At the end of the week, he came home with a poster. He had left that week to visit his mother, who lived by herself in a modest brick house in a suburb of New Jersey. His father was still around though no longer at that house or in the same state. I had wanted to go with, but John listed the reasons why I shouldn’t. You get car sick, he said. We just visited last month. You were busy at work. He was right of course; the nature of work is busy and I would never not be. Also, he and his mother liked to spend time together and I found that sweet. In China, she had been a primary school teacher, but could not resume that role here. So, she became a Costco bagger, then a Costco greeter, then a Costco cashier. Now John’s mother was retired. Whenever we visited New Jersey, we spent a day at Costco so she could make her rounds and shake customers’ hands for free.
John unrolled the poster and held it up against himself. The poster was large and long and covered all of him except his clean-shaven face and sockless feet. John was not very tall and the poster made him seem even shorter. I laughed and he scowled. I took the laugh back.
He said the poster used to hang in his room, but during our last visit, he had peeled it off. I thought about the verb, peel, then said I didn’t remember seeing it in his room.
You probably just didn’t notice, he said.
I found that unlikely. It was a poster of Heidi Klum. She was kneeling on a sandy beach in front of some jagged rocks. Hair, wet and stringy. Face, straight on and smoldering. She was holding herself or considering taking her white swimsuit off. She may have realized that the suit doesn’t fit. Left of her right hip and above her right thigh was her full signature with a heart. She had nice handwriting. I did not know that until this poster.
John hung it up above his desk in the second bedroom that had become his office. John was a property lawyer and had moved high enough in his firm to be able to work two days a week remote. During that time and on weekends, he worked on a crime thriller novel for fun. It was lengthy, supposedly hundreds of pages long. Packed with ideas, he said, and a plot that moved. When I asked to see the work, he said that I wasn’t a good reader. He was right about this as well. I had not read a book in fifteen years.
Once John dreamed about becoming the next John Grisham. The following morning, he asked hypothetically what if he quit his job to write. I said it was a bad idea. Why, he replied. We had enough savings and retirement already. He had done as much as he ever would for the field of property law.
I said, if you feel so strongly about it. I do, he replied, but did not quit, and in fact took on more clients and went to a conference in Arizona.
While John was in Arizona, I broke into his computer and read ten chapters. I cringed. Then felt a need to hurl. Why did only the women disappear? Why was every murderer tall? Why did Jim, the detective, need to take three shots of Fireball before solving a case? But I admonished myself. What I did know about the field of books? In the last fifteen years, much could have changed.
Each morning, I went into John’s office and drew the blinds. Our apartment was on a high floor and saw a decent amount of natural light. Passing the poster, I was unsure of how to address it. First, was it an it or a her? Once I got past that, did I say Heidi or Ms. Klum. Last names seemed more respectful. First names more intimate. I couldn’t decide. But maybe she didn’t want to talk to me either. The more I looked at her the more she seemed angry. This was probably because I was breaking into John’s computer again. As terrible as the writing was, I admired that he still sat down and did it. Hobbies could shape a person. He would improve. I thought about us becoming famous. Mostly I wondered if he had written anything about me. But Jim did not have a wife. He was single and happy about it. Also, he regularly visited his mother who lived in a suburb of Michigan, next to a Sam’s Club.
The white two-piece had holes throughout and reminded me of sausage casing. The holes were strategically placed around her breasts. It snowed outside. Sleeted, hailed.
There was a time I wanted to look like that, but that time passed.
Privately I reached out to his sister. Jane lived in California and while I was fan of the sunshine and the lack of mosquitoes, I was not a fan of the natural disasters. When the forest fires started, she sent us the daily warnings from the EPA. It’s bad, she said about the air quality, but no worse than Fuzhou, where Jane and John’s mother was from. For this reason, Jane did not let her kids—identical twins—visit Fuzhou or any part of China. Not that the twins had a choice, being toddlers. Nonetheless, these comments made Jane and John’s mother mad. Their mother would tell John how mad she was—the pity of raising kids here who went on to renounce their own heritage. We tried to explain to her that pollution was not a cultural asset, babies have weaker immune systems, this was Jane’s call. I raised you didn’t I, their mother said. Both you and Jane. And both you and Jane came back with me to Fuzhou, many times, many, many times, countless. John held up two fingers. Two was enough, that country was not for him. As their mother scowled, I recognized the scowl. I must have been too nice, she concluded.
I asked Jane if she remembered a poster in John's room. Jane replied right away. She was intense like that, and around her I was usually scared.
A poster? He probably did but Mom made him take them all down. She didn't want to ruin the paint.
But do you remember a poster of a woman in a swimsuit?
There were several.
I described the situation.
