Fall 2019 Contest Fiction Winner: Between the Meat World and the Real World

Jessica puts her fingers all the way inside me like she is reaching up to hold my guts. I’m laying sideways on the bed with my underwear around my ankles, trying to stay cool about this. Her nails are sparkly and manicured to perfect points, like diamonds cut rough at the tip of her fingers.

—Can you feel it? It’s two plastic strings.
—I can’t tell. Stop clenching.
—You can’t go any deeper. You’ll be in my ribcage. —It’s fine.
I reach to grab her wrist but she pushes my hand away. —You’ve got to stop writhing around. Just hold still.

I focus on the ceiling fan that whirls above us, the concentric circles it traces in its path. It’s the dead of winter but I can’t turn it off because the chain is broken so my skin rises in tiny goosebumps under its gaze. I run my hands over my belly, imagining my IUD lost somewhere inside it, maybe in my intestines or all the way up in my liver. Jessica shakes her bangs away from her face. The pressure from her fingers pushes up into my belly, blunt and relentless, until her entire hand disappears inside me.

—Wait, I think I feel something.
—Is it hard and plastic?
—I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like everything else. —Are there two of them?
—Yes.
—That’s it. That’s my IUD.
She takes her fingers all the way out and looks at me.

—So it’s not dislodged. You’re fine.

She gets up and goes to the bathroom to wash her hands, and as soon as I hear the water running cool and blue my stomach ache goes away. Today I ate meat for the first time in over a decade, and afterwards I felt a sharp pain inside me that I imagined was my IUD being ejected out of my body. I made Jessica leave the party because it hurt so bad. I clutched my stomach like it was a wounded animal and yelled over the music on the dancefloor. ​It’s ok​, she said, ​I hate this party, let’s go home. When we got home I still couldn’t find it, not even when I squatted down low on the bathroom tiles, and that’s when I started freaking out.

Jessica comes back with a white pill with a glass of water.
—Eat this ibuprofen.
I swallow it and drink the water so fast I come up gasping for air. I look at her sheepishly. —I’m sorry I made you do that.
She takes her earrings out and throws them on the floor.
—It’s ok. Just another bonding activity, you know. Can I sleep in your bed? I forgot to hang my sheets up to dry.

She doesn’t wait for an answer before she turns off the lights. In the murky darkness I can see the outline of her plants on my windowsill, how their leaves droop low and graze the dirt below them. I dip my fingers in the soil and it’s soaking wet. She put her plants in my room so they can get more sunlight, but I don’t think that’s why they’re dying. I haven’t told Jessica she’s overwatering them, and if I did she still wouldn’t stop.

Jessica lets out a faint sigh before she gets hooked in a dream. I feel hyperaware of her body laying next to mine so I try to separate myself, but I end up squished in a corner while the ceiling fan blows her long black hair all over my face.

                             ______________

The reason why I haven’t eaten meat in over a decade is because I accidentally killed a pool of frogs when I was twelve years old. I had just spent the summer making a pond in my backyard, and I poured my adolescent heart into it — I pulled wild grass from its roots, hollowed out the black earth, laid down a tarp, planted lily pads, filled it with water, and set all the frogs from PetSmart free.

In September there was a long drought in California. The television told us you could get a fine just for watering your lawn. Frogs croak loudest after it rains, but it had been days since I had heard a single sound. This is why I waited until nightfall, when nobody was looking, and secretly poured cups of water into the pond, wanting to submerge the frogs as deep as possible so they wouldn’t get pierced by the light.

But in the mornings the sun was the heaviest. It weighed down the whole sky. I was the first person to see that the frogs had been scorched by it. I learned that water refracts light, acting as a kind of lens, and this makes the sunlight focus in intense patches causing small, localized burns. This is what my father told me after I went outside and saw the frogs burnt to crisps. Their bodies floated belly-up to the surface, arms and legs splayed wide, and in that moment I knew I could never eat meat again.

I told Jessica this story at a Chinese restaurant inside a strip mall, half-joking and half-not. I showed her my bare hands and emphasized that I had used them to commit a special kind of slaughter. She rolled her eyes and said, it’s time to face your fears.

When the waitress came out and brought a steaming plate of fried frog legs with chili sauce, I sat there wide eyed and gap mouthed. I had trusted her with my secret and she was making me relive it now, years later, after the memory of meat had long dissipated from me. She ripped off one leg and held it up to my mouth. I parted my lips and took a bite, chewing slowly, tasting the muscles glazed in oil. As soon as we left the restaurant my belly started hurting, and I knew it was the frog legs kicking inside me.

