It’s August when my father leaves. He says he’ll take a job at a slot machine factory outside of Chengdu, a city that sizzles out in my mouth like a match. The night he leaves, he asks my mother for the mirror in the hallway, the one that’s taller than me and nearly as tall as him, the one my mother moved out of the bedroom because she said it was bad fengshui to have a mirror so close to where you sleep. The ghosts will reach out their arms and pull you in through the mirror like a window, she says, and when I say, What ghosts, she thwacks me on the thigh with a pillow. There are always ghosts, she says. When I was a girl, I saw them all the time. Walking through the scallion fields on all fours like dogs. They had no heads. Their faces were on their torsos. Now I don’t see any ghosts.
She says that’s what a marriage will do to you. To have a husband, she says, you have to stop seeing. You have to stop feeling. You grow bark instead of skin. Look, touch. She brushes the tip of my thumb against the scaled skin on her elbows, so dry that it makes a chafing sound like sandpaper, like she wants to polish me into a stone and pocket me. When my father is gone, my mother stops highlighting and perming her hair, the rust-red streaks replaced with white, the strands braided with salt. My mother says after she gave birth to me, her hair grew back in white. Your hair was the blackest I’d ever seen on a baby, she says. You stole all that color from me.
My mother agrees to let my father take the mirror the night he leaves California, but he can’t fit it into his suitcase. Why take it, my mother says, there will be mirrors there. But my father says he wants it because it’s the mirror she stands in every morning, her hair corkscrewed around plastic rollers, and if he looks into it, he can pretend her image has somehow been etched into it, that the mirror has memorized her body and can reproduce her like a photograph, the silver surface developing her silhouette. He unhooked the mirror off the wall and held it like a surfboard, and for a second I thought he might actually be able to fold it, to halve my mother’s image and bury her in the dark of his suitcase.
We receive weekly calls from my father, all at unpredictable times. He claims that it is because of the time zone, but my brother and I wonder if he does it on purpose, calling when we’re in bed and treading our dreams so that we arrive to the phone half-fevered, still baked into our sleep. This way, he can jolt us back into our bodies; this way, his voice becomes a kind of god’s, pinned to the air even after the phone is put down. Sometimes, when I pick up, he mistakes my voice for my mother’s, and I avoid speaking for as long as possible so that I can hear what he tells my mother: The women here are ugly. I think you would like it here. But everyone here is ugly. Don’t let the kids get lazy. When, at last, it was time for me to speak, I say the shortest words possible: Hao. I miss you. Yes, I’ll remember. Yes, I got the money. Yes. My father’s voice on the phone is stung with silences, and he pretends he didn’t mistake me for my mother, pretends he knows it’s been me all along: Be good or I’ll beat you.
I’ll beat you. When I translate it literally, this sentence is a brutality, a margin of bruises along this page. But in another language, in my father’s mouth, there is a tenderness to the tone he takes, so that the word beat overlaps with other words, some of them meaning I miss you. He says beat as if the word shares a border with laughter. As if it is just a lost synonym for love. He calls when we’re on the toilet, when we’re out at church with Nainai, when it’s two a.m. and the owls are mating, when it’s so early in the morning the moon is still skinny-dipping in the sky, when it’s past our bedtime, when we’re eating dinner with the newspaper spread out beneath our bowls to soak the grease, our spit diluting the ink.
When the calls stop coming, we learn the length a silence can be thrummed until it breaks, pinging like a guitar string. For a month, my father fails to ring, to send money, to answer WhatsApp messages, to answer letters that my mother signs by pressing her tongue to the page, a signature made of spit, a stain that spells intimacy. After the fourth week of his silence, we eat without chewing. We swallow. We decide to go quiet so that when he calls, we’ll all be able to hear, as if the problem is simply that we haven’t been paying enough attention. We pad the door frames with socks. We turn the faucets on only halfway, so that only a hair-thick trickle of water runs onto our hands like drool. We hold our breath when we walk by the phone. It’s another two weeks before my brother says it: He’s gone.
