Tanuja Desai Hidier
Milk Tea and Pearls
The fact that the three stories we've chosen to include in this anthology, "Tiger, Tiger" by Tanjua Desai Hidier, "Milk Tea with Pearls" by Emmeline Chang, and "Troublemaker" by Christina Chiu, were written by Asian-American women is beside the point, yet worth making nonetheless, if only to underscore the remarkable progress we've made as a literate community. After all, it was a little more than a century ago that Mary Ann Evans had to put on the pseudonym George Eliot in order to even be able to publish her texts.
The three stories that follow are related, in my mind, by their generative impulses. "Tiger, Tiger" unflinchingly delves into the violent depths of an emergent sexuality, describing how pleasure and pain are knotty, both twined to the body with language; in "Milk Tea with Pearls," Emmeline Chang uses the voice of a gay, American-born Taiwanese man as a vehicle for social criticism that is permeated with humor and a lightness of touch; "Troublemaker" perfectly inhabits the mind of an adolescent boy in Chinatown, rife with the anger that being a teenager who is dispossessed would engender.
The differences among these stories are manifold and evident upon reading, though I'm more interested in their similarities: Each displays a virtuosic rendering of character, a precise awareness of the mechanisms that make fiction work, but, above all, a freedom, intoxicating even now, to move into the minds and plots of anyone or anything they see fit to explore. I celebrate the courage of these authors.
Guest Fiction Editor, September2001
~ . ~ . ~
Tanuja Desai Hidier
In the bar where she waits the air is thick with smoke and men's voices. It is difficult to breathe. A jukebox stabs a beat through the fog; she does not know the song, but it reminds her of others, the ones where she can guess the ends of verses: blue is followed by true, cry by lie, and women love only men in a rhyming universe.
She drinks a zombie, bangles sparking against her wrist. Tristan wasn't in section today. It was the last she was assistant-teaching before exams for Professor Bergman's Literature and the City course. She led a discussion on Invisible Cities, her peers' lively debate smoothing over her frequent moments of distraction. For just over two weeks, she and Tristan had been walking together after section to his apartment down the hill. Today, she walked alone and, when she buzzed the building two doors beyond the bar, discovered he wasn't home, either. She was about to return to her place on Hope, but then decided to give him just five more minutes, and entered the bar where she'd be safe and could down a drink or two. Tonight, she thinks, picking at the chain around her neck, she will tell him. First she will apologize for her behavior last night, but will go on to announce, calmly and firmly, that it must be over now, whatever it is they've been engaged in recently, or, at any rate, not continued after this evening unless he could accept not sleeping with her, and maybe not even then. Alternatively, if she lost her nerve, she would at the very least be pointedly vague about their next meeting. She would not add that experience had taught her that this--two weeks--was just about the length of time her near-lovers could tolerate her ultimate refusal, a celibacy she'd been clinging to with a confused fervor ever since the only time she'd let it go: two years before with the one who'd been her own teaching assistant, in the spring, in Paris.
Around her neck is a tiger nail on a gold chain. She fidgets with it between bitten-down fingernails. Her uncle Ramesh killed the tiger in the jungle outside of Bombay when her mother Shashikala was a girl. He and his friend heard its approach while hunting and scrambled, terrified, up a nearby tree. Night rushed down on them and in the tree they crouched, her uncle shooting blindly into the darkness, afraid to move. Like this they passed a sleepless night. Hours later, the tiger's haunches rolled up out of the green mist; it was bulleted seven times through. The boys, fearful that as soon as they descended the creature would leap for their hearts, shot again to be sure, and so the fur was rendered worthless. Later, however, a bit of the meat was cooked, and Ramesh's friends met to swallow the minimum amount required for eternal protection from illness and harm. Shashikala had been too sickened to eat any, and had made her realm of jurisdiction the tiger nails, which were pried off the dead beast and sunk in gold. The girl was generous to a fault, though, and the nails vanished quickly into the hands of suddenly solicitous cousins and curious children, a mendicant, astrologer, and local tea vendor who stood in a notched sea of smashed cow-dung cups and fixed his mesmerizingly small-pupiled eyes upon her til only one remained: the one linked around his mother's neck by Ramesh himself. This was the nail that had been saved, guarded ferociously by Ramesh and Shashikala's parents for the grandchild they longed for one day.
Kayla's uncle used to frighten her mother by telling her if she swallowed sweet lime seeds trees would take root in her stomach and eventually thrust their laden branches from her mouth. However, when anyone else had tried to tease his precious bacchudi, he'd grown infuriated, his nostrils flaring to surprising dimensions. He would chase the miscreants with sticks straight into Powai Lake, shouting out Bhainchod! and Chutia! and Matherchot!, the finest profanities he could muster. These words Kayla's mother did not understand then, and to this day expressed only with a noiseless mouthing of the first syllables. Bhain, she'd whisper, her cheek dimpling, Chu. Mather. Sisterfucker, buttfucker, motherfucker--the translations to English seem so impersonal, so tepid, Kayla thinks, all singularity quelled by their measured strut.
Ramesh had been slim and brown as a pencil, with fleshy eyelids. His cowlicks had splayed his hair awkwardly on both sides. Kayla saw his pictures in the family albums, in which he seems to be concentrating very hard on something just past the camera, his body always pressed close to a knickered, grinning Shashikala she could hardly recognize. He was killed in a motorcycle accident a few years after the tiger incident.
With the tiny pink umbrella, she stirs the ice melting at the glass bottom. She thinks of Tristan's face, and back a few semesters to Patrick's and Treat's: boy faces with appled cheeks and mothlike gazes. In India, her mother and father's was an unfluttering courtship, without kisses, without caresses. Later--after they'd circled each other, draped in hyacinth and rose, for the seven steps of the marriage ceremony--they were each other's first and only lovers. They'd slept together at least once--Kayla was satisfied she was proof of that when pubescence punctuated her body just like her mother's--but she is not convinced their nuptial frolics ever exceeded this number. The two seem more like siblings to her than husband and wife, even like mother and son, and with that came the powerful sense that their relationship could not be destroyed.
