SICKNESS, BY CONNIE SHEN
I don’t mean to look at it, but I do. In our small hotel room in Tokyo, while my grandmother sends e-mails to home in the downstairs lobby, I am flicking through channels on the ten-inch TV. I am thirteen years old and have spent the last two months of summer with my grandmother, eating fried pork cutlet and going to school in Hiroshima. My best friend Sachi has written me a note on lined blue paper with cartoons printed on the sides that she has instructed me to open once we are apart. Opening the neatly folded letter sealed with a puffy Mickey Mouse sticker, I read the words “CONNIE + SACHI = BEST FREIND FOREVER”, that is followed by a note in Japanese detailing our adventures together. I read it over and over again until my eyes begin to water and I fold it back into its square, tucking it into my backpack pocket for safekeeping.
The murderer of two high school girls has yet to be found, the moonfaced news anchor wearing her signature tight red pantsuit reports. I try to search her eyes for signs of sadness, but find nothing. She moves on to a segment about bullet trains. Click. A man with a large white hat whisks eggs in a large metal bowl. Today, he is going to teach me how to create the perfect tamagoyaki. I watch for about a minute as the chef measures out spoons of soy sauce and sugar, pinching salt between his fingers, finally pouring the egg mixture into the square shaped pan. He looks proud of his work, and for a second, we beam at the fat golden omelet sitting on the countertop together. Suddenly, a commercial about chocolate bars designed for weight loss cuts across the screen. Click. Commercial about laundry detergent. Click. Commercial about mouthwash. Click.
On the TV, a small woman wearing a maid costume rubs her enormous breasts. The camera is pointed at her from above to emphasize her smallness. I know that I must change the channel immediately before my grandmother comes back, in the same way that I know I am attracted to boys. And yet I stare at the way her hands fit so perfectly around the soft and fleshy circles, the small “o” of her mouth that opens and closes like a fish, the small parting of her legs that simultaneously reveals too much and nothing at all.
Beeps on the other side of the door. My grandmother is punching in the key code. My fingers fly out from beneath the bottoms of my blankets to change the channel. The maid is replaced by a TV show that teaches children how to speak English just as my grandmother walks in the door, her hair still wet from her bath. Shuffling across the floor in her hotel slippers, she stops before the thermostat, jabbing at buttons and muttering about the heat.
“Connie-chan. It’s like a sauna in here.”
“Gomen, I’ll change it.” I climb down the ladder leading to my loft bed. The railing feels cool against my sweaty palms. My feet hit carpet and I walk toward her, noticing again how tiny our shared space is. As I adjust the temperature, letting my hair fall across my face to hide my bright pink cheeks, I see my grandmother watching the children’s show out of the corner of my eye. A thirty-year-old white man strums a guitar, singing along as Japanese schoolchildren yell out the names of their favorite vegetables in English.
“One day, you could teach English in Japan too.” My grandmother smiles at me.
I want to be a writer, but I respond, “Yeah. I’ve thought about doing that a couple of times.”
She nods and switches her attention back to the show. A pigtailed girl is jumping around on the grass off rhythm, the straps of her Velcro tennis shoes flapping up and down. “EGGPLANT!” she screams. The American and the children cheer “EGGPLANT!” in unison. “CUCUMBER!” a boy with gap teeth yells, and the small circle grows in its frenzy, yelling, “CUCUMBER! CU-CUM-BER! C-U-C-U-M-B-E-R!” Spit flies out from the corners of the American’s mouth as he laughs, the children laughing with him, all reveling in the joy of cucumber.
Despite being the last person to finish running the mile during P.E., I am the fastest typer in my computer class. I returned home to America three weeks ago, just in time for school to start back, and yet my tongue still feels heavy, burdened with a foreign accent and the taste of pickled vegetables. The exercise today is to transcribe a lesson from our textbook about a girl named Martha and her family. I type sentences about Martha eating chicken salad, Martha and her mother Jenny vacationing in Mexico, Martha winning first-place at the spelling-bee until I have compiled a thorough biography of the Martha clan. It is after I have finished the exercise and am looking at inspirational pictures of a two-legged puppy protecting its owner from a vicious cat that I hear J.J. Vincent call my name.
