I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
At thirteen, I felt my body slopping. Though I sat in the middle of the nurse’s height-weight chart, though I’d memorized the textbook diagram with its cake-like cross-section of flesh (epidermis, dermis, hypodermis stippled yellow with fat), my problem went deeper than biology. Mine was a more fundamental failure. My posture was liquid and my spine nonexistent despite containing the requisite thirty-three vertebrae. I spilled into conversations and overshared the banal. My words manifested as spit on listeners’ cheeks. Even teachers wore expressions of disgust when my hand shot up—expressions blotted away by sympathy like a napkin blots grease.
Of course, no one at Alta said a thing. Alta was an all-girls’ school built on progressive principles. Marble halls. Uniforms androgynous and ethically sourced. Conceived by third-wave feminists, Alta wasn’t named after some saint. It stood for the Academy for the Literacy and Tutelage of Aspirants.
Aspirants were bright young women who would one day found a nonprofit or direct quiet, critically reviewed films that didn’t sell, a fact that wouldn’t matter because Alta believed in Riches Above Money, a slogan displayed without irony atop the annual list of donors. Aspirants included senators’ daughters, screenwriters’ daughters, celebrities’ daughters, the ethnically exotic daughters of parents so undiscussed it was clear they were heir to secret dynasties.
And me. Janitor’s daughter. Scholarship kid.
My father said, Quit your fretting, girlie. My father said, They’ll like you if you act yourself. When this proved futile my father said, You’ll only grow into yourself. But what did he know? My father bought our jeans from Walmart bargain bins, our dinners from Grocery Outlet. He laughed too loud. In public, he was fond of asking what had clogged our toilet, what size training bra I wore. In the dusk hours between the end of my day and the beginning of his, as our Lean Cuisines orbited in the microwave’s glow, my father asked endless questions. About my wins in the Biology Olympiad. About my homeroom teacher. About the girls he insisted on calling my friends. I mumbled, which made him bend closer. In his soft spine, in his supplicant’s pose, I saw and despised myself.
My father had it wrong. I didn’t care about the girls who asked me, so kindly, How are you? Did you change your hair? Doing anything fun this weekend? Girls who smiled at my answers and then drifted back to discussing tennis coaches and ski trips, the afterglow of their charity making them even more resplendent. And I didn’t care about the frizzy, sharp-voiced girls who sat with me at the Olympiad and debated their horses with glee. I didn’t care about the girls who volunteered for senators on weekends and cornered me with petitions, describing themselves as Future Leaders. Oh there were aspirants of every kind at Alta, girls so golden you had to sort them into further shades of bronze and lemon and amber, gorgeous girls and kind girls and smart girls and nervy girls and charming girls and, most of all, wealthy girls. At another school I might have dreamed of befriending any one of them. But because my father was Alta’s night janitor, he knew their secrets by way of secretaries and cafeteria ladies, by way of lockers and trash cans. He told me whose birthday was coming up, who passed notes to whom, and who loved Hot Cheetos or chess. His disclosures scrubbed those aspirants as clean of interest as the floors he mopped at night.
Alta’s motto was Self-expression, Open Dialogue, Open Heart, and my father warped those words to excess—an excess I’d inherited. His DNA ran riot through my cells, spattered from my voice, his shamefulness breaking out, like acne, over me. The girls I yearned to know were the ones wrapped in silence. Even teachers didn’t bother calling on them. Not glowing but shadowed girls, skinny wraiths with bitten nails, dark circles, dry hair. An exhaustion that made them seem older and wiser. Such girls had no hobbies or sports teams that I knew of—though participation was mandatory at Alta. It was as if whatever drained them was extracurricular enough.
A bit strange, was the strongest thing I heard said about the silent girls, thanks to Alta’s rampant kindness. Mostly those girls were buffered in silence as they passed through the halls. There were maybe five of them, though the precise number was slippery; they disappeared or reappeared from class at will, reinforcing the sense that they belonged not to Alta’s world, but a different one. A world my father couldn’t see into. Under Alta’s bright lights, these girls’ lashes drew vertical bars over their eyes. More than anything, I wanted to know what inside them needed caging.
