Everyone had been so happy lately. Samantha Giles, who everyone called Sammy Gills in elementary school, then Fishy Gills, then ugly Fish Face with Gills in middle school, and finally, Period Blood Soaked Puffy Gilled Cunt Slop in high school, had grown out of her cystic acne and monetized her pigeon-toed posture into a fashion blog that was popular among young housewives in mid-tier cities. But beyond all that, Samantha Giles was engaged to a good man and she was only twenty-five! A quarter century and not a year more!
"Came home to this spread #luckiestgirl #whatdidIdotodeservehim #broughtHawaiihomewithus #stillonvacation #hecooksmegourmetmeals #Imakepoptarts" she captioned under a picture of the suckling pig her fiancé had prepared. But something had disturbed Lillian about the photo. The pig appeared to be burned through. It was severely desiccated and looked like it had been rubbed in tar. Even if the casual viewer could look past the crime scene of piglet-arson, there was still the issue of Samantha's fiancé's face, two-thirds of which colonized the upper-right quadrant of the photo and gave the impression of a man who had just completed his first killing spree.
Lillian showed the picture to several friends from high school who knew Samantha, some college friends and even a few from grad school, but when none of them gave her the reaction she was looking for, she forwarded the photo to a few massage girls she used to work with before she went independent. The girls at the massage parlor were so different from her that it was almost shameful. But it was also exactly what she wanted—a domain where she could stand apart without having to point it out, the way mediocre rich men did. They could afford to have ego without charisma, confidence without originality, but not her. She was a poet from the academy!
In school, her cohorts leaked elitist precum all over their poetics and Lillian had joined in without wholly committing, something she had done her whole life—dip a toe in every puddle. While everyone else was applying for the same shitty adjunct positions in Rhetoric and Comp and vying for the precious few poetry fellowships given out each year, Lillian trolled Backpage until she found a job posting that wasn't in ALL CAPS, had no ~, @, $ or * characters, and used decent grammar.
When she got the massage parlor job, she would carry around small press chapbooks that her former classmates had published, hoping some bored hooker waiting for a john would ask her what she was reading, at which point Lillian would read aloud, "Only the macrobiotic rational of kitsch, forswearing fraudulent immunity to libidinal marketplace, circulates certain types of letter drones," to which her hooker friend would respond, "All I got out of that is this fuckin' nerd needs to get laid."
If she was reading to a client who needed to think of himself as educated, intelligent, and insightful—anything really that distanced him from being a fuckin' nerd who needed to get laid—then the response was more likely to be along the lines of, "He shortchanges the role of libido in poetry. For example," and the client would look greedily at Lillian's naked body, "Your body of poetry quite excites me."
"The hell is a suckling pig anyway?" Lillian's friend Bethannni with three n's from the massage place asked. "I'd never eat something that's been suckled."
"So no human babies," Lillian said. "Seriously, though. Look at this useless shred of cunt lint. Does this bitch really think she's blessed?"
"What'd she ever do to you? It's just a food pic."
"Nevermind. She's just someone who's supposed to have an okay-to-bad life. I don't like people who resist their fate."
"Now you're being a stupid bitch. If you want a sugardaddy, I can give you one of mine. All the suckling pig you want. He's easy too. One shot guy. He'll keep you on retainer for three thousand. Only problem is he'll want to stroke your damn hair until you're bald. Look at this," she said, lifting up a section of her hair. "I'm like, baby, should we get dinner? And he's like, 'Let's order in. I wanna stroke your hair some more.' I'm buying a wig tomorrow."
Lillian shook her head, laughing. "Clueless."
* * * * *
"The worst thing a woman can do is be with a man who's too handsome or too romantic," her mother told Lillian when she was a kid. "Your father was disgusting. He'd forget to put socks on. He wore his underwear over his pants. He never brought me flowers. He showed up to our dates smelling like day-old garbage. No one envied me. You know who my friends dated? Guys with motorcycles. Guys who wrote songs on a guitar. Do you know how hard it was back then to get a guitar? You had to know a white person. Do you know how many white people there were in China? Five. Maybe three but one of them was an infant. White people aren't that powerful, ha ha ha. So there's two white people and at least a billion of us. And yet somehow, this guy tracks down a guitar to serenade my friend. She bragged about it for months. Still talks about it. Used to walk around with her nose up in the air. 'Bugs are gonna get in,' I told her. 'You're giving them too much clearance.' When you're young you think adventure is all there is. You think you'll never get enough of it. But you know what adventure turns into when you get older? Stress rashes. High blood pressure. Early death.
Find a man who loves you more than you love him. Stick with that one. The one who doesn't have any moves. You know why? He'll never stray. Even if he does get tired of you and wants to see what else is out there, he can't. No moves. And then, well then... baby, you're free."
Find a man who loves you more than you love him.
Lillian had been in a few classes with Samantha, most notably a World Cultures class where they had been paired up to do a presentation on Ethiopia. As they were discussing who would do what, a cystic pustule on Samantha's face spontaneously burst, leaking yellow pus and blood down her cheek.
"Do you want a tissue?" Lillian had asked.
"Oh god," Samantha had said, shaking her head. "Why do I even live?"
