Fiction by Eliot Li
In your shopping cart at Safeway: a 10-pack of Top Ramen; jumbo box of Depends Undergarments that Grandma asked you to buy; AA batteries for your malfunctioning answering machine; this week’s SF Bay Guardian with Bruce Lee on the cover; and a pleasure pack of Trojans, because even though you’re single and don’t need them, you still want to dream.
There’s a freckled girl in a Harvard sweatshirt behind you. She’s watching your giant diapers and condoms roll across the checkout counter. She smiles and sinks her cheek into her mother’s shoulder, and the mom grins a little, too. It’s San Francisco, so they’re probably thinking your predilection for diaper fetish role play is endearing. Telling them the truth, that the Depends are for your incontinent Grandma, will just sound like a coverup.
You really want to talk to the girl in the Harvard sweatshirt. You actually just graduated from Harvard last spring, before coming here to start grad school. You want to ask her if she’s currently a student there, but the guy at the cash register is gesturing impatiently for you to pay and move on.
When you come home, there’s a message from Grandma. “I’m so lonesome,” the machine says, before cutting off.
You’re looking through personal ads in the back of the SF Bay Guardian. There are so many Asians in San Francisco, unlike your high school where you were the only one. Harvard was diverse, too, and that was when you’d started wondering if it’s not about your race. Perhaps it’s just you.
Yet, most of the ads say SWF seeks SWM, and some of the ads say SAF seeks SWM, and you feel your half-digested Top Ramen noodles coming up into the back of your throat.
But then there’s Jen, 20 y.o. SAF seeks SAM, and it’s like yeah you should’ve had more faith all along.
“Want to go to the Bruce Lee film festival?” you ask, wrapping the telephone cord around your hand.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Jen says, with a high pitched lilt.
“Sorry.” You rub your crumpled up face.
“I’m an econ major at SFSU,” she says. “Where’d you go to college?”
You contemplate whether or not to drop the H-Bomb. That’s what your male Harvard classmates called it, when they told a potential date where they went to school. The H-Bomb. It was so stupid and pretentious.
“I graduated from an obscure small liberal arts college back east,” you say.
There’s a sharp hissing noise on the other line, like a tire deflating.
“Let’s move on,” she says, before you can circle the plane around and make another attempt to drop the H-Bomb. “Describe to me what you look like. And be honest. The last guy said he looked like Keanu Reeves, but when I met him he had thick glasses and there was food stuck in his braces.”
You think of Sally, the brunette girl who sat behind you in high school AP calculus, the girl you had a crush on because of the way her crimped hair fluffed in the breeze. The two of you passed notes during class because Mr. Funker’s lectures were so goddamn boring. As the semester progressed, she started opening up more to you in the notes, like telling you how her parents were getting divorced, and you wrote back I’m here for you. And one time when you were feeling down on yourself, you wrote Do you think I’m ugly? and she wrote I think you’re average for a Chinese guy.
“My friends tell me that I’m average for a Chinese guy.”
Jen’s humph hits you like a poison dart.
You should’ve said that you look more like Jet Li than Keanu Reeves. It would’ve been a perfect response, especially since it was completely true.
And you could’ve told her how much you actually love Keanu, your favorite part-Asian American actor, although you’re mad at him for passing as white.
You remember two summers ago, when you and your father watched Speed at the Roxie. Your dad said it was the greatest action movie he’d ever seen. It was the night before you left for Boston to start your senior year. Before your Grandma called you in your dorm, left that message on your answering machine where she could barely talk through her tears. “Your father died in an accident,” Grandma said.
Maybe you could tell Jen all the ways your father’s death has wrecked you, left you feeling lost. And how finally on your own, you’re just fucking everything up. And without your father to take care of her, Grandma’s always calling with her neediness, a doctor’s appointment to drive her to, a broken hearing aid, a soul-rending loneliness that keeps her from sleeping so she dials your number, and you know you should set barriers because you can barely get your own schoolwork done, but you and Grandma are blood, and it seems like that’s all you have in this world.
It’s you. It’s definitely you.
“I’ve got to get my shit together,” you say to Jen. “Hope you find what you’re looking for.”
After you hang up, a shirtless Bruce Lee beckons you from the cover of the Bay Guardian.
You flip the magazine over. On the back page, there’s an ad with a steely-gazed woman in black leather, a riding crop resting on her shoulder. She advertises her services by the hour.
Bruce Lee died young. Something he and your father had in common. You inhale the musty odor of your empty apartment and think, Hell why not?
The woman’s voice is soft and kind, not at all what you expected. She says she’s available right now.
You drop the A-bomb and tell her you’re Asian.
“That’s lovely, dear,” she says. “NOW GET OVER HERE AND LICK MY FEET, SLAVE!”
Your hand trembles. You scribble down her address. You grab your car keys, some cash, and the box of diapers.
Eliot Li lives in California. His recent work appears in Passages North, Janus Literary, Ekphrastic Review, Peatsmoke, HAD, Necessary Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. He’s on twitter @EliotLi2.