My new boyfriend said he was gonna fuck up my old boyfriend because he makes me cry and then tricks me into forgiving him, again and again and again. He was kind of sexy when he said it, my new boyfriend, because I’m not used to masc energy like that, and I’ve never had anyone want to defend me in such a primal way. But that’s beside the point now, because earlier today my old boyfriend crushed every bone in my neck and shoved me under this four-poster bed. My head is wedged at a ghastly right angle, facing the door. And while my heavy eyes are partially open, for the moment, all I can see are dust bunnies and the worn pine-board flooring that used to give me splinters when I went barefoot, tiptoeing as though his wife might know I’d been there if I walked around like I belonged.
We were having a calm, rational conversation until everything went to shit. Of course, I didn’t tell him about my new boyfriend. That’s not really any of his business, but it should come as no surprise since I was dating someone else when we got together. And I told him I haven’t been single since I was thirteen, so he understood my intense need to find someone new before ending a current relationship. To never be alone. To have an endless lineup of people there to love me. “A surplus of love,” my therapist said. “So you are never at a deficit.” Someone idling in the driveway, waiting for me to pack up my heart, drop the key through the mail slot, and disappear with the next person forever.
Also I have this habit of never messing with anyone who is truly free to be all the way mine. So he, my old boyfriend, but I suppose my new boyfriend as well, fits the bill. The new one’s wife lives in Montreal, where he’ll eventually go too. Or maybe she’ll move down here to Boston. It depends which of them gets their citizenship first. They see each other only on weekends, twice a month, and the rest of the time he’s free to be with me.
It started off okay. I was explaining to my old boyfriend how he sometimes hurt my feelings and made me feel too unsafe to even eat in front of him. He nodded fake-pensively like he used to do in seminar when he hadn’t done the readings. “You’ll get me the notes, right, babe?” He’d always text me from the hall when he left early, our professor making a note in her attendance log. He never said why he had to go, but I knew it was because Carolyn needed something photocopied at the library or she’d locked herself out of the grad student lounge for the millionth time. Helpless white woman syndrome. They’d met in undergrad and it’s like she never grew up. A baby woman. A legacy PhD. Meandering up the steps of Widener like her father and mother, and their fathers decades before. On purpose wearing a tattered, vintage Crimson sweater, unlike us nouveau-smart scholarship cases in our stiff, made-in-China, oxblood hoodies.
He always complained about her, his wife, before we’d have sex, but after, it was the complete opposite. Our post-coital ritual was shaped by his sudden guilt, him popping off the mattress like a ground squirrel, and prattling on that even though her thesis proposal had been rejected for the umpteenth time, it was only that none of the profs in our East Asian Studies program knew shit about linguistics, and she’d been born in China while her parents were there on a carefully planned one-year joint sabbatical. So actually she knew more than they did. It wasn’t her fault she’d never had to learn to be strong like me. Really I should be more understanding. More empathetic. My trauma was a gift and I was unthankful. Besides, I’d seduced her husband simply by existing as myself. So I should be kinder in my estimations. In other words, her failed comps, her lack of grants and publications, her chronic disorganization were, like, reverse privilege. I couldn’t bear it. Taking into my brain the garbage he spewed from his mouth while leaking elsewhere the warm evidence of his dishonesty on the towel that protected their Kate Spade sheets. Anyhow, he was delusional. I suffered through Research Methods with her in our first term, and even then it was as though she felt guilty or sheepish about Area Studies. Her seminar presentation was a second-wave feminism disaster and I assumed her family had donated something good to ensure her admission. My old boyfriend’s too, if I’m being honest. Maybe a two-for-one deal. Our cohort was fifty percent us and fifty percent them. He didn’t grow up as one of them. Married into it. I understood what he was protecting.
Broken-necked and under the bed. Crammed there like an out-of-season quilt. The breakup was going well. I spoke quietly and deliberately. Held up the palm of my hand as if to say “enough” whenever he launched a defensive retort, “Well, you do” (this or that) or “So just another way I disappoint you.” When our talking ceased, when I let him think we’d tried our hardest and it wasn’t that someone new was waiting in the wings to replace him, even though he kept asking, my old boyfriend tucked my hair behind my ear. He was careful not to snag it on my industrial barbell. His fingertips trailed down the side of my throat, massaged my shoulder halfheartedly.
This was his M.O. To pull me back with soft fingertips and beautiful eyes. A self-effacing joke about growing up in a poor, immigrant household, that having a woman who looked like me, for even a moment, was beyond his wildest dreams. I had to look away to avoid being dragged in by the undertow of his temporary love. It’s how he lures everyone, I reminded myself. It’s why you have to hold out and turn away. Because he loves you and blames you for loving you at the same time. And that’s fucked up.
“You have to understand.” I said, rolling myself into his kneading hand. Letting my head fall in relaxation, but still averting my eyes. “You understand why, for someone like me, it lands differently to be illegitimate. A secret. A shadow.”
“I get it. I do. I promise it’ll be better. I’ll tell her I want an open marriage. Will that satisfy you?”
“It’s not about satisfaction. It’s about being visible. Existing. You know? Being wanted. Someone’s first choice.”
“You are my first choice.”
I snorted. He sighed.
“You’d be my first choice if I had a choice. But I don’t.”
I was bored of going in circles. “You’re too scared to find something real with someone. You like to be white adjacent. It’s sad. You make me sad.”
Even though he wasn’t squeezing harder, I felt the energy shift and radiate from his hand onto my skin. His thumb traced my right clavicle. I shivered because it tickled. But then I hardened because something felt different. His movements slowed. Were more intentional. Like he was studying a foreign specimen, his eyes narrowed in concentration. Like I was trying to trap him into saying something he’d regret.
“You’re so righteous then? You can piss everyone off, get hysterical about injustices on campus, ACAB, all that shit, but you have a safety net too. I secured mine in adulthood, but you? You’ve been cradled in whiteness your whole life.” Then, “Fucking one brown person after another isn’t going to magically erase that you’re an outsider. You’re not the same.”
He fixed his eyes on the thick lump in my throat as I swallowed. I parted my lips to respond, but decided against it. The breakup was taking too long. My new boyfriend would be wondering if I’d backed out of my decision.
At the start, my old boyfriend and I ran to each other because our lives were colourless and there was a kind of kinship in our shared isolations. We mocked their Prince Charles and Princess Di Royal Doulton tea sets. We imitated the way they ordered gin martinis with cucumber instead of olives. He was indignant when people asked me how I knew the deceased at my own grandmother’s funeral, I, murderous when he recounted how a senior faculty member mistook him for a banquet server at an end-of-term party. And look where we’d ended up. A relationship centered on sex and trauma. I wanted to close it nicely. My new boyfriend wasn’t in academia. He was just what I needed. It was time to move on.
I must have flinched at his words, because his expression was immediately apologetic.
“Give me one more chance,” he said.
My phone vibrated on the nightstand. Once, twice. Face up. My old boyfriend looked to see who was calling, and something like disgust changed his face. “So it’s like that, is it?” His voice was scarily flat. I knew what he was going to do before a single muscle twitched. Before either of us could let out the breaths we’d been holding in.
My last word was a whispered “no.” At once a response to his question, a denial of his jealous suspicions, and a feeble attempt to stop him. My arms flailing. I scratched at him, but my nails were short because I chewed them. I tried to kick him off. Grabbed for the pillows, the fancy sheets. Anything. But my fingers went numb. My old boyfriend was lifting me by the throat and dropping me onto the mattress, over and over. The phone vibrated again. My new boyfriend, I assumed. Calling to see if it was done. My old boyfriend, at the buzzing, glanced at the screen and was again spurred on. He smashed my trachea into my vertebrae, hating me so much that suffocation was too good an end for a throwaway slut like me.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” he panic-muttered for an un-smart length of time. Gaped at his hands like he couldn’t believe what he’d done. As though he couldn’t accept they were actually his own. He wasn’t the type to even threaten violence, much less murder someone. I felt the sudden leadenness of my body and marvelled at how much our muscles do to keep us bouncy and buoyant without acknowledgement. While we’re alive. My old boyfriend pulled his phone out of his back pocket. Started typing. But then stopped and put it back. My phone vibrated again. Freaked him out even more. His hand shaking now, he picked it up, looked at the number. I bet it was my new boyfriend calling a third time. I’d only put in his initials, but my old boyfriend knows that trick because we’re listed the same way in each other’s Contacts. Out of nowhere, he whipped my phone at the wall and the screen shattered. “Fuck,” he moaned. Plaster and broken glass on the floor. More mess to clean up.
