by Doris W. Cheng
You thought college would be the answer. To your awkwardness, your embarrassing erudition, your virginity. You imagined yourself a co-ed like the ones you saw on the pages of Seventeen magazine, hair ruffled, cable knit sweater knotted casually around your shoulders, though it took some effort to place your brown Asian self in those scenes of rosy-cheeked girls sharing cider with boys in football jerseys. Your best friend, gay and bookish, told you that college was about reinventing yourself. You had gone to Kmart together to buy dorm room sheets and hangers. No one knows who you are, he said as he picked out a brocade comforter, So you can be anyone you want.
You enrolled in the local State University because your immigrant parents couldn’t afford to send you anywhere else. You packed the family Oldsmobile with milk crates full of Duran Duran cassettes, Victoria Holt novels, and oversized tops from JC Penney, the kind that were supposed to make you appear tiny and feminine. Your little sister cried as you gathered your things. She was ten and thought you could do anything, largely because you never had plans on Saturday night and stayed home to make Barbie clothes with her. When you handed her one of your old bangles and told her to keep it, she slipped it over her arm and stroked it like a baby. Your parents drove you to your dorm. Along the way they instructed you, with the insistence typical of Asian parents, to major in biology so you could find a job in the pharmaceutical industry, like them, after you graduated. You said nothing but thought, Never, not in a million years.
The walls of your dorm room were white-painted cinder block. Your roommate was thick-chested and ruddy, with bangs that swooshed over her forehead like a cresting wave. She was talking loudly on the phone when you entered and gave you a perfunctory wave, the tips of her nails sparkling with pink glitter. When your mother handed you a bag of Chinese groceries, instant noodles and dried cuttlefish, you furtively slid it under your bed.
Your floormates were animated and shrill, white suburban girls who wore identical hair scrunchies and high-top Reeboks. They ran in and out of each other’s rooms speaking a language you recognized but had never mastered. Ohmigod, said one girl, I forgot my room number already, duh, I am such an airhead! She stood in the middle of the hall, toes pointed inward, wringing the hem of her shirt like a lost child. A pudgy girl named Trish asked if you wanted to go to a frat party. She had flunked her freshman year at a different college, which was why her parents were making her go to State, but at least State was a party school. She described herself as a nymphomaniac as you sat cross-legged on the floor of her dorm room, one of those girls who just liked fucking and couldn’t help it when a cute boy showed interest. You know what I mean, right? she giggled. You didn’t, but you said, Yeah, I know. You decided that no one would know you had never been kissed, much less that you had never been fucked. When you got back to your room you found a flyer outside your door for the Chinese Students Association Ice Cream Social. No one else on your floor received a flyer. You put it in the garbage.
At the frat party, you drank Blue Whales and talked to different boys. Some asked how you liked your dorm, or what you were planning to major in, before their eyes drifted across the room to the sorority girls, whose voluminously teased hair seemed to snag their gaze like brambles. The way these boys looked at blonde hair and glossy lips reminded you of babies gazing at shiny, colorful objects. You pushed your way to the bar to look for Trish. You bumped into a boy with cropped blond hair who was nodding his head to the music. He asked what kind of bands you listened to. When you told him you liked British New Wave, he widened his eyes in mock outrage. That was shit, he said, those guys were fags, poseurs of the worst kind. You understood his insult to be the equivalent of hair pulling on the playground so you played along, defended your taste in music but not strenuously, challenged him to define what wasn’t shit. He embarked on a discourse about music from Bad Brains to War. The only things that mattered were Passion and Authenticity and Creative Genius. He told you you had a lot to learn.
You followed him to a boom box in the corner where he slid an unmarked tape into the cassette deck: jabbing guitars, overlaid with growling vocals. My band, he said. I play guitar. You couldn’t decide if his music was good or bad, but it didn’t matter. In high school you had crushed on the guitar players pictured on album covers, boys with pale honed cheekbones and aloof slouches, effortlessly cool. Cool was not something you had been born with, nor was it something you had the means to manufacture. For you, it could be acquired only by association; the key thing was to find that cool in such careless, arrogant abundance that you would be reborn in its overflow. He played a few more songs, and you closed your eyes, listening. It was the kind of listening you did in French class, when you studied language tapes and tried to insert yourself in an unfamiliar conversation. You were a diligent student. You knew it was within your power to learn this boy’s language of cool and to one day pass yourself off as a native speaker.