Our mother nods, stands up from the dinner table where the fish head glistens in its bowl like a blister. She goes to the kitchen and fetches the meat tenderizer and breaks every mirror in the house, which is not many, but by breaking them she multiplies them, glass crumbing our carpet. The one in the bathroom is shattered into constellations, the wall scalped of its silver. She breaks the hand mirror in her handbag, the one I used to steal and look into, believing that somehow it held her face. She breaks the TV screen too, the box TV that Baba brought home from the sidewalk after our neighbors abandoned it. It only played the Chinese channel, and Baba watched the 2008 Sichuan earthquake on it, the shots of buildings buckled like knees, schools shaken into loose sand, and among the wreckage, a child’s backpack, pink with a plastic bow on it. That could be yours, my father had said, pointing at the screen. You could be under there. I’d be the one digging you out with my own hands just to bury you again.
After breaking our mirrors and locking herself in the bathroom, my mother sits on the toilet and tugs at her hair until a swath of it comes out, wiry and white, bleached by worry. She calls all of my father’s cousins and uncles and aunts still on the mainland until one of them—Nainai’s youngest sister—answers and says, No, yes, no, I haven’t seen him, no, yes, but I heard, no, not another woman, he wouldn’t, will you let me, no, yes, I hear he’s back in Sichuan. Once, my father drew me a map of China on the back of his hand and made a fist: on his leftmost knuckle was the province his parents were born in. This is where you come from, he said, placing his fist in my lap, the weight of it boring a hole in me. You come from my fist.
A week later, we’re in Chengdu. My mother spent three days calling my aunts for a loan so that she can buy our plane tickets to the mainland. She borrows a suitcase from the neighbors—my father used hers—and when it’s winter vacation, we board the plane together. In my backpack, my mother has packed Tupperware containers of rice and egg and pickled fish that we eat on the plane, pretending we don’t know where the smell is coming from. When we find him, my mother says again and again in the womb-tight cabin. But she doesn’t finish the sentence, so my brother and I take turns finishing it for her: I’ll kill him, my brother says. I’ll tell him to come home, I say.
When we land, I see the city from above: it’s shaped like a mouth, a brown-tongued mouth with buildings like broken teeth, waiting to swallow us into its belly where my father must be living. The city is intestinally warm, so humid we can feel the air part like flesh as we walk through it, and because we have no money for a taxi, my mother calls some cousin I have never met, my father’s cousin, and he arrives in an electric rickshaw with dents in the side that match the curve of his head. I look at the three-wheeled car and wonder whether he’s the one who dented the doors himself by repeatedly ramming his head into the metal until it bent toward its own shadow, but then my mother is lifting me up and onto the seat and my brother is beside me and we are on a street where traffic is perpendicular and all the cars remind me of swordfish. They swim forward through the rough-watered night as if searching for a pedestrian to stab, gut open. Our cousin-uncle drives with the same aggression, ignoring traffic lights, and on either side is the city, rows and rows of the same stores with neon signs, selling plastic foot tubs and bamboo sandals that are actually plastic too, and toy windup ducks like the kind my father used to point out in American dollar stores and say, Look how cheap, it must be Chinese, and stores that seem to sell one kind of pot, deep and silver-handled, and another that sells toilet parts, and all of these stores have no doors, are more like stalls in a flea market, like the one at home where our mother buys our clothes and our cups with the chipped mouths, and there are stores here that sell fish tanks with the tiniest goldfish inside them, like gold confetti suspended in jelly, and there are stores that sell light switches, and there is so much being sold that I begin to believe this is a city where everything goes missing, your light switches loosen from the walls and shed like autumn leaves, your toilets swallow their own pipes, your pots shrink into thimbles, your slippers skitter away like crabs across the sidewalk and you always need to buy more, your father is gone but there must be another store somewhere, on the next block maybe, where fathers are posed like mannequins and the first one you see is yours.
Chengdu, like most cities, is actually many. At the apartment building on the chin of the city—that’s how my mother describes it, because it is far from the center of the city, the nose—where my Nainai’s youngest sister lives, my mother tells me that the city is a jaw that widens around the farmland surrounding it. And every month, peasants self-immolate in protest when the city evicts them from their land. They douse themselves in gasoline and their wives and husbands and brothers light the match and they brighten the edges of the city like scar tissue. Chengdu is a city that fits you like a coffin. At every intersection is a hotel with revolving doors so crystalline they look like waterfalls, and across the street are concrete buildings where the migrant workers from smaller cities sleep, their laundry hanging from the balconies and the windows like the flags of a foreign country.
