Monday, October 17, 2016

Fiction: Black Soot

I cover them in my prayers. But it's no use. She insists on ruining everything.

Not everything is her fault.

I was never much of a mother, except when she was an infant. I washed her every day, fed her until she was white and fat--a symbol of success way back then, where we came from. The water always turned gray, black, as if she had spent the day inside a coal mine. Those winters. We might as well rolled around in coal. Beijing. It felt like another time, another world.

He used to beat me at night. When all was asleep. But I knew she could hear it. She never stirred, so I could tell she was pretending. Deep sleep like that wasn't a thing she knew. Her lashes pressed too tight against her eyelids. Her breath held for too long.

I'd tremble, bleed and beg him to stop. But nothing worked. He needed the release and I was his punching bag. As soon as he heard the sounds of my bones crunching against the ridges of his fist, his face would soften, crumble. Tears, apologies. Then we sleep. I'd hear her sigh, a long choppy exhale like how babies sobbed through their sleeps.  It'd grind on my chest, like some sort of a rock. Ridiculous. The sound of one breath.

She'd get sick. So often I lose track of the times she was well, so far and few in between fevers, coughs and sleepless nights. He'd hover over her, wash towels, treats, boiled pears cooked slowly in rock sugar to sooth her bronchi. Eyes so tender it broke me, lit me up from the inside with rage. I'd yank her up as she worked up another sleepy cough and told her to sit up for the rest of the night, pounding on her back. That would stop you from coughing. I shouted. It wasn't me. I didn't recognize that woman who shouted at her own sick kid.

Yan would leave the room, riding his bicycle around town for hours, hunting for cures. He came back one morning, having been gone all night, holding a white paper square. Inside were ground up powders of deer antlers. A thimbleful.

I cried. I didn't know how he got them. How much it cost. But I could guess--a fortune. Everyone knew they cured coughs and strengthened even the weakest lungs, bronchi.  He wore a white bandage on his arm, and a blue sheen over his face. Did you sell your blood? Or liver?  I asked him, fire in my eyes, though I couldn't stop crying.

He waved me away and began boiling the powder with other herbs. I prayed it would cure her, or kill her. I hadn't slept for a month, spending days making shoes for others, nights with him, and her. One who beat me, one whom I'd love to beat. But the stale air soaked with boiling herbs and coal fire and our recycled breath stifled me, pressed on my mind and my hands. I could only move in a predetermined pattern my own mother had taught me. Cook, clean, care for the young. I had seven younger siblings. I'd carried six on my back, one at a time, while Mother worked in the field, swept around the house, taught me how to cook and locked up on the bed with Father.

Why am I thinking about all these? She's the one ruining things, not me. But I have my part, I guess. That's why.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Long Black

The cowboy sauntered into the coffee joint, sporting an Aussie accent. He wore his hat askew, his shirt sleeves high on his elbows.

"A long black please?"

The teen girl behind the counter had dance in her movements, the bounce of her flaxen hair. She giggled on hearing the request, and seeing the man in black leaning against the counter, his smile crooked. She held up a mug high next to her chin so the cowboy could see it.

"Like this? Coffee inside?"

She giggled again. The cowboy's face turned red. He nodded quickly, shifting his weight and turning around to check out the room while the girl filled the mug with coffee.

A woman stood behind him and watched the exchange, her eyes curious. She smiled at him.

"Guess I'm making a fool of myself here." He bowed forward slightly and touched his hat again.

The woman chuckled. She took a little bow herself and said, "no more than any other long blackers out here." She swept a finger across the room and gave him a wink.

The cowboy grew more red. He swept his chin with his palm. "Sorry to have offended you like that."

"No. I'm sorry. I couldn't help it. You didn't say anything wrong... but it sounded funny."

"You must think I'm a circuit freak." He took the coffee from the counter and tossed a few notes to the still giggling girl. She flipped strands of her long locks before clinking open the register and putting away the money. As the cowboy turned around, she waved a milky white hand toward him and said, "By-e... come back again soon, for long blacks...and more."

The cowboy bowed his head and walked out with two red ears, hunched shoulders and a bounce in his steps.

The woman stepped up to the counter and pointed to his departing silhouette and said, "I will have what he is having."

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Inside Out

The heat of summer days has a way of turning everything inside out. Another fire has erupted in South LA, charring through bushes brittled by desert droughts. We are still far from needing to worry, about an actual fire, that is. Our pavement looks parched, lit, in fact, by boundless rays of white flames floating between its bone-dry surface and the cloudless skies.

It hurts my eyes to look.

The beach carries a high tide and the last of the summer crowds. A good number of schools have reopened for fall, reclaiming those families from the sand. The swells are adolescent small, but the ocean is glassy. I run on the wet sand, passing groups of surf-camper kids too young to fall into the clutches of schools. Their moms watch from the pier above, face tied into knots. A group of surfers pass me dripping salt and sand, surf board leashes. A bald man in a low camp chair hugs a professional camera between his legs, its long range lens pointed at me.

I wave.