He liked Jessica Alba and Mila Kunis, said Jane, but I don’t remember anything about Heidi Klum. I don’t think so. He doesn’t like tall blondes. He prefers petite brunettes. You’re a petite brunette.
So, where did he get the poster?
Closet I bet. He has a walk-in closet. When we got the house, Mom gave him the bigger room. It was supposed to be my room but Mom gave it to him because he needed to fit a queen-sized bed.
I had heard about the walk-in closet already. Also the queen-sized bed. John was six inches taller than Jane and had proportionally longer legs.
Maybe he is trying to tell you something, said Jane.
Are you two having enough sex?
She said no problem and sent me a screenshot of the weather. Clear skies, seventy degrees, no clouds.
We did have sex but not as frequently as before. Both of us agreed that sex in bed was the best but disagreed on when to take our showers. I preferred sex before showers and the John preferred the reverse. So, we kept track and alternated. Right afterwards, John could become silly. He was ticklish in his palms and I was on the bottoms of my feet. He could imitate famous stand-up comedians, and I would laugh.
Recently we had binged watched Robin Williams on Netflix. I knew very little about Robin Williams except that he had voiced a cartoon genie and was in that movie about a sentient green goo. I always thought him wholesome, but then I heard his joke about fake tits. I saw him parade around stage with his index fingers pointed out from his chest. John said now that was range, being able to act in children’s movies and to tell jokes like that. Fake tits are like Nazis, the man wasn’t wrong.
You know what there are not enough of, John said while we laid on our pillows that night, Asian comedians. There are not enough of us in comedy. No one thinks we’re funny. Or if we are, we have to joke about the obvious. Do you think I’m funny?
I said yes.
Do you think I could have been a comedian?
John explained the kind of comedy he would do. Situational. Anecdotal. He could deliver some really dry law jokes. I asked him to tell me one, a really dry law joke, and he said I wouldn’t get it. Also it was late and we should probably go to sleep. Let’s regroup in the morning, he said. We turned off the lights and put on a noise track called quaint cottage fire. John fell asleep first. I thought about verbs again. Did two people constitute a group? And if we never separated, if we stayed in close proximity on the bed, facing one another with our eyes closed, did regrouping even make sense? I had once dyed my hair blonde. This was during an adolescent year when I no longer wanted to be myself. To dye black hair blonde requires hours of toxic chemicals that will strip the hair of its color. For months my hair and thus my head looked fried. People began asking me if I was unwell. I had a year-round cold.
But I figured Heidi didn’t have these problems. For a day I came up with the types of problems she might have. The burden of wealth, beauty, purpose, fame, the burden of being objectified by people you don’t know. To seem on the side of women but then to remain in cahoots with men. How did Heidi feel about all this? She was worth a lot of money now—Google said 90 million—so she probably felt fine. Admittedly, I had also googled other things, like whether Heidi had fake breasts. The internet was divided and I said to the poster, good for you Ms. Klum, never let the mystery die.
Still, what kind of a woman was I to allow her to be hung up, framed even, without asserting protection over her or putting up a fight? I guessed I liked looking at her too. I supposed this made me worse than a man. Once I got to that point, that I was worse, and a bad woman-slash-wife who did not hold her husband accountable for creepy and juvenile acts, I missed my subway stop and had to train back.
Did you get rid of it? texted Jane. I saw it in one of his pictures. He took a selfie in his office and I saw it in the background. It’s vile. What if someone else sees?
I replied that I didn’t care. I had just wasted an hour on the subway, missed a dentist appointment and was going home with the same plaque-covered teeth.
You don’t care that John spends all his time ogling some European model on a beach?
I wrote back a question mark.
She doesn’t even look that good, Jane replied.
The poster itself is all right, I said. A classic I had since learned and the 90’s were coming back.
Text dots appeared but then disappeared.
Would you feel better if he put up a picture of Fan Bingbing or Zhang Ziyi? I wrote.
She asked if John had a secret work wife, like the husband of one of her friends, or a secret Instagram account, like the husband of another, or held secret lingerie summits, like a third.
I said that if I knew, didn’t that defeat the point?
He just wants attention then, replied Jane. Don’t let him push you around like this. He’s testing you, but don’t let him. Rip it off. Put it in the recycling.
Then Jane had to stop texting and drop the twins off at school. Her husband taught music there. He wore colorful bow ties and so did their kids. It was adorable on holiday cards.
The next time I broke into John’s computer, some things had changed. He had added fifty more pages. There was a weekend I went on a business trip. Then a day I did seven loads of laundry.
