My first novel, Grasping Feathers, will be released on October 7th! Stay tuned!
I’ve been on a TV binge for the past few days while waiting for the new semester to start. My boyfriend’s iQiyi (Chinese Netflix) subscription led me to a variety of amazing American TV dramas that I’d missed during my four years abroad. Fox’s TV series, Star, takes us on a heart-wrenching journey with two sisters beaten down by the foster care system and a rich friend they’d met on Instagram who gave up everything to follow their dreams by starting a girl group in the eccentric city of Atlanta.
While the three main characters are interesting in their own right, the one who moved me the most was Cotton, a transgender black woman with a fervently religious mother. During the day, Cotton works in her mother’s salon as a receptionist. At night, she works in a seedy strip club where she turns tricks in order to pay for expensive bottom surgery.
Cotton’s mother, Carlotta, struggles between her Christian faith and trying to accept her only child. She treats her late best friend’s two daughters more like family than her own flesh and blood which leads Cotton to resent Carlotta. The final straw for Cotton was the day her mother asked her boyfriend, a local pastor, to hold a group prayer in the kitchen. The pastor begins performing an exorcism ritual and tries to force Cotton to say “I am a man”. She breaks down in tears and runs away.
The juxtaposition between faith and marginalized identities is a common thread throughout Cotton’s narrative. Carlotta merely tolerates her presence but struggles to fully accept her as a daughter, yet she also sees the church as a source of comfort because she associate’s “worldly things” with the drugs that took away her best friend.
While sitting alone in an upscale bar, a wealthy Asian man approaches Cotton.
“I don’t do Asians,” she remarks.
The man whispers something in her ear which causes her to go with him. After what we can assume has already been a few dates, Cotton tells Elliot about her gender identity. To her surprise, he readily accepts her as she is. This gives Cotton the confidence to bring Elliot home to her mother. However, her mother becomes angry when she assumes that she’s brought “a john into the house”. Cotton, feeling betrayed by her mother’s distrust, runs upstairs.
While the new couple is out on another date, Elliot tells Cotton that he wants her to “stop hooking” and become “only his”. She hesitates at first but after some cajoling agrees to his terms. However, old habits die hard and the pressures of having enough for bottom surgery cause Cotton to get back into the game. Elliot catches her getting out of another client’s car and breaks up with her on the spot.
More hardship awaits when she comes home to find her roommate stole all of the cash she’d saved up. Desperate, she goes back to Elliot’s home, where she discovers that he’s already replaced her with a blonde white woman. This not only paints Elliot as a playboy but provides a glimpse into racial preferences which are often played out in the real world. White women are often put on a pedestal, especially by Asian men. Black women who date men of other races will often find themselves replaced with a white or Asian woman after they’ve served the purpose of fulfilling a sexual fantasy. Upon witnessing Elliot’s behavior, Cotton feels justified about stealing his checkbook. She didn’t want to be disposable and she couldn’t bear feeling taken advantage of. These feelings combined with the urgency of needing to feel right in her own body led her to the actions that would ultimately result in her arrest at the end of the season.
Cotton’s story is a tragic portrayal of a transgender black sex worker living in the south. Atlanta may be home to largest black LGBTQ community in America but the specters of racial and sexual violence as well as religious abuse place the most vulnerable in society in severely compromising positions. Because Cotton didn’t get to complete her bottom surgery or legally change her gender marker before she was arrested, she will be put in men’s prison. Trans women in men’s prisons are not given adequate access to hormones and are subject to rape from guards and inmates at rates much higher than their cisgender peers.
The existence of a multi-dimensional black transgender character on a mainstream cable network TV show points to the progressive direction the U.S. is heading. Stories like these will bring attention to all of the real-world Cottons from urban Atlanta to rural Ohio. That’s the beauty of Cotton.
I went to a Chinese makeup artist yesterday. I wanna show you guys the contrast between Chinese makeup and Western makeup styles. The top is Chinese style and the bottom is my own shoddy version of Western makeup. What do you guys think? Which do you prefer?
You know that feeling you get when you’ve been throwing a bunch of darts without hitting the bullseye? That’s about where I’m at. I’m smack dab in the middle of one of the most complicated, messed-up situations of my life. I’ve spent the day pacing around my apartment muttering “what should I do”.
Dear readers, thank you for your patience. I know I’ve barely written anything in The Year of the Dog. That’s because this is a year of editing. I’m cleaning up the past few years worth of mishaps and honestly, it’s been overwhelming.
