Unflinching portrayals of desire and alienation fill Bonnie Chau's award-winning story collection. Chau's short fiction explores the lives of young women navigating love, failure, heritage, and memory, and presents a fresh perspective of second-generation Chinese-Americans. Moving back and forth between California and New York, and ranging as far away as Paris, Chau’s exquisitely written stories are bold, highly imaginative, and haunting, featuring characters who defiantly exert their individuality.
About the Author
Bonnie Chau is from Southern California, where she formerly ran writing programs at the nonprofit 826LA. She received her MFA in fiction and translation from Columbia University. A Kundiman fellow, she works at an independent bookstore in Brooklyn and is assistant web editor at Poets & Writers.
Read an Excerpt
Arthur Apollo Asher and I met at the boba shop called Boba-Go-Banana. We sat outside drinking and chewing through our boba milk teas — mine was the Go Banana one, it was yellow-gray, and had a sick sweetness to it. The afternoon was sunny, with a smooth, cold breeze. The shop was in the Heritage Crest strip mall, which was on the corner of the intersection of Culver Drive and Irvine Center Drive. The outside of it was peach-colored stucco, and it was this peach-colored stucco because the whole strip mall was this way.
We watched zigzagging Chinese drivers creating a hell out of the parking lot. It was The Garden of Earthly Delights, if all the fang-limbed monstrosities were cars, and if all the acid lime green grass and baby blue-eyed waters were the asphalt. I said something about this, and Arthur Apollo Asher smiled and lifted his shoulders.
"They're your people," he said.
"It's alienating," I said. But I didn't know if they were the aliens or if I was the alien. We talked a little bit about San Francisco, where we had met while we were both still in school, through mutual friends of his brother's, or was it through family friends. He said he was sorry to hear about my grandfather. I nodded. I didn't say anything about it. I looked at him, at the matte opacity of the pale skin under his eyes, at the way his hands cradled the plastic cup, at the way his lips tightened around the fat straw. We had done it, several times, years ago, once while drunk and stoned, a couple times just stone cold sober.
Afterwards, I got into Arthur Apollo Asher's lowered, kitted-out, spoiler-winged Acura NSX. Of course it was white, of course it was referred to as White Rice, and of course his possession of it was only legitimized by the fact that he had inherited it, an heirloom of the late nineties, from his adopted Chinese wannabe-gangster brother. He was so embarrassed about it, but also proud, the way you might be proud of inheriting a bro-y pickup truck from Huntington Beach because you are so obviously not that kind of person, that it's funny, or something, or so you imagine. He grinned his bared teeth confidently at me as I got in — bucket seat, race car seat belts, the harness a silent spider on my body. I found myself aroused by the pieces of gleaming metal, flat like puzzle pieces, sleek and Richie Rich.
He zoomed over to his house on Barranca Drive, shifting gears as if he was in a movie, and slipped the White Rice rocket, fist into glove, into an ultra specific spot on the driveway. I followed him up the stairs into the bedroom, and the first thing he did, was walk toward me but then away from me, and I looked over and he was walking to the wall behind me to flick down the light switch. It was dark now, but not that dark, because the lights were still on in the rest of the house, lighting the marble floors and granite countertops, the thick carpeting on the stairs. Being in a house like this, everything brand new, made me feel like I was in high school again. I had not been back to Irvine in a very long time, in six years maybe. I had not felt this me — this obedient, unquestioning me which was only alive when placed in a peach-colored stucco building — had not felt her simultaneous foreignness and familiarity, her desperation — in a very long time. I was an amorphous putty again, in the hands of my parents, shaped as a dutiful daughter. I was one Chinese girl in a pile of them again, average height average weight straight black hair brown eyes. People don't know this secret, and this secret is that peach-colored stucco has the power to suck out all of what makes you you, all of your individual identity, all your creativity and aesthetics. It's better that way, it's easier to swallow. Less stuff sticking out and into the sticky gummy back of your throat.
Arthur Apollo Asher put his hands around my hips, and pressed his fingertips against my butt cheeks. I was wearing a red skirt, of respectable length, that did nothing for me, but I thought, well, respectability is something. Maybe. Maybe it is something, something I have only heard of. I made this joke in my head, kind of smiled. He pressed harder, and I imagined his fingers slightly sinking into soft pale flesh, shadows blooming like a flower around his fingertips, growing out of nothing, out of skin pressing skin, an instantaneous moat of dark, the appearance of depth.
Pants and skirts were shrugged, scooted down, buttonholes were stretched into O's like gasping mouths, then relieved of their charges. I stepped up onto his bed, and stood, poised royally for a fight. He pushed me up against the wall, placed his penis against the opening of my vagina. He held the base, guiding it like a flashlight, where to go, what to do? What to see?
I wanted him, I did not want him, his penis, inside of me, I was not sure. Who was this guy? His name was Arthur Asher Astrophel, or what was it again. He would be the closest thing to a Chinese guy I had sex with, and that wasn't saying much — he only drove a rice rocket and had an adopted Chinese gangster brother — but it was saying something that might finally make sense, make my perceptions more whole, more solid. But here, here, I pulled him forward violently, almost a stumble of feet and toenails, and somehow he fell up into me, cockfirst, as if driving a sword upward with full intent to disembowel.
