I wanted something basic. A swimsuit that covered what it was supposed to, with no greater aspirations. Functionality over style, I had decided, and that’s exactly what I told the objectively cute sales guy when he asked what I was looking for.
It was the middle of May and already the Texas heat was unbearable. In the weeks leading up to graduation, Natalie and I would cut eighth period to go to the pool. “You still have to do well on your finals, Jia Jia,” my mom kept saying, but even she knew that my efforts now wouldn’t amount to much. Yale had rejected me, and I was already making housing arrangements in Providence, where I would be attending Brown in the fall.
He was short, all lean muscle. He wore a tank top with tan joggers and walked with an affected limp. In front of the women’s rack he told me about the buy-one-get-one-fifty-percent-off deal, and as I flipped through the padded bikinis and strappy one-pieces, he lingered to say that my freckles reminded him of Lucy Liu because she was also Asian with freckles. On my way out—empty-handed, everything having far exceeded my requirements—he asked for my number. I put it into his phone, saving my last name not as Wen but as “Lucy Lookalike.” He promised to hit me up soon.
I didn’t hear from him for a week. And then on Saturday, while setting the table for dinner, my phone vibrated.
I texted back, Who is this?, sure that it was that guy. I had forgotten his name.
“Who is it?” my mother asked, placing porcelain soup spoons in bowls. Tonight’s appetizer was tofu egg drop with seaweed, my favorite.
“My friend,” I told my mom, glancing at my phone as it shivered again. Then read out loud, “Collin.”
“Col-lin.” She said his name slowly, feeling the syllables in her throat, on her tongue. “A white boy?”
I cleared my throat. I used to think my mother didn’t understand euphemism. I’d told her years ago that her bluntness, though never ill-intentioned, came off as rude. “You think the truth cares about being liked?” she had argued, after which I knew it was useless to try and soften her.
“Yes, mom, a white boy.”
“Be careful with those.” She was carrying the crock pot to the table.
I slid my phone into my pocket. “He’s a friend.”
The crock pot hit the placemat with a soft thud. Head down, my mother picked up her pace; she took the remaining spoon out of my hand and placed it in the empty bowl, adjusted the chopsticks so they were all equidistant from their respective plates. I wanted her to challenge me in some way, to voice her disbelief or, in the very least, her skepticism, but she wouldn’t give me the pleasure. I was about to lie again—“He’s the new Treasurer of Senior Council” or some other meaningless jargon—when she suddenly lifted the lid and steam ascended, the vapors at the top disappearing along with my resolve to push the matter further.
My belief, even now, is that she knew I was lying. I didn’t have many friends in high school. Besides Ethan, my ex-boyfriend, Natalie was the only person I ever talked about or brought to the house, so my mother must have had some inclination that this white boy bore a significance greater than I was letting on. But for whatever reason, my mom was the type to bury her intuition, busy herself with the task at hand to deceive people into thinking she was oblivious—lackadaisical, even—when really she was the keenest observer. It’s what made her honesty so hard to receive; her words were accusatory, sometimes hurtful, but rarely false.
My mother’s refusal of anything but the truth extended even into the imagination, so that for her, dreams were their own ugly little lies, as harmful as the ones that came out of our mouths. If life had made her think this, then by the time she had me it must have become genetic, a Lamarckian feat. In lieu of dreams she and I had expectations, and to us the two couldn’t be more different. Expectations you could work toward, be held accountable for; dreams, on the other hand, existed in that realm of possibility in which there were variables beyond our control. Expectations demanded honesty; dreams, deception.
It was for this reason that I never pursued painting as anything more than a hobby. I’d entertained the idea of going to art school, telling my father I’d go if I got into Parsons. Then midway through junior year, I decided not to apply.
“You could be the next Picasso,” my dad had said. “Ever think about that?”
“You don’t even like Picasso,” I replied.
“That’s beside the point. He’s the most famous and most prolific artist.”
I told him I didn’t want to devote my life to something people would only appreciate after I was dead. “Plus,” I added, “No one is sitting in a salon, trying to have a discussion about culture and the human condition. These days everyone is too busy fucking bitches and getting money.”
Hard lines appeared on my father’s face, etching a pained expression.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing.” I would have censored myself, but I was feeling unfocused, in a fug. The SATs were in a week, and the capricious November weather had given me a cold. I blew my nose into a tissue and said, “It’s a line from a rap song.”
