Even the forgotten life has a beginning.
Reportedly, as an infant, I seldom made noise, even when hungry or soiled, and would lie so still when left alone that on several occasions the caretaker had breezed through hours of the hottest television series before remembering to change or feed me, and had rushed to the crib to find me limp and ashen, as if even then I was loath to draw attention to myself, as if born with a deficient will to survive.
I was a late talker, yet not only comprehended all of what people said but also conversed with myself in my head for two years leading up to when I began speaking aloud. The one time I told my mother, she replied that it was impossible, for one retains no memory of life prior to age five, and that it must’ve been a dream, or that I must’ve made it up.
When my parents eventually ascertained that I displayed all observable traits of a normal child, they enrolled me in a bilingual school where teachers from all subjects reported that I performed satisfactorily in classroom behavior but below par academically, which, by Chinese standards, was already rock bottom.
When I was seven, I moved with my mother to the U.S. as my father remained in Shanghai to watch their bank account accrue digits. In the new country, the only thing I was told with any consistency was that my English was good but that I needed to capitalize my i’s.
“Iris,” the teacher crouched down next to my desk. “Do you want to tell me why you won’t capitalize your i’s?”
I looked down at the spelling worksheet on my desk not because I didn’t want to answer her, but because I didn’t know how.
“Iris?” The teacher’s neck was craned out so far over the table that there was no avoiding her eyes.
“I capitalized my i’s in China,” I finally said.
“I’m sorry sweetie, I didn’t catch that. Could you speak up?”
“I. Capitalized. My. I’s. In. China,” I said, louder and slower.
The teacher looked offended for a moment before saying, “Well now that you’re in America, shouldn’t you start capitalizing them again? In the U.S., we like our i’s niiice and big,” stretching out the vowel in “nice.” She continued, “And you have an i in your name! You don’t want people to mistake you for the flower, do you?”
That semester’s report card included the words can be stubborn and possible developmental regression due to new environment in addition to adequate. It was the first and only time critical words were used on me in the new country. Shortly afterwards, I took on the role of reprimanding myself in my head, and proceeded through the years as a solidly average and invisible student.
In freshman year of high school I joined the cross country team because the new coach was my English teacher and he said I had the body type for a runner, so why not give it a go at tryouts?
“What’s the body type for a runner?” I asked.
“Oh, just, you know. Long, lean, and leggy.”
“Oh,” I said.
Then he turned away and clapped his hands together. “Okay, class! King Lear, act three, scene seven!”
We analyzed Gloucester’s eye-gouging scene, and after class I followed the teacher to tryouts. We ran a timed 5k. It was uneventful except for the way I became aware of how the rebuking voice in my mind evaporated straight out of my skull as my feet flew over the pavement and air rushed into my lungs.
I made the team. Not all the members were long, lean, and leggy.
At the end of that semester, my mother was ecstatic as she commented that I may actually have a chance at a good college with “varsity” on my resume. So when college application season crept up and we were instructed to send our preliminary materials to the guidance counselor, Mr. Dens, for review and advice, I made sure mine had the word “varsity” on it.
In his office, Mr. Dens’ eyes floated over my papers. They lit up when his voice began booming throughout the small room.
“What defines you, Iris, what makes you stand out? Colleges want to see why they should pay attention to you, how you’ll assert your presence on campus.” Mr. Dens sounded like a motivational speaker who had lost his niche. “Your application should show how you’ve strived to be the best version of yourself, how you’ve engraved yourself into the memories of those you’ve crossed paths with.”
Mr. Dens handed back my materials, on which he had written in chiseled purple marker, Who ARE you? MARKET yourself!
My eyes searched the page for the varsity title that I had been so sure to highlight. The word never appeared. Somehow, I never wrote it down.
In the end, I was accepted into half of the schools I applied to, all of them mediocre at best. When a classmate asked about my admissions results, I told her, and she scrunched up her face and asked, “Where’re those?”
