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.

Plans tomorrow?

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.

I grabbed my backpack off the bed and imagined my mother falling off a bridge. “Do I have to spell things out for you?”

“Yes,” she said. “Spell it out. Did something happen?”

“Why don’t you ask ah yi. She knows her son better than I do.”

“I’m asking you.”

I threw my bag over my shoulder. “You’re being vexatious. I’m going to be late for school.”

It was a trick I had learned long ago: English. My mother was afraid of words she didn’t know.

She didn’t respond, just stared at me like I was an everyday object slightly off kilter. A slanted telephone pole. A chipped mug.

 

Collin made popcorn and put on a sci-fi movie. I hated sci-fi, and he apparently wasn’t a big fan either. He fell asleep in the first ten minutes.

I kept checking my phone for texts and missed calls. I’d told my mom I would be at Natalie’s working on a biology project, and that I wouldn’t be home until midnight or later. Still, it was 11 p.m. on a Sunday and I had school tomorrow. I was surprised she didn’t want to make sure I was where I said I’d be, doing what I said I’d be doing.

Lately she’d been acting unlike herself. Twice that week, we ate dinner at eight instead of seven because she forgot to push the button to start the rice cooker. A couple weeks earlier, my dad came home to an unmade bed and panicked, thinking someone had broken in because my mom hadn’t left a bed unmade since before they were married. She had started humming Chinese folk songs to herself with an expressiveness that I’d never heard from her before.

“Your mother used to sing like this all the time,” my dad said. We were taking a break from our books to watch her pin damp shirts onto the clothesline in the backyard. She had made the line herself, tying a thin, sturdy rope from one tree to another. “She’s singing Jasmine Flower now. It’s very famous in China. Everyone knows it.”

Without any announcement, a relaxed atmosphere had settled in our home; books lay splayed out on armrests, revealing where me and my father had been, and my mother—whom I had never known to tolerate a mess, no matter how small—would walk right past, undisturbed. She no longer pestered us about separating our socks from our underwear in the wash, or got upset when we used the counter rag to do the floor rag’s job and vice versa. She left dirty dishes in the sink overnight.

“To soak,” she said, which was the excuse I liked to use.

One night I asked my father if he thought her behavior was odd.

“Your mother’s just happy that you’ve committed to a decent school,” he said. “She knows how hard you’ve worked.”

My immediate thought was that my father must be a stupid man. How could he still be this clueless, after all these years married to my mother? It didn’t take long for my upset to dissolve into admiration, the kind born from pity. My father loved my mother, which made it only a little sad that he might never understand her.

 

An explosion in the movie jolted Collin out of his slumber. His upper body tore away from the couch cushion, the sudden momentum causing his head to lurch forward.

“How long was I out for?” He ran his hands through his hair as he leaned slowly into the couch again.

“Half an hour,” I said.

He cleared his throat and stood up. “Sorry about that. What’s happening in the movie now?”

I looked at the screen. Two men in shiny black masks were hiding behind a wide pillar. They were both holding guns.

“I think that one guy from the beginning got shot by another guy,” I said.

He came back from the kitchen with two bottled waters and handed one to me. “I’m sad I missed that.”

We drank in silence for some minutes. His eyes stayed on the TV. I pushed the home button on my phone.

“Your boyfriend message you?” Collin set his half-empty bottle on the table next to mine.

I looked up from my phone and gave him a tight-lipped smile. “Don’t have one of those.”

And then, in what my mother would have called an exercise in propriety, I did what I figured was the only correct thing to do in this situation. I swept the hair away from my neck and swung my leg around. Straddled on top of him, I put my arms around his neck—taking my time, left first then right—and pulled myself closer.

We started kissing. Our rhythms were off. He liked to use a lot of tongue and I didn’t, but I was able to adjust, wiggling my tongue in his mouth in a way that I thought he might like. We moved to the bedroom. He bit my neck and touched me in places I felt most self-conscious about: my fleshy hips, my flat chest.

After things ended with Ethan, I stopped eating and lost twelve pounds in a month. There was no noble asceticism at play, no attempt to make a statement. It was a simple loss of appetite. Without much weight to lose in the first place, my head had started looking disproportionately large. My hair became thin, fraying at the ends, and began falling out.

