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fiction

Illustration by Ryan Floyd Johnson

Tiger Ghost

Bridget is on her way to Mong Kok to buy a goldfish. She’s been told that they bring good luck.

Illustration by Ryan Floyd Johnson

Stray Fragments

Think about losing things when you are a child, and how losing things thrusts you into a state of absolute despair, even if what you lost is relatively unimportant: toothbrush, sweater, homework folder.

Adults. We are like balloons inflated to their largest capacity and then thrown into the air, unknotted: darting, hissing, flying, farting through the room to the delight of children who will step on them when they finally fall—deflated, useless.

If time in our lives could be shuffled—if it were sectioned into discrete events and recombined—would the story add up? Or does there need to be some kind of order, even if it’s not chronological, for the pieces to form a narrative?

Nuestros hijos llevan todo el día rascándose tan fervorosamente la cabeza que uno de ellos se había sacado ya sangre y ahora daba alaridos de pavor al ver que en su dedo índice titilaba una gotita rosa.

Nos sentamos en una banca y me dispuse a espulgarle la cabellera. Me entretuve aniquilando colonias enteras de piojos y liendres.

 

The light of the desert, where we are headed—I imagine it very different from this one. I imagine it a brutal, empty, future light.

Where is the heart of the United States?

It’s somewhere in the border.

Illustration by Ryan Floyd Johnson

Hill of Hell

I had traveled up the Hudson Line at my friend’s invitation to deliver a lecture to his literature students at the college where he taught. There had been three people in attendance and one had fallen asleep halfway through. My friend had treated me to lunch before the talk and to a drink afterward, so that by the time we hit the train back into the city, where we both lived, we had sailed through the small talk and were ready for the blood and guts. 

After we opened the second bottle of wine, which he’d been keeping in his satchel, I told him about the worst thing that had happened to me in the last three years, as this was the period of time that had elapsed since we last saw each other. We sat at a table in the café car, the panoramic windows looking out on the vast sweep of the Hudson. At first, I was surprised that we could drink openly on the train, but my friend assured me that we could eat and drink whatever we wanted because the café car was closed on this route—and besides, he had been taking this train three days a week for a decade and he knew every conductor on it and could get away with anything. 

“It was around this time last year when everything came apart,” I said, turning my plastic cup on the table. 

Last September, I was pregnant. My husband had been the one wracked with longing for a child and I had allowed myself to be carried along by the tide of his enthusiasm, but once it was underway I felt like I had been conned into a heist for which, as the plans came into focus, I was woefully unprepared. You’re talking about robbing the Louvre and I’m just a common criminal! In those early weeks, I willed my body to show up with the getaway car and then four months later, after I had forgotten all about getaway cars, I was standing in Ikea, of all the undignified places, waving a spatula and lecturing my husband about how our dairy products were teeming with opiates, when my shorts filled with blood and I fainted. While I was unconscious, I had a dream that men in white coats were elbow-deep in me and then I awoke in a hospital bed to find a doctor elbow-deep in me, working on my body with the grave air of an executioner. The baby had ten fingers and ten toes, the only thing that many a stranger had told me I should care about. Eyelids as thin as organza. 


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Illustration by Nicole Rifkin

The Ash Swimming Pool

It had been nearly fifteen years, and no one Ali knew looked much like the way they had when they were younger. She wrote Grace’s name on a piece of paper in red felt tip and held it at arm’s length in front of her. In the rush of bodies, the automatic doors that led to the baggage carousel barely had time to close before opening again. There had been some kind of strife—though not a bomb—and there were police, a couple of soldiers moving with intent back and forth through the building. The glass walls were stained with cigarette smoke. In the food shops there were near fights at the discount sections: half-price carrot sticks with hummus, blood-colored smoothies, pita bread. She was so afraid of planes that sometimes, at night, she thought she could hear their seizing rattle, the doomed click of an engine shutting off 36,000 feet above her house. In the e-mail, Grace wrote: I’ve got nothing but air miles, I’d love to come and stay for a bit.

Blue Rock

As the dinghy merged with the horizon, Devers raised his terrible high voice.

“Bricks, sir?”

I reminded myself that Devers was a novice and should be forgiven for assuming that I had time for leisure. Unlike Bertram, the first assistant keeper, I did not have to check the fog signal, clean the beehive lens, trim the lantern wicks, and scrub the walls, floors, windows, balconies, and railings, inside and outside. Unlike the second assistant, Carter, I did not have to polish the brasswork—a ceaseless operation, since nearly every fixture in Blue Rock Lighthouse was made of brass, which tarnished rapidly in the sea mist. And unlike Devers himself, the third assistant keeper, I did not have to assist the first two assistants. All that was left to me was the single remaining job, which encompassed all the others and was the very reason for the lighthouse’s existence: I had to save the lives of any mariners unfortunate enough to pass within a league of Blue Rock.

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

Seeing Rose

It’s about a half-hour train ride to Yonkers, much of it along the river. You come out of the city, off the island, and countryside appears—green strips of landscape, woody bluffs, brown water, telephone lines. 

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

Nice and Mild


This is going to be—no, I don’t want to be categorical—this could be the start of a virtuous circle. My psychologist has told me that I need to say positive things to myself, only I don’t want to be too positive, as that might just make things worse. But I can say this: My life is a mess and I’m going to try to sort it out, starting with the small things. Then later, I’ll be able to deal with bigger, more complicated things; buying blinds is a lifeline that’s been thrown to me from dry land as I flail and flounder in the waves. 

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

Souvenir

The ferry, tied still to the dock, pointed north, toward where the Bosporus opened into the Black Sea. The boat wasn’t headed there, but was bound for Istanbul, and it left in fifteen minutes, at three. 

“ ‘Nicely done, nicely done,’ ” Chris said, inspired by the sight of the Australians sitting a hundred feet away, not on the ferry yet but at one of the waterfront cafés.

<i>Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life</i>. By Yiyun Li. Random House, 2017. 224p. HB, $27.

Unsettled

In 2011, the writer Yiyun Li and I were both asked to judge a fiction contest for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I panicked, that certain swoon-panic of the fellow author who is a fan, at her name next to mine. I was enamored of all her abilities, from mechanical to aesthetic—a certain gelid elegance, sharpness in syntax and diction, fluidity of theme in dark and light with such self-possessed strokes. And I—in my head and sometimes truly with my pen, an impulsive maximalist-stylist, always straddling rough and rougher—studied her register but found it impossible to emulate. So when we judged that contest together, I tried to calmly and coolly interact with her without a stutter. We both had agreed on the same winner almost instantly. I completely agree with you, Porochista. It’s my favorite too, so let’s go ahead with it? she wrote, words I held on to for months. Eventually I realized we had even more in common than I dared suspect: her East Asian immigrant to my West Asian immigrant, English as a second language, nuclear physicist fathers, and California as home.

Illustration by Corey Brickley

Dixon

A star-smeared night, the usual briny and humid haze of the brush country in August, and Dixon was hauling twenty cases of stolen toys up from the Rio Grande valley. If the border patrol at the Sarita checkpoint asked, he’d claim a delivery mix-up.

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