I shopped at the Asian market, in those early days of the pandemic, because everyone else was afraid to. The cashiers, baggers and customers all wore face masks and gloves — still an eerily surreal sight in the strip-mall-infested hinterland of central New York. Even the parking lot boy wore safety goggles, as though he handled chemicals instead of carts.
I’d moved from Brooklyn to Liverpool (not the birthplace of the Beatles, but the lakeside village northwest of Syracuse) earlier that year, unsure of where to find the treats that reminded me of my grandmother: longan and dragon fruit, grass jelly drink and Shanghai-style tea eggs. Nai Nai had arrived in America in her 70s, to care for me during my parents’ separation, yet she’d seemed younger and spoken more English than either of them. “Condo,” she would gently correct my father when he boasted about his new Park Slope condom.
I consulted my only Asian American colleague, a family practice physician, about where to find my childhood comfort foods. He fluttered his gloved fingers. “East World Market,” he advised. He was a delicate but sweaty man, regrettably named Rocky by zero-gen parents unfamiliar with the Stallone movies. He plucked a tissue and dabbed at his glistening forehead. “It’s the only place I shop.” Like my younger brother Hilly and countless Chinese American Cliffs, Rocky was named after China’s sacred mountains.
At parties, back when inessential gatherings were still an option, I’d enjoyed watching Hilly tell strangers he was Jewish and that his full name was Hillel. He’d scowl as their eyebrows flew up in surprise. “What — Asians can’t be Jewish? Is that what you think?” Then, after an awkward moment, he’d sock them in the arm. “I’m fucking with you, man! I’m an atheist.” He’d clink his beer bottle against theirs with such a goofy grin that they not only forgave but adored him. Even the tatted-up white guys from Jersey. Hilly knew how to offend/befriend.
Rocky, on the other hand, had no friends. Whenever I asked what he’d done over the weekend, the answer was a doleful shrug. The only people he seemed to get on with were the elderly Chinese ladies we treated: octogenarians who’d never visited an American clinic — not till now, at the eleventh hour — because they’d lived healthy lifestyles or because they were undocumented.
These women stared in horror at our white uniforms. In China, white symbolizes death. Sometimes they pivoted, right there in the hallway, and walked out before Rocky could soothe them. They would deal with their symptoms at home.
“Imagine,” Hilly mused when I described the phenomenon in our weekly phone call, “being admitted to a hospital where everyone’s wearing black. Like, ‘Welcome to your funeral, bizznatch!’”
But it was this sort of cultural difference that allowed me to shop in peace at East World Market. Because back then, our public officials were still encouraging us not to wear face masks — calling them useless and unnecessary — while anyone with a connection to China remembered past ordeals with SARS and H1N1. We regarded our unmasked white neighbors as foolhardy or gullible; they thought we were sick or insane.
Tell me about Doyle. Were you surprised to see a white man at the market?
Well — we didn’t actually cross paths in the store.
It was out back, yes? Near an adjacent park?
Yes. There was a little pond just off the lot, with ducks and benches. I liked to park there and stroll before shopping. And I remember thinking he walked too quickly. Too purposefully, you know, for a day like that?
What sort of day was March 11?
The sort we all enjoyed at leisure together: we who’d fled the city and now referred to it as “downstate.” We who hiked Liverpool’s trails, fished its lakes; tracked through its scenic marshes to photograph waterfowl and pickerel frogs, spotted turtles and white-tailed deer. Of course, this was before the social distancing, the closure of state parks, the terrorists coughing into crowds. It was a — a mild day, with a light spring breeze. No rain. Gray sky above marbled with clouds. The sort of day that made us smile conspiratorially, us urban expats. Because even before the cities succumbed to an attacker that thrives in crowds, we knew what we had.
You know — clean air, kind neighbors, no traffic. Trees on half-acre lawns. That stuff.
I was there to grab a box of N95 masks, imported from China, for my coworkers. Just as a precaution. I didn’t think we’d actually run out.
No. “How can the public be so stupid as to stay unmasked?” Rocky had asked earlier, gesturing around in the clinic’s fluorescent-lit café, beads of sweat forming a translucent mustache below his nose. “Doesn’t anyone read? It says right on the website, ‘The N95 respirator filters out 95% of small particles.’”
“They’re not stupid.” I spoke softly, setting an example of volume control for him to ignore, acknowledging the guilty truth of my words as I said them. “They’ve been misled. The government’s lying. Lying to protect you and me.”
