"That somehow a name was the blade of your fate, held to your throat all your life."
December 21, 2020

Image ("Laundromat") by Adam Saul


She was named Cecilia after the Hong Kong actress, and I was named Seven after the American soda. My mother claimed that that was all she could drink when she was pregnant with me, 7UP, and that she’d walk every morning to the 7-Eleven and buy three liters at a time and drink until her piss thickened to syrup, flies orbiting her belly. For a while, my brothers and I thought that was why she wore dentures, because her teeth rotted and rolled out of her mouth like dice after drinking so much sweet green, her veins crystallizing too, but she told me later that she got bucked off a water buffalo when she was 15 and the swamp swiped up all her teeth.  

Cecilia was 9 and I was 8. In July we met at the laundromat, where our mothers left us alone for hours while they went next door to the dollar store. Even though Cecilia was only a year older than me, she carried herself like a crown. She reminded me of all those concubines on TV that my mother was always shouting at, the ones who get executed for eating their rival’s children or for falling in love with another kingdom’s emperor, some transgression that culminated in a ritual suicide. She perched atop the tooth-yellow washing machine as if it were a throne, the machines throbbing like cicada song, and for a second while I watched her, I could pretend we were in a scene on TV, a tinfoil lake between us: I was the soldier who sent her letters written on my own skin, and she was the concubine that belonged to some prince. We draped our mothers’ wet shirts over our heads like wedding veils, looking at our reflections in the glass of the washing machines, pretending they were circular screens and we were being aired as queens. Sometimes, Cecilia poured the powder laundry detergent into her mouth and frothed from the jaw like a dog, pretending to have a seizure on the floor just to see if someone might do something, but I was the only one who played along, who licked the bitterness off her lips.

It was a 100-degree summer and the laundromat was the only place with air conditioning. It was run by a woman from Hong Kong who smoked two cigarettes at a time, one in her mouth and the other clasped between her knuckles, rubied like a ring. In the back room was the sound of men gambling with their loose teeth. I leaned my back against the machine, feeling it hack like a pair of lungs — the machines were always broken, and when one of them stuttered, the Hong Kong lady walked by and batted it with her bamboo broom. Cecilia told me that her mother was a singer, so famous and rich that she could buy a house in Taipei with all the five-carat diamond rings her fans tossed onto the stage. But Cecilia’s mother didn’t look like an actress, with her knock-off LV purse and her plastic slippers and her breath that smelled like disinfectant. It’s 'cause she’s not on TV right now, Cecilia told me. When she sang on-screen, her mother’s face turned bright as pork fat. She bared herself like a sawtooth, undressed the song with her tongue. I have tapes, Cecilia said. She invited me to come over to her apartment and watch them. But what happened to her house in Taipei, I asked, and Cecilia slid off the washing machine and said it was burnt down. A horse factory caught fire and her mother’s house carried the flame in its fist. It sounded like a lie to me, but my mother said that factories burned down all the time, that one time in L.A. when she worked at a skirt factory, it burned down in the middle of the day and no one knew why. She’d been pregnant and sick with me all week and didn’t go into the factory, and every year on my birthday she reminded me that I’d saved her life and that in a past life I must have been a starving stray dog she’d fed once.

You’ve been born to pay me back, she said, and I wondered what kind of dog I’d been, if that was why I sometimes foamed at the mouth in my sleep, pearls shivering up my throat. When I told Cecilia about how I’d been a dog rescued by my mother, and how I was born to repay my karmic debt, Cecilia told me it sounded like a scam. What’s her proof, she asked me, and I said I didn’t have any, but neither did she. Cecilia’s mother didn’t look rich, not like the woman who owned our apartment building and drove a car that could be charged with a giant battery and who always wore a scarf too slippery to knot.

She bared herself like a sawtooth, undressed the song with her tongue.

