purification ritual #2
…………2017 Fiction Prize Winner
The night you came home from rehab was the night I found out that’s why you were gone for so long. When you left you said you were staying at your mom’s house for the summer and she doesn’t have Internet. I said ok, you can email me from the public library if you ever go there.
I spent the summer in Shanghai waiting in front of my grandma’s computer. I sat under the ceiling fan and watched TV with one eye on each screen. The TV spoke to me about money and girls while I pressed my face against the computer’s violet hunger and imagined you eating leftovers in your mom’s kitchen, floral wallpaper glistening from the microwave light. In my mind you hovered between conversation and exit, waiting for the garage door to open before spooning rice into bowls.
My grandma’s vision is fading so when she wanted to watch TV I had to sit next to her and narrate everything out loud. She liked hospital dramas until they started to remind her of death. After that we skipped through channels and watched only the commercials.
—There are two people riding on one motorcycle.
—Are they wearing helmets?
—That’s not safe.
—She’s steering and he’s biting down on her shoulder. Her hair is yellow and the wind is whipping it against his face.
—Does it hurt?
—No he likes it.
—Is it a commercial for the sunset?
—I think it’s for either for motorcycles or hair.
—Tell me when something else happens.
My grandma went outside to get the mail and when she came back she slammed the door behind her. How come, she yelled, I get ads in the mail for things I don’t even need.
After the summer ended we all trickled back to school. It was the week where we read over the syllabus and drank on porches because there was nothing to do except look at mirage lakes in driveways. My friends and I played card games and whoever could cheat the longest without getting caught was the winner. My strategy was to never cheat because I don’t like lying, and sometimes it worked because I’d be the only one left in the game. I was slurping at a bottle of lukewarm wine when my grandma called to ask why I hadn’t returned her call for two weeks.
—It takes you two weeks to call me back.
—I’m sorry Nainai I forgot. I’ll do it faster next time.
—You have a boyfriend or something?
—You tell me what then.
—Grandma it’s nothing. I’m just busy.
—Bring him to Shanghai next time.
—Nainai it’s just a crush. In America dating is not so serious.
—Is he from the mainland?
I take a big swig so she can hear.
—No. He’s white.
—What do his parents do.
—I don’t know. We don’t talk about that.
—What do you talk about.
I don’t tell my grandma that we spoke once that summer, it wasn’t about school, and most of the time I came over you had glasses of moldy tea on your nightstand. The mold grew in spores and each time I sat on your bed I saw the disks opening and closing like flowers. When that semester ended there was a pool of water lillies in your bedroom and your roommates were mad because there were no cups left in the kitchen but I still didn’t want you to wash them out and have to start over. Over the phone my grandma clicked her tongue and said something about needing glasses to see her screen.
When I was younger I wouldn’t go to bed unless my grandma told me a story from her village. Back then we shared a bed and I rubbed her swollen ankles with my hands. Her skin was yellow and purple from crouching down in the fields. Press harder, she said, and lower. I massaged tiger balm into her legs until my fingers tingled with mint and musk. She told me stories about the fishermen in Lianshui, unhooking metal from hollow cheeks. They had stubby fingers scabbed from long nets and ate rice steamed in grape leaves. She never talked about the communists, or their camps, how my dajiu burned his books when they came, and the smoke that rose like curdled milk.
I was too young for stories like that. Instead she told me stories about rabbits with special powers. Now I am older and I know nothing of her history, or mine, but I could tell you all the local myths about shapeshifting rabbits. When a rabbit crosses your path you can’t tell if it’s an omen or a blessing—all you know is that something is about to happen that will change the way you see. In one story a rabbit puts a curse on a man. The curse makes his pupils come to life and speak to each other. They are lonely inside their respective irises, so the left pupil migrates to the right eye. Afterwards the man is blind on one side, but his vision in the other is clearer than ever.
My grandma does not dye her hair like the other women but it’s still still black as coal. When she talks she bites her crooked lip and spit goes flying. I don’t believe most of what she says but sometimes she just looks at my palm lines and smacks her gums.
In September you asked if I was still around and I waited 22 minutes before responding. You said I could come through whenever so I skipped class. I sat on your bed and watched you ash cigarettes on the floor and shove carrots in your rabbit’s mouth.
