Like many of the ghost stories I’ve grown up with, this one needs to start with a death.
So let me begin with this: The first time you faced a dead body, you were a little girl. You told me this when I was eight. I perched on your lap. We were at the kitchen table on a weekend afternoon with plates of mostly eaten cheung fun and bowls lined with the sticky residue of juk clustered in front of us. Caroline and Steph started to clear the table, chattering about whatever concerned high schoolers. Daddy retreated to the family room. I don’t know how you settled on this topic.
As you spoke, I imagined you in a village somewhere in southern China. Gray, boxy buildings worn from decades of rain and sun; sheets of green and beige beneath the fog: rice paddies and farms, overgrown grass reaching toward the pale sky. I know now that this specific image from my childhood is wrong. I probably lifted it from a story Daddy told me about his childhood. Or maybe I saw it in a movie, some vague landscape with a pi-pa playing in the background. Kids, so impressionable, always picking up the most subtle things, like the way you slurped your soup or sighed when stressed. I swear to God or the gods or goddesses or whomever that eighty-five percent of my personality traits are yours that I saw and held on to as a kid, the remaining fifteen percent a result of the fallout of your death.
Now that I’m old enough to ask questions, I know that day when you found the dead body, you were likely living in Hong Kong.
In my vision of you, your hair was cut short but long enough for your older sister, my yi ma, to pull into pigtails before you went to school. I’ve pictured your child self this way ever since I saw a photo of you on a beach with Yi Ma and a cousin. The water is a gray slant that stretches behind you. You are maybe four, and Yi Ma clutches your hand as if to keep you still. There is something mischievous on your face, your gaze distant like you’re lost in thought.
That day you saw the dead body, mist rose off of the grass and dew collected on your shoes.
You were all alone on the path to school, which you’d ventured down many times before. It was eerie in my imagination. You were on the precipice of danger, though I don’t know if, in your reality, you felt threatened. The sun was higher than normal because you were late, and it reminded you to walk faster.
I passed by this bush, you told me, and I saw this hand on the ground.
I pictured, emerging from an overgrown hedge, a set of fingers attached to a forearm attached to an elbow attached to a real human.
There was a person, you said.
I can’t recall whom you found, if they were old or young, if their eyes were open wide or shut tight, if there was blood or just gray skin. I wish that I remembered these details, if you shared them with me in the first place. I do recall, though, that you said you knew immediately that the person was dead.
Your voice split into a scream as you pumped your legs and raced toward your school, the morning quiet around you.
When I think of this younger version of you, I see with dread what will surface in your life: the strains of immigration, motherhood, money, and then cancer.
But let me correct your memory now, Mommy. Or maybe, let me correct mine: That is not the first time you saw a dead body. The first time you saw a dead body, you were only four years old. It was your own mother.
You lived most of your life not knowing the woman who created you, and I wonder if that terrified you the way just the thought of it terrifies me. I don’t even know what your mother looked like. When I try to conjure an image of her, I only see an absence.
There is a memory I summon to recall how you look: You stood nearly naked by your bedroom closet. Your underwear was giant and saggy around your ass and speckled with little holes. You rolled pantyhose over your calves, careful not to tear them with your fingernails, which you’d grown long and filed at the ends so they were round. Your stretch marks were little white veins that ran all over your body. You were not self-conscious. I understood as I looked at you that our bodies were similar, that I was an extension of you, that I came from you, that I could one day become like you.
I watched as you tugged the nylons up and up and up your legs and over your thighs and then your hips until they were taut. I’d witnessed this morning ritual as you readied yourself for work so many times from my seat on the floor, you towering above, a little shy of five feet. You leaned back and asked me to zip your dress or fasten a clasp, and eagerly I obliged, wanting any chance to help you.
Your hair was cropped and wavy. You always told us how unusual your hair was in a way that makes me uncertain today whether you liked being unique or resented it. People like us don’t have hair like this, you said as your waves fell through your fingers. These days, when I see Sandra Oh on TV, this glamorous version of you with her glossy hair and rounded face, something in me seizes.
Careful, you said as I eased the zipper away from your skin so it wouldn’t catch. I smelled a whiff of the strawberry shampoo and conditioner you bought from Walmart, knocking a half-dozen bottles into your cart whenever there was a sale.
I’m being careful, I promised. Your hair framed a large mole on your forehead.
I did not know the mole was uncommon, or that someone might think you were anything but beautiful. As I sat watching you by your closet, you looked at once radiant and exhausted. You were plump and a train track of scars from your many surgeries stretched down your stomach. I understood then that your body was not meant to be permanent.
I wonder now if you ever felt betrayed by it, if you ever raged that the form that was meant to protect you instead failed before you were ready to expire. Inside, a cyst ballooned your belly, though we wouldn’t know that for some time. You collected excuses to explain away what was happening: You had irritable bowel syndrome, or maybe it was that you were getting older and this was what happened with age. Our family could not see it then, but you were dying.
When I was nine years old, you plucked a sunflower seed from a plastic bag and popped it into your mouth. You sat on the copper carpet of our family room, surrounded by a spread of newspapers. From my spot in front of the TV, I could hear you sucking on each shell for a few seconds, thckthckthck, the roof of your mouth smacking with salt and saliva. You positioned the seed between your teeth and split the shell, chewing before spitting the rest onto a grocery store flyer.
My eyes were glued to the TV, watching a rerun of Dragon Ball Z. But without looking, I knew exactly what teeth you used. You taught me a few years back.
Like this, you said. You made a big show of pulling your lips back so I could see your gums. You placed the seed at the back of your mouth so that each end met a molar.
And then you bite down, gently.
You bit down, gently. I followed your lead. I showed you my gums. I nudged the seed between my molars. I bit down, gently.
On this afternoon, you sorted through the newspapers that had multiplied over the past week and muttered under your breath about my father, your husband of two decades, who had left the mess there earlier.
He can’t throw these out himself? Why’s he need all this anyway?
You leaned over to scrape a handful of shells into the trash. We rarely had sunflower seeds in the house, especially not the salted kind. In Daddy’s mind, salted snacks—nuts, seeds, chips, french fries—were part of a conspiracy to rob us of our money. They add all the salt so it taste so good, he’d say, but also so that you get thirsty and have to buy sodas and spend more money on their product.
You sat up slowly and fixed your gaze on me. You spread your lips wide into a grin and jutted out your top front teeth, like you were a curly-haired, round-faced Dracula. This was our family’s special face, the one you slipped on suddenly and presented to me, Steph, and Caroline. You dug your top teeth into your bottom lip and widened your eyes, huge, until we mirrored your expression, all of us laughing until we approached tears. Sometimes you gave a long blink, which was your way of winking, since you had trouble closing only one eye. You made the face at random: standing by the boxes of Frosted Flakes in the cereal aisle, or when you walked into the house after a long day at work, or when you were in the driver’s seat of your van and ferrying us to an appointment.
When I die, you said as you made that face, I want you to get me stuffed so I can sit in your apartment and always watch you. This was the first—and would be the only—time that you would address your death with me.
You raised your eyebrows. I was nine, and nowhere near having my own apartment. I still shared my bed with you. Each night, I fell asleep with my head nestled into your armpit with a leg thrown over your waist while you flew through one of the romance novels you borrowed from the library in bagfuls and called “kissing books,” making smooching noises gleefully whenever you said those words. I always assumed you slept in my room because you loved me so much. I never considered any other reasons.
Now you bared your teeth like you were wild, like the stuffed grizzly bear we saw at the L.L.Bean store when we took a vacation to Maine earlier that year. I wailed immediately upon seeing the bear’s face molded into a grimace, and I continued to howl each time we stumbled upon a fawn or moose or goat scattered throughout the store. The sight of their faces, locked in the same position for eternity, shot a prickly sensation into my feet. It’s OK, you had said. You stepped closer to the bear, its body hulking over us, its paws the size of dinner plates.
OK? you asked. You reached across the couch to hold my hand.
Would you like that?
Would I like for you to be stuffed?
You studied me expectantly as though you wanted me to make the face. I snatched my hand back and let out a yip.
As a kid, I pictured future dead you sitting with future alive me in my apartment. I could not tell if I was peering into a dream or nightmare: It was a small rental, though inside it looked exactly like our family’s kitchen. My entire apartment was just our kitchen. There was the red Formica counter that you and Daddy picked because you insisted a bright vermilion like that meant good fortune. Piles of newspapers coated nearly every surface. A bundle of jade plants sat in a corner, their rounded leaves hanging limp on the ceramic tile floor, which had been stained a tired, spotted beige. A ceiling fan whirred gently above, and a rhythmic clunk from the motor filled the room.
You hadn’t aged one bit, though I’d grown into adulthood. You perched at my table, which was set fancy, a soup bowl stacked neatly on top of a dish that rested on top of a slightly larger plate, a collection of polished forks and spoons and chopsticks and knives lined up next to them. There was no soup. There was no food on the table. Just orange juice in each of the glasses, and plenty of it, with extra pulp. I sat next to you, and we gulped glass after glass. It was silent, except for the glugs down our throats. You were not rationing how much we drank or insisting that we add water to make it last longer, worried like Daddy that it was expensive. Four dollars a gallon? Wah, gum gwai!
In my imagination, I had not quite escaped our house, but I had some luxuries: a bounty of orange juice, and an inexplicable excess of plates and cutlery. Your arms were stiffly posed, and you loomed over a sheet of newspaper and scanned the morning’s headlines. Never mind that you hardly had time to read the newspaper while you were alive. I only saw you clipping coupons or picking out the comics. Somebody had done an exceptional job preserving you.
Your taxidermic self would return to me after we took you off life support and Daddy ordered an autopsy. Yi Ma and Kau Fu, shell-shocked by your death and horrified by the gross disruption to your physical self, hissed that because of this, your spirit might never rest.
This image of you roaming and anxious stayed with me over the years, so much that sometimes I would discover you in your rigor mortis, softened slightly, appearing suddenly. There you were when I was sixteen, in one of the back seats of your minivan during my drives to school, supervising as I checked my blind spots before I switched lanes. There you were, trapped in the longest version of hide-and-seek, tucked behind one of the curtains in our living room with your feet protruding from the bottom of the drapes, ready to leap out, laughing hysterically and shouting, You found me! as I passed. (I found you, yes. I am always finding you.) There you were, standing next to one of the garbage cans with your face puckered in exasperation as I sat on the stoop of my apartment in Brooklyn, having locked myself out yet again.
Hello, I’d imagine myself saying each time, stifling a Jesus Christ, Mommy so you wouldn’t think I was ungrateful and didn’t want you around. My family and I still referred to you as Mommy, all these years later. I was unsure what type of reaction you expected. Your taxidermic self rarely talked, your presence itself seemingly a threat, like the monsters you invoked when my sisters and I were young.
If you don’t finish all the rice in your bowl, you used to tell me, the Ginger Ghost will come get you. In your seat at the kitchen table, you jerked your arms and shoulders and widened your eyes to mimic the zombie-like hopping movements of a geung si, which you frequently told us tales about. Caroline had Boogaloodoo. Steph had Mooloogachu. I had Ginger Ghost, and Dracula, and the Monkey King. They all had the same purpose, which was to instill shame and fear, and punish us if we didn’t listen. You were always assigning us new monsters to shape us into the daughters you wanted.
Whenever you appeared in my life in your taxidermic state, I frantically reached for conversation. What doing? Lei sik jor fan mei ah? I spat out, borrowing from the way you greeted Caroline or Steph as they sat in their college dorm rooms and you stood in our kitchen, leaning against the counter and wondering over the phone if they were eating enough. But I knew each time I saw you that I hadn’t brought you here just to catch up. I summoned you to remind me of the unfulfilled promises our family had made over the years to appease your spirit and send you to the afterlife. Between you and me, I kind of liked having you around, even if memories of you appeared so vividly that I felt haunted. But then I’d shake my head and blink, and you’d have vanished.
—Jia Tolentino, New York Times bestselling author of Trick Mirror
—Bryan Washington, author of Memorial
Politics & Prose @ Union Market
In conversation with Nicole Chung