“Nowhere, I guess,” I replied.
A few weeks after results came out, Father, who was visiting for a week, announced at the dinner table that he had contacted an old friend who had contacted an old friend who had contacted a new friend who worked for the admissions office at an elite private university.
“Which one?” Mother asked.
“I’m not done yet,” Father said.
It turned out that thanks to several rounds of omakase, my father had become good friends with a few other men working in admissions offices at other institutions.
“Which ones?” I asked.
My father put his chopsticks down. “Iris, you’re going to Harvard.”
My mother let out a gasp and cupped her hand to her mouth that had opened into an O shape, which swiftly shifted into a wide grin. “Taihaole taihaole taihaole, your daddy is amazing!” she gushed as she rubbed his shoulder.
I sat there, hands in my lap, looking at my bare plate onto which suddenly plopped a large, slimy eyeball, its pupil stewed a chalky white.
“Lai, Iris!” I looked up to see Mother gesturing at my plate with her chopsticks. “A student who studies hard deserves a fish eye to celebrate and to fuel the brain!”
“What if I don’t fit in there,” I said to the eyeball on my plate.
“Baobei, this is the opportunity of a lifetime!” Mother placed her hand on my shoulder and leaned in. I saw her eyes flit over to my father as she whispered, “Daddy did a lot to help you!”
“What were the other schools?” I asked my father.
He chewed for a while before swallowing. Then he said, “Princeton and Yale.”
I thought I saw the eyeball move. “Can I choose?” I could barely hear my own voice.
“Beggars can’t be choosers, Iris.”
I went to Harvard. I chose a major that didn’t require me to form or assert any opinions, which, naturally, was statistics. I studied steadily but not particularly vigorously. I got average marks, though it could have just been grade inflation. I didn’t party, didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t join any clubs. In my free time, I took long walks along the Charles River. I also volunteered at an animal shelter, where I sometimes sat on the ground next to the kennel deepest in the building after I finished my rounds, and stuck my fingers through the wire to stroke the greying muzzle of a long-forgotten basset hound named Bo—forgotten, as it seems, with reason, for over all the hours I spent with him I didn’t feel a single thing; he had no personality, never wagged his tail nor growled, didn’t react with excitement when given food and sometimes didn’t eat at all. He let you pet him, but didn’t show appreciation, although that was hardly noteworthy, since, as I overheard, he’d let you kick and slap him as well. He had been found on the street in front of his previous owner’s house beaten half to death, fur and skin burnt to a blackened crisp where a hot iron had been pressed into his side. He hadn’t even tried to run away—it was the owner who dragged him to the sidewalk and left him there.
So it was always a peaceful time sitting with Bo, except I learned to not stay too long, for I realized that when I did, something would blur within my awareness as I looked at him: a milky confusion, like I wasn’t sure who I was anymore or why I was there, or which side of the cage I was on; I could be Bo or Iris, and it would seem like there was no longer any difference between the two.
As a result, I learned to cap my time at the shelter at three hours.
One thing I did do at Harvard was run for the cross country team. All the other girls were long, lean, and leggy. Coach Dima was short and stumpy and shouted at us liberally.
I quickly became aware of my peculiar natural talent. On long runs I had to make an active effort to not drift ahead of the pack, even though I was the only one who always wore long sleeves and thus was dripping sweat before the others. At the end of an interval workout, I’d mirror my teammates as they bent over, out of breath, with their hands on their knees, ribcages expanding and contracting, though I felt little real need to do so. Often, after two hours of fartleks with the team, I would wait for everyone to walk out of sight before pushing up my sleeves and doing another ten or so laps around the track under the cold glare of the stadium lights, relishing the quiet in my head.
“You got an extra pair o’ lungs, Iris!” Coach Dima would say, swinging a heavy palm onto my shoulder.