I want to ask why he had to kill me. It seemed unnecessary. He could’ve just let me go. People let me go my entire life. But I can’t ask and he’s not paying attention to me anyway. All of a sudden I’m this disgusting thing. Just one week ago he promised he could never get enough of me. I let him run his fingers through my hair and nodded politely when he said it felt like cold water or silk. When I asked how he wanted it, he said, “I want you all over me.” Now every time I catch his eye he looks like he’s going to puke.
“Don’t go away,” I whispered last Tuesday when he was inside me. Rushing because the class his wife was TA-ing ended in half an hour and he had to get me out the door, remake the bed, shower, and look nonchalant in that short time.
“Never,” he promised. “I would never do that to you.”
“People are always leaving me.” My mind flashed to the post-adoption services form I filled out, hoping to spark a reunion. No response yet. I wasn’t hopeful.
“I know. I’ll be careful.”
“So I leave them first,” I said, and smirked. I thought about Mom and Dad in their suburban split-level watching The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars and eating pot roast on Sundays.
“You can’t fire me, I quit?”
I nodded. We were flirting but he wanted to get the show on the road. I let him put his hand under my shirt. His mouth against my neck.
He’d say the sweetest things before coming. I fed off those moments like a binge eater. Prolonging foreplay as long as possible, not because I particularly enjoyed it, but because it made his kindness last a little longer. As soon as he was done with me, my old boyfriend transformed into something else—someone only I ever saw. Angry, dismissive, silent, blaming. Well, maybe Carolyn too. But our colleagues, the profs, all the postdocs knew him as charming and smart and kind. They said so all the time. Not to assure me, because to them we were just students in the same cohort. But they’d go on about how he and Carolyn would be this academic power couple, and I’d eat away at myself crumb by crumb.
While I was reminiscing in bed, my old boyfriend paced the room frantically. I wondered how long my new boyfriend would wait at our meeting place before giving up, especially if his calls were going straight to voicemail now. Suddenly my old boyfriend jumped into action. His arms hoisted me up. One under my knees. The other under my shoulder blades. If someone saw us through the window, they might think he was tucking me in after I’d fallen asleep on the couch. Or we were newlyweds and he was taking me over the threshold.
But my head flopped back at an unthinkable angle, and a retching noise escaped my old boyfriend’s otherwise clamped mouth. I was heavier than he remembered. Dead weight, he once called me. Dead weight, a burden he just couldn’t let go of. I giggled inside my ghastly, twisted neck at the irony. He paused as though he heard me.
There’s barely enough room between the box spring and the floor. It’s rude how he shoved me under here. Grimacing, he palmed my face and twisted my head sideways so I’d fit. That’s how I ended up watching the door, seeing him strip down and walk around naked after a shower, like I’m not even here. His dick looks so pathetic from this angle. In the blurry distance he pulls shots straight from a liquor bottle.
I don’t mean to, but I start to wonder what my parents will think. We aren’t on speaking terms right now. They’re mad because I asked if they had documents from before I came to the U.S. And I’m mad that they lied and pretended they didn’t. “It’s for my thesis!” I whined, and this was half true. My advisor thought my life story was so thrilling. A real-life mystery with a problem to solve. My personal history, the perfect way to study human culture and behaviour. To learn about global and transnational migration from Asia through an unconventional lens. I did not want to study myself. But I was fortunate to be supervised by one of the few non-white Asian Studies profs. So I agreed, just to make her happy. To not push my luck.
When my parents find out what I’ve been up to, and what happened, they’ll be disappointed. Mom will say, “We didn’t raise her to be like this. She grew up in the church.” Dad will remain silent but his red eyes will reveal his actual sadness. Mom, who can’t handle silence and overshares at the most inappropriate times, even when she most definitely should shut the fuck up, will say, “We tried to give her a positive life! Break the cycle. Do something good, you know? Take her out of that hellhole and raise her with values.” Dad will grunt, in neither agreement nor dispute. “It took three years for us to get her,” Mom will blather. “Three years of home inspections and fees and reference letters. Tell me we didn’t try our hardest!” Anyhow, maybe they’ll never know. Maybe he’ll hack into my email and send them a message saying I’ve traveled overseas to learn about myself. And then I’ll never come back. I’ll disappear into the hordes of indecipherable Asians in that blasphemous, mysterious place.
Hopefully my old boyfriend will pull me out before Carolyn smells me rotting under their perfect Pottery Barn bed. “A wedding gift from her sister,” my old boyfriend once said with bitterness. If you’re paying attention, you’ll know this was in a before-sex moment, when he loved me and hated his life. It started to feel like complaining was a kink for him. Or maybe he did it to alleviate some guilt I was supposed to be feeling but didn’t.
Hopefully he burns me. Remembering my fear of earthworms and the dark. Plus maybe cremation is Buddhist or something, I don’t know. I’m not even sure how popular that religion is in Korea. I’m really behind on my research. Not as bad as Carolyn, but that’s a stupid comfort.
While I’m going through a list of people who might miss me (it’s short) or those who will worry when I don’t show up for our weekly trivia meetups at Grendel’s Den (I guess maybe four people will even notice?), my old boyfriend comes back into the room, tosses his murder clothes in the hamper after scanning them for long, black hairs, then throws on a pair of jeans over ugly Kirkland-brand boxer briefs. He pulls a Henley over his head and looks in Carolyn’s vanity mirror for a long time. He doesn’t even glance my direction, which is beyond insulting. I go back to thinking about who will miss me.
Unexpectedly, a woman’s dark silhouette flashes in my mind. I can’t make out her features, but I can see her heart even though the rest of her is just a shadow. Her heart is light purple. Almost pink. And it’s beating fast and she’s clawing at it like she wants to tear it out. Like it’s a threat in some way. Of course, I know who she is. I’m not completely gone. But I don’t know how to call out to her. I don’t know the word for mother in Korean. I took Japanese as my additional language requirement, just to be unpredictable. Besides, I don’t know what to say. How to comfort her. Why it should be my responsibility to do so. Or even whether she’s in this world where I’m an unburied, unbearable thing, or the one where I assume I’ll be headed after my old boyfriend figures out what to do with my body. So I stay silent, watch her dig at herself. Writhe and twist in torment. But as quickly as she appeared, she stops. Is eerily still. And it’s as if the woman-shadow is staring straight at me. Her arms relax and her purple-pink heart slows to a normal pace.
She takes an inquisitive step toward me. Then another. She kneels and peers under the bed. She isn’t horrified by my grim face and clouding eyes, but she pauses briefly as a key jostles at the front door. The voices are muffled as though far away. My boyfriend and his wife. We don’t care. Her focus is back on my broken body. If I could, I would lean into her. Even if she is just energy. Or an eleventh-hour hallucination. An answered prayer. The shadow reaches its hand under and is about to touch my cheek. I’m desperate to feel her.
Next up in the portfolio: “Letters to Omma—Reunion” by Bo Hee Moon
Jenny Heijun Wills is the author of Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related (McClelland & Stewart, 2019), which received the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, Manitoba Book Awards’ Best First Book prize, and a CBC best in nonfiction, and was named one of the most influential books of 2019 by The Globe & Mail and listed by the Winnipeg Free Press as one of the ten best books of the last decade by a Manitoba author. Wills is coeditor of Adoption and Multiculturalism (University of Michigan Press, 2020) and Teaching Asian North American Texts (Modern Languages Association Press, 2022). Her book of personal essays, Asian Adopted Queer Hungry, is forthcoming from Knopf Canada in 2024. She is professor of English at the University of Winnipeg. (updated 10/2023)