After solving another homicide, Jim unwinds at a bar. Why are drinks considered stiff, he asks. A few weeks ago, John had asked me this same question and told me what was now the bartender’s reply. In the olden days, those who died at sea were put into brandy barrels to be preserved and sailors would have to drill holes in the barrels to get a drink. Stiff as in dead person, the bartender says and the two of them share a stiff laugh. It said that in the prose—they shared a stiff laugh. Soon, a woman arrives and sits down next to Jim. She is wearing a formal dress, having escaped from a boring gala. She talks about how boring it was, just speeches and endless champagne. The woman wasn’t me. I was not five-nine, a hundred thirty-three pounds. I was not from West Germany, or a wearer of size ten heels. The woman said she could tolerate many things about herself, but not the enormity of her feet, hence why she only wore floor length gowns. But your feet fit your frame well, Jim says. I skimmed. My breathing quickened. They banter some more before slinking over to the pool table. I liked the verb slink because it sounded like her dress that he had described as metallic. Blood is metallic, I thought and began to chew my tongue. Jim lets the woman win and she in turn gives him her number, which was my number, not a digit changed. I stopped reading after that.
Should this book get published, would I get an onslaught of calls? I stared at my own feet, size five-and-a-half, petite like my breasts, and hands, and ovaries. There was a chance that John had written these pages for me to find. If this turned out to be true, how would I react? In the bathroom, I practiced keeping my lips perfectly level and my eyebrows deflated.
Just be brutally honest with him, Jane texted. She was sitting in her Tesla waiting to pick up her bow-tie’d family. I know my brother. Once you show him your teeth he will cower into a ball.
That evening was our weekly date night. We went to a local place famous for broiled chicken that was always sold out. This time they had it, though just one plate to share. John was talking about work, a difficult client who was going up against a more difficult landlord. He had been invited to another conference in Arizona. He had a new canker sore. When I tried to show my teeth, he said I had lipstick on them. He asked me why I was doing that, smiling with most of my teeth. Had he said something hilarious?
So, you’ve been writing? I asked after rubbing my teeth with a napkin.
I’ve been reading your stuff.
I’ve been breaking into your computer.
That’s what I thought.
How did you know?
You always leave the mouse on the right side.
John was left-handed, which his mother attributed to his being second born and her having spent too much energy on Jane. Jane was right-handed.
It’s okay, said John. I don’t mind. You can read it if you want. Left-handed people are more creative anyway. Leonardo da Vinci, Babe Ruth, Napoleon Bonaparte, Jimi Hendrix. The list goes on and on.
Here, he pulled up a list of famous lefties that he had bookmarked on his phone. See, none of them are Asian. What does that say about us?
I’m not sure. I don’t think it says anything. I’m not sure I would call Napoleon creative.
War requires creativity. Sunzi said all warfare is based on artifice.
The restaurant had these large overhead heaters. On every chair was a fluffy red cushion with a brown button. The heaters made our faces look red as well.
A bit dizzy, I asked why we were talking about war again.
It’s an analogy, said John. You, me, the computer.
Which is also my computer. Both of us have accounts on it and we bought it together.
John picked up the knife and started cutting the chicken into small bites. I think we stifle ourselves.
Then let’s get another computer.
Not what I meant. One is fine. Both of us have accounts on it, and a second would just drag down the internet speed. He placed a chicken piece on the side opposite the canker sore and slowly bit down. What I mean is we as a group. Always good, never excellent. Hence why there will never be an Asian Jimi Hendrix.
Okay, I said slowly. I dipped my spoon into my cabbage soup but didn’t eat any. My eyebrows were raised and could not come back down. My lips were twitching. Someone came to refill our waters. I read the dessert menu for a while and ordered crème brûlée.
John, I’m not interested in Jimi Hendrix right now and I don’t care if an Asian one ever appears.
He seemed hurt. So, what you’re saying is that you don’t care about hope.
Hendrix brought freedom to rock music.
But you put my actual phone number in your book.
I did? He seemed surprised. That must have been a mistake, he said. That was just the first number I thought of. I didn’t know it was yours.
You don’t know my number?
He seemed confused and reminded me that I was on his speed dial, the lease, all of his emergency paperwork. Any hospital would be able to connect us within seconds.
But say you were hundreds of miles away from a hospital.
Why would I be hundreds of miles away from a hospital? We live in a first world country.
The crème brûlée came and we split it in half. There were three raspberries and we cut the third one in half.
Your sister thinks that you push me around, I said. The poster, writing about other women. And write what you want, but why don’t you ever write about me?
I subconsciously did.
But me as a person.
Do you want me to write about you?
I’m your wife.
John chewed with one hand over the canker sore. His mother got them as well. Also Jane. The entire family was genetically predisposed and the sores grew as large white plaques on the inside of his lower lip. We could not kiss when this happened. Or if we did, accidentally, it felt like I was kissing a warm piece of wax.