The other thing about Samantha was her family spent their summers in Cape Cod. The two girls had chatted about it while they were finishing up their Ethiopia presentation in Samantha's Upper West Side apartment that overlooked the Hudson.
"Isn't that where Ishmael boards the Pequod?" Lillian asked.
"The dude who's crazy obsessed with whales."
"No clue." She shrugged. "Where do you go in the summer?"
"Just around the corner. Sometimes all the way to Henry Street for a slushie."
"Ha ha ha," they had both laughed.
The summer after seventh grade, Lillian's mother took her to Beijing for a mother-daughter bonding trip and to meet her father's side of the family. "A very distant side," she explained. "They're your grandfather's cousin's family. Your father spent all his summers with them."
The summer after seventh grade, Lillian's mother took her to Beijing for a mother-daughter bonding trip and to meet her father's side of the family.
"He did?" Lillian asked, perking up at the idea of summers away.
"He was very close with his girl cousins in Beijing. The younger one, your Auntie Wei, was really beautiful. She was legendary. Artists came from all over to paint her. There was once even a prince of a tiny country in Europe who had somehow seen a picture of her and wrote her to ask for her hand in marriage. He showed up with 4,129 roses, the number of miles he had traveled to be with her."
"It happened. But it got very sad, very quick. The poor girl went mad eventually and had to be locked up in a mental institution."
"That's what happens when you're too loved. It was a known fact her mother loved her more than her older sister. During the Cultural Revolution, their mother agreed to send the older sister to Heilongjiang so that Wei Wei could be spared. 'She can handle it,' they said. It was the worst place a person could be sent to. She was homely and forgotten. Her own father once lost her in the street and walked right past her to the police station to file a report. She was a few feet away the whole time."
"Sucks to be her."
"Not really. It paid off in the end. She lived her life the way you're supposed to. She worked hard and found a decent man. You know what makes men decent? When they're too unimaginative to want much more than a life with you. And her little sister? The great beauty? She jumped from man to man, all of them promising her extravagant things—sailing all around the world, rare diamonds from Africa—and you know what they all ended up doing?"
"They married women like your Auntie Wei's older sister. They married workhorses with broad noses and minimal expectations. Not like Wei Wei who kept thinking she could do better. She was a different person depending on who she was with. One year she wanted to pilot planes. Then it was motorcycles. Then she wanted to be an actress or a singer, but that was constant. She was always wanting someone to pay her just to be beautiful. Then one day, she wakes up and she's forty. She wasn't beautiful anymore. She was forty. Forty." The way Lillian's mother kept saying forty like it was a war crime made Lillian wonder how she felt when she turned forty last year. Lillian and her father had woken her up in the morning with balloons and her favorite porridge with preserved duck eggs that Lillian had chopped up and arranged on top of the rice so it spelled out, "We love you," in Chinese characters.
The three of them watched cartoons in bed and then game shows and then talk shows and then it got really late and Lillian's mother blamed her father for not keeping track of time. It was almost evening and they had only had rice porridge with some measly chunks of duck egg and was there anything so pathetic as starving on your own birthday? Where was the bounty? her mother had cried. Where's my celebration? It had been the neediest Lillian had ever seen her mother, and instead of repulsing her, she found it refreshing.
It had been the neediest Lillian had ever seen her mother, and instead of repulsing her, she found it refreshing.
"Forty," her mother continued. "Forty. No one wanted her anymore. She got to a point where there was no one better than her last boyfriend who still wanted her. There wasn't even anyone worse. She had never been alone or unwanted. So she went mad." Lillian's mother finished the story as their taxi was pulling up to the restaurant where they were meeting Auntie Wei and the others.
Lillian felt she had been waiting her whole life to meet this ruined woman. It excited her to think that somewhere in her lineage was not just a great beauty, but a great, destroyed beauty! Her relatives had booked a private dining room and there, sitting in a corner, was a small woman sipping Fanta through a straw. Her legs were crossed and one of her little embroidered slippers was dangling off her foot. Auntie Wei was the only one who didn't stand up to greet Lillian and her mother. She was preoccupied with a knot on the underside of her hair.
Lillian sat close to her mother for most of lunch and watched everyone talk as she usually did at family functions. Her Chinese was decent but not good enough to express herself to her satisfaction, so she observed, which was her preference anyway.
At one point, Auntie Wei interrupted a conversation people were having about the differences between American and Chinese property taxes, pointed to Lillian and said, "She's plain but you'll have to monitor her. She'll end up a dangerous beauty."
Later Lillian would regard her aunt as something of a witch. Whether it was a charm or a curse, the spell had been cast, and by next summer, it came true. Her beauty wasn't the type that photographed well. It was a beauty that was meant to be narrated. Her flaws, like the purple diamond birthmark above her ass, gave her pursuers the shared delusion that they were the only ones on this earth to have discovered her. At fourteen, she had the ability to interest people with the smallest reveal, like how when she was a child reading about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, she had thought it was the Hanging Gardens of Baby Ion. "How charged that place must have been!" she exclaimed to her suitors. To know her was to know the infinite because she went on and on without punctuation, without a page to turn, and her lack of ending offered a way out for men whose mortality was the only limitation they had ever known.
