All summer long, we played checkers out on your front porch. The discs clinked under our fingertips, which shone with grease from the potato chips we licked but would not eat. This was our habit: to pop a chip under our tongues and lave the brittle flake, swallowing only the aftertaste of salt and sour cream. Earlier, you had dumped sugar-free lemonade mix into a water gallon, shook it until the water bloomed to a cloudy yellow. Your fingers skittered along the grid-patterned board, jumping over the squares and scooping up each black checker of mine, your spoils of war. You always played white. You played to win.
It was the third year of Californian drought. You were fourteen, and no longer needed your nanny. I was eleven. The porch bordered the lawn, fringed with crackling palm fronds and geometric explosions of birds-of-paradise. We often wandered through the cultivated foliage, cooled our feet whenever the garden sprinkler turned on, stuffed nests of grass and apple cores into Mason jars. With gentle fingers, we coaxed beetles and earthworms into these tiny glass microcosms.
Everything moved slowly, like a dream. In the distance, we could see Angel, the neighbor boy, raking golden leaves into small luminescent hills. There was something grand from the way he swept leaves, in that stuttering angle of his arms, his sweaty grip faltering down the handle. Once he abandoned his careful piles and approached us, almost shyly, and asked for some lemonade.
“Pour it yourself.” You feigned coolness and gestured toward the Dixie cups by your elbow. But the boy unscrewed the red cap instead and tilted the container upward, no contact. His wrist moved until the cold sweet liquid tipped down his throat. Autumn sun edged the dark line of his almost-feminine lashes, tracked the line of his nose.
“That’s some good lemonade,” Angel said, nudging the empty bottle back. “What’s it made of?” “Just Country Time mix. And water,” I said.
“If you still have any.”
“Alright, then.” You stood up, flicking grass shreds off your jean skirt, the tuck of your hips. His eyes traced the movement of your salt-stained fingers and when he reddened a bit you grinned, salt-flecked mouth drawing up into the most compelling curve I’ve ever seen.
Your father was more ghost than man, a voiceless apparition often away to foggy cities with odd, disyllabic names: Hong Kong, Guang Zhou, Gui Yang, Tai Nan. He drifted into your house several times a year, during which we could hear burnt frozen spaghetti rotating in the microwave, could feel his cologne soaking the air like gasoline until it burns to breathe.
He was rendered corporeal by the things he’d leave behind, between business trips -- gum wrappers, toothbrushes, burgundy ties, unopened kombucha, a broken pocket stamped with a rose decal. Sometimes, we would sit in the living room and sifted through the items, try to reconcile each one with our impressions of your father: a ghoulish figure smoking quietly in the suede armchair, the jutting face of a stag overhead carving silhouettes into his unshaved face.
For your birthday, he sent over a used digital camera with a fraying ribbon strap. You showed it to me once, remember? In the pre-dawn gloom, our teeth still stained with birthday cake frosting, we thumbed through the collection of pictures within the camera archive: the trapezoidal purses, glass animals, and some Asian model leering, rainwater streaming down blonde synthetic curls and half moon breasts. Her winged eyes stared back all double-lidded and all-seeing like a ghost, but you scoffed when I mentioned that and said, God, you’re so strange .
We hitched on those fancy reptilian heels that your nanny Rosemary left behind and teetered tippy-top high like we’re film stars: our coltish tendons slim, in suspension. Your black hair left loose and mine plaited French. Our breathing was breathless as we tumbled outside fleshless, laughing and clutching at each other’s elbows. Nights in this suburbia were so young that dirt has not yet accumulated at the outskirts, and everything glittered with an inherent promise of novelty. Fireflies blinked and flirted with lamplights, but the moths were already dizzy with heat, their bodies plastered to the sidewalks, the sky blushing dark red.
Angel was on the driveway this time washing a red convertible, hose water bouncing off the new shell.
“Angel! Hey, how’s it going?”
“Just give me a sec,” he said, when we tottered over. From up close, I’m shocked by the bigness of the vehicle, the neat paint job and tinted windows juxtaposed against the dingy pleather interior, foam protruding from the broken seams. “I’ve got something for you girls at the store.”
“Is this your car?” I asked.
“Nah. My uncle’s.” He dragged a sponge over the windshield a few more times and let the water drip down. “He does a lot of business. Said a swanky ride always attracts the right customers.”
Afterwards, Angel led us to the beauty shop, purple night wind tapping like a countermelody. Down frond-framed Main Street with its toffee boutiques and dye salons, everything seemed so inexplicably perfect. There were bronze statues of couples chattering, businessmen rushing, old ladies shopping, dogs barking, kids laughing. The two of you walked the pink pavement with shoulders almost kissing, you tossing around your hair to make him laugh. I limped behind, the straps of these five-inchers chafing my ankle – the road was not wide enough for three.
