Her name means sea, but no one taught her to swim. She was born in a drought, back when there was no river to occupy her city like a military. I could swim, but only because my mother once drove me to a public pool and tossed me headfirst into it. Tossed me, the way some people flick coins to make decisions: daughter or not. Haiyang worked as a shrimp deveiner at the grocery store, though she was allergic to their naked bodies and sheathed her hands in gloves in order to touch them. My hands are shrimped again, she said to me at home, dangling them in front of me, swinging them from her wrists like udders. Do they hurt, I said, as she cupped my breast, licked the salted scallop of my nipple. At night, she said things like, you make me sting. I corrected her: you make me sing. No, she said, sting as in sting. Her hands swelled again in the morning after touching me, her veins sizzling like bad wiring, and I wondered if she was allergic to my skin. Haiyang said I was orchid. Morbid, I corrected, and she flicked me on the chin. Stop correcting me, she said, or I’ll devein you too. Because I was darker than her, she couldn’t navigate the veins in my forearms, on the backs of my thighs, on my neck, and everything she believed was my blood was actually just the shadow of her finger forging me.
Every evening, after her shift at the grocery store and mine at my mother’s car wash, Haiyang asked me to teach her to swim. Don’t worry, I said, you’re the sea, and it’s impossible for the sea to drown. There’s nothing big enough for you. Haiyang flicked me again, this time on my temple: I mean it. So I told her that the first step to learning how to float is learning how to hold your breath, how to guard your lungs like luggage. We practiced together: she inhaled, her cheeks bloating, and I pinched her nose and mouth shut with my fingers, counting first to ten, then twenty. By the end of this summer, she told me, I want to get to a million. Haiyang was not native to numbers. Anything finite was foreign to her. When I told her it was impossible for anyone to get to a million, that it was a number she could not imagine, she said, let’s make a bet. I can think of a million things before you can. We both shut our eyes, sitting on the floor, ants rivering through our kitchen, wending around our knees, sieging the rind of a sugared lime I’d dropped the night before. It was true I couldn’t imagine a million of anything.
We couldn’t find a body of water. Our bathtub grew a waist of mold, and we took showers wearing plastic bags around our feet. There used to be a swimming pool in the courtyard of our apartment complex, but it was drained of water, its concave belly like a mirror, and one year a girl jumped into it from her third-floor balcony and broke her neck. After that, the landlord lent it to cement, and now the pool is a birthmark made of blacktop.
Haiyang said she’s been practicing holding her breath everywhere, even at the grocery store: I hold my breath every time someone picks up a fruit, she said, and I don’t release it until they put it back down. I joked that this was Chinese people we were talking about. The fruit would be examined like a newborn, weighed in the palm and graded, its pulp evaluated, its skin pinned open like a map. She would be dead by the time she resumed breathing.
Haiyang held her breath when she took the bus, too, and said she wanted to be able to hold it the whole ride home. That’s 30 minutes, I said. I told her there was no one alive who could hold their breath on a leash that long. What about that man on TV who lived in a glass box for a year? I said those men were magicians. And white. Those are all illusions, I said, they’re not really living inside of glass boxes. It’s a trick. In Vegas, I explained to her, there were men who cubbied their heads inside of tigers’ mouths: the beasts were all trained and the danger disappeared. But tigers aren’t from here, Haiyang said, turning to me in bed. Neither are you, I said, laughing, and kissed the middle part of her hair, watching the strands rise like static.
That night, Haiyang told me she wanted to go to Vegas and visit every European country condensed onto a single street. Why not the real Europe, I said, let’s save up. Let’s go somewhere, somewhere real. But Haiyang said that fakery was more familiar. Once, when she was seven, her mother took her to a fake Eiffel Tower in a neighboring city. There was a 1/100th scale Leaning Tower of Pisa, too. They took photos of each other, and sometimes she showed them to me for a second only. Haiyang pretending to use the Eiffel Tower as a toothpick. Haiyang pretending to shit out the sun. Haiyang eating a miniature baguette wrapped in newspaper. I know you’ll make fun of these, she said, flipping them over on our coffee table that was made of taped-together produce boxes. But I told her they were beautiful: Haiyang hip-height, a purple fanny-pack clipped around her waist, her face round as a kneecap. Her mother looked the same as Haiyang did now, hands that defaulted to fists, a prominent throat like a boy’s, arms too loose in photographs.