He regained his balance, bent his knees, and then unbent them as he stood unsteadily like a shivering, just-birthed animal. He moved back up, pushed his prick up into me more deeply, pricking as far as he could go, and I was pushed up, pushed up a groan, as if this thrust up inside of me had in turn displaced out of my belly, then chest, then throat, then mouth, a sound, like this. I slumped down, started slumping down, falling, bringing him with me, until we were sitting, entangled on his bed, and then he fell back on his back. He flipped me over slightly so I was on my stomach, moved over me, found a condom somewhere without going anywhere, pushed himself inside of me from behind, I moaned, a long and deep, wanton, want, want, wanting, keeling, keening sound, low and wet, this was sex, this was it, sex — God, society, humanity, flesh — it all made sense, or at least it all was okay, or it was okay that none of it made sense.
I turned back around, and then I felt something I had never felt before, and certainly people feel things for the first time all the time, but this, I mean, I strained up, against Arthur Apollo Asher's shoulder, which was sinewy and had clamped on it, like a starfish to a face, a holy map of holy trails across holy lands. This was his description and not mine, and I didn't question it because some things unravel so quickly under questioning. I had asked him the first time I saw it, where the Silk Road was in this sprawling map of a tattoo, and what about the Trail of Tears, and he had frowned something about not being holy, and I had laughed instead of panicking that he didn't understand what I wanted to talk about.
But now I cried out because I was not sure who this guy was, who had suddenly become a part of something scary, whose mouth hung slightly open above me, eyes shut as if to better concentrate on panting to a finish. We had looked at each other over boba and I had not been able to find even the tiniest chime of understanding or knowledge resonating in his eyes. He did not see me at all, except for the narrow path of light that his penis had illuminated. My heart started beating very quickly, and there was the sound of tearing, sound waves threatening to vibrate the tiny cilia of my ears. It was a very distinct paper or fabric ripping sound, fibers parting, right at the entrance of my hearing. What I felt, though, was not a tearing, but a rapid separating from head to toe, as if of evaporating skin, and a shocking pleasure at the plunge into coldness. I imagined waving my hands around cartoonishly up in the air and exclaiming, "I am not a virgin! There should be no tearing!" but here it was, something wrested, an irrevocable estrangement of me from me. One Pisces fish swimming there, the other there, a string in between, unraveling to a jarring snap of nothing.
My orgasm split wide and then clamped shut, and my eyes opened suddenly, the wave of oxygen hitting my corneas. I could feel my eyeballs darting around, not seeing anything, but switching back and forth in the semidarkness, with nowhere to look, moving around, as if they could look inwards, and were peering into my brain: what happened, why did that feel like that, if something was being split open, what was going to come out, what was going to encounter the light and air of day for the first time?
And then, we were lying there, on his bed, and I saw that I could see myself in the mirror on the closet by his bed. I looked over again, and realized that there was not a mirror there, but that it was just me, standing there. That there was somehow another me, a non-mirror me, who did not copy me as in a reflection, but who just stood there. I sat up. I put my hands on my flushed thighs, pressed at the protrusions of my kneecaps, covered my tits with my right forearm. She looked at me. She seemed pale. Her face was a little crooked, but I guess that was only because I was seeing a real me, and not a mirror-image me. She stood differently. She had better posture, a real backbone. I looked again, and she looked back at me, unflapped. Of course, why would she care, she was a creature, a mythological beast, and I was just some person.
Finally, she spoke. "You be me, and I'll be the other you," she said. I liked her voice immediately, it was not like mine, not even like hearing a recorded version of mine. Not so low and wavery, not like a clown at all, not a sour sounding voice.
"What do you mean?" I asked. She shook her head, her hair was my hair, but better, more unified, it swung with purpose. She stared at me wearily, I was wearing her out, and it had only been one minute, and she was me. I put my mouth in a sheepish shape.
"We will both be you," she said, saltily, "and it will be so much better for us. You be one you, and I'll be the other, we will contradict each other, but not ourselves."
"Oh," I said, "oh." I tried out a nod. My neck felt unused. Achitophel Asher Apollo what's-his-name snored, but I could not think about him anymore. Who cared about him, when I had somehow been split into two.
"Listen," she said, "This way, there won't be this problem of one part of you trying to get away from the other. We can get away from each other at any time, no problem-o."
"Oh, yes," I said. "Right. Yes. Okay. But," I said.
"Wait, listen," she said, slowly, like a dissolving Saltine. I leaned forward in the bed. "I will be the Chinese you."
"You will?" I said, taken aback. "What does that mean?" She squinted. "What do I be then?" I asked. In my brain, I tested out those five words again, the words strung together like the cold beads of a necklace, What do I be then. I was fighting hard to keep track of what was going on. I took an ocean-sounding breath.
The Chinese me looked at me. I saw that she was already the Chinese me, more impassive, wore sunblock all the time. She had implacable ideas. She laughed to hide. She sneered in place of any gesture of tenderness. "Where does that leave me?" I asked. I needed to know. "If you take away my Chinese me, do I become neutral? A planet of foggy translucence like a tapioca ball? Or white? Maybe I become white?"