“Psht,” he said. “There will still be a shortage of masks for doctors.”
On our weekly call, Hilly agreed. “People will figure it out, Grace. Then they’ll be up in East World Market with you and the Rock-man, buying the shit out of those shits.”
So the parking lot. Of East World Market. Near the little pond.
Right. I was — just sort of standing there, enjoying the crisp spring air on my forehead, when he approached. This short, balding white man in glasses. Waving a thermometer around, startling the ducks.
At first I didn’t understand. He was lost or something, I thought. “How’s it going?” I smiled behind my mask.
“I’m securing the perimeter of this park.” He had an engineer’s style; a sergeant’s posture. “You can’t walk here. You’re sick.”
“Sir,” I said, assessing him, “do you work for East World Market?”
He spat. “Do I look like I work for East World Market, chink?”
I shook my head. Stopped my inane smiling. “I’m not sick,” I said quietly. “I’m a doctor. I wear a respirator to care for patients.”
I started backing up, toward my car. “If I’m sick, touching me could expose you — and your family and coworkers, too.”
But he grabbed at my mask anyway. Yanked it down. Jammed the thermometer up against my teeth. I remember how it ground into my gums; how his hand smelled like onion rings. I remember the heat of his body as he tried to force it in. It was —
It felt good.
That’ll be enough for today. Thank you. I’ll see you again next week.
Because even before the cities succumbed to an attacker that thrives in crowds, we knew what we had.
I shopped at the Asian market, in those early days of the pandemic. It was the only place that sold the treats that remind me of Nai Nai — longan and dragon fruit, grass jelly drink and Shanghai-style tea eggs. She’d serve the fruit in a chipped porcelain bowl…
It was the only place with N95 masks?
Right. And other things. “I’ve got off-brand toilet paper,” I teased my white girlfriends who still shopped over at Wagmans. “Plenty. If you need a roll.”
What did they say to that, Grace?
They laughed. Remember the TP shortage?
All in fun?
All in fun.
Can you recall how the sky looked on the day you were attacked?
Yes. I remember it clearly: flat and gray. Veined with white clouds. Beautiful, like a stately marble wall in an old-fashioned capitol building.
Do you remember how you felt?
A stray hair was caught in the respirator strap, tickling my cheek. But I didn’t touch my face. Doctor’s training. I’d nearly forgotten I had the mask on. Did you know most people touch their faces more than 20 times an hour? It invites infection. Did you know? Probably everyone knows by now. But not back then.
I was ignoring the itch, enjoying the fresh air on my forehead, when he strode up — this balding man in a blue button-down — waving something around. At first (and I don’t even know how this is possible, because I handle them all the time) I didn’t recognize it as a thermometer. He was like some kind of cubicle farm wizard, waving his tiny wand.
Did you speak?
Except he didn’t have a long white beard …
Did you speak?
He accused me of being infected. Bringing my virus to America. I mean, Dr. Wilson, I was born here, you know? I’ve never even been to mainland China — much to my parents’ chagrin.
So what did you say?
“I’m not sick,” I tried to assure him. “I’m a doctor. I wear a respirator to care for patients.” But he called bullshit. Said I brought the virus here. Demanded I remove my mask. So I — started backing up. “If I’m sick, touching me could expose you. And your family and coworkers, too.”
He yanked my mask down. Put the thermometer in my face. So I fought back. Grabbed his wrist. Felt the heat of his body as he tried to force it in. It felt —
Why are you smiling?
I don’t know. I — shouldn’t be. I mean, this man assaulted me, but — do you think —
Do I think what?
Do you think it might’ve been my fault? I mean. I’m. Feeling. Like it was. Like I shouldn’t have been wearing that mask outside the clinic. Provoked him with my robotic response. Or — or gone for the bat.
Are you saying the assault was your fault?
I mean, I didn’t help.
What could you have done to “help” prevent what happened?
I don’t know. But I feel. Like it was my fault. Not his. I feel. Torn.
Okay. That’s all for now. We’ll try again in a week.
How are you feeling?
Bad. What were those meds?
They’re new. To help the process. Do you feel you can continue?
I can’t recall what day it is. What month.
You’re okay. It’s Tuesday. You’re here with me.
I don’t feel okay. I feel bad.
Okay. That’s alright. Just take the headset off. Good. Look around, and describe what you see.
Plants on the sill. Sunshine through the — tree outside. Box of tissues. This embroidered pillow. The couch I’m on. No — no wheelchair.
Your framed diplomas. Should I — should I keep describing things? Should I be here at your office? Shouldn’t we be doing this remotely?
