When I was a child, my mother worried that I would eventually abandon her for the company of friends. But when I still had not made a friend by the end of the second grade, she worried about my social ineptness. Mom blamed my diffidence on my genes. She believed that I felt self-conscious about being bun jan bun gwai, “half-human, half-ghost.” Whatever the cause, she knew that I needed help.
“Little girl,” she said in Cantonese. “Is there anyone you’d like to be friends with?”
She had just served Joe and me our dinner—fried spam over rice. I swallowed a juicy bite of spam and thought of Molly, who sat across from me in Mrs. Singer’s class. I liked Molly because she was pretty, and because whenever she chatted with the other kids at our table, she also glanced at me. Her eyes always remembered that I was there.
“There’s one girl,” I said. “But she already has a best friend.”
“Joe,” Mom said. “Ask your sister what she’s mumbling about.”
“I can’t be best friends with Molly,” I replied, “because she already has a best friend, Chloe.”
“Joe,” Mom said. “Tell your sister that if she doesn’t want to end up all alone, she better change her attitude.”
Beneath the table, Joe’s greasy hand squeezed my thigh. I looked out the window. A one-legged crow hopped across the sidewalk, just as fast as any crow. So what was the point of having two legs?
“I know what you’re thinking,” Mom said. “You’re thinking, ‘If only my mother were some white lady who would leave me alone and let me eat candy.’ But you don’t know how good you have it. When I was your age, I came home from school one day to find Grandma holding a rope. As soon as I shut the door, she tried to strangle herself. I embraced her, begging her to stop. A week later, she did it again. You know why?”
Mom stared at me, then Joe. “For a hug,” she said.
Mom told us stories about her childhood in Hong Kong so often that I had named them all in my mind: The Day Grandma Committed Suicide, The Day They Ate The Dog, The Day Grandma’s Private Parts Fell Out And She Shoved Them Back In. No matter what we talked about—Mom’s dinner menu, when Dad would be home, the quality of our bowel movements—inevitably, the conversation led to one of her stories, as if they were a family of ghosts, lurking behind everything that we said.
“Something smells good,” Dad said, stepping into the house with his briefcase.
“Hey, gwai lo,” Mom said. “How do you say smells good in Cantonese?”
“Hou,” Dad said. “I know it’s hou something. Hou hou hou…”
“Merry Christmas,” Joe said.
“Hou sik!” Dad said.
We laughed at Dad’s mistake, our usual response to his awkward attempts at Cantonese. He just stood there clutching his briefcase, his dimples buckling into his cheeks.
Later that night, I lay in my bedroom, hugging the hardwood floor. The hiss of sprinklers and the flutter of hummingbird wings drifted in through the window. I imagined that Molly was lying there next to me, telling me secrets, but thoughts of her friend Chloe kept intruding upon my fantasy.
In Mrs. Singer’s class, I sat at a table with three other kids—Molly and Chloe on one side, Gerard and I on the other. One afternoon, we worked together on a math worksheet. In the middle of solving a word problem, Chloe looked up at me and asked, “Why don’t you talk?” Gerard laughed. A string of snot shot from his crusty nostrils, spurting onto my worksheet.
“Shut up, Chloe!” Molly said.
“I’m just curious,” Chloe said.
On the table, my hands began to shake. I told them to stop shaking, but they wouldn’t stop. I swept them off the table, wedged them beneath my thighs, and looked down at my snot-speckled paper.
The door to my room burst open. Mom knelt over me. Usually, she didn’t allow me to hug the floor, but that night she just pressed her hand to my cheek. Her fingers were very warm and strong.
“I’ll talk to Molly’s mother,” Mom said, “and invite them over for dinner. Then you’ll be friends.”
The words felt as solid as the wood beneath me, as strong as Mom’s hands. I let her peel me off the floor and tuck me into bed.
“Leng neoi,” Mom said.
We stared into the bathroom mirror, admiring my shiny face, which she had just coated with Vaseline. Mom was making me a pretty girl for our dinner with Molly and her mother, whom we expected to arrive in an hour. When she was done with my face, Mom rubbed Vaseline over my arms and legs, adding a thick coat to my elbows and knees. She gave me a side ponytail, so that my hair fell over my shoulder like a waterfall. “Remember to smile,” she said.
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then you play! Sometimes you act like a total lump of rice.”
The door creaked open, and Joe’s head peeked into the bathroom. Mom grabbed him and slathered Vaseline over his fat face and over the rolls of flesh hanging beneath his chin. I pinched his soft, gooey cheek.
“Say ‘Thank you Mommy,” she said, “ ‘for everything that you do for me.’”
