CW: substance abuse
We marry under a blue October sky, on a bridge over the Mississippi River. We vow to love, and to be soft. I am twenty-three with a bob of bleach blonde hair and a vintage dress with blue and brown flowers and buttons up the front.
When we first met, I stood two decades tall, bald, and barefoot on the bed, and wrote poems on the wall. I smoked and wore boxers. Tao said, isn’t that taking it a bit far? This was before. When sun-soaked afternoons were still endless. When I was still just a white American, 老外, language student, untethered in other people’s cities—Taipei, Chengdu, Shanghai. When Tao was still “just a Chinese T lesbian,” in a leather jacket, hurling into me—in the rain, in the empty three a.m. streets, in the shadows of warehouses turned into art galleries. When subways full of question-mark eyes would trace my bound chest, smooth face, flat feet stuffed in strappy platform sandals. When I would dream of Tao, not just in sleep, but in the stretched dawns of water twisting and turning under labyrinths of concrete, storekeepers sorting bamboo steamers of 包子, 外卖小哥 loading scooters to weave through hurried sidewalks.
On our first wedding anniversary, I have shoulder-length hair with bangs and dark overgrown roots. To celebrate, we get away from the midwestern home we share with my parents and go to the mountains. We joke at the rental car counter about our underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes costing us that extra fee. Then we walk side by side past a line of hunched shoulders and small hungry faces, caught in laughter as we slide through the automatic double doors. We drive up and down channels of stone carved by water long gone. At night, we get high and eat spicy ramen with fried eggs as the fire spits into black. In the morning, we load the car, stop for gas and coffee, and hit the road. Then we fight. About gender. And sex. About ourselves, and how we have changed or not over our three and a half years together. Beneath these fights, we fight, too, about power, and language, and countries, and family. I say:
Honestly, I don’t even care about the pronouns—but I do care how much you hate me being masc. I can see it on your face. Do you even realize how fucked that is?
We climb a summit at dawn in sweatpants and sweaters, clutching coffee in our hands. Tao says:
I’ve only ever been into Ps, femmes, whatever. I can’t just turn that part off. And now the whole pronoun thing—I am trying my best, but you make it like I will never be good enough.
We drive as far as we can down a dirt road, lie on the hood of the car, and let ourselves dissolve into the sky. I say:
You know this doesn’t have anything to do with you right? This is about me. Who I am. How I need to be.
We eat lemon edibles coated in sugar crystals and soak in hot springs lined with slick rock. Tao says:
I moved here. I left my whole life behind. Everything is always about you. Your ideas, your friends, your white family. It’s like I don’t even exist—except as your Chinese wife.
We collect petals and stones and pinecones and tuck them into our pockets. I say:
That’s so unfair.
We hold each other in a field of grass at sunset, shoulder to chest, as darkness falls. I say:
Why does this even have to be a fight?
In a few weeks, Tao will leave for China for the first time since we moved across the world to marry. But now, we stand on the edge, and in moments of silence, I feel us.
Later, Tao will call me while driving a food delivery route in Philly. He’ll tell me he’s drinking himself to sleep every night. I’ll tell him I’m quitting drinking. He’ll tell me he’s sorry—about everything. I’ll tell him I have to go.
But wait, Bill, guess what? You would be so happy for me! I started introducing myself with he/him.
Tao will be right. I will be happy for him.
My first year in China and our first year together was nightclubs and walls coated in cigarette smoke and free pitchers of vodka orange juice. Was me in a city alone, walking for hours. Was the subway ride to PVG. Was saying goodbye. Was us waking up disoriented and still drunk on the steps of the FamilyMart below his apartment, wondering how far we were from home. Was him leaving a Shanghai club with some girl while I slept thousands of miles away in my dorm in Chengdu. Was video calls from under the covers, five feet of floor between me and my roommate. Was my roommate opening the door, then slamming it behind herself the first day I moved in—So sorry! I thought this was a girls’ room. Was my roommate kneeling in prayer every day, her face turned to Mecca. Was an old man in a barber shop re-shaving my head, his mouth motionless while his eyes said everything I already knew. Was me walking across campus to class, and to the cafeteria, and to the art supply shop where I bought colored markers and rice paper etched with gold flowers. Was me eating an entire pack of Oreos on the bus ride home from my gig teaching English to two-year-olds who mostly stared at me and their teachers who stared even more. Was him buying me a dress with a sheer ruffled skirt. Was him saying how pretty my hair would be if only I let it grow. Was me waiting for him to come visit. Was me asking if he was trans, and, when he said, No, definitely not, asking how long ago his body learned to bend to hide inside itself. Was us lying in a park in the middle of Shanghai laughing at the joy of feeling the earth beneath our backs. Was asking ourselves how the world could even breathe under all this asphalt.
