It is a lot of work to make xia ren. The shrimp has to be bought, jumping in a bag full of water, and killed and peeled individually. When you are six years old you are assigned to chase the shrimp and eels around the faux-granite tiles of the kitchen floor. You are supposed to kill them. This is at your grandparents’ apartment. The floor here has a perpetual stink rising from it, the smell of fish and old people in the summer without AC. Your grandmother is much faster at chasing the shrimp and eels than you. Peeled shrimp can be bought frozen from the new supermarket, but the supermarket is a long bus ride away. The fish market is closer and fresh. Your grandmother rises early in the morning and walks to the market and comes back to peel every shrimp by hand. She has arthritis and type II diabetes. You suspect she has white blood, Russian maybe, because she has the deep-set, hooded eyes of a white woman. Everybody has been asking you if you are mixed ever since you were a toddler and you have been telling them no. Your grandmother’s xia ren is never as good as in the restaurants— they use the frozen shrimp and lots of MSG—because she has never been a great cook and never uses enough salt, though she does use MSG. She is hard of both hearing and taste.
When you are twenty-two years old you have returned from New York. There is a warm lump in your chest and you cannot stop crying. The two things feel unrelated. The lump alternates between feeling wet and dry. It gets shoved against your sternum. You develop a nervous tick of pressing the back of your hand against your chest and ribs, pushing things back into place. Also you cannot stop yawning. You are starved for air and your hands are fluttering and bored. The blue-eyed man you live with cannot see or feel the lump—you suspect he has never believed it—but he asks you, “Why do you keep crying?” It is hard to speak when crying. You like to leak silent, attractive tears, and speaking while crying leads to sobbing. So you don’t speak. This frustrates the man you live with. It goes on for weeks, a month. More. You sit on the man post-coital, or mid-coital, aborted-coital, and cry wordlessly. He is still inside you. He shrinks inside you for months. You are thinking about your grandmother and you cannot tell this to the man who is inside you. In the Midwestern city where you have returned to live with this man, you miss seeing East Coast girls who don’t ask questions and look like you: bananas with stylish hair, clomping in platform heels and an armored aura of experience.
If he had a choice, you suspect, the blue-eyed man you live with would peel back your exoskeleton and devour readily the flesh beneath. There would be leftovers and he would toss them.
You are faintly sick of hearing: Am not into white women, women…small hands…your hair…but from where…
Nobody in your family has ever been raised by their own mother and father. The grandparents are perpetually learning how to rear children. When you are seven years old your mother’s parents see each other for the first time in ten years, having flip-flopped across the Atlantic. Your grandfather got his visa first, and four years later it expired and your grandmother was granted hers. She stayed three years. Neither has had a steady relationship with your mother. They raised you anyway, one after another, in a wide, flat place where they could neither speak nor drive.
Weeping, you say to the man inside you, “I am thinking about my family and sacrifice.” He is offended.
You cannot speak to your grandparents. Their tongue has been sliced from you. You watched, in your youth, two spectral arms emerging from a spot above your belly button, looking like your hands but pinker and with larger pores. They raised a turquoise blade to your lips and made a bloodless cut. It took years for pain to set in.
You sit in the car in the rain in the Midwest next to the young British writer you have been emailing with for some time. The car is parked outside his house and inside the car, the two of you share a cigarette even though you quit months before. Everything feels mysterious and sexy especially when your lipstick stains the end of the cigarette and you watch it go into his mouth. The shadows of raindrops on the windshield cast tears onto his face. His nose is sharp and his dimples deep. The British writer has never seen raw tuna before. He does not know that it is red. His eyes are big with long lashes. You can’t tell what color they are. He asks you about the man you live with, and you think about swapping one poison for another.
Calvino said about traveling: you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. You follow a thread leading to the disintegrated architecture of an ancestral shrine. It had a shape once. Your mother does not know her grandmother’s name. You have no Chinese name.
An art student from Beijing, newly arrived in your Midwestern city, tries to engage you in Mandarin. She carries a box of snuff that she snorts from and makes acrylic paintings with bright colors and meticulously measured perspective. She points to the large freckle on your chin, then the smaller one on your cheek, and says: that’s lucky. Your face turns red as you try to recollect words. It seems as humiliating for her as for you. English only, she learns, out of mercy. English only, you learned, out of self-loathing.
