ANGIE
KANG

Angie Kang is an illustrator and writer living in Providence, Rhode Island. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Narrative, Porter House Review, Lunch Ticket, Hobart, and others. In 2020, she won the the Casey Shearer Memorial Award for Excellence in Creative Nonfiction and the Kim Arstak Memorial Award for poetry. She is a recent graduate of the Brown-RISD Dual Degree Program with a BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and a BFA in Illustration from RISD.

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STILL LIFE

After the fact, the supervisor let me go home early, and we both knew it was just a courtesy and we both knew I couldn’t afford to quit and we both knew there was no one I could tell and nothing I could do about it.

    After the fact, I put Neosporin and a Spiderman Band-aid over Susie’s cheek, told her not to tell anyone and that it would heal, which I knew was true, and that everything would be okay, which I didn’t. I had to give her credit. For a five year old, my daughter had shown incredible restraint. When the supervisor’s palm made contact, she only stumbled backwards and looked up from the floor at all of our shocked, wide-open eyes, and only when she touched her cheek and her little fingers came back red, only then did she cry.

    I should have seen it coming when I was asked to come in on a Sunday. My mom had always told me it was bad luck to work on the Lord’s day of rest, and when I was still little enough to believe she knew everything, I also believed in God. I thought he was Chinese because every time my mom prayed to him for salvation, she used my real name, not the English one, but the one I rarely heard and never responded to. When she came to America, my mom folded up her tongue, used Mandarin less and English as much as possible so that I wouldn’t speak with curled Ls and Rs like she did. She called me Joanne, even at home, even when it was just us, but not to God. When she prayed at the table, I opened my eyes and watched her mouth taste my Chinese name before we picked up our chopsticks to eat.

    I should have seen it coming when my supervisor was shouting tíng xià, tíng xià! But he yelled so much that his trained tenor voice became a part of the studio landscape, against the pouring of plaster and tinkling of brushes against water cups, against the sound of fruit being picked up and turned around and placed back down, against the sound of wax being packaged in foam and tape sliding over cardboard. He yelled a lot because he was perpetually dissatisfied — with us, but probably more because he came to America to sing but now made his living paying others to fabricate wax fruit for artists who wanted to paint that non-perishable likeness on canvas. Dissatisfied with the fact that, even after twenty years, he could still only say the motto — We Make Fruit So You Can Paint Fruit! — in perfect English, and that everything else could only be communicated through either a muddled Sha’anxi accent or in Mandarin.

    Besides, my mom only said stop, never tíng xià. The entire time I lived under her roof, she only ever let a little Mandarin slip: food words in the kitchen and swear words when she’d stubbed her toe and animal words from fairytales she would tell me before I fell asleep. In this way I had always confused cào and cài, lòng and làng. At school, when I tried to replicate the Chinese in its English equivalent, I told my astonished teacher that I was bringing fucks for lunch and that my favorite mythical creature was the wolf. Shouted vegetable! when I banged my toe against a desk and raised my hand to say that dogs had descended from dragons.

    I should have seen it coming this morning when I gave Susie cherries for breakfast and she bit straight down on one and cracked her tooth. You’re not supposed to eat that, I told her lightly, whisking the offending pit away, but instead of laughing, Susie’s mouth wobbled in a way I knew the high school babysitter wouldn’t be able to steady, and in that moment I had no choice but to bring her to work and keep her beside me all day.   

    I should have seen it coming because my daughter has always had a tendency for trouble in the most unpredictable ways. She once snuck an entire roll of paper towels into the bathroom to watch the sheets drink water. I only saw the aftermath but could imagine the fascination in her eyes as she ripped off one sheet after another and watched the moisture creep along the ridges until its entire form was consumed, the way that fascination turned to fear when she tried to flush it down but the toilet choked and its contents rose with urgency and wrath, soaking our tiled floor in foul-smelling tears.

    I should have seen it coming because Susie loved apples. She loved when I sliced them real thin so that they melted on her tongue and she didn’t have to chew too hard. She loved the shiny red ones and the bitter green ones and the way the air bruised them after they were in her plastic baggy all day. She even loved the half-rotted ones I bought at discounted section of the grocery. Every time I handed her a piece of that fruit, she thanked me with gummy laughter.