I saw Cecilia at the laundromat the next week, when I was hauling in my mother’s load, and she was there with her mother again. I watched Cecilia’s mother kneel and wrestle a wet sock out of a pant leg and decided Cecilia was lying. I’d never heard her mother speak, not even when she went to the counter to exchange her five for a bagful of quarters, and I couldn’t imagine her singing. Singers, I believed, should have throats that tapered into fingers or jaws that shone translucent like vases, and their veins should be visible as rivers, full enough to flood. But her mother’s exposed throat looked the same as mine but thicker, with wrinkles that circled her like collars, and a mole under her jaw that fattened into a mosquito. Cecilia climbed onto the machine again, saying she liked the heave of it beneath her, like the hull of an aircraft, though she’d never flown before, and me neither. This time the Hong Kong lady yelled at her to get down. Cecilia responded in Cantonese, a phrase that flicked out like a knife, and I was impressed by this. Cantonese was a language I only heard on TV. Sitting on top of the washing machine, Cecilia looked down at me and said she was named after Cecilia Cheung, that her mother used to know her, but I knew that was a lie because Chinese people don’t name their children after other Chinese people. This is what my mother told me. You could name your children after fictional people or white actresses, but never who you knew. She never told me why, but I thought it must have something to do with debts and dogs and everything else. That somehow a name was the blade of your fate, held to your throat all your life. Cecilia slid off the machine and used a laundry marker to write her address on my arm, and I realized we only lived six blocks away, that I could see her concrete building from the window of my building; hers shaped like a nightstick, mine ducking from it.  

That was the summer Cecilia Cheung, the real one, got caught up in a sex scandal that my mother and the neighbors talked about every evening. Apparently, some actor made movies of himself having sex with all these actresses, and the footage was found in public. My mother was the one who found the video link on a library computer and forwarded it to all the neighbors, who sent us thank-you notes and free green bananas for weeks. On the phone, I heard my mother and my aunts talk about it, but all I knew was that they’d seen her pubic hair, and that there was a lot of it. A woman as rich as that, you’d expect her to be shaved down there, my mother said, though I didn’t understand why. Well, my mother said, you’ve got nothing down there anyway, so you wouldn’t know what it means to get rid of something. Then she talked with my aunts for another hour about angles, cloudy lighting, how she saw one of Cecilia’s movies on TV, the one where she plays the love interest of a cop who’s undercover in a drug ring, how a car explodes as soon as she tumbles out of it, how it was impossible to see her face, jeweled in fake blood, without seeing the shadow of a man crossing over it.

A week after she wrote on my arm, I walked to Cecilia’s apartment building and ran up three flights of cement stairs to her door, the one plastered with a Post-it note sheared into the shape of a koi. To welcome wealth into the home, Cecilia said to me when she let me in. I told her that according to my mother, wealth was like a man that never stayed. Cecilia and I didn’t know our fathers, though she told me hers was dead. Mine too, I said, though I wasn’t sure if that was true. I wanted her to think my father was dead so that we could co-own something together, or at least she could loan me her loss — I could wear her grief secondhand, like my older cousin’s shirts that were shipped to me every year and that smelled of the men who undressed her.

We sat cross-legged on a sheet of newspaper spread in her living room. According to Cecilia, the newspaper was designed to protect the hardwood floor beneath, especially because sweat from the soles of the feet can degrade wood and infect it. I didn’t tell her that sounded stupid, the way my mother told me not to stand next to microwaves because the radiation might shrivel my nipples.

Cecilia said she had the TV ready to show me her mother singing, her lungs laced into lyrics, her mouth wrapped around the apple of a microphone, but the TV wouldn’t turn on. It was balanced on a stack of newspapers — the bedroom walls were papered too, because oils from the palms can transfer to paint and smear shadows onto it, according to Cecilia’s mother — and I suspected it had always been broken, that Cecilia was lying from the beginning, just like my mother said. When I’d told my mother what I’d heard about Cecilia and her mother, she laughed and said, That woman? That woman doesn’t even have her own name. I would recognize her if she used to sing on TV. But her face means pigshit to me. Besides, my mother said, being famous is just another form of slaughter. Don’t you know that saying? People fear fame the way pigs fear fattening. Ren pa chu ming, zhu pa fei.