She scoffed. "No. No no. You know nothing. You know you have problems with the Chinese you. I will just be the Chinese you for you. You won't have to think about it at all."
I looked down at my hands, which I did not remember clasping together. Maybe I had been waiting all my life for someone to say that to me. I looked at her. I wanted to test her. She must have known what I was thinking. She nodded her chin up at me. I stood up obediently. Although she was paler, she was more substantive, solid. I watched my left hand reaching over into the space between us, slowly toward the defiant slope of her shoulder, right below the jutting glow of her collarbone, my fingers outstretched, wanting to see what her skin felt like, what it would be like to touch the Chinese me.
But the story ends here, several inches before denatured skin meets I'll-never-know-what skin, because that is when I started to disappear, molecules of air replacing molecules of skin and blood and fat and bone. I was disappearing, in that dim and shadow-filled suburban bedroom, disappearing faster the closer I got to her. But I didn't stop, I didn't stop.CHAPTER 2
Against the white sky, dozens of pigeons fly, tiny crosses turning into stars, then flattening, veering, tiny stars, tiny crosses, flicking, flickering, crossing and uncrossing, and then a stomach-dropping swoop.
There is a sudden movement by Rhiannon's feet. She sees first, in the odd shape of red, a small puddle of blood, before she realizes it's a roundish leaf that has blown down and pooled. More dry bit-edged leaves, crumbling and crisp, scrape-drag along the gray sidewalks. It is not yet the month to put on gloves, so Rhiannon's hands naturally fold into fists, half withdrawn into her jacket sleeves. Fists, ready. Fists, withdrawing. Everywhere she looks, people and plants have been sucked dry, fast-motion decay, flesh withering, fruit withering, gristle and fat slurped gone. The one last suck through the straw, quick, blinding, stinging of a whip, gone in a blink.
Her body is in a disequilibrium of cold and hot. Warm under her down jacket, cold legs, heated feet stuffed into wool socks (thin, not yet the month for thick), leather boots (thin, not yet the month for snow). Some people are wearing wool hats, some people are wearing knit gloves. Some people are wearing T-shirts, and wish they were not, wish they were hot.
She fixes her eyes straight ahead, she is deeper inside herself now, for fall. Her body is the same size, but she, herself, has shrunken small, curled fetal, a mere pea inside this body. This is the first fall. The first-ever fall of her life. When people talk about seasons, it's not just the season, but the transition from the last one to the current one, that they are actually talking about. Spring is not spring, but the change from winter to spring. And fall, this is something else. She has never had this before, never seen it, never felt it like this. During her travels and years abroad, she had experienced seasons several times before, but only fall-winter-spring-summer. She had never done summer to fall.
It is the worst of them all. The biggest fall, descent into madness, startled at being yanked out of woozy warmth and sweat-dripping heat. It is like being slapped. The sudden burn of submersion into an ice cold pool. But no water. An ice cold vacuum. An ice cold glass. Clear, translucent, nothing but air and wind.
The Jellyfish Appears It is a Wednesday. She remembers this because Wednesdays are the most watery of days, suspended midweek. Bells somewhere were chiming 9:30 a.m. The M train rolls by, the bedroom window screen is pixelated from the rain outside, a smeary, near-sighted blur.
Rhiannon is holding her phone, not one of the flat heavy ones that can do everything, the ones that feel like you are holding a window pane of glass balanced in your palm, but a small plasticky one, that she squeezes in her right hand, as if it is a person, the one person whose calls and voicemails and text messages she wishes were the actual person, not just something to read or something to hear.
When the rain stops, she opens the door to her bedroom. It is also a door from her bedroom. The kitchen light is on. Not the stove one, which she and her roommates leave on when they are full of time and deliberation and can expend the mental and physical effort to be atmospheric. But the actual overhead light, which is less forgiving. It screams of emptiness. She slips her feet into her yellow flats, they make a flat slapping sound on the hardwood. She turns the brass doorknob of the front door. She walks down the hallway, which is jointed at several intervals, like walking the perimeter of an octagon. She walks in a straight line, watching the grain of the hardwood floors. They are worn, gentle.
She pushes the heavy metal door out into the stairwell, and pulls it clicked behind her. She walks up two more flights of stairs to the very top landing. She pushes that metal door out, and carefully steps over the raised part of the wall. The roof is empty. It is always empty. But above the ledges all around, the city stands, all around, it is everywhere.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All Roads Lead to Blood"
Copyright © 2018 Bonnie Chau.
Excerpted by permission of SFWP.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Medusa Jellyfish 7
Stevie Versus The Negative Space 19
The Closing Doors 35
I See My Eye In Your Eye 41
The Burgeoning 53
Newfangled Creature 59
Somebody Else In The Room 69
Loose Morals 81
Year Of Righteousness, Year Of Confetti 85
Triptych Portrait With Doors In Closed Position 95
The Forecast 113
Desert Dreams Are Always In Green 121
A Golden State 147
The History Of Your Very Body 165