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
In East LA the neon signs killed gray moths and left the dust from their wings in our hair.
Sitting at the living room window, I drew a heart in the fogged glass. My family lived on the corner of Whittier Blvd. and Saybrook above our liquor store. Outside, it was a perfect night for walking down the street, between painted lampposts and traffic lights wet from the recent storm, to the Winchell’s Donut where my friend Veronica Arroyo worked.
I peeled a chip of paint off the sill. The window was pierced with three BB holes that had exploded like spider legs under blue fire. The third hole I shot myself in fourth grade with a friends brothers gun, aiming from the corner, one eye closed.
Para dónde vas? No one knew the way. In the stories of Latin poets the dead always came back in the flesh as if they had never left; for the Chinese, the dead never leave. They sit at family tables breathing the smoke of a dozen sticks of incense. My family was straight from Taiwan—Chinese, not Chinese-American, in a neighborhood where Latino meant Chicano. Rolling out of East LA Station onto Third Street past tamale carts and metal-flaked lowrides, even the white cops called it the barrio.
But we all had our dead, and death happened to everyone.
In my family, our beloved dead was my brother, Yen-Chen Wu, who had died in Taichung seven months before I was born. By five, I began seeing him in our apartment, in the spirals of smoke climbing up the Kwan Yen statuette on the kitchen shelf, and around the neighborhood, glowing atop Our Lady of Guadalupe devotional candles, sprinkled on doorsteps lit with RIPs. In my dreams remembered like photographs, Yen-Chen tore up glossy landscapes and left the streets and bleeding saints behind.
Opening the window, I could smell the rain-washed concrete through the screen.
My father was shouting downstairs, his voice rising through the front door directly below.
“No! Food stamps for milk, for food!”
Like every night, he was sitting on a stool behind the counter, staring out of thick, tinted rectangular glasses.
I heard Tino’s voice. “C’mon man, you know my wife and kids, you’re my buddy, don’t be like that.” Tino lived down the street and came in a few times a week. Three hundred and fifty pounds and pouring out of a Carlos Santana T-shirt, he’d stand under our fluorescent lights and sweat. “Listen vato, I come here because I like you, Wu. Let me tell you, I buy here all the time. Why you have to be such a chingado, always giving me trouble?”
My father smashed his fist down. “Gum ten cents. You give me one dollar food stamps, I give you 90 cents. I work for 90 cents, you take from food stamps, you use for beer, cigarettes. How many times I tell you? Not here!”
“Motherfucker, one day it’ll be you needing something, you know.” Tino’s bloodshot eyes watered a little each time. Clutching the food stamps, he often added on his way out, “My father fought in Korea, Wu.”
None of it mattered. My father would pick up a flyswatter and whop one in midair. He took these ethical demonstrations seriously. He had watched a lot of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson before immigrating to the United States and had adopted an unyielding view on law and order, and the discipline of enforcement when he bought his store and apartment. Rules were rules. Other liquor-store owners pushed pints of Southern Comfort through little slots encased in bulletproof glass. My father armed himself with a fake Smith & Wesson 38 standard revolver hidden under the counter and behind him was a sign, carefully marked with a Sharpie: Food Stamps—Must buy 60 cents/1 Dollar.
I ran my fingers across a fence. Flecks of light rose under my shoes and glittered down Whittier Blvd. It was the sparkle of coarse minerals in cheap cement. That’s how Veronica’s brother, Lalo, explained it the night I caught him smoking weed in the alley. I was four feet tall and when the smoke cleared, he saw me peering over the back gate of their apartment complex. “Look at the light.” He pointed to the ground. “It’s cause this place’s a piece of shit, in case you wanted to know.” At the time, Lalo was repeating another year of high school. I leaned in and glanced down the garbage- lined path. It was twinkling like he said, beneath yellow streetlamps.
Across Garfield Blvd., Veronica was sitting in her uniform behind a large glass wall at a table bolted to the floor of Winchell’s. Her cheeks rested between her hands. As I walked closer, her face looked long and wavy, distorted by rolling raindrops and the sallow light.
“Ay, Cecilia.” Veronica grinned as I came in. “What’s up, girl?”
The place was empty except for trays of doughnuts and a floor fan whirling dust and Veronica. She was sharp, beautiful, like a razor in the dark. Her lashes were caked with four coats of black mascara and heavy liquid liner traced her eyes. Full lips, shiny dark skin and long black hair, she forced men down, and me also. Veronica had whatever she wanted all the time locked in her gaze.
“Nothing,” I said.