“Jia, you have to eat,” my mother had said, standing over my bed with a bowl of tofu egg drop soup, extra seaweed, only for me to coil into a fetal position and face the other way.

Despite my mother’s reassurance that I looked the same as before, I still thought the weight had redistributed funny. My appetite returned eventually, ravenously, and I regained all of what I had lost but to different places. So as Collin ran his hands along my body, exploring its textures, dips, and folds, I felt like I was the one learning a new landscape.

There was only a beat of hesitation. I was afraid it would be painful, and as my underwear brushed against my legs, stopping at my ankles in a tangle of lace, I thought, I’ll have more chances before college. No rush. But as he fumbled with the condom, his very-pink penis erect and resolute, I wondered what might happen if I backed out now.

I scanned the room for my mother, expecting to meet her harsh, indifferent stare. I couldn’t find her.

During it I kept forgetting his name. Corey? Cade? It wouldn’t stick for some reason, so between breathy, exaggerated moans, I shouted “Baby!” to be safe. He was on top for the duration. Every time he tried to change positions, I wrapped my legs tighter around his waist. When it was over I checked for blood.

He crawled into bed next to me wearing only his boxers.

“That was great,” he said.

The only visible liquid was translucent, gray spots on a white bed sheet. The sex had not been enjoyable, but it was also not painful at all. I was still a little wet.

I remembered his name. Collin. Col-lin. “I actually have to go,” I said to him.

“Why? You’re totally welcome to stay here.”

Already he was making the decision for me, pulling the covers over my naked body and putting his heavy arm around my shoulder so that we lay spooning. Just as he started pressing his nose to the back of my neck, I heard my phone ring from the living room.

“I have to get that,” I said, and before he could say anything, I threw the covers aside and ran to the couch, dancing over the cold tiles on the balls of my feet.

My phone was sliding off a white canvas pillow when I picked it up.

“Ma,” I said, out of breath.

“What are you doing, running a marathon?”

I put my hand over the speaker and took a sharp inhale, exhaling out my mouth. Hearing my mother’s voice gave me sudden clarity of my surroundings. Little details came into focus: the water rings on the table, a California-shaped stain on the pillow where my phone had been sitting. Above the TV, held in place by thumb tacks, was a horizontal banner that I hadn’t bothered to read until now: PASSION IS PROGRESSION, in black italicized letters. Stacks of DVDs on the windowsill. An orange paper lantern hanging from the ceiling, the Chinese symbol for love painted on it.

It was a depressing apartment, and yet profound giddiness came over me as I soaked in the high definition, inane ugliness.

“It’s past midnight. Is the project almost done?”

“Yes, we’re done. I’m coming home soon.” At that moment, the clarity turned inward, and I became acutely aware of my nakedness. “Why are you awake?” I asked.

“Bathroom. I’m going back to sleep now. You have your key?”

“I have it.”

“Okay, then. Good night, Jia.”

Back in Collin’s room, I dressed quietly. He was sleeping sideways in the other direction, as though he’d found someone else to spoon in my absence. I got as far as my right sock before he stirred and turned to face me.

“My mom wants me home,” I said in a neutral voice, twisting the sock so the heel pouch aligned correctly.

He yawned and stretched his arm out behind him. “I get it.” He folded a pillow in half and laid his head on it. “Are you close with her?”

“Who?”

“Your mom.”

“Not really,” I said. “I just do whatever she says.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” It came out sounding bitter, but I hadn’t meant it to.

I stood from the bed and tried to flatten the creases in my shirt.

“I think it’s cool that you and your mom are tight like that,” he said. His eyelids were heavy with the lethargy that, I would learn later, was common for guys after sex.

He’d misunderstood me, but he spoke with distinct tenderness, a note of longing. He was silly and ridiculous—the whole night had been silly and ridiculous—but he wasn’t indecent. If I had asked him to stop earlier, I think he would have.

“I’ll text you in the morning?” he said mid-yawn.

“I look forward to it,” I replied. I avoided his gaze as I walked out of his room into the living room to gather my things.

 

My parents always left the front porch light on for me when I came home late, and that night was no different. I walked up the driveway, comforted by the sight of my house. It wasn’t anything special, the one-story I had grown up in, but the stillness of it juxtaposed with the small movements of our oak tree—leaves and branches swaying to create shadows that danced on red brick—gave it an impressive quality.

