“Expulsion, Moon, and Firelight,” oil on canvas, by Thomas Cole, ca. 1828.

by Grace Shuyi Liew

I’ve been restless all day. It’s the first Tuesday of the month, which means we have our monthly team motivation town hall. Nothing ever happens in these meetings but dubious clapping and corporate bullshit. Last month, someone brought in a gong. Since then it’s been the ritual to ring the gong for every birthday, baby shower, daily sales target achievement, wedding announcement, any reason really. As soon as I’m released to the store floor, I turn against the company. I scan every third item the customers bring to the register. Buy one item, get two free, corporate can suck it. Usually the customers don’t even notice. They are scrolling their phones, minding a toddler, bickering with their wives or husbands. When it comes time to pay, they dig around for a card as they eye the total amount on the little screen. That’s when their eyes shift. They stand up taller. They grow eager to get out of the store before I realize my deliberate mistake, willing to make a run for it if it comes down to that. The unspoken rapport gets my little heart going too.

Han’s eyes bulge into saucers right from the start. They grow bigger when she sees me throw her baby socks and eye drops and whatever into the plastic bag without scanning them. I think, oh no. She’s one of those. She’s going to cry out loud that there’s been a mistake and ask to pay the correct prices. The kind who throbs for a gold star from God. They drive me nuts with their superiority complexes.

I casually roll a peach along the conveyor belt as I stare at her, daring her to say something.

She smiles slowly, asks, how’s your day so far?

Right away, I know she’s the kind of girl who is going to mess me up. She’s dressed sparsely, no coat, even though it’s forty degrees outside. The front of her orange hoodie says SLEEP in block letters, though there is nothing sleepy about her eyes, burning hot as they stare back at me. She’s in leggings and a dirty pair of Uggs. Her jet black hair, combed back, has that Kim Kardashian-esque wet look, Kim’s signature style during her Pete Davidson era. The last time I met someone this intense in a Target was when they actually pulled out a gun to rob a register. I was a trainee, on my third or fourth day, and almost peed my pants. The gun turned out to be fake, but the gunman had that same look in his eyes.

Fine, I say, looking away from her killer eyes. I aim the lone peach into the plastic bag, held agape by metal sticks, and shoot. Slam dunk. How’s yours? I ask.

Bit rough, but you know, Han says. Just life.

The way she says this, like it’s a comment on the day’s weather, blue skies in paradise, makes it hard to feel sorry for her. I bite my tongue to stop myself from asking more questions.

Totally, I say.

Han shrugs and stays quiet. When I am done packing up her groceries, she taps her credit card on the scanner and starts collecting her bags.

I’m only working here to pay my school fees, you know, I say. I’m not just a cashier.

Han raises an eyebrow. What a relief, she says. You’re not a very good cashier.

Okay, I say.

How about I repay your kindness? She asks. You saved me a good chunk of change here.

What do you mean?

I was thinking of dinner, Han says. She sets the grocery bags down again and fishes out a name card from her wallet.

I take the card and wave it in the air. This right here makes you look very ancient, I say. In the future you might want to stop handing out name cards to strangers.

Is that a yes, Han asks. A smile.

I look past her and yell, next customer!

When my shift ends, I look up Han’s full name. I find an accountant and a doctor. I don’t see Han. I text her to ask if she’s considered something called an online presence.

Thanks for the pro tip, she texts back. She sends me a link to her law firm, where I see her photo above the title Junior Associate Attorney. She’s wearing a black blazer and button-up shirt underneath. I see that I’ve misspelled her name by one letter. Her lawyer profile says she enjoys learning about wine, volunteering, and snowboarding in her free time. I don’t know any other Asian who enjoys snowboarding except for Chloe Kim, who’s famous and doesn’t count.

Now show me your online presence, she texts again.

I hem and haw for a while. I tell Han I am many things. I went back to school to study acting after many unfulfilling years doing this and that. I’m quite serious about being an actress.

Stick around and find out more, why don’t you.

Han sends links to three different restaurants and asks me about this Friday. I click on the links. They all show at least three dollar signs, which makes them all the same to me. Han looks like someone who pays for dinner, and someone who likes her date to make decisions.