Before I left the States, I hosted a “Goodbye Forever” party. Two months later I turned twenty-one and walked with other government scholarship kids to a small bar on a side street in Taipei. The bartenders there liked us, and they had an excellent happy hour deal. One especially drunk woman with a sequin covered shirt threw her arms around me—Beautiful girl with your short hair, you just don’t know how fast it all goes. Later, my friends and I tumbled onto share bikes, feet sticking out the sides, wobbling our way down the empty streets. The next night, out again, I was so overcome by the miracle of it all I had to lie down in the middle of the sidewalk to look for the stars. Then, I threw up all over myself.
Mismatched chairs pulled from all over the house are crowded around the table to accommodate my siblings, their spouses, and their children who are still new to this world. It is my twenty-fourth Christmas Eve dinner, and Tao’s second. We are seated next to each other, shoulder to shoulder on a piano-bench-made-chair. Who is that? His phone is halfway under the table, his fingers tapping a series of quick replies. Who is H-Y-Y? I ask again. My face is flushed after an afternoon of beer and wine and something delicious with rosemary and oversized ice cubes. Then, someone stands and everyone shifts in their seats in response. Boots are pulled over wool socks; hugs and here take some more leftovers are exchanged. Then my parents’ house is empty again. We’re standing in front of the fireplace, forehead to cheek. I pull back to find his eyes and twist my smile to the side—Hey, seriously, who were you texting?
A year and a half before that Christmas, during our first fall in Minnesota, Tao couldn’t believe how quiet it was, or how fast the trees turned, or how many stars you could see. On the night before our wedding, we sang karaoke in a room with disco balls and glitter. I remember dancing and singing “I’m Yours” and “因为爱情”. I remember the drink before I don’t remember—cool glass, hints of cucumber and mint. Then, waves of relief: in the hallway, on the table, out the open car door. My body folded on the bathroom floor, feet tucked under, arms over the toilet, waiting for the waves to stop. Then, morning light, waking underwater, floating up the river to the spot in the sun where I would promise forever.
My dad threw up on his front steps the night before he married my mom. Then he stopped drinking. Then they got divorced. He drinks now, but only on Wednesdays and Fridays. Also, Saturdays. I didn’t grow up religious, but I’ve always been able to recite the serenity prayer by heart.
After I find out who H-Y-Y is and what happened, Tao and I start fighting most days, except when we are high or drunk, except when even then, we fight. I say:
I’m not going to force you to break up with her—I don’t even believe in monogamy—and the whole “choose me” thing makes me want to vomit. I refuse to become that person. But I fucking hate that you lied to me. And I don’t like thinking about her, or you, or any of this.
The news fills with people in hazmat suits and hospital bed counts and daily death tolls. We stay in our room as the world shuts down repeatedly around us. We cook dinner and watch an old comedy rerun on YouTube. Also, I re-download Tinder. He says:
None of this changes how I feel about you. I will always choose you. Always love you more. You are the most special thing.
On the front porch we watch a bruise of purple and pink bloom in the sky and tell my mother we are in an open marriage. Later, in our attic, I say:
I have no interest in controlling who or how you love. I don’t need you to love me more. But the hiding and sneaking and lying—I swear to God, Tao—that shit has to stop.
On the porch, we say no one can be everything. We say there is joy in letting the one you love love. But to myself I say:
I think I just miss us. I miss it being just us.