    I should have seen it coming because there really were only a few real rules: no sitting, no talking, and no eating the real fruit. The supervisor was most particular about the last rule because fruit was expensive, especially in the off-season, and even when we had molds of them, the plaster would only last for about a hundred castings before it eroded beyond use.

    I should have seen it coming because Susie just learned to read, but Cat and Hat and Mat won’t get you anywhere with a DO NOT EAT sign written in even simplified Chinese characters.

    So when it happened, I wanted to blame my mom for refusing to teach Susie Mandarin. You turned out fine, she said. But back then, she never thought I would drop out of university, take the first job I could find off Craigslist, work in the garage of a failed Chinese opera singer so that I wouldn't have to face anyone from my old life. Never thought I would exist among immigrants who only spoke Mandarin, isolated in the only place I ever saw anyone else other than my crying child and my landlord. She never thought I would miss the roots she had severed so I could fly; she expected me to never look back. By the time she realized she might have been wrong, about me, about Susie, she had already been diagnosed and it was too much to ask for her last few months to be spent teaching Susie and me how to say the same vowel five different ways.

    When it happened, I thought about my mom holding Susie and crying, as if this were evidence of either her success or failure as a mother, but I had never figured out which.

    When it happened, I thought of one fall in Naperville. The man I loved at the time made dinner for our anniversary and I was about to tell him I was four weeks pregnant with Susie, but his dog had gotten loose somehow and stolen the entire roasted chicken off the counter and when the man I loved came back to see all his work spread across the tiled floor, he held the mutt down and beat her right there in his kitchen. I blinked tightly and turned away and listened to the soft whining punctuated with THWACKs as I stared out the window and watched the wind undress the bashful trees. When he calmed down, his dog slunk away and we ordered Chinese takeout and held hands and slurped noodles and fed each other pieces of kung pao chicken. That night, I kissed the man I loved and I didn’t tell him about the baby. Two months later and only when I began to show, I broke up with him over the phone.

    When it happened, I thought, of course, because all the men in my life have hurt me, especially the ones I expect to do so.

    When it happened, I thought about the high school French class I had to take to graduate. Back then I thought it didn’t matter because I didn’t want to go to France, so I didn’t try very hard, never fully learned how to speak in simple future tense, just the present and the near future. Every sentence I formed was about now, now, now; else, about the now in the immediate horizon. But the ability to put the distant future into words means anticipating there will be one, and I could never look past my nows to decide the nebulous idea of a later. All I did was listen to my mom and put one foot in front of the other, following a path until there wasn’t one anymore. Still, I had passed the class, but even back then, I knew I shouldn’t have. 

    When it happened, Jackie gasped. She was a wisp of a woman, slim like my mom, the only other worker who spoke any English and didn’t go by her Chinese name. Everyone else had immigrated from China hoping for a better life. Jackie stumbled here nearly by accident. When she was twenty-three, she followed her husband through immigration, found out that he was conducting biology research not only in the University laboratory but also in side-of-the-road motel rooms, then left him. She said she'd chosen to stay in Illinois for the last thirty years because she figured the suffering was the same no matter where she went, but at least here she’d be able to breathe clean air. 

    When bustling around the studio, Jackie sometimes brushed my shoulders in the same way my mom used to when she needed to get by me in our tiny kitchen. Once, Jackie asked me why I stayed in this dump when I could speak English and at least find some retail job somewhere else where the supervisor wasn’t overtly cruel, and I didn’t have a good reason for her, at least not one I could say without crying.  

    When we first met six years ago, Jackie explained that her Chinese name, Yun Cong, which means “artistic intellect,” sounded too close to Yan Cong, which means onion.

    I don’t want to be the onion girl, she said. What’s your Chinese name, Joanne?

    I told her I didn’t want to share because it was also embarrassing, which was true, but not because of the name, but because I couldn’t pronounce it without revealing I was born in America and had never mastered my tones and sometimes still accidentally called my mom a horse.