He said, Hey, you should exchange numbers. You scribbled yours on a bar napkin. When you handed him the pen, you noticed the constellation of freckles on his milky cheeks. He took your hand and pressed his number into your open palm, the black ink rolling across your lifeline. You had been hoping he would walk you back to your dorm, but his buddies were gathered nearby, joshing him. Let’s hang out tomorrow, he said. They exited with ostentatious thumps on each other’s backs. You wandered through the emptying rooms looking for Trish but couldn’t find her (later, she will tell you how she hooked up with a frat brother and had the best sex of her life). You stumbled home alone, in the dark, hand cupped around the imprint of the boy’s number as if you were cradling a small frail animal.
You started hanging out with the boy. He was a junior living in a shared house, his room a cramped garret with a mattress on the floor. You listened to music in the glow of taper candles stuck in old wine bottles. You sipped cans of Old Milwaukee beer, ironically, as he did. When he played guitar, his brow furrowed in a way you found endearing. He told you he considered Asian women to be the most beautiful in the world, and this both pleased and embarrassed you.
A week after you met him, you lost your virginity.
You didn’t say it was your first time because you didn’t want him to feel pressured. But also—and this was the real reason—you didn’t want him to know that no one had ever wanted you before; instinctively, you understood that the value of a thing was determined by how much demand there was for it. You were self-possessed, moving your body with intention and making little sounds that emulated pleasure, the way you imagined someone used to being desired would do. You did this even though it hurt. When you separated and rolled away, you saw that you had left a small stain of fresh blood on his sheets. You panicked. Your fear was the fear of a feral animal whose survival depended on concealment. But the boy was a poor bloodhound. Hey look, you got your period, he remarked, and the relief you felt at keeping your true unwanted self a secret overshadowed the relief you felt to no longer be a virgin.
Trish noticed your discomfort. You two must have been going at it like bunnies! she tittered. No wonder you can barely walk! You laughed bawdily, the way you had always done with her. You didn’t tell her about the tearing, or the blood, or the loneliness that stabbed you afterward, lying naked beside him in the dark. After all, it was understood that you were two modern girls: casual, independent, freely choosing what you wanted in bed, and out.
The boy was a worldly non-conformist, an artist, he said, who praised the virtues of black and white films and whose favorite book was The Picture of Dorian Gray. He revered Jimi Hendrix. When you confessed you found “Hey Joe” disturbing, with its lyrics about a man shooting his girlfriend, he explained that passion—even violent passion—was the fuel of creativity. His favorite school of art was Abstract Expressionism. This prompted you to covertly visit the library and research the subject, so you would be prepared the next time he brought it up. He told you that America, unlike other countries, lacked a class of people that could be described as intelligentsia, and he implied that if such a class existed here, he would belong to it.
You were astonished. You had come from a town ruled by football and cheerleading, a place where no one discussed ideas or books unless it was to complain loudly about homework. You had had to be careful when you spoke and avoid high-flown words like “quotidian” or “bourgeois” so that you wouldn’t be identified as a freak. Never had you met anyone who talked like this boy. You let his ideas fall, rattling, into your mind. Later, in private, you would take them out and hold them up for appraisal, like a curator confronted with objects that, while undeniably valuable, hailed from an unfamiliar provenance.
You received a letter from your sister. She was learning cursive, she wrote. Things were fine at home. Actually, no. She corrected herself with large scribbled letters—things were not fine. With you gone, it seemed like all your parents ever did was pick on her, wanting to know why she couldn’t load the dishwasher properly, or why she didn’t get an A on her science test. Your mother wouldn’t buy her a pair of Guess jeans, and without these jeans, she’d never be accepted by the girls in her class.