She can catch her mother's ancient life in strands, like music pouring from the window of a passing train. This song is one she knows she will always hear only from a distance, a thought that is both an ache and a relief. Tristan's flushed features and broad-cut body disorient her just as much as her mother's conversations with aunts and older cousins in Marathi, the language Kayla lost over the years in America. Her mother's words pressed forth, moist and sparkly as pomegranate breaking open; when she spoke, Kayla plunged into a memory of herself as a baby, sitting naked on the cement floor in Bombay, rubbing blurry pink mango peels all over her body. Marathi, though now incomprehensible to her, warms her in a way that English with its corners and clearly delineated spaces has never been able to.
--I'm interested in a monogamous sexual relationship, Tristan told her two nights before. --Just you. No one else. You see. There is no need to use a condom.
She glances around the bar. Though she knows no one, the faces are familiar. Lighters flick on a world of narrowed eyes and the grizzled upper lips of men, inhaling with accustomed desperation from hand-rolled cigarettes. She nods for the check, thinking of how Tristan's kisses leave her breathless, how his desire in much the same way wicks the life from her. His is a steel embrace, as if he is saying, Don't worry, I will keep it all under control if you just hold perfectly still. He is painfully observant; Kayla saw how his eyes flickered across rooms and streets, bars and bleachers, landing with a flattering intensity upon the found female element, the same way they rested on her for weeks in the student lounge where section was held.
All semester she felt the yellowish vortex of his eyes as she sat cross-legged on the lounge floor. She quoted Rilke, analyzed Strindberg, all the time made physically aware of her body by his gaze: its nakedness marked by the warm patches on her buttocks, slow pull of inner thighs, the quiet push of her nipples against silk, and the trickle of gold cool around her neck. Her hair was long, black as a bull's flank, to her hips. She used it to hide the eye that told too much, the corner of mouth that smiled when it shouldn't, shielded her profile when it seemed, as it often did, foreign and stark. She felt she had the head of an alien, with its wide forehead and eyes, and the unyielding jut of skull behind her ears. Hats did not fit her. Tristan was always watching her.
This was the same class that was assistant-taught two years previously by--as she, a freshman then, believed--an astonishingly erudite upperclassman who was, later, during a year abroad, quite pleased to initiate the eager ex-student into his kingdom of fleeting light. He did this late one evening in a park in the ninth arrondisement in Paris; her back arched and ground against the pebbles, damp with April, as the space between her legs widened and ached for the first time.
--Move that goddamned necklace, it's poking me, he'd muttered, sliding the tiger nail round to the back of her neck. Its tiny dig there comforted her, distracted her from the sensation that her entire body was turning porous, and she floating above it, waiting for the shifting below to cease, for it to be safe to come down again.
He laid his hand over her mouth and stifled a gasp just as an elderly couple passed nearby, leaning on each other for support.
--You must be built wrong, he told her after. --Or you would have enjoyed it.
* * *
In India, where she'd been until the age of five, Kayla had been the fat one, her cousins and aunts all a scant ninety pounds or under, their torsos stemming diaphanously up from wide-wound pelvises. She'd been the loud one, too; she broke into wild peals of laughter in temples and monasteries--once even at a cremation, so delighted had she been at the idea of one's body cindering down and scattering, vanishing completely. She'd been asked to lower her voice, gather her chapphals from the rambling mass by the threshold, and wait outside.
She leaves a dollar under the empty glasses and leaps from the stool. She can feel the hot flare of men's eyes trailing her as she leaves. Unfortunately, down this part of the hill, there was no other place for her to wait. The days are getting dark as soon as they get light and it is a dangerous thing, especially lately, for a woman to walk alone to the parts of campus where it loosens its grip on itself, floods into the city. Three weeks before, a freshman aad been attacked in a parking lot at five o'clock in the afternoon, dusk still in her eyes; a week prior to that, a graduate student living off campus had been assaulted repeatedly by two men who tore her door right off its hinges. Rape whistles were handed out in the post office and women's center, and at the roadside stands set up by the yellow-jacketed students of the university's sexual harassment patrol.
Wrapping herself in her arms, she walks down toward Tristan's building, taking hurried steps through the buckling leaves. She thinks of the whistles, quickens her pace. They are striped red and yellow, with emergency numbers stamped on in black. She doesn't have one but, then, she doesn't usually wander around alone after dark, nor talk to strangers, make eye contact, or engage in otherwise dangerous activities. Her mother, who is from the warrior caste, Kshatriya, and knows these things, had always told her the tiger nail would protect her and that fate only worked in retrospect.
She thinks backward toward her fate. Her thoughts glow from the rum. She gropes at them, tries to separate and order them into a logical path. She can see how the whole affair started, but is still struck by how immediately she--the charmer, the teacher--lost her footing as soon as it slipped from class to bedroom. For her it is over now, as there is nothing left for them to do but sleep together, which seems like a bad reason to do so (though, she fears, not enough of a reason not to). But she does not know how to begin to say no, when it is she who has brought them, yes by yes, to this point in the first place: in her moaning desire to tide out of herself into his hands, in her saying nothing at all, even in the way she taught class.
She remembers the section on Miller's Tropic of Cancer, how she blinked slowly, allowed herself to say it:
--The cunt is integral to Miller's conception of female sexuality.
The voice speaking did not sound like hers. No one said anything. She felt her hand slide up between her breasts to snatch the gold-tipped pendant there. Her heart beat heavily against her palm, as if it were the only thing inside her; it had beaten between her legs when she said it, where the seam of her pants tingled. Tristan was very still, watching her. She did not turn away, and had the intoxicating sensation, for the first time, that her eyes had their own vortex, that she was pulling him into her world, that for the first time the other was coming to her.
He approached her after the rest of the students left.
--I just had to tell you, he said. --You have taught me so much. You've taught me to see the world in a whole new way. You are so different from anything I've ever experienced. I mean, your class is.
--I'm really happy to hear that, she said, and in the emptied room, was shy and looked down, pretending to search for something in her papers.
--I'm really happy, too, said Tristan. --To be here.
She didn't know what to say. Her stomach, as if to collapse the silence, groaned. She let her hair fall forward.
--I just had a great idea, he said. --Do you want to grab some Indian food? We could stuff ourselves, talk a little Miller. That is, if you're not afraid to be seen with a student.
She lifted her face, remembered she was the teacher.
--I'm not afraid, she said.
In the restaurant, he asked her to order. They had chicken tikka masala andnaan thick with jaggery, and King Fisher beer. He wanted her to correct him, spell words, pronounce slowly. He fixed his eyes on her mouth as it funneled sound for him. He told her--as she tore the bread and smeared it with mango jam--that he found eating with the hands not only sensible, but much more sensual. Outside, it grew dark while they lingered, not discussing literature.