The first thing I’m scheduled to complete this year is paying off a huge debt to my Dad who helped me out during a major crisis in 2016. Secondly, I’m trying to get a Chinese residence card by any means necessary so I can avoid the whole every-60-day-border song and dance. Thirdly, I’m trying to self-publish my first novel so that I can move on to the next one.
Did I mention that my apartment building is under construction and they destroyed my balcony a.k.a my cat’s room yesterday afternoon? Yep, that happened and I’m livid. Trying to get a response from my current rental agency is like pulling teeth.
I even had a dream about my balcony last night. In the dream I asked the slender construction workers when the renovations would be complete and they told me it’d be another month. When I woke up at the crack of dawn, I realized that the reality is worse than the nightmare. There’s no way to repair the balcony without building a whole new wall, which I doubt they’re going to do. There’s also nowhere in my room I can put my cat’s litter box without suffocating from the stench. My roommate, who usually watches my cat when I’m away, has gone out of town for a week-long vacation. He deserves it. He works too hard.
After seeing the balcony, I felt so depressed I crawled back under the sheets and dozed off again. I heard my phone ring. Then I heard a knock on the door. The delivery guy had arrived with none other than my Admission Letter to Shanghai Normal University. The kicker? I’d have to get a new passport and a new visa by September 6th. From outside of the U.S., this would be incredibly expensive and difficult but still doable.
Oh, and my appointment with the consulting company is tomorrow afternoon. They’re the ones who can help me get a work visa as a freelancer in China. I only had one day to make a decision that could affect the rest of my life.
I had weighed the pros and cons. Tons of thoughts swirled around my head:
Everyone and their cat has an advanced degree these days. If I don’t get my Master’s, I’ll never have any good career prospects.
Then again, I don’t really wanna study finance and my local friends did say that Shanghai Normal University is not a finance school. Also, I’m no good at math so I’d need an excellent teacher which I don’t think I’ll have access to here.
But if my work visa application gets rejected, I’ve wasted thousands of dollars and lost the opportunity to get a Master’s and a student visa.
But I also submitted my background check and Bachelor’s Degree for authentication in the U.S. which had cost about $600.
Finally, I flipped a one RMB coin. Heads, I’ll go to Korea and try to bum rush my student documents like mad. Tails, I’ll continue down the path of opening my company and employing myself legally here in China. I got tails twice. I guess the university sending my documents late was a blessing in disguise. Indeed, life is too short to study something I’ve got no interest in. I just hope that everything goes smoothly with my company and that I won’t have to leave too many more times before the processing is done.
You’re finally awake. Black mold adorns the edges of your worn shoes. Hardened intestines litter the damp cement floor. There’s a pale hand next to you, with its fingers still curled around a light yellow eyeball. Your mind is still wondering if this is a nightmare. Soon, a realization sets in and you look down. The large metal shackles around your ankles are cold and tighten with every twitch. They dig into your flesh as you writhe and convulse. There’s no use fighting. Or is there? Come on. Remember what you did last time?
You struggle with the shackles a little bit more. Sweat pours down your brow and into your eye as you wince from the salt. Your head throbs like beating bongo drums. No other living thing is occupying this cell. The chains that hold the shackles begin to rattle. Clink. Ching. Clink. Snap! Freedom. The only problem now is what to do next. There’s still that matter of a heavy iron door that you haven’t the energy to open. So you turn around to examine your surroundings. There’s a red lemon lying on the ground near the iron door. In disbelief, you poke it, prod it, and peel the skin. Your stomach growls. Without hesitation, you devour the lemon. In the center lies a razor blade which only slightly nicks the tip of your tongue before you pull it out of your mouth. It’s sawing time.
With the iron bars sawed enough for your slender frame to crawl through, you enter a narrow, dimly lit hallway. There’s a skeleton of a bird lying near another door towards the end of the hallway. This door is made of solid oak wood and opens in front of you with very little effort on your part.
On your way out you notice a room with an unmanned desk and wooden shelf with several cubes full of various personal items such as cell phones, watches, and even cash. One cube contains your wallet and house keys. A constant pressure gnaws at your left leg as you begin to limp. There’s a wooden broom in the corner of the room. You break off the bottom part and use the handle as a cane. Regaining momentum, you walk closer to the flashing, red exit sign and the large iron door below it.
One small raindrop falls from the sky and onto the ground in front of you. A few seconds pass and larger, clearer drops join congregate in puddles on the concrete.