Nainai’s youngest sister tells us to call her Great-Aunt Nine. Nine is four feet tall and missing one of her arms at the elbow. My mother says it’s because she was sent to reeducation camp and got flung off the back of her horse somewhere in Qinghai, where she was being trained as a herder. The bones were broken fine as dust, and to save the rest of the arm from rot, they amputated it. Nine boils tea the color of dried blood and tells us to sip slow. My mother and brother and I share a futon in her bedroom, where she keeps a bucket under the bed to pee into. My bladder’s a bitter thing, she says. It doesn’t hold more than a few drops of rain. In the morning, my brother and I wake up not to the light that laps against the window like a wet tongue but to the sound of Nine squatting over the bucket beside her bed, skirt hitched, her piss the color of plum juice. You’re dehydrated, my mother says, and boils water on the stove for her, but Nine says she only drinks the blood-colored tea, says she bought it from a shaman who promised immortality. This is the city where we are always thirsty: my brother’s tongue is shrunken like a caterpillar, and mine is so brittle it hurts to shut my mouth, my tongue cutting my lips with its newly serrated edges.
Nine says she hasn’t seen my father, but she heard—like everyone else—that he was somewhere in this city or the neighboring one, and she repeats the rumors that have replicated like rain. My father is a Buddhist and has severed all earthly ties. My father is the friend of a corrupt politician and was disappeared by the government. My father rescues stray dogs for a living. Only the third one seems plausible to us: not because we believe our father capable of rescuing anything, but because Chengdu is full of strays, mutts that follow us through the city as we search: we walk down the same car-congested roads and intersections all day in the heat that beats us with its fists. My mother, suddenly at a four-way intersection across from a mall full of knockoff Nikes, turns around and kicks the dog that has been following us. It has the face of an old man, white-bearded with eyelids that pleat together, and her foot catches it between the ribs. The dog makes a sound like a siren, high-pitched and urgent, then limps away. I see blood in its beard and turn away from her. My mother wipes off her sweat with her sleeve, spits on the sidewalk, says a word in a dialect we don’t know, a dialect we weren’t allowed to learn because my father did not understand it. But later, back in Nine’s apartment, I would repeat the word to myself in the dark, say it in every voice and accent I knew, every variation, until some part of me recognized its sound: useless. The word spat at the dog, its belly a sack of loosely stitched skin: useless.
We follow three paces behind my mother, afraid that she’ll kick us too, that we are useless in the same way. That we were like the noonday light: able to search but not able to touch. We were weightless as shadows, the city not registering our bodies, and I was convinced that somehow we were ghosts, like the spirits of those peasants that self-immolated. My mother said their spirits were trapped in the soil they burned in, that each of their ashes was a wind-carried seed of their souls, and that now every building in this part of the city was run by ghosts. They were vengeful ghosts, dropping steel beams on the heads of construction workers, trapping women in elevators until they died of thirst.
While passing a store that sold mirrors of every shape—mirrors the size of floor tiles, mirrors carved into heart shapes, mirrors big enough to use as beds, mirrors with holes punched in them so that they could be hung—I mistake sunlight rebounding off their surfaces for a crowd of men on fire. I tell my mother to stop, and ahead of me I see her body lock around its bones, her head turning. She thinks I must have seen my father, but instead I say I want to look at the mirrors. I want to ask her if she remembers when Baba took the mirror with him, tucked under his arm with his suitcase wheeled behind him. He took the mirror with him because he hoped my mother would appear in it daily, because a mirror always remembers what is shown to it.
There is a mirror the size of a door in the back of the store, a crack shaped like a staircase cutting across my face. My mother walks up behind me, stands there like an echo of my body. When she moves directly behind me, we look like a two-headed body, her head stacked on top of mine. And even though the mirror is fractured like a bone, even though it’s so hot our hair has curled into wisps of black smoke, we laugh. We laugh at how monstrous we are: two heads stitched to the same body. In two weeks, we will go home, back to the States, and this is what I will remember: my mother and I in a store full of mirrors, surgically conjoined without ever touching. We will both imagine terrifying my father, presenting ourselves as a two-headed woman, proof that we were not only whole without him but doubled, swallowing each other.