For weeks after the frogs were fried to death, my father mowed the lawn and the ones who had escaped from the pond alive would get stuck in the blades. He always cut the power and crouched down low to rescue them, balancing a frog with one severed leg in the palm of his hand.

                             ______________

I know you shouldn’t be in love with someone you live with, but these things are inevitable. It started the first time I pulled up to the house and saw Jessica standing there, leaning on her Pepto-dismal colored truck parked in the long driveway. She helped me unload my stuff from my moving van, and I became fixated on the way her elbows looked with the sleeves rolled up, the drops of sweat sliding down her limbs. They were so smooth I felt like she could put her entire arm inside me and it still wouldn’t hurt. ​Where do you want me to put your shit? she asked. ​Anywhere,​ I said.

When she finally reached up inside me it did hurt a lot. Only because I wanted the touch to signify something but instead it was so banal. There is a myth from the Han dynasty about a spirit girl that gets reincarnated as a real girl — she’s from another world that’s parallel to this one, but it’s virtual and inaccessible. On her wedding night, she sits on her bridal bed and waits for her husband to come take her virginity. The moment he reaches for her, she says, Wait, I’m still ethereal​. Meaning: ​wait, you can’t go inside me yet. I’m not completely here.

When her hand slipped inside me, I felt her carving out a vacancy where my body used to be. Here is a hand, and here is a void.

                             ______________

The morning after Jessica puts her entire hand inside me happens to be her mom’s birthday. She would have been 44 this year. Jessica says 44 is unlucky because it has the number four twice, and the number four has the same Pinyin as death. 四 sounds just like 死 if you don’t listen closely. This is why there is no fourth floor in most buildings in China; the floors on the elevators skip straight from three to five.

Jessica explains this to me in the parking lot of a gas station where we stopped to buy wasabi peas and incense.
—Your parents never told you this?
—No, never.

—They aren’t superstitious?
—They are. Only when they want me to behave. They say every grain of rice I leave in the bowl will become a pimple on my lover’s face.
She starts the engine and whips a U-turn.
—My mom used to say that too. She wouldn’t let me leave the table unless I’d eaten every single grain.
I roll my eyes.
—I hate that. I would never make my kids do that.
Jessica opens the bag of wasabi peas and pours some in her mouth.
—I don’t know. Maybe I would.

Jessica needs incense because she wants to make a shrine in our living room for her mom. She’s decorating the shrine with incense and a lock of hair. Over time she says she’ll add things like a keychain of Guanyin, or a letter she wrote and never sent, or a grapefruit peeled all at once so the skin hangs off long and coiling. I promised Jessica I’d participate in the ritual she’s performing in her honor, but she won’t tell me anything about it.

—So who taught you this ritual?

—Nobody.

—You looked it up on the Internet?
She shakes her head.
—I’m going to make it up as we go along.

When we get home from the gas station Jessica fixes our broken printer by hitting it, over and over, until it spits out a photo of her mom sitting on the hood of a minivan in the summer. Her hair is tousled gently by the ocean behind her, and she has her hands cupped around a cigarette as she tries to light it.

—She’s pretty.
—Thanks.
—You have her mouth.
She blows on the photo to dry the ink, spitting everywhere.
—She gave me her mouth and her bad temper and that’s it. Have you ever sent prayers to the dead?
—I did it once when my waigong died, but it was a long time ago.
—I’ll teach you. It’s called 鞠躬 — you have to bow to the ghost.

Jessica leaves the room like someone who will be right back. From the bathroom she yells at me to turn the smoke detector off, so I step on a chair and stab it with the broom, catching the batteries in my hand as they fall out of the sky. When Jessica comes back she’s wearing a qipao that’s too tight with the top buttons undone.

—This is my mom’s wedding dress.
She sucks her belly in and stands up straight. —It’s nice. I like the red silk.
—Thank you.
She leans over and her breasts spill out.

On the ash-stained carpet of the living room, Jessica pushes sticks of incense into a rotting apple, making puncture wounds with her nails, leaving claw marks all over it. Her mom is a digital mirage taped on the altar, too real and not real enough. Jessica goes to the kitchen and arranges some pork buns on a plate.

—Here.
She hands me a bun.
—No thank you.
—Take it. It’s part of the ritual.
—I don’t eat meat.
She flops the bun into my lap. I look at her.
—I thought you were making this up along the way.
—I am, and this is what I’ve decided to do. We have to share a meal with the dead. She takes another from the plate and bites into it.