“Hey, Connie, look at this.”
I wheel my chair around to look at the back of the class where the members of the JV football team sit, smelling of cheap body spray and toe fungus. On the screen, there is a dating site for men seeking Asian women. A pixelated picture of a skinny woman with small eyes and yellow skin like my own welcomes the site visitors with a curved finger. She looks so fragile in her thin white camisole and loose jean shorts that I feel a sudden urge to give her my sweater.
J.J. Vincent and his groupies laugh when they see the look on my face. One of them enjoys this moment so thoroughly that his eyes begin to water and wipes his tears away between fits of joy. I turn back toward my computer screen and continue to look at puppy pictures. My hands can’t stop shaking. I peek up toward the front at Coach Thurton and know at once that he has seen everything by the softness in his eyes. The bell rings and I throw my things in my bag, shoving past rows of people to get to the door. Coach Thurton does not say anything when I accidentally trip on the way out. For this, I am grateful.
Later that day, my mother and I go to the movies. We do this sometimes to pretend that we are normal, that I live with her instead of Grandma. She talks to me during our drive to the theatre, complaining about the mean lifeguard at the YMCA, her weight, the over-ripened grapefruits she bought at the grocery store yesterday and now has to return. My job is to nod and make the appropriate noises after each reported offense.
“Rose told me that she would stop smoking around me, but she just keeps doing it. I mean, isn’t that inconsiderate? I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”
“Yes, I know. And then Grandma came up to the house and tried to do my laundry! I am forty years old, thank you very much.”
“But then she offered me some of the fish she cooked and I thought it was pretty tasty.”
“What kind? Oh, it was just some salmon.”
The movie, a romantic comedy with a B-list cast, does not interest her for very long. I jab her in the ribs with my elbow at five-minute intervals so that her snores do not disturb the audience members around us. The attractive male lead approaches the attractive female lead to ask her about her music taste. Their conversation about indie bands is drowned out by my vibrating phone. Wrestling my arm from beneath my mother’s drooping head, I open the text message. It is an apology from J.J., telling me how sorry he is for his behavior. Despite myself, I feel a thrill of excitement at the fact that such a popular boy would text me to apologize. I begin to thank him, but am suddenly bombarded with an influx of text messages from unfamiliar numbers. Each one is from a different member of the football team, a variation of transparent sorries that have obviously been constructed by Coach Thurton. What thrill was left over from the first text is now dead, and I feel stupid for having ever thought that a boy would care for me. I do not respond to any of them. The beautiful boy and the beautiful girl are now kissing in a park. Everything about them seems forced and unremarkable. My sleeping mother sighs her agreement.
The first time I liked a girl, it was on accident. I was in second grade, sitting in the nurse’s office because of a stomachache. Nurse Hardy sifted through the brightly colored rows of the medicine cabinet to find the Pepto-Bismol as I tried to get comfortable in the metal fold-up chair. Despite the fact that I weighed 140 pounds, my fat was situated solely in my stomach, face, and thighs, leaving my butt so flat it was practically inverted. Someone knocked on the door and Nurse Hardy yelled for them to come in, wielding a bottle full of thick pink liquid in her hand as she headed toward me. I looked up to see who the person was and immediately stopped squirming. A boy with hollow navy eyes and cracked red lips that I had seen in the hallways was now standing a few feet ahead of me, thrusting his pointer finger into his ear to lure out small flakes of wax. Glancing down at myself, I wished more than anything that my grandmother would pick out better clothes for me to wear, that she would learn how to do something else with my hair besides pulling it back into a single tight and bushy ponytail that resembled a bundle of burned straw.
