Summer in June is when the air starts getting hella muggy. The heat makes my body drench itself in sweat, and my linen clothes cling onto my patterned skin, unevenly tanned by the sun’s sizzling rays. While the sun feeds nature’s greens, it scars my face with freckles. Even so, I go outside to remind myself that more exists. Each afternoon, I gather my sluggish limbs and shuffle to the park located on the corner of a popular intersection. Cars speed here and there, zooming by to get to where they need to go, but it’s a quiet area. The steady sound of tires hitting the smooth pavement— it’s background music I can drown out for a few moments of sweet serenity. Birch trees and London Planes bask in the good-loving of the sun. Their fallen ancestral leaves paint the earth’s ground to be reunited with the soil which helped bear them. I’d like to go on and pretend I’m at peace, but I need to cut the crap and remember I’m 18 and I have shit to do. I want to live, to get on with life.
On June 15, I was crossing the street from McDonald’s to the park. As I pressed the crosswalk button, waiting for the white walking man to signal that it was safe for me to go, a human stick figure shadow loomed over me. The shoddy outline of the shadow frightened me, yet I was curious. I shifted my gaze from the cracked cement and tilted my head upwards to check who the fuck was standing so close to me in this dreaded heat. I nearly break my neck, turning so far to look at someone standing so close. My forehead sweat trickled into my eyes, blinding me momentarily as I flashed them, opening and closing erratically. Slowly my vision came back and I could make out his frail figure. He was an Asian man in his mid-40s dressed in a ragged T-shirt that told me what he had been eating: cigarettes. The smell of those death sticks hurt my nostrils. I was about to cross the street to escape this new misery when he grabbed my shoulder, injecting my body with fear. With his raspy voice, a result of his dying lungs, he said “a liang nu. mm un tyun a.” His words came out so fast. I was translating them in my head, translating the situation, analyzing what had happened. My head was clouded by the overwhelming smell of cigarettes; the toxicity blurred my judgement. The walking man hadn’t appeared yet, and this stranger saved me from being steamrolled by normalized death machines. Perhaps this is why he stood so close. The cigarette man called me a pretty girl and told me “it’s not safe yet” in my mother tongue, Taishanese. Taishanese is becoming more broken as English dominates my spoken word bank, but I understood this man’s words.
As he released his grip on my shoulder, he thrust his business card into my sweating palms. In blue and bold font, it read “DRIVING INSTRUCTOR, call (626) 619-2019 for infomation.” There was no name or business attached to the card. The misspelling matched the man’s thick Chinese accent. He said “I know safety, liang nu” and grinned lopsidedly with his yellow-stained teeth cursed by the cigarettes peeping through his trench coat. His beady eyes traced the outline of my body, like he was trying to carve that image in his brain to remember me for the next time we met. I didn’t pay much mind. My brains were scattered, and my head was rumbling with the overflow of jumbled thoughts that poured in after the death scare. I was in a bit of a doozy.
Together, we crossed the street and went our separate paths. When he reached the laundromat adjacent to the park, I knew I had disappeared from his peripheral. I glanced at the business card sandwiched between my fingers and palm and smiled. It smelled like an opportunity for freedom. With my malnourished chicken legs, I scrambled home. Home was only a five minute walk from the park. Being in such a hurry of nervous excitement, I made it back in three. I burst through the black gates that secured the perimeters of my home, and ran to my dad who was tending dutifully to the backyard’s prospering garden of winter melon.
“Baba, hai a,” my hands waved furiously for him to come over and take a look at the laminated rectangular informational card that Cigarette Man had handed me. I still didn’t know Cigarette Man’s name, and it wasn’t plastered on the card.
Baba waddled over, his atrophying bones barely able to support his tall body that now arched over like half a rainbow. He has crow feet when he smiles. Each crease was a tattooed reminder of the times he laughed and exuded happiness. Sometimes he needs that reminder, especially since Mom passed away from a car accident on the I-10 East freeway. As she was driving home from work during one of this winter’s evenings, a drunk driver hitting 100 mph obliterated her car. Pieces of metal flew and so did she. Her limbs detached from one another, breaking into indistinguishable flesh scattered on the highway. It was a wicked death that shattered our financial and emotional stability. She was the sunshine that had enriched our lives and the greens in this garden.
As Baba peered over my shoulder and looked at Cigarette Man’s business card, a shadow of worry swallowed his mask of happiness. He feared I would join Mom. But he’d never say that. Instead, in a solemn tone, he said “ngoy you go tin ma?” Baba didn’t know if we had enough money. He had been selling a dozen winter melons a day for a whopping $15 each, but that little was barely enough to sustain the six of us in this family. This was the only job he knew how to do. Baba immigrated from China, where he grew up learning only how to farm. He knows how to navigate nature’s landscapes and transform them to produce, well, produce. It doesn’t pay much, but it was all he could do. He had to remember that outside of me and him, there was Shirley, Michael, Raquel, and Dani— four other mouths to feed. We couldn’t just throw money around. We’re fucking poor.