The pandemic is over. Remember? It came in waves, but it’s been over for a long time now. We’ve faced other pandemics since then. Far worse. And gotten over them too.
My name is — Grace.
Grace? Yes, usually when we talk you are Grace. But now you are Patrick again.
I think I’d like to go back to my room. If that’s okay.
I went shopping at the Asian market, not the big one on Eerie in Syracuse but the small one on Coughdenoy in Liverpool, because everyone in our town was afraid. Something about the way we looked: our dark eyes, dark hair, pale skin, the masks. We must’ve looked — like ghosts. To them. Or. Zombies. Yellow zombies. Hey, Dr. Wilson —
What kind of patients does a zombie doctor treat?
I don’t know. What kind?
Any old patient she can dig up.
That’s very clever, Grace.
I think Hilly would agree.
Thank you. I’ll be here all day.
Actually, we’ve got just under an hour.
Right. Sorry. I was just —
Yes. I understand. Just making small talk. To be polite.
It’s not that.
No. Rumors of Asian politeness are wildly exaggerated. I make — I make jokes when I’m feeling exposed. You know. To kind of reset the mood.
Ah. That’s a good insight. And a common strategy. So long as it doesn’t go too far. Are you ready now, Grace? To tell me what happened?
Doyle came. He was — short. Balding. Glasses. Office type.
You were outside East World Market.
They stay open late. They’re open on U.S. holidays. And they’ve got mochi ice cream and octopi and — barbecue pork buns. Whatever you want. And there’s a little café, just a counter and two tables, but always very clean, where you can sit and drink boba tea. You know, everyone in Liverpool is nuts for Wagmans. They love it. In Brooklyn, Wagmans wasn’t such a big deal. I mean, you could hit a bodega and find organic everything; organic MSG, I bet. I miss that about the city. But “Whole Paycheck”: that’s what my Brooklyn friends call Whole Cuisine. That’s what you might as well call all of Brooklyn. I don’t miss that. And East World Market’s better anyway — better than Wagmans and Whole Cuisine. That is, if you want real mochi ice cream. Fresh-baked barbecue pork buns. And — you know — distance. Back in March, we had the store to ourselves.
Who is “we?”
Asian Americans. Like me.
“I’ve got off-brand toilet paper,” I teased my white girlfriends. “I’ve got plenty, if you need a roll.”
But you weren’t inside the store on March 11, right?
No. I never made it in. I —
It was bad. Things were escalating, and my car door was still open, so I just reached in and grabbed the baseball bat Hilly had stashed there. For my protection. But. He wrestled it away. Doyle. Beat me with it. Fractured my skull, smacked my spine. Put me in this chair. I was —
What? You were what?
I knew something was wrong when it happened. I remember the gravel against my cheek. Cold. The acrid scent of car oil and pavement. The thermometer, crushed under his heel. And when the wood came down on my spine I was thinking, Nai Nai! Because —
Because my grandmother always made me feel safe. She was a beautiful woman. Really, truly elegant. Even at 96, before she died, she wore a silk qipao every day. She got up and dressed herself, although it was an enormous effort and she was probably just going to lie back down in bed. She was a — a seamstress, back in China. Not rich, but elegant, you know? She made all those qipao herself. And. I remember. When I was little, and Baba finally managed to bring Nai Nai over to Brooklyn, just before he moved out, that’s when I didn’t look like a poor kid anymore. Or like an immigrant's kid.
She made me knockoffs! Gucci, Fenty, anything I wanted. No store-bought patterns required. I’d just show her a picture on my screen and she’d draw the pattern on this crinkly brown paper, and.
And I loved her so much.
I think I want to go back to my room now.
One question: why did the assault happen? Who was to blame?
Maybe I — shouldn’t have worn that mask? Maybe I provoked him. Made him feel powerless, with my calm response. Invalidated him. And when I went to scare him off with the bat, how could he know I wouldn’t really have hit him? He couldn’t. He defended himself.
Was my brain damaged in the attack?
Why do you ask?
I get — confused. At first I had these dreams. About. The attack. And they were, like …
No. They were, like, sex dreams. I woke up tingling. Is that — normal?
That’s very normal in this process, Grace.
But I wasn’t raped.
No. But sex and violence are linked in your consciousness, by testosterone.
The female sex hormone is estrogen.
Then I suppose I stand corrected.
Ha, at least I learned one thing in med school. Right? All those loans …
Do you still have the erotic dreams?