That summer, I suffered pains in my shinbones. I gnashed my teeth at night and dreamed of foxes nipping and gnawing. In July I woke up six inches taller, wrists and ankles rawly exposed. Come, girlie, my father would say, blowing on a breakfast Hot Pocket. Put some meat on yourself. My jaw was sore from clenching. For once, I turned breakfast away.
I fled from the kitchen, the single bedroom, the bathroom with walls so thin I heard every effort of my father’s body, the living room where each morning my father became a lump on the pull-out couch. I spent my days in the library periodical room, which smelled of mildew; to inhale was to imagine the green of the smoothies aspirants drank in flavors like wheatgrass and kale. I flipped through books my biology teacher had recommended, but my head was as queerly hollow as my stomach. I found myself at the rack of magazines, their colors candy-loud.
At home my father limited my TV time. He wouldn’t buy magazine subscriptions. Seventeen magazine? he joked. You have four years! What’s your hurry, trying to grow up so fast?
I waded out past diet tips and relationship advice, past starlets smiling their aspirant smiles, until I was swimming in large-sheaf tabloids that featured stories of girls missing and found, girls taken and stolen, girls held ransom and girls held till whatever wet and vital thing inside them dried out. Was it that particular summer that kept violence close to its heart like a dark clot, or was it me? I didn’t ask. The two questions were one.
I left for school that fall with my hems high above my ankles. Aren’t you cold, then? my father said as he tried to give me his jacket. But the cold just pushed me upright. Pushed me straighter.
It was a new season.
The less I ate the heavier I felt. I dozed through class and dreamed of chewing, woke with blood in my mouth and my tongue wedged between my teeth. My body grew dense with meaning, every shrinking inch significant. A fine fur grew over my arms and stomach, warming me in place of food. The bones of my face pushed out, but they weren’t the ones I’d known; they seemed of another creature. The girls who asked, so kindly, How are you? soon asked Are you okay?, soon asked Don’t you want to join us for lunch?, and soon asked nothing at all. I overhead whispers from the bathroom stall: She’s a bit off, yeah? Like… them.
For the first time, silence gathered around me.
And then a girl approached. I felt her before I saw her. I’d read about pheromones, those scentless, invisible particles that drew like animal to like through the deepest thickets.
Can I bum a cig? she said.
I told her I didn’t smoke.
Oh. I figured you did. Her pause felt approving. It’s good, you know. For the weight and all.
I learned that day that even these girls weren’t born with nothing behind their eyes. They had ways of inviting it in.
In our home, our four hundred square feet of garden-level space where the light through the landlord’s elms was forever crepuscular, my father and I shared one bathroom. Its sink had one broken drawer and one working drawer. Again and again my father forgot my new rules for privacy. Again and again he exposed my tampons and razors to the light. As I raged, he laughed. Ahh, what do I care, girlie? My father still cleaned my room and folded my laundry, still dusted the shoebox that held my diary. I’ve seen you inside and out. Remember who cleaned your diapers, girlie? My father moved to press his forehead to mine, as he’d done since I was small. I jerked away. In a flash of inspiration, I drew my lashes down to hide my eyes from the hurt in his.
It was, first, an accident. I was cutting a head of celery, pushing the knife through cell walls, thinking of empty calories and a particular, shimmering nothing I’d seen slide behind the eyes of a girl on the late-night news. The knife slipped.
My father, my father. Four long strides from couch to kitchen and he was there, bent over my bleeding wrist. He blocked my view. His wailing hurt my ears. I pulled free and locked myself in the bathroom.
Let me help, my father said as he pounded the door. What’s come over you, girlie? His voice swelled and subsided, like the pulse in my wrist, like the warped wood between us, something like how the pupils of the girl on TV had jumped from small to big, small to big as a line of text flashed: RESCUED AFTER 8 MONTHS. VICTIM: HE LIKED TO WATCH ME BREATHE. A girl in a room. A man entrapping. The suffocation I felt at night as my shins ached with growing, as my father snored through the wall. The bleeding made me feel weaker, then stronger, just as the food I didn’t eat made me weaker and stronger.