“Thank you Mommy, for everything that you do for me,” we said.
“I love you, Mommy,” she said.
“I love you, Mommy,” we said.
“Now give me a hug,” she said.
“Now give me a hug,” we said.
She enveloped us in her strong warm arms.
While Mom cooked, I drew up a schedule for my evening with Molly. 5:00-5:15: Tour of My Room. 5:15-5:20: Fun and Interesting Conversation. If we get bored: Make Joe Our Slave. I strode, diary in hand, into the kitchen to ask Mom what time she planned to serve dinner and found her talking on the phone.
“Just tell them you’re coming home,” she said.
Dad’s voice trickled out of the receiver.
“Then I’ll cancel,” she said. “I won’t have anything to say to that woman.”
I sensed from Dad’s gentle tone that his dimples were showing. I ran my fingers over both of my cheeks, but I couldn’t find mine. Sometimes my dimples just disappeared, and I could spend all day staring into a mirror without finding them.
“What if it doesn’t work?” she said. She hung up before he could answer.
She spotted me and wrenched the diary from my hands. I watched her rip my schedule from the binding. Then I watched it snow into the trashcan. After she returned my diary, I hopped to my room on one leg to hide it.
At five-o’clock, she called out that my guests had arrived and would I be a good host and invite them inside. Joe and I raced to the front door, sliding across the hardwood floor in our socks. I watched the minivan through the window embedded in the door. Out jumped Molly and Chloe, clutching matching bouquets of flowers. My hand froze around the doorknob, and it was still frozen moments later, when Molly’s mom rang the bell. Behind her, the girls tickled each other with the bouquets. Molly looked so pretty, shivering beneath the white flowers. Still, my hand would not open the door. Mom came barreling out of the kitchen. She pushed me aside and invited them in.
“Welcome, Mrs. Welch,” Mom said, as she led them into the dining room. “I’m sorry my house is so small and dirty.”
“Just call me Diane,” Molly’s mom said. “And your house is beautiful.” She placed a paper bag on the dining room table and winked at me. “I brought dessert.”
Molly presented her bouquet of flowers to Mom and said, “Ni hao, ma?” Playing along, Mom said, “Ni hao,” and accepted the flowers. Chloe handed me her bouquet and echoed Molly’s greeting, but I did not take the flowers, and I did not say ni hao. Ni hao was Mandarin, and we spoke Cantonese. Even Dad knew to greet us with nei hou.
Mom dragged me into the kitchen. “What’s wrong with you?” she said.
“You were only supposed to invite Molly,” I said. “Chloe scares me.”
“You scare yourself. Now I want you to pinch your ears and promise that you’ll be nice to that girl, or else I’m telling them to leave. And you know what will happen next.”
“I promise, Mommy.” I pinched my earlobes, pulling them down towards the floor.
“I don’t believe you.”
I pinched harder.
Molly leapt into my bed, as if she had visited my room dozens of times before, as if we were already friends. But the pleasure of watching her lounge on my pillows dissipated when Chloe began to ransack my room. She opened my dresser drawers, peeked into my closet, and shook out all of my shoes. She crouched on the floor and peered beneath my bed. “So this is where your monsters live,” she said, grinning.
She pulled my diary out from beneath my pillows and opened to the first page. “Dear Diary,” she said. “I love Gerard Gomez. I love him so much I’m going to change my name to Gerard Gomez.”
Of course, I had not written that ridiculous confession. Gerard Gomez, my desk partner, was disgusting. He had a chronic runny nose and he never had a tissue, so he spent all day sniffling, inhaling his own snot. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I’d hand him one of my tissues, which he’d gratefully use, then stuff into his desk to rot with all his other snot rags.
“Chloe, don’t be such a poop bucket,” Molly said, plucking the diary from Chloe’s hands. She handed it back to me. “Let’s play Barbies.”
I took out my modest doll collection, which consisted of a Barbie, a Ken, and a Skipper. Molly snatched Barbie and Chloe took Ken, leaving me with Skipper. The dolls stood facing each other in the middle of the bed.
Ken: Hey babes, want to go to a party?
Barbie and Skipper followed Ken up the slope of a pillow.
Ken: Skipper, go get us some wine coolers.
Skipper walked to the wall and returned to find Ken lying on top of Barbie.
Ken: Woman, can’t you see that I’m busy?
Skipper watched Ken thrust himself against Barbie.
“You try,” Chloe said. She passed me the Ken doll.
I laid Ken on top of Barbie, lightly pressing him down upon her. I glanced at Molly, and she nodded. I lifted Ken into the air and slammed him down onto Barbie. I did it again and again.
