In America, I was not beautiful, but in Taiwan, I was ugly. I knew it before I even set foot in Taipei. On the way from the airport, in the MRT and taxi, I saw advertisements for skin-whitening creams, double-eyelid surgery, circle contact lenses. I hadn’t known I could look like that. Growing up, it had been pointless to wish for blue eyes or blond hair, so I never did. But in Taipei, the standard for attainable beauty had shifted, and I was responsible for my ugliness.
This was made clear the night I arrived. My grandparents had arranged a welcome dinner at a large seafood restaurant with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I had not seen any of them for eight years, since I was five years old, but my parents had decided I was finally old enough to go to Taipei by myself. I was seated next to my cousin, who was two years older than me.
I had first seen her standing outside the restaurant, talking on her cell phone and checking her appearance in a compact mirror. She was thin and pale, and her lips looked stained with strawberries, like the women in the advertisements. When she walked into the private dining room my grandparents had rented, I thought her a stranger who had come in by accident. But then she was calling me “mei” and clasping my shoulders, and my grandparents were scolding her for being late.
I had wanted to hate her, but I loved her immediately, like she was something expensive that had been given to me.
“LaLa will take care of you while you’re here this summer,” Grandpa said.
“Biao-jei and biao-mei,” Grandma smiled. “Together at last.”
“But have you ever seen cousins who looked so unlike one another!” Third Aunt exclaimed.
Everyone nodded in agreement and proceeded to catalogue the ways in which LaLa and I were different.
How much whiter she was than me.
How her nose bridge was high and mine was flat.
How she was so thin, you could see the bones in her neck.
How I was so fat, it was making them hungry.
Second Uncle squeezed my arm. “What are they feeding her in America?” he asked. Everyone laughed merrily, as though LaLa and I weren’t in the room.
LaLa leaned over to me and whispered, “Maybe we should kill all of them.”
I felt so grateful to her that I wanted to kiss her.
I was to share LaLa’s bedroom at my grandparents’ apartment. She had lived with them since she was a baby, after her mother left. Her father, my mother’s younger brother Kun, had a drinking and gambling addiction, and my grandparents said he couldn’t be trusted to take care of her. When I saw him at the restaurant, I could only stare at his teeth, blackened from chewing betel nuts. As for her mother, I had no idea what she was like because everyone, including LaLa, pretended as though she had never existed.
LaLa’s bedroom didn’t seem to belong to a teenage girl. The walls were covered in dark-green felt and the wicker furniture felt both dusty and oily. A high window overlooked the metal-box patio of the neighboring apartment, strung with laundry and bright plastic buckets. As in every room of the apartment, a large crucifix was nailed above the door.
I began to unpack my things when our grandma came in holding two glasses of papaya soy milk.
It tasted nauseating, but sweet. “Why do we have to drink this?” I asked. Grandma waved her hand at this and shuffled to her bedroom.
LaLa turned to me and squeezed her breasts underneath her nightdress.
“To make them grow,” she whispered.
She taught me how to perform what she called her nightly exercises. We rubbed the space between our armpits and breasts—that soft ripple of skin—until it ached, then lay on our backs on the bed and shot our legs up towards the ceiling until they turned numb.
“So fat doesn’t drain down your legs and get stuck there,” LaLa explained.
Then we ran our index fingers and thumbs down our noses, ending with a hard pinch at the tip. Afterwards, it looked as though we had been sneezing all night.
“How long have you been doing this?” I wanted to know.
LaLa cocked her head. “Since I was ten.”
I felt resentful that I had not started sooner. Perhaps I would have looked like LaLa, too, if I had known the body was a moldable thing.
In the daytime, LaLa took me to Ximending or the crowded Fuxing boulevards. We wandered past glassy buildings stamped with mismatched signs, down narrow alleys where we poked at rows of clothes, phone accessories, cheap jewelry. I couldn’t buy any of the clothes because there were only two sizes available: S and M.
In the evenings we went to night markets and ate chewy green onion pancakes and oyster noodles swimming in gluey sauce. For dessert, there was brown sugar boba tea swinging in plastic bags. The air was fat with smoke and the stink of fermented tofu. Underneath the long strips of vertical lights, we spit on napkins to wipe the stickiness from our fingers, and linked our arms.
I liked looking at LaLa. The way she walked, as if she hated touching the ground. The way she closed her eyes whenever she bit into something. She never drank anything with ice because she said it gave women period cramps. If she ate a greasy meal during the day, she would only consume boiled water at night. When the sun was out, she always carried an umbrella lined with UV protectant.