--I love Indian food, he said. --It's so hot and exotic, so colorful.
He seized the check from the waiter's hand, and put his finger to her lips when she protested.
--Like Indian women, he said. --Like you.
He walked her to her door, insisting that it just wasn't safe around town for a girl lookin' like she did. They stood under the ginkgo tree, suffused with a pale gold light even at that hour. He reached up to snap a silken leaf from a lower bough, and handed it to her.
--You've shown me so much, he said. --I want you to keep showing me things.
They stared at each other, a long time. She twisted her chain. His face neared, dissolved, and they kissed, tasting of fennel and cumin and beer.
She went inside, but seconds later there was a tap at the door. When she opened it, Tristan was there, swaying. He reached out and pressed something into her hand.
--You must have dropped this, he said. --When we were...you know.
The tiger nail coiled up warm in her palm. She was sleepy and tipsy. The sight of it filled her with nostalgia and she wanted so much to love him.
--Come in, she said. --Don't go yet.
--I want to come in, Teacher, he said. --More than anything.
She glows, her edges softened, the drink pooled down. She can't feel the weather. She points the tiger nail into her palm, barely slitting the numbness. At Tristan's door, she lifts her hand to the buzzer and is surprised at the crimson valley the nail has imprinted there.
--Hey, Kayla, come on up--his voice jets out of the little holes, narrow and distant, as if from the bottom of a well. --I just got in.
She walks up the two flights, very slowly. On the landing before his door, she hesitates.
Tristan's apartment is a one-bedroom set up for two people via a convertible sofa, but his roommate spends every other night at the dorm of a girlfriend, a Liverpudlian with blonde hair to her hips, cleopatra bangs, eyes smudged to the ducts with makeup, and a nose-ring. The night before, Sly and Eve were there when Kayla arrived, Sly sucking on an apple bong and exhaling into Eve's mouth, his tongue uncoiling the smoke down her open throat. Eve was in Sly's lap, her skirt hiked up just past her underwear, and Sly's hand slithered under its hem. He clinched her there when he held the smoke in, his eyes wound tightly shut.
Though they were only feet from the door, neither seemed to notice Kayla's arrival. She sat next to Tristan on the pull-out bed where he was lying, eyes bloodshot, cigarette silvering between his fingers. He hoisted himself up and thrust his feet into the slippers he kept by the bed to couch his nighttime stumbles to the bathroom; he had cold feet, with curled-over toenails that left Kayla's shins scratched. He leaned in to kiss her, and she was just about to ask where they should go when his tongue flicked against her teeth, and she felt his hand sliding up between her legs. She could see Sly and Eve watching then, unblinkingly, from the couch. Sly's fingers jerked around more quickly under Eve's skirt.
--I can't, Kayla whispered, tearing her head back. --What are you doing? Not with them here.
--Oh, don't worry, Teacher, Tristan slurred. --We're in our own world. Us and them, we're parallel universes.
He began to mimic Sly's gestures on the crotch of her jeans.
--You'll get used to it, he said.
She longed to see it his way, to melt under the pressure of his fingers as her own hands had taught her she could--so many years ago, in the humming sun patch of her young bedroom--but she could not shake the feeling that, in this room where every body was doing the same thing and no one was hiding, she was the only one revealed.
--I don't get used to anything. She nearly sobbed when she said it, and stood, swinging up her knapsack. --I can't and I don't.
--Whoa, freaking so soon? Tristan smiled and flopped back on the bed. --What a sweet little baby you are. Your big brown eyes and your big bad morals.
--If it were a question of morals, she said. At least then, she thought, she could do either the right thing or wrong, launch herself out of this grey area she so often inhabited.
But she didn't have the energy to justify herself, and said nothing. As she slipped into the hall, Tristan's laughter, mixed with the machine-like titters of Eve and Sly's dark chortle, chased after her down the stairs and into the street, mingling, then, with the voices, dulled through windowpanes, of the men in the bar next door.
On the landing, she runs a hand through her hair. Then knocks, tries the knob. It is unlocked and she goes in.
--Hi, she says, closing the door behind her. Her eyes adjust to the drop in light.
Tristan is slumped back on the pulled out bed, his face patterned fire by the twirling Chinese lantern. Lids drifting, lips slippery. His fingers choke the neck of a tequila bottle.
--Hey there, he says. --Come closer, stranger.
She tries to imagine him as he was in class. In her mind, she assembles behind him first the high walls then the windows of the student lounge, slaps him back against a wooden chair and pretends he is watching her break down Robbe-Grillet, rather than fumbling toward him, bent on proving her ability to nimbly blend into his undulating world. It is not so difficult to imagine that other room. She sees now that the boy before her today was the boy in the lounge all along. The coincidence is startling, as she feels so far from the young woman she was in that other place.
--You weren't in class today? It was the last one.
--I had to see a friend, he says. Light spins over his eyes, turns them transparent. --How was it? A grand finale?
She doesn't know where he's been. His radio is playing that song, maybe if you would be true, darling i wouldn't be so blue.
--Yeah, it was good, she says. --Amazing, actually, yes. And, well, about the way I acted last night, I just want to say--
--Aw, don't sweat it, Teacher, he says, and a smile wags across his face. --We have time to remedy that yet.
He stares at her a long time.
--You look beautiful in this light, he says. --Like a tiger.
--That's funny, she says, her shoulders unhunching a little. --I've got a tiger nail around my neck. My uncle killed it in the jungle in Maharashtra.
--Shh, he says. --Hold still. You are so beautiful when you hold still. Let the light pass over you.
She imagines the outline of a hand against her mouth and holds back a cry of indignation. After Ramesh was killed, her mother had told her once, no one would ever again say his name in that house in Bombay; instead, they passed the days in a slow silence, as if underwater, carefully numbing themselves against themselves.
She focuses on the way the tequila is lit up, a melt of garnets and rubies like the ones the British swiped from the Taj Mahal. The jeweled glass nears her. Grateful, she takes the bottle, tilting to her mouth the slow burn; it radiates out, merges with the haze already enveloping her. The bottle rises like a bugle as she drains it, the glass paling a shade.
--That's some swallow you've got there, says Tristan, taking the bottle back with one hand and setting it on the bedside crate; with the other, he loops into her belt hook and pulls her closer.