I loved the simplicity of the game, loved how it didn’t require any talking. I loved the violent merging of the dolls, the relentless collision of their plastic parts, which each time ended in tenderness—a hug. All of my longing for Molly came surging out of me as I struck her Barbie with my Ken. I could have played the game for the rest of the evening, but the door burst open, and the moms appeared in the doorway, announcing dinner.
“Oops,” Diane said.
“Ceoi neoi,” Mom said. She grabbed my arm and sank her fingers deep into my flesh. “I’m getting the tang tiu.”
“Don’t be too hard on her, Kitty,” Diane said. “She doesn’t understand.”
She placed a hand on Mom’s shoulder.
Diane’s touch was magical—Mom instantly released her grip on my arm. It was the first time she had ever let me off the hook.
Mom invited Diane to sit at the head of the table and placed a whole steamed fish in front of her. She also served my favorite dishes: salted chicken with ginger dipping sauce, curry noodles, squid, and deep fried shrimp. After setting the table, she sat down next to Joe. I took a seat next to Molly, while Chloe sat at the foot of the table, across from Diane.
“Look at this fish,” Diane said. “It looks like it’s about to swim off. It looks like such a…fish.”
“If it scares you, I can chop off the head,” Mom said. “But the head is the best part. Chinese people fight for the head.”
She plucked the eyes out with her chopsticks and swallowed them.
“Chinese people eat dogs,” Chloe said. “They eat their own pets.”
“Chloe!” Diane said. “That’s a stereotype.”
“When I was a girl, I ate my pet,” Mom said.
“See?” Chloe said.
“Wo Wo was a very good dog,” Mom said. “He was my best friend.”
“Mommy,” I said. “Mou ah.”
I should have known that it’d be impossible for her to sit through an entire meal without telling one of her stories about her dysfunctional upbringing in Hong Kong. Once Molly found out that I belonged to a family of pet eaters, a family in which domestic disputes were resolved by throwing scissors at one another, and grandmothers pretended to commit suicide in order to win a hug, she would never want to be my friend.
“One day my mother asked me to cook dinner,” Mom said. “Then she left to go to work. We didn’t have any food, so I took a cleaver outside. I found Wo Wo sleeping under a tree across the street.”
“Oh, geez,” said Diane.
“I snuck up to him,” Mom said. “I could tell he was dreaming because his leg was shaking. I held the knife to his throat. I killed him so fast, he never stopped dreaming.” Mom glanced at Molly and Chloe. “I bet you’re not tough enough to kill your own dog.”
“But I don’t want to kill Mr. Charles,” said Molly.
“You’ll never have to, sweetie,” Diane said. “He’s our family.”
“I could do it,” Chloe said.
“Then you’re a real Chinese person,” Mom said. She heaped shrimp onto Chloe’s plate and served some to Molly and Diane. “Jennifer, show your guests how to peel off the shell.”
I was still irked at Mom for defying my wishes and telling the story (a new version, for in most iterations of her tale Grandma killed the dog), but Molly watched me, waiting for the lesson. I plucked a shrimp off the platter, bit off its tiny legs, and swallowed them. I tore off the head and slurped up the brain and brain juices. After discarding the head, I dug my finger into the gap where I had chewed off the legs and stripped off the shell in two deft motions. Diane and the girls followed along with my demonstration and popped the shrimp into their mouths. They reached for more.
“You must miss Hong Kong,” Diane said.
“In Hong Kong, everyone on the street just talks to each other,” Mom said. “Not like here. I told my sister not to marry a white guy. He may say he loves Hong Kong, but eventually he’ll want to go home. Then she’ll have to follow him.”
“It’s better not to marry any guy,” Diane said.
“Mom hates Dad because he has a new family,” Molly said.
Diane covered her own mouth, as if she had uttered the remark.
Mom refilled her wine glass. “We must be strong like Hillary Clinton,” she said. “One day, she will be president. Then she won’t need Bill.”
Diane laughed and threw back her wine.
After dinner, she brought out her bag of desserts and spread them across the table. There were chocolate cookies, ginger snaps, caramels, and a bag of the neon delicacy that I had long been yearning to try—Pixie Sticks. “Only tonight,” Mom said to Joe and me in Cantonese. Molly grabbed all the candy and we raced to my bedroom.
Molly lay in bed, gorging herself on candy. “I’m a millionaire,” she said, throwing a caramel wrapper onto the floor. Joe crawled across the floor like a little dog and licked the wrapper. I tore open a Pixie Stick and poured a mound of pink sugar onto my tongue. The flavor bloomed in my mouth, sending a burst of golden energy through my body. After dissolving, the candy left a sweet and sour aftertaste, urging me to consume another packet, then another.