I yelled in a voice not mine, STAY OUT, YOU PERVERT.
For once my father had nothing to say. He fled from the thing inside me.
The next day the silence widened. Three feet, then five, a moat till I had half the hall to myself and my bloody wrist. I picked at the loose end of the bandage as all Alta watched. I dripped on the floors my father would have to mop.
Once again a girl appeared, summoned by my blood as a shark is summoned across murky waters. It wasn’t the one who’d asked for a smoke. This girl took my wrist. Her hand, like mine, was wrapped, but in fabric and not gauze. She wore her shirt several sizes too big, defying the Alta fashion of cuffed sleeves. She was armored in cloth as she turned my wrist. My heart beat beneath her fingers.
Her lashes lifted, those cage bars opened. Her teeth showed, shockingly yellow and jagged, and what smiled at me wasn’t pretty or sweet, wasn’t girl so much as beast.
And then the biology teacher called my name and rushed me into a room.
The biology teacher leaned forward in a listening pose reminiscent of my father: elbows on knees, spine convex, a cave at her center I was meant to fill with words.
I’ve noticed some changes in your performance this year. Is everything okay here? At home?
I conjured the nothing over my eyes.
My dear, if you won’t talk I’m going to have to call your father in.
My father by day was even more slovenly than by night. If called he’d lurch through the halls in rumpled undershirt and sagging pajamas. He had no shame. Two years ago, when he had to fetch me home for running a temperature, he hailed the lunch ladies, clapped the grounds-keeper’s shoulder so hard girls heard it across the lawn, addressed the dean by a nickname. My father’s voice was a brassy trumpet, loud, off-pitch, a dissonance he was deaf to. He asked after girls’ famous fathers; he made jokes and collected tolerant smiles. He winked as I in my fever burned with embarrassment. For weeks after, Alta was particularly kind, the questions about my father more charitable than ever.
If he came today, Alta would look at me and see only him. He’d undo everything.
No, I said, standing. Not him. Please. Anything but that.
The teacher flicked her tongue against her wet teeth. She nodded. I must have imagined the click then, as if I’d just given the right answer in Olympiad.
Very well, she said, writing on her pad. But starting today Alta will be monitoring you. You’re excused from all extracurriculars. Go here at two o’clock. Just show this note to your teacher.
I entered the territory of the girls.
A strange room, down a half-flight of stairs I’d never seen. Subterranean light, the ceiling dusty and low. One barred window. A cage.
It was run by a woman who resembled a mouse, whose trembling voice bid the others to welcome me. Into our fold, the mouse said, as if they were four sheep instead of something else. The four ignored her—half a mouthful of a woman, not worth the effort. It was me they watched.
Seen up close, their differences became clear. A tall, dark one with shivering pupils. A freckled one with sunken cheeks and fat ankles. An elfin one with unwashed hair and skin, emitting a faint mushroomy smell. And the one who’d taken my wrist, who armored herself with a too-big uniform, who wasn’t beautiful but sat as if she were.
We formed a circle. The elf spoke first. Her voice was faint. Her arms were furred like mine, more peach than pelt. Her wrists bowed like uncooked spaghetti. She was the thinnest. She was the one who’d asked for a cigarette.
Yesterday would have been… she said.
The mouse prompted, What?
Do you mean your sister’s?
Her twentieth… or twenty-first? I think?
How did that make you feel? said the mouse.
Not much, the elf said. God how I envied her. She made sister a nothing in her mouth as we girls clotted around her.
The mouse moved on.
The tall one had a mother at whom she hurled adjectives like sharp rocks.
The freckled one spoke of food—how it went down and how it came up—with evangelical thunder, pausing to circle her tongue around her lips.