In a store near our grandparents’ apartment, we browsed fat-burning lotions, masks that stained your lips pink, and massagers that claimed to shrink your face. I realized, again, that in Taiwan, being beautiful was a choice.
Each night, before we fell asleep, the two of us lay in bed and stared at the ceiling as we talked. LaLa asked me about my life back home. I told her my American friends were cruel to me, that they made me do things like steal the teacher’s test answers and show my breasts to a boy in the bathroom. That once, they had locked me in a classroom overnight.
None of this was true. At school, the boys were afraid of me and the girls ignored me. I had only one friend, Minnie, who was a grade below me and did almost anything I said. I often made her cry, just to see if I could. Sometimes I hated her for still wanting to be friends with me. Just before summer break started, I hit a boy in the face after he said something disgusting and untrue about me and Minnie.
I didn’t tell any of this to LaLa. I liked it when she turned to me with wide eyes and asked, “Zhen hai jia?” as though she could not comprehend the cruelty of my classmates. I liked it when she said she hoped they would die—that if she were there, she would make sure they never harmed me again. She even made me write down their names on a sheet of paper. No one had ever cared that much about me. I didn’t know how to tell her how I felt, besides squeezing her hand across the bed.
When I asked LaLa about her friends, she said very little. She let me fill the dark-green felt room with my life, and kept her own packed away somewhere inside her.
My grandparents owned a chain of dumpling shops across Taipei, the original one located in the skinny alley just below their apartment. We went there when LaLa and I grew restless indoors and were unwilling to bear the humid heat outside, which felt like wading through wet air. LaLa liked coming to the dumpling shop for the constant air conditioning and because, away from our grandparents’ nagging, she could watch the TV shows they wouldn’t allow.
The shop was a small, narrow space with scratched tables along both walls, empty but for an outdated calendar: Year of the Tiger. The dumplings were fried at the entrance on a flat metal surface. From a corner of the ceiling, a small TV aired a soap opera set in the Ming dynasty. The women on the show always wore blue eyeshadow.
At the rear of the shop was a bedroom where the manager, who had worked for my grandparents for as long as LaLa could remember, lived with his wife. I was introduced to them the way we were introduced to all adults: “ShuShu” for men and “Ayi” for women. I never knew their real names. ShuShu was a silent, evil-looking man with long eyebrow hairs; Ayi was chubby and seemed vaguely stupid, which aggravated me right away.
Between lunch and dinner, when the shop had only a few customers, Ayi offered to teach me how to make dumplings, but LaLa said she could show me herself. While Ayi watched, LaLa dipped a finger into a bowl of water and traced it around the circumference of the dough. Then she dropped a bundle of pork and cabbage into the middle. Her fingers looped the dough into gentle folds, pinching lightly each time until eight pleats were gathered together into a fan.
I liked that LaLa was good at making dumplings, and that I failed at it, all my attempts lopsided or stretched too thin. As with other little incidents, it confirmed that there was no point in comparing myself to her. This let me love her, I believed, selflessly.
When Ayi went to get more dough more from the kitchen, LaLa asked if I noticed her carrot legs—luobo tui.
“Carrot legs! When legs look like carrots.” She looked at me impatiently. That sometimes happened, when certain phrases went missing from my Mandarin, and LaLa would stare at me as if she had only just remembered that we were different in some ways, and always would be.
Later, upstairs at our grandparents’, she yanked a daikon radish from the refrigerator and waved it around. She took out another one and placed both of them in front of her calves.
“White carrots. See?”
I had only recently discovered the stocky-looking vegetable in Taiwan. Our grandma cooked it in a cloudy soup with pork bones until the daikon turned translucent, with white streaks running from its center. I could tell from LaLa’s tone that having carrot legs was undesirable.
“Do I have carrot legs?” I asked.
LaLa studied my legs carefully.
“No,” she said at last, “they are healthy legs. American girls all play sports, don’t they?”
“Yes,” I lied.
LaLa’s legs were straight and thin. I wondered if there was a vegetable equivalent for legs like hers.
The next time we went to the dumpling shop, I reminded myself to look at Ayi’s legs. I couldn’t see them at first, because she was either sitting down or abruptly appearing next to me to ask if I needed anything. Up close, I noticed her eyes were deep-set, her mouth a pink peony pucker, her cheeks high and round with a soft sheen of sweat. It came as a sudden shock that she had attractive features. I didn’t think Ayi had the right to a pretty face.
