By: May Hong
My first perfume was Kenzo’s Flower, the one in the waveringly thin bottle with a single red poppy printed on top. I was 12, and had discovered it in my mother’s makeup drawer. I remember rubbing it between my wrists and then behind my ears, like I had seen Audrey do in the movies. I looked at myself in the mirror.
I did this for about a week, snuck into my mom’s bathroom every day to spray press and dab the perfume, until one day I came home from school to a brand new bottle on my nightstand.
I grew up in an apartment complex called Qing He Yuan—a small oasis of foliage and ponds within a metropolis—with a handful of other kids my age. There were two lifeguards at the communal pool, a tall lanky man and a shorter man who was for some reason nicknamed Fat Cat. The two of them taught us how to swim, first in the kiddie pool then eventually the big pool, holding us by the waist while we flailed and kicked our little arms and legs. Then they’d play Marco Polo with us, pretending like they couldn’t find us then all of a sudden lunging at us, making us scream and giggle.
I got older, and their gazes changed as my body did. One hot day when I was 14 I strolled in with a towel and waved at them, and they asked me what the RO-XY on my bikini top meant.
I moved away for college at 17, and only came home once a year during the summer. Each summer they would come over to the chaise I was laying on, cast their shadows on my body and say things like look at you all grown up, you’re the prettiest girl in Qing He. Each summer it was less friendly and more insistent. Last summer I stopped going to the pool altogether.
At my first college house party, I met some guy.
That night we sat on the fire escape chain smoking cigarettes and he said I was “interesting.” We exchanged Snapchats.
He Snapped me a dick pic while I was in the dining hall. I had no idea what to do, I had never gotten a dick pic before. So I Snapped back a picture of the plum I was eating.
He was two years older, and went to a different college in the city. The first time I went over to his dorm, he said you’re wearing lipstick. I said do you not like it? He said no, it’s hot. I sat down on the edge of his twin XL. He picked up a red flannel shirt off the floor and threw it over the standing lamp, and said this is the mood lighting. I said that’s a fire hazard. He said let’s just have sex, okay?
Our “come over” exchanges were always very curt. Plans would be made in three Snaps or less: come over tmr nite; time?; 12 ish. We started doing this thing where we’d Snap a close up of our eyes, then place the white text right on our pupils. His eyes were even darker than mine were, which I found to be novel.
The fourth or so time I went over, I asked him as I zipped myself up, if he had any real interest in getting to know me. He said, a mild interest, I guess. I felt my guts slump, but I nodded and tried to look unmoved. I wanted to cry on the Lyft back. Instead I wrote a poem about him and the flannel shirt and the dark eyes for my poetry class. The instructor said to me, don’t believe him for a second, and I thought, Rachel, you don’t know shit.
As a child I pretty much always had some iteration of the Chinese bowl cut, per my mother’s edict. I don’t know what’s the average age a girl begins to desire hair autonomy but for me it was in the fourth grade when the barber took off an extra inch past my limit and I started bawling uncontrollably in the chair. The barber was terrified but when my mom came to pick me up she reassured him it’s fine it’s fine just a little girl and shuffled me out the door. All the way home I hadn’t let up on the crying so when we got to our front door my mom said okay, you can punch me right here, in the shoulder, then we’ll be even. I hit her in the shoulder, as square as I could, and she laughed and let us in.
Each time I visit home I leave with something heavier. My mother likes to hand pick from her closet clothes that she wore when she was my age, vintage clothes she no longer fits in, and tuck them meticulously into my suitcase. Sometimes, she would come across something that would make her pause and stroke the sleeves or straighten the lapel, as if there were a body in there. Sometimes yet, she would hold up a dress against herself and pivot slightly in the mirror. We do not speak during this.
One time she gave me a small gold ring, visibly worn and no longer a perfect circle. She said, I bought this for myself when I first started working, when nobody else would buy me a ring. It’s too small to fit my ring finger, so it goes on my pinky. A symbol of good feminism, I said. Proof that I was skinnier than you, she said.
My annual pilgrimage home marks the annual meeting for the committee of relatives who like to gorge themselves on my body. It’s just how they say hello, my mother says. Right. Hello, mister, your receding hairline reminds me of the record low tide that year in Hainan before the tsunami hit, when all the unforeseen sea trash was exposed.
Someone I’m probably going to sleep with called me “skinny-thicc” the other day and I wanted to uppercut him.
I get grossed out when I watch people eat, especially finger foods, where they would press too-large bites onto their tongues and then meticulously suck their fingers clean.
I cannot eat in front of other people, with the exception of apples, because apples feel so unplanned and casual and American, pulling it out of my bag rubbing it on my shirt and biting with that slight grimace that’s unavoidable when eating whole apples, pretending as if I wasn’t going to log the calories on MyFitnessPal in the bathroom as soon as I was done.
The other evening, I binged an entire box of Trader Joe’s ginger snaps, just popped them whole into my mouth one after the other. I knew that if I had stopped and had a glass of water I would feel full but I couldn’t stop it was mechanical.
Later I went to the gym in my building at 1 am because I didn’t want anyone to see. As I did squat presses in front of the mirror, my eyes appraised my body. I think the only reason why people think I’m thin is because I am never not sucking in my stomach.
After the gym I showered and climbed into bed. Five minutes later I get a text from “skinny-thicc” that said wyd, come thru and I thought not this time, just this once, stay in bed. But I lost to myself, again, redid my make up, then called a Lyft to his place. When Lyft tells you “this is a good deal” are you just supposed to take their word for it?