Yet I became the bane of our team at meets. Whether it was a meet of 50 or 200 runners, I always finished in the last ten. It became a routine: crossing the finish line with Coach Dima’s eyes burning into my temple, finding the energy already fizzled out among the finishers and spectators, then stepping aside for Coach to hurl at me words of disappointment and threats of removal from the team—words which floated over my head like mist. Sometimes I would catch a furtive glance from my teammates, but I was never surprised; I knew they talked about me, blamed me: Iris, the walk-on.
But how could I tell them—tell Coach—that the second I put on that deep red singlet with the large letter H on the front and pinned on the bib with my last name in bold, it was like I had swallowed a ton of bricks, and could barely breathe, much less run?
I should have been replaced after the first season. But Coach’s belief in me was so resolute, and my raw abilities so utterly remarkable, that she kept me on, telling me that with enough time and practice I would be able to get over my “mental block,” though I had not for one minute believed it myself.
In my sophomore year, I found myself in what seems to have qualified as a relationship. My first and last boyfriend was a classical violinist from the conservatory named Kenneth. He had brown hair and blue eyes.
“You have beautiful eyes,” was one of the first things he said to me. I wondered if “beautiful” was just another word for “different.”
One day, I agreed to meet Kenneth at a bar, a departure from our usual kind of date activity like kissing in the park and clammy hand-holding at the movies. After my third cosmopolitan, Kenneth remarked that I held alcohol incredibly well for someone who had never drank before. Feeling a sudden bubbling spontaneity thus far alien to me, I responded by telling him that I’d like to hear him play.
“Sure, I’d love to play for you.”
“Tonight?” I asked. “Are you busy?”
“Not at all, I’m free.”
On our way back to his apartment, his phone rang and he rejected the call, but it kept ringing and he kept rejecting until finally on the fourth time, he said he had to take it. He stayed on the phone for the full fifteen minutes it took us to walk to his building, and for another ten as I waited alone in the lobby with the muffled sounds of his voice drifting around the corner. My insides felt shaky as I waited. Kenneth and I had never really been alone within closed walls before.
When I began thinking that he must have forgotten me, he reappeared, placed a hand on my back as he apologized, and led me up the stairs and into his apartment.
In the kitchen, he held up a large stemmed glass. “Wine?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, ignoring the dizziness I still felt from the three cosmopolitans.
He poured two glasses, and handed one to me, the blood-red liquid swishing up its curved sides as I followed him into another room.
“Cheers!” he said.
“Cheers.” Our glasses clinked.
“You can have a seat,” Kenneth said, gesturing to a scruffy grey couch.
I sat on the very edge.
Kenneth took his violin out of its case, tuned it, stood up, and began to play. Bach Sonata No. 1 in G minor, he would say when he finished.
The acoustics in his apartment were frightfully good. The notes were crisp on their own but silky as they bled together. The double stops twanged and pierced the space between us like arrows. I was enrobed in the melody. Yet as he continued playing, his eyes closed, leaving me alone and unobserved in the room, I realized I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to react to this music. I pictured Kenneth in the spotlight, on an immense stage in front of a full audience, every pair of eyes and ears attuned to him. Would they smile or cry? What would I do?
When he finished and plopped down on the couch next to me, I asked, “How do you know if your music affects an audience?”
“I guess if they feel the way I do now as I’m looking at you.”
Kenneth’s face came in fast and close-eyed, and as we migrated to his bedroom, I was glad for the dimmer lighting. When he began undoing the buttons on my blouse, I let him, and tried to stay still as possible as I realized what was going to be revealed and felt nausea rising inside me.
This is me, I am this, this is what I have, I told myself over and over. I had nothing else to offer him. Excusing myself to the bathroom and peeling off an entire layer of my skin wouldn’t be a better alternative.
Once the last piece of clothing came off, I settled into the bed as Kenneth placed his mouth all over me, and I waited.
“Jesus,” was the reaction when it finally came. “Holy shit.”