It’s better if I don’t, he said. I don’t want you exposed. And we’re great. Why would I write about you if everything is great?
I looked through my closet for a floor length gown. None existed. John and I had met online. There were bars involved but I was never very good at ordering drinks or playing pool. I was pretty good at darts. It has something to do with your stature, said John, you being compact, such that every muscle fiber is cocked to hit a target. Cocked was a good verb. Once we got engaged, the dating site sent us matching shirts.
After going through my closet, I donated some clothes and threw others out. The matching shirts I couldn’t find. I browsed online for floor length gowns but all were too long. I would need to find a tailor, someone who held pins in her mouth and then put those same pins near my feet.
In the following days I revisited John’s point. It did make sense. If nothing was wrong, there was no need to write about it. The idea of writing is in part confessional, in part to make sense of one’s emotions, in part to find out. But if we were never confused or frustrated, if we had nothing to find out, what was the point of putting ourselves through the trouble? I didn’t need to be dissected or immortalized. And if he never wrote about me, I was free.
As a child I had encountered another Heidi. I had read about the orphaned one who lived in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather. This grandfather refuses to send Heidi to school or church. He is mostly blind, aging and wrathful. He comes around by the end but there remains the question of who will take care of good-natured Heidi after he dies. She will still be a child.
But isn’t she perpetually a child?
Consistency can be a comfort.
He had taken my number out and put in ten 8’s. Eight of course being lucky. And I was told this all of my life, but I liked eight for another reason. Let it fall and it becomes infinity, a set of bike wheels, a pair of glasses, two rings, a bow tie, a racetrack as seen from the sky.
The woman reappears in the next chapter. She is Helga and they are driving from Michigan to Arizona. They are in a top-down convertible and for the entire eight-day journey it never rains. She is out of her gown and into something sporty, ripped jean shorts, a men’s white undershirt, a thin racerback bralette as it is summer. I was surprised that John knew what a racerback bralette was. During the trip, Jim describes his most famous cases and how he became a world-renowned detective. He speaks of his mother who has nothing of her own and spent most of her prime climbing a horizontal ladder. No career, no voice. He will not repeat these mistakes. Helga asks him to elaborate. To start, he is going to learn electric guitar and two more languages. She asks him to elaborate again. French and Italian, Jim says. White Stratocaster. When Helga isn’t speaking, she is adjusting her bralette. As she did, I adjusted my full coverage one. They pull over at a rest stop. Here John wrote a note to himself—Sex after a discussion about consent. I tried to fill in how that scene would go. I could not. I added a note of my own—Racerback bras are notoriously hard to take off, the clasp is often in the front, don’t try that trick with your fingers in the back. After the unwritten scene, they get back on the road, empty as usual. He talks more about homicide, the difference between that and murder. A fair share of time is spent on the setting sun. The light is slanting. Slanting like, and then another note to finish the simile.
Slanting like the roof of a house, I added.
Slanting like my eyes.
Or just use the verb slant, John.
But why did light have to slant? Force light through a lens and it becomes a laser. Point that laser at an ant and the ant is gone.
I told Jane that he might be lonely. She had picked the twins up and was home now, organizing equipment for dinner. Her shelf of cookbooks was arranged by region. The kitchen counter I remember being an uninterrupted slab of speckled quartz.
Even if that were the case, she said, he is still disrespecting you. What he makes clear is that there’s a hierarchy, better to have Helga or Heidi in the car than one of us. But if the roles were reversed. Jane trailed off. I said I understood.
I wasn’t sure if Jane got this way because her husband was white. But whenever he came up, I didn’t think about that, I just thought about his ties—each unique, many with his initials embroidered in. Over the years, he and John had become close. They golfed and played online backgammon. They had their own private chat. But perhaps deep down, Jane thought that John hated her husband’s guts and effectively hers. There was always the possibility.
What are you making for dinner? I asked.
Fuck, said Jane. You know what I think. I think this is because he visits Mom so much. She puts all these ideas into his head. And what else are you going to think if you keep hearing that you could have done better.
No, what did you just say? You cut out for a second.
Oh, I was just saying that Mom is so different with him. She used to chew his food for him.
She still did sometimes. I had seen it. When he had a canker sore and she didn’t, and we were next to a Costco sample station for lobster ravioli. I had tried chewing food for him as well. But it felt weird and afterwards I said I couldn’t do it. Once a lobster ravioli was in my mouth, I did not have the willpower to give it up.
Do you think he could have done better? I asked.
Do you think you could have done better?
Of course not.
Then rip it off.
It’s not about that anymore.
Rip it off.
It was most likely a trick. Suddenly Jane’s voice deepened. I was on the phone with her, sitting in John’s chair, fixing the wires of my bra. I was looking up at Heidi who was looking back down at me.