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Issue #3 |

Indoor Swap Meet

swap meet

We left at seven in the morning, a grey film over my brain. My mother handed me a steamed bun wrapped in a napkin. I chewed somnambulantly, cataloging the changing landscape as we sped on the 710 South, the 10 East. A pig in a shrunken red cap brandishing a baseball bat, grinning above the chorizo factory. Cal State Los Angeles. The Boca Dharma Seal Temple. New Ave. Budget Inn. Knight’s Inn. Durfee Ave. The indoor swap meet in El Monte. Our destination.

The steamed bun was my favorite thing to eat in the morning. In Mandarin it was called barbarian head, named after a fabled invasion in ancient China. Warriors prepared to take over a village but feared they would be overpowered by the proliferation of villagers, who outnumbered them. The warriors devised a strategy. They made fat steamed buns the size of human heads and impaled them on sticks, brandishing them two in each hand. In the night, as they came over the hill, torches alight with red fire, the bobbing white buns appeared as the heads of extra soldiers, causing the villagers to flee at the sight of such a large and murderous cadre. What you were actually capable of didn’t matter as much as how you appeared to others.

A tenant who lived in the back room of our house had a booth at the swap meet, which my mother worked at on the weekends, earning five dollars an hour to sell shoes. This income, in addition to the three hundred dollars monthly rent, was paid to my mother in cash, as to not interfere with the welfare checks that were nowhere near enough to survive on. Renting and under the table jobs were the only way my mother filled in the wide gaps that welfare left.

We walked past custom airbrushed t-shirts, the faces of real people—who had posed for portraiture and ran off without paying, leaving the t-shirts on display as samples—glowering on them, crying diamonds, hands either clutched in prayer or fisting hugely. A gangster with tender eyes blew smoke out of his mouth, simultaneously inhaling it back into his nose. A bandana knotted around the top of his head like a diaper.

On one side of our booth was clothing, huge stiff jeans, customizable canvas belts, thin black sunglasses that made it clear you were mad-dogging right through them. On the other side was jewelry, gold chains in spools snipped off at the desired length with a pair of rubber-handled pliers, big hoop earrings with your name on it, necklace charms also with your name on it in curly cursive swoops. The indoor swap meet specialty was, apparently, personalization. Having your name or face on something meant it was just for you.

“Not real gold,” my mother whispered. “It’ll make your skin green.”

The kind of gold my mother wore, 72K, was so golden and buttery soft it was malleable in my hands. The ram’s head charm I wore around my neck as a baby was also made from this gold. It had teeth marks all over it, metallurgic in my mouth as I sucked and chewed on it to tranquilize myself to sleep. It became so misshapen that the ram’s kind face morphed into one that closely resembled a satanic amulet, at which point my mother took it away.

I witnessed the saurian green skin myself as young women in sleeveless turtleneck crop tops crowded around the jewelry booth, pulling off rings and unclasping hoops to try on new pieces whose sheens had not yet been rubbed off. Glowing green bands wrapped around ring fingers, dotted earlobes, and snaked around necks, marking their wearers with radiant phosphorescence. The greenness alighting their skin made me think of the hard-boiled tea eggs I loved. The pleasurable surgery of separating the marbled brown flesh from its yolk, the delicate mantle of green parceling its crumbling yellow center.

Our booth sold women’s shoes. Shiny spiked heels, plastic thigh-high boots, clear platforms with straps all the way up the calves. I envisioned mice climbing up the straps like a ladder, jumping up skirts. This was the time of Al Bundy on television, and although my mother obviously wasn’t anything like Al Bundy, the shoe sales connection was hot in the zeitgeist. So we suffered. My mother suffered less, or perhaps not at all, because of her precarious grasp on the English language and nonexistent knowledge of American pop culture. Cries of, Yo Al Bundy, can I getta size nine in these, didn’t produce eye rolls for my mother or humiliation for being allied with the most pathetic eunuch in television history. She cheerily replied, Ok!, and scuttled into the stock area. My mother was perfect for sales. She was endlessly patient and cheerful with strangers, finding in every passing person something to admire.

“Wow cute baby!” she smiled. “Nice color for you, that shirt. You draw your own eyebrows like that every morning by hand? You should be an artist!”