Angel mentioned the time he transported a damaged shipment of foundation that soaked the whole store in glossed gunk. His uncle dealt in miscellaneous accessories for cheap: tubes of ponytail elastics and face masks infused with crushed pearls or snail slime. Everything packaged and slightly counterfeit, imported from China, probably. Like Angel, who used to be An Jie. Said he goes by Angel now. Said his parents sent him over here young, ‘cause apparently everything’s better and beautified in America, even the air itself.
We climbed the back stairs to the employee’s break room. Mannequin heads ringed around a blue Formica countertop, staring at a sink rusted from disuse. There were cardboard boxes everywhere, dazzling arrays of nude eyeshadow palettes and Vitamin E oil and grapefruit-infused cellulite gels. Bins of skinny lipsticks with dangerous names like ‘Red Night District’ or ‘Plum Choked.’
“My parents sent them from Hong Kong.” Angel slid over an open metal tin. We peer inside, find unfamiliar circular pastries embossed with block lettering and exquisite bird designs.
“What are they?” You poked at the brown crust with your pinkie nail, then raised your eyebrows at his glance of incredulity.
“Mooncakes from home. Never had one?”
You snorted. “I don’t deal with that culture shit.”
And I can’t explain how he looked at you afterwards, this Chinese boy’s little bewildered
disappointment towards a Chinese-American girl, but he tore open the packet with the two-pronged forks and said, “Oh, try it anyway.”
Hours later, I’m on your bathroom floor. The tiles are swinging and catching milky light, and I’m rubbing the strip of skin that peeled from my ankle. You’re doing sit-ups in the tub, the middle of your stomach shriveling and stretching to the beat of some old school dance song on your radio. Sad music clotted the ambience like poetry, making this white world tilt, this black night wilt, this romance bad, this space liminal, dizzy summer reiterating back to spring. The lotus paste clung hard to my teeth, etched birds grated to a sugary pulp.
We fell asleep with our hair braided together into one sleek black fishtail and your breathing minty but sour from toothpaste and the lemonade you drank before bed to dissolve the tiny blooms of acne along your forehead. Our heads knock together and I murmured this to which you giggled like spring, a small green sound that sprang right into my ear. Like a no-pity threnody you whisper about Rosemary the phantom, the yellow girl from some backward Asian country with her lotion-moist wrinkles and large flat feet, Rosemary who slept dead with hot hands spread over her stomach as if aching for the right glance of wind or man, who sang pitty girl, pitty girl and made weak birdlike motions when you wept on the hardwood pine all sick and shameless. Rosemary who rose like good plain bread, where and you sighed in here , pointing to the oozing scabs dotting your chin like red flowers. Rosemary who was all dark ugliness, who cut slabs of papayas and rubbed its white seed into her cheeks in perfect circles and cried all heartbroken the week after when the paleness didn’t soak in and stay, Rosemary who was your only real friend and stared blankly at the TV all day, at doctors whittling live girls down to white women shapes, the womanly shape of her mouth silently practicing: rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty, otoplasty like a rotten tooth mantra, an inflammation that rubbed the gums of her mind so fiercely she went under the knife and never made it back. Rosemary, Rosemary, rose from the dead and who’d you marry? I woke up with an unmoving saltiness lumped into my throat.
The days swept by like starlings perched on the telephone wires outside – shift your head and they’re gone, thrumming into the sunset. You stuck to Angel like a tangled eyelash at twilight, the dust of dusk sweeping lavender across your intertwined hands at the park. What you two do, who’s to know. You fell for boys like Angel, the ones who’d let you fall. And Angel liked you, liked you not: we divined variations of the truth from daisies or orchids or hydrangeas. It doesn’t matter – you’d sneak stuff from his store, regardless – a twist tube of lip butter, or clear sheets of adhesive diamonds, or $4.99 eyelid tape. I had watched you follow a line above your monolid with the blunt of your thumbnail, sliding over a sliver of plastic to shape a new eye.
I was still waiting for something, don’t know why. Kicking the ground from the blue bench, I watched the families picnicking on checkered tablecloths and tearing chicken into crispy pieces, the watermelons diced to chunks, sugary juice dribbling down wrists. Moon’s too luminous so I glanced away, gnawing insatiably on my thumb where the nail met skin, the way you taught me how, the way Rosemary had taught you how.
We hung out at the shop when business stuttered to a trickle at the heart of noon. While you roamed the rows of sparkling products, spraying tester perfume onto little cards or pressing craft sequins onto your nails, I sat with Angel on the counter. He let me leaf through the glossy travel brochures that his uncle had brought back from China. The wheat fields in Shandong and below, herds of bison crisscrossing the rice paddies past a clump of bamboo with toothed leaves. The Beijing cityscape and its pulsing architecture. From this bird-eye view, with tiny cars inching around, conifer trees fuzzing to cones, glowing billboards fading and de-saturating – all the pieces meld into a whole, worlds collapsing together.