During our second year—the year I took off school and moved into Tao’s tiny Shanghai apartment—I would stand at the sink, a messy bowl cut of flyaways and sweat, and watch the sunset through our open window. The kitchen was sticky from steam off the rice cooker and oil off the pans, the shower was warm from the afternoon pipes, and the bed sheets smelled of wind. At dusk we clasped hands and took turns pulling each other around the 小区 on a skateboard while the men walked and the women danced.
During our fourth year, after we “open our marriage,” Tao starts having phone sex with H-Y-Y in our room, which we mostly never leave, and which is also the attic of my parents’ house. I start journaling, doing handstands, and smoking weed every day. I also start reading Tao’s phone while he sleeps. In the hush of morning, I slide it from under his pillow and open his muted WeChat thread with H-Y-Y. I scan for anything to confirm what I already know, the crux of a lie, the shadow of a half-truth.
She just has a little crush on me. And it was only a kiss, just at the airport to say goodbye. I told you as soon as I got back to the States.
Sometimes, his body jerks beside me, and in one smooth motion I scroll down, close thread, exit app, lock screen.
I told you everything—and nothing even happened. But she gets me; we grew up the same. It reminds me who I am, where I’m from. Plus she’s straight, like really straight. I feel like a boy with her.
Sometimes, it is so loud in my ears I can barely hear the words in my head. Sometimes, it is so boring I want to scream.
She asks him, Are you asleep? He tells me he can’t let her go. He asks her if she’s awake. He tells me nothing even happened between them. She tells him, This is what I ate. He tells me he broke up with her. She tells him, I miss you. He tells me they’re “just friends” now. She sends a photo with some cute filter, lips perfectly pouted. He tells me he broke up with her again. Sometimes just the vibration of his phone or the motion of him reaching towards his pocket sends me spinning into hours of silent rage. He begs me to stop crying. He says he never meant to hurt me.
When I get mad enough, I leave. I walk or drive or run. I move my body until I can stand being in my own skin again, usually a handful of hours. When these leavings aren’t enough, I leave emotionally, too. Then, it is harder to say how many handfuls it will take to return.
In the back of some brewery over Northeast our knees push uncomfortably together. This is after the Christmas Eve dinner but before the stay-at-home order. Soon, everything will be unprecedented, and nothing will be the same, and so many things will remain unchanged. Soon, I will discover Tao and I are having the same fight on repeat with only the backdrops and inciting incidents changing between scenes. But at the brewery, I push down on my wrist, repositioning as I sip my hazy IPA. I feel the warmth begin to radiate under my tongue. Can you show me her picture? I just want to see her face, to know what she looks like. I promise I won’t get mad.
Six months later, I’ll give up promising, and drinking, and being mad. But first, I will stand drunk and barefoot in the middle of a suburban Minnesota street, long hair with burnt orange ends framing my round face. My body will know what comes next—the familiar melt, the awe of discovering heaven above my head, the welcome exhale of inhibition.
During our second year, when we lived in Shanghai on South MaTou Rd., I worked under the table on a tourist visa at an international preschool while Tao sold MRI machines and turbines and other large metal equipment for General Electric. We didn’t go out much. Mostly, we washed vegetables and planned visa runs and poured over pages and pages of immigration paperwork. Except that one night when Tao’s friend from college came to visit and we took her to an art museum and one of those clubs in a building made of glass filled with beautiful people. The lesbian couple we used to dance with by the free drink table was there. The one we called “pink hair” told me they were breaking up. I scrunched my face and nodded as we refilled our drinks. My body moved mindlessly, drifting through pockets of people dancing, feeling the crowd and the alcohol. I looked through the bodies in motion and saw Tao’s friend wrapping her arms around his neck. Saw them standing still, entangled and kissing.
Our first kiss was in a club in Taipei. When we matched, my Tinder bio read: @ NTU for the summer—everything comes with an expiration date. We met outside 7/11 and took the 捷运 downtown. Later, we shared fries in the taxi and fucked on my twin bed. He was in town for three days, most of which we spent together. One night, we stayed up and walked aimless circles and got a private room at a 24hr karaoke bar. He told me about his girlfriend back in China. I told him, realistically, I’d probably never see him again.