News would reveal later that the US swimmers may have lied about being robbed in Rio, Brazil at gunpoint to cover up a bathroom incident. It reminds me of searching for bathrooms on New Year's eve in that tight little square in Hong Kong, while waiting for the ball to drop, the countdown to begin. Mike had been drinking as we walked along the crowded sidewalks, listening to the sounds of celebration and felt at peace for being by ourselves, strange for being in a country where one's allowed to drink on the sidewalk. The evening hadn't resulted in anything but fireworks for us. The bathroom lines had been ridiculous, impossible. But Mike found a way in and I had spent the evening dry in anticipation of such problems. Less lucky for those swimmers, being pulled off the plane and spending the night in a Brazilian police station doesn't seem like their idea of fun.

Mike had also been robbed in Rio after returning alone from a party. He was doing a six month study aboard program there. He moved back after the incident, ending the program midway.

There is a lot I don't know about Brazil, the world or myself. It is impossible to find a mirror that can shine the light on one's inside. And for something that much bigger than yourself you simply lose perspective in the same way that is still different--an ant crawling through the forest trail can't see or anticipate dapples of sunlight filtering through the canopy. It is a mystery to him or her when light changes from dark to light and back again. It has no choice but to plow forward and continue its path, hauling weight much too heavy for its body and size, yet somehow not its capability.

I reel against these thoughts as I uncap my pen and set about to write. About what? I can't say. The next chapter has no title. The only truth I know is what I can see, the small patch of light, or shadow set onto my narrow and determined path.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Home and Away

It usually takes being away for me to appreciate the sweetness of home. As I have grown older, the shorter and nearer bouts of such away-ness have brought on equal (if not stronger) sense of homeliness in me. The things that normally annoy me about that good-ol' home, the snorting bunny, the squishy old couch, the oddly placed piano, the forever humming fridge... all take on a new voice. It says, welcome home, sweetheart! It says so in the voice of a calm and patient friend, a throaty lover, a cat you've had for so long that you tend to forget her aloof presence except on those days you stayed home sick and she curled up next to you, lowering your stress and fever with her quiet purring, and her warm, soft fur brushing against your clammy skin.

I returned from an overnight party this afternoon, agitated to go out again after a proper shower and a change into something comfortable. The neighborhood coffeehouse gave me the last of its brew on clearance before closing its doors. So I sat outside in a common area tucked away between two buildings. The management of this urban strip mall had stepped up in the last few years, upgrading it with new storefronts, outdoor seating and water fountains. On one of the newer outdoor couch I noticed a shopping cart parked in a corner, piled high with homeless essentials: backpack, empty bottles, shopping bags stuffed with unseen objects. The lady sleeping next to it was dressed in clean shirt and pants. Her summer hat looked crooked around the edges but also stylish in a way. She covered her face with one arm but I could see her snowy hair and weather lined face. She looked Asian in some ways, like one of those grandmas who had came across the ocean to visit her child and grandchildren. They pushed strollers around the park in the afternoons and did Tai Chi there in the morning. Occasionally you'd see them gather around the stone benches next to the park playground in a pot-luck party, chattering in languages that sounded familiar yet not quite understood.

This woman was alone. Perhaps because of this she seemed to resemble all yet no one ethnicity in particular. I wanted to ask if she needed help, yet she slept soundly, feet propped up on the wooden handle and arms blocking her eyes so I couldn't see whether she was really sleeping or simply tired. I set down with my books and my drink, deciding not to intervene. A few mall workers came by a few minutes later, making a racket with their trash emptying and leaf blowing. When I looked up again the lady had gotten up, grabbing an empty bottle from a neighboring table with the type of slow walk reminiscent of a recovering stroke patient. I tried to walk up to her but the cleaning crew blocked my way, their arms strategically stretched out in front of me wherever I turned as if to keep me from bodily harm. Their equipment covered my voice, and the whole thing seemed a bit fruitless and absurd in the end when I gave up. She wobbled away with her shopping cart towards the back of buildings where no shoppers typically went, her floppy brimmed hat and her polyester mint green pants flapping gently with each step. From this angle, her clothes seemed to be from a thrift store or a discarded donation pile left on the curb on trash days. She disappeared around the bend surprisingly quickly, as when I finally freed myself from the maze of workers stepping all around me I couldn't find her trace. Nothing remained between the white stucco walls of the buildings, and the now clean concrete patio floors, empty outdoor furniture. The whole scene of her being next to me, close enough for a conversation, a touch, had vanished like a dream. When I questioned the workers about her whereabouts, they shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders the way my son did whenever I asked him about missed homework, lost jacket after field trips. 

I lingered in the mall for another half an hour, eating a quick dinner that seemed exorbitantly expensive at $11. After that the evening out crowd rushed into the restaurant, surrounding my table with the kind of loud chatter you only find in American restaurants. It was still early, the summer sun high overhead, so I kept my sunglasses on and read quietly until the tide of crowds finally irritated my server, and he asked me for the 3rd time whether there was anything further he could help me. Quickly I paid and left the hubbub of this rich, clean and classy world with free flowing wine and grass fed sirloin burgers piled high next to wild caught Alaskan shrimp bowls.

Home, quiet, unassuming in its worn edges and patient with my ceaseless washing of the old sofa covers, was extra sweet after that. I sighed and cooed into my floppy cushions and ten-year-old blankets. Memories of the homeless lady lingering in the back of my mind like a negative image, fainting into a recess but ready for a special kind of light, to bring it to exposure.


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