I pick the Korean option.

We text nonstop for the next three days. By the time Friday rolls around, I know that Han is thirty-five, she has a six-year-old son, she’s been single for a year, she grew up in Orlando, Florida and moved to New York when she was eleven after her mother remarried a carpet magnate, she’s only recently able to have a somewhat okay relationship with her mother, and her father died when she was very young in a plane crash. He was flying a single-engine Cessna. It was sheer idiocy, Han said. He ignored the blinking fuel gauge, thinking he could land before the fuel ran out. What was he thinking? It took three years for the life insurance policy to conclude their investigation that no foul play was involved, during which life was very, very hard on her mother, her brother, and her. But after that they entered a new social strata of rich-ish people, the kind that went on vacations to the Caribbean, which was where Han’s mother met the even-richer carpet magnate.

I can’t relate to the pain of losing someone to a plane crash, but I almost tell Han I can understand what her father was thinking. I regularly drive around with my fuel icon glaring bright orange. The buffer zone. It’s the thrill of racing against some invisible ticker. Once, I really did run out of fuel in the middle of a freeway. When I stepped on the gas pedal, it sank cleanly into the floor while my car slowed down. It gave me a rare sensation of surrender, the kind that sinks its teeth into your flesh and pulls you under a rip tide. The driver behind me screeched to a halt and bolted out of his car, full of anger, before he helped me push my car into the shoulder of the freeway. I decide against telling Han the story. The way she cups her fat wine glass, her fingers splaying open into the shape of a bowl, makes me feel another kind of surrender. She asks me if I am enjoying the wine. I nod. She tells me about the time she visited a vineyard in the south of France, how they measured a grape’s ripeness with a special device, how there is something to be said about how everything these days can be measured to perfection, even sweetness.

Even sweetness, I say, sweetly.

The food comes in small flat plates. It’s like eating on mini butcher blocks made of stone. Even the banchan are laid neatly on stone blocks. Han pays the bill with the kind of sureness that tells me I don’t have to even pretend to touch my purse, which makes me want to kiss her even more. I wait until we are out on the sidewalk. She puts a hand around my waist and pulls me in, kissing me back. Her warm tongue grazes my lips once, then stays obediently in her mouth for the rest of the kiss, which lasts the entire duration it takes for the valet to return with her car. For a dangerous second I believe I’ve never wanted anyone more in my life.

She starts driving toward my apartment to send me home.

I don’t say anything until Han asks, is everything okay?

Her voice, full of care in the darkness, makes me almost want to cry. I ask to go to her house. I feel like a lamb, loose-limbed and mewling. She starts to say something, then catches herself, and keeps driving until we are in front of my building.

Come over on Sunday, she says. I’ll make you brunch. Tonight I have my kid with me.

She cups my face like a bowl and gently rubs her nose against mine.

The next morning, I go to a nearby coffee shop to meet a group of women who have decided to have children while unpartnered. Single mothers by choice. We text nearly everyday in a group chat and try to meet once a month. I am what they call an aspiring mother. I want to have kids in the next two years, after I give my acting career a real shot. The mothers in the group all tell me our world is not our mother’s world. Women are having kids well into their forties, especially in a place like New York. The doctors are practically swimming in geriatric pregnancy cases. We are the new norm.

Han thinks I’m twenty-six, because I have a habit of telling people I’m twenty-six. I am thirty-one years old. I go to these meetings because I don’t know how to come to a firm decision. Everyone tells me when you know you know. So I go every month, just to wait for the you know feeling to hit me.

I eat my egg sandwich and share a conversation with Michelle’s two-year-old. She’s just learned how to say “no” and “boobs.” After repeating those words for the umpteenth time, she flashes a toothy smile and sprints off to the other end of the table. Michelle is pregnant again by the same sperm donor, so her two-year-old will have a biological sibling. Michelle plans ahead like that. She runs the group’s Brooklyn charter and stays on top of coordinating our meetups. Coffeeshops, park picnics, bookstore event spaces, back rooms of nonprofit offices. You can trust Michelle to keep it fresh.

It’s important to stay connected with other people who share similar ambitions and struggles, she loves to say.

