I don’t mean I want her to die. I’m just saying, what kind of woman pretends to kill herself six times? I’m saying that she loves to pretend. Some women are like that. They don’t know what real means. Like that neighbor I had back on the island who pretended she was pregnant for three whole years. Her belly was a sack of guavas, all lumps, and she really thought no one would be able to tell. One of the neighborhood boys punched her in the belly to prove to his friends she wasn’t actually pregnant, and all the guavas came rolling out the bottom of her dress and down the road. Juice sprayed everywhere and greenmeat jellied between her feet. And that woman cried about it, too. She cried so hard and so long that the sea came forward and punched her out for spending so much of its salt. Good thing she wasn’t actually pregnant, or she would have become the kind of mother that keeps her son’s umbilical cord just to later hang herself with it. Some women will mourn anything, even things that haven’t been born. I know a story about another woman on the island who impregnated a goat. In the dream, the woman masturbated – don’t believe anyone who says she’s never touched herself, she’s probably touched herself with all kinds of things, a karaoke microphone, an assortment of vacuum cleaner attachment heads, a fake jade statue of Guanyin – and then offered her salted palm to her goat, which licked it clean with its tongue.
Three months later, the goat got big in the belly and the woman cut it open. Inside there was a baby. She raised the baby all by herself. The baby walked on all-fours for its whole life, even when it was a girl, and you can imagine what the boys thought of her. They probably mounted her like a dog on the street. The goatgirl had a baby every four days, I swear. That’s the story I heard. And she ate grass, too. Her mouth was always grazing the ground. What I always wanted to know was what happened to the goat after it got cut open? How did they cook it? Kabobs? Goat dumplings? Spit-roasting the whole thing? There’s another story about a god who ejaculated into the sea and that’s why it’s salty. And the fishermen go out once a year to catch babies. There’s another story about a woman who fed her own son a pudding of her menstrual blood, thinking this would keep him from loving another woman. Mothers always act like they’re married to their sons, but really they should throw them back into the sea, walk away, wave.
That’s why I told my daughter not to marry a man whose mother is alive. Best if the mother is a goat or dead. That’s the only requirement I have: don’t marry a man unless his family’s on fire. But she tells me it’s ok, that she’ll marry no one’s son because she’s a lesbian, and I’m so jealous I could kick her in front of a car, the way I once did to the neighbor’s pitbull after it shat on my feet. There aren’t even any cars that come down our street anymore – they stopped coming since the police roadblock at the strip mall. They busted that massage place in the Plaza, said it was full of Chinese prostitutes. I called the newspaper to clarify: I’m Taiwanese. I used to work there. I did foot massages in the day and slept at night with all the other women, some from the mainland and some from the island and some from other islands too small for even the sea to know them, islands where people are born as punctuation marks. We slept in that hot back-room, so hot it griddled you, pattied you into hamburger meat. That back-room is there if you just push the curtain to the side, the one with the pineapple print. We folded away all the massage tables and slept on the floor together like a litter of pigs. It was hot and the tatami mats were plastic and gave me rashes but sometimes it was okay too, sometimes I liked hearing those women breathing all around me, sleeping like they were slaughtered, all the heat in our bodies enough to burn down the building.
I ask my daughter how you even become a lesbian and she says first, I have to reject the male gaze. So I tell her the story of my father with cataracts who couldn’t see except for the shadows of things. She said I’m not talking about literal sight. But I am. I’m talking about literally being seen. Like the time before my daughter was born when my husband caught me dipping my finger into the toilet after I’d peed in it. I licked the finger clean. Thing is, I was told that that’s one way to make sure you have a daughter. A neighbor told me that: the neighbor who got caught shoplifting eggplants. Told her, eggplants aren’t even good. Anyway, I got a daughter, didn’t I? A daughter who brings other daughters home. One time she brought home this girl as dark as the backside of my pan. I knew a girl from Guangxi who was that color. Her mother tried to skin her in her sleep with an apple peeler. I know that kind of love, the kind summarized by blood. I have never wanted to skin my daughter, but that’s because she stays out of the sun, and these days she’s looking more and more like someone else’s son. Better that way. Better to have a daughter who doesn’t have to worry about her mother-in-law moving in like mine did. I swear, that woman cut holes in my clothes and pretended moths did it. I’ve never had moths. I kill those motherfuckers with my own bare hands. I clap them down like wannabe angels and crush with my heels their brittle haloes.