I could wear her grief secondhand, like my older cousin’s shirts that were shipped to me every year and that smelled of the men who undressed her.

Cecilia kneed the TV screen, which was navy like a bruise. She batted the side of the set with both fists until it hacked up static. I asked her if she’d heard about the scandal, about the other Cecilia, her namesake. She sat back on her heels and elbowed the screen, telling me to shut up, I didn’t know anything about actresses, about performance. It’s all an act, she said, it’s acting. I know acting. My mother and I watch TV every night until morning and she points it out to me, when the actors are just fake-acting and real-acting.

Aren’t those the same, I said, but Cecilia shook her head. Her two braids lassoed around her face. No, she said, when you’re a real actor, you’re supposed to believe it’s real life. It’s so real, you don’t even remember your name, your mother, your birthmarks. She told me that Cecilia Cheung knows that kind of acting: So you see, that video just looks so real that everyone believes it’s her body. Cecilia taught me how to open my mouth the way singers do, not big like I’m swallowing flies but big like I’m trying to bury all the sky’s light.

Cecilia butted the TV again and the screen cracked into a mosaic of light, swelling with blue veins, but it still didn’t turn on. I sweated through the newspaper she laid out for me, praying the newsprint wouldn’t transfer to my ass, and asked when her mother was coming back. I don’t know, Cecilia said, she works nights sometimes. I used to think that working nights meant that you were employed as the moon, that somehow the night wouldn’t run without you, but it turns out Cecilia’s mother was a janitor and cleaned things while people were sleeping. She does it here, too, Cecilia said. One time I woke up and my mother was scouring my arms with steel wool. She told me that’s how you get the hair off permanently. I thought about Cecilia Cheung and hair between my legs, glancing down at my own lap, wondering when I’d grow a shadow of my own. But you’ve got no hair on your arms, I said to Cecilia. That’s because my mother’s cleaned me, she said, explaining that I’d have hair on my arms soon. She would show me how to scrub without lunging out the blood.

Sorry the TV’s broken, Cecilia said, and I told her it’s ok, I didn’t have one at all. We watched the neighbor’s, even though my mother said he was a mainlander and whatever he watched was communist propaganda, including the Hello Kitty movies I used to watch after school, though I didn’t think Hello Kitty could be a communist. The way my mother talked about communists was the way she talked about all the neighbors: She claimed they were dangerous, but the truth was she didn’t know any. They could be thieves, my mother said, though she always took the furniture they left behind when they moved.  

Let’s make our own TV, Cecilia said, and I thought at first she wanted to build one, though there was nothing in the room but two sofa cushions, newspaper stickered to our asses and a full-length mirror leaning on the wall beside the television set. No, Cecilia said, I mean, let’s make a movie.

Like what kind of movie, I said, thinking of all the Hong Kong gangster movies my mother bought from the man who spread a blanket at the bus stop, how he promised to pay me 10 dollars a day if I skipped school and stood at the corner, watching for policemen. Those movies proved to me that men weren’t myths, that sometimes they exploded or fell out of buildings or stabbed each other for no reason.

When I told her how much I loved the gangster movies you could buy outside the station, Cecilia said she hated those bootlegs. They’re all shaky and you can see the shadows of people standing up to go pee. Let’s make a real movie like Cecilia Cheung, she said, and I realized she was talking about the tape that neither of us had seen. Cecilia stood in front of me, and I looked at her denim shorts with razored holes in them, the hairbands cuffed around her wrist, the nylon-stretch headband she wore around her waist like a belt for her knock-off Roxy T-shirt. She dressed like a girl in a catalog — not the main model but one of the background girls, blurry and out of focus, surrounding the scene. I’ll be Cecilia, she said, her side-bangs cemented to her temples with sweat. You be the man. Neither of us knew the name of the man in the tape, and my mother never said anything about him either — he wasn’t as famous, my mother told me, and he still needed fattening.