“When I’m a millionaire, I’ll change my name to Gertrude,” I said.
“I’ll change my name to Lavinia,” Molly said.
“I don’t have to change my name,” said Chloe, “because Chloe is a rich girl’s name. Let’s play Barbies.”
“Let’s play Giant Slugs from Mars,” I said.
“Giant Slugs! Giant Slugs!” Molly said.
I went to the dining room to ask Mom for the sleeping bags we needed for the game.
“Some nights I’m convinced someone will break into my house and murder me,” Diane said.
“Maybe you need a man to break into your house,” Mom said. “A sexy man.”
“Oh, Kitty,” Diane said. “You’re dirty.”
They spotted me and laughed.
“What do you need?” Mom said.
I told her.
“They’re in the garage. If you’re going to play that weird game, play outside.”
Out back, we slid the sleeping bags over our heads and became a herd of blind, armless creatures, stumbling across a dark planet. A sharp, scraggily plant pricked my feet each time I took a step. A creature howled in the distance, sounding a chilling warning across the universe. I sought the safety of my herd. A moment later, I collided with the other slugs and fell into a pile of writhing bodies. “Slug pile!” Molly cried.
Bodies slithered on top of me.
“I’m king of the slugs!” Chloe shouted.
I liked feeling the weight of their bodies on top of me, but it soon became hot in my sleeping bag and difficult to breathe. “I need to get up,” I said. They didn’t respond. I tried to roll out from beneath the pile, but I was stuck. The sleeping bag amplified the sound of my labored breathing. I knew that I was suffocating and that Mom would be very angry when she found my dead body. In my mind, I wrote her a note: Dear Mommy, I’m sorry I ate so much candy. I’m sorry I died. Please give my room to Joe. Before I could finish my note, the bodies rolled off of me, and I was free.
I threw off the sleeping bag. Across the yard, Chloe and Molly were wandering along the garden wall, encased in the same sleeping bag. They tripped over a tree root and fell to the ground, laughing, skinny legs intertwined. I headed inside.
I lay on my bedroom floor, listening to the clicking of the window blinds, the distant waves of laughter, my slow heartbeat. The sounds were a soothing lullaby. Then the lights flicked on in my room. Mom grabbed me and pulled me onto my feet.
“Mommy, I’m tired,” I said.
She dragged me outside. She said, “Mommy needs you to play.”
The girls sat on the back lawn feeding cookies to Joe and stroking his hair.
“You were gone for a long time,” Chloe said. “Were you pooping?”
“Never mind,” Molly said. “Do you know any other games?”
I taught them the rules to You Can Run But You Can’t Hide, my version of hide-and-go-seek, which I often played with Joe. After hiding in a spot for one minute, players were required to find a new hiding place.
“Not it,” Molly said.
“Not it,” I said.
“I’ll be it,” Chloe said. “I like being it. One, two, three…”
Joe, Molly, and I raced into the dining room, where Mom was opening another bottle of wine. We crawled under the table and stared at the row of mom legs. Mom’s legs were smooth, dark, and muscular. I pressed my cheek against her warm shin, then kissed her feet. Her foot patted my face. Diane’s pale legs were covered with hair, and her toenails were painted pink. Molly kissed her mother’s feet, but they recoiled. She stuck the end of her ponytail into her mouth and sucked on her hair.
“I hate driving,” Mom said. “Last week, a man rolled down his window. He called me crazy bitch.”
“I hate him too,” said Diane. “But Kitty, the kids.”
“So I yell at him, ‘I am crazy. I am bitch,’” said Mom.
“I am crazy. I am bitch,” Joe said.
The mom legs kicked us, shooing us out from under the table. We fled down the hall. Chloe was nowhere in sight.
Joe ran into his room, and I followed Molly into the back of Mom’s closet. She clung to me in the dark, beneath a ceiling of sweaters and dresses. She pressed her damp forehead against mine. Hello friend, I thought.
“I love closets,” she said. “Closets are better than houses. I’m a vampire.”
My hands began to shake. I wanted to tell her that I loved closets, too. I wanted to tell her that when I grew up I wanted to be president, but if not president, then definitely a vampire. I wanted to tell her that her mother’s feet were pretty—just shy. But the sentences escaped my mouth in a single sound: “Mmmmmm.”
“What?” she said.
I pressed my forehead against hers.
“Ow,” she said. “Time’s up.”
I followed her out of the closet and down the hall.
“Where’s Chloe?” Molly said. “She’s usually good at being it.”
Chloe’s absence proved otherwise, but I was grateful that she couldn’t find us. Molly crept into the bathroom and lay down in the tub, crossing her arms over her chest like a vampire. I crawled in and lay next to her.