In the weak waxy light seeping in from the other room, I followed Kenneth’s gaze to my bare arm lying limp atop his pillow. A single pale keloid ran the length of the forearm, thick and raised and shiny, accompanied by many angry red cuts on both sides. A naked, branchless tree; a single human; or a capital I.
Kenneth sat up. I sat up too. I could see his penis begin to lean back into his body.
“Why— Are you— Why do you do this to yourself?”
I looked at him, then looked away. I shrugged. “My head is loud,” I said.
As I dressed myself, he said, “What are you doing? Hey, you don’t have to go.”
I placed his wine glass in the sink and listened for the rushed slap of bare feet against the floor as I said that I was going to leave, somewhat afraid that he might ask me to stay but also hoping for it.
He didn’t. So I left, and he let me.
In my junior year, I met my first and last girlfriend. Her name was Katherine. She had blue hair and brown eyes.
She was a senior English major and there was a corner of her dorm room that was piled high with books. I spent many of the afternoons I didn’t have practice there, lying on her bed, gazing at the stack of books through the floating dust illuminated by golden streaks of sunlight. Tracing the spines of books written by people with things to say. Admiring Katherine’s face and body dappled with shadows cast by the poplar tree outside, her skin flushed and dewy from orgasm.
The first time we undressed each other, Katherine’s calm reaction to my anomalous arm made me think suddenly of Kenneth. The next day, I texted him, Hey, how are you, good luck with your next recital, that’s all. Best, I.
The reply that came almost instantly read, Who is this?
That afternoon at the lake, Coach Dima asked me to lead the fartlek. I repeated no, please, I’m feeling very nauseous today, until she gave up and asked someone else to do it. After practice ended, I told the team I had a ride back to Cambridge. When the bus pulled out of the parking lot and was long out of sight, I pushed my sleeves up and ran the eight miles home.
Life with Katherine was comparatively peaceful until one day when we were holding hands while waiting in line outside a new coffee shop and an ebullient passerby stopped to compliment Katherine’s hair. When she finished asking about the pre-dye toning process, she asked, “So are you guys sisters?”
“No,” I said, before Katherine could speak. “We’re dating.”
The woman forced a thin-lipped smile, said, “Oh wonderful,” and hurried away.
After we sat down, I asked Katherine, “Do you think we look alike?”
“How can we look alike? I’m half white and I have blue hair.”
“Ok, but, do you think we look alike.”
“I guess, apart from the hair and most of my features, I guess a bit? If you don’t look carefully? We’re the same height…?”
I swirled my latte with my spoon, clinking it against the ceramic insides of the cup until Katherine told me to stop because it was giving her goosebumps.
I pushed out my chair. “I’m going to go to the restroom,” I said. “I feel a bit nauseous.”
“Are you okay? You’ve been nauseous a lot recently.” She seemed concerned, then added playfully, “Are you Laurence?”
I looked at her. “Who’s Laurence?”
“Oh, the protagonist of Simone de Beauvoir’s novel Les Belles Images. She gets nauseous because she feels like her consciousness is trapped in her body which is trapped in a meaningless world.”
I looked at her. “I’m just going to the restroom,” I said finally.
One afternoon at the end of the school year, Katherine and I were sitting together on the Yard. She had recently dyed her hair back to brown, saying that neon blue hair would impede her chances of finding a job. As I reached out to touch the new hair that rendered her almost unrecognizable to me, I saw the slight shirk of her head—so discreet, it could have been my imagination.
I withdrew my hand into my lap. “What’s wrong,” I asked.
Katherine pulled at her strands with her fingers in a way that made me want to seize and hold onto them forever. “You’ve been weird ever since that day at that new coffee shop. I don’t know where you go in your head, but you’re never here when we’re together now. I feel like I don’t even know who you are anymore.”
Shapes of students swirled around us as they passed through the Yard. “Do you…think it’s important to know who I am?” By the time I spoke the words aloud, they already felt like a memory.
I passed her while walking by the river a few weeks later. She was holding hands with someone else—tall, red-haired, nose ring, jewelry all down her arm. Looked nothing like me.