--You've got a leaf in your hair, he says, and like the magician at a hazy birthday party, draws a delicate yellow ginkgo fan from behind her ear. It looks inappropriate in this room. --You heathen tiger child. I'll bet you fuck like a tiger too.
--But I can't, she blurts. Blurting is exhausting. Her voice sounds like it does on tape, heightened and as if in another room. --I won't. Remember. I wanted to talk to you about that.
--Queen of the kama sutra, he says. --You are too modest. Your people wrote the book of love. I'll bet you know all sorts of tricks. I've seen the paintings.
--I'm not so flexible, she says. --And no one in India does that stuff, anyway. It's all hype.
--You've got leaves all over you, he says, and pulls the twisted chain and then the flesh of her neck between his teeth. --Lie down. Let me brush you off.
* * *
In Paris, that April, that evening, she and the teaching assistant had gotten up, swept the twigs and pebbles from their clothes, and walked back to his apartment on the rue Perdue. It wasn't really a street but an underground walkway, with elevators creaking up to the thirteenth floor apartment he shared with his half-brother and half-brother's girlfriend, an enthusiastic, moaning woman who, later that week, alarmed by the lack of parallel moaning on the wall's other side, offered to advise Kayla on how to position herself for le plaisir maximum.
That night, after, the teaching assistant had taken Kayla home by a roundabout route. He pointed out where and how Baudelaire had rhymed, Proust remembered, Nietzsche recurred--the information that had drawn her to him in the first place. Then, just as hope was reinstalling itself in her frazzled nerves, he proceeded to tick off a list of all the people he'd ever slept with: mostly women, prostitutes, au pairs, bartenders, students, peers, a professor, more students, friends' lovers and ex-lovers, once, a chum's mother, sunbathers in Ibiza, swimmers in Crete, painters with spattered hands and a language of unknown origin in the Basque country, and, just days before, his half-brother's girlfriend.
--That's my list, he said, grinning. They were standing on the rue Touillier, below the apartment in which Rilke had lived. The window was open and a breeze creaked its hinges. --Now it's your turn.
She said nothing, sought frantically in her head for lines from Rilke to guide her, but could only come up with the first words of the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: So this is where people come to live; I would have thought it is a city to die in.
--Me! he answered jubilantly for her. --That was easy.
--A city to die in, she said. Looking up at the window, she could see a light on somewhere inside; a soft thud of footsteps, and then a child's hand reached into the faded day to pull in the window and lock it. She was dazzled with loneliness.
--You're my fourth virgin, he said solemnly.
Later, he gripped her head and pulled her down to his groin, groaning and sputtering; by the end of the week, he told her with a mother's pride that she would make a fine lover, and perhaps teacher--was there a difference? weren't both about kindling desire?--to many men and perhaps women in her lifetime, and that he himself had gained valuable information from her that would aid him in the similar endeavors with students he would most certainly embark on in the near (carpe diem, after all) future.
She was stunned for about six months, and then began compiling a list of her own. She could not, however, bring herself to take these new boys quite all the way inside her, turn them into men in the baffling factory of her body, as she never felt she'd completely expelled him from her, regained her space and balance. Fortunately, cunnilingus was trendy on campus that year, and Patrick from her Homer and the Oral Tradition class set things off, left her nipples and thighs sprinkled with scabs; he also left her an itch in the genitals and, abruptly, for a dancer, gliding and punctual, who picked up where she left off. Then there was the Jackson Heights boy who entered her life during a particularly homesick period and clung to her with one hand while masturbating with the other; he eventually confessed she looked just like a cousin he'd had an affair with years ago, thus shedding light on his anxiety regarding family gatherings. Appearing on his heels: a student from Mexico City with political aspirations who--por mis padres, he assured her--plucked several photos of her from her albums, and later admitted they'd flown FedEx (priority overnight) to his excessively competitive ex-girlfriend on the calle del buen retivo; they were reunited, Luis was pleased to announce, shortly thereafter.
Interspersed between these events and after was the string of friends who overlapped and most of whom made her happy and managed to remain friends with her, and even with each other. The more possessive ones justified their overlap via her polytheistic upbringing, which must surely have turned her into an addict for options; the less possessive ones duplicated keys, and left doors and windows ajar for her to climb through at her convenience.
Kayla enjoyed the homogenizing effect of seeing head after head of boy's hair gripped between her legs. She managed to hold her interest in them because there was always that moment of pure distance, when the inextricable weave of personal history--lovers, accidents, secret pleasures and unadmitted thefts--would lift up for a moment behind the boy in question, silver filaments against an empty sky. She would see herself being stitched into the pattern, a slender thread, a particular slant that he would wrap about his shoulders for an instant to warm himself with. These were the frustrating moments that drew her in, made her long to be different and for him to be the same, to be cast into a pocket of time shaped like the numerous pockets where she'd cast the others.
* * *
Now Tristan is there, her thighs flanking either side of his disappearing face. She can smell herself and is repelled and fascinated. Her scent clings to the air like a dark wet curtain of uncooked things: honey, mud, mushrooms. He raises his head and climbs toward her face, presses his fingers across her lips. She feels herself sinking under the weight; he edges in, punctures her paralytic glow with the flat stretch and stab of his hard flesh. A particularly sharp jab in her right inner thigh makes her try to lift up and push him, but he is so heavy, and breathing isn't easy anymore, and just as she begins to cry out Wait! he slams his mouth over hers and her thick viscous taste rides his tongue, spreads down her own.
--Come on, he hisses. --Like a tiger.
He twists her over and the weight settles on her back. She feels her ass being pried apart, but her mouth is crammed with fabric and her chest run through with a series of tiny pricks and then something shimmers down between her breasts.
--I heard about Paris, he says.
She is aware of every organ of her body, its weight, pulse, and fallibility. Rectum. Kidney. The gasp of a lung. Each pain crushes into the others, becomes indistinguishable from no pain. The pressure builds inside her, pushing against the walls of her rupturing body from the inside out, combating the pressure from the outside in.
A tree taking root, she thinks, That's all. A tree is trying to grow inside me. My mouth is stuffed with leaves, my tongue caught in the branches.
* * *
--It's a jungle out there, the teaching assistant had told her in a meeting regarding her last paper. --In books and out of them. And if you're going to learn anything in life, you've got to be savage about it. No habits, no hang-ups, no doors barred.
--I just don't see why that word is necessary, she'd said, her hair shadowing her flushed cheek.