All week, we take a bus around the city and think every tree is a man and every man is our father and even the telephone poles smell of him, of the particular rust in his sweat. I fall asleep on the bus with my head against the window, dream of the peasants self-immolating, choke on ash and wake to my mother pounding on my chest with both fists, telling me I had been inhaling my own spit. Imagine you, she says, a daughter so stupid she drowns of herself. On our last day, we board the bus and the driver has the same mole as my father, an asterisk on the peak of his chin, and all three of us stop in the door and stare at him. The angle of the cigarette horizoning out of his mouth. His knuckles when he clenches the wheel, the skin loose around them. The length of his neck. When he finally turns his head and shouts for us to get on, his face is an assault of difference: wrong chin, too daggered. Wrong mouth, too wide. Wrong eyes, bloodshot. His voice, too, is like an audio recording that lags behind the movement of his mouth, and still we will replay it later in the dark, overlapping the sound with the memory of our father’s voice, searching for places where the two rhyme.
The day we leave the city, my mother says the city is expanding. They’ll be knocking down Nine’s apartment building and rezoning more farmland beyond it. Nine has been evicted, and now she rides the bus the way we did, looking: our ancestral grave used to be in the center of the city, Nine says. I’m searching for the rest of the family. Nine is an ethnographer of ghosts: she used to work at a crematorium and says she now had the ability to read smoke. Smoke is written across the sky in all kinds of languages, and she knows all of them: from the taste and color and texture of the smoke, she can read if it had come from a wildfire or from a pyre or from a factory, if the fire that made it had been accidental or on purpose or in mourning or in celebration.
On the plane ride home, my mother says nothing. A shadow snags on her cheekbones, veils her. I remember the color of the dog’s blood, remember how my mother’s mouth made a home for that word: useless. I will wonder if she was talking about herself, if she pitied that dog because it was following a shadow, its head bowed and tongue knotted in hunger, searching the sidewalk for an owner that had long since abandoned it. You have the same hands as him, my mother said on the last day. We were riding the bus through the city, when the sky was parading its smog of ghosts, and I looked for those hands on everybody I saw: taxi drivers, girls on their cell phones, women sweeping the streets. You see, my mother said, holding my hands in her lap. You have his. Hands that never shake. My mother said the words like they were a gift. But my hands didn’t feel like an inheritance. They were one more thing he stole from me. I hid my hands for the rest of the bus ride, sitting on them until they were numb and radish-pale, each finger uprooted from feeling.
It’s the summer of a heat wave, and my mother wakes up naked every morning. She claims there’s a pervert ghost in the house that undresses her in her sleep, but my brother and I tell her she must be taking off her own clothes in the night, the heat souring like a wound. But my mother says no, she is not the kind of woman who takes off all her clothes just because it’s hot, though when I ask her what kind of woman she is, she slaps me across both cheeks with her metal spatula. I am the kind of woman, she says, who kills ghosts. She buys plastic rosaries and crosses and statues of Guanyin and sleeps with them beside her, all the statuettes clattering like dice on my father’s side of the bed. But still, every morning, she wakes bare as a branch beneath the sheets, and every morning we find her clothes flung in odd places, on the dining table, on the saran-wrapped sofa, on the ceiling fan, stuffed into the toilet.
My father is the only ghost she cannot kill, and that summer, she hires a priest to come to our house and exorcise it. I ask her when she became Christian and she says to me: None of the monks were available. The priest that comes is Chinese and wears a shirt as sheer as toilet paper and is definitely a scammer. He chants in Latin in all of our rooms and drinks the 7 Up in our refrigerator and appraises the shapes of our doors, which he says are too welcoming, too lubricated for ghosts. So the summer of the heat wave becomes the summer my mother is holy and removes all our doors from their hinges and stacks them in the garage. My brother tries hanging up a blanket as a curtain, but my mother tears it down. In a house without doors, sound threads through every room. Sound is the only ghost I know, traveling through walls, bodiless. I forget my own name several times that summer, remembering only the first syllable or the second, and even when I hear it in someone else’s mouth, it sounds like a name for rain or a synonym for sorry.
Halfway through the summer, when the plastic bag detaches from its hoop made of wire and jellyfishes down the street, beyond reach, the phone rings and it’s an aunt, another aunt who claims to have held me as a baby or named me or fed me her own milk. She says my father is in Azusa, working at my uncle’s take-out restaurant. He’s living in the bathroom, she says, and makes a sound with her tongue that must have required her to knot it. He showers by standing over the floor drain and pouring buckets of water over his head. He sleeps in the kitchen. Come get him. Before she hangs up, she asks me how my daughter is, if my son is still as handsome as she remembers, if we still have her bible, the one with the real leather cover, and if so, could we return it to her by mail, and also remember, don’t eat eggplant this year because it’s all been poisoned, all the eggplant fields in China were contaminated with feces, stay healthy. It’s only after she hangs up that I realize she thinks I’m my mother, that this is the summer my voice and my mother’s begin to clasp like hands, our cadences broken in the same place.