You work for an artist named Anna in Queens. She is lithe, trained originally in ballet. She eats foods relentlessly until she gets utterly sick of them. She and her lover moved four years before from Berlin. He is German; she is from Georgia, the country. Every day in the studio at two in the afternoon, she and her lover and their Swiss assistant order the mango/cucumber and cucumber/avocado rolls with a miso soup side. She and her lover are vegetarian. Back in Georgia, Anna’s father left for some time. She and her mother started eating carrots, together in the house. They ate the carrots for almost a week, feeling sick at the end. You imagine Anna and her mother with their hair wrapped in scarves, sitting in an old house, a house that maybe does not have internet or has a well in the yard. It is dark inside the house and maybe there are lemon trees outside. You don’t know what the Georgian climate is like. Actually you know nothing about Georgia. After the carrots, they ate oranges. “Have you ever had so much orange juice on your hands that your skin started to peel?” Anna says. “It was so stupid.” Their hands were crusted with yellow-white discharge, thickly. They did not stop eating the oranges for a long time.
In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where your studio is, there is a retirement home where everybody looks like your grandfather, like shrunken swaying trees. They pace the steep sidewalk outside, fanning themselves with newspapers and wiping sweat off their foreheads with tissues pulled from plastic packets printed with kawaii characters. You overhear and understand fragments of their conversations—rain coming, your niece. I have…an appointment tomorrow…a ghost that smiles with peaches in its hands. You smile at them every day on your way past and their eyes narrow at you. You sense you have lost something.
In the Lower East Side you are crying in a bar. You have never cried like this in public. Part of it is because you are drunk. An Italian man who is a friend of a friend is chastising you for asking him not to say the N word, hard R. He tells you that you are a narrow-minded hypocrite, a P.C. diva. The people you are with—new friends—dangle their jaws and wring their wrists. You feel like you have lost your mind. The Italian man repeats the word over and over. His voice is nasal and his small-eyed face looks like a rat’s. The blue-eyed man you live with once told you that if white people can’t wear a qipao, then anybody who isn’t Scottish can’t wear flannel. His father’s side is Scottish; they have a family tartan. He is exceptional in bed. He takes his time down there. You hear his voice saying, but tell me the dictionary definition of racis—
Because you are crying, the Italian man takes your hand and kisses the back of it. Your vision tilts. He tells you that he and his Korean girlfriend have recently broken up. And he was once married to a different Korean woman; they started a menswear company together. There are two Glenn Ligon prints hanging in his apartment. He claims they are real. The next morning, feeling skinned, you offer a feeble no and let yourself be fucked by him. You shake his hand when you part. His image looms, shrewd and olive, in you. In another life he was named Cassius. In another life you married him. Two weeks later you are not sure if it is fear or excitement that fills you when you unexpectedly see him in Nolita. He is a needle that you sink into your own finger, pressing through the nail bed. Lapping up the red droplets. You bite into an orange and suck the bitter juice from its skin. A piece of peel lodges in your throat. Cum washes it down. This time you let yourself be fucked in the ass. A column of pain lumbers through you: the feeling of having betrayed your grandmother. “You’re a freak,” the Italian man tells you, mirthfully. Several days later on Google, you find photos of him and his ex-wife. She has a severe, moonlike face with shaved eyebrows. She looks intelligent and cool. You are flooded with an acrid, despicable envy, and you never tell any of this to the blue-eyed man you live with.
Months later, you are eating pizza with a woman who carried a mattress for nine months. It plays out like a fable. She tells you that you were, you have been, you know. She delivers the word like a hot oil burn. Her laugh is a hysteric break, splitting her long face. You become enamored of it and her pink pigtails. She asks you if you are mixed, because she is mixed, and you tell her no. You tell her maybe. You are dancing. In a bathroom you and she use your pinky nails to scoop powder out of a plastic bag and it goes up stupidly like sugar. You feel fourteen. You fall in love with her. You remember that the first time you were fucked by the blue-eyed man you live with now, you were seeing somebody else. You turned your face away from his and crossed your arms like a vampire. You were dehydrated. He was on top of you. You fell in love with him. You lived with him.