No. No, but now, some days, I just can’t get out of bed into my chair. I lie there. And cry. Wondering why this happened to me. I try to think of Nai Nai. How she got up and put her qipao on, every day. But I just. Just.
Do you pray?
Not really. Sometimes. I’m sort of —
You’re an agnostic?
No. I believe. I mean, I don’t follow a specific religion. Religion’s just a human construct. Like race. Did you know race is not a true genetic signifier? In fact, even between Africans and Europeans, there’s not one absolute genetic variant and, as far as we know, there never has been. Not one pure variant to distinguish us. We made race up. But it’s hard to study medicine or any other science and disregard the actual patterns: the tree-like systems of our brains and lungs; the spirals of our cochlea. Fractals. Fibonacci.
Mr. Doyle, as you know, is a Christian.
Or — like — the sound waves we send deep into our bodies to manage hemorrhages, prevent infection. The pulsing calls of whales in the sound channel, under 700 fathoms of ocean. Out in space, low-frequency sound waves — right? So many intricate patterns. Intentional design —
It sounds like god is a comfort to you. Or whatever you would call a higher power?
Jimbo. Let’s call god Jimbo, Dr. Wilson.
You’ve mentioned your brother’s atheism.
Yeah. Hilly takes after our father, I think. Baba was a practical man. Never believed in anything he couldn’t see with his own eyes. Till he got cancer. Then he prayed. We all prayed, even Mama, who was so hurt by him. But it — it was too late, I guess. He was. He was so … hey, Dr. Wilson.
Guy walks into a doctor’s office, and right away his doctor says, “I have bad news. You’ve got cancer, and you’ve got Alzheimer’s.” Guy looks relieved. “Well,” he says, “at least I don’t have cancer.”
That’s very funny, Grace. So. What happens on those mornings when you wake up and feel paralyzed?
Now you’re the one who’s got jokes.
Ah! I’m so sorry. I just — I put that the wrong way. I wasn’t referring to your wheelchair. I meant emotionally paralyzed.
I just can’t do anything. And. I’m afraid to leave my room. Even to come here.
That’s actually a good thing. It’s normal, you know? It’s what we want to see.
Yes. Now can you tell me what happened on March 11?
Dr. Wilson, it’s bad.
Explain that statement.
I don’t want to talk today. I just — can we just sit here?
Do you want to take the headset off?
No. I mean, yes. I mean, it doesn’t matter.
Okay. That’s really good, Grace. Really. You’re making progress, though it may not feel that way. Shall we try again next week?
I always went to the Asian market, in those early days of the pandemic, because everyone else — Jesus, they were fucking scared. As if we were death itself.
How did that feel?
At first — and don’t judge me, please — at first it felt great, if I’m honest. Like the tables were fucking turned. Like for once the average American was intimidated by the model minority. Frightened by the lotus flower. Even though they own this place. They were scared like those old ladies at the clinic, the ones without any papers. But —
But fear is worse than being belittled. Fear is — risky. Did you know my colleague, Marcus, an RN, wears a flat cap whenever he goes out? Like he’s a little British schoolboy or something, at the turn of the 20th century. He’s a black guy. 6-foot-something, much taller than Doyle. And he tries so hard to look unthreatening — when the real threat, statistically, is to him.
Because — they’re afraid of him. After they stole him from his homeland, and — and bred him to be that size. So their fear hardens to anger, like water to ice when it cools. Like Doyle. In the parking lot.
I don’t even —
I’d moved to Liverpool, not the birthplace of the Beatles, but the small lakeside village northwest of Syracuse, earlier that year —
I had this baseball bat in the car. My younger brother’s bat. Hilly’s. It’s ironic, what happened, because he gave it to me for protection. When I moved up from Brooklyn, you know. “Keep it in your car or by your bed,” he said. To protect me. Out in the boonies. He always said —
What did he say?
He always said. He. I’m sorry. I can’t do it today, Dr. Wilson. I don’t want to relive it again. To, like, replay it. At first it was exciting. Scary. Then it was interesting. I started to notice things about myself, to feel things I’d never — but. But now, I don’t know what it’s doing for me. Now this whole process feels —
Take off the headset.
Take the headset off.
Where should I put it?
Just there on the couch is fine. How do you feel?
I feel like shit. I — is it okay I’m cussing so much?
Swearing triggers a stress-induced analgesia. Helps us overcome pain. And this office is a safe space. The goal is to express ourselves freely here.
It’s always weird to be here without that thing on.