Her own eyebrows were tattooed on, initially a stark and blocky black, but after a decade they had faded into a slight green. She had gotten tattooed at the height of the permanent makeup craze that thrived mainly, it seemed, in the Asian community. Permanent makeup was actually just tattoos on your face. Black eyebrows, red lips, and black eyeliner were most popular. It saved you in three ways: from the time and trouble of applying makeup daily, from the cost of endless makeup purchases, and from the humiliation of showing your naked face to the world in case you had to jump out of bed in the middle of the night during an earthquake. What troubled me about my mother’s eyebrows was that I was unsure whether she even noticed the fat green caterpillars sleeping above her eyes or whether she just didn’t care after all these years. Time was like acid, eating away at perspective and regard for appearances.

My mother’s sincerity was apparent in all the compliments she gave so generously. She was everything I was not. I hated the swap meet. If my mother was unaware of the implications of our surroundings, the company we kept there, or the fact that we sold plastic shoes to prostitutes and strippers, I wouldn’t have doubted it. Or, more likely, she was simply accepting of the situation. She always gave me a few dollars to buy a toy or bracelet, stroking my hair, telling me how much she liked spending time with me. During lunch, she read me Old Master Q comics, whose captions and dialogue were written in Chinese, a language in which I was illiterate. Instead of defaulting to surliness, indignant before we even arrived, my mother was happy to be earning some money. I didn’t like the switchblade and pipe booths or the people that frequented them. I didn’t like sitting on a pile of shoeboxes for hours on end inhaling the plastic and glue chemicals emanating from the shoes. There was nowhere to go, no one to talk to, nothing to see, and worst of all, I felt like everyone was always staring at us. Not because we were a single mother and daughter, not because we were doing anything noteworthy or freakish, but because we were Chinese.

The Korean shopkeepers who sold baseball hats and monogrammed sweatshirts were the only other Asians at the swap meet. We eyed each other as we walked by. Everyone thought we were the same family, the same business. When I told people that we weren’t Korean, most of them didn’t even know what that meant. Huh? they shrugged. Korea, it’s a country? I shrugged.

Forget explaining that we were actually Taiwanese. It wasn’t the Koreans themselves who annoyed us—they were perfectly nice—it was that we were only able to be, in the eyes of other people, who they were capable of understanding us to be. Or willing. This frustration lent itself to making a point to disidentify with the other Asian party, if only interiorly. If we had been passing bodies mistakenly related in a train station, only temporarily bound to one another, it wouldn’t have mattered. Who had time to care about what other people thought? I would have just kept moving. But here, weekend after weekend, customers cross-referenced our booths, assuming we were the same. What about if I get these shoes and the hat over there, can you give me a discount? Your husband said if I paid cash he wouldn’t charge me tax. And so it went.

*

My mother busied herself with tidying the booth and taking inventory in the stock area. She worked while making jokes with me. Hey, look at that lady’s hair. It looks like a metal sponge. (She meant a Brillo Pad.) I bet she washes her dishes with it, what a way to save money! She came out of the back tottering in red stilettos. Hey, look at my new shoes! Most of the time she was like this, silly and loving. Then there were the times she broke down into her other self, the one that screamed at me, pulling out her hair and collapsing on the ground, bawling. A part of me blamed myself when she turned. It was my fault for making her so angry, for misbehaving. But whatever it was that I had done to cause the mutation in her never seemed proportional to her reaction. I watched the Hulk on television. I read fables about werewolves, collecting references.

After my mother left my father when I was five, her skin turned yellow. Dark rings circled her eyes prominently as if to point out the suffering in her eyes. Her hair was frizzy and dry. She didn’t speak, she only cried. It scared me to be alone with her, which, aside from being at school, was all the time. Someone had done this to her. It hadn’t happened on its own. Your father, she cried. Mine. My father. No relation to her anymore. Just me. The deadbeat who had relegated my mother to servitude, making her massage his feet and detail his car with a tampon because it was absorbent and could reach into smaller crannies. The deadbeat who could yell louder than a shrieking train ripping through a metal sky, and who did it often.

My mother began going to therapy. She called the therapist her interior heart doctor, the doctor that sought access to the remote feelings of her innermost heart. What was inside my mother’s heart? What tender and black parts shared the same tissue? What part and how much of her heart belonged to me? Inside my own heart, I feared, was a vast and hollow cavity, not the result of decay, but of poverty, the creation of a sham marriage based upon deceit. When I was born, my mother found a letter from my father’s father asking him how long he had to stay married in order to get a green card. The answer was six years, the length my parents’ marriage endured, but in the end it was she who left him. The abuse had caused her to lose her mind.