Despite Haiyang’s aversion to actual travel, I started a fund anyway, a soup bowl I labeled Flight, since I had never flown before and Haiyang had flown twice, once when she was fifteen and immigrating, and another time when her grandmother died in Zhuhai and she flew back for the funeral. When I asked her what the funeral had been like, she said she’d had a strange desire to eat the ashes out of the urn, to paddle ash into her mouth like sugar. She could only remember vague things about her grandmother: the tea that darkened her teeth to stained glass, the dentures she hid around her apartment for Haiyang to find. Find my mouth, she called out to Haiyang, who ran around the apartment and pointed at everything with an opening: the bowls, the window, the toilet, the sky.
I deposited my car wash tips into the Flight-savings bowl, but Haiyang kept taking them out of it. She bought lottery tickets at the 7-11, even after I told her she would never win. What are the odds, I said. But Haiyang asked me back: what were the odds of us? She said I couldn’t call myself Chinese if I didn’t gamble anything. It was in our marrow, she said, our romance with chance, our history with hope. What is there to risk losing, she said, if we believe nothing belongs to us?
I watched Haiyang kneel behind a cardboard box in the center of our apartment, scratching at the lottery ticket with her left forefinger, the only nail she kept long and clawed. When I asked her why she never trimmed that fingernail, she said it was because her grandmother always told her to keep one nail long as a weapon, to sharpen it daily, to sand at least one of your teeth into a screwdriver. Haiyang never touched me with that finger. She treated it like a sword, that story I remembered from school: a sword drawn from the body of a rock. That fingernail stayed sheathed, birthed out of something she kept hidden from me. When she was asleep, I lifted that finger to my lips and slit my tongue on its nail, opening a pleat in my speech. I loved her like a mouthful of my own blood.
In the morning it was Sunday. Let’s go swimming, I said, and led her outside to the cement-filled swimming pool. There were families on their balconies, mothers smoking with their daughters saddling their hips, and they leaned over the railings to watch us: I lay face-down in the center of the concrete pool, winging open my arms and legs, manufacturing movement. Haiyang laughed at me and crouched, splaying on her back, pretending to float. Why am I floating, she asked me, and I said it was because water was denser than our bodies, that we are more of the sky than we think. But the truth was that I didn’t know what made a body float, and I only knew how to swim like a labrador, only my head islanding above the water. I was afraid one day she’d bring me somewhere deeper than my knees and find out I was a fraud, that I could only swim in the sense that I’d drown very slowly, and that she’d always known more than me, more languages, more ways of losing, more grammars of grief.
On the anniversary of her grandmother’s death, she taught me to burn joss paper in the courtyard at night, and I told her the only things I’d ever seen burning were trees, wildfires that bearded whole skies in smoke. The joss paper burned faster than those trees, and the smoke translated itself differently, opening like a cape to embrace me. The paper produced more flight than light: embers flocked out of the bucket, bright as confetti, and I reminded Haiyang this was illegal, that we could be fined for igniting a wildfire. Don’t worry, she said, we’re standing on water. She pointed down at her feet, at the disc of concrete where the pool used to be. The water’s not here anymore, I said, and Haiyang said how do you know? How did I know the concrete was not just a lid, an inch thick, and that beneath our feet there was still water, six feet deep and chlorinated, waiting for a day to climb back to the surface? Because I saw them fill it, I said. She’d been at work that day, but I saw it: the men slopping concrete into the empty pool, dark as honey, and the stain that was faded at the bottom of the pool, the bloodstain where the girl had landed and become bone in a bowl. Why not just jump onto the sidewalk? I asked Haiyang for days after. Or the street? Was the girl drunk? Did she think the pool was full when it’d been empty all along? Did her mind revise her own shadow into water?