When she went outside to empty buckets of water, I finally saw that she was bow-legged, her legs like two parentheses hugging each other. Her thigh met her calf without transition, and a set of pale indentations were the only indicators that she had knees. I had never seen legs like that before, but I would begin to notice them everywhere in Taipei.
“I see her carrot legs now,” I whispered to LaLa.
“Don’t they make you angry?”
When I stared at Ayi’s backside, it’s true I felt an intense desire to bite her thick legs. Or to dice them up smoothly into perfectly even pieces.
“Yes,” I said. “They make me feel, zenme shuo, violent.” I didn’t know how else to say in Mandarin what I meant.
When Ayi wasn’t looking, we would take turns pretending to bite her legs by tilting our heads sideways and splitting our faces open. Or we would mime sawing them off with a large knife, our hands horizontal and clawed. We joked about Ayi in front of her and ShuShu, even when customers were present.
“What do you think legs taste like?” one of us would ask.
“Carrots!” the other would respond loudly.
“What kind of carrots?”
“White ones, of course!”
Ayi said we were funny girls, and smiled her peony pucker smile.
Later we started a new game: how to best kill Ayi so we could chop off her carrot legs and cook them. We discussed our ideas on the shady playground near the apartment, or at the 7-11, where we were drawn by the cold bottles of Yang-Le-Duo.
LaLa said that when Ayi went to the morning market, we could kick her in the carrot leg shins and drag her away. I suggested that when she went to the kitchen, we could lasso her from the back door and tug her into the alleyway.
But how to cook the legs? we wondered. What was the recipe?
The next time our grandma prepared her cloudy soup, LaLa leaned over her, wearing her favorite matching baby blue shorts and halter top, her long hair snatched up in a high ponytail.
“How much salt? What temperature? And for how long?” She pretended to take careful notes in her Doraemon notebook while our grandma demonstrated each step.
“Ai-ya, pay attention!” she would yell when she caught LaLa making pig faces at me.
Cooking Ayi’s legs was not the difficult part, though. It was how to chop her up without getting blood everywhere.
“I know what we have to do!” LaLa said one afternoon. “We need to get her in a bathtub.”
“Yes,” I said, picturing her naked. “She probably has giant cantaloupe breasts.”
“With dark hairy nipples,” LaLa confirmed. “She must have sour-smelling feet from standing in that sweaty little shop all day.”
“And old lady underwear! The kind that go up to your belly button.” I had seen them strung up on the back patio of the shop, faded and frilly as old-fashioned curtains. We were both quiet for a moment, the image of Ayi naked floating in our minds.
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then we pour in boiling water, add the pork bones and salt and cook her in the bathtub! Less messy and more efficient.”
When she said this, I realized my mouth was watering, as if secreting grandma’s soup. I swallowed and agreed it was by far the best plan we had come up with.
That night, I had just fallen asleep when I felt something wet against my leg. I saw LaLa’s pale little teeth flash above my calf.
“What does it taste like?” I asked sleepily.
She pulled her mouth away, releasing a soft popping sound.
“White carrots!” She cupped my calf in her hand. “Try it yourself.”
I brought my lips to my calf and licked. I thought, only for a second, that I could taste the faint bitterness of daikon radish.
LaLa laughed. “Have you ever noticed that calves feel like little breasts?”
I lifted up my leg, the flesh swaying gently, when LaLa began kneading it with surprising strength.
“Do you think ShuShu bites Ayi’s legs?” I asked.
“Maybe he gets excited by carrots. Maybe that’s why he married her!”
“When they have sex, he probably has to rub his penis on her legs first.”
LaLa laughed so loudly at this, we heard our grandfather smack his palm against the wall from across the hall. She covered her mouth and pinched my ankle until it hurt.
After LaLa fell asleep, one arm thrown carelessly across my stomach, I realized that back home, someone like her would have not have acknowledged me, much less touched me. I considered how lucky I was that she was mine and I was hers, by something as simple and illogical as blood.
LaLa’s year-round school started again in August. It was in Banqiao, over an hour away on the MRT. After classes began, she would leave early in the morning and return at eight or nine at night. Whenever I asked if she wanted to go to a night market or watch TV, she always said she was too tired. She fell asleep earlier, too, and we no longer talked every night.
I had a difficult time imagining her life away from me—with teachers, classmates, friends whom she had never brought up before. I resented them anyway.