I touch the bun’s pillowy texture between my fingers and kneel beside her, bathed in incense smoke. I watch her hold the incense up to her forehead before pressing her face to the carpet in prayer. She rises and repeats this three more times. I want to perform the ritual exactly as instructed, so I mirror Jessica and bite into my bun slowly, deliberately, trying to forget what’s in my mouth was once an animal. As soon as I taste the salt crystals buried between the folds of flesh my instinct is to spit it out. It takes all my love for Jessica to close my eyes and swallow instead.

                                ______________

Once, when I was on LSD at a warehouse show, I witnessed a woman eating a hot dog on the dancefloor by squirting streams of ketchup straight into her mouth. The lights above us shined neon and bright, forcing the hot dog to have a subtle metallic sheen. I couldn’t look away, even after the hot dog had long disappeared inside of her, and there was no sign of its existence except a smear of ketchup on her upper lip, a scarlet brand.

This reinforced my stance on meat because I don’t like how easily a living thing can be swallowed so seamlessly. The act of consuming meat becomes a transgression where the other being is disappeared without trace, but there is no prior relationship before the act of consummation. It’s almost as if the telos of the animal is to be ingested by me. I don’t understand which bodies are worth being mourned and which ones aren’t. I told this to Jessica and she rolled her eyes and said I shouldn’t eat plants either because they have feelings. They grow more if you play classical music and speak softly in their presence. Plants that live in houses where everybody screams and throw dishes at each other don’t grow at all. Jessica knows this for a fact.

I think about the color red. If I could wear red every day I would, but it doesn’t go well with my dark complexion so I wear it sparingly, in splashes, at dim parties where only I know it’s there. You can see the redness of meat when it’s pressed against the blue ice of the supermarket, its icy tendrils sprouting under the clear saran wrap.

Red is the color of Jessica’s qipao flashing in the dark. She spins around and around in circles, eating slices of grapefruit taken from her mom’s altar, the red juice dribbling down her chin.

                             ______________

Jessica spends more time on the phone than anyone I’ve ever met. All day long she sits hunched over the receiver with the volume turned up so it drowns out the white noise from the freeway. When she speaks to her cousins in Chinese it always sounds like she’s trying to start a fight. Each vowel comes out quick and oceanic. I could never move my tongue that fast without choking on it, but in our water-streaked mirror I watch myself try.

When Jessica talks to her clients she speaks in a bored, sultry voice. She gets the most requests on Monday nights, when husbands have been with their wives and kids all weekend and are ready to let go of their rage. She hangs up their calls without saying goodbye. Chinese people don’t say bye​, she explains. ​They say, uh, uhh and hang up​. I practice when she’s gone. ​Uh, uhh,​ and I slam the phone back on the hook and storm out of the room.

Once I witnessed her painting her nails and chatting on the phone with the cord tangled around her fingers long and wild like a snake. There was a bright pink stain on the back of her hand, like a scythe glinting in the dark. After she hung up I pointed at her hand and asked, ​what’s that. She told me she was just blotting her lip gloss, but she hesitated for a moment, so I knew she was using the back of her hand to practice kissing.

I couldn’t figure out why someone like Jessica would need all that practice. After she went to work I spent a long time with the back of my own hand, coating it with spit, nibbling my flesh to get the full effect. I wondered who Jessica was thinking about — maybe the pretty rave girl from last weekend, or the bartender with the cargo pants and teardrop tattoo, etc. I kissed myself and thought about Jessica’s public and private fantasies, wondering if there was a place for me inside them.

                             ______________

Later at night I watch television alone until my eyes sting from the light, waiting for enough time to pass before I can visit Jessica at work without seeming desperate. She told me to come early before it gets busy, but I wanted to wait longer so she could have some space to miss me.

As the clock strikes eleven I get in my car. I spend an hour in traffic with my fog lights on, and when I finally pull up to Deja Vu’s it’s close to midnight. I push open the swinging doors and the first thing I see is Jessica on stage, dancing on a pole, her body twisting and untwisting against the metal bar. I think about the way fish look when they are thrashing upstream to spawn, searching for the precise location where they first hatched.

My grandmother told me a story once, about the fish in the village where she grew up in, how nobody was allowed to eat them because their souls were too big for their bodies. Anyone could eat large cattle (cows, horses, bison), but the consumption of small creatures was ritually forbidden because the amount of meat they produce isn’t enough to justify their killing. There is an economy between the soul and the hunger it satiates — when Jessica’s flesh skin against the pole, I know she could feed everyone in the room except for me.

The men wave dollar bills in the air and don’t give them up unless she moves real close to them. I don’t know what to do with my hands, so I go to the bar and order a drink. I take a faraway booth to try to act cool and disinterested, biting my straw while Jessica works the floor in her sky-high heels. I keep squinting to find her scar in the dark.