This reminded you of how once, when you picked your sister up from school, you saw her near a circle of lissome, smooth-haired girls. She bobbed on their periphery like a sparrow and said, over and over again, Hey…Debbie? Hey…Christie? Uh…can I tell you something? One girl looked around vaguely, but no one acknowledged her. You found your sister’s eagerness—her need—unbearable. She seemed to exist in a nether space, too timid to be noticed yet too hungry to be unnoticed, a kind of embodied ghost. A churning sadness threatened to capsize you, and in order to right yourself, you shouted at her with outsize anger: It’s time to go, Stupid! Right now! You made your voice purposeful and strong, taut enough to yank her away from the smooth-haired girls and back towards you. Towards safety. She was stunned. When she got in the car, she demanded to know why you had embarrassed her like that. You could think of no way to explain yourself, so you called her a brat.
You found yourself telling the boy about your sister. You sat on his mattress while he restrung his guitar and told him how much she depended on you, how your Taiwanese parents didn’t understood what it was like to be an American girl. You felt guilty for leaving her behind. You were a good woman, he said, twanging a string. Loyal. That was a quality he looked for in a girlfriend. It was the first time he had ever used that word—“girlfriend”—and you were struck by the weightiness of it. You had been careful to assume nothing about the relationship because you knew the surest way to lose a thing was to show how much you wanted it. Now you allowed yourself to feel elated. No one had ever called you their girlfriend before.
You were officially a couple, so you met for dinner in the dining hall and then went to his room to do homework. He was impressed by the A’s you got on your English papers. He said he’d never met anyone as well-read as you, and because this did not repulse him, you were grateful. So grateful, you believed he must be unusually open-minded to appreciate your scholarly qualities.
You liked helping the boy—now your boyfriend—with his assignments. You pointed out major themes in Paradise Lost and corrected his spelling while he played Fishbone or The Beatles on his boombox. He explained that Paul McCartney was a hack, but John Lennon was a genius and Yoko Ono his exotic muse. Every great musician needs one of those, he said, and winked at you. He described his storybook childhood: a fireplace in every room, hundred-year-old trees, the smell of fresh bread baked daily by a doting mother. Every Christmas was like the opening scene of The Nutcracker, full of spun sugar and gilt-papered gifts stacked up to the nine-foot ceiling. He said he believed, like Oscar Wilde, that Life was nothing without Beauty. You were quiet. You thought of your drab split-level, the worn shag carpet and smell of chicken fat that clung to the walls, and you were ashamed.
You began to wear form-fitting black clothes, at his suggestion, and dark red lipstick. Even though you slept at his place most nights you never let him see you without makeup. Sex was frequent and quick, but now more satisfying. Afterwards, with your legs wrapped around each other, you talked about all the places you wanted to see. You dreamed of leaving the pinched life of your parents and exploring a grander, more refined, world, visiting the country estates and glittering ballrooms described so vividly in your books. Your boyfriend was indulgent. He had traveled to Europe many times before and agreed it was indeed the center of great Culture. You should plan a trip together, he said, go hear Mozart at the Vienna Opera House. Maybe over spring break—he was sure his parents would pay for you both. It staggered you, the kind of wealth that permitted such casual generosity. A crack opened in the firmament of your understanding, and into it rushed a vision: you in elbow gloves and velvet, he in white tie, sitting among elegant company and bathed in music and candlelight and leisure. You wanted this more than you had ever wanted anything before.
When he said he loved you, it seemed natural for you to say that you loved him too. You didn’t know what else to call it.
You met his parents for brunch one Sunday. Having braced yourself for their disapprobation, you found yourself surprised by their graciousness. His father offered you a cocktail; his mother, pink and tremulous, complimented your short hairstyle. She understood you were a great reader and asked if you were familiar with James Michener, whose Alaska she was reading for her book club. You listened to their pleasantries, trying to detect a note of disappointment, a wistful wish that their son had found himself a white girlfriend instead. You heard nothing but geniality. They seemed to embody a term you had come across when reading Edith Wharton: “well-bred.”
Your boyfriend was sullen. He stared at his plate and snapped at his mother’s question about dessert. Neither of his parents reprimanded him; instead, his mother shrank and apologized, showing her teeth when she smiled. Her deference embarrassed you.