Instead of telling my mother, I walk to the public library by myself—I’m thirteen and am not allowed to walk anywhere without a baseball bat or the handmade pepper spray my aunt made, not since the rumors of a man who kidnaps girls and discards them in shopping carts along the highway—and sit in the computer lab, looking up Yelp reviews of my uncle’s take-out restaurant in Azusa. I’d met him one summer when he was getting married. It was a church wedding and the woman was Chinese-Peruvian and spoke Cantonese and put beans in the fried rice, which my mother plucked out one by one and wrapped in her napkin. My uncle had been drunk the whole time, his face bright as a licked thumb, and my mother had brushed at my qipao with the back of her hand and leaned in and said, He’s your father’s next-oldest brother. We call him Pangzi because when he was born, he was the size of a butterball turkey. His mother couldn’t walk for a year. She had to be carried around on a futon. She never had another child after that.
I tried to imagine my uncle Pangzi as a turkey, glazed and herb-stuffed and glowing. In his backyard, we danced to Leslie Cheung songs and my mother let me sip from her cup of millet wine, just one sip, and Pangzi had laughed and said, Look at your mother the aborigine, the tribe girl from Yilan, look how she’s turning you into a drunk already. And my mother, drunk too, had laughed so hard she pissed in her qipao and then began to cry because the qipao had been tailored and was the most expensive thing she owned. Look, she said, this is real silk. And real silk, once it’s wet, will never dry.
When it was almost morning and the neighbors had threatened to call the cops on our wedding party, Pangzi lifted me by the armpits and whirled me around so fast I could feel my ribs loosen like fingers and let my heart go. I watched it ascend, a buoyant blue-red moon, and then he put me back down on the beer-bottle-green grass and said, Close your eyes and open your hand. Your uncle Pangzi has a gift for you, and I did, and when I opened my eyes, there was a pearl in my palm. It had fallen loose from the embroidery on his wife’s rented wedding gown, and even though later I knew it was fake and made of plastic, I kept it. I held it in my mouth on the car ride back north the next day, let it warm until it pulsed, lifting it to the car window and trying to find my face reflected in its curved side. When he’d lifted me up to the sky, I never once feared he’d let go, even though his breath was bitter as gasoline and he had a bad knee that was now titanium.
Two years after, when my mother told me that Uncle Pangzi had divorced his new wife, I thought at first it was because of the pearl, because it had belonged to her dress first and we had stolen it together, conspiring against her. But then my mother told me he had gone to jail twice for beating her with the flat side of a pan. That the neighbors had seen her run down the street with an ankle broken so badly her foot was facing the opposite direction, toward home. That she was living now with a sister, that she had a three-year-old who never learned to walk, who my mother told me to pray for. Pangzi probably damaged his own baby, my mother said. Everyone born to your father’s family is broken in some way. I had to remind her that I was technically born to my father’s family, and my mother tugged on my ponytail and said, Don’t worry, I’ll fix you. Besides, you and your brother are already walking.
There was a legend in my family that my brother as a baby had walked on air—according to my mother’s mother, who had been skinning a taro root that day, she turned her head toward the sofa where she’d put my brother to sleep and saw him standing, stepping off the sofa and onto the air, the light laboring to carry him. My mother told me that in Chinese myths, immortals walked on air and never dirtied their feet, which means my brother must be a god. When I asked for a legend about me, my mother said: When you were a baby, your shits were the size of an adult’s. Your shits were big as bananas. It scared your aunts so bad, they buried your shits in the backyard as if that would lay them to rest. She laughed, said that my shits must be the size of an elephant’s now, said that my prematurely adult shits only meant my intestines were strong, strong enough to knot like rope, strong enough to make a noose, to tie around the ankle of a god and tether him to the ground.