Haiyang said she didn’t know. In the kitchen, she filled a plastic tub with ice and sat inside it, saying that sitting for so long at the factory would soon thin her skin, that soon I’ll be able to look up through her hollow spine like a telescope, that’s how empty she’ll become. Maybe that’s it, I said, maybe the girl who jumped believed she was hollow. Haiyang didn’t like when I talked about the girl who jumped in the pool: she said death wasn’t any of my business. But at night, I heard her walk onto our balcony – the broken sliding door we locked with tape and a rope – and lean over the rust-rough railing, looking down at the filled pool, the place where the moon used to roost. Then she returned to bed and eeled her hands up my shirt, her mouth mine in this light.
When I was little, I told Haiyang in bed, I dreamed of living in a house with a swimming pool behind it. I wanted a pool inside the house too. My grandmother and I could float to sleep on inflatable whales. In her backyard, I dug up the kumquat tree with its fruit bright as whistles, kicking at the chili bushes until they shriveled. I wanted to make space for the pool, I explained to Haiyang, so I killed everything. My grandmother planted taro in a trench she watered illegally, defying the laws of the drought, and she sloshed the soil with buckets of our bathwater so that each root boiled soft and salty: they tasted of our sweat. She guarded that trench like a soldier, wading to her ankles inside the slur of soil and bathwater, her hands in the murk, making a fist around the roots. It was me who flooded the trench, the whole yard, digging up the taro so that they bobbed like skulls. The hose coiled around my waist, and I swung the head around like a lasso, gowning the whole house in water. My grandmother returned from the factory and saw my wreckage: the kumquat tree kicked to its knees, the uprooted chilis and basil rafting, the trench stomped to soup, green guavas floating like belly-up boats.
What did she do, Haiyang said, turning away from me in bed, anticipating my punishment. She imagined the hose lifted like a whip, my grandmother locking me inside a garage. Nothing, I told Haiyang. My grandmother watched me. I held the hose out like a penis, trying to imitate how a boy would pee, laughing at the radius of my failure, my flood; she watched me and said nothing, instead wading toward the wall and screwing the tap shut, silencing the water that sang from my hose. I turned around and saw her standing in the flooded trench, salvaging the roots. Without looking at me, she told me to go inside. Inside, I told her I was sorry, that I only wanted to dig us a swimming pool, something we could all use, and that meant we could have no kumquat tree or chilis or guavas or illegal swamp taro.
She replanted everything, my grandmother, and the next time I visited her, the tree was splinted and the bushes fixed like wigs and the trench drained and the hose missing, looped around someone else’s waist. She brought me bowls of guavas and told me that even if I had dug a pool, there wasn’t anyone to swim in it. She’d been a clam-wader in Taiwan, but that was the closest she’d ever come to swimming: she never let her feet unfasten from the ground, she said. She hated flying or floating, anything that unhinged her from feeling, that interfered with the compass of her feet.
After this story, Haiyang said she was no longer confident I was a qualified teacher, that she doubted now if I really could swim. You taught me to hold my breath for nothing, she said. Not nothing, I said, and went down between her knees, whetting my tongue inside her, her skin grating against me like gravel, my god. She yanked my hair, lifted my head. She was not the kind of woman who waded into anything. She dove into desire while I subscribed to the surface, watching her beneath me, lapping at her sweat, trying to taste what made us a different depth. When she ate, she raked the bowl clean, sucked meat to the marrow, reached into the skull of the fish to stab out its brain. I wanted to be emptied that way.
The next morning, Haiyang thieved our Flight bowl clean and replaced the change with one of her earrings. It tinkled like rain. Let’s go swimming for real, she said, I’m ready. From a plastic bag with dried orange rinds at the bottom, she pulled out two one-piece swimsuits she’d bought at the Goodwill, one with cherries printed on it, and the other with pineapples. We’ll look so edible, she said, meaning adorable, and for once I didn’t correct her. The closest pool, I told her, was at the YMCA across town, except recently it had shut down because the roof collapsed into the water. Haiyang said we could swim among the wreckage, dodge pieces of the ceiling like icebergs. But I told her we should wait for it to reopen. You’re stalling, Haiyang said. You don’t know how to swim. I do, I do, I told her, and she said I should prove it. I told her she was being childish, but it was true I was embarrassed to swim in front of her, afraid somehow that the water would churn into cement below my waist. I had dreams of jumping off our balcony and into the pool, back when it was full, only to realize that the water was concrete, fossilizing me inside, and if I didn’t paddle back up to the surface, I would be encased inside and only a jackhammer would unbury me.