His father passed a check across the table to your boyfriend. That ought to be enough for the two of you to travel to Vienna, Berlin, and Paris over spring break, he said, But if not, let him know. He wanted to make sure you both took advantage of all the enriching cultural experiences Europe had to offer. You were abashed but profuse in your thanks, out of sincerity but also to make up for your boyfriend’s grudgingness. As you left the restaurant, his mother took you by the arm and held you back for a moment. It was she who wanted to thank you, she said, rubbing your shoulder. Her son’s grades had improved dramatically this semester, and she credited your help and influence. With you as his girlfriend, she believed he might actually graduate. She spoke to you as an equal, in hushed confiding tones, with the assumption that you shared a common womanly goal—namely the nurturance and preferment of the man in your life, her son. You suddenly understood the trip to Europe was not a gift. It was a reward.
You hung out with your boyfriend’s bandmates, boys in ripped concert t-shirts who smoked clove cigarettes and argued loudly about music and TV and jammed meanderingly while drunk. They were not impolite, but mostly, they ignored you. Only the drummer, Todd, spoke to you. He was your boyfriend’s best friend, half-Jamaican, and dating a girl named Missy who attended art college.
You wanted them to like you, so once, as you were all gathered in the living room of their shared house derisively watching Charles in Charge, you made a witty remark about Scott Baio’s character working for the same babysitting agency as Tony Danza’s. The boys guffawed. You basked in their approval, believing you had succeeded in reinventing yourself—in becoming a cool girl—when suddenly, you felt a sharp pinch on the underside of your thigh. It was your boyfriend, whose lap you were sitting on, pinching you hard where no one could see. You looked at him quizzically, but it was no mistake. The next time you said something to his friends, he pinched you again. And again. You kept your face expressionless before the group, but you stopped talking. Afterwards, flustered and bewildered, you confronted him: What was that? He smiled a tight false smile and said nothing. Eventually you shrugged it off as an irritating idiosyncracy, but you stopped speaking to his friends. Instead, you listened and smiled. You couldn’t help it. Sometimes you were uncomfortably aware of how you must appear to his bandmates—the stereotypical Asian girlfriend, quiet and submissive at her man’s side. Loyal.
You went home for Christmas and found your house unbearable. The plastic-covered furniture was tasteless. The nasal twang of your parents bickering in Taiwanese struck you as low and mean. You were glad to see your sister, but after a day, her desperate joy to have you home again became suffocating. You tired of Barbies and Monopoly, her endless chatter. When she told you she had put Guess jeans on her Christmas list, you wondered why she couldn’t understand your mother would never buy her anything so frivolous. She wasn’t a baby any more—she ought to learn she would get more out of life if she wasn’t so naked in her wants. It was a relief to meet your best friend for coffee. He listened to you talk about your boyfriend’s band and said, teasingly, Hey, rock star girlfriend.
You told your parents you were going to Europe for spring break. Your friend Trish had invited you, you said, and her parents were paying for everything. You did not tell them you had a boyfriend. Your mother wiped her hands; she had been making dumplings for you to take back to school. Not a good idea, she said, the crease in her forehead deepening. She was concerned, not by your travel to a foreign country but by your acceptance of such a lavish gift. To her, gift-giving was transactional, a kind of soft combat. To receive a gift put you and your family in debt to the giver, diminished and disadvantaged, until a reciprocal gift of equal value could be made. This your parents could not afford, so she wanted you to decline. Your father, who always deferred to your mother, nodded.
You refused to consider this. You called them provincial. There was such a thing as generosity, you said. There existed people in the world who could give without thinking they were owed something in return. The fact that the trip was less a gift than a reward remained unspoken. You grabbed a drink from the refrigerator and fled upstairs. On your mind’s horizon, glowing like a beacon, was an image of the person you were meant to become—cultivated and discerning, gracious, Continental—and you inclined toward this ideal with consummate determination, like a cell cleaving to its twin. Going to Europe was not optional. It was necessary, for your very being depended on it.
Behind the locked door of your room you dialed your boyfriend. You found yourself describing your parents to him in mocking terms: your mother with her coupons and perm, your father with his polyester pants. Denizens of the Taiwanese backwater. Lacking imagination, or a clue. You relished your diminution of them. In your telling they became figures like and unlike themselves, exaggerated and incomplete, familiar in the way of stock characters from a movie. Your boyfriend laughed. He said, Can you picture me meeting them? The incongruity of his lanky Nordic frame next to their squat Asian bodies pleased him, and he imagined their consternation at his fairness, how formidable they would find his size. You did not find this vision as humorous as he did; in fact, you felt uneasy, as if you’d been rolling a wheel down a road and it had suddenly bounced away from you and into your boyfriend’s hands. Now it was he who was rolling it down the road, quickly and away from you. To keep up you would have to join in his amusement. You tried to chuckle.