The boy was wearing a red sweatshirt, his small frame hidden beneath the thick fabric. Two fake diamond earrings glistened in his ear as he shook his head to something Nurse Hardy said. Sniffling, he reached toward one of the rough tissues perched on top of the front desk. I felt the small pack of Mickey-Mouse Kleenex my grandmother had shoved into my pocket before I left this morning and thought about offering him two, or six, or maybe even the entire thing. He began scrubbing at his nose with a fistful of the offensive one-ply tissues before I could even wrestle my pack from within the tight creases of my pants. I was as relieved as I was disappointed—I had hoped that he would see beyond the wire-rim glasses and full cheeks, the Wal-Mart clothing and sensible shoes, and whisper, “thank you, Connie,” like it was a secret.
“So, what can I do for you today?” Nurse Hardy’s smile was so wide that the pinks of her gums flashed, firm and healthy.
“I just came to pick up my allergy medicine,” the beautiful boy said, crumpling the used tissue into a ball and throwing it into the wire waste bin. The other nurse in the room glared at him, shaking her head in disapproval as she punched in a parent’s phone number on the bulky black phone. The boy shrugged, unbothered by her disapproval. How lucky I was to have such a cool boyfriend. He glanced over at me, his eyes lazy and emotionless. Flustered, I busied myself by picking at a scab on my leg that I had gotten from gym class last week. His gaze only lasted for a second. I felt something small and electric nestled inside of my stomach.
Nurse Hardy walked back to the medicine cabinet and picked up a translucent bottle filled with chalky white pills. “It’s Allie, right?”
But Allie is a girl’s name. Did everyone else know but me? In horror, I began to see evidences of girlhood peeking out from behind the folds of my imagined boyfriend’s baggy sweatshirt—small lumps in the middle of her chest, slim wrists, flat, smooth throat. The electricity churned inside of my stomach again in a way that felt destructive.
Nurse Hardy measured out the correct dosage in a plastic cup, placing it in the girl’s outstretched hand. “Here you go, sweetie. I hope you feel better soon. The pollen is really bad this year.”
“Yes, ma’am. It is.” Allie tipped the medicine back into her mouth and threw the cup across the room into the trash can again. The other nurse covered the phone receiver to say something, but Allie headed back out into the hallway before there was a chance.
“Thanks,” she called over her shoulder, heading back into the cafeteria. I watched her stuff her hands into her pockets, her fists outlined against the firm denim of her jeans.
“No problem, sweetie!” Nurse Hardy said before she turned back to me. “Now, Connie, how are you feeling? Oh my goodness, I forgot to give you your Pepto-Bismol.” She began to turn toward the medicine cabinet again.
“No, no, it’s really fine,” I said, jumping out of my chair so suddenly that I was caught off balance and had to grab the wall for support. “I have to go now anyway. Don’t wanna miss the rest of science class.”
“Are you sure, sweetie? It won’t take but a second…”
“I gotta go, really. I’m sorry Ms. Hardy, I promise I’m okay. I’ll come back later. Maybe.” I opened the door and ran to the bathroom, ignoring Nurse Hardy’s concerned voice calling me back. I jiggled the door to a bathroom stall, pushing myself through before it had a chance to fully open. My back crumbled against the greyish green walls as I tried to breathe. I dug my nails into the inside of my wrist and watched half-moon marks form in my skin. Liking a girl who I thought was a boy was bad enough—I was sick, I know. But the most unforgiveable thing was the fact that even though I now knew that Allie was a girl, I still wanted to kiss her, to hear my name vibrate against the hollows of her throat, to know what it felt like to lay my head against her stomach and feel the echoes of her heartbeat throbbing against the sinews of my skull until someone came in and found us.
Connie Shen is a Japanese and Chinese activist and story-teller. A writer of poetry, short stories, andnon-fiction, her work revolves around the many facets of queer, mentally ill, and Asian-American identities. She is currently pursuing her MFA in creative non-fiction at UNC Wilmington.