I didn’t tell Haiyang about this fear. Instead I said fine, we’ll take the bus to the other pool, the public one on the Westside where there was no roof, just the sky braced over it, and Haiyang whooped. She packed as if we were leaving forever, grasping for the broom we kept in the corner by the door, and I told her to limit herself to one change of clothes. We don’t have goggles, I said, so we’ll just have to close our eyes. Haiyang said she’d been practicing how to open her eyes in bathwater, how to identify shadows on the surface, how to gauge depth. You don’t have to see, I said, just hold onto me.
Finally we left with three plastic bags full of oranges, our clothes, our bath towels, three pairs of Haiyang’s earrings. On the bus, Haiyang hummed a song I didn’t know, about a little white boat that sinks into the blue blue blue sea. You get it? she asked me, while I traced the shape of birdshit on the window. Get what, I said. This song, it’s not about a boat. The little white boat is the moon. It falls into the sea and then it’s day. Do you get it? Haiyang said.
If the moon was a boat, I said, what would it float on? Haiyang pinched me on the inside of my wrist and said I wasn’t listening. It’s a sad song, I said. Why can’t the moon float forever? Why does it have to fall for it to be day?
The girl who jumped, this was what I knew about her: she lived on the floor above us. One time we heard her fighting with her mother. Something shattered and then the vacuum ran for two hours. Another time she got a TV installed, and we heard all her soap operas, all the women becoming mistresses. Another time, she spilled a bottle of sesame oil onto her carpet and didn’t clean it up. There was still a grease stain on our ceiling, the shape and size of a diamond kite. I asked the landlord to paint over it, but Haiyang said she liked it, that skeleton of flight. Another time, I saw her in the hallway alone. I had walked up to the wrong floor, and for a second I thought it was Haiyang in the hallway, lying down in her own shadow, face-up and floating on nothing. I ran to her, but the girl was not Haiyang, and she did not get up from the ground or say anything to me. Her face was blank as a braised egg, and she was sprawled like those TV shots of children making snow angels, except the dust of the concrete floor resembled nothing like wings. I reached my hand down, but the girl didn’t take it. She smiled up, looking beyond me, and instinctively, I looked up too. But all I could see was the ceiling, the leaks paved over so that they were darker veins, the slight belly-sag of the plaster. I backed out of the hallway, wondering what above us she was watching.
The pool was boiling with bodies, children with yellow floaties around their arms like military bands, parents lounged like lobsters on the lawn chairs. The water looks like a pot of dumplings, Haiyang said, after we’d deposited our plastic bags in our lockers. I could tell she was disappointed, that she was expecting a pool like the kind on TV, the kind for Olympic athletes, with water like a palmful of gems and lanes drawn straight with a blade. But the pool water was mossed over with a film of grease, more green than blue. And there were no lines, just a shallow end and a deep end, with children colonizing both, clustered and conjoining, stirred apart when someone cannonballed into the deep end.
I entered the water first, down the steps into the shallow end where mothers were steering their children through the water, holding them out at arm’s length as if they were bombs ready to detonate. We were the only unaccompanied adults in the shallow end, and Haiyang whispered behind me that she wanted to go deep. You have to start here, I said, you have to start with just getting the water over your head. I sat on the bottom step, the chopped concrete chafing against me, and Haiyang toed into the water beside me. The water was lukewarm, reminding me of mosquito ponds where larvae bred on the surface, a net of bodies. When Haiyang was waist-deep in the water, I said this is it. When I count to three, duck your head under the water. I told her she had been preparing for this, that she could hold her breath and count to a million, but Haiyang wasn’t looking at me. A child sharked between her ankles, slithering through the water, the blue bunching like a seam. Another girl with pigtails and a pink-skirted swimsuit floated past us on her back, her face sunburnt into an apple. We were the only women without children, and I scanned around us for one with dark hair, one we could pretend as our own, but there weren’t any alone.