At the library, I scrolled until my eyes were scraped by screenlight. The Yelp reviews of Uncle Pangzi’s restaurant were repetitive, ridden with typos: BAD SERVICE. DONOT GO HEAR. RUDE WAITER, DOESN’T SPEAK ENGLISH (Lauren G). This place is dirty and prbly has rats. Went to bathroom and there was pee on the floor. Wtf (George T). I called twice and both times I got hung up (Sara N). I imagined a woman literally hung up in the window of the restaurant like a plum-glazed roast duck, imagined carving off her breasts with a serrated knife. Her tongue severed by a cleaver, mouth stuffed with minced ginger.
Without telling my mother, I call my cousin and tell her to drive me down to Azusa, tell her that Disneyland is near and we can ride on all the rollercoasters and eat cotton candy that turns us into cumulus clouds. Over the phone, I hear the sound of something frying in a pan, an orchestra of oil. He’s in LA, isn’t he, she says, meaning my father, and I say it will be an adventure. She asks me why I even want to see him when he left us, and I think of the plastic pearl Uncle Pangzi gave me in the yard, how it was the only thing I felt like I owned, the only thing that was only mine. And the knowledge of where my father was—I could imagine him standing barefoot in the bathroom, pouring buckets of water over his head, washing his hair with hand soap—felt like holding a pearl under my tongue, the sweetest secret. Some part of me believed I could take him home as easily as that pearl, that I could reshape him with my hands and present him to my mother, a bright bouquet of everything she had once loved.
My cousin sighs and says she’ll come pick me up, and years later I will think we are too young to be doing this: my cousin is fourteen and learned how to drive while sitting on her mother’s lap. I don’t yet weigh enough to sit in the passenger seat. Instead, I sit in the back, knock on the window with my fist until my cousin tells me to stop. In five hours, we’re in LA, and Azusa arrives like a fistful of salt flung at the windshield, the streets bright with heat. It will take my mother a day to realize I’m missing: she comes home from her late shift at her new restaurant job and sleeps for a day and a half at a time, waking up to swill from a bottle of ginseng tea my aunts say will prevent her feet from swelling. By the time she realizes I’m gone, by the time she finds my note taped to the refrigerator, the one that says Gone to bring him back, I’m in the parking lot with my cousin, the asphalt roiling in the heat. My father’s takeout restaurant is the smallest storefront in the strip mall. The windows are blacked out, leftover from the previous business—a massage parlor that got busted for running a prostitution ring—and my cousin says, What are you going to say? On the car ride, I spent the hours rehearsing possible lines, ranging from I hope you dunk yourself in the fryer and deep-fry your balls off to Mama sleeps too much now that you’re gone.
My cousin reaches down for my hand and we walk into the restaurant together, the soles of our sneakers sticking to the sugar-gummed red carpet. Inside, the restaurant is the glass-table kind, each outfitted with a lazy Susan. I never knew which direction to turn them. My tongue feels fragile as gauze, the kind that tears instead of staunching any blood, but I walk up to the black, lacquered counter and ask for my uncle Pangzi. He’s in the kitchen, the waitress/host says, her suit vest so snug I can see her nipples through it, and I wonder if this is my uncle’s new wife, if he beats her too, if somewhere she is bruised.
Tugging me past the dining room and into the kitchen, my cousin clutches my hand and says Tell me when to leave and we’ll leave. But I want to see my father, to see Pangzi and apologize for taking the pearl, for accepting what he had given me. In the kitchen, smoke pirouettes out of a wok and the air smells charred, bittering my tongue. My father, back to me, is hunched over a sink washing dishes. I remember him once telling me that for anything to get clean, it must first endure extreme heat, and I imagine the water is so hot that it’s shucking off his skin, scouring the bone beneath.
He looks over his shoulder, glances at me once as if I’m his shadow, as if he is only confirming his own presence. Go home, he says. Uncle Pangzi walks out of the walk-in refrigerator carrying a rack of pig’s ribs, marbled the color of sherbet. Without thinking, I glance at his ring finger, see that he’s wearing a circlet of silver dulling into the color of bad weather. The wok on the stove fills with fire, the smoke dense as flies. The frying pans grease-gilded. The cutting board grooved by a cleaver. Everything a weapon. Uncle Pangzi calls out to me, beaches the ribs on the countertop and holds up his cleaver, says You look so much like your mother the aborigine, how is she? I don’t answer. I stare instead at my father’s back, at the shape of his ribs through his shirt.
Where is the bathroom, I ask, pretending to be a guest, as if that can trick him into speaking. I can act like I’m lost, like I wandered into the kitchen by mistake and no one here shares my name.
