Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series
Four-year-old Mailin was drawing a picture on the wall of her grandmother’s guest room. First, she drew a profile. It was a man’s face. Then she drew his legs. She skipped the body because that moment she forgot that men had bodies – chests, torsos, bellies and all. She drew a hat to cover the head. She drew a princess in a ballgown—the bride. She drew a kid with a balloon in his hand. She drew a bowl of peaches. Then she drew the apartment complex. Bricks because she was told that wooden houses burn quickly. Stairs because she had never lived in a place with more than one floor.
She used a ballpoint pen and the lines were shaky. She knew she was violating the clean white wall, that her grandmother would discover her soon, see her for the criminal she was.
Footsteps started down the hall. They rang, they thudded, a slow pulse. Her wrists went limp. She wanted to keep drawing the place they could all live in together. One that fit a family. Freaks, sure, with no torsos or bellies or chests. But these freaks had legs and nice shoes. These freaks had a three-story apartment made of bricks and ballpoint ink.
The door clicked open. She had it coming. Her grandmother scanned the walls. Her eyes rolled over the bride, and the kid, and the man with a hat but no body. The walls harbored wishes she could not grant.
Mailin knew she’d be punished. She closed her eyes, waited for the whip of her grandmother’s hand across her face. She thought of the house she lived in with her parents in the city—how the three of them slept together on the floor of the living room, how on the weekends they would gather in the front yard with tiny bowls of fruit and she could hear the laughter over the wall between her family and the next door neighbors. She took a bus to school every day with Susu, the girl who lived beyond that wall. She wished they could all live together in the countryside, they could all drink from the same freshwater well and breathe air as sweet as this, as sweet as the air here, on this porch in Xianning, taste peaches as ripe as the peaches here, the peaches in her drawing, so plump her lines could barely contain them. She closed her eyes and breathed in. Suddenly her drawing dwarfed her tininess. The apartment she drew was big enough to fit her whole body inside.
“Why did you do this?” her grandmother asked slowly, but the next moment, her face softened. “What is this? Why doesn’t this man have a body?”
Mailin answered, “He lost it in an accident. He doesn’t have one.”
Decades later, Mailin returned to Xianning. A bowl of peaches was set beside the gilded picture of her grandmother. Mailin lit incense and thought of the bodiless man in the bowler hat. He would have been directly in front of the bed where her grandmother had died. She wondered if when her grandmother was bedridden, the drawing of the man disturbed her. She imagined her grandmother’s envy. It would be a marvel to rid oneself of a body. Mailin learned this from her mother, who once told her, if I were my mother, I’d love to be dead. Unmoving, in a bed—what kind of life is that? It is no life.
In the future, Mailin would meet a lot of men without bodies. No torsos, no chests, no bellies, just eyes that gazed at her, craved her, carved her into something unnatural, something ugly and immortal. Mailin chased this version of herself in the mirrors. The body always deformed, resembling not a peach, but a stalk—inedible and tough. She loved and despised the weight of the bodies she didn’t know: the torsos, the ribs, the stray hairs above the stomach.
Her grandmother once warned her mother to marry a nearsighted man, for his eyes would not stretch far. He’d keep his peripheral vision inside, the apartment as far as his eyes could look. But Mailin could not imagine a future like that. She had long left the city with the wall between her and SuSu. She had long left California with the date palm and the tiny yard. She had long left the ballpoint apartment complex in Xianning, with the freaks dancing around the dining table, their imaginary laughter spilling onto the streets.