I negotiated with Baba, and we set up a fixed amount we’d be able to hand over for these driving lessons. I didn’t know if we had enough money, but it wouldn’t hurt to ring Cigarette Man up and ask about his price per hour. He freaked me the fuck out, but maybe his card was a sign.
I was 18, a little late in the process of getting my license. I had my learner’s permit. Next up was learning to drive with a likely overpaid certified instructor so they could check some boxes and shit confirming that I took some lessons. Dumb, but that’s the process.
I hadn’t had the time to play real-life Mario Kart; I was occupied with funerals and its ghost friends. I don’t really talk about it with others, mainly because bitches my age flaunt their Bentleys and boyfriends whenever they’re around me. But I just want a mom, my mom. I won’t get into it because these thoughts haunt the hours before I sleep anyway. I give the demons what they want when I’m weak and tired. That’s too much of my time— almost all my time.
Now, finally, the opportunity to get my fucking license was in my hands. Almost was the chance to be normal, on track— to be a blossoming average young adult. I want to live and drive.
As I dial (626) 619-2019 with my dad’s phone, my fingers tremble. Each missed ring made me more nervous, until Cigarette Man picked up.
“Wei?” he said, greeting me with a colloquial “hello,” his tone following the curving arch of a question mark.
“Hello. This is Katie. I’m- I’m um calling about the driving lessons?” Keep it cool. It’s just a phone call. It was also my first attempt at a conversation with someone not related to me.
I’d shut down any human interaction since Mom left. Only the softened cries of my siblings kept me company. I don’t think they knew I could hear them, but the voices traveled. The wearing walls and their peeling paint were thin and hollow, much like our bodies. Our skin slowly shedding its layers as we became more and more exposed to the fuckery of the world— we’re nearly skinned raw. But we are still alive. I remember that as I listen to the scattering static screaming in my ears waiting for Cigarette Man to say something.
“Ah. You yek appointment for June 19?” His sentences mixing broken English and Taishanese together— a common practice for me.
I answer in a snap: “for how much?” I couldn’t make an appointment for June 19 if I didn’t have the money. Please please please. I was praying in my head calling on the magic of threes.
“$10 for two hours. Discounted for you, liang nu.” He tagged the question with a compliment, calling me a pretty girl again. It was a common cultural marker. Common, right? As if to say this was normal. Either way, it didn’t matter.
$10 was hella cheap. Maybe Cigarette Man was taking pity on me. Maybe when he scanned me up and down earlier, he was really looking at how my clothes were worn and torn, the holes in them allowing for shitty ventilation in the summer heat. Maybe my bare feet dirtied by the debris decorating the ground gave it away. Maybe my poorness was showing. Maybe he was trying to meet me halfway. “Maybe” is a lot of trust to give a stranger. But I took up his offer anyway. I was desperate.
“Hao, June 19?” I say agreeing to his terms and confirming the date.
“Hao!” (Very good) he said. He sounded particularly charmed that I had accepted his offer.
“Where I pick you up?”
I described the little cottage-looking house at the intersection of Winston and Schmidt Street. “1911 Winston Street.” I gave him my address and the conversation ended at that. I hung up the phone and danced a little too funky for anyone to consider it a dance. I thrusted my arms into the air from left to right and kicked my legs from side to side. It was the first time I’d been excited for something in a long time.
I rushed to my closet and stared at the limited assortment of clothes I had. I wanted to look presentable, average, normal. In the back of the square storage space, I found an old pair of black sweats and a gray t-shirt with a raw hem sleeve cut. This’ll do alright. It was pretty conservative and comfortable. I laid it on the ottoman situated right by my wooden oak desk. Ah, my good luck outfit.
June 19 rolled around. It’s the early afternoon. The sun is shrouded by white pockets of fluff in the sky. It reminds me it’s here with a suffocating humid hug. I hustle back inside to the comfort of my cooler home, and sit by the window continuing to watch as life surrounds me. The calmness was soon interrupted by the annoying rhythm of Dad’s ringtone. Briefly after Baba picks up the phone, he looks at me and motions me with a swatting hand to head out the door.
“Kui ao koi la” he said in a hurry. He was here already. My driving instructor, Cigarette Man, had parked across the street only seconds ago, but it’s ill-mannered to keep people waiting.
I dashed out the front door, slamming it behind me. Its hinges supported its weight, but the force of my swing made the door wobble and creak. Age was creeping up on its screws.