Jessica has a forehead scar from drowning in the deep end of a swimming pool when she was fourteen years old. It happened when she first moved to America, and to this day she is afraid of large bodies of water. It’s a deep cut that splits her forehead diagonally, in half, which she hides underneath a thick layer of foundation and cropped bangs. I guess the scar throbs whenever it’s about to rain because it can detect moisture in the air. ​It’s why I can never leave LA,​ she says, ​most other cities make my face hurt.​ But in the club light I can’t see it at all — it’s like the scar has disappeared, or maybe it’s healed over completely.

An older man walks up to her and hands her a bill. He leans in to whisper something and she flips her hair and walks away. He keeps following her down the platform even after she’s turned her back to him. I don’t know why but I can feel my palms clench and unclench in my lap. When he reaches out to untie her G-string that’s when I slam my drink on the table, spilling most of it on my hoodie. It makes a stain the shape of a halo across my chest.

I walk over and grab his shoulder.
—What are you doing?
He waves the bill in the air.
—Nothing, sweetie. I’m just giving her a tip. He looks me up and down.

—Are you the bouncer?
He smiles and I can see his braces glinting in the dark.
—I saw you. Don’t touch her.
—Calm down, I’m just paying her.
I slap him across the face. Before I can lunge for him I feel the actual bouncer’s hand on my shoulder, so I spit on his shirt one last time before I get taken away.

A few minutes later Jessica comes outside to find me sitting on the curb with my hood over my face, fuming mad. She can’t stop laughing for some reason. ​Men,​ she says, are all like that.

—I was just teasing him because he’s a regular and he just got paid today. You don’t need to get so worked up. How come you’re all wet?
—I spilled my drink.
—Come back inside, let’s get you cleaned up.

She grabs on my arm and I slap her hand away.

—Please leave me alone.
She pulls on the strings on my hoodie until she’s nearly choking me, laughing as my face becomes scrunched up.
—Stop!
She snaps her gum at me.
—You know, that guy back there, Mr. Calcagni, he used to be my history teacher. But he’s not my teacher anymore.
She sits down on the curb and drapes her legs over mine.
—Listen, everything’s fine. I know you want to look after me.
She puts her head on my shoulder. I think about why someone that old would still choose to get braces. He must be a psychopath.
—I just don’t like when I see someone messing with you.
—He wasn’t. He was just paying me. Come on, I’m done for the night.
—You’re not going back in?
—I’m hungry. I want to go to McDonald’s before it closes.
She runs her fingers over her scar.
—I don’t know why it hurts so bad right now.
We both look up at the cloudless sky and that’s when I start laughing too.

At the drive-thru Jessica teaches me weird things she says in Chinese to get more tips when she’s dancing. 买一块鸡肉撞死你, she says. That means I want to beat you to death with a chicken nugget, and then she bites down on one. Nobody in this part of town speaks Chinese, even though a lot of people have Chinese tattoos, so she can say anything and they’ll still think it’s sexy.

—I don’t like that.
—Why?
—Because it’s weird.
—I can teach you something else.

—Can you teach me how to say I want to hit you with a block of tofu? She thinks about it while chewing.
—买一块豆腐撞死你。
—买一块豆腐撞死你?

—Do you know what that means? It’s an idiom for when someone is hopeless. Someone’s situation is so hopeless you might as well just hit them with a block of tofu.

I want to hit you with a block of tofu, I say over and over until we pull up to our house just as the first drop of rain hits the ground.

                             ______________

In Chinese, the words for appetite and desire share the same characters. 欲望. I don’t know what this means, but I want to believe that everything I long for, I long for using my mouth.

Before I met Jessica, I thought I wanted to become a Buddhist. Its main teaching is about karmic retribution, which means that every bad astral event is the aftermath of a lingering desire, and the only way to fully transcend suffering is to let go. But what happens if you do the opposite of what’s instructed and allow yourself to be leashed to your longings? There are days where I can still feel my muscles straining to blossom under my skin. Someone told me a story once, about a dog in Japan named Saihu who died while demonstrating to her owner that the duck he was about to consume was poisonous. She did this by snatching it out of his plate and consuming it herself.

You can see here that there is no clear border between desire and sacrifice. Nobody knows whether Saihu was trying to protect her owner or if she was just hungry, if she was a savior or the canary in a coal mine. They sell duck at the butcher shop across the street from our apartment and when Jessica is lazy she buys one and eats it cold. I look outside and see the row of ducks lined up in the butcher’s display and I focus my gaze on the empty hook. She soaks each piece in black vinegar and spits the bones straight in the trash, mouthing her happiness out loud to me.

