butt into the house and stunt their own growth. Lina smiled down at me and said I knew so many things. No, my grandmother does, I said. She never had a yard to plant the seed she brought, but she told me she swallowed it. That way she could shit it out in the toilet and return it to a body of water. She heard that the pipes here go to the sea. She used to shit in an outhouse, so she thought that was romantic. I thought the same thing too: I’d never seen the sea, but my grandmother said I didn’t need to. My shit would sightsee for me, surf the Pacific, cuddle every coast.
That night, while I researched the plausibility of raising a kumquat tree during a drought on Lina’s silver Mac, Lina circled the bed, waving a bouquet of incense, stubbing her toe twice on my boxes of baby wipes. This place is getting messy, she said, gesturing at the canned tomatoes I’d brought from my grandmother’s apartment, the plastic brooms, the stacks of wicker stools I’d taken from someone’s curb, the rain-tattered roll of butcher paper I’d leaned behind the bathroom door. I didn’t realize that it was a mess—I was mothered by things. My first babysitter was a plastic fruit crate my grandmother had stolen from H Mart and propped beside me. I thought I was peopling the place, populating it with new shadows that could care for our own.
Lina waved at me, the smoke spelling out her name. I thought you knew how to clean, she said, laughing, but look at this place! Her laughter loitered in my mouth that night, a bitter seed I spun and spun beneath my tongue. I no longer knew how to sprout that seed into speech, no longer knew a language she didn’t own.
In the morning I smelled smoke, not the incense she bought online for three times the price than the bundles at the temple, not the kind she claimed was for calming, when all my life smoke was synonymous with mourning. It was a different density of smoke, a veil of musk and rot, and when I looked out the window, I saw Lina crouched in front of a pyre. I ran out of the house barefoot, hard dew bluing my skin, and Lina turned toward me, slapping at the smoke like skin. The pyre was brown as mulch, and I saw that she was burning my boxes of baby wipes, the dried-out sheets catching like leaves. I cried out and batted the smoke away, asking what she was doing, and she said she wanted to get rid of the junk, and this way we could have some fun. A campfire, like the kind she remembered from her camp in the South Bay, the six weeks she spent flanking the sea. I remembered my grandmother holding her gold thread scissors, snipping out the baby-wipe coupon, asking me what it was for. For baby asses, I said, to clean them, and she laughed, saying that babies didn’t need anything special. When I was little and had to go to the bathroom, she undressed me from the waist down and released me into someone’s yard. Go like a dog, she said, but don’t let anyone see you! I didn’t have time to potty-train you, she explained, and we laughed later. It was a gift, really, my grandmother said. You gave all those strangers free fertilizer! I laughed, my mouth satin with smoke, and Lina looked at me, unsure if she should laugh too. Then I pulled down my pants and squatted in front of her, daring her to turn away from me, to watch. I smuggled into the smoke a scent of my own.
K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of The New York Times Editors’ Choice novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her short story collection, Resident Aliens, is forthcoming from One World. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.