--The cunt, he said. His tongue glistened, hit the roof of his mouth. His lips were etched across with thin lines. She was embarrassed and spun her bangles.
--The cunt, he repeated. --Is an integral part of Tropic of Cancer. You simply can't write a paper on Miller's concept of female sexuality and avoid it.
--I wasn't avoiding it, she said. --I just wasn't calling it by that name.
--No is not yes, he said. --Maybe is not yes. A cunt is not a female reproductive organ, nor is it a vagina, nor is it 'her nether parts.' It is a cunt. That is the point.
--I'm not trying to be difficult, she said, fiddling with her necklace then. --I just don't think I'd feel so good saying it.
--What we're dealing with then is, essentially, a language problem, he said. --Taboo is merely a matter of habit, Kayla. Words are sound and context. Isolated, they are not finished products. Cunt, fuck, shit. Say the words. Just say them, over and over. You'll get used to it. It might even feel good.
He reached over, laid his hand over hers, on her clavicles, stilled her fingers.
--Don't be afraid, he said. --We can open up a whole new world.
His hand felt as if it had been in the sun.
--Cunt, she said. --Cunt. Fuck. Shit.
* * *
It is like grinding into dream within dream, each dream ashing down and vanishing as it is passed--no voice, no handhold, the lead drop of lids resisting the desperate silent wail of the dreamer to wake up! move! wake up! She tries to cry out but her Stop! s are muffled into moans. Finally, she is able to wrench free an arm and flings it out. It hits something hard and there is a crash that is composed of thousands of tiny crashes, mirrors slamming into each other. Between them, she feels the short dense punches where her thighs meet, and then the dry glide.
--You're so tight, she hears, in huffs. --It's so good to be inside you.
Shuddering and deep, still fear.
* * *
Her mother is afraid only of snakes. A psychic who lives in a large cedar house in the Berkshires, and owns a proportionately large dog reputed to have visions as well, told her it was because in a previous life she'd been bitten and killed by a cobra.
Kayla had seen a cobra once, swaying up from the basket of the flutist in the marketplace. She'd been four and in Bombay, and the snake's hood wider than both her hands thumbed together.
--Don't be afraid, beta, her uncle Deepak had told her. --The man is a charmer. The snake is under a spell and cannot hurt you.
Later that day they'd learned the snake had shot in a molten flash right out of the basket, through a swarm of mirrored saris and billowing pants, and straight for the small boy napping at the betel nut seller's side.
When her mother was still smaller, a cobra had worked its way down from the jungle to Powai Lake and killed three children. The family had remained in the house for days. As the rain beat against the roof, they'd clutched cups of spiced tea with buffalo milk and waited. It took a long time for them to begin to feel safe again, and they never completely did.
* * *
Her mind is sinking into ambers and reds. She is so submerged in that glow, as if she has permeated ice or fire, that it takes a moment to realize he has passed out upon her. Slowly, her body reassembles. His breathing is deep and his exhalations push like fists into the small of her back. He is surely asleep, but she is afraid to move, afraid she has misunderstood and that he will rise and leap at her, growl his way back into her flesh. She lies perfectly still for a long time. Finally, his own breathing rolls him off her to the side.
Light seeps in through the blinded windows, casting orange stripes that drop down the wall and across his turned head, slide the length of his body and bed. The air is thick with smoke and his breathing. Quietly, she peels out of the bed and stands, her inner thighs pearling over, dank to the knees. Her jeans and cardigan lie crumpled by the crate. She pulls on the jeans, trying not to inhale the smell of the room, feels how her stomach clenches and lifts when she does. As she reaches the top button of the sweater, she grabs instinctively for her neck. Then clavicles, chest, pinching wool and flesh until her ribs. She begins to shake.
Her eyes torch wildly about the room. Finally, she sees it: the tiger nail's chain burning through a tawny heap of ginkgo leaves and the brilliant, shattered glass her foot has just missed.
She crouches, delicately coaxes the necklace from the jagged remains of the tequila bottle. It glitters its small weight into her palm, the chain links bouncing gilded light into her eyes. The light cuts. Her eyes sting, and with the tip of her finger she strokes the nail, acquired by a boy she never knew, and safeguarded for her for years by a woman and man who did not know her, but who somehow treasured her in advance. She is homesick for these strangers, wants to lay her head down in a secret corner and sleep for months, dream them back into her life. How worn her uncle's body must have been that arboreal dawn. His eyes like wounds, painfully open.
She is not sure how to define what has just happened, at what point fate plays a role and nothing more can be done, at what point it was still in her hands. She tries to clip the chain around her neck, but it has lost a link and will not hook so she wedges it into her jeans pocket. Squatting, she collects the pieces of glass, being painstakingly careful as her great-grandmother taught her when, as a child in India, everything she touched seemed to long to be elsewhere: china, clocks, mirrors flashing sun to the cement floor, an earthenware vase of peacock feathers, their tumbled centers of blue unblinking eyes. She gathers every sliver, grazes the surface for any fleck of light that could indicate a leftover splinter.
Tristan continues to sleep as she makes her way back to the bed and squats again. Tipping her palms, she pours the larger pieces of broken rubies into his bedside slippers. He does not stir as she rises into the slatted light and works her way to the door, scattering behind her a dense wake of the invisible splinters. No movement still as she twists the knob, brushes the hair from her eye, and exits.
© 2001 Tanuja Desai Hidier
(Tanuja Desai Hidier's collection of connected stories, Tale of a Two-Hearted Tiger, won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award in 1995, and in 1997, she was a finalist for the Heekin Group Foundation Novel Competition. She is currently working on a new writing project. Like her fiction, Desai Hidier's short films deal with cultural assimilation themes. The Test has screened at the Tribeca Film Center, the 19th Asian American International Film Festival, the Smithsonian, the Desh Pardesh festival in Toronto, and it received an Award of Merit from the 1996 Sinking Creek Film & Video Festival at Vanderbilt University. The Assimilation Alphabet (co-written and -directed with Nisha Ganatra) screened at the 20th Asian American International Film Festival. Desai Hidier lives in London where she is lead vocalist/lyricist for San Transisto, a melodic rock/trip-hop band.)