I once threw a pencil at a fly and pierced it through the heart, if flies even have hearts. My mother-in-law saw me and said that was my aborigine blood, that habit of skewering things. And another time she picked up all my dishes after I’d washed them and said they weren’t clean enough. They’re clean enough to see your ugly face with, I wanted to say. Almost told her, go eat out of your own ass, that’s all your mouth is good for. She tried to move into the master bedroom with me and my husband. Said some feihua about how her room down in the garage is too close to the kitchen which has a microwave which will kill her with its rays. Wanted to microwave her head until the brain-yolk dribbled hot from her ears. The first time my mother-in-law pretended to die, she staged a fall. She went into the kitchen and wet the floor and threw all my plates to the ground. Those plates were what I brought here from the island all those years ago. Everyone told me not to take fragile things onto a plane because they break. Something about air pressure or the sky’s weight. But all the things I packed were breakable. I brought a glass ashtray that my mother once threw at my father’s head. It hit him in the eye and now he can’t see out of it. He can only see the shadows of things. So that he could see where my hands were, I had to shine a flashlight on them, cast their shape on a wall. I kept the ashtray to remind myself I had a shadow. Sometimes in this country, you can’t tell what’s a body or what’s a shadow. For years I stepped around this big spot on the sidewalk I thought was water or piss or something. Turns out it was the shadow of a tree I hadn’t looked up to see. I look at the ground more and more these days. Better to keep your eyes where your feet are. Be a woman with the personality of a dropped penny.
Anyway, my mother-in-law lay herself down among all the things (mine!) she broke and pretended she’d fallen on the wet floor. Fallen doing what? The woman doesn’t do anything but follow me around all day and tell me to take her to the dentist. Claims she’s got teeth cancer, sometimes jaw cancer. Is there even such a thing as jaw cancer? As if I can afford the dentist, or any doctor, not even when I massaged so many feet and calves that my own hands cramped into spider-looking things that could only scuttle. For all I know, I’ve got jaw cancer. I ran up to my mother-in-law and helped her up, but I could see there was no bruise on her. The only thing she’d done was bite her tongue a little, and it wasn’t even bleeding. I’d give her my blood to bleed with, that’s how generous I am, but she’s never been hurt in her life. After that, she insisted on walking around the house using a broomstick as a cane. I’ve seen that woman jump three feet into the air to smack a mosquito with her hands. One night I saw her drop the cane and run to the TV so she could catch the opening scene of her soap opera, about an empress dowager controlling her puppet son. You see how fake?
Then the second time she tried, it was with a rope. She tried to hang herself in the pantry, except when I opened the door, her feet were still on the ground. Sure, the rope was around her neck and tied to the rafter and everything, but the pantry’s only four-and-a-half feet tall and she was just standing there leashed to the ceiling. She even tried to pretend she was choking by sticking her tongue out and making these coughing sounds, but when I asked her what the hell she was doing, she paused to say I’m killing myself because you are a bad daughter-in-law and what will my son think when he finds out I’ve killed myself because of you how bad he will feel how much he will regret marrying you choosing you you bitch. I said, if you can say all that while hanging yourself, you’re going to live. And the third time, the third time. She stole the neighbor’s kiddie pool and filled it up in the yard and pretended to drown in it. Except she didn’t fill it up enough and there was only about a knuckle of water in there, and when she thrashed around, most of it splashed out of the pool and then she had to continue pretending to drown in nothing. She flopped facedown at the bottom of the pool and tried to be dead, but the whole pool deflated from the weight of her body – let me tell you, she’s got hips like honeyed hams – and as the air came out, it made a farting sound. Instead of dying, it sounded like she needed to shit. The fourth time was also a drowning, except this time in the bathtub. I heard her filling it up and I was ready this time. As soon as she got into the tub with all her clothes on, I burst through the door, said not today, and dragged her out by the hair. Turns out her hair is not very strongly attached to her scalp, so I ended up tearing out a lot of it, and she cried for almost a month about it, told my husband I was abusing her and now she’ll have to wear a wig. I know ways to abuse her, and none of them involve her hair. I could heat up a frying pan and press it to her face until the skin sizzles and all her features melt together into an abstract painting. I could push her feet into a pot of hot water and boil them til they rise like dumplings. I could scalp her and then wear her skin like a swim cap.