Sonya has brought her four-month-old. It’s the first time she’s shown up since the baby’s delivery, which she tells us was very rough. She lost three pints of blood. The baby, wrapped in a swaddle, looks as fresh as a warm muffin. I take in his newborn smell as I caress the soft of his head. There’s a small dent at the top where the skull has not yet fully hardened.

Sonya laughs, a baby is a whole life trapped inside a very breakable shell.

At that, Keisha cries softly. She bounces Sonya’s baby on her lap as she tells us she got her period yesterday. Again. She’s been doing IUI for a full year now. Every month, she goes to the doctor’s office to get injected with sperm. She’s so blue, she’s thinking of taking the next month off. Everyone agrees. Go wild, live a little. Keisha cheers up. Maybe she will take a break. She can’t remember the last time she’s had a drink or a vacation. The next logical step for her is IVF, which will cost at least twenty thousand dollars that she doesn’t have. We tell her not to give up. The next time could be the one. IUI takes patience. Rome was not built in a day.

After the meeting, I walk for an hour and a half to what appears to be an office building to audition for a role in a SUV commercial. I did the voiceover for their radio ad last year. The editor told me he’d keep an eye out for any castings, and texted me last week to come to this one. The whole thing goes by quickly. After I say a few lines, smile in different directions, I am told to wait for a callback. The money is better than expected. It’s three o’clock when I step back out onto the street. I put my earmuffs on and walk for fifty minutes until I reach the Brooklyn Bridge station. I ride the subway into Manhattan. I don’t like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge because it makes me want to run the length of the bridge just to get to the other side faster, in case the bridge falls into the water. An irrational fear. There is something macabre about the feeling of being trapped in open air. I arrive very early at the hotel, so I read for two hours in the lobby on my Kindle. It’s a book about a boy in a Turkish village who has set out on a quest to look for his birth mother. His journey takes him across many towns. He encounters a traveling dance troupe, a talking lion, a red-lipped seductress, and a very old man who digs wells for a living.

It’s a gift, to smell the earth and know where water resides.

Mark shows up at six o’clock sharp. He kisses the top of my head from behind. I order fish and a gingery mocktail. He orders seafood pasta. It’s hard to explain Mark. I met him years ago, when my roommate Becca, a painter, worked briefly as a cam girl. I went with her to meet one of her fans IRL—a gallerist and her most generous tipper. Becca wanted to pretend we were lesbians in case the gallerist had the wrong idea. She was looking for advice from him about putting out her own gallery show, nothing funny. After a polite dinner, the three of us went into a dark bar and took rounds of Jameson shots.

The gallerist disappeared into the bathroom every twenty minutes.

The night ended at his midtown condo, when Mark, who lived next door, knocked on the door. It was 2am. The speakers were blaring. Becca was fast asleep, topless, on the white leather couch. The gallerist stumbled to the door and shouted in Mark’s face. I shook Becca awake and dressed her.

“Where’s my purse?” she cried out.

The gallerist turned toward us. His sweaty face contorted in a cocaine rage as he called us dykes, scammers, talentless hacks. Mark walked into the living room, turned the music off, and pointed to Becca’s purse, slung across a white chair next to the couch.

Becca quit camming after the gallerist promised her a solo show in return for an exclusive relationship. When I looked her up again a couple months ago, I saw that she was now dating an even more famous gallerist, whose last name was ubiquitous in the art world. Her paintings now sell for six figures. I continued the ruse of being a lesbian, cruising bars and online apps, until I could no longer call it a ruse. Mark and I stayed in touch. He’s a Bronx-bred Jewish former lawyer who founded a film production company and sometimes sends me money for no reason at all. Over the years, we’ve established a comfortable routine of having dinner every three or four months. He’d talk about his English Poodle’s health problems, his incompetent staff, his latest sexual exploits with the next hot talent in music or film or art. I never blink at his outrageous stories. I’m the closest to a tithe to the poor as he can get without actually believing in god. I see the noblesse oblige look on his face kissing the ass of god whenever he asks after my life, which he likes to tell me is just waiting to happen. So far, he hasn’t tried to sleep with me, but I’m not clueless. I don’t drink around Mark.