There was a tentative knock at your door. Hello? your sister said, Can I come in? The sound of her small voice clawed at your gut, but instead of opening the door you put on a mixtape your boyfriend had made for you. As “London’s Burning” poured out of the boombox, you pressed the phone receiver to your ear. You asked your boyfriend to tell you about the club he had gone to the night before, and between his voice in one ear and the music in the other, you could hardly hear your sister outside your door. You almost didn’t hear her say, lips pressed to the keyhole, Please don’t go to Europe.
Your boyfriend, you learned, was leftist in his politics. He had a tattoo on his back of a letter A encircled by an O. He called college Republicans fascists. When you expressed dubiousness about your Women’s Studies class—not only were you required to use gender neutral pronouns but you were taught that many women suffered from “false consciousness” and lacked “agency,” which you thought sounded like an excuse—he pointed out that it was actually incorrect for you to refer to yourself as “Oriental.” According to him, the proper way to describe yourself was “Asian.” It seemed presumptuous for a white boy to tell you this. I can call myself whatever I want, you said. It was the first time you had ever spoken sharply to him. He jutted out his chin. You don’t get it, he told you, you don’t even know the history of your own people.
That night when he lay on top of you pumping, while you were arranging your expression into that of someone transported, you felt your face become an opaque curtain imprinted with the pattern of your features. Through the two eye holes in the curtain, you peered out and saw how thin his neck was, how pointed his lips, so that in the darkened room illuminated by moonlight, his silhouette seemed to be that of a rooster.
A boy from your Poli Sci class noticed you reading Let’s Go! West Germany on the Green. He sat down and began to talk about his semester abroad, sharing tips about the Zoo and Checkpoint Charlie and how to find a McDonalds. You listened with a pleased self-consciousness, feeling that you had been inducted into a select club of cosmopolitan world travelers. You were laughing at the boy’s impression of Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech when your boyfriend approached. He greeted you curtly but did not sit down. You introduced the boy as a classmate who knew Berlin and had helpful recommendations. Your boyfriend said nothing. He crossed his arms and stood over the boy, eyes fixed and unblinking, until suddenly, the boy got to his feet and stammered that he had to go, he’d be late for class.
You were mortified. You had never seen your boyfriend treat someone so rudely. You started to ask him about his behavior, but he interrupted you, demanded to know if you had been flirting with the boy. Surprised by his question, you denied it. He asked you again. You denied it again. By the time you were done, your mortification had left you, expunged by the force of your denials.
It turned out your boyfriend had a jealous streak. It was not enough that you didn’t speak to his friends; any attention you gave to any male would elicit his anger. He kicked walls, ripped books apart, punched himself in the forehead. You let a boy from the swim team borrow your Psych 101 notes, and he grabbed a mug of tea and flung it at the wall. You were paired with a cute Econ major for your dorm’s scavenger hunt, and he ripped out a hank of his own hair and spat at you. You, always self-possessed, found his lack of control appalling. Afterward he acted as though nothing happened. You, too, acted as though nothing happened. It wasn’t that you were afraid—you were embarrassed for him, as if you had seen him defecating in the public square. You tolerated his behavior because he didn’t hurt you, only himself or the things around him. You were not one of those self-abasing women you had read about in your Women’s Studies class, the type for whom you felt more contempt than sympathy—devoted, dependent, blinded by attachment to a man. You were smarter than that. Encased in brittle calm, you felt a frisson of excitement as you faced his anger. It was the tingle of an explorer perched on a dangerous precipice, utterly controlled, aware that any misstep could turn you into the victim of your own misjudgment.
You knew that if he ever hit you, you would leave. You told yourself this even after you called him from Trish’s room one night to say that you wouldn’t be coming over, that you wanted to have a girls’ night with facials and the latest issue of Cosmo, and a boy down the hall stopped by. The boy wanted to borrow an iron. At the sound of a male voice in the background, your boyfriend launched into invective: Bitch. Lying sack of shit. Are you screwing around? And then, words that stunned you: Gook. You fucking gook.