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Milk Tea with Pearls
When I ran off to Taipei, I had no idea what was going to happen. From the way the way my parents talked, you'd think all people did in Taiwan was study and make money and take care of their families. But I wasn't listening to them. I'd already been a family disappointment for years, and a few months before I'd become a disgrace. It was bad that I couldn't get into med school when all my cousins were doctors, but at least I'd scrounged up an acceptable alternative. I went into finance, and I was good. Even if I couldn't be a doctor, I was carrying on my grandfather's legacy by making wads of money. The problem was, I was also a suppressed wanna-be playwright and a frustrated closet case—until I got drunk at my perfect cousin Wen Hsiung's wedding and confessed to three cousins that I was gay. When my parents found out—you should have heard the scenes! It was too much for me: I had to flee the country. Of course, being the bright bulb I am, I didn't take the easy way out and go to Mexico or Prague: I bought myself a ticket to the old country.
So there I was, fresh off the plane like all those over-eager, over-achieving Taiwanese Americans taking a pit stop between college and grad school. Only I was thirty-one, and I didn't have any plans for after the pit stop.
After a few weeks I knew it was a disaster: The house I had rented was right off a noisy street, and its bathrooms were designed so there was always two inches of water on the floor. Scooters and brand-new BMWs ran me down every time I went into the street; and the buildings were dingy concrete blocks that made me fantasize about the gorgeous architect I'd been obsessed with in my early twenties. I couldn't find out where the gay people were because I couldn't speak Chinese.
Yes, there I was: El Stupido. I wanted to avoid my family and deal with being gay, so I came to… Taiwan, Land of the Out Homosexuals and Hands-off Relatives. The day I got a cell phone, it started ringing. "Kah-nath, we invite you to dinner." "Kah-nath, you want to work in Uncle Fu's business? Nice opportunity—we make you vice president. Or maybe you want to work in my business? I put you in charge of Taichung City." "Kah-nath, we introduce you to nice lady from good family." "Kah-nath, your parents worry about you. You call them." It didn't surprise me. My family can afford to pay off a telecommunications company. So I told the phone company my name was Asian Queen and got a new cell phone, with cash.
It was miserable. I was eating the same cuisine every night, taking taxis to streets that were romanized three different ways, and paying for two cell phones and a maid to mop up the bathroom every day. In Chinese class, I was learning how to say "Good morning, teacher. Is Ming Tsai a good student?" This was going to get me a hot boyfriend in about ten years.
I went to the bank and withdrew money from my New York bank accounts. The balances were getting lower. If the situation kept up, I'd become like the proletarian expats and have to get a job teaching English. Dictating phrases to a bunch of pimpled bushiban kids wasn't an exciting thought, so whenever it came up, I shoved it into the part of my mind where my sexual orientation used to go, and went on-line. I spent hours every day surfing the web. One day I had the brilliant idea of looking for gay Taiwanese sites, but they were in… yup, Chinese. I found a phone number, but when I called, it rang and rang. Several times a day, between choosing which neighborhood Chinese restaurant would serve me my next meal, staring at my Chinese flash cards or clicking onto web sites which listed meetings for "Leather Men in the Seattle Area" or "Gay and Lesbian Francophones" (New York) or "LGBT Asian Pacific Americans" (San Francisco), I dialed the Taiwanese phone number on my Asian Queen cell phone. No answer. All the gay people in Taiwan were out partying or had moved off the island--maybe to San Francisco.
I was starting to consider that move myself when fate rescued me. It was a typical day in mid-June. Taipei was like a steam room, and the air was filled with the sound of motorcycle engines and honking horns. I was sprawled out on the soft leather couch in my living room, drinking a glass of Pokari Sweat and blasting the air conditioner to block out the heat and the noise. I was flipping through the cable channels and drifting in and out of a daydream life where I wrote plays and zipped across the Golden Gate Bridge on a motorcycle with my cute, super-confident boyfriend, when a high-pitched, fluting sound interrupted the premier of my first play. I looked around. The sound came again, and then I realized: my doorbell. How pathetic. I'd never heard it before.
A tall, thin guy with a crew cut and wire-rimmed glasses was there. He started talking, proving that I hadn't learned anything in Chinese class. Zip. Nada. Zilch. I stared at him like an autistic guy who was trying really hard, and after a moment I saw the facts start to register in his mind: Uncomprehending expression. Faded blue jeans. An English-language program on the TV. A Taiwanese American. He switched to English.
"I am here… to ask for… help. I am from a foundation whose purpose is to counsel and educate the people who have AIDS. We also like to inform the people about the prevention of AIDS." Every word was precise. It was obvious he'd studied English very hard in school. I stared at him. Leather jacket. Concerned about AIDS.
"I'm gay. I don't know where to go. Can you help me?" I just blurted the words. He stared at me. Yeah, I thought, I'm totally desperate. I'm crazy. Then I thought, I wasn't exactly using vocabulary they teach in school. I looked at his leather jacket. "I'm ho-mo-sex-ual," I said. I pronounced the word like I was talking to a deaf person.
His eyes widened like he'd figured out an equation, and then he said, "New World. It is a teahouse for homosexuals. Its location is on Hsin Sheng South Road, in the Lane 54. Very near to the Taiwan National University." I wanted to kiss him. Instead, I gave him the 3000 NT I'd been planning to spend on a new pair of sunglasses. Then I thought maybe I should get his phone number, but I didn't want to look like some tacky guy trying to buy him, so I gave him another thousand and almost shoved him out the door.
That guy probably saved my life. In about a week, I went from being a lonely, depressed guy with no friends to a man who was part of a circle. Back when I took English Lit classes, I used to read about people who were part of these artsy, intellectual circles--Virginia Woolf and those Bloomsbury people, or Mary McCarthy and Lionel Trilling and their whole New York intellectual-Commie-lit crit circle. And suddenly there was me—nervous, skinny Kenneth from Westchester—hanging out with these artists and activists and gay people.
They were in galleries and on talk shows and all over the place. I could pick up a glossy gay magazine two of them had started, or join one of their street rallies, or just drink gao liang and sing karaoke and ride around on motorcycles with people who were behind all the vibrant shit going on in Taipei. It was amazing. I walked in and the next thing I knew, the guy who ran the place was taking care of me. He was showing me a new tea drink every time I came in and taking me to bars and film screenings and high stakes mah jong games. I didn't have to do anything but smile. He was sexy in a long-haired, wiry, artistic way, so I was pretty happy. After my one disaster of a boyfriend, I was ready to try again. I just thought it was funny, me joining the long tradition of decorative pretty-boys when I had way more money than my provider.