Okay, I said to Cecilia, but we don’t have anything to film with. Cecilia said, So just pretend there’s a camera here. It’s called real acting. She lay down on the splayed newspapers, translucent with sweat, and I leaned over her, straddling her hips, my hand-me-down basketball shorts balling up around my thighs. What do I do, I said, and Cecilia said: Grind. I thought of the meat grinder at the counter of 99 Ranch, the way it minced pork into pebbles, ribs into rhinestones. I rubbed myself on her belly, but Cecilia squirmed beneath me and said stop, it tickles, you aren’t doing this right. She reached up and snagged my wrists, then tugged me down so that my face was above hers, her tongue butterflying on the tip of my nose, her mouth so close I could see the beef-confetti sprinkled in the crevices of her molars. She shepherded my hips with her hands, herding them so that we were hinged together, and then she said I needed to knead her chest. Okay, I said. No, she said, I mean underneath my shirt. Okay, I said again. Her windows were dusty and the light came in garbled, crumbling before it reached us. She said this is the part when the man does something. Okay, I said, what. She told me to touch her between the legs, so I nudged her there with my chin, feeling like a meerkat on that documentary show I liked, the one where clans of meerkats breed in tunnels and their babies emerge from the holes months later. I loved the way they developed the dark, digging bellies into the dirt that would fill with light when they left. I pulled Cecilia’s underwear down to her ankles and opened her legs, lowering my face. Not there, she said. That’s where I go poop, she said, stop. I withdrew my fingers, wet with something, but when I brought my fingers to my lips, she said no, try it again. But I didn’t look at my hands or where I was touching her. I watched her stomach instead, her belly button cupping dust. The movie is over, she said, and my fingers were still dry against her. That hurts, she says, cut, cut, cut. I stopped, sitting back on my heels, and Cecilia said I was bad at being the man. The newspaper was wet beneath her, blank as onion peel, and my fingers stung as if I’d been sucking on them. My mother’s gonna be home soon, Cecilia said, but I knew it wasn’t true. I watched her button her denim shorts and realized I should have rinsed my fingers first. My mother always told me not to rub my eyes with raw hands because then they’d get infected and shrivel in the sockets and she’d have to carve out my eyes with melon-ballers, which is what happened to my uncle Guanyao. I asked Cecilia if I could come back when the TV was fixed, if I could finally watch her mother sing, and she nodded at me. There was spit in her hair like Christmas tinsel. I thought of her mouth saying go / no / here, all the shapes she could sour into, all the ways she could direct desire, as if there were a script for it.

Bye bye, she said to me, like a child or like my mother when debt-collectors called her and she didn’t know what they were saying. I always translated, but this time I didn’t know the words to this silence. While I walked down the stairs, I heard Cecilia behind me humming, singing something as she shut the door, and the whole walk home I tried to remember it, the way her mouth might have said come back. What about the movie, I said, before she’d closed the door. What about our footage? And she said don’t worry, I won’t release it. I won’t make the same mistake she did. I said it wasn’t Cecilia who released it, it was the man who did that, and she said yes, and there’s no man here, so don’t worry, no one will see it. The whole walk home I rewound it in my head, editing her mouth into an ending, imagining a screen as wide as our skin, the way we would look on it, lit up and no one listening to us. 





K-Ming Chang

K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her debut novel BESTIARY (One World/Random House, 2020) was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. Her micro-chapbook BONE HOUSE, a queer retelling of Wuthering Heights, is forthcoming from Bull City Press in 2021, and her short story collection, RESIDENT ALIENS, is forthcoming from One World. More of her writing can be found at