I was just turning to hide my face from Katherine when I realized that she had already seen me, was looking right at me, with the most empty yet curious expression—as if trying to recall a dream, or summon a memory of something that took place so long ago that she couldn’t be sure whether it had happened at all.
That spring, finding a significantly larger amount of time on my hands, I joined the track team. All the faces in the distance crew were familiar. The most extreme masochists of Harvard could be found right there, on the trail in the fall and on the track in the spring, six days a week. I wasn’t sure they would let me in, really, but the team had lost a few runners to graduation the previous year, and Coach Dima was certain that she could crack me.
The night before the final track meet of the year, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, unmoving, looking at myself. I took in my plain features: my single-lidded eyes, my small nose, my round ears. I looked like everyone and no one.
In the dark of the bedroom, I undressed, taking off my sweater as I did as a child, pulling my arms out of their sleeves first so that they were folded against my body under the fabric, then pushing the neck of the sweater over my head so that for a moment, I wasn’t much different from a turtle inside its shell. Then I lifted my arms, pulled my neck in, and let the sweater fall to the ground.
Sitting at the sole small table in my studio, I tried to fish my spaghetti out of the bowl but the pieces kept sliding off the spoon to reveal my own reflection, upside down and distorted in the concave head. I turned the spoon around, but on the convex surface I was right side up. I stood up, went to get a pair of chopsticks, sat back down, and stared at the white wall as I told myself to chew and swallow the spaghetti and to ignore the nausea that was mounting in a steady tide.
Our team was going to lose in front of the entire Ivy League, and it was going to be my fault.
The morning of the meet was crisp and sun-dappled. I stood with my team on the sidelines, watching the mens’ relay pass in crimson blurs across the track. As our starting time approached, Coach Dima gathered us in a circle and gave her usual talk. Then she looked at me and said, “Iris. This is no time for self-doubt or mental blocks. Turn your brain off and use that extra pair of lungs. You got this?”
I nodded—a lie.
It was a distance medley relay. I was running the 1600-meter, the last and longest leg. The horn sounded. From the sidelines, I watched Camille take off, then disappear into the group of moving colors. Soon, the group thinned out, and Camille was in the lead. Yet 1200 meters later when she passed the baton to Erica, we were behind the leading runner by 5 seconds. When Erica finished her single lap and passed the baton to Katie, Harvard was in third. Katie’s 800 meter stirred up a lot of cheering, but she was only falling further and further behind. I felt Coach Dima’s hand on my shoulder and heard her voice as I went to take my place on the track.
While waiting for Katie, the nausea was so intense I didn’t even swallow my saliva out of fear that I would vomit up my innards.
As the track in front of me melted and I could no longer distinguish the noise made by the spectators from the noise inside my head, I imagined I was removing and placing my brain next to my feet on the track. A single slip and a pop. While I was at it, I placed my eyeballs down too. Katie’s bobbing form approached from behind until she was a blur of pumping legs and arms a foot away. I felt the firm, cold baton in my hand, then closed my eyes and ran.
I ran from the thoughts and the life that lived in that brain I’d left on the ground. As the distance between me and it grew, my body began to feel warm and loose, my head quiet and numb as I ran on in the vast, blank darkness behind my eyelids. If I could just run far enough, I’d find some sort of nirvana—my body permanently devoid of any sense of identity or noise, left with just the hum of my lungs, the beating of my heart, the pump of my limbs.
Yet the quiet was quickly interrupted. I heard repeated shouting from the sidelines, “Iris! Pace yourself!” I felt something hit my right foot, and opened my eyes to see the bewildered expression of the runner in front of me, and heard the same voice from the sideline, “IRIS! What are you doing? Use the OTHER LANE to pass!”
I am Iris, I thought. Iris is me, and Iris is in the wrong lane.