All the lights were off inside. I left my sandals on the shoe rack and thought about whether or not I should put slippers on. My mother insisted on it, not wanting our feet to track dirt into our rooms, onto our beds, but the plastic shoes made a pat-pit-pat sound as they dragged across wood, and I wasn’t in the mood for noise.

I walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge.

“Hungry?”

The fridge still open, I twisted my neck around to see my mother.

“You startled me,” I said.

“Sorry. Are you hungry?”

“No.”

The fridge was packed. Two plates of pork dumplings sealed in saran wrap and a container filled with my dad’s barbecued chicken legs. I could also make something, the fridge freshly stocked with whole wheat and white bread, carrots, bok choi, shredded cheese, three kinds of mushrooms, tofu, green onion, sliced ham and turkey, eggs. But I really wasn’t hungry. Sometimes it was just nice knowing your options.

“Ethan called while you were out,” my mother said, opening the door to the backyard.

“What did he want?” I had blocked his number months ago. “Where are you going?”

“To sit for a few minutes. I can’t sleep.”

She left the door open, an invitation for me to join her. Outside the air was surprisingly dry by Houston’s standards, and cool. We sat in woven lawn chairs. A breeze ran its fingers through the leaves on our pear and fig trees. The baby hairs around my mother’s face went flying while the rest stayed confined in a clip.

“What did he want?” I asked again.

“He said he tried to call you, but the call wouldn’t go through.”

“What else did he say?” I hugged my knees to my chest and sank further into the strips of plastic.

“He said he wants to talk to you, and would like for you to call him back.” She paused, and then said with ease, “I told him to stop calling us.”

I faced her. She stayed looking forward. My mom didn’t believe in sentimental moments; she preferred to let emotions slip away unidentified. I never would find out what Ethan’s call was about. I was curious, but I couldn’t backpedal on my mother’s sternness. I could hear the absolution in her voice when she spoke to Ethan on the phone, and it seemed right that my mother would be the one to end things. I’m sure Ethan got the same sense of finality. He would never call again.

Coyotes howled in the distance, a cacophony of different volumes. After the noise died down my mother shifted in her seat.

“Can I ask you something?”

I waited.

“Did you want to go to art school?”

I had thought she was going to ask about Ethan. “No,” I said. “I mean, not really, not seriously. There are other things I’d like to do more.”

“Your dad thinks if I hadn’t pressured you so much, then maybe you would have applied to Parsons.”

I laughed, too loud for this time of night. Birds flew from a tree in our neighbor’s yard. I watched their silhouettes cut across the moon.

“What does dad know,” I said.

The statement proved satisfactory. We leaned back in our chairs. A minute passed, then another. In our silence, the once serene chirping of crickets turned urgent and foreboding, tiny screams for help.

“In college,” my mother said at last, “you will find another nice Chinese boy, one who will treat you right.”

And just like that, we were talking about Ethan again.

“Why does he have to be Chinese?”

“Easier that way. Look, it’s always been easy for me and your dad.”

In the years that followed, it would become an obsession of mine. Revisiting this moment and thinking of all the ways I could have—should have—countered her argument.

“Good for you guys,” was all I said then.

She put one knee up and began massaging her foot. “Now that you’re going to college, your father and I are thinking about moving back to China.”

This news, though it couldn’t have been prefaced worse, was not a surprise. I almost expected it, even though I hadn’t known it was coming.

“Of course, we will visit and you will visit. You don’t have to worry.”

“I’m not worried,” I said.

“Good.” She put her foot down and squinted at the far left corner of the yard, as though she had seen something. She sighed and her eyes returned to normal. She asked, “How was your night?”

There was something in the way she said it—her tone; amused, condescending—that made me think she knew. At school the next day, I would spill to Natalie the details of losing my virginity. I would tell her that my mother somehow knew, and Natalie would tell me that as usual I was being paranoid. How could she have known? It was impossible. And yet, sitting next to her outside, both of us waiting for fatigue, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my mother had been there the whole time, in that room in that ugly apartment with that dull man, hidden so I couldn’t find her.

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