Phantom holding a Bouquet of Alstroemeria
I’m about to leave this place
this place where you smoked your last cigarette
this place where you took your last swig of gin
We laughed about our change in view
how 68 drives swift
until you see “Welcome to Pennsylvania”
where you feel that spike
in population density
How you’d cackle, say “Sorry”, be furious
at my decisions—insist both
I didn’t actually make them myself
& scold my perceived
giving in to sway
Phantom, I’m drinking a seltzer for you
wrong flavor though, sorry
There’s not much I can get right right now
not just because I’ve been sick
ten days & counting
Maybe it’s only right to leave this place ill
obfuscating memories of transition—
unreality for unreal times
Soon, I’ll return
to your space
give you deliberate thought
You know all the things already
& taught me how to lose while smiling
Mark Danowsky is a Philadelphia poet. He is Editor-in-Chief of ONE ART: a journal of poetry, Senior Editor for Schuylkill Valley Journal, Poetry Craft Essays Editor for Cleaver Magazine, and a Regular Contributor for Versification. He is author of the As Falls Trees (NightBallet Press) and JAWN is forthcoming from Moonstone Press.
A lifetime of longing to hide my body began with a single phrase: fei mui. Meaning: fat girl.
Gugu, my father’s sister, would say it in a tinny voice, with a simpering laugh and a sideways glance. A close-fingered pat on the back, but never a hug. It was how she always greeted me. We were both too standoffish for real touch—I affronted by the unconscionable reminder of my plump (never obese) size, she unaccustomed to the wealth and prosperity that fat represented.
She didn’t mean to be cruel, I knew, but even before I was old enough to equate fat with shame, I didn’t appreciate the attention the moniker fei mui drew to my body. Her own daughters, like me American born, were skinny by contrast. When we stood side by side for the dozens of family photos snapped over our childhoods, it was I who filled the frame, sturdy and stalwart, beside the grinning waifs she produced. Fei mui was the only name by which my aunt knew me, my rounded belly and thick limbs the only things she and my cousins saw.
So I tried to hide. As I page through these old photos, newly digitized, I see my smile turn more tentative each year. I remember skulking in corners behind a curtain of long, dark hair. Piling on layers of loose-fitting clothes that skimmed the curves and bumps and bulges as I grew. At eight, I hiked the elastic band of my jeans as high as it could go whenever I saw my aunt and cousins, accepting as penance for hiding my paunch the angry red tracks it’d leave along my ample waist. At ten, felt my cheeks burn, ashamed, as the metal notch of the balance-beam scale shone under the fluorescent light of the nurse’s office and clicked into the 100-pound place during a public weighing in gym class. At fourteen, began running, repeating the mantra just five more pounds—it was always just five more pounds—until, lungs aching, gasping for air, I collapsed. At sixteen, held my breath to staunch the chemical smell of the slimming bronzing cream I spread on my legs, like the magazines said, and halved every normal portion I was served, turning those same magazines’ dire warnings of the perils of anorexia into instructions. I deliberately starved, wishing I had arms so thin you could snap them, wishing I could be so small as to disappear.
My parents, witnessing my methodical vanishing, asked my aunt to stop calling me fei mui when I was still on the cusp of adolescence. “Eh?” I overheard her say. “Fei mui, ah?” It hadn’t occurred to her that fat could be an insult, that calling attention to the anomaly of abundance could be anything but an expression of affection. Excess was remarkable. Escaping poverty in China so that we could thrive, so that I could live here in America without want, that I could grow strong and healthy and well-loved and large enough to earn the name fei mui was a testament to our collective achievement. How then could I struggle when I had all I needed? How could I complain when we had the privilege of more than enough? And yet, the damage done, I could not help but aspire to shrink myself in the fashionable, relentless cycle of American exercise and dieting.
What I saw as grotesque she read as entitlement, but I could not understand the disconnect, how she could so cavalierly reduce the whole of me to fat girl and call it affection, no matter how sweet and innocuous it sounded in Cantonese, until years later I came upon a photo of Gugu as a young girl in Hong Kong. My dad had uncovered the image from a family archive during his own historical investigations and emailed it to me. It’s black-and-white and grainy, but I spot her among a wedding party, unmistakably, standing at the edge of the photo. She’s skinny as a wooden plank, eyes wide with hunger. Never given the chance to be a fei mui, she smiles broadly through her unconcealable suffering, craning her neck and preening, angling to take up more space, wanting only to be seen.
Tracy Lum is a writer and software engineer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her nonfiction has appeared in Bustle, Hello Giggles, HerStry, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Entropy Magazine, and Little Old Lady Comedy. A Best of Net 2021 nominee, she is currently working on a memoir about her journey from publishing to tech. Find more of her work at tracylum.com, or follow her @tracidini on Instagram and Twitter.
after “Wigs Everywhere” by Justin Jannise
The cracked eraser on the inside
of my desk is chewing gum.
My Air Canada earplugs are hard
lumps of chewing gum.
At the MET, there is a mosaic
of limited-edition chewing gum.
Chewing gum is good for your jaw
unless you chew too much of it.
The plant in my room: wires plastered
with green chewing gum.
You can chew chewing gum for three hours straight
at which point the gum stiffens and becomes rubber.
You can then use the chewed gum as sticky tack
or a new tire.
Chewbacca is chewing gum
There is chewing gum on the rat
that has scampered through my door, shivering.
Grief is a long, stretched piece
of chewing gum.
Your love is a piece of chewing
gum. It has teeth. It clings.
Emma Miao is a poet from Vancouver, BC. She is the author of Geography of Mothers (Frog Hollow Press, 2021). Her poems are published in Diode Poetry Journal, HOBART, Frontier Poetry, Atlanta Review, Permafrost Magazine, Rust + Moth, and The Fiddlehead. She hopes you have a wonderful day.