How’s life at the great Tar-jay? Mark asks.

The last frontier of late-stage capitalism, I say, as I sip on my Ginger Mocktini.

I don’t know why you do that to yourself, Mark says. You can be so much more. Anything you want, you can get.

I tell him not to worry his big little head off. I tell him about my day. The meeting in the morning with the single mothers by choice. The audition. The wait. For the feeling of when you know you know. By the end of dinner, he promises to send me something to add to the baby fund.

On Sunday morning, I lay out my most domestic-chic options on the bed and settle on a white wool jumper, black jeans, beige-colored leg warmers that come up to my knees, and a pair of platform loafers. I turn down Han’s offer to order me a cab. Three blocks out, I change my mind. I circle back home to peel off the leg warmers. I switch out the loafers with combat boots. I wipe down the boots and spray it with an all-weather protectant before I set out again. It takes an hour and forty minutes to walk to the West Village. By the time I arrive in the neighborhood, the sun has thawed off last night’s snow. I take off my coat to let the sweat wick off my body before I get to Han’s apartment. The sidewalks are slick. Water drips from somewhere above me. The eateries are noisy with brunch-goers, wrapped in Canada Goose jackets and navy pea coats. I smell trash and croissants. Coffee and piss. I reach an Italian restaurant and press a button to the left of the entrance.

Han buzzes me in.

It’s a little second floor walk-up with a cramped foyer that opens into a majestic living room. Han kisses me and takes my coat. The house is tidy, fresh flowers on the kitchen counter, crowning a blissful clutter of pancake batter and squeezed orange rinds. In the entirety of my existence, no one has ever squeezed fresh orange juice for me before. By hand. Han pours me a glass. She wipes the damp of my forehead with a little tea towel. Nice walk? I look at her in awe. We are standing under an arched doorway. Is that a mistletoe? Han has her short hair in two French braids, like a martial arts fighter. I have no idea how I am finally starring in the tv show of my own life. Light is coming at us from a window somewhere. It doesn’t matter. Han looks like an old master oil painting, her edges feathered and warm. The air around her has an aged quality to it. We are from a time elsewhere. She apologizes for being disheveled and smelly. She’s just rushed back from Barry’s right after dropping her kid off at her mother’s, and didn’t have time to shower.

What’s Barry’s, I ask.

It’s a workout class.

Oh, yeah?

I set my orange juice glass down and reach under her shirt. Her midriff is soft and still damp with sweat. I inch upward and find more softness. I lift her shirt up. She raises her arms to take it off all the way. When I taste her skin, salt spikes my tongue. We leave a trail of clothes on the way to the bedroom. The way she uses her tongue and her fingers on me is as if every muscle in her body is etched with tenderness. Her movements animalistic but restrained. The two of us tumble until I feel her close in on all sides. I am engulfed. Held closer than a private thought inside her mind. The bed takes us in for an eternity. We decide to shower. Under the water, we cradle each other some more. Han hands me a thick robe and a pair of fluffy slippers. She shows me the hairdryer before pattering out to the kitchen to finish up the pancakes.

I sit at her miniature vanity table.

Her scattered collection of rings, two colognes, and a novel. It’s the same one I’m reading, with the man who digs up wells. If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is. I see a plastic car and a metal train, both small, on the table too. I try on her rings. Admire them with my fingers stretched taut in front of me. I take them all off except for one. A thin copper band. I wonder if she got it for herself, or if a lover gave it to her.

Where did she get it? A crafts market? A jeweler?

I shout coming! when Han calls. The egg yolk runs perfect and bright yellow when I pierce it. We leave a mess of dishes in the sink and fall into the couch. It’s the softest couch I have ever sat on. The clean color of thick cream, as if there are no children in the house. Something pokes my shin. Another toy car in between the soft cushions. Han takes it from me and aims it into the toy bin in front of the tv. We watch a new k-drama about a group of noodle sellers who moonlight as demon catchers. I bury my face in Han’s robe during the gory scenes. She brushes my hair, lifts my chin, and kisses me. We take each other’s robes off. The day fades into an early darkness. Han’s son is at her mother’s for a week.