“I’m glad you came. I was getting bored.” She stood up and went behind the counter. In dark purple, the color of dried blood, her lips moved over strong white teeth. “Let’s go out back,” she said. “I’ll smoke you out.”
I smiled. I loved her. We were both born in Beverly Hospital. We grew up together. In fifth grade Veronica had beaten the shit out of an entire family of kids, three girls and one boy, for stealing my Mary Janes off my feet and calling me a pinche puta china, a fucking Chinese slut. They jumped out of dry urban bushes and landed on me with kung-fu kicks, their eyes stretched beneath their palms, screaming, “Wong ting tang, ching ching chong,” until the boy’s voice hit a high note with “Chupa mis wuavos.” I told him he could suck his mom’sballs. I called them a bunch of dumb wetbacks and the boy crushed my hand with his bicycle wheel three times. My hand was blackish blue for weeks. But Veronica hunted them down one by one: at the deli, on the swings, behind the library, in front of the ice cream truck. After it got around, nothing like that happened again. But the looks, the curtness never changed. It was strange, because my family was also loved. Something happens when you provide alcohol and milk in a neighborhood. My father ran tabs. That won hearts. We got tamales at Christmas and aluminum containers of Mexican rice.
Veronica and I walked out the back door to the parking lot even though she was the only one working. “Fuck it,” she said as the door slammed. The lot was large, stretching out to the curb. Off to the side, there was an old Volkswagen bug with a “For Sale” sign taped to the rear window. I leaned against the wall. I unzipped my jacket. It was quiet. There were only a few cars out because of the weather.
Veronica pulled a sloppy blunt from her purse and handed it to me. “It’s got speed rolled in it.”
“Cool.” I flicked a lighter, cupped my hand to my face and took a drag. Veronica always let me go first. It was a ritual. When I looked at her across an empty space, I saw us walking a line, coming closer to each other from opposite ends. In my head it was a game of suicide, like swearing on a grave, or spinning fortune’s wheel, but every time I fell and Veronica landed where she chose.
Standing under the stars, against soot and graffiti, we passed the blunt back and forth. “I think Danny’s doing that stupid bitch from St. Mary’s,” Veronica hissed through slanted lips. “La chingada better watch it cause I’m gonna fuck her up.”
“There’s no way he did it.”
“He’s stupid enough to.”
I blew out a cloud of smoke. “Do you know for sure?”
“I know he wanted to, so I’m going to jump her anyways.”
“Maybe you should ask him first.”
“I’m not talking to that pendejo.”
I drifted toward the street, nodding, taking the blunt with me. Veronica’s heart was hard to satisfy and her tongue left bloody welts on anything she didn’t like. Over the years she had become increasingly skilled at breaking things down, grinding parts to nothing with fire and sadness.
On the curb, I stared at a blurry stoplight. “Good!” I shouted. “Break up with him, like tomorrow.”
A dropped, cream-colored Impala slowed before a turn as I teetered on the edge. The driver was classic cholo with his hairnet, wifebeater, and blue-ink tattoos straight from a sewing needle. Looking over his elbow with mean eyes, he sneered at me and then sped away, exhaust dissipating over pools of water reflecting red and gold in the potholes along the street. The colors merged and collapsed. When I turned back, Veronica was behind me. I raised my arms like wings and laughed.
It was the beginning of our last year of high school. We were 17. We would graduate with the class of 1990 and next year we’d still be around, just out of school, like nothing had changed.
“Hey, be careful.” Veronica pulled me back onto the sidewalk. I laughed again, letting myself fall onto her body. “You’re freak’n weird, Cecilia,” she snorted.
Walking back to the door, Veronica didn’t say anything and my thoughts danced around her boyfriend. Danny stood in the halls of school in corduroys cut below the knees and white socks pulled over his calves. He combed his hair with this black, flexible brush thing that fit in his palm that my father sold for 69 cents. Danny wore a thin mustache, a Raiders jacket and black Velcro Nikes. Two gold chains hung around his sinewy neck. The heavy one, given to him by his grandmother, was made of three chains interlaced into one soft braid. The other, with a delicate 14K cross, was from Veronica. He was quiet and he fixed cars and he made me nervous. He never said more than “What’s up?” and “Later” to me, even when Veronica was around. But they had a lot to talk about. When we were out, the three of us, they would sit with their arms loosely draped over each other, their lips one hard kiss that understood, and me, on the same bleacher listening to my walkman, watching pigeons.
“So, you still going to Homecoming?” I asked.
Veronica swung the door open and peeked in to check for customers. There weren’t any. She rolled her head against the wall and sighed. “Yeah, supposedly, if Danny’s lucky.” She snatched the blunt from my hand and killed it against the wall. “Are you going?” she asked, kicking the embers with her Nikes.