                             ______________

My mother used to tell me that if you bite your tongue on accident, it’s your body telling you it wants to eat meat. A decade ago, when I first became a vegetarian, she would smack her lips and demand I show her my tongue, scolding me when she saw it was studded with blisters.

From a young age I wanted to demonstrate my allegiance to animals, and as I grew older I wanted to become completely ascetic, to eliminate all desires. There are so many desires to be maimed — the desire to kill, the desire to consume, the desire to mimic, the desire to forget, etc. The first time Jessica kisses me it feels like all the blisters on my tongue are on fire. We woke up late in the afternoon, with the sun was rippled on the sheets, and I laid there, in my paleness, shivering under the ceiling fan with her body hovering above mine.

Are you cold? she asked before jamming her shoe into the ceiling fan, trapping it between the blades.

                             ______________

On the freeway the rain makes the ground look blurry. The yellow lines pass clean through us, and Jessica keeps swerving when we come too close to the meridian. She’s smoking a cigarette with the windows down so all the rain flies into her Pepto-dismal truck. It hits her in the face with a special kind of fury. She looks tired from all the labor she’s performing, and I want to help her but I don’t know how to drive stick and I don’t really like to smoke.

—How long will it take?
—Thirty minutes, maybe more. Did you bring a book? —I forgot.
She ashes out the window.
—I’ll be even faster then.

We drive to the outskirts of east LA with the stereo in between two channels so the voices on the airwaves melt into each other. I can tell she knows the way from memory, so I lean my seat back and look at the sky. She usually does this at the end of every month alone, but I insisted on coming with her this time. ​So you can take the carpool lane,​ I said, but we both know that’s not why I wanted to come.

When I open my eyes again we’re parked in front of a yellow house with a chain-link fence. She takes the key out of the ignition and turns to me.

—Hey. Thanks for coming. It’s nice to not do this on my own.
—Of course.
I reach over and put my hand over hers on the gear stick. She holds it up and kisses my palm. —I’ll be back soon.

A long time passes, and I get anxious that something has gone wrong. I close my eyes and try to doze off, but instead I daydream about the taste of Jessica’s mouth. When I kissed her for the first time last night it tasted like a carnal loneliness. Keywords: slaughter, morning dew.

Just as I’m about to go look for her, Jessica comes running out of the house shrieking and laughing. When the car door opens she throws all the cash into my lap. I look at the dashboard and I realize it hasn’t even been twenty minutes yet.

—Look how rich we are, baby.
Her cheeks are sweaty and tinged with red.
—That’s it? You’re finished?
—He was quick this time because his wife got off work early. She laughs some more and starts the engine.

Just when we’re pulling away, a man comes out of the yellow house and waves at us with his belt half-unbuckled. I think it’s Mr. Calcagni but I can’t see past the rain. He’s wearing camouflage pants and his belly juts out of his tight polo shirt. Our rent is due tomorrow and we had to choose between pawning her mother’s jewelry or having groceries next week. No we don’t, Jessica said, and winked at me before picking up the phone.

Jessica rolls her window down to smoke. The money flutters in my lap like lilies in a shallow lagoon. She can’t stop laughing while doing a cartoon imitation of him picking up his wife’s call and rushing her out the door. I laugh with her, but secretly I want to say a quiet prayer for all the Mr. Calcagnis of the world, buckling their belts just in time to say goodbye.

                             ______________

Lately I have dreams of rooms which are empty. In these rooms, bodies are printed in traces but nobody is there. Bed lines, a book that’s been used as an ashtray, an ashtray that’s been used as a coin holder, etc. I like the hollowed out emptiness of a room that’s been tinged with use.

But I want to have dreams of beds which are full. When I first moved into Jessica’s, I accidentally shattered a mirror in my bed when I was trying to hang it on the wall. I was so depressed back then I just fell asleep, with incredible stillness, curled around the shards. In my sleep I stirred with the same subconscious care I practice when I’m lucky enough to have someone else asleep beside me.

Sometimes I have dreams of flowers growing in the desert. I want Jessica to drown them in water until they grow as thick as jungles.

                             ______________

About the author

Angie Sijun Lou is from Shanghai. Her works have appeared in American Poetry ReviewAsian American Literary Review, Margins, Hyphen, The Rumpus, and others. Winner of the 2017 Cosmonauts Avenue Fiction Prize, she is a Kundiman Fellow who teaches creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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