My grandparents didn’t want me to wander around Taipei by myself, so I passed the time helping out at the dumpling shop. With LaLa gone, Ayi seemed to take it upon herself to fill up the space left by her absence. She asked me what my father did for a living, if I had a good relationship with my mother, if I had a boyfriend. When I didn’t give up much information, she would continue chatting, as though she had been talking to herself all along.
Ayi would sit close to me as I traced the dough with water, then passed it to her to be sealed into a neat pouch. I was acutely aware of her presence, her smell a mixture of sweat and something that reminded me of a bitter medicine. On the rare occasion LaLa came to the dumpling shop, Ayi would suddenly fall quiet, though still cheerful and smiling, and we would resume our habitual positions, with LaLa sitting on my right.
My cousin didn’t speak to Ayi unless she was ordering her to bring us something to drink, as if Ayi worked for her and not our grandparents. I didn’t understand why, but watching Ayi obey LaLa gave me a sweet, sticky pleasure.
LaLa had been back at school for a few weeks when Ayi invited me to tea. It was after dinner and LaLa had not come home that evening. In fact, I had not seen her for several days. My grandma said she was sleeping at her father’s place more often because he lived closer to her school.
I was reluctant to accept Ayi’s invitation, but my grandma insisted I go. She made me bring a box of sun cakes—my favorite—flaky and filled with a sugary paste in the middle. I wondered if Ayi needed a whole box for herself, and thought of giving her only a single cake and keeping the rest for myself and LaLa.
Without the chatter of customers and the blaring of soap operas, the shop seemed almost lonely. ShuShu slept in a chair with his back to the wall, his eyes crimped tightly shut, as if he were angry even in sleep.
I had never been inside their bedroom. It didn’t have its own door, just wooden beads that spilled down from the doorframe. The room was larger than I had imagined, with a bed shoved against the right wall and a sagging, plastic-covered sofa directly at the foot of the bed. In front of that was a coffee table, also covered in a plastic. Everything was painted in a harsh fluorescent light.
When Ayi saw me carrying the sun cakes, she exclaimed I was “hao guai,” an expression I hated because it made me think of people talking to their dogs. She set the cakes on a tray and poured us two cups of jasmine tea. While I listened and nodded, she talked to me about ShuShu’s back problems, about their obnoxious next door neighbor.
I was playing with a cake wrapper when Ayi’s voice seemed to change to something more careful.
“Do you know how happy I am you came this summer?”
I smiled and drank my tea, trying not to look at Ayi’s bare legs.
“I’ve been meaning to show you something,” she said.
She reached for a leather album underneath the coffee table and turned to a photo of five young girls standing solemnly in a row, all wearing white dresses.
Ayi pointed to the girl farthest on the left. “That’s your mother.” She slid her finger to the girl beside her. “And that’s me.”
I squinted at the faded photo, trying to recognize my mother’s face. In the photo, she had short hair that curled inwards at the ends.
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t like that Ayi had a connection to my mother, to myself, that I hadn’t known about. “Are you sure this is my mother?”
“Yes! We went to the same church in Taipei,” she explained. Then she pointed at the girl whose long hair was woven into two braids.
“Do you know who that is?” she asked.
“LaLa’s mother.” It was hard to tell if they looked alike, though they were both tall and thin. I had always assumed that LaLa inherited all her looks from her mother, since my uncle Kun was so ugly. I thought back to his pockmarked face and blackened teeth.
“LaLa doesn’t look anything like her father,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
Ayi laughed and poured us more tea. Her laugh came out like hiccups.
“Well, of course she doesn’t!”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you don’t know?” She looked very happy, almost ecstatic. “Your uncle Kun and LaLa’s mother were childhood sweethearts. But when she was sixteen, she became pregnant with her high school teacher’s baby. The whole neighborhood knew. Everyone called her bad names. But Kun still loved her.”
She took a small sip of her tea.
“After the baby was born, Lala’s mother disappeared, and Kun suddenly had a baby in his care. A beautiful little girl. No one spoke about the arrangements, of course. But everyone understood. Your grandparents were angry at first, but they learned to love LaLa like she was their own. Thank goodness they are Catholic or she might have been left on the streets.” She sounded out of breath.
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve worked for your grandparents for many years. I hear all kinds of things.”
When I was silent, Ayi asked eagerly, “Didn’t your mother tell you?”
“No.” I ate another sun cake, now dry and tasteless on my tongue. “So I’m not really related to LaLa?”
“Not by blood, but by family, of course. You’ll always be cousins, biao-mei and biao-jei.”