Your parents got you this pet rabbit cause they thought having simple responsibilities would make you less afraid of complex ones. I called it your depression rabbit and you laughed. His eyes are on opposites sides of his head, you said, so he can’t see things that are right in front of him. That’s why you have to force the carrot in.
I watched the rabbit screech and take bites that were too big for its teeth. You said they let you out of Turning Point last night, which sounded like driver’s ed but the way you said it made me think it was something else. When you pressed down on my thighs I touched the plastic tags on your wrists. From upside-down I thought they said ‘im-patient’ and I thought, me too.
The next morning I left your house through the back door. There was a dirty kids pool in the center of the lawn. We used to dip our feet in the water last spring, but Rafael pissed in it when he was drunk so we never did it again. Inside the pool a neon algae bloomed. It was a shade of green I had only seen on my computer screen. I stood there fixated, and then crouched down and put my hand in it. It was soft and lush, like rabbit’s fur.
On the walk home I thought about rabbits in the wild. It’s weird how most of them find flowers to eat and don’t have to get force fed by sweaty palms.
You looked different after you came back. They regulated your meals so you gained some weight, but you had the same three shirts they were just kind of tight. You got this new laugh that made everyone in the room go quiet. It made me think of a bird dying at twilight. Eee heee hehe is what it sounded like.
And you laughed all the time, which was cool. I came over one afternoon and saw the way light crippled in pixels over your bed. I asked what you did while you were at rehab. You said you drank coffee from styrofoam cups and tried to figure out what you were so upset about for the last 23 years.
23 years is a long time to be alive. I never thought of you as a person with history—just this static thing, sudden birth out of nowhere. I found out things about you to tell my grandma: you grew up in New Jersey and you used to play wall ball every day after school. That’s the game where you smack a ball against a brick wall until the manager of StopRite comes out and tells you to stop.
I liked imagining you playing wall ball because I liked imagining you doing something repeatedly. Everything else about you lacked conviction. You put your tongue in my ear and called me when you remembered to charge your phone.
It started to get cold outside and my breath came out in shallow gulps. The heat in my apartment was broken so I asked if I could come shower at yours. I took my clothes off and left them crumpled on your linoleum floor and that’s when I felt colder than ever. Your wrists were sore from holding carrots for your rabbit so you tied them to pieces of string hung from the ceiling. I couldn’t walk through the room without getting caught in one. In your bed I saw long strands of human hair. They were blonde, and my hair is black.
My hair is black, I almost said.
But that would have been weird. I thought of the American girls on television who ask for what they want, coral lipstick caked over thin lips. You can see how low their jeans ride when they sit down in the cafeteria. They take big bites into big peaches and let the juice drip down their chins. I couldn’t take a bite that big without choking but in your halogen bedroom I watched your rabbit try.
In November I slept over when you asked me to, which was most nights. You vacuumed up the blonde hair and I walked barefoot through your house. I drank straight from the faucet and bought hand soap for your bathroom. Some nights, to cure our boredom, we laid in bed and categorized everything in our lives as either heavy or light. Flowers: heavy. Needles: light. One time you asked what you were so I reached over and lolled your weight back and forth in my hands. Heavy, I said. But not as heavy as rain.
It was raining when I saw you freak out for the first time. Rafael gave you a [ ] so you could study for your midterm. You said it was ok because you were doing it for homework, not for feeling good. You stayed up for two nights, and on the third night you passed out early but woke up at 3 a.m. and paced in circles around the room. I watched you pour cold water down your back. You picked at the acne growing in clusters on your cheeks, until some of them burst open on your lychee red face.
The next day I asked why you got up in the middle of the night:
—How come you got up in the middle of the night?
—You got up in the middle of the night and did a bunch of stuff.
—I don’t remember.
—Oh. I thought I heard something.
—It must have been the rabbit.
I guess how come I didn’t tell you I was awake. Maybe the same reason you didn’t wake me up. Instead I laid there in the crumpled sheets and made my breath heavy as marble. You were coiled against the wall, and the sky was a swamp of blue.
On some days I can’t stand my grandma. I say grandma, please do not yell in the restaurant/garden/church, I am right here. She says shut up, sit down, only xiangwuning talk soft like you.