All my friends say what I’m dealing with is nothing: they have mother-in-laws who have locked them inside the garage on 105-degree days, that have put manure in their food and claimed it was the recipe, they will out us as women who use recipes. The worst thing is when some of them convert our children into loving their nainais better than they love their own mothers. That’s when you have to tell your daughters the truth of everything that’s been done to you, all the times you were told you were a bad xifu for eating with your head bent over the bowl, for shopping at Nordstrom Rack instead of going to church, for overstuffing dumplings into testicle-looking things. So what if I like them big. And then you tell your daughter all the stories in history about mother-in-laws who beat concubines to death with a chamber pot, mother-in-laws who rip themselves open by shoving their sons’ full-grown heads back inside themselves, sometimes up the wrong hole, mother-in-laws who wake you up at three in the morning so that you can drive her to the emergency room because, she claims, she’s pregnant at the age of seventy-seven and is having a baby right now, it’s inside her rolling around like a juiced grapefruit, it’s sour and screaming, and when you finally get there, an hour later because she tells you there’s a shortcut even though the only direction she knows is toward the church, it turns out she has kidney stones and you’re going to have to pay for their removal, out of pocket, and the rest is debt you’ll have for life, and when the doctor rolls her into surgery, you tell him please just let her die on the operating table, or please pretend to operate on her but leave the stones inside her, make her feel the birth-pain of passing those blessed pebbles through her body. But the doctor doesn’t listen, he removes them and then stitches her up and she loses basically no blood, and she goes home the next day and tells you it’s your fault for using too much soy sauce in all your dishes, even though the reason why you add a spoonful more is because she told you in the first place that nothing you make is salty enough. The fifth time she tries to kill herself is when she walks out to the highway – without her cane, of course – and steps in front of an 18-wheeler, except by some miracle, the 18-wheeler stops right before it hits her and there’s an 8-car pile-up and we see her on the local evening news at 7 pm. It’s a physics-defying miracle, how an elderly woman who is terribly neglected at home – because of course she has to say that on TV – has been saved thanks to a trucker’s quick reflexes and the benevolent will of god. She’s being called a saint in certain comments sections, and I might have left a comment or two as well, all of them about how people aren’t really supposed to live forever, in other eras they would be dead by 77, and being pulped by an 18-wheeler is actually, I imagine, a very merciful end, and it probably leaves a beautiful piece of blood-art on the highway, kind of like a mural you can only see from above.