The armored one alone held the mouse’s gaze. The clot shifted toward her as she spoke. She twirled her hair, slick and dark, her pale fingers darting indecently through. She was the leader. She described her older lover’s tattoos and needles, his hands. I get visiting rights after the trial, she said—to us, but especially to the mouse, who grew stiller and stiller, as certain prey did on the nature documentaries my father preferred to the news.
What did my father know? He scrubbed Alta’s halls while news about rescued dogs, civic buildings, small-time robberies, and politics washed out as the witching hour washed in. Late at night the coverage gave way to the faces of girls and what was done to their bodies. Staticky clips from dispatcher calls. Teary interviews. But loudest of all, the silence. Newscasters resorted to euphemisms even as the screen showed photo after bloody photo. When I fell asleep at three or four, it was those unspoken acts I dreamed of, more terrifying than gun or rope. The armored girl knew that same secret. She controlled her body, kept it skinny like ours, but curved in the right places. Sex came off her, which was better than beauty, stronger than the stink of the elf’s unwashed hair or the freckled one’s vomity breath. She was the kind of girl who scared reporters, scared my father, and scared the mouse, who cut her off and turned to me.
This is a safe space, the mouse said. You can speak without fear of repercussion—save facts that might compromise your immediate safety. Do you understand?
I tuned her out. I’d fooled her already. These girls were my true test. My father, I said to the four of them. He watches me breathe at night.
My father said, Aren’t you a busy one these days? My father said, What keeps you so long after school? My father said, with hope a whine in his voice, Have you made new friends, girlie? I erected silence around me.
Later that night, as I pretended to sleep, I heard the door to my room open. My father rummaged in my shoebox. Inside he’d find the diary I no longer wrote in, the mascara I now wore, a list of negative-calorie foods, a stack of glossy magazines from my new friends. And he’d find the X-Acto knife. The armored one had handed it to me, showing as she did the parallel scars beneath her overlong shirt sleeves, scars as neat as my celery sticks.
I heard my father stand, his breath quickening. I remembered leaning, sodden, against his chest when he pulled me out of public pools where I liked to sink to the bottom for the pleasure of having him rescue me, for the feel of his love beating hard, whipped into a panic.
I studied the armored one’s wrist, the elf’s trailing sentences, how the freckled one worried her bottom lip until it bled, and how the tall one shivered with rage. I memorized them as I’d once memorized phylum and genus, the intricacies of the digestive system and sodium-potassium pumps, as I’d once memorized the shapes of all forty-six chromosomes, trying to decipher in their angles the language of my inheritance.
Nimbly, I answered the mouse’s prompts:
I don’t feel anything unless I cut myself.
Sometimes I can’t get out of bed in the morning.
For a time, it worked. For a time, I walked the halls with the four and sat with them at lunch. We never ate; we only listed what we’d eaten. All my life I’d been good at beginnings: the promising student, the scholarship case with potential, the desired daughter eagerly anticipated in the baby book my mother filled before she died in birth. But as the weeks passed, there grew between me and the four of them a distance: a pause after I spoke, a narrowing of eyes, a cigarette they passed stopping just before it got to me.
He comes into my room at night.
He said he’s seen me inside and out.
The colder they grew, the louder I became to convince them. My voice was cheap and tinny, like the imitation charm bracelet I had begged my father to buy me in my first month at Alta. I lost it after the cheap clasp rusted clean through.
I thought I’d found my place at Alta in this cage where girls traded in a currency other than money. But I was still poor. Not in charms and yachts and horses this time—I was poor in neglect, in that cold, instructive pain. I hadn’t had tongues or pills or communion wafers forced into my mouth. Instead I’d had dinners of chicken and mashed potatoes, dutifully stirred halfway through heating so that they neither burnt nor froze my tongue. I’d had pillows under my cheek as I slept in my father’s truck, waiting for him to finish his shift; I’d had, every hour, the shadow of his return to check on me.
I abandoned my schoolwork to study the news. Breaking news, late-night news, old news from library records. I memorized captions and quotes. The mouse commended me for my honesty. Called it progress. But I knew I was regressing. I spoke from the edge of my seat, spit flying, my spine curving toward my audience of four. Back to my invertebrate state. One day I leaned in so far while reciting a headline from 1973 that I fell from my chair.