My grandma has one of those diseases where it starts out as a tumor and then expands into something else. She calls it the flesh bag ripening in her brain. It makes her forget things like how to spit out mandarin seeds, and my name. As I got older I couldn’t tell if the rabbit stories made less sense or if it was the flesh bag speaking , e.g.—
There was a fox and a rabbit who lived in the woods. One day a god came to visit earth and disguised himself as a beggar. He asked the woodland creatures if they could spare some food to eat. The fox went to the river and caught a fish with his teeth. He lit a fire and cooked it—a red hot flame under a cool black sky. The rabbit, with eyes too far apart on his head, couldn’t catch anything so he threw his body into the fire as a sacrifice.
The god was touched by the rabbit’s bravery. He tried to revive the rabbit but it was too late, so he drew his outline on the moon so everyone would know the legend. You can see it if you squint hard. Not now because the kitchen lights are on. Can you go turn those off.
I turned off the lights and say grandma, could you please quiet down, I am right here.
You lived with eight people in a three bedroom house and none of us wanted to take out the trash. Nick usually did it on Wednesdays but he stopped in order to prove a point. In December the landlord threatened to evict everyone because Kunle insulated the porch with aluminum foil so he could sleep there instead of in the living room.
When Rebecca and Maximus moved out we resolved to clean up our act. We had to do it for the rabbit, we said. He’s too big for his cage and we don’t have a lawn so he has to be able to hop through the house.
We threw out the weird stuff in the hallway and stopped smoking in the bedrooms. We did our dishes instead of moving them to the shower every time the sink got full. One day I came over and found you on your hands and knees next to the trash can in the kitchen. You had a can of hairspray and you were squirting it on the floor. When I got closer I saw dozens of maggots, writhing in shallow puddles of alcohol.
—I think we have a maggot infestation.
—Oh. Well what should we do.
—I think we should start taking out the trash.
You gave me the can of hairspray and I drowned them one by one. It felt so silly and we kept spraying them and shrieking. You laughed and your mouth was open, wide enough to swallow a sun. Eee heee hehe.
At night we closed the windows so the flies couldn’t lay eggs inside anymore. It felt nice knowing there was something to be shut out. I watched the flies hit themselves against the window trying to come closer to the light and I thought of how skinny the glass was, and how their bodies were even skinnier.
You didn’t get evicted but I got my lease taken away because I was never home. There were several notices in the mail about our utility bill. One day I came to water my aloe vera plant and the power was out. The power is out, my roommate said, which was my first time meeting him.
So they kicked me off the lease, which was fine. I took my one suitcase and half-alive plant and walked out. The streets were paved with slabs of ice and blackened with motor oil. At the end of the block I went inside the cash-only convenience store that looked like a bomb shelter and paid for my soda in dimes. There was an ad for Virginia Slims hung up behind the register. It was a glossy photo of a blonde girl holding a long cigarette while riding a red motorcycle, her ass tight in some jeans.
All the way to your house I thought of the glint in her eye. Just thinking about it made my aura thicken and my marrow raw. When you finally let me in I put the aloe vera close to the window and my suitcase all the way in the closet.
The first time it happened you were having a night episode. I got used to those and didn’t care. When you started writhing in your sweat I moved my pillow to the floor and slept there. This is fine, I thought.
This time I stayed cause I wanted to see if I could make the nightmare stop by just being there. Childish I know. You thrashed back and forth and I tensed up till I was a pebble under the sheets. Your brain was shaking and glowing. All of a sudden you were holding me down, forcing your way into me. I wanted to wake you up but I couldn’t tell what you were dreaming about right then.
My grandma said if you wake someone up during a bad dream then they’ll be stuck in bad dream limbo, so I shut my eyes and concentrated on becoming the girl from the Virginia Slims poster, the studs on her jeans coming off like tiny failed planets. With the sun bleached in her hair she was just empty enough for you to enter her.
Afterwards I peeled your hands off me and tied them together with a sheet. I put a pillow in between us. You drooled a little on it.
I don’t know how to talk about what happened in the absence of mythology.
You lived in a small room in the attic.
There were maggots and mice.
One day you tried to catch a mouse with a trap and some milk candy.
You checked back later and the candy was gone. Inside the trap there was a mouse snout but no mouse body.
I guess your attic had a ghost mouse but I could not feel its presence.
Which is to say:
You were doing [ ] all the time and I thought it was normal.
You did not sleep for [ ] days at a time.
When you were coming down from [ ], you used to [ ] me.
I asked you to stop and you did not know how.
I went to my classes with [ ] on my body. They looked like wine stains. I pressed down on them with two fingers and watched the violet spread out in petals on my thighs.
