I had an aunt who went to the dentist and asked to get her tongue pulled. We only do teeth
, the dentist said, but did it anyway. She took her tongue home in a jar and flushed it down the toilet and years later a fisherman in Half Moon Bay made the evening news, waving my aunt’s tongue like a flag at the end of his pole. The police are still looking for the body it belonged to. I had an aunt who worked at the Oriental Buffet and stole us a live crab, which my other aunt boiled alive, and when I tried to crack the legs with my teeth the way they did, one of my molars fractured into five and my other aunt, not that other aunt but this other other aunt, spent the rest of the night tweezing tooth-shrapnel out of my gums. I had an aunt who told me not to get braces because it would set off the metal detector at airports and trigger the German shepherds to run out and tackle me and the agents would confiscate my teeth and replace them with rubber bullets and interrogate my mouth with their tongues. I had an aunt who took me to Great America while my mother was at an immigration interview. This aunt refused to get on a roller coaster even though that’s what we paid for. When I told her to get on, she said, The only time I’ll get off the ground is if I’m on an airplane or become an angel.
And I told her she’d never become an angel because I saw her kiss a woman that time we were at Costco buying four-ply toilet paper for my mother, who was in the throes of stress diarrhea, induced partially by her upcoming immigration interview and partially because I told her the officers would test if she was truly American by feeding her strawberry soft serve and timing her digestion. I said that’s why it’s called passing a test
—because they catch what passes out of your body. If it’s liquid, they don’t let you into the country. So my mother went out and bought two half-gallons of Breyers vanilla to train her body to convert milk into bone and not brown silk. Anyway, my aunt locked me in the parked car, which I said was illegal in America—you can’t even lock dogs in the car—and she walked up to the woman who had been following us while we shopped, a woman I’d recognized from the temple where we prayed to save my grandfather’s polygamist soul, and kissed her. Kissed her so hard, my own lips shriveled like salted slugs. I had an aunt who gave me the lingerie catalog because there were coupons printed in it, though none of us would ever wear underwear with jewels or lace, because jewels and lace need to be worn on the outside so that everyone knows you can afford them. I cut the bottom halves off the women for no reason. At school we watched an Oprah interview where a white woman tells Oprah how she stopped her attacker: by peeing on him. I had an aunt who peed on me one time we shared a mattress. She’d been in the country five months and when I woke up she was trying to shroud the stain with a towel. She said she’d dreamed of being back on the island, peeing onto the roots of a camphor tree that didn’t grow unless it was given water directly from a body. I imagined I was that tree: I grew because my aunts were watering me. I had an aunt who cut my hair for years, until she got early-onset something, some disease named after a man, and then she went around cutting people’s earlobes on purpose, sneaking up behind them with her scissors and shearing off the tips like bits of shrubbery, and for years every time I sensed something behind me, a pigeon or the gym teacher or rain, I assumed it was her. I covered my ears in my sleep, could never hear in my dreams. I had an aunt who swathed cellophane candy wrappers around the heads of flashlights and shined the beams onto my ceiling before I fell asleep, telling me it was the northern lights, and when I asked her what even caused the northern lights, she said it was the sky having bad breath. The sky spitting its stars like teeth. When night is the color of all my aunts letting down their hair, I remember I have another aunt who got all her teeth bashed in on a bus. She doesn’t remember the man who did it, just woke up at the end of the line with the bus driver slapping her awake, telling her she better learn some English, so she did. I had an aunt who said chewing orchid petals is the only sure form of birth control. I had another aunt who said dying is the only sure form of birth control. I had an aunt who wanted to name her daughter Dog
because that’s what Americans love most of all, dogs, and how many movies are there about American dogs that must find their way home to their families? And how many of those dogs die, percentage-wise? And can’t a name give her the odds she’ll need? I had an aunt who saw me kiss a girl in the booth of a Burger King and said, I knew it. I knew you were supposed to be born a son.
I had an aunt who pulled me out of my mother by a jellied ankle and said, Of course she’s born backward, everyone in this family is
. I had an aunt whose baby died in its sleep so soundlessly, she didn’t believe in its death. She dressed it, rocked it, petted its head, not letting us take the body away, until one night we tricked her, replacing the baby with a Costco frozen baked potato. She mothered the potato instead, wrapped it in a blanket, pretended it was safe in the custody of her touch. I had an aunt who died in a drunk-driving accident, in a sober-driving accident, in a suicide, in a typhoon, in the middle of the day while blow-drying her hair, in the evening while opening a window, in the morning while hiking to the family grave, in an attempt to get away from her husband, in an attempt to get away from her father, in an attempt to leave the country, in an attempt to get into another one, in an attempt to get her nose done, in an attempt to love a son, in an attempt to outrun a river, in an attempt to reincarnate as rain. I had an aunt who cracked an egg on my forehead when I made fun of her accent. I had an aunt who did my hair before school every morning, marinating my braid in egg yolk and butter, saying I’d smell like an American. I had an aunt who wiped her ass with her birth certificate and another one who failed her immigration test because she named Colonel Sanders as a founding father. I had an aunt who made sausage out of wild squirrels she shot in her yard, and when I said those squirrels probably had diseases, she held me to the chair until I ate every link. I had an aunt who stood outside the bathroom and listened to me shit, saying she could divine the shape of my future based on how my shit fell: whether it sank right away, whether it floated like petals or sang in the water or became a fish. I had an aunt who never married and told me men are magpies: They want anything that shines. What shines: blood, a bruise like an eye patch, a lake, salt, a window, dew, sweat on a girl’s collarbone, my aunts pledging allegiance to the moon. I had an aunt who massaged my elbows when I cried and said the heart is a hinge, to live it must bend. I had an aunt who said I should carry a rock in my palm until it’s the same temperature as my body, and then I should talk to the rock as if she is inside it. She says we should all learn to listen through other skins. I had an aunt who said home is the temperature of an armpit. I had an aunt who never let me turn on the heat, because if we don’t pay for the sun’s light or warmth we shouldn’t pay for heat or electricity, so she tucked my hands under her armpits and pretended she was a hen and I was the egg, swaddled in wings, swimming inside a shell of light, waiting to break to birth to sing.
Copyright © 2022 by K-Ming Chang. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.