The four watched me sprawl as the mouse ran over, squeaking. She palpated my twisted wrist and rushed from the room to get a nurse.
Only then did they descend on me. The armored one grabbed my arm and pushed back my sleeve. Her tongue emerged, neither pink nor red but mossed white like some ancient artifact. She licked my wrist and the ink of my false scars smeared.
The other three stood behind her. Someone switched off the light so that the only illumination came from the half-window. The girls were vague shapes with flat, bright eyes.
No, I said. I said the ink was practice. I said I was drawing schematics for the real cuts. I said I’d lost the real blade. I said I’d broken the real blade. I said everything I could think of in the face of that silence. I even said—my voice soggy with desperation—that I was too poor to buy a replacement blade, that I’d do it, I would, if they would buy me another. Please, I said, offering my poverty for them to laugh at, and even this wasn’t enough to feed those four sets of eyes, such as you find staring from the brush in wildlife photography. The elf recoiled. She was the first to leave.
When I was a small thing, before my father shifted my cot to storage and himself to the fold-up couch, before he taught me to close the door to the single bedroom at night, my father didn’t call me girlie. He called me Inch. As in, You don’t need more than an inch of space, do you? As in, Scooch over, Inch when we watched cartoons together. As in, Eat up, Inch. When he carried me, my father had a way of crooking his arm stiff against his chest so that I could perch safely, my torso pressing against his. Till the age of eight I saw the world this way. There now, Inch, what’s it like to be grown? At night my father tucked me to sleep singing my only lullaby, the Nesquik jingle. Probably he did watch me breathe.
That night, I knew I would watch my father breathe.
Long and deep as he inhaled. What’s cooking, girlie?
Quick snorts as he dug into the shepherd’s pie. Now that’s more like it, he said as he watched me eat a forkful of potato.
Slower as he lowered his own fork onto his plate.
Slower still as he grunted, eyelids drooping. Delicious, he said, half a pea falling from his mouth.
A rumbling, snagging, stalling snore as he fell dead asleep from the pills I’d layered between potatoes and beef. I prodded him. He didn’t wake up; I’d given him an extra dose to be safe because he was a fat man.
I ran to the bathroom and stuck two fingers down my throat. Up came the potatoes; out came the tears. I imagined starches and lipids untwining from my intestines. On the couch, my father was a pale lump of dough. Those same compounds ran through his blood—the glucose, the cholesterol, the hormones from the farmed beef he so loved—his blood like mine but not, as his loudness and his fat deposits were like mine but not. I had the discipline to shape myself differently.
That night, I slept beside my father.
In the morning, I left him still asleep on my bed, his breath so slowed by pills that, for the first time, I couldn’t hear it. My father had snored for years, a cacophony that startled me awake. I thought of shaking him, but—he seemed so peaceful. Today he’d see the daughter he wanted ripped apart by the one I’d become. Let him dream of when I was small enough to hold.
At two o’clock, after the other four had spoken, I raised my phone and showed the pictures.
My father lay on my bed, chest exposed and shirt bunched under his armpits. A streak of stomach hair trailed out of the frame, inviting the mind to complete its path. I lay beside him, staring into the camera, my eyes holding as much nothing as I could summon. Our skins were bluish white. The only color came from the bruises around my neck. Circles the size of my father’s fat fingers.
The four leaned close. I didn’t speak. Me, janitor’s daughter. I didn’t need to.
I hadn’t been able to show my father beside me without also showing my room, my faded floral sheets, my taped-up photos of lynxes and penguins torn from the used National Geographics my father brought home after I’d told him I wanted to be a zoologist. To distract from those details, I stood and peeled the scarf from my purpled neck.
The girls clotted around me, close enough that I could have reached out and clutched my triumph. The mouse began to squeak—but she was only a mouse. I ignored her. I watched the girls. The nothing in their eyes slipped away.
Behind it—was that awe?