Then I noticed something on the ground. It was the starting marker for my lane, where I had left everything behind. And now it was in front of me. I realized I had clumsily overlooked a crucial point: the track is a circular loop. The 1600 meter run passes right over the starting point four separate times; it ends where it begins. I saw my brain on the ground, my two eyeballs next to it, and they were moving—dragging themselves along the rubbery polyurethane towards me.
How could I run from something if I was simultaneously running towards it?
By the time I was on the other side of the track, I could feel my body—which, for a brief blissful 400 meters had been so nameless and free—begin to tense up again with the weight of awareness. They were following me, I was sure, my eyeballs and my brain, tumbling and scraping against the rough surface of the track, trying to reclaim what they owned, what they dictated.
How many laps had passed? How many did I have left? I didn’t know. I just needed to outrun them. If I could just run fast enough, I’d leave them far behind, even forget that they existed—they, this I, so deafeningly, so painfully, so doggedly extant.
Soon, I heard cheering, heard it crescendo, then stop abruptly. Then a chorus of voices.
“Iris! IRIS! Where are you going? Iris come back!”
“Iris, stop running! The finish line’s back here!” Footsteps approaching.
“Iris, stop running!” Jerk on my arm.
“Iris, stop, you don’t need to run anymore, we won, we’re in first place.”
“Iris, open your eyes.” Warmth of a hand on my shoulder.
“Iris, we won. You won.”
“That’s it, just breathe, open your eyes.”
Then something shifted.
“What’s wrong? Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Iris, are you okay?”
“Oh my god, don’t cry, Iris!”
“Iris, why are you crying?”
Was I crying?
I had felt the rubbery snap inside my head when the hands on my shoulders and arms forced me to a stop, and my brain and eyeballs caught up to me and squeezed themselves back into my skull. As I opened my eyes, lights and colors rushed back into my retinas, all blurred and refracted. Tears flowed the entire way back to the bus and didn’t stop when we began driving. I didn’t try to staunch them, for it felt like I was born crying and had been crying ever since, crying for all these twenty-two years, like an Italian statue with the fountain spout in the wrong place, pouring out putrid water, unceasing, the way the voices of such alien sweetness in the background didn’t cease either and seemed like they never would cease as we drove into the midday sun; Iris—Iris—Iris—
Sometimes I think I made up all the stories I know about myself. As if believing that things have happened to me would help explain why I can’t just shrug myself off like a sweater.
Headlines seen from earlier in the evening float around in my head: Iris Lin brings home distance medley relay victory, breaks Harvard and Ivy League record. Yet on second thought, I don’t think my name was in there at all.
I look down, then straight ahead. The image of myself in the spoon I am holding is so drastically different from the one in the bathroom mirror that I wonder how they can both exist at the same time. It seems cruel that so many people should have the pleasure of forgetting me despite having seen me from various angles in movement, while I am stuck forever facing a self so static and unimpressionable.
If maybe I just couldn’t see myself anymore, maybe the I in me would disappear, too.
The spoon is shiny, as if someone has recently polished it.
I bring it up to the right eye so that the handle is parallel to the ceiling. A column of shadow is cast down the face in the mirror. I tuck the head of the spoon under my eyelid, which is elastic and lies snug over the shiny metal. In the mirror, the eyes open wide. I tighten my grip on the spoon handle, inhale, and press hard.
“I, Iris” by Kimberly Y. Liu and the artwork titled Mindless Eye by Amy-Grace Ratanapratum appeared in Issue 41 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Kimberly Y. Liu is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, where she is also a creative writing teaching fellow. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Four Way Review, and Columbia Journal. She grew up in Beijing and lives in New York. You can find her at kyliu.net.
Amy-Grace Ratanapratum is a hobby artist majoring in landscape architecture. She has been drawing ever since she can remember, and started with a small Instagram account, @doodlebird, before creating a more professional account, @thistlescapes. Creating is an enormous part of her life and identity—branching out from 2D art to sculpture, and from fiction writing to amateur singing-songwriting.