My Chinese got better too. At first Yan was translating all the time, but after a while I started picking things up. I guess you could say I had some incentive: I was in the center of some happening intellectual group. Who wouldn't memorize a little vocabulary?
After a while of hanging out with Yan, I figured out that he had some sugar daddy-like figure of his own: Mr. Liu. I'd been hearing mentions of this guy since I arrived. Mr. Liu was calling Yan on his cell phone. Mr. Liu had important clients coming in from Japan or Singapore or Hong Kong, and Yan had to meet them. Mr. Liu was trading in tiger's teeth again. Mr. Liu was opening a new casino in Macao. I heard that on some evenings, Mr. Liu took over the tea house so he could drink and sing karaoke with his private group of gay businessmen.
I first saw him at the end of my second month at New World. By that time Yan and I were flirting and making out in theaters, and I was wondering if I should go to bed with him. But first I wanted to find out what kind of competition I had. I already knew he was married. That's competition for sure, but I could write the marriage off to Taiwan, fear, being in the closet, all of that. As if I didn't know enough about those things--another man with money... Though, who knew?
It was the middle of the week when I found out Mr. Liu was coming. I came into the teahouse and saw Mei Li sitting with her hands clenched in front of her. All the muscles in her shoulders and arms were tensed. That girl needed a stiff drink, or maybe a real husband. Yan was staring at an order ticket and smacking a spoon around inside a metal teapot. After a moment I realized that he was making a drink. I felt like I was on the set of the wrong movie. Usually Mei Li was the do-everything kind. You could say she kept the tea flowing. Yan was the party boy; he laughed and told jokes and teased people who hadn't come to the teahouse in a while. He juggled guavas and clementines and argued politics and did impressions of the straight customers who looked around, confused, on days when the teahouse looked especially queer. Mei Li bossed the waiters around and made drinks and made loud, upset phone calls when the supplies were late. Without her the whole place would have closed down and followed Yan to some gay party under a Taipei bridge.
"Mei Li," I said. "What's up?" I was probably risking my health to say it, but we Americans are supposed to be so forthright and everything.
She jerked her head at waiter Yan. "Business," she spat out in Chinese. "How are we supposed to stay open? Mr. Liu thinks he can make us close anytime so he can have a private party?"
Yan started to say something I couldn't understand, but she cut him off.
"Friday night! How many customers do you think we'll lose if we close tonight!"
Yan looked at me and then back at Mei Li. "Just wait a little longer," he said in English. "At this rate, in four years we own more than fifty percent, and then I can say something to him." Mei Li glared at him and then at me.
"Why the fuck are you speaking English?" she said—in English. "Is this a performance for your boyfriend or a talk with your wife?"
"Hey, hey," I said. "You guys talk. Maybe I should get going."
Mei Li ignored me. "I am sick of this. You have to get your priority straight. You are married man."
Yan gave me a nervous smile. He had such sensitive lips, and he was worried about what I thought. Mei Li noticed the smile, and it didn't help her mood.
"I work from early morning to late at night," she snapped, "but you throw it away because you can't stand up to your boss. When will you stop playing?" Tiny short hairs damp with sweat were curling around her face. She was flushed. I wondered suddenly if Yan made love to her. He must have done it at least once or twice. I wondered if he gasped when he went into her and what feelings washed through him when he came. For a moment I felt their bodies coming together, sweaty with need. I felt a flash of jealousy, and hurt. They lived in the same house and spoke the same language; they saw each other when they hadn't showered; they shared all the same friends and all the details of running a teahouse. They'd been married for six years, and I didn't even know if they slept in the same bed. Sure, there was a crack in the marital foundation and sure, it was easy to list everything I could give him and she couldn't, but still.
"Mei Li, stop worrying," Yan said. "I am not going to be under his control forever. And what is wrong with a little playing?" I looked at the slighted anger on Mei Li's face. He couldn't have made love to her for a long time, I thought; and yes, it was insensitive of me, but I was glad.
"Why are you always so upset?" Yan said. "We are paying ahead of schedule."
Mei Li tensed. "You say 'Don't worry, at this rate we will be finished paying fast,' and then you say 'Hey, life is not all work. Why don't we slow down?' So inconsistent. So irresponsible." She turned to glare at me. I didn't say anything, though I could have said, Whoa, girl. This is not about me. But who was I kidding? Of course it was. She was in love with him, and he was gay, and I was the gay guy who was breaking up her fantasy of a happily-ever-after life.
"Uh, really," I said. "I think I'll leave you two alone. Li Ling looks like she could use some help."
When I came back that night, I barely recognized the place. Up at the front, next to the bar, the usual tables were gone; and you could see the sectioned-off dance floor with a microphone, large black speakers, and a wide-screen TV—the whole karaoke set-up. The Japanese paper screens—the ones which usually screened off the sides of the room so lovey-dovey couples could sit—were behind the karaoke stage. In front of this all, a bunch of Taiwanese men were crowded at a big table, playing cards loudly and doing shots. I was deciding which one was Mr. Liu when Li Ling passed me.
"Li Ling." I pulled her over, then stopped. "Hey—what's up with the outfit?" Li Ling was in a pink silk qi pao embroidered with blue and red phoenixes. She was actually made up, with blushed cheeks and red lips and the kohl effect around the eyes.
"Don't say anything," she said to me. "Tonight I am following the cultural construction of an Asian hostess." She smiled and I saw a glimpse of the usual warm girl under her outfit. "Mr. Liu's idea."
"So which one is Mr. Liu?"
She pulled me closer and pointed. "The one with the most expensive suit, of course."
I took a look. He was in his forties, with angular features, very dark, well-cut hair, and an expensive Italian suit. Not what I'd expected. When I think "Taiwanese businessman," I think of my uncles—solid dark suits, solid haircuts and solid square frame glasses. Solid waistlines, solid wallets, and a solid lack of style. This guy was stylish and shady and powerful. He was there with a group of fashionable, gay-looking groupies and uncomfortable middle-aged men who all looked at him like he was in charge. And he had paid for Yan's teahouse. Bad news. I was calculating how to win Yan away when someone tapped me on the arm.
"What are you looking at? Should you be looking at me?"
I swung around and grabbed Yan by the shoulders and kissed him.
"Shhh." He laughed. "It's better to be...quiet. Mr. Liu knows I am not interested, but it's best not to make it too obvious."