As my mother’s skin slowly lost its yellow tint, she returned to the world of the living again. We went on road trips, camping, to Yosemite, to San Francisco where we shared bowls of hot clam chowder in crusty sourdough bread bowls, hair whipping in the bay’s briny blusters. It was just the two of us. It was around this time, nearly three years after my parents’ divorce, that my mother became a body capable of loving. Before that, I had only witnessed her as a woman so sad and afraid that she learned to empty herself out, achieving a dependable, etheric remove. I thought that she had at last resumed her real self, but unbeknownst to me at that time, this self was not stable. It would suddenly shift between the bifurcated stations of her spectral and regenerated selves.

At the shoe store, my mother attended to two girlfriends who insisted on trying on twenty pairs of shoes each. Just hearing them, the impatient way they were speaking to my mother, was unbearable. Why is eight and a half too small and nine too big? Cheap-ass shoes, they rolled their eyes at each other while my mother scrambled back and forth from the stock area. This wasn’t Barney’s. This wasn’t Hermés. If they didn’t want cheap-ass shoes they shouldn’t be at the indoor swap meet in El Monte. My mother didn’t notice either their acute condescension or my expanding vexation. How about these, or these? Her arms were piled so high with boxes that she could barely see over them.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I went for a lap around the swap meet. I tried on bandanas, tying them around my head the way I’d seen people wearing them. I picked up a heavy silver object shaped like an outline of four round eggs balancing on a squat vase. The shopkeeper laughed. Here, he said, threading his fingers through the holes in the metal. It was like four connected rings on his clenched fist. He punched the metal fist at his own head. Pow, it’s gonna hurt like that. Smash your face in. That’s a bone breaker. I tried it. But my hand was too small.

In one booth hundreds of photocopied tape covers wallpapered the metal grates erected as makeshift walls. Photos of cholos squatting in front of and beside airbrushed lowriders were taped to the surface of the desk like a collage.

“Hey girlie, you like rap?” the two young guys perched on stepladders chuckled. One wore denim overalls, just like the ones I had, only his were big enough to house all three of our bodies together, and they were stapled at the bottom cuffs.

“I like rap,” I agreed shyly, which caused them to double over and slap their knees. I pulled on my jeans, which had recently gotten too small for me and was giving me a wedgie.

Highwaters! the boys cried at school, running by kicking power balls past my ankles.

“Aw, don’t cry,” the guy in overalls said. He crouched in front of me and smiled. Soft black fuzz sprouted from his upper lip like a gentle mold.

“I’m not crying,” I crossed my arms.

“What kinda rap you like?”

I shrugged. I wasn’t even sure I really liked rap. I had just said I did in an attempt to not sound naïve. I guess some rap made me feel kind of tough, like it could give me the courage to say, What’re you looking at? to people walking by staring at me and my mother. All of a sudden I felt like there were hundreds of eyes trained on me. I heard laughing inside the buzz of the fluorescent lights. I walked back.

*

In the booth, a pile of shoes and shoeboxes lay in disarray like a giant paw had smacked it all down. My mother was on the phone with my uncle, a towering man who chased my cousin with a plastic Hot Wheels track around the house, whipping his face, his bare legs, anywhere my uncle could land a hit, while my cousin ran, skidding into rooms in his socks, trying to slide under the bed or duck into the closet, always unsuccessfully. I thought my cousin would be a good baseball player with that much practice sliding and running.

I crouched alongside my mother sifting shoes, matching the right shoe to its partner. When we finished, my mother sat on the folding chair and huffed her inhaler while I stacked the boxes in the back. It was an endless, Sisyphean process. Taking the shoes out, putting them back.

Most of the time no one bought anything. It was more an exercise of power than actual intent to purchase shoes. This had been the case with the two girlfriends.

Arranging the shoeboxes in the back was no easy task. None of the boxes had labels on them, and I had to open each box to figure out what size the shoe was, what style and color. I had an idea. I hunkered down, cross-legged in the middle of all the boxes, and set out to label each of them. Size 7. Size 8. Size 12. Red. Black. I studied a pair of see-though plastic platforms. Clear, I wrote. I was breezing through the work. But what about style? I didn’t know how to name them by style. I could draw them. I propped up a single thigh-high boot with a spike heel. Uh oh. The boot I’d drawn looked more like a shaky state, a trembling Florida. It didn’t resemble a shoe at all. I tried again on another box with similar results. Well, I had already begun and now I would have to do all the rest so that they’d be labeled consistently. I looked up at the mountain ranges surrounding me. What had I gotten myself into? A feeling of dread weakened my arms. I felt light, floating and sinking at the same time.