I turned the page. “Who’s this?” It was the plastic blonde from my father’s picture posturing for an advertisement, holding a jar up to her bony chin, her double-lidded eyes blown large with mascara.
Angel squinted at the lettering. “Some model for skin whitening cream.” He translated the Chinese: “Light is beautiful. Treat your skin to a radiant white glow.”
I was appalled. “That’s racist.” A few women by the eyeliner section swiveled at my voice, the blue of their veins winking under the incandescent glare.
“It’s a cultural thing.”
“’Light is beautiful?’ Why would they even say that?”
“It’s just a makeup ad. Jesus.” He’s moved to shift the pages away.
“But isn’t it wro-”
“Oh, my god. Don’t be so weird.” You had returned with two diet orange sodas. “It’s just cream.
Nothing more harmless than cream.” Popping open the metal tab, you took a long gulp, condensation inching down your wrists. “Don’t mind her,” you said to Angel. “She’s such a baby. She doesn’t know much at all.”
In retrospect, Angel was gorgeous, just as the snowflakes laced along the fir trees in winter were gorgeous in their unattainability – you hold them close and they fling themselves away, only left with the cold vestiges of what could’ve been.
He’d talk real pretty to anyone, acting especially nice to the white-looking yellow girls, the thin ones fresh off the boat, flaunting peroxide blonde bobs and noses cut all straight and sharp. They would flutter in with bandages cocooning the newest cosmetic alterations, in anticipation of another aesthetic metamorphosis. All of them giggling in this identical musical refrain, calling in Chinese for An Jie, An Jie, An Jie . Him smiling back with a wave.
When you sat stiff-like by the blue counter and his absence was still warm next to your body, I flung myself beside you with my bare knee hugging yours. When he laughed like snowfall by the glittering stacks of shampoo, I let you spit on my palm and rub the calloused flesh into that lighter color you ached for. When the elongated girls flock by nibbling on Angel’s mooncakes, you pinched me hard but sobbed so soft. When I ripped the model’s pages from the magazines, you’d tuck them beneath the oversized cups of your bra. One day in the bathroom, you stripped to your underwear before the mirror – Just do what I say. With a marker I awkwardly drew dotted circles around the sockets, arrows pointing down your hairline, an outline of a smaller anatomy. Mark-up for a pretend surgery. Don’t you trust me? Sure I do. I held the dulled craft scissors and mapped your smooth tanned skin with twin blades. You were grinning, eyes white and wide under this chilled gloss. Press harder , you said. Right on the jaw . I angled my wrist a little and felt some muscled part give.
“Stop! That hurts,” you cried. The blood poured like wine, running the length of your neck as I dived for the paper towels. Even while I’m slathering the ointment gunk over that slant of a cut, you’re knocked flat on the tiles delirious and hot, begging loudly for the ghosts: Where did you go? Rosemary, Rosemary, why did you go?
Who knew it would end like this? You wanted to go to the beach when the sun had thinned into a ring of frozen gray. On TV, newscasters murmured that yes, the drought would end soon, rain should appear any day now. That day you wore Rosemary’s tall strappy heels and the blue halterneck that displayed the full expanse of your sunscreen-oiled back. I’m carrying your father’s camera like it meant something. You stuck on that stolen double eyelid tape in the bathroom while humming pitty girl, pitty girl. You played white. You told me you played to win.
We passed the town hall with people walking fast and talking slow, and the smiling Main Street statues that looked strange in daylight. At the harbor, old men huddled together to catch fish. The red flags planted along the peopleless beach flapped dismally as we kicked off our heels and sank toe-first into whorls of sand. Wind’s biting our faces when we got there, but you didn’t want to leave. The rain tapped our shoulders first, and when we turned it began to slap.
“I’m going back,” I said, but then you twisted the crook of my arm hard. “Take my picture first,” you said. “Here. Press the shutter when I say so.” I fiddled with the dials as you carefully sprawled down on the sand and combed handfuls of soaked
hair over your breasts like patterns of shimmering black water down the spike of your ribs. You flashed me a smile pigmented in Forget-Me-Not Fuchsia. “Give it to Angel afterwards — He’ll like that.”
“On the count of three?”
“Just take the fucking picture.” You looked into the camera lens with a strange emotion I would later identify as hatred.
I pressed the button. Click.
You would have liked this picture. How a wan light cups the parabola of your mouth, the shadows bisecting your torso into a consummate geometry. The colors are faded and overexposed, as if developed in milk. I had switched the aperture dial too far right; the resulting silhouette cast upon the triangle of your bandaged jaw is rendered dilute. But I liked how your body floats, hazy against a white-washed backdrop. A true yellow girl with no yellow name. You were my one true friend. You are too good to be true.