After the drive in the mountains, and the Christmas Eve dinner, and the year of the fight on repeat, we don’t fuck anymore. Not really. Not ever, if we aren’t high. I keep waiting for him to want me. I pretend to be a straight girl, showering and shaving my legs and rubbing flowery lotion over my impossibly smooth skin. He holds my face in his hands—This face, I could look at your face forever. I pull him into me, but his body pulls away. He’s back home after a month-long training program to become a city manager for a Chinese food delivery app. He’ll be gone again in a few days. The city he’s managing is Philly.
Go. It’s not like you have anything to do in Minneapolis. We’ve been apart before.
But now, he’s here, hidden away from my family so he doesn’t expose anyone. Also, I hope, so we can find each other again. It’s one of those late August nights—full and soft, but with an edge of what’s to come. We get high in the bath and lay in bed, letting conversation roll over us. He says something about the way time moves. Something about me and something about the smell of her. The smell of her?
The next morning, we will strap his bike with the yellow wheels on a rack, and I will drive him across the country. In Wisconsin, we will see a rainbow stretched across the sky in our rearview mirrors. In Indiana, my body will forget how to breathe. My eyes will fix on the horizon, hoping each second will pull it a little closer. In Ohio, there will be something heavy and stale and unbearably claustrophobic about the air between us, and the turnpike, and his phone sitting unattended while he sleeps.
Once, we slept next to each other on a bus from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang. We carried pho—ladled by an old woman’s hands into plastic bags, spun quickly midair, and skillfully sealed with rubber bands—in our backpack. When we arrived, not a single band had slipped and we spooned the soup into our open mouths.
Sometime in our fifth year, after the repeat fight and the drive east, my hair will get long and curly and my hands will remember how to twist it into a knot on top of my head. Tao will be in Philly, working and using he/him pronouns and dating a girl from Tinder, and I will walk in a park, passing under streetlamp halos. I will hold my phone to my ear; across the country on a front porch with a wooden banister overlooking a sleepy North Carolina street, my best friend will hold their phone to their ear. I will ask, What if it’s over? What if it’s already gone? What if I don’t want it anymore? Then I will have a first kiss in a garage. And on someone else’s couch. And on my own couch. And on a hillside. I will date a boy who will tell me he loves my feet. I will meet people and tell them I am married and medium divorced. They will laugh. Sometimes they will ask what that means. The world will keep opening and closing. I will perfect the art of gathering spit in my mouth and filling a plastic tube up to the line.
My family will ask when, and then if, Tao is coming home. We will end up living apart for almost a year (except in May, when he will drive his car full of things back across the country and we will sort them into boxes and he will live with my parents for three weeks before leaving again to visit H-Y-Y and his parents in China). I will buy a condo above a coffee shop and the whole building will smell like morning. I will live alone for the first time in five years. I will ban myself from Tinder and spend two months seeing only one friend. On Sundays, we will drive around the city in silence. I will sit in circles of chairs in stuffy rooms and introduce myself to strangers, and we will recite the serenity prayer in unison before shuffling our bodies down carpeted stairs onto a porch filled with people coming or going. In July, my hair will reach down my back. When it is wet, I will use a plastic comb to part it straight down the middle. Then, one night, I will shave it off and go to the roof to feel God, and the wind.
I was married under a blue October sky, on a bridge over the Mississippi River. I didn’t know what love was. I still don’t. But I know water, however soft, is capable of cutting stone. I know there are a million ways to break—but only one way to keep—a promise. I know true does not always mean honest. I know some things I cannot change. That winter just before it all, or just after, on New Year’s Eve, we spread glitter on our faces and lit sparklers in the backyard. I held one in an arc over my head. I posted a photo of myself on Instagram captioned with a line from Andrea Gibson: Just to be clear / I don’t want to get out / without a broken heart. / I intend to leave this life / so shattered / there better be a thousand separate heavens for all my separate parts. Many things have changed—but this, I believe, remains.
Billie Ouellette-Howitz is an emerging writer whose work has appeared in a variety of magazines and literary journals including Calyx, where their essay, “Bent: Daughterhood Recalled Through Skin and Bone,” was first-runner up for the 2019 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing. They use fragmented and experimental literary forms to explore the intersection of brain, body, and identity. They live above a coffee shop with their cats 豆苗 and 豆花 in St. Paul, Minnesota.