After a half hour, I had only finished ten boxes. I didn’t want to do it anymore. My wrists were sore. My eyes hurt from straining in the dim lighting. I stood up, stretching.

“Hey!” my mother yelled. It wasn’t the kind of hey that rose up at the middle cheerfully. It was a downward slash. I shrunk into myself. I saw her rounding the corner with a rolled up copy of Old Master Q in her raised hand. Down I went into the stack of shoeboxes I’d just finished. I collapsed so easily it was like my legs were two stacks of wood blocks. My cheek stung, burning, as if my mother had slathered her hand in hot sauce before striking me.

“What did you do?” my mother bent down for another whack. I buried my head in my arms like I’d seen my cousin do when my uncle approached snapping Hot Wheels tracks.

I started crying. I couldn’t help it. I bawled into the sleeves of my sweatshirt, not caring who heard. I knew I had ruined the clean white shoeboxes. Smack, smack! Old Master Q struck repeatedly. Additional strikes hit my side, my thigh. Through my jeans, they didn’t hurt as much. She kept yelling, now in Mandarin. I’m going to beat you to death. This was a common phrase. To death. It could apply to anything. I am hungry to death. I am tired to death. You stink to death.

“How could you do this to me? You ungrateful… why don’t you just kill me?”

She paused, wheezing. Her asthma always flared up when she was yelling at me. I looked through a slit between my arms. She threw Old Master Q on the floor and stood back, one hand clutching her throat, the other still gesturing wildly as if she was determined to finish a large abstract painting as she asphyxiated. I sat up, safe knowing that she was not capable of hitting me in this state.

“It isn’t even our business do you understand? You ruined—” she wheezed.

“It’s not my fault!” I blurted out. “I was trying to help…”

“You dare talk back to me?” She hit me again.

With this new whack on my already-burning cheek, my resentment gave way to anger. She didn’t have the right to do this to me. It was my body. It didn’t belong to her. What if I hit her? This was child abuse. I envisioned police storming in and handcuffing my mother. I envisioned myself, a scowling face on an airbrushed t-shirt, nostrils flared, metal-fisted. Pow, it’s gonna hurt like that. Smash your face in.

“You’re the one who brings me to this place,” I yelled back. I didn’t care anymore. Everyone listened up. I had something to say. “I never wanted to come here. This place is bad. You bring me here every weekend. You’re a bad mother.”

My mother’s face hardened. I was so familiar in the topography of this face I could sculpt it perfectly in ten seconds with any material at hand. Her whole face deadened, with the exception of her mouth, which calloused like the desiccated rind of a lemon in an old bowl of potpourri. This was when I hardened too, matching her face. Hardening was more than a topographical maneuver. It was an inner state of being. All the entropic flotsam inside me dissolved. I was empty of feeling, clear inside, like the platform heels we sold, able to face and endure anything. If she wanted to slap me again, go for it. If she wanted to yell at me, I’d jeer her on and gather a crowd around.

“Get out of here,” my mother said coldly. “Leave. Why don’t you call your father. We know how much he cares about you. I sacrifice everything for you. It’s my fault. I spoil you. I made you like this.”

She was right. About my father. He didn’t care about me. After the divorce, he disappeared, resurfacing once a year in the form of a truncated phone call or a five-minute drive-by where he’d leave his car running at the curb. No alimony, no child support, no birthday calls.

*

I walked out into the daylight, wincing. The sun scraped across my eyes like old crusty windshield wipers. My eyes stung. I couldn’t see anything, only white pockets of light like energy bursting in midair. It was like this was something that was always occurring, but invisible to my eyes, and now I was imbued with the power to see this imperceptible frequency. I rubbed my eyes. When my vision returned I was disappointed. Why not become blind, seeing only mystical pockets of energy? I was no good in this world anyway. I would never be anything more than the girl who lays in a pile of plastic shoes crying. In an indoor swap meet. In El Monte. What choices would I have in life that would lead me away from who I was? I wanted to be a real person. I wanted the freedom to decide my own fate. I wanted to be untied from the albatross that was my father. All this was theirs. What they made. The rotting house we lived in, the rotating door of Taiwanese tenants, the welfare, the injustice of being an American child born to parents from the old world. But I wasn’t entirely American. I was too Chinese to be American and I was too American to be Chinese. Instead of feeling like both, I felt like neither, a thing that belonged to itself, defined only by its deficiency. I wanted to run away from this preformed life and into one of my own making where I could be the person I knew myself to be. One day. I would. I would be my own person.