She meant with them. Veronica, Danny, and me.
A car roared down the alley into the parking lot. Pebbles flew from its rolling tires as they came to a halt. Ice Cube blasted from the radio, “cuz a bitch iz a bitch,” and pressed against the headlights, Veronica raised an arm against her face and shouted, “Fucker, turn that off!”
Danny pushed open the door of his Pontiac and clicked off the lights. He stepped out with two other guys, Noel and Victor, and made his way silently to the front of the car. Danny slid onto the hood, one leg on the bumper and the other stretched to the ground, in his hand a can of Colt 45 wrapped in a brown paper bag. That hand was a forest of jutting veins with a serpent tattooed along the knuckles. It crept up his arm, winding into a cartoon chola face, doe eyes, and feathered hair. And on his neck in Old English block letters was a line dedicated to his father that ended with mi plegario es corta, a phrase he liked saying between drags on a cigarette: “My prayer is short.”
He waited for her, in white Hanes and khakis and shades pushed above his eyebrows. Danny took a sip, looked up and said, “Veronica.”
She turned her head to one side and waved her hand.
Noel stumbled to the wall and took a piss about seven feet away from me while Victor stood by the car. They were auto-shop boys, like Danny. I saw them every day smoking behind the chain-link fence that separated the shop area from the basketball court.
“Stop play’n, Veronica.” Danny wiped the corner of his mouth with his shirt. “What you want? Why you doing this?”
“Forget you.” Veronica raised an eyebrow and pointed a bored thumb at the door. “I’ve got to go in.”
I stepped away from the trail of urine making its way toward my shoes, while beside me Noel shook a little and zipped up. He straightened his belt and flattened out his plaid Pendleton shirt, buttoned only under the collar, before looking up. “What’s up, Cecilia?” he muttered. He stood there for a second, frozen, as if he had forgotten what came next. Sunrise. Earthquake. Colt 45.
I turned to face his misty gaze and dark oily curls. “Hi.” I pulled my bangs over my eyes. Noel dropped his hands onto his knees and I watched him throw up. “Gross,” I gasped, backing away. “I’m going in, Veronica.”
Noel doubled over and puked again.
“Aw, shit!” Danny jumped off the hood and walked over. “What the fuck?”
Veronica lit a cigarette and followed, only to stare coldly at his friend. She looked at Danny and lifted her chin. “Homeboy needs to learn how to handle himself, like somebody I know.”
“Kick back, Veronica.”
“Pinche cabrone!” Victor yelled, dashing into the car, laughing. “Noel’s the man!”
“That’s right.” Veronica tapped Noel’s stooped ass with her sneaker and said to Danny, “You’re suave like your friend.”
Sitting on a stool, I held a sugarcoated doughnut to the light and watched a moth flutter across the hole. I pushed a tape into the boombox and turned up the volume to drown out Veronica and Danny screaming at each other outside. The Velvet Underground. Nobody listened to them here except for a few goth and punk kids who wished they lived in West Hollywood. I liked the band anyway. I kicked the counter and swiveled into the world of Nico’s voice. I felt her high-grain low-exposure melancholy spinning under the lights. She was a heroin-soaked femme fatale. In East LA heroin was called chiva. When you walked up the right corner, they asked, “Blanco o negro?” meaning, rock cocaine or tar heroin. Sometimes you got what they call “salt and pepper,” which was bad quality dope cut from a dealer skimming off his sales. Chiva made Nico’s voice last forever and Nico’s voice created a world I could understand, since I wanted to write like Patti Smith and go to France, leave poems under rocks and run off as tulips bent in the rain.
The bells rang above the door.
Brown shirt with lots of buttons, loose black pants. He moved as if he had walked here from the end of the world. Unshaven with stringy hair dangling over his eyes, he looked up at nothing in particular but as if everything was bothersome.
At the counter, he took out a handful of change. Counting the coins, he glanced at the menu, then down at me. “These doughnuts, they good?”
I was stunned by the voice, by its grainy texture, by the way it traveled down my shirt and touched my skin. Not heavy Mexican Spanish, but softer. “What?” I asked.
He leaned in and I could smell the scent of wax on his clothes as he swept his shirtsleeve across the glass countertop. “These doughnuts, you like them?”
“Yeah, they’re okay, I guess,” I mumbled.
“Well, do you like that one?” He asked, peering into the case, and when he resurfaced from the candied sprinkles he caught me staring.
I slipped a lock of hair behind my ear and looked away.