Pangzi is the one who answers: Go back out where you came from. Look left. Stumbling backward, I fumble around for a doorknob. It’s stuck until I grip it with both hands and twist. The bathroom is dark as the inside of a fist and I hit the switch with my elbow. It’s so quiet I can hear my own teeth meet. At the sink, I rinse my hands twice, turning the faucet hot enough to scald me. I want a scar as thick as armor. No soap in the dispenser. When I turn around, I see myself.
On the back of the door a mirror hangs, full-length, and I recognize the shape of its border. It’s my mother’s mirror, the one that remembers, the one my father took from the house that night he left. I imagine him scouring it raw with a sponge, fishing her face to the surface. In the mirror, my face is his. The angle of our noses, the inclined eyebrows, the mouth. At my sides, my hands are limp, boneless. I remember what my mother once said about my hands and how they were his. With hands like those, she’d said, everything belongs to you. As if touch were synonymous with take. I reel my fist back, punch the glass. The mirror bends but doesn’t break, so I do it again and again until the glass is fine as salt and my face is multiplied into millions of itself, every version a violence. I crouch, blood gloving my hand, and my cousin pounds on the bathroom door, asking if I’m alive.
Don’t you dare kill yourself in there, she says, what will we tell your mother? When I open the door, she looks at my hand and then the floor and says we’re going, we’re going now. The mirror is raining glass, scattering like stars before we named them into constellations, into men.
When we’re both back in the car, I don’t let her drive away. I clasp her hands in mine, pry them off the steering wheel. I want him to discover what I’ve broken. He hung up the mirror in the dark of the bathroom while my mother always hung it across from her bedroom window. She gave it a lineage of light.
We idle in the parking lot until it’s past closing time, when every other store in the strip mall is already closed and the neon sign of the takeout restaurant is still lit the colors of a lollipop. I want to lick at the windows, piss on the sidewalk like a dog, anything to draw my father out.
When it’s past midnight and my cousin is falling asleep in her reclined seat, my father and Uncle Pangzi walk out of the restaurant and stand on the sidewalk, each lighting a cigarette. I watch him from across the parking lot, my window rolled down, and he pretends not to see me. The sound of their laughter like coins falling to the pavement. The street light angular as an elbow. Uncle Pangzi’s ring is a star in the dark. I try to eavesdrop, begging the smoke to carry their voices to me, but all I can hear is my cousin snoring, her mouth rounding. At the same time, the men turn back in toward the doorway of the restaurant, a move that looks choreographed, and suddenly I can see the resemblance between them: the pores in their cheeks like moonscape craters, the way their eyes looked raw as yolks. Baby eyes, my mother would say, too soft to see the world.
The way my father holds open the door for Uncle Pangzi to walk through: I have never seen him hold open a door for anyone else. There was a time, my mother once told me, when she was pregnant with me and had a fever. My brother so sick he couldn’t drink water without shitting it out, clear as rain. She called my father, who’d been at work at the time, and begged him to come home. I thought I was going to die with you inside me, she said, I thought, please come and cut her out of me. Save her. Instead, my father sent his sister to our house with a bottle of painkillers, and he spent the rest of that night out drinking with his brothers, playing blackjack at the casino, smoking on the roof of Pangzi’s apartment. And it was my aunt who cut my mother’s hair after it was knitted with my brother’s vomit, it was my aunt who laid a wet towel on her forehead, it was my aunt who joked that she’d cut me out of my mother’s belly if her body turned hot as an oven and began to cook me alive inside her.
I shake my cousin awake, say it’s time to go. We drive back up, count the cow fields stitched along the highway, the cows asleep on their feet. When I get home, my mother will chase me around the kitchen with a metal-edged ruler, and then she will kneel on the hardwood and cry and say she thought she’d lost me, and then she will bathe me in the tub, the water rusting my skin. While my knees pucker into tulips, I reach my hand up and press the back of it to my mother’s forehead, the way I see people on TV feel for a fever. My hand comes away cool. What is it, my mother says, touching her forehead once with her forefinger. What do you feel? Nothing, I say. Nothing, nothing. She sits beside the tub and watches me in the water, her fingers greasing back my hair, naming each knot, and each time I say it hurts, she says: The harder you tug on your hair, the deeper your roots will grow, make you into a home.