CW: Body horror, homophobia, internalized homophobia
Dear Lilah, yesterday my tongue fell out of my mouth and into the bathroom sink. Slippery organ twisting red into the porcelain bowl. The smell of sea salt from the open window. Nǎinai warned me that something like this would happen. She told me Western ideals would darken my mind and scramble my brain until she couldn’t recognize her own granddaughter anymore. Gut my heritage like fish bones from flesh and strip me from my roots. As if ethnicity is something to be earned and maintained, a title gifted and taken away. Lilah, I wish you could have seen her expression when I told her about you. I was foreign.
When I was younger my Nǎinai loved me. She made me sticky white rice with guttered pork belly and washed my back with rough cloth. We were from mirror worlds, same blood different bodies, extension and predecessor. She sang songs about sparrows and springtime echoed from my mouth, I learned how to count and spell through my limbs, our bodies connected by something deeper.
One rainy day I clung to her leg and watched her chop scallions with a large vegetable knife as she told me a love story. There once was a cowherd named Niulang. He fell in love with the weaver girl, Zhinü, but their love was forbidden by the Jade Emperor. As punishment the emperor cast a sea of stars and galaxies between them, purple waves pulling the two lovers apart. But on the seventh day of the seventh month they would be reunited for one day. That night Nǎinai and I watched the sky from my bedroom window and we saw a shooting star, a crystal drop that fell from the same celestial sea. I wished for my own Niulang and Nǎinai promised me that I would find one.
But loving was a blade, Lilah. A curved vegetable knife with a peach wood handle. Loving smelled like salt and reeked of Nainai’s wrinkled breath. It carved me with its edge, eviscerated me into something else entirely, deemed me unworthy of something I never had to earn.
Lilah, I’ve never learned the Mandarin character for queer. Never saw its scratched letters on the cubed paper dished out by my Sunday school Chinese teachers. Never rang its syllables on my tongueless tongue. It did not appear next to the plates of pickled mustard roots and red paper lantern. But sometimes I saw flashes of it, a curve of a character, pinyin dangling above my hair, a black dot seeping into my skin. A friend of a friend of a friend who left the groom on her wedding day. A cousin of a cousin who refused to date. Clipped newspapers of young girls abandoned for the traitorous act of loving.
The day Nainai found out she threw me into the bathtub, steam fossilizing my hair as I drifted in the simmering water face down, liquid puckering my lips. Liar. Liar. Liar. Say it isn’t true. She scrubbed my back raw, peeling back a body of a body until I was nothing at all. I stared at the bottom of the tub with my eyes open, the ancestors of my ancestors cursing my existence. I wept salt because queerness has no roots, Lilah, no defining heredity for me to cling onto.
I dreamed about you last night as I wilted into half of myself. Monolids thinning and nails popping off like Coca-Cola bottle caps. Anatomy wrung inside out. In my dream we sat on a park bench and ate grape ice pops together, purple staining our teeth, saccharine flowing through our veins. But every time I looked at you, held your hand in mine, burned red from your sweet gaze, I became less than the entity I once was.
The truth was I loved you without loving you. I loved without knowing what love was.
Lilah, do you even remember me? We spent a sticky July afternoon drifting in a boat together. You wore a pink life vest and held your tan arm towards the sky, fingers clenched to your shiny iPod that sang songs about Watermelon Sugar and summer sweat. We talked about boys with citrus gel hair and washboard abdomens. You told me your letterman jacket crush behind your cupped hand and I told you my basketball jersey one. You watched as I got up and stood at the mast of our boat and shed yellow skin in the Long Island air, bare feet fracturing into spiderless spider webs as I stared into the sun.
Tongzhi. Tongzhi. Tongzhi. Say it with me, whisper it into my ear when I dream of ice pops and lying in the meadow with you, when I lose a body of a body. That’s the character, Lilah. I’ll never write it in their boxes, never show it to my vegetable knife Nainai. It’s my word. I’ll keep it here in the cave of my tongueless mouth, chew it with no teeth, run my lipless gums over the bleeding texture.
That day on the boat I had slipped, fell briefly into starry limbo before I lost myself in all this saltwater. Everything is foggy under the sea, muted. The fuzzy bottom of our boat. White flapping sails. Your face red from the sun. Zhinü, my weaver girl from the sky. You were more than Western ideals yet I paid the price anyway. You dropped the boat rudder and reached out to me, dipping your hand into the dark water, fingers tangling in mine as you pulled me up into the air, skinless, limbless, and whole.
Nǎinai- Paternal grandmother
Zhinü – Weaver Girl
Niulang. – Cowherd Boy
Tongzhi – Queer
Pinyin – The standard system of romanized spelling for transliterating Mandarin.
Jessica Wang is the founder of the youth literary magazine Ice Lolly Review. Her work has been nationally recognized by Scholastic Art and Writing, NCTE, and Susquehanna University. She is a Kenyon Young Writers’ alumna and her work is forthcoming in The Apprentice Writer. In her free time, she doodles and listens to Indie Rock. She hopes you don’t let Imposter Syndrome get to you!