I drank all of my tea in one gulp to wash away the cloying denseness caught in my throat. I stood up abruptly. I didn’t care if I was being rude.
“I have to go,” I announced. “Wan an.”
Ayi kept her head down and started cutting up an orange into quarters.
That night, I dreamt I was being cooked into a soup. An enormous pair of hands washed me under a faucet, patted me dry on a paper towel, then spread me out on a wooden cutting board. Each whack of the knife sent a pleasant friction through me, as though someone were touching me between my legs.
When I saw LaLa a week later, she brought a foreign smell with her: a blend of cigarettes, fried food, and a new, painfully sweet perfume. During dinner, she was more talkative than usual. I was impatient, waiting for her to finish eating so that we could go to our bedroom and I could tell her about Ayi. I had even rehearsed it, how I would describe the sad little room, the plastic-covered sofa. How we would laugh together at Ayi’s pathetic behavior. I felt sure Ayi had only told me that made-up story so I would feel distanced from LaLa. I could feel Ayi trying to pry her way into me each time she called me “hao guai.”
After her shower, LaLa came into the room and closed the door. She was not shy about being naked in front of me, and took the towel off her body to dry her hair with it. Her nipples were peach-pink, unlike mine, which were dark brown. I didn’t want her to know this, so I always changed facing the wall.
Instead of her nightgown, LaLa put on the same clothes, which I found strange. I thought she was coming toward the bed to hug me, and my arms lifted slightly. But she launched herself on the mattress and twisted around.
“Mei! I have so much to tell you. I have a boyfriend now,” she said and pressed a pillow to her chest. “He drives a motorcycle! His name is Nianzhu.”
“Oh,” I said. Disappointment suctioned the bottom of my stomach. I made myself say, “That’s so great!”
I hugged her and breathed in her soapy smell, familiar again after her shower. “How old is he?”
LaLa pulled away, flipped her long hair over and began untangling it with a comb.
“I know you’re going to like him, mei.”
“That’s so great,” I said again.
I was trying to figure out how to introduce the topic of Ayi. Before, LaLa used to poke me in the stomach and ask when we were going to murder Ayi for her ripe fatty legs, but she hadn’t for many days.
“I have news, too,” I tried.
“Tell me!” LaLa said through the wet sheet of her hair.
“Carrot legs Ayi has been telling lies.”
“Zhen hai jia?”
“It’s true. She told me something about your mother. She told me that she—”
“Shut up,” LaLa snapped. “What does that stupid woman know about my mother?”
I had never heard LaLa speak like that before. For a few seconds, she seemed like a different person. Maybe Ayi wasn’t lying after all.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Two short honks disrupted the quiet of the room. LaLa leapt up and looked through the window from her tiptoes. I saw her wave to someone.
“I’ll be back later.” Her tone was light again.
She looked herself over in the mirror, smudged on lip gloss, then stepped out the door. After a moment, I went into the living room, nervous that my grandparents could hear the heavy front door close. In the darkened room, lit only by the glowing blue fish tank in the corner, I stood still and listened to the ripping sound of Nianzhu’s motorcycle turning out of the alleyway.
It was four in the morning when LaLa returned. As she slid into bed beside me, I pretended to wake up and yawn.
“Jei? Is that you?”
“Yes. Go to back to sleep.”
“I’m not tired. Where did you go?”
“A love hotel.”
“Oh, right.” I felt, irrationally, like LaLa had gone somewhere she had always promised to take me. I made my voice nonchalant. “So what did you guys do?”
“I licked him. And he licked me,” she giggled.
“What does it feel like?”
She thought for a moment and sighed, “Like melting. He eats me like I’m ice cream.”
After a while, I heard LaLa’s breathing even out. She lay sleeping with her eyes closed and a slight smile resting on her lips. Although I tried to resist the image, I saw Nianzhu lapping at her pink nipples, his mouth drinking greedily from between her legs. I faced away from her and quickly masturbated.
I didn’t see her again for a long time. The next time I did, LaLa promised me that on the following Thursday—the day of my flight home—she would skip school and we would spend the whole day together like we used to.
“Wait for me at the dumpling shop. I’ll come in the morning,” she said.
“Okay. Bring your knife!”
She looked at me blankly.
“You know? To make the soup,” and I mimed slicing off my legs. She laughed but her head was turned away.
On Thursday morning, I got up early, packed all my belongings, and dragged my suitcase to the front door. My flight wasn’t until late that night. I unwrapped and wrapped LaLa’s present again: a small ceramic daikon radish, with a watery wash of green paint and real straw sticking out of the top. Inside the gift box, I had added blank paper and addressed envelopes so we could write each other letters.
