Mama is incapable of tonguing English names even though, after years of being intubated with Dickens in Hong Kong, she can speak the Queen’s English. She gave all my friends nicknames in Chinese based on their most prominent feature. Duck Head. Puff-Puff Cheeks. I was not exempt either. She called to me through the slit of the car window, the aisles of frozen peas and corns, even when I was close to her, under the dark folds of quilted covers. Monn-sta. Little monster. You can imagine the face I had.
When my friend Emmy returned from Korea with folded lids (her mother’s sweet sixteen gift), Mama christened her: Sad Eyes, No Longer Hooded. That kind of pretty doesn’t come cheap, she said. I thought, If we had the money, you would cut my face too.
In school, I was always a step behind everybody else as if I was born the runt of the litter. To make up for it, I clocked in eyeliner before the first bell, clocked it off on the bus home, lipstick too, which I took from my mother’s menagerie, sifting the colors carefully: mauves, reds, corals, blood from open or closed wounds. I chose based on the language Mama last complimented me in, the number of holes in my tights, the height of the snow, or the score of my last chemistry exam. I wrote a paper on lipstick names, hypersexualization, the neatly packaged bullets that we slip in and out of our mouths like prayer. I confess that I keep them like a charm in my pocket, too—a bit of blood that promises me something.
Mama is beautiful and ugly in the way the moon is. Her only blemishes are from where the sun once kissed her. I loved her freckles—craters of chocolate milk—but Jenny’s father lasered them off. Christmas discount. At work, none of her white co-workers asked why she had bandages on her face. At home, a reel of voicemails, Ai-yis asking Mama: how much, how much.
My father always wants to take pictures of her, but she turns her head, a half-lit blur. You’re right, he says. You’re more beautiful in person. She puts on eyeshadow to go to the grocery store. The cashier asks if my sister is in any movies. She gave it up, I say. The story is not false—Mama acted in Hong Kong. Two cop dramas. A perfume campaign.
I never asked why she stopped.
After the surgery, Emmy’s eyes stopped waning. She had always worn lenses, but now they magnified her eyes, filtering her other features into focus. When she started missing quartet rehearsals and lost her first chair to me, I imagined she had found a boyfriend who drove her along frozen rivers, spooned her in caramel coffee and designer leather. We watched as she waxed into brilliance. Present only once a month.
Mama tells me over snowflake wood ear soup that Emmy was playing dress-up, not hooky, her handbags tokens from modeling. After the show, Emmy could keep the outfits too. She pronounces Balenciaga, Proenza Schouler, each one a jewel in her mouth, her teeth setting them in yellow enamel. I realize that I’ve been saying them wrong all along.
Drink up. It’ll make your skin crystal white. Like yours? I ask. Like mine, before, she corrects me. She tells me the price of my complexion: how I suckled the cream, left her with a shawl of wrinkled milk, and pomegranates for breasts, kneading them in the shower to find bad seeds. Sorry, I try to say, but she smooths my cheek. This is what mamas are for, she says, to pay for all of their daughter’s wants. I wash down the soup with root beer, my mouth fluorescent.
It will be easier this time, she says. If Emmy can do it, you will be better. More beautiful. Do you want to be a beautiful monster? She watches my face for an answer, for a smile that reflects some of her light.
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