Later Lillian would regard her aunt as something of a witch.
Aunt Wei beckoned Lillian over. "You know anything about making money?"
Lillian shook her head.
"It's one of my talents." She lowered her voice so that Lillian had to learn forward. "I'm starting a tutoring business. You want to work for me?"
"Oh. I don't think I can."
"Then why," she said, suddenly nasty, "are you still talking to me?"
"I don't know," Lillian said shakily.
"I don't know you. You don't know me, do you? You're someone's kid who was brought here on your summer vacation. I'm someone's kid too. That's what this is. Someone's kid meets someone else's kid. Well, we're both in the wrong place. I have to talk to people who can invest. These women," she said, gesturing around the table. "Not one of them will help me. I had to cancel a business meeting to be here."
Afterward, in a taxi back to their hotel, Lillian said to her mother, "I actually found her kind of plain."
"That's because she's forty-seven."
"I can't imagine her looking any better as a young girl."
"She was a great beauty. More than I ever was. More than anyone."
"There's no way she was prettier than you. I wanna see photos."
When they got back to New York, Lillian's father dug up old photos of her aunt and Lillian laid them out, side-by-side with photos of her mom when she was young, but it was useless. It was like comparing a broken blade of yellowed grass to an old dried-up pumpkin. There was no way to imagine the field the blade of grass came from or the doorstep the pumpkin once sat on.
"Happy now?" her mother asked her, taking the photos and putting them back in their boxes.
Lillian nodded, but she wasn't. She felt like she hadn't seen anything at all.
It was always the incidental people, Lillian thought, staring at the picture her old classmate Cunty McGills had posted of her suckling pig dinner, who make us doubt everything. Bethannni was right. She was being a stupid bitch. She went through photos on her phone and found the #tbt she had posted of her mother smiling sweetly over a steaming bowl of ramen. Lillian had seen the photo when she was a kid without much interest, but when her mother pulled it out again on her fiftieth birthday, she wanted to know everything.
She went through photos on her phone and found the #tbt she had posted of her mother smiling sweetly over a steaming bowl of ramen.
"It was the year your father and I came to America. We were eating instant noodles with eggs. We were so happy. Eggs were rationed in China. You could only have one a year. We felt like kings. We went through half a carton a day." In the photo, her cheeks were radiant and pink whether because of makeup or lighting or the heat from the bowl or maybe she was really just that beautiful and it had been finally noted.
"How old were you?"
"Your age, twenty-two."
"You were a great beauty, Mom. A stunner. A head turner. Total swan. Men must have seen you with Dad and wished him dead so they could take his place."
How her mother had blushed then. How she revealed herself as someone who could bask as indulgently as any beauty had ever basked in the warmth of another person.
"If I had been one of your suitors back then, you would have rejected me, huh? You would have seen right through me. Gone for Dad. The guy who never said you were beautiful the whole time you were dating. The guy who had to be prompted by your sister to say it at your wedding."
"Now wait just a minute," her mother said, smiling flirtatiously. "Who says I would have shot you down?" It was late and they had had a lot of champagne. Lillian's father was asleep on the couch next to them and Lillian got up to top off their flutes.
"I was going to quote from this poem for my toast," Lillian said, returning with the bottle of champagne. "But I got shy. And anyway, it's in French and everyone already gives me shit for not making toasts in Chinese. Can I read the part I was going to say?"
"Let's hear it," her mother said, raising her glass.
She cleared her throat and began, ""Je juge cette longue querelle de la tradition et de l'invention/ De l'Ordre et de l'Aventure..."
As Lillian continued, her mother started clapping and splashing champagne all over her father's pant leg. "I know this poem! 'La jolie rousse' by Apollinaire. I'm here to judge the long tradition—wait, no. I am here to the judge the long—"
"—The long debate—"
"—The long quarrel between tradition and invention. Between Order and Adventure."
It was all a dream then. Her mother was someone totally new. Everything single thing she had ever said was now tinted with the brightness of this new person.
"I can't believe I remember this poem," she said, standing up and beginning to recite fluently. "You whose mouth is made in the image of God's/ Mouth that is order itself/ Be indulgent when you compare us/ To those who were the perfection of order/ We who look for adventure everywhere/ We're not your enemies/ We want to give you vast and strange domains/Where mystery in flower spreads out for those who would pluck it/ There you may find new fires colors you have never seen before/ A thousand imponderable phantasms/ Still awaiting reality/ We want to explore kindness enormous country where all is still/ There is also time which can be banished or recalled/ Pity us who fight always at the boundaries/ Of infinity and the future/Pity our errors pity our sins."
"My god," Lillian said, standing up too. "You really made a mistake marrying Dad." The two women laughed from the inside out, applauding each other, giving each other standing ovation after standing ovation. They were two poets, two adventurers, two inventors, two dreamers lingering, stretching it out until it was more than just a moment.
Jenny Zhang is the author of the poetry collection DearJenny, We Are All Find and the non-fiction chapbook Hags. She writes for teen girls at Rookie magazine & occasionally tweets @jennybagel.