“I will take it then,” he said, seemingly pleased.
I wanted to run outside, hit Veronica’s blunt a few more times and run back and say something funny or charming, but instead I fumbled with the sliding case and forced myself to say, “Where are you from?”
“Santiago, Chile.” He looked at me and shrugged. “But I’m here until who knows when.”
“That’s East LA”
He smirked, slid his hands into his pockets and rolled his shoulders. “So, clever girl, where are you from?”
I caught the sparkle of his eyes, something daring, so I pushed the maple bar in front of him. “Right here, that’s why I know.”
“Poor querida, stuck and unhappy, so snobbish to doughnuts. What do you like then, flowers?”
“Only dead ones.”
His eyes skipped across my skin and down the length of my hair. Clearing his throat, he replied, “That’s right, she’s a clever girl.” His glance shifted to my lips. “Hablas español?”
“Si, como no?”
“Okay, listen because you like las floras muertas,” he said, pulling a pen from his back pocket. He grabbed a napkin from the dispenser and started writing. He stopped briefly, leaned in again and finished the last few strokes, then slowly folded the napkin.
“What’s your name?” he asked, the point of his pen pressing onto the paper.
He wrote out, To Cecilia. “And how old are you?” he asked, head still down.
“Seventeen. How old are you?”
Holding the note in his hand, he rolled his shoulders again and said, “You work here?”
“No, covering for my friend.”
“That girl, Veronica?”
“She’s got problems, no? Sort of sad and angry.”
“Well, she’s got her reasons.”
“And so do you, right?”
“I have lots of reasons.”
“At age 17, you don’t really have to worry too much.”
“I have reasons.” I lowered my eyes. “What do you know about Veronica anyways?”
“Nothing, just her nametag, linda.” He cleared his throat. “Well, Cecilia Wu, this is for you.” He handed me the folded napkin. He winked and added, “And hopefully soon, I want to know the reasons.”
I snatched the note and crushed it in my hand, claiming it, my stomach sinking, and in my heart a little tulip glowed, blushing, “I can write you a list.”
“You do it the way you like,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
He pulled a pack of Pall Malls from his pocket, sifted through some clipped cigarettes, popped a joint in his mouth and extended his hand. “Alejandro Turene.”
The light in the room became softer.
Alejandro picked up the maple bar. “l’ll see you again.”
He pointed to the napkin in my hand. “Read it.” At the door, he turned to me and grinned. “If not, I’ll find you anyway. Its a small neighborhood.”
I walked to the glass and watched Alejandro disappear across the street.
I opened the napkin, the fibers soft in my hot palms, and from the Spanish what I understood was this: I was also in youth, the most unhappy, more so than I could be. Turning around in a daze, I found Veronica staring at me from the back door.
I walked home in the rain.
When I got to the opposite corner, I could see my mother’s body move swiftly across the front door, disappearing behind the magazine rack. She was sweeping. I liked that my parents couldn’t see me watching them from here. My mother’s sweeping or my father’s fly swatting was a moving portrait. For a few seconds I saw their lives in slow motion, turning on a mobile. My mother was wearing a dress I loved as a girl—lime green and beige with penny-sized peach blossoms sprinkled over the cloth. My mother was the kind of woman who took care of her things. She wore that dress in many of the pictures from the ’60s before I was born, smiling handsomely from the steps of my fathers university, or holding a frying pan in the kitchen of their house back in Taiwan. I used to watch glints of light bounce off the flowers as she moved. “Tell me a story,” I would ask, jumping on the couch. When she did they were never the ones I wanted to hear. She explained that the earth spun on its axis and water froze at zero degrees. Once she told me about the Tao, spooning rice porridge into my mouth as I lay under a quilt: “Tao called Tao is not Tao. Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth. Naming: the mother of 10,000 things. The gateway to all mystery.” My eyes sank into my feverish face, blinking blankly at her translucent skin. What I wanted was her story. At age 24 she had flown into LAX with my nine-year-old sister, Ming. My father had waited for them alone for two years. My mother’s life proceeded from there, cutting through loud, dirty streets on her way to the supermarket, to the laundromat, to the 99 cents store, growing indifferent to chain fights and helicopters at night and the sirens that gave her headaches and made her face pale and her eyes colder as we grew.
—Susan Y. Chi was born in Taiwan in 1976 and grew up in East Los Angeles. Her stories have been published in Jabberwock Review and Promethean, and she has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Summer Literary Seminars: Saint Petersburg, Russia. Currently, Chi works at Columbia University in the department of medicine. Her work in science has appeared in the American Journal of Human Genetics and the Journal of Virology.
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