Images of home have faded from memory. You fumble through your pocket for your wallet, which contains a photo ID with your address on it. It’s time to go home.
You land on the front steps of your old house. The yard is littered with children’s toys, dirtied by the sediment that has been building on them for years. The discolored picket fence, once a brilliant shade of white is now gray and splintered. The house is no longer sky blue but dulled periwinkle. On the door, only half of a “No Soliciting” sign remains, frayed edges indicating a hostile tear from an apparently aggravated visitor.
With shaking hands, you begin placing the brass key up to the door handle. To your shock and simultaneous relief, the key does not fit the lock. You use your broom-handle cane to break the door window open, then reach through the newly formed space to unlock the door from the inside.
You are immediately greeted by family photographs as you enter the foyer, some with the head of a person cut out. A stack of legal documents consumes the coffee table. They look like divorce papers and personal letters between two people named Melanie Jikonson and Skye Jikonson.
You open a drawer of the table and find a bag of coke. You can’t resist the urge, so you do a few lines before continuing your exploration.
The kitchen draws you in with its familiar smells of lasagna and garlic bread. There’s a disassembled gun on the kitchen table but it doesn’t seem surprising, given the other contents of the house. It’s the suicide letter, written in sloppy cursive on yellowing legal paper. The signature jumps out at you. You pick it up to read the rest.
There are many things I wish I had the courage to tell you. Sadly, I am only a coward. Our children look so beautiful playing in the yard right now. I wish I knew how to use this gun but unfortunately, you never taught me. That’s one of many things you never took the time to do. I can’t live a life apart from you even though I can’t seem to live with you, either. Please care for our children. They deserve to be with the stronger one of us. Forgive me.
Forever and Always,
Your heart falls into your stomach upon reading those final words. Chills go over your body like knives cutting into your spine.
You walk upstairs and into the first bedroom on the right-hand side of the dark hallway. White curtains blow horizontally as the wind and rain soak the windowsill and lime green carpeting. A queen-sized bed occupies the center of the room with grace and elegance, adorned with green and white throw pillows that match the comforter, and antique porcelain dolls with grass green dresses and red hair. The white canopy was supposed to shield the former occupant from the treachery of the outside world. The noose that hangs from the ceiling fan suggests otherwise.
“What the hell are you doing?” yells a voice from behind you.
It’s a little girl in a purple dress and white light-up sandals who looks no more than ten or eleven years old. Her hands are on her hips and her pursed, pink lips and angry scowl remind you of someone you once knew. You struggle to find the right words to say. Your prolonged silence only enrages her further.
“I asked you a question, dirt-bag! This is my house. Why are you here?”
You finally muster up the courage to answer. “I thought this was my home.”
“It was. Now it’s not.” She responds flatly.
“Why not? I have nowhere else to go.”
“Not my problem. Get out or I’ll call the police.”
A thought crosses your mind as you realize that this little girl is squatting in an abandoned house. There’s no way she’d rat herself out which means you can call her bluff. Your eyes wander to a small painting of this girl hanging above the door where you entered the room. A sense of renewed hopelessness washes over you like the ocean’s tide.
“But I’m…your parent,” you protest in a soft voice just above a whisper.
“You were, Skye. That was…that was until you abandoned us.” Her stony voice was softening now as tears were beginning to swell in the corners of her eyes. A single tear streamed down the porcelain curve of her left cheek. Then more followed obediently, falling from each eye until they began crashing onto the floor. The walls began rattling violently and the bed slammed against the window, falling back to the floor with the headboard split in half. This was truly your daughter.
“That’s enough!” you scream, grabbing onto her shoulders. You shake her until she ceases her sobs with a deep sniffle. The peels from the red lemon fall out of your pocket like fall leaves and settle quietly onto the carpet, creating a contrast that’s clearly visible even from tear-soaked eyes. She looks down and picks them up. She clutches them in her fists before dropping them once more.
She grabs your hand and runs with you, without uttering so much as a single word. Through the hallway, down the stairs, and into the kitchen you escape. She opens the screen door which leads to the backyard and in the center of the chaos of more children’s toys and gardening tools stands a lemon tree. Every lemon is red. You wrap your hand around the lowest-hanging fruit, moving on to touch the trunk of the tree where several carvings had been created over the years. Every carving is a wish that someone made. Circling the tree with a lion’s pace, you find the one you made:
May our children never bear this curse.
Originally published at Beautiful Losers magazine.