“I don’t mind being a vampire,” she whispered. “But Chloe and my parents are humans. I don’t want to live forever, if they’re going to die.”
“I can drive a stake into your heart,” I said.
“But then you would go to jail for murder.”
“How about I make you a vampire?”
Before I could answer, she bit my neck. The pain was sharp, but I loved it. She followed the bite with a kiss.
Footsteps sounded across the bathroom floor. Molly clamped her hand over my mouth, and I clamped my hand over hers. A dark face loomed over us. But it was only Joe clutching the bag of Pixie Sticks. I pulled him into the tub and bit his chubby neck. “Now we’re a vampire family,” Molly said. “We’re the moms, and Joe’s our baby.”
Joe lay curled on our laps, and we fed him packets of human blood. I liked our new game, liked how it was a secret from Chloe, who thought we were still playing You Can Run But You Can’t Hide. But after we finished the candy, Molly reminded us that our minute was up. Joe and I followed her into my room and watched her crawl under the desk.
“Chloe will get you,” she said.
“We’ll be safe,” I said. “We’re vampires.”
“Give me blood,” Joe said.
“You guys ate it all,” Molly said. “Now go find your own spots.”
I trudged into the kitchen and hid in the pantry. Joe tried to squeeze in next to me, but I pushed him away and shut the door. Next, I snuck under the dining room table, where I tickled the mom legs, but the game lost its excitement without Molly. When I returned to my room and peeked under my desk, she was gone.
I sauntered out back. The garage door was open, and the light was on. My parents parked their cars on the street and stored junk in the garage, making it the perfect hiding place. I skipped into the garage, expecting to see Molly, but found Chloe digging through a cardboard box.
“Guess what?” she said, waving a paper in the air. “You’re adopted.”
“You’re lying,” I said.
“Haven’t you ever wondered why you don’t look like your mom?”
I approached her and tore the paper out of her hands. It was one of my report cards from earlier that year with a note from Mrs. Singer scrawled across the bottom of the page: You’re such a pretty girl. Don’t be shy!
“Just kidding, pretty girl,” Chloe said. She tapped my shoulder. “You’re it.”
I pushed her over and flicked off the lights. She screamed as I ran out of the garage. She screamed again as I reached for the rope hanging from the garage door. Dad had placed it there, because Mom was too short to close the door on her own. The rope dangled just out of my reach, so I leapt into the air, grabbed it, and pulled down hard. The door slid down a notch, then stopped. As Chloe sprang to her feet, I pulled on the rope again, using the full weight of my body. My chest pounded and my pulse rang in my ears. My arms felt very strong, strong enough to bring down the garage, strong enough to bring down the whole world. But the door wouldn’t budge. Chloe dashed past me into the house.
I sat down in the dark.
Mom appeared. I closed my eyes and felt a familiar, piercing ache in my skull. She had struck me with her knuckles. I opened my eyes. In one swoop, she pulled me onto my feet and dragged me inside, where the girls stood huddled against Diane. Chloe’s face was streaked with tears and snot, and her chest heaved as she gasped for breath.
“She was going to trap me in there all alone,” she said.
“But you’re fine,” Diane said. She covered Chloe’s face in a flurry of kisses. “It was only a game.”
“Apologize,” Mom said in Cantonese.
When I stepped towards the girls, they buried their faces in Diane’s chest. I watched her stroke their hair.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Mom struck me again with her knuckles. “Louder,” she said.
I looked straight into Diane’s eyes, and she smiled tenderly. I wished that she would use her magical touch on Mom again. Mom looked fierce, but I knew that she would unclench her fists, if Diane wrapped an arm around her.
“Kitty, stop,” she said. “She’s just a little girl. We should all sit down and talk.”
“Should, should, should,” Mom said. “You people love to tell everyone what to do. But what do you know? Your family is broken.”
Diane held onto the girls, her eyes frozen open, like the eyes of the fish Mom had swallowed at dinner.
The phone rang—probably Dad. Instead of answering, Mom gathered the boxes of cookies scattered across the table and dumped them back into the paper bag. She shoved it into Diane’s arms.
Diane hugged that bag like it was a person, like it was another girl who needed to be comforted. I watched her carry it out the door, the girls trailing behind her. Molly didn’t look at me, even to glare at me, or to call me mean.
Mom slammed the door behind them.
“Go to your room,” she said. “I’m getting the tang tiu.”
Natalie Rogers received her MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. Her fiction has appeared in Juked, Narrative, and Specter Magazine. She is writing her first novel.
Illustration by Katherine Villeneuve