The armored one leaned over to rub my bruise. This time it didn’t come away under her fingers. My wounds were tender and I snarled. She flinched. She inclined her head, the signal of the pack leader’s submission to a new alpha.
I snarled again when the mouse touched me. But the small woman didn’t flinch. Strange. She didn’t fear me, either. The look in her eyes was what I thought I’d outgrown: pity.
You poor thing. You poor, poor baby. I’m so sorry—I should have intervened sooner. They’ll proceed quickly now.
I looked at her in scorn. The four did the same. But for once the mouse didn’t quail.
Who will? I asked.
The authorities, the mouse said, stroking my arm so tenderly the hairs lifted one by one. We’ll call the police this moment, you poor child. Rest assured, Alta will rally around you. We’ll set up a fund. You’ll never have to go back.
I could only repeat, Child?
The armored one began to clap the polite Alta clap, fingers against palm. The other girls took it up.
Out, the mouse said and ushered the girls from the room. Out, leave her alone, the lot of you are behaving like little beasts.
Dusk came into the room, stretching the bars on the window till they threw stripes across the floor. I’d never stayed so late. Alta after-hours was my father’s domain. I turned the knob and found it locked from outside. Somewhere the mouse was squeaking into a phone. I pulled and kicked but the door was heavy, expensively made. My arms ached from last night’s work.
I’d dragged my father from couch to bed for the picture. Sleep made him even sloppier: his arms floppy bolsters, his head at a loll. Friction dragged up his shirt and displayed his love handles. When I heaved him onto the bed, I rested a moment with my head on his chest. What did we look like then? Would anyone have squinted over that photo? I lifted my father’s hand, which smelled of lemon-scented cleaner, and put it around my neck. I squeezed, my vision blurred. I rested, began again. Again. It was easier than any X-Acto knife. Nothing to fear; only the hands I’d known all my life.
I gave up on the door. I slid to the floor to await my punishment. Sunset painted my cage yellow and then a deep, lasting orange. And I remembered the day I’d grown from Inch to Girlie.
The dusk had been this color. I was eight, waiting for my father to return bearing Wendy’s, as he did on those rare weekends he left to perform extra jobs at the houses of Alta girls. Shadows skittered around the apartment; as Inch, I was fearful. The room shrank, the dark crept closer, and as I hid my face in my arms, I felt the dark reach inside me. With each minute something within unfurled its limbs, put its arms through my arms, flexed my fingers to claws. I dug ridges in the meat of my thighs, and when that wasn’t enough I turned to my father’s prized race car book, its glossy photos of sleek European machines so different from his truck I could almost believe he had taste. My father had promised to return to watch a documentary on big cats. Alone that night I watched animals prowl the savanna as I tore race cars into strips, scattering a pattern onto the floor. When my father arrived with two bags of Wendy’s, a Frosty sitting in my spot on his arm, he saw the paper lion I’d constructed roaring up at him.
My father didn’t punish me. He pushed aside the empty book, pressed his forehead to mine. Girlie, he said, as if unaware of the danger curled inside me, You’ve grown a mind of your own, haven’t you? That night he left the single bedroom. He left me the Frosty. He forgave me and never again entered without knocking.
How had I forgotten? It wasn’t triumph I’d felt when the door to the bedroom clicked closed five years ago. It was despair.
I would buy him a Frosty when I got out, I decided. I would buy two. I could almost taste the sweet, cold ache.
When the door began to open, I slopped into the breach, pleading, my mouth wide with explanations, never mind how I looked or what I spattered. But it wasn’t my father on the other side. It was the mouse, and the biology teacher, and the dean, and a man I recognized as a cop only by the hat he held.
My dear girl, the mouse said, and she shook, shook, as if something stalked behind her down the unclean hall. Your father—
In the dusk, the beast twitched its claw against my heart.
Born in Beijing but mostly an artifact of the United States, C Pam Zhang has lived in thirteen cities across four countries and is still looking for home. She is the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Riverhead, 2020) and has published in the New Yorker, The Cut, McSweeney’s, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. She currently lives in San Francisco.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee