Pearl was limp with boredom and Taiwan’s humidity.
That morning Pearl’s mother, Wen Hua, told her that visitors were coming to the house and ordered her to wear one of the playsuits she’d bought Pearl for their trip. Pearl’s normal attire was a rock band tee shirt, and cut off jean shorts.
When Pearl complained, her mother said, “You don’t want to look pretty?”
“No,” said Pearl. Which wasn’t true, but her mother often equated prettiness with obedience, which was infuriating.
The offending outfit was a pastel orange playsuit seemingly designed for an adult-sized toddler. She hated everything about it, from the red and blue flowers embroidered on the Peter Pan collar, to the matching pleated culottes.
“See. Look like a skirt but really short pants. Very comfortable!”
“Why don’t you wear them then?” said Pearl.
“I wish I buy one for myself! We can be twins!”
Pearl rolled her eyes but submitted.
She sat outside wearing the stupid outfit. It was especially cruel to have such a petite and thin mother when Pearl was so round and soft. Her father said it was just baby fat and she’d outgrow it, but his comments, meant to be kind, made Pearl want to slam her bedroom door and never have her father look at her ever again. The culottes were high cut, though, and made her legs look longer. She imagined the outfit was provocative like the porno manga she’d found in her cousin’s bedroom. It was full of school girls in short skirts and in grave danger of having their breasts escape the constraints of their too tight tops. Pearl felt insouciant, a word she liked to say to herself with a pucker of her lips.
Wen Hua prized modesty, so Pearl pulled her culottes even higher and sat in her chair with her legs stretched out and listened to “Age of Consent” and “Blue Monday,” two New Order songs she’d taped back to back over and over on one side of a cassette. She was obsessed.
The riot grrrls had reclaimed the word slut, so she imagined herself as a neo-slut—a tough one who called all the shots and never got hurt—and took out paper and began writing a letter to her friend Amie.
“So fucking hot. Listening to ‘Blue Monday.’ Makes me want to do drugs.”
The boy she had a crush on in school showed her a bulge in his wallet, and called it his needle and works kit, implying he did heroin. Pearl had been so disappointed in him. Hadn’t they learned anything from Kurt Cobain’s death? She wanted to be impulsive and take drugs occasionally but she knew she wasn’t that kind of girl. She vaguely understood it was because her father was probably an alcoholic.
Still, she wrote to Amie she was sure “Blue Monday” would sound amazing stoned. She put “stoned” in quotation marks and wrote “Ha ha. Just kidding.”
A motor scooter passed through the neighborhood arch and Pearl saw Peter ride up the small hill toward her. He was two years older and said he wanted to be called Peter, even though his mother often stood in the doorway and called out his Chinese name. His family had lived in San Francisco until a year ago, when his mother begged to move back to Taiwan.
Of the neighborhood teens, Peter was the only one who talked to her, and with Calvin far away in New York, possibly shooting heroin, Pearl decided that Peter would be her summer crush.
Her natural instinct was to sit up and pull her culottes down but she willed herself to give Peter something to look at.
When he pulled his heavy motorcycle helmet off, he waved. Pearl’s stomach flipped.
Peter walked over and motioned toward her headphones.
When he had the headphones over his ears she pressed play. He leaned his head to one side and listened with a neutral expression. He nodded and handed the headphones back.
“How many tapes did you bring with you?”
“Three shoe boxes full. My mom said I was crazy,” Pearl said.
A car drove toward them.
“I’m going to buy some tapes. Can I copy some?”
“Of course. I’d go crazy without them.”
“I’ll let you know when I get the tapes.”
Pearl walked back inside into the kitchen. She almost turned around again when her grandmother stood up from a crouch. Pearl’s ahmah only spoke Taiwanese.
Ahmah reached for a plate of guava and placed it in front of Pearl. She wasn’t hungry but she ate a slice of guava to be polite. As she chewed the soft fruit, a movement in the corner caught her eye. A large red mesh bag sat next to the sink. It shook. Pearl flinched, thinking there was a mouse, or worse, a rat in the kitchen. When the bag shook again she jumped back, knocking her stool to the ground. The bag was full of live frogs.
“Oh my god!”
She laughed so much she leaned against the table as if to catch her breath. She shouted, “Zwei gei! Zwei gei!” Pearl had no idea what she was saying.
Ahmah pulled her hands to her chest and hopped up and down, which was funny, her squat body jiggling as she pantomimed frog-like behavior for Pearl.
Ahmah’s grin slipped back into her more natural expression—a neutral look bordering on impatient displeasure. She touched Pearl’s arm and pointed to the plate of guava.
After an awkward pause where the two looked slightly away, unable to speak to one another, Pearl walked back outside.
She continued her letter. She wrote about Peter, how he wanted to copy her tapes. The boys she talked to at school had begrudgingly conceded she had decent taste in music, but not before they had quizzed her.
Before Pearl had left for Taiwan, she and Amie had gone to Tower Records downtown. Amie still liked U2 but Pearl remembered seeing some Lou Reed records in Amie’s father’s CD collection, so she’d asked if he had any Velvet Underground records. Pearl had read about the band in a magazine article the last time they were at Tower Records and she knew that some of the new bands she was getting into considered them a big influence.
“I doubt it,” Amie said. She didn’t even bother to check!
Pearl had looked around at the long rows of CD racks and considered the latest Top 40 hit on the loud speaker. She suggested they go to Kim’s Records, instead, and Amie made a face.
The last time Pearl had gone inside Kim’s Records, alone, something she could only describe as noise was playing over the stereo and it had made the hair stand up on her forearms.
“They might have something cool.”
“We better just stay here,” Amie said. “My dad’s picking up the food and then he’s coming to get us. We have to be outside at 6:15. You know how he is.”
Pearl couldn’t complain exactly, since Amie’s parents always included Pearl in their dinner plans, but her frustration increased. Amie’s parents were picking up American Chinese food from their favorite restaurant in the West Village—they were white—and the order was always the same—cold sesame noodles, orange beef, and shrimp with snow peas. Pearl liked it fine, but she said, “I can’t wait until I get to Taiwan so I can eat real Chinese food.”
Amie ignored Pearl and drifted over to a magazine rack. More and more often Pearl stayed home after school so she could listen to the music she wanted to. Since she’d been in Taiwan she’d sent Amie two letters but only received a postcard in return.
Wen Hua walked outside and looked down the road, toward the village arch. She wore a red silk dress and black open toed wedge heels. Though Pearl would never wear blue eye shadow, or such bright red lipstick, she thought it looked good on her mother. Even though she was only going to the factory in the garment district, Wen Hua wore heels and makeup to work every day. She sniffed at the women from China who didn’t wear any makeup, another one of the evils of communism.
“So ugly,” Wen Hua said about those women. Then she’d look at Pearl and say, “Lucky you don’t need makeup.”
Pearl sometimes said, “Women don’t need makeup.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Wen Hua always asked her. “I never meet a girl who try so hard to be ugly.”
“Who’s coming over?” Pearl said.
Wen Hua hesitated. “Just old friend. Ayi’s boss.” Then she added, “Don’t tell your father.”
There had been talk that Pearl’s father would make the trip with them—he hadn’t been to Taiwan since he and her mother married, but he’d made a bad investment. The loss was supposed to be part of a down payment on an apartment. At least her father said it was an investment; it might have been a series of bad bets.
“Now I have to start again. Again, and again. Never succeed with you,” Wen Hua had said.
“Isn’t it weird for Ayi’s boss to come here?” Pearl said.
“Why weird? He’s not stuck up.”
“Call him Mr. Hong.”
A sleek black car drove up and parked in front of the house. A man close to her mother’s age stepped out. He wore a tan suit despite the heat. He greeted Wen Hua by grasping her hands. He was taller than Wen Hua, but about the same height as Pearl. Her father was six feet tall.
Wen Hua turned to introduce Mr. Hong to Pearl. Pearl stood up and put her hand out to shake hands. Mr. Hong looked at her hand and then smiled as he shook it, exaggerating the moment, humoring her.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Hong.”
Mr. Hong and Wen Hua spoke in Taiwanese.
Mr. Hong said to Pearl in English, “You like Taiwan? You enjoy?”
“Taiwan’s great. Hot.”
“Why don’t you walk to the Buddha temple. Exercise. This is so boring. Two old people talking,” Wen Hua said.
“Fine,” said Pearl.
“Say goodbye to Mr. Hong.”
“Zai zheng, Mr. Hong.”
“Oh, your Chinese is very good.”
“No, it’s terrible.”
Neither her mother nor Mr. Hong contradicted her.
Boredom was something Wen Hua usually thought was character building, much like eating foods you disliked. Wen Hua said sometimes you had to eat bitter, literally and metaphorically, because it built stronger moral character.
“I wish I have time to be bored,” Wen Hua often said.
Pearl popped out the New Order tape and put in her ‘angry’ mix and walked toward the Buddhist temple.
The music was turned up loud, PJ Harvey being all creepy and deranged, singing about how you were not rid of her. As she climbed the slight hill along the bamboo and grass lined road, Pearl wondered what it would be like to be kissed, never mind having her legs licked, the way PJ Harvey commanded, “Lick my legs, I’m on fire. Lick my legs, I’ve desire.” If Pearl was the kind of girl that got tattoos, she might have those two words—I’ve desire—etched in tiny letters somewhere discreet; desire, like boredom, a constant irritant.
Nirvana followed PJ Harvey, and Pearl yelped when Peter ran up behind her and tapped her shoulder. She startled and almost dropped her Walkman, which, if it broke, would be the ruin of her summer because there was no guarantee that her mother would buy her a new one. Luckily, Peter saw it fall and he lunged to catch it. His hand brushed her left breast and part of her torso before it cupped the Walkman. Peter handed the rescued Walkman to Pearl and then pulled her headphones off and placed them over his own ears. He nodded his head in time to the music and then put the headphones back over Pearl’s ears. She reached her hands up to pull them off again.
“Did you ever see Nirvana before . . .” Peter asked.
“No! I wanted to but I couldn’t get tickets. Did you?”
“It was the last band I saw before we moved back.”
“Really? How was it?”
“Are you going to the temple?”
“Yeah. Walk me there?”
“Can’t. I have to study. I’m trying to get into Harvard.”
“Where do your parents want you to go?”
“They’ve never said. I mean, they expect me to get into a good school, get a good job, blah, blah, blah, but they’re not, like, obsessed with it.”
“Really? Then why did your mother bother going to America?”
“I don’t know. I mean, she met my dad and then they got married. What else was she supposed to do? I don’t think she was planning on it.”
“Interesting,” Peter said, then in an exaggerated voice he added, “Bye bye, Ming Zhu,” and ran back down the road.
Only her grandmother called her by her Chinese name. It felt like a secret—the full moon behind a veil of clouds.
Upon reaching the Buddhist temple she sat on the side of the pond from which a white statue of Guan Yin rose. Guan Yin reminded Pearl of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, except instead of rising out of the ocean in a giant seashell, Guan Yin stood on a lotus blossom.
When she returned, the black car was gone, and her mother was in her bedroom with the door closed. Pearl walked into the kitchen but walked out when she saw her grandmother skinning frogs.
That night Pearl watched Wen Hua reapply her lipstick. She wore a white dress and red shoes. In New York her mother didn’t have much occasion to dress up. When she returned home from work she asked Pearl to help her pull stray bits of thread from the backs of her shirts and pants. Her mother wore a cloth mask as she sewed to minimize breathing in all the microscopic bits of cloth and dust that settled over everything at the garment factory.
“What kind of factory does Mr. Hong own?”
“Bed frame factory.”
“How do you know him?”
Her mother looked up from her compact mirror. “Long story.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Wen Hua waved her hand at her. “Don’t bother me. I have to get ready.”
“Where are you going?”
Pearl didn’t like seeing her mother like this. She looked so . . . expectant. Like anything was possible.
“Daddy said he was going to call tonight.”
Wen Hua looked up. “So what? Say hello. Tell him I’m have dinner with a good friend.”
“I thought you said don’t tell Daddy.”
“Tell Daddy, don’t tell Daddy. Why am I scared?” Wen Hua took one last look in her compact and stood up.
“Can I come?”
“No, no. Too boring.”
“Isn’t it weird for Ayi that you’re having dinner with her boss?”
“It just is. Was Mr. Hong your boyfriend?”
She didn’t answer Pearl and walked out of the room.
Pearl followed Wen Hua to the living room. When a car pulled up outside she turned to Pearl and said, “Be a good girl.”
Pearl followed her outside and watched her get into the front. Mr. Hong leaned over and waved at her from the driver’s seat. Pearl lifted her hand and gave a limp wave.
Instead of walking back inside she sat in her chair outside. Her ears were sore from hours of having the headphone’s metal band clamped to her head.
Peter walked over.
“Want to go to the night market?”
Pearl looked behind her and then nodded.
He glanced toward the sliding doors.
“Aren’t you going to tell your mother?”
“It’s ok. I can do what I want.”
He hesitated and then said, “Ok. Let’s go.”
They rode his motor scooter down the hill and out through the village gates taking a right down the road toward the city lights.
Pearl didn’t know where they were going. The thrumming of the motor scooter made her legs feel weak. All she could see were the neon lights of the signs lining the dark streets. She wanted to ride for a long time, but before they had gone for more than ten minutes she felt the motor scooter slow to a stop. She waited for something to happen and then Peter said, “I can’t get down until you get down. Hop off!”
Pearl liked seeing Peter smile because he had a crooked canine tooth. They were at a night market in a large field; the bright lights were concentrated in a dense cluster, like a carnival. They walked up and down the aisles of food and cheap goods until Peter led them to a stand that sold cold tofu and peanut soup.
“Have you ever had this before?”
“Of course,” Pearl said. People always treated her like such an American.
Once they were seated Peter said, “Does you father speak Chinese?”
“No. He’s Irish . . . American,” she said. “From the Bronx.”
“That’s why you don’t speak Chinese.”
“I used to when I was little.”
“It doesn’t matter, I guess.”
“How’s your Chinese?”
“Much better since we moved back! Now I think it’s good for my college applications. I can’t wait,” he said.
Peter looked down at his bowl and then he said, “If your dad doesn’t speak Chinese how did he and your mom communicate?”
“I guess they figured it out.”
“Maybe they just . . .” Peter mashed his index fingers together to indicate passionate kissing.
“I don’t want to think about that!”
“Sorry,” he said, “It could have been worse.”
“Yeah, I could have,” here he made a circle of the index finger and thumb of his left hand and poked his right index finger inside.
“Stop! You’re disgusting!”
He laughed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t tease. It’s not nice.”
“That’s right. You better not.”
“Or else, what?”
“Don’t try me.”
“You’re not so tough, but okay.”
Once they finished the soup they walked around the market.
When they passed a stand that sold Hello Kitty plush dolls Peter stopped and said, “Do you want one?”
Pearl didn’t consider herself the kind of girl that slept with Hello Kitty dolls at the foot of her bed. What would PJ Harvey do with a Hello Kitty plushy? She’d probably attack it with a dildo. But wasn’t there a part of Pearl that liked Hello Kitty? She was still wearing the ridiculous pastel orange playsuit. Why not complete the image? Peter selected the largest model.
“That’s too big!” said Pearl, but she meant it was too expensive.
Peter thrust money at the vendor.
After Peter presented the doll she said thank you, and pressed Hello Kitty’s face to his cheek and made a smacking kiss sound.
She swung the doll by its arm and walked ahead, as if she didn’t care if Peter followed her or not. He ran up to catch her and walked by her side.
“We better go or my mom will yell at me.”
Peter lashed Hello Kitty to the small cargo rack on the back of the motor scooter with a bungee cord. Pearl laughed.
When they returned, Peter untied Hello Kitty and held the doll up in front of his face as if to speak through her but he spoke Mandarin.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
When he handed the doll to her Peter ran his hand down her bare arm.
“Wan an means good night,” he said pedantically. Then in a softer tone, “Wan an.”
Peter walked away just as the words, wan an, died on her lips.
Pearl walked into her grandmother’s house. When she entered the living room Wen Hua raised her right hand and slapped Pearl in the face.
Pearl dropped the Hello Kitty doll. She touched her face, already wet with tears. “What did I do? Why did you hit me?”
“Who told you to go with that boy? You don’t go with boys!”
Pearl didn’t say anything.
“You hear me? You don’t go with boys.”
Pearl sat on a chair.
“Say something.” Wen Hua stood over Pearl. “Say you’re sorry.”
Pearl raised her head. She didn’t bother wiping the tears from her eyes. “Nothing happened.”
“Wait until I tell your father.” Wen Hua sat. She reached for a cup of cold tea. Her hand shook.
“Tell him whatever you want. I don’t care.”
“What kind of girl are you? What is wrong with you?”
Pearl didn’t answer her.
“Such a bad girl. Run away with a boy. I didn’t know you are so wild.”
“Right. I’m so wild.”
“You are. So bad. I am so ashamed. Your ahmah almost crying when I come home. Say she cannot find you. Then the neighbor say, ‘Oh, that Ming Zhu go with that boy. Just get on his motorcycle and run away.’”
“What about you? I’m supposed to sit here by myself bored all night while you have fun with some guy?”
“Just friends. Nothing to tell you. I don’t have to tell everything.”
“Then why do I have to tell you everything?”
“Because you are the daughter and I am the mother. This is the law. This is the rule.”
“It’s not fair.”
“Not supposed to be fair. Mother does not have to be fair to daughter. I teach you the right thing to do but you don’t listen. You go with strangers. So dangerous.”
“He’s not dangerous.”
“Enough. I should leave you home with your father.”
“I wish you had.”
Ahmah came out then and said something to Wen Hua.
“Your grandmother say please don’t do that again. Never again.”
Pearl set her jaw, but then it slackened. “Fine. I’m sorry.”
Wen Hua studied her as if she was seeing her for the first time. She shook her head and said, “Okay. Okay. Eat. Everybody eat.”
Pearl followed her grandmother into the kitchen and sat at the table while her grandmother put rice in a bowl. Then her grandmother lifted the mesh net off the food. She pointed to the chive omelet, Pearl’s favorite, the greens stir-fried with garlic, and a plate of frog legs cooked with chili and basil. Her mother sat down across from her but pointedly ignored her.
The frog legs didn’t look like they had much meat on the bone. Were they bones? Pearl thought about the frog she’d dissected in biology class.
Wen Hua picked up a frog leg and ate. Then she pointed her chopsticks toward the plate of frog legs. “You should try. Very delicious.”
Pearl reached over and picked up a frog leg and deposited it so it rested on her rice. It was fishy and slightly gamey.
When Pearl finished the frog leg her mother said, “Good girl. At least you try.”
“Sometimes you have to eat bitter, right?”
Wen Hua rolled her eyes. “Not bitter. Delicious.”
“If you say so.”
Pearl washed her bowl and then went into the other room. Her mind raced too much to read, so she listened to music instead. She took a pen and pushed the hem of her shorts up until the top of her thigh was exposed, and wrote in tiny letters, “I have desire,” before pushing her shorts back down. She mouthed words from “Age of Consent” to Hello Kitty.
Hello Kitty stared back. Blank.
Adalena Kavanagh is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn. She has published writing in Electric Literature and has work forthcoming in The Believer. Adalena’s photography has been exhibited at Asian Arts Initiative. In 2018 she was a NYFA Fiction Fellowship Finalist, and she recently completed her first novel.
“So Wild” was originally published in TLR: Feverish