When your laptop was broken you used mine when I wasn’t in class. You never went to your classes so there was no time conflict. One day I opened the screen and saw you were on a website called Watch People Die. It was all links to snuff films online. The titles were like Girl Drowns in Waterfall, etc. Right then you walked into the room.
I turn the screen around.
—It says you’ve watched all of these.
You scratched the scar on your chin.
—Sorry. I know it’s weird.
—I don’t care.
—I don’t know why I watch them. Sorry.
I closed the computer.
—It’s ok. I have to go to class now.
—Look I said I’m sorry.
—And I said it’s ok.
After that you only used my computer in private mode. I said didn’t care if you liked watching people die but from then on I made a point of watching videos of babies being born. The ones I liked the most were of water births. I turned the volume down low and the baby’s cries came out as wet hot whispers through the oceanic monitor. Whenever I left my laptop on our bed I made sure the last tab open was a frame of someone opening their eyes for the first time, the umbilical cord swinging long and red like a pendulum.
In February you asked if I could help you give your rabbit a bath. I think his nose twitched at the word ‘bath.’ I was draped over the living room couch, looking for quarters under the cushions so I could do the laundry. In my head I said no but in real life I said ok. The fuse was blown so you had to plug a lamp in the other room and shine it across the hall.
The light was dim and it washed your bathroom in shades of dark blue. We clogged the drain with a fist full of saran wrap and took off our shirts. I held him down in lukewarm water while you lathered his body in hand soap. His bunny bones caved in under my weight and I thought it was just like a baptism. He shivered at first, and then he stayed very still in a way that looked like drowning.
—I think we should stop.
—Because he’s not resisting.
—Isn’t that what we want.
I shake my head.
—I think it’s weird.
—Let’s just rinse him off.
I let go and he jumped out of my hands, still puffy with bubbles. He blinked the soap out of his eyes and hopped back to your room. I imagined him slamming the door, a little bit mad.
That night you fell asleep first. I laid next to you and thought of my grandma, how she used to braid my hair after I bathed, her fingers dipping into that wet black silk. I rubbed the smooth part of her ankles as she spoke to me of rabbits. Now, laying next to your feeble body, I felt the impulse to do it to you. I came closer and rubbed your ankles with the heel of my foot. I rubbed and rubbed until my skin was raw and peeling. You tossed and turned away in your dreams and when the morning cracked like an egg on the sky I still couldn’t stop.
On Monday evenings we went to Pushkar’s gas station across the street. You bought cigarettes, candy, ramen, and I bought nothing. It was the month you were against vegetables that Pushkar’s wife gave birth to a baby girl. We used to smoke in the alley behind the store and talk to Pushkar about his brand new life.
—You know, Sofiya didn’t take painkillers even though it was a C-section.
I nearly spit out my drink.
—She was awake when they cut her stomach open?
—She said she did not want the drugs to hurt the baby’s brain.
—What did you do?
He shrugs and takes a drag.
—I watched through the glass window. Felt kind of useless.
—Pushkar that’s so weird.
—I was in the room for a while but as soon as they took out the knife I felt as if I would faint.
—What is the baby’s name?
He shrugs and takes a drag.
—We can’t agree on anything.
Afterwards you and I walked to the river. I remember the moon was a hangnail that night and it made the sky look prehistoric. The insects bit us down our thighs and we thought of many names for Pushkar’s daughter. Our favorite was Pushkara, but we were also ok with something like Zoey. I suggested Virginia and you said that’s a name for a cigarette, not a girl, and I felt good knowing something you didn’t.
I am saying this because it was the only time you left your street that semester. Back in your bedroom there was still a snoutless rat and a dishwasher filled with styrofoam plates.
And since I have mentioned the knife, I will say I hid the ones in your apartment on nights you were outside your body.
INTERNET SEARCH HISTORY IN MARCH 2015
list of baby names
is aloe vera good for bruises
how come the trash comes some days and not others
which days does the trash come
games for rabbits
free therapy online
how to help friend during comedown
is C- passing
diary with combination lock
cheap flights to shanghai
dream of brushing teeth
dream of teeth falling out
In April you laid on top of me. I cleared some space in my body the way I clear the table before sitting down. Afterwards you asked why I don’t make noise anymore. I whispered something and you said what?
—Can you talk louder?
—I asked why don’t you make noise. You just lay there and look at me.
—I said I want you to stop doing [ ] all the time.
—It makes you act shitty to me.
You got real quiet and went out to the porch. We stopped smoking inside so most nights you stay out there till dark. I sat on the bed and ate leftover Chinese food. I counted backwards from 100, and then forwards. I went to the kitchen and peeled a ripe banana string by string until there was nothing left. I asked Emma if I could come sleep on her floor. She said ok.
It took a long time to walk to Emma’s. On the way I stole a stick of gum from Pushkar’s convenience store. I chewed it up and spat it out in someone’s keyhole. I kicked down all the garbage cans on a block. Every time I did something bad my body grew more opaque. By the time I got to her front door even the headlights couldn’t pass through me.
Last week, when I was bathing my grandma, I saw the veins on her body bulging like the throat of a frog. I wiped down her flesh with a towel dipped in baby oil and didn’t blink.
I know this is not the same but I thought of the time you were unconscious while I disinfected your cuts in the bath. I didn’t blink back then either. Your rabbit was watching us through a crack in the bathroom door, an angel sitting in a pile of trash. He’s an animal so I don’t know what he saw but he made me see myself.
Our downstairs neighbor used to have a big LCD television facing the window. I could see it from the sidewalk when I waited for you to come get the door. Whenever he had the shades up, for a second I was not him but I could imagine what it was like to be him, slumped over the living room couch, eating chicken and gravy on a tray. It’s that silent act of transmission. It’s what I felt when your rabbit saw me, from the hallway, slowly dipping a piece of gauze in saltwater.
A few days later I came up with a complex lie, put on some clean clothes and only came back to get my dirty ones.
Ok, let me rephrase what has been said—
When my grandma lived in the village she had a strange pet. It was a black fungus that came from the sea. Just this viscous blob that lived on her kitchen table; no eyes, mouth, nose, or anything. It was like the grass jelly you get in soft drinks.
She fed the sea blob every day. It ate by absorbing liquids. She poured all sorts of things on it: used bathwater, vinegar, oil. When there was nothing dirty she used her own saliva. The sea blob soaked up all of it. She said she couldn’t spare clean water cause she had to walk to the river to get it.
My grandma’s family did not like the sea blob. They thought it was vile, tai exing le. But this was her secret: if you took care of it right, the blob opened up and spit out a shiny egg. My grandma ate the egg in one bite and never told anyone. I asked her what it tasted like and she said she couldn’t describe it. Maybe a dragonfruit without the seeds.
I tried to find this animal on the Internet but I didn’t know what to search. ‘Sea blob with no mouth that eats shit and lays egg’ came up with no results. I wouldn’t say my grandma is a liar, but she watches a lot of television.
I am saying this because in my dreams I was just like that. Soak up the tainted, cough up something holy.
On my 19th birthday I was a voyeur of my own life, floating a few inches above my body. Witness me, and a Gatorade bottle filled with piss next to your bed. I told myself it was the cucumber lime flavor or something.
And I told myself it was my condition to be the vessel. It’s the lexicon of morphology, how you were you and I was the whitespace. I reread my diary and knew what it was like to get carrots shoved at me from distant palms, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I daydreamed about Virginia, her gap tooth letting the sun down her throat, riding away from a Pepto-Bismol sky and palm trees jagged like teeth, and if rabbits could be shapeshifters I wanted to be like her.
Three years ago I called my grandma and said bye I am going to kill myself and she said can this wait until tomorrow I am baking a pie. I waited until tomorrow and then she needed me to knead the crust.
—Nainai, did you hear me? I said I am sad.
—Aiya! Never talk to me about zhisha. Do you know how your dajiu died? Next time don’t call unless you want your nainai’s blood sugar to spike into the sky.
I put the phone down and splashed my face with cold water. I looked at a girl’s face in the mirror, the industrial blue glow washed over her. Outside the summer was just starting to blossom. My grandma noticed I hung up on her and she kept calling back and I kept letting it ring. I thought god, I am never going to get to die, and I was right.
After that I moved into her apartment for three months. She walks around her apartment in the dark cause it saves electricity. She even taped the light switches down so I couldn’t turn them on either. What the hell, I thought. So we sat on the couch, ate green onion pies, and listened to the radio side by side.
Angie Sijun Lou is from Seattle. Her work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, the Rumpus, Hobart, Nat. Brut, Apogee, Nightboat, and others. She is PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at UC Santa Cruz.