Don’t look at anyone else, I said. Haiyang kneeled in the water as if to pray, but when I counted to three, she didn’t bend her head into the water. Instead, she looked at herself in the surface of it, though the water was too dull to refract her back. Wading up to her, I held her head in my hands, cocked it up so that she was looking at me. It felt like a baptism, the way I stood above her, the expression on her face that meant surrender. I had never seen that look on her, her lips gone loose, her throat jerking up and down as she tugged something onto her tongue. Let’s go, she said, and I told her we had just gotten in. There’s nothing, I wanted to say, to be ashamed about. You’re just learning late. Don’t look at anyone else. But I couldn’t say it aloud. A man was getting up from his lawn chair, his back slick with oil, shiny enough to see ourselves reflected, open-mouthed like fish and dangling dead from his wrists.
Okay, I said finally, let’s leave. I felt boneless beneath the water, and I wondered if I was right, if the water would soon solidify into cement if we didn’t flee. Maybe we weren’t meant to swim, only swallow. On the bus ride home, Haiyang sang nothing. I peeled an orange, stinging my thumbs, and fed her the slices with the seeds sucked out. In my mouth, the seeds rolled like holy beads. When we were back at our apartment complex, I asked Haiyang if she still wanted to swim. She’d been silent on the ride back, and she turned to me now with piths between her teeth. I’m tired, she said, let’s go home. But I told her there was a place we could swim all by ourselves, where it was impossible to sink, and then I walked toward the courtyard, toward the cement-lidded pool. Haiyang followed, five steps behind, and I said, didn’t you say that faking is as good as the real thing? Haiyang laughed. She lay down beside me, in the center of the concrete circle, and we looked up at the rusted balconies, searching for our window like it was a constellation, something for the world to navigate by.
Beside me, Haiyang began to sing again, about the white boat that was actually the moon. It seemed cruel to me now, metaphor. It seemed wrong for the moon to be something manufactured, man-made, built and buoyed and therefore breakable, capable of drowning. Looking past our window, which was quilt-thick with dust, I looked up at the window of the woman whose daughter had jumped, the one directly above ours. I wondered if the mother had moved out long ago, or if she was living alone now, if she still owned a vacuum cleaner with a bagful of broken glass. I tried to see that woman’s face through the window, but it was dark and the glass ribboned like water, refusing to be pinned by anything. There was only Haiyang floating beside me.
If I had to be fossilized in one place forever, I told her, I would choose here. Haiyang said she didn’t know that word, fossilize, could I repeat it. Fossilize, I said, it means to be candied in one shape forever. It means someone, centuries from now, will date your death, dissect it for why. I told her this pool was a fossil and its cause of death wasn’t determined yet. Let’s never be found, Haiyang said, gargling her own spit, pretending to surface, her arms blurring above me. Beneath us, I still believed, was the body of the girl, fossilized. When I saw the men pouring cement into the pool, I remembered running toward them, telling them not to bury her like that, so deep and without anywhere to breathe. Haiyang and I held our breaths while she counted to a million, while the windows above us fluttered like eyelids, and for once I believed in those Vegas magic tricks, those people who lived in glass boxes for weeks, I believed it was possible for the concrete to copper into water, for the girl to have landed in a pool that was full instead of empty, swanning across the surface, looking up with us.
“Haiyang” by K-Ming Chang and the artwork titled Regarding the Sea by Mikaela Kristianous appeared in Issue 41 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020). Her short story collection, Resident Aliens, is forthcoming from One World. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.
Mikaela Kristianous hails from northern California and is currently attending college as a Studio Art major, hoping to eventually become a professional illustrator or art teacher. She has participated in a number of charity magazines including Melting Pot, Crescendo of the Night, and Flowers for the Seasons, whose donations went towards the Flint Michigan Water Fund, trans activist Miss Major’s retirement fund, and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute respectively. Currently, she is managing Celestial Style, a fashion zine. She specializes in portraits and enjoys experimenting with colorful paintings.