They even interviewed her for the World Journal, and of course she tells the reporter she doesn’t blame her daughter-in-law for not taking better care of her, because how can a woman like her, at her age, be valued in a world like this, where old women are seen as burdens? But god had said otherwise, god had held back an 18-wheeler and said, you are worthy of my love and intervention. I almost strangled her in her bed after that. I stood over her in the dark and thought about it, just thought about it. The sixth time, I told my husband it was all his fault. He should have been immaculately conceived by a goat. Every man loves his mother milk-sour. I tell you, my husband never once took my side. One time my mother-in-law told me I’d burnt the fish, but that fish was so soft inside it almost dissolved in the light. And my husband said nothing to defend me, even though he’d eaten half the fish himself, and my daughter the lesbian only knows enough Chinese to say I don’t want, thank you. Like a damn cricket, she says it again and again. I want her to tell me my fish is done perfect. Look how the scales undress like silk. This woman tells me I can’t cook a fish? I’ll cook her. Later she says she wants the master bedroom because the garage is full of outside-air, and outside-air is full of toxins that are sickening her, can’t you see how her neck sags, how her breasts are hard as potatoes, how her tongue is purple? I want to say, your neck sags because you’re an old shit-sack, your breasts are hard because you don’t take them out to breathe, your tongue is purple from that time you bit it instead of dying. I didn’t say anything about the fish, and I didn’t apologize either, so that night she put her head in the oven but forgot to turn it on. I came downstairs in the morning and she was asleep, drooling with her head poked inside. I don’t even use that oven. I don’t even know how she knew it opened. I ask her where she learned to do this oven thing and she said she’d been reading, even though I know that woman is illiterate. She’s one of those peasant women who’s so short she looks like a pack animal from afar, a body built to carry things. I’m a better mother to her son than she is. That’s what marriage is, motherhood, except the man doesn’t do you the courtesy of growing up. I told her, next time just swallow the insecticide we keep on the shelf in the garage and she looked at me angry, because I was supposed to say no, don’t die, we need you, your son needs you, etc. I bent down and said really close to her face, the oven is electric. Not gas. Then told her, the way gas works, you could have killed everyone in this house. Is that what you want, to kill your own son in his sleep?
And that’s when she stood up, two feet shorter than me. It was morning and my daughter was waking up. I could hear her in the next room, walking around without socks on even though I tell her you can die that way. I like to be awake before she does. I’m glad she won’t have a man. Better not to be a mother. It leads to many suicides, I should tell her, probably mine. My mother-in-law starts telling me this story about how she didn’t know she was pregnant. The night her son was born, she thought she was having a stomachache. But then my husband slipped out of her like a fish and everyone said kill it. That’s when she left for the island, the baby dragged behind her inside a net. I call her a liar. I won’t forget the time she caught my husband washing a dish in his own home and called my own mother in Taiwan to complain how I wasn’t doing my duty as a wife, how I made her son do the dishes and take out the trash, her own son, her wangzi, how I threatened him with a backscratcher into rinsing that dish, and of course my mother believed this and called to tell me I had thrown away my mianzi, as if, as if my husband has ever washed a dish, as if he’s ever washed anything but his own dick, and even that not very well.
The problem is this, I tell her: mothers grow up married to their sons, but we’re born knowing our daughters will leave us. Not because we want them to, but because we never had them, not really, they belong to the men we give them to. Men, they belong to themselves. My mother used to say: men are all like catheters. They drain you, but you need them to survive. Just let them stick themselves in.
This is what I say: We should separate all mothers and sons at birth and grow them in different dirts. Make the sons grow up alone. And us mothers, we’ll be fine in our own rooms. Give us a window or two, a view, curtains that open into morning. All those times she almost killed herself, she didn’t know death isn’t like a man, it won’t just take you any time you’re on your back. When she finally dies, I won’t pretend I’m not happy about it. But I’ll buy her a good burial, a catered funeral. I’ll give her an urn with a name on it, which is more than her family would have done, her family who doesn’t even name their daughters. That woman answers to nothing. I can’t even pray her dead because the gods don’t have her listed in any directory. When my husband dies, I’ll bury him beneath her. And I won’t mourn then, either. You can have his bones and the moths they’ll become. I joke now with my daughter, not that it matters to her, since the only men she’ll marry are women, and two women together probably cancel out, become nameless. I point at the sky. The sun, I say, and laugh. When choosing a sun to see by, make sure it’s got no mother. The moon, that’s the mother. Her eye is always open to watch her sun. It’s not really a light, my daughter says about the moon: it’s a mirror. But mirrors, I tell her, are more dangerous than anything. A mirror’s only meaning is to multiply. To duplicate. To duty. The mirror doesn’t change what is shown to it, not unless you batter the glass and eat it like salt and recycle it into shit, good dirt, and that would be you, my daughter, the fist to my ribs, the one who will never become the moon.
K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel BESTIARY (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her short story collection, GODS OF WANT, is forthcoming from One World. She is currently the Micro editor at The Offing magazine.