We crawl into bed together by 8pm and fall asleep in the nest of each other’s heat.

The next day Han leaves for work at 7am. I stay at her place and practice lines for an audition. It’s for a student short film, no pay, but the student is the daughter of a famous director, and the role calls for an Asian lesbian. She’s a nurse and has a messy dating life. I call in sick at Target. I look online for cheaper alternatives to IUI and find a fertility midwife who does in-home insemination for $300. All I have to do is order the sperm, which costs $700 after I use a discount code. I eat celery sticks and crab dip from Han’s fridge. Prosciutto and cans of oat milk coffee. The Asian lesbian nurse is Canadian, so I practice my Canadian accent. Mark keeps his word. I get a notification about a deposit. When Han comes home, she brings takeout from the Italian restaurant downstairs. I ask her about the book she’s reading.

Which book?

The one with the man who digs up wells, I say.

I decide against telling her it’s a sign. Save it for down the line, when we are asked about our first date, what sealed it for me. Well keep reading on, I say, it gets really good. Shan tells me she doesn’t really have time to read these days. She talks about a new case. She thinks it’s a no-go. A group of women, all harassed by this guy, wants to file a suit against him. Except they are not officially his employees. #Metoo will not trend for another three years. Who will believe them?

I feel taken into confidence. I share my own secret with Han. The sperm donor I have chosen is a nineteen-year-old British Chinese guy who enjoys silent films and is finishing up a Mathematics degree. I play a clip of his voice for Han. His voice sounds faraway, reassuring as a news report.

I ordered three vials, to start.

Don’t worry, I say, I don’t plan to use them right away. The bank will hold on to them and keep them properly frozen. It’s part of my two-year plan. I’m not ready now, but I’m readying myself to be ready. Han looks at me intently. I feel teeth surfacing in my eyes, ready to rebuke anything, but Han smiles and says, thank you for sharing.

We kiss.

I clean the kitchen. We watch more episodes of the demon catchers before falling into bed. I stay at Han’s for the rest of the week. Charmaine and Gladys cover my shifts at Target. School is out for the holidays. I ask for an extension to complete my final project. I explain to the professor that it’s contingent on hearing back about the nurse role. I wear Han’s thick robes and organic cotton sweaters. I launder my own clothes in her in-unit washer and dryer. I steam the creases out of my clothes with her chrome steamer. I make orange juice with her hand-squeezing tool. I listen to the British Chinese guy’s voice over and over. He talks about how when he was a child, he loved splashing in rain puddles. That earned him the nickname Puddle. I imagine red rain boots, yellow umbrella, a see-through poncho. Every night, Han brings home takeout for dinner. On Wednesday, Han gets a little too drunk and starts talking about Mark, the guy with the impending lawsuit. I wonder if it’s the same Mark I know. She has decided to accept the case.

I’m not supposed to tell you any of this, she says, but it’s not like our circles overlap anyway.

We go to bed early and wake up when it’s still dark outside. It’s a miracle to wait by the balcony and watch the morning light pour in. The day blooms. I kiss Han goodbye when she leaves for work. I land the nurse role. I print out my lines with Han’s printer and begin memorizing them. The tall windows carry a calm light throughout the day. I have never seen sunny winters like this. I think of a life big enough for the person I have inside me. I finish watching the demon catcher series by myself. I mute the scary parts. I clip my nails with Han’s nail clippers. It’s hard to resist my own imagination. The two of us, sharing our body’s fluids, our discarded nails, our sleep sweats and night murmurs, all the vicissitudes of a merged life.

I wash my hair with her shampoo, customized with her name on the label. I dig around the basket for the conditioner. That’s when I see it. A bottle labeled with another name. The contents are nearly full. Did her ex leave it there? I step out of the shower to go into the bedroom, my body dripping wet from the shower, and crack open the novel. It’s dog-eared about a-third of the way in. By this point the man has dug up wells across many different villages. I don’t dry myself. I climb under the covers and start reading from the bookmarked page. My wet fingers crinkle up the pages. Evidence of my touch. The well digger is confronted by a teenage boy who wants to be his apprentice. He does his best to scare the boy off, who doesn’t give up. I don’t get out of bed for many hours. I tear up random pages of the book then slot the torn pages in haphazard order back into the book. I fall asleep hugging the book. Han comes home and climbs into bed with me.