At eight in the morning, I went downstairs to the dumpling shop. Ayi kept lingering near me, which immediately made me feel both annoyed and needy for more attention. I put on my headphones and tried not to keep glancing up at the customers walking in. By noon, I had folded a hundred lopsided dumplings and LaLa still had not appeared.
“Where’s LaLa?” Ayi asked me, her voice sweet.
When I didn’t answer, she brought me a red bean popsicle. I bit through it with my front teeth and was glad for the cold ache.
“Don’t worry,” Ayi said. “She’ll come. She has to come!”
“I’m not worried. Something bad probably happened to her. Did you know her boyfriend drives a motorcycle?”
Ayi didn’t say anything, just picked up my tray of misshapen dumplings and brought them to ShuShu to fry. As she walked away, an unreasoned anger overcame me. I hated her pale skin, her mouth, her thick carrot legs. The image of a large cleaver slicing cleanly through her flashed across my mind.
I continued making dumplings, hundreds more, as if in a stupor. Several of them had rips in the side, the uncooked pork like a wink in a face.
It was dark when I looked up again. The dinner crowd had left. Ayi brought me a plate of freshly fried dumplings and a small dish of black vinegar. She sat down across from me and urged me to eat.
Suddenly starving, I shoved a dumpling into my mouth, savoring the conflicting texture of crispy and silky skin. Then I felt upset that I liked them so much, and pushed the plate towards her.
“Actually, I hate dumplings.”
Ayi walked away. I heard the beads on the bedroom door clicking softly against each other.
At some point I fell asleep at the table. When I woke, all the lights in the opposite apartments had been turned off. Even the next-door neighbor’s dog was silent. It was midnight, and the alleyway was empty.
I felt panicked when I realized Ayi was gone. I didn’t even care that I had missed my flight.
“Ayi?” I called.
Shu Shu was sleeping against the wall in a chair, frown firmly in place, arms crossed. Two empty green bottles of Taiwan Beer stood by his feet.
I got up and went to their bedroom, flicked on the fluorescent light. I opened and closed the dresser drawers, then did the same with the nightstand, finding only hair ties and a nail clipper. I didn’t know what I was searching for. I didn’t care if anyone caught me. I lay down on the bed and squeezed my eyes, trying not to cry.
I heard someone come into the room. “Mei-mei? What’s wrong?”
I thought Ayi would scold me, but she only sat down heavily beside me. She clutched a plastic bag of apples. Her voice sounded very tired and I realized, for the first time, that behind her constant smile she must have been unhappy.
Ayi handed me a tissue. “Your jei-jei still loves you.”
“No. We’re not sisters.” We called each other mei and jei, but those words had been emptied of all meaning now. “Why did you tell me that we’re not related?” I cried.
“I don’t know. Duibuqi.” Ayi twisted the bag around her wrist. “Do you want a sun cake?” she asked. “How about some milk tea?”
I shook my head. I was crying even harder now, the sounds coming out of me embarrassing. Ayi looked a little frightened.
“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.
I couldn’t look her in the face. Her white T-shirt had puffy sleeves and a picture of a cartoon rabbit. I thought back to when LaLa and I sat cross-legged on our bed, talking late into the night about Ayi’s body and what we wanted to do to it. As if it belonged to us instead of her.
“Let me see your nipples,” I whispered. “Please.”
At first she didn’t move. Then she lifted up her shirt and unhooked her bra. She kept her face hidden behind her shirt, pulled tight like a screen.
LaLa and I had been wrong; her nipples weren’t large and brown, but flat and pink. They were beautiful breasts. I pushed my face into them, inhaling the warm scent of Ayi’s skin, my tears and snot sliding against her. Ayi patted my hair and said, “It doesn’t matter. Meiguanxi.”
After a while, she extracted me from her chest and told me to wait. I heard her walk into the bathroom and turn on the water. She came back out and said, “Hao ba, get up now.”
She knelt in front of me and undressed me like a child. First my shirt and my shorts, then my socks and underwear. She took my hand and led me to the small bathroom. The water looked faintly green. Gripping my arm, Ayi helped me slip into the bathtub, where I spread out my legs until my feet lay flat against the tiled wall. Steam rose in spirals from the water’s surface. I could smell my grandma’s daikon soup, cooked for hours with pork bones. I cupped my hands, lifted them to my lips, and drank.