    Really, Mandarin is tricky like that. For instance, in Mandarin, the way you’d say orange (like the fruit) is jú zi. The way you say red (like the color) is hóng. Those were two terms I’d heard at home because my mom loves orange (like the fruit) and hates red (like the color), but what I had never heard before was jú-hóng (like the color), which was orange because my mom neither loved nor hated the color orange and people rarely discuss things they feel indifferently about. 

    So, six years ago, when the supervisor told me to paint my wax jú-zi (like the fruit) jú-hóng (like the color), it made sense to assume he wanted me to mix together the same amount of straight-from-the-tube orange and straight-from-the-tube red. After all, jú-hóng has equal stress put on both the and the hóng. And if that equation were followed exactly in proportion to its linguistic counterpart, the natural saturation of colors would result in a mixture more red than orange. So much more red in fact, that when I nervously asked What color does combination look like? to anyone in the room, they all said Hóng? with surprise and suspicion that I would ask such an obvious question. It did seem odd to paint an orange (like the fruit) red (like the color), but I was open to unconventional art practices. I was not about to judge an artist for commissioning a red wax orange as reference for their personal work. I was not getting paid to paint fruit, I was getting paid to paint fruit. More importantly: I was getting paid.

    When he came back and saw my mess, he had started yelling. It’s a fucking orange, — it took a moment for me to realize he wasn’t saying vegetable orange — have you ever seen a red fucking orange? His tempers never made complete sense. After all, if this had been so obvious in the first place, why instruct me at all? Why not trust that I could see that an orange (like the fruit) was orange (like the color), and react accordingly?

    I should have left then, that day, when he slammed the wax into the trash can and told me to start over, even though that meant casting another fruit instead of just painting over the affronting color.

    I should have seen it coming because I was weak and I have always known that about myself. I didn’t have the heart to yell at Susie when she toddled off, yes, but more than that, I didn’t have the courage to stop hiding and give my daughter more space to wander and more life to claim.

    I should have seen it coming when Jackie tapped my shoulder and said kàn! because she never spoke Mandarin with me. Our conversations mostly consisted of her retelling scary stories from an anthology she stole from the public library, meant for children about dolls and clowns and ghosts, and me, listening. The main characters, usually girls, always died by the end. Jackie asked me to correct her pronunciation but I hadn’t the heart, only told her hǎo, hǎo so she would beam at me. Jackie could tell I didn’t know the tones as well, but she never let that on, and her silence around the subject probably stemmed from the same kindness as my hǎos.  

    I should have seen it coming when I heard the supervisor stand up, because he never did except for that time when he had recorded a CD and played it for us for a month straight. He would get up every hour to repeat the track, sometimes doing a little skip on the way back to the opening gust of song when his warbling vocalizations began again. It was kind of pathetic that the only people who listened to his life’s work were ones who depended on him for their salaries. Once, he was so moved by his own melody that he jumped up and lifted an older women out of her station, swaying with her and opening his mouth so wide in joy we could see the little gaps in his gums where teeth used to live.                                                                                                   

    I should have seen it coming because this time when he stood up, he was not joyful in the slightest. And he was up and standing and now moving, quickly, trying to intercept the apple before it met her mouth—

    But even so, with all the signs, what I did not see coming was how I recoiled, too. How the sound of the supervisor hitting my daughter left a ringing in my ears as if I too had been struck, as if I had been the one who was bleeding, was crying, was helpless.

    After the fact, on the car ride home, I put on the radio to drown out the ringing and Susie’s whimpering in the backseat. And while stopped at the traffic light, I leaned forward to look at the sky, trying to remember what my mom used to say at the dinner table before we started eating. She never was too creative. She used to combine the same four things the pastor said at Church, about gratitude and health and love and heaven, finally ending with her own plea to be saved. Jiù jiù wǒ men. Jiù jiù wǒ men. My lips formed the syllables as I attempted it. Jiu jiu women. When the light turned green, I pressed my foot to the accelerator and my lips together as I repeated that prayer again and again, trying to get the pronunciation right so that if someone up there was listening, they might just understand.