You’re all warm and toasty, she says. She puts the book back onto the night stand and starts reaching for my body.

On Friday, I answer the door in Han’s bathrobe. A woman is holding a child’s hand. What are you doing, she says. The child’s round cheeks are patchy and red. He’s dressed warmly, in a white parka and tiny gloves. Some flecks of pastry around his wet mouth. I almost reach down to wipe them off. Instinct. What are you doing with a married woman, she says again. I don’t say anything. The child smiles and asks, Is Umma home?

I close the door to their faces.

Han texts me ten minutes later. Let’s go out to dinner tonight. Switch it up.

I change out of the ridiculous bathrobe. At 6pm, Han sends a car that takes me to a restaurant in midtown. A noisy Pocha, unlike her usual vibe. It’s dark and not in a romantic way. We eat a seafood stew bubbling over a gas stove and drink frozen beer. Han keeps ordering. Her face flushes with drink. She says something about having her kid too early. Something about not being ready. Bad decisions she’s made. I strain to hear her. I say very few words in return. She’s wearing the white silk shirt I steamed for her this morning. When I held down the neck opening to get the crease to stick, the steam almost burned my fingers. She says the word sorry. I don’t have any questions for her. People move around our table in blurry shadows. Han jumps whenever their hips bump the table. Tight space. I forget where I am. Han can’t stop talking. Eight men at the table next to us cheer as they dunk their soju shots into their beer mugs. Han reaches for my hand. I get up for the bathroom. The line is eight people-long.

While I wait, I send Mark a text to ask if he’s made any enemies lately. He calls me back right away. I let it go to voicemail.

When I return, I see that the tab has been paid. Han is gone. I finish Han’s beer, then my beer, then the bottle of soju. I eat the octopus tentacles, rice balls, mackerel flesh. I finish the seafood stew. Everything blurs. I stumble out into the snow, forgetting my hat and gloves. All my desires are laid bare again, but I don’t feel cold. Something flashes in the corner of my eye. A group of girls are taking photos in front of a shop window displaying a neon ice cream cone. They ask me to take a photo for them. I do. Their laughter echoes brightly against the blurry everything. I walk past the bright throng of Manhattan. I slip my moorings and veer onto the Brooklyn Bridge. The shrieks and cries of the world fall away as I walk into the sky. A subway train rattles by, noiseless. I press play on the voice clip again. The mathematician talks about the magic of faraway galaxies. The beauty of mathematical proofs. Despite his scientific disposition, evidence of life on earth is ultimately something to be felt, not proven. For the qualia of life is this unfalsifiable thing called love. That’s why he is doing this.

Whoever hears this out there, he says, your time will come. And when it comes, you will know for sure that you have always known.

Bile rises. I slam both hands into the metal fence on the side of the bridge and bowl over. The contents of my stomach appear by my feet. I taste the wind. Bitter, sour. Flecks of my dinner slip through the metal fence, fall into the air below. My phone chimes with an email. The mathematician’s sperm has sold out. But not to worry, the sperm bank has twenty thousand other candidates that are just as good. They practice stringent quality control. I sink to my knees and wait. Somewhere far and near, closed in by the luminous skyline of this immutable city, the brackish water, the roiling clouds, the heaves and gasps of bodies, the lift of a wine cup to someone’s mouth, the push of words whispered into a lover’s ear, the roughly hewn happiness strung together like prayer beads, the choke of a little copper ring, I claw against the illusion of knowing as the length of the bridge beckons a hardened beat—of joy, possibly—to drum its way back into my body against the night’s darkness. What does a desire beget but an eternity. When I find my legs again, I run.

Born and raised in Malaysia, Grace Shuyi Liew is a lesbian poet and fiction writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Her awards include the MacDowell Fellowship, Tin House Writer in Residence, Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize (judged by Min Jin Lee), Center for Fiction in New York, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and more. She is the author of the poetry collection Careen (Noemi Press, 2019), which has been named Electric Literature’s “14 Unmissable Poetry Books of 2019.”