I recall hardly anything from that week besides how it had passed with feverish haste. I remember flipping through flash cards and balancing equations, but I couldn’t tell you which vocabulary gave me the most trouble—torpor? ostensible?—and I can conjure the mathematical images, circles and triangles with lines through them, but it’s been so long since I’ve thought about slope and intercept, sine and cosine, that now these images contain no meaning. Hard to know what I was solving for.
What I do recall: my mother not sleeping. She did laps around the house—rearranging couch pillows, cleaning the stovetop a second time that day, peeling grapefruits—outer layer first and then the membrane—until two in the morning.
“Go to sleep,” I said to her every night. “You’re not helping.”
She would only nod impatiently as she set down a plate of artfully arranged grapefruit, pushing aside papers and books to make room.
We met up the next day at a coffee shop in Montrose. During our conversations, I would suddenly forget his name and have to spend the next minute trying to remember it. My stretches of silence went unnoticed because Collin had a lot of theories about the universe, retail, aerobic exercise, and by the time his name came back to me—CollinCollinCollin—the conversation had derailed so far from what it had been about a minute ago that I had no idea at this point what or how to contribute. This happened multiple times within two hours, and each time I entered the conversation more flustered and overwhelmed than before.
Eventually I stopped trying and realized that Collin was perfectly content talking at me, to himself. It reminded me of something my mother had told me years ago: Men aren’t looking for women to talk to—they’re looking for women who are pretty and will listen. Thirteen then, I wasn’t sure if it was a lesson on the virtue of female docility or a warning against the vices of men. Four years later I still wasn’t sure, but it no longer mattered. I began viewing what she said as evidence; proof that my mother had a past, and that men who weren’t my father were part of it.
“I’ve started meditating lately”—I had wandered off again—“and what I’ve come to understand is that everything is temporary.” He said it like it was a novel idea, like he was on the brink of something revolutionary. I scrambled to put it in context. “We’re all going to die, and really, every fear we have—no matter how big or small—is a fear of death.”
I tried to wring meaning out of the vagueness.
“True,” I said.
He exhaled loudly, blew out his cheeks, and fell back in his chair. “Want to head out? Pick up a six-pack and chill at my place, maybe watch a movie? My roommate’s out of town. We’ll have the place to ourselves.”
It occurred to me then that neither of us knew how old the other was. No one had bothered to ask. I’d assumed when we met that he was an upperclassman at a different high school. It was his face, I decided now, that had thrown me off. Clean shaven, noticeably paler than the rest of his body, red undertones and a cherubic roundness. The pimples along his jaw were like coordinates on a graph, white with ripeness, ready to burst. I had the urge to put a ruler to his skin and draw a best-fit line.
There must have been a reaction on my face, because a second later he nodded his head and asked, “How old are you, by the way?”
I lied, “Twenty-one,” and then wished I’d said twenty or twenty-two. “You?”
“I’m old,” he said. “Twenty-three. Are you in school?”
I told him I was taking some time off to figure out what I wanted to do, and he said that was smart, and then went off about the societal pressures that make you feel like you have to go to college when really, you don’t. You could just enter the real world straight out of high school and be just fine.
The beer tasted like Chinese medicine, bitter, so I drank it fast. He offered another and I said no thanks. I wanted to stay sober. I felt like it wouldn’t count otherwise.
While Collin set up the TV, I sat on the couch and thought about Ethan, who had become, in my mind, a deflated version of the real person. All qualities sucked away, leaving behind only the distorted skin of someone I used to care about. We came close to having sex many times in the three years that we were together. Every Saturday afternoon his parents taught Chinese School in an old church across town, and for those four hours we were alone. The box of condoms that we’d purchased together was probably still under his bed. I wondered if it was still unopened.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have sex; I did. But every time we were fooling around and got close, my mother’s apparition would suddenly appear. I’d open my eyes as Ethan’s hand slipped over me, and there she’d be, standing next to Ethan’s dresser, her glare neither approving nor disapproving, just a severe blankness.
Not altogether different from how she looked when, in December, I told her that Ethan and I split up.
She had said calmly, dismissively, “He can’t break up with you,” followed quickly by, “Not without a good reason.”
We were in front of the mirror in my room. I was dabbing foundation beneath my eyes to conceal redness and swelling. “I only told you because I didn’t want you to hear it from ah yi. Now that you know, feel free to talk about it with his mom all you want. Please don’t talk to me.”
“What’s his reason?”
I tossed the make-up sponge into the trashcan and shrugged. “He said he doesn’t want to go to college with commitments.”
“That’s all he said? What does that mean?” She leaned against the doorframe and folded her arms over her stomach, hands cradling sharp elbows.