I walked down the wide boulevard, six lanes separated by a concrete median. Cars sped by with large screeching mufflers, pitching higher and higher until my ears screamed back in revolt. I didn’t stray from this side of the boulevard, afraid to cross the freeway-like street. I walked past a fast food place, freshly painted a deep blackish red with a sloping, low roof. The smell of fried chicken radiated from it. Hunger pressed itself against my belly, indenting it with the heaviness of a bowling ball. I stared at the building, transfixed. It occurred to me that the paint could have been derived from the blood of the chickens themselves, wide paintbrushes dipping into hot buckets of thick black blood. A tub-shaped man, stunted and bulging at the waist, pushed out the door, staring at me. He trundled down the sidewalk, craning back to look at me. Suddenly I was afraid. Any second now, he would turn back around and rush me. I could feel my body being yanked into the trunk of a rusting sedan.

I ran two long industrial blocks back to the parking lot of the indoor swap meet. Once inside its perimeter, the fear of the outside world was immediately replaced by the fear of my mother, who, I’d temporarily forgotten, had cast me out. The afternoon sun raged above. All the windshields of the cars in the parking lot reflected the sunlight onto my face. I crouched beneath an awning at the side of the building. Soon, the sun moved, taking with it the shade, exposing me. I walked over to the taco stand where two old ladies were grilling meat. One lady patted a stack of small tortillas with one hand while pushing chunks of meat around with a pair of metal tongs. The other woman stirred a plastic tub of green salsa flecked with cilantro. The salsa looked cool and serene. I wanted to dive into it and swim around. It was a hundred degrees in the flat wasteland of the San Gabriel Valley. The only thing I’d had to eat all day was a single steamed bun and a carton of soymilk. I stood there, hoping the women would notice me and give me a taco. I shuffled back and forth noisily. It worked. They noticed me. But instead of offering me food, they shooed me away with their dry hands, hissing like small animals.

Someone squeezed my shoulder. I jumped, crying out weakly.

“It’s just me girlie.” It was the guy in the overalls. He put his hands on my shoulders, turning me around. “You better go inside. Your mama’s looking for you.”

Hesitatingly, I followed him. I was still afraid. My heart rose up into my throat, a barren elevator. I swallowed again and again. He led me to the booth where my mother sat staring blankly like a zombie. She hadn’t been looking for me. She was just sitting there, blanked out like her old self. Each time I saw her like this I was terrified I’d lost her again, this time forever. The girlfriends had returned. They put my mother through the grueling process again, sending her to the back to retrieve shoes. When my mother came out after the third lap, the women were gone. So were the shoes. Six empty shoeboxes. Six pairs of fifteen ninety-nine shoes plus tax. My mother didn’t want the tenant to find out that she’d been fooled. It wouldn’t look good. She would lose face. She might not be trusted to work the booth anymore, and we needed the extra four hundred dollars she made every month here. The car needed new brakes. My mother needed a root canal and the California Medical Assistance Program didn’t cover dental. She would have to swallow the cost, pretending that the shoes had been sold rather than stolen, and pay out of her own pocket. It was over twenty hours of work, but what else could she do?

I pressed my nails into my palms until a white glare shot up my arms. I should have been here with her. This was my fault. If I had been here, we wouldn’t have to work for free for the next two weeks, we wouldn’t have to lie. I had betrayed her. I had belittled her. I had disparaged her. For what? For working ten-hour days, for buying me new tennis shoes while she wore my aunt’s old castoffs, for kneeling before others invisible to their eyes. I dropped my hands to my side. I didn’t want to be my own person anymore. I only wanted to belong to my mother.

My mother’s wiry hair fell into her eyes. Her face was swollen, arid and strange, grey under the fluorescent lights like the ancient crust of a whale’s skin. She clutched the fingers of one hand with the other, twisting, as if she could wring something useful from it, something that would save us.

Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer Khalzuri Yazid

Sarah Wang has written for BOMB, n+1, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Joyland, Catapult, Conjunctions, Stonecutter Journal, The Third Rail, Ugly Duckling Presse, semiotext(e)’s Animal Shelter, Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder, The Shanghai Literary Review, Black Clock, Performa Magazine, Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon, and The Last Newspaper at the …

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