I don’t know. I mean, even looking down at my hand, it’s like the fingers surprise me a little. Seeing my own damn fingers.
You still feel like Grace?
I feel like both of us. Gratrick. Is that crazy?
No, Patrick. That’s the point. It means our sessions are working.
I feel crazy.
That’s a good sign. It really is. Believe it or not.
Like for once the average American was intimidated by the model minority. Frightened by the lotus flower. Even though they own this place.
Where were you?
In the parking lot.
What was the weather like that day?
Mild. It was a mild day, with a light spring breeze that carried the faintest scent of — life. Budding leaves. Wet grass. But there was no rain. Just a grey sky above, marbled with clouds. The sort of day that once made us smile conspiratorially. Because even before the cities succumbed to an attacker that thrives in crowds, we knew what we had.
And what’s that?
You know — clean air, kind neighbors. Trees on our half-acre lawns.
He attacked me. Doyle. Beat me. For nothing. Fractured my skull. It was awful. I thought I would die. And at one point, in the middle of it, I actually hoped I would. Die.
Take off the headset.
Where should I put it? Here?
There on the rug is fine. How do you feel?
I feel like crap. Doc?
What’s brown and sits on a piano bench?
I don’t know. What?
Beethoven’s last movement.
Are you a fan of Beethoven, Patrick?
Do you get it? Like, his last dump.
I get it. Do you like Beethoven?
I like metal. She likes Beethoven. It’s just a corny joke from her repertoire. Sometimes shit like that downloads when the VR powers up. Irrelevant shit, outside of the narrated memory. To give me context, I guess?
To help you fully empathize.
I remembered the joke when I said “crap.”
Grace tells lots of corny jokes, doesn’t she?
For defusing overpowering emotions.
I mean. She didn’t tell any in the courtroom, which was an awful day too, but —
It wouldn’t have been appropriate there.
Yeah. Yeah, I guess.
Are you ready?
Are you sure? It’s not too painful?
It’s still painful. But I want the pain.
This is our last session.
No shit. Before you put that on, I thought you should know.
Doc! Congratulations! You’re expressing yourself freely at last; you said “shit!”
What’s brown and sits on a piano bench?
Ha! You remembered.
I’m going to miss you, Gratrick. You’ve taught me so many goofy jokes.
Will you put that in your letter to the parole board?
Not in so many words. But yes.
I’m an old man, doc. Been in here a million years. Don’t even know what I’ll do on the outside, if the board sees fit to pardon me.
Wouldn’t it be beautiful to find out?
To smell wet grass, see gray sky, without the headset?
Seventy isn’t so old, you know. You’ve got plenty of life to live.
Nai Nai was 96 …
That’s right. And do you know — can you guess — who else wrote the parole board a letter?
Not my wife. I know that much. Not my son. They took enough shit from me.
She thinks you’re doing quite well with her memories. She was reluctant, at first, to download them — you know? The technology’s still fairly new. And the pharmaceuticals. Plus, there’s a history of ethical issues around clinical trials in prison. But now, hearing how you’ve responded…
I don’t — how does she even —
We discussed your work in here. How this place can be, if you will, a white supremacists’ utopia — segregated by race even now, in 2050, when we’d like to think we’re past all that. She asked whether I really believed you’d changed, and I told her how many inmates you’ve helped bring into the VR program. To understand what they put their victims through. Grace is an enormous proponent of restorative justice, obviously. One of the first to participate, despite her initial fears. So I read her a bit of your writing. She was — particularly moved by your thoughts on the human brotherhood transcending the Aryan brotherhood.
I don’t —
I don’t even know what to. I don’t even.
She said, “Tell Patrick Doyle that I forgive him. Tell him I’d like to shake his hand.”
I don’t —
It’s okay. You don’t have to think about that now. We only have this one last session to do. Alright? Then we’ll let the parole board decide.
Ready to swallow these?
When I’ve got the headset on, doc, you know, sometimes I remember her conversations with her brother. You want to hear one of their jokes?
Okay. It’s a little — it’s, well, I should warn you —
It’s just a joke.
Yeah. Well. Okay. So what’s the difference between him and me? I mean, me and her? Me and Grace?
What’s the difference, Patrick?
I got a life sentence, and she got the electric chair.
Hm. She has a quirky sense of humor, that one. Doesn’t she? Patrick? Tissue. Here.
Patrick? Take the water, please. Pills too. Swallow, please. Breathe. Patrick. Tissue.
When you’re ready, put the headset on.