You knew your boyfriend was liberal: after all, Todd was half-black, and he counted among his friends many black musicians. You surmised his racial slur was simply wind and noise. Like the child who hits his mother or kicks a sibling, he did not recognize the boundaries between himself and the people close to him. You saw now that he was smaller than you, weaker. This did not elicit your pity.
You were disgusted by his lack of control and retaliated with pointed restraint, mixed with haughtiness. The greater his fury, the more biting your disdain, which only inflamed him further. You took a kind of grim satisfaction in your power to enrage him with a word, a roll of the eye, while standing coolly apart. You watched his face contort, his bottom lip protrude, his hands curl into fists. From a remove you watched him suddenly reach out and grab your wrists, squeezing them until red welts appeared.
You were still his girlfriend but you never showed him you wanted him. The times you did have sex, you lay impassively until he finished, then rolled over to face the wall. Neither of you acknowledged anything amiss.
Two days before you were to leave for Europe, you walked together to his place from the corner bar. You had been drinking with his bandmates that night, along with an Indian delivery guy they had ironically befriended, and you passed a boy who said hi to you. You recognized him as the class president whose hand you had once shaken on the Green. You didn’t respond, but your boyfriend stopped and planted his body in front of the boy. What makes you think you can talk to her? he said, his words slurred from too many pints of Guinness. You could see that your boyfriend wanted to fight. The boy shook his head. No, man, he said, It’s cool. I didn’t mean anything. He slowly backed away, palms up, but your boyfriend followed him to the curb. He pushed his chest close to the boy’s and spat on him. Fucking faggot. Just then a truck drove by, fulgent headlights sweeping the street and exposing your faces. The other boy took the opportunity to walk quickly back the way he came.
You had numbed yourself to your boyfriend’s tantrums but this near brawl made you sick. It wasn’t his possessiveness, or his volatility—it was the publicness of the scene. To have someone witness your boyfriend’s behavior and take you for the kind of acquiescent girl you despised was humiliating. Nice going, asshole, you said in a low and cutting voice. Real mature.
You did not see the blow coming. You felt an explosive flash above your left eye and a force that made you stumble backwards. You didn’t know what had happened until you touched your forehead and felt a plum-sized lump, tender and swelling. Oh my God, you said, incredulous, You hit me. You swayed, the sidewalk a pitching ship.
He rubbed his hand, still gnarled in the shape of a fist, and seemed suddenly sober. Sorry, he said, I don’t know what happened. He looked at your face. It’s really not that bad.
In his garret room, you pressed an ice pack to your forehead. You lay in bed and ignored your boyfriend when he asked if you wanted a drink of water. You were angry—because he had hit you, yes, but also because in doing so, he had forced you to make a decision you did not want to make. You had chosen the role of cool girlfriend; you had not chosen, nor would you ever choose, the role of abused girlfriend. You were too knowing to become such a cliché. That was why you had to break it off. Only, you didn’t want to break it off.
Your boyfriend lifted the ice pack. He tipped your head from side to side so he could examine the lump from all angles. It would be fine, he said, it looked worse than it really was. He spoke with his usual certainty. You brushed his hand away and sat up. You thought about the passport on your desk, the suitcase in your closet packed with Eurail maps and comfortable shoes. Listen, you said, touching your forehead. The raised knot felt taut and smooth. I can’t be with you anymore. You spoke the words as if they were a first draft, tracing them haltingly in the air.
He was surprised at first, then dismissive. Hadn’t he already apologized? What more did you want? Besides, what he did wasn’t so out of the ordinary. Did you think that Todd never hit Missy? What about Picasso? Or Lennon? Or Hendrix? Did you really think those guys never hit their girlfriends? Of course they did. It came with the territory.
You listened to his arguments and realized you had been mistaken. There was never any difference between the cool girlfriend and the abused girlfriend. Slipped inside the makeup and sleek outfit and arch smile was the girl who got punched, or kicked, or spat on. She had always been one and the same. You wondered why you had not seen it before.