At the table, Mr. Liu slapped down a card and called, "Okay, it's over! I won." The voices rose. One of the men slapped the table and said, "Okay, Liu. Sing!" The men began chanting: Chang ge! Chang ge! Mr. Liu rose and made his way to the karaoke stage. The wide screen came on behind him. There was a fair-skinned woman walking across the screen, her black hair blowing in the wind. Yan blew gently in my ear. The first chords of a pop love song came on, and a line of white characters appeared at the bottom of the screen.
Mr. Liu wasn't watching Yan as he sang. He was looking at one of the younger Taiwanese men at the table. The guy was looking at Mr. Liu with pretty mean eyes.
"Those two went to bed together," Yan whispered in my ear. "Mr. Liu still loves Peter, but Peter looks down on him."
The chorus started, and the men at the table burst out singing. Zai xin zhong, wo zui ai de ren shi ni: Deep in my heart, the one I love most is you. Not Peter, though. Peter was hard-hearted. When Mr. Liu looked at him longingly, he turned away and did a shot of gao liang. The cheesy chorus line swelled again. Zai xin zhong, wo zui ai de ren shi ni. Yan squeezed my hand. I squeezed his. I was starting to feel bad. Here I was, loved and safe while poor Mr. Liu bought teahouses and sang love songs for guys who didn't even like him.
But as the evening wore on, I could see it wasn't just Mr. Liu I should feel bad for. Really, it was all these guys. They gambled and drank and sang heterosexual love songs, with tears running down their faces. It was ten o'clock, and then eleven, and then midnight, and they didn't let up. Their faces got redder, and the air got smokier, and empty cans of Taiwan beer and gao liang kept filling up the table. From an economic point of view, I couldn't see why Mei Li looked so pissed every time she took more bottles away—these guys were probably giving a houseful of regular customers a run for their money. Maybe the singing was getting on her nerves. For hours they sang. They had a whole stack of DVD's filled with these love songs. I'm not the one to talk to about healthy gay self-esteem, but if you ask me, I'd say that crying and singing heterosexual love songs for hours on end is probably not the best idea.
At first Yan and I sat with them, playing hands and knocking back some shots, but after a couple hours Yan looked at me and said, "We should help Mei Li and Li Ling." We got up and moved to a little table to the side of the bar, in the general vicinity of where Mei Li and Li Ling were stacking used glasses and dirty dishes. I think he could tell how much their singing was getting to me.
I remember in middle school one day I walked back from school in the rain. After a while the rain started to feel really cold, but I couldn't do anything. My head was wet and cold; rain was running down my glasses and dripping off my nose; my shoes were sopping wet and my feet were freezing. Every time a car passed, I saw the person inside, warm and dry, moving fast, while I was plodding past gray brush and soggy fences. At first I felt jealous, and then I felt frustrated and angry. All I could see was warm cars and houses and people who had what I couldn't have. I felt totally helpless; it was like a mass of heavy air covered everything I saw. Then all of a sudden there was a break in the fences, and I saw a little girl playing in front of a huge house. She didn't see me staring. She was tiny, with tangled brown hair and mud-splashed legs. She was crouched there in a white dress that dragged in the wet grass, humming and patting the mud together to make a little house. She didn't even notice the huge, ugly house behind her, its solid brick body and peaked entranceway and enormous chimneys.
I took a breath, and then I noticed that the heavy air had lifted. I could feel it like a mass above me, waiting to land, but I could also feel the air around me, light and clear. That's how I felt in the teahouse. The men were drunk and crying, and I felt the despair moving into my gut and sinking into my bones. Then I looked away from Mr. Liu's men, across the little table I shared with Yan, and saw him smiling at me: our little table, a safe island in the misery. And I felt it: Yan's teahouse was an island in Taiwan, and Yan, Yan was an island too.
Emmeline Chang teaches at Gotham Writers' Workshop. Her work appears in Mr. Beller's Neighborhood (www.mrbellersneighborhood.com), TEN magazine, and ACM: Another Chicago Magazine. Web site: www.emmelinechang.com.
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"Hear me, Eric?" Ma says, turning from the TV. She's got her swollen feet propped on the rim of the tub, which sits dead center in the middle of the kitchen. "I don't want to hear any more complaints from Lao Gong." Ma's got on a new uniform. She's done up her hair with a thick red ribbon and she's even got lipstick on, too. It's New Year's. Big tips tonight, she says.
"Damn cripple," I say, crossing the imaginary line into my room. "The only ba-la-lang going on around here's in Lao Gong's ugly fat head."
"Ai." Ma sighs, giving me a look like she's sucking on a pickled plum. She shakes out her apron. "He's old."
"Relax, Mrs. Tsui," Seymore says, blowing a bubble with his gum. "We're just going to hang. I gotta go help at the store later anyway." Seymore practically runs the place these days. His old man spends most of his time doing these fucked-up paintings. Ma said it's no secret—except to Seymore, anyway—that his Ma took off with some Hong Kong rich ass. His old man would rather tell Seymore she's a missing person—"a bad man took her away"—than dish the truth. Seymore thought some asshole had her tied up somewhere; he wanted to find the bitch. These days, though, Seymore doesn't say much. Thinks after all this time she's dead. Why else wouldn't she have come back for him?
"Eat here," Ma tells Seymore. "I cooked too much. Don't want to waste."
Seymore and I toss our knapsacks on the top bunk and dump ourselves below on my brother Johnnie's. The Asshole would shit if he saw us here.
I give Seymore a look like, Wish she'd get lost already. With my foot, I snap the skateboard up and catch it in my hands. The wheels spin, its ball bearings clicking in the air. The hallway leading to the door's got my name all over it: Skate, go ahead, skate, it tells me. There's a scuff mark from the ollie over the tub; a turned-around S from pretending to thrash a halfpipe.
[Novel excerpt. Continues in this month'sBookshelf section. See note below. Eds.]
"Troublemaker" won third place in the Playboy Fiction Contest. Christina Chiu, a cofounder of the Asian American Writers Workshop, lives in New York.
[Note: Chiu's novel by the same title will be appearing from Penguin/Putnam. Consequent limitations on the duration and word count of the preview make the Bookshelf section best suited to accommodate it. The Bookshelf excerpt will run during September only and will not be archived. Big City Lit welcomes submissions of first chapters for showcasing in the Bookshelf section precisely to assist the author in finding a publisher. Eds.]
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