You had a choice. The choice was not whether to stay with your boyfriend, for you knew you would stay. You had to. Never again would you be the moon-eyed girl in the drab split-level. You had initiated your own transformation, and he was the catalyzing agent. Midstream, there was no interrupting what was organic and inevitable—no leaving until you had assumed your final form. No, the choice was ontological: Who would you be in staying with your boyfriend? Who could you be? The world would view you as a subjugated creature, for according to the prevailing narrative, a woman who stayed with her abuser must be weak of mind and will. But you were not weak. You knew what you wanted.
Your boyfriend sat next to you on the bed. He said, Hey. Think about the amazing time we’re going to have in Europe. He touched your arm, and when you did not flinch, he began to rub your shoulders. You stayed motionless, neither leaning into his touch nor moving away. Your silence, it was understood, signaled a wary assent. To your thinking, staying with your boyfriend required greater, not lesser, agency, for it demanded independence from what other people thought. You would not let others define you, you decided, head throbbing. You would define yourself. The choice was yours to make.
Trish came to say goodbye before you left for the airport. You had combed your bangs over your forehead but she noticed the swelling, its sunset colors visible under a layer of makeup. My God, she said, Did he do that to you? You fluffed your bangs self-consciously. There was a misunderstanding, you told her, looking away. Everything was fine, there was nothing to worry about.
Touching your sleeve, she urged you not to go. Don’t let him treat you like dirt, she said. Women are goddesses, he has to learn to put you on a pedestal. Her comments struck you as overwrought, like the lines spoken by one soap opera actress to another. In your mind, you had already departed: your bag was packed, your itinerary memorized, the florid sounds of French and German breezy on your tongue. You murmured vague assurances. But when she accused you of being naïve and lacking in self-esteem, you cut her off: You don’t know anything about me. I can take care of myself.
Your suitcase had not been used since your parents emigrated from Taiwan to America. It was heavy, made of fake leather that had cracked with age, and its metal buckles were pockmarked with rust. They had crossed an ocean for a better life but you’d seen no joy in their workaday existence, no beauty. Now, you were leaving for something greater. Your boyfriend was impatient to begin the journey and moved easily through the airport concourse with a backpack that clipped across his shoulders and waist. Because your suitcase was missing a wheel, you alternated between dragging it and carrying it, falling behind him in the crowd. You had to remind him to slow down and wait for you. You arrived at the check-in counter breathless and sweating.
You remembered you had not called home to say goodbye. You found a payphone near the waiting area and dialed, keeping a watchful eye on the gate. When your mother picked up, she sounded tired. The car had broken down on her way home from work, and your sister was crying. She wanted you to talk to her. What’s wrong? you asked your sister. You can tell me. But she wouldn’t say. Her wail reached out to you like a ball of red string unraveling through the wire, and your chest caught at the sound, as if the red string was tethering itself to you, pulling.
A gate agent swung open the jetway door. Through the opening you saw a paneled corridor lit by green lights. Travelers began to stand, collect their luggage, line up. You inhaled, trying to think of the right thing to say, words that would skate across the distance that separated you and repair the wound. You blurted, You’re way cooler than you know. For real. Someday you’ll leave everyone in the dust. Her crying slowed. The loudspeaker announced your flight; across the room, your boyfriend gestured impatiently, holding one finger in the air. What— your sister started to say, What if you— and you felt yourself falter. You knew you were in danger of losing yourself, that her question, once asked, would split the wound open, so wide and deep as to swallow you both. You broke in, I have to go. Don’t cry, I’ll send you a postcard. You slipped the handset in the cradle.
Your legs trembled. Your body thrummed with a wild ache, as if you were an animal that had freed itself from a trap but, in doing so, had left a part of itself behind. Your sister’s unspoken question hung in your ears. Ahead, you saw the open doorway of the gate, a glowing green passageway to an unknown world. Your boyfriend was waiting for you. You hesitated, even though there, at the end of the jetway, lay the dream of your new self, so close you could hardly fail to grasp it.
Doris W. Cheng is an immigrant Taiwanese American fiction writer who writes frequently about family, race, and identity. She received an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and teaches fiction and poetry in NY and NJ. Her stories are forthcoming or have appeared in New Orleans Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The Normal School, The Cincinnati Review miCRo, The Pinch, New Delta Review, and other literary magazines. She is the recipient of a 2020 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Grant for feminist-centered fiction.