My hand gripped my permit, and I walked to Cigarette Man pretending to be composed when my insides were really churning with nervous acidity, eating away at me slowly. The lanky man was standing outside his silver Toyota Corolla. He had grey-tinted sunglasses on, but I could still see a devilish glint in his eyes piercing through the thin lenses. With the yellow smile that haunts his face, he greeted me: “Hello, liang nu,” and gestured to me to go in on the driver’s side. I smile nervously and sit myself inside. His car is kind of clean. Some miniature toy cars for teaching purposes. Laminated sheets of the streets I’m familiar with— the ones I grew up around in this neighborhood. And cigarettes.
Cigarette Man entered on the passenger’s side riding shotgun so he could instruct me on the rules of the road. Before we get moving, he sizes down the situation and whips out the laminated pages of the road and uses his toy car to navigate the flimsy glossy paper.
“So this is…. and …” He keeps talking, but his voice keeps trailing off in my head. My limited attention span tells me that I’ll learn the road’s rules as I go.
Eventually, I put the car in drive and gas. How exciting. How dangerous. How confusing.
Every few moments Cigarette Man would give me a direction:
“Zhuon duo” or “Zhuon you.”
This type of shit I could easily translate: turn left or turn right. I didn’t know how to translate that with my hands on the wheel. I oversteered and understeered. But no one was on the streets we were on. No one else was in danger. Crowded vivid violet flowers bloomed on the tall trees that lined this neighborhood. This was nature’s beautiful distraction from the horrors of my driving and everything happening in this car.
A quarter of an hour in, Cigarette Man pulled out his phone from under his scrawny thigh. “Ngoy yin ni loy ee ni hai, liang nu” He said he’d take a video of me to show me how I was doing. I didn’t question the man who was in control of my life in this instance. As he tapped the red record button on his greasy phone screen with smeared fingerprints, I drove, still waiting for further instruction.
“Zhuon duo,” he said, and I turned left. When I finished making this turn, he made me park on the curb right under the purple trees. As I shifted the car’s gears into park, he leaned closer. I could hear his old man bones crunching on the hard car seat as he adjusted his position.
“Liang nu” he murmured underneath his breath’s blanket of cigarette smoke. It was the same fake endearing compliment he consistently smothered me with. “Look here.” He pointed to the video of my face showing only a quarter of my hands on the steering wheel, and I looked. I tried to make sense of how I was such a shitty driver while he swung his arm over my head. His hand landed softly on my dark brown hair gathered in a high ponytail. Pat pat, his hand went, later tucking my baby hairs behind my pointed ears. My focus shifted and I darted my eyes while keeping my body still, scared I would alert him of my fear. I didn’t know how to translate these emotions into actions until his other hand slid towards my inner thigh. I put the car in drive and went. Something had to move. Something other than whatever was happening in this car had to happen. Luckily, the abrupt start of the car’s engine roaring through the humble neighborhood startled him enough to make him sit back in his seat again.
As I drove down the empty street, we made small talk. He can’t know I’m uncomfortable. If he knows, the situation could escalate. Don’t let it get worse. Be normal. He’s giving you a chance to be normal. I caged those signs of danger and kept going.
“What your phone number, liang nu?” I was just “pretty girl.” I wasn’t sure if he ever really learned my name. I wasn’t sure if he should learn my number. But if I refused, he’d know I was onto him. Why else would I refuse? With my foot hovering over the gas pedal, I recited my phone number, giving him another piece of my identity. His skeleton fingers tapped the digits into his phone. As he saved the information, he asked me another question: “what your dream car?”
“Buggie” I say jokingly, trying to bring some light-hearted humor into the stuffy car. I thought those little Volkswagen cars were funny-looking, like straight out of a cartoon— moving comedy.
But he didn’t get it. His brows furrowed, indicating he was confused, and he picked up my phone and told me to show him. Bitch, I was driving. Still, I complied, grabbing back my phone and twiddling my thumbs at a red light into the mini Google search bar. When the result populated, I tilted my screen to show his weasel eyes. He cackled a laugh broken by his traumatized lungs, and directed me to pull over again. By now, we were an hour into the lesson. I don’t think I learned much. As I neared the curb, I crossed my fingers, hoping not to crash into anything, particularly any trash cans waiting outside. The tires were perfectly a foot from the curb. Parked. I parked! Cigarette Man wormed himself out of the car. He lit a cigarette and puffed the smoke into the air. Quickly, he vanished to the car’s trunk, and rustled through pages of subscriptions. I sat in the vehicle happy because of my accomplishment.
He came back with two magazines, and unfolded them in his lap. Car models and brands were plastered on its pages. Their $$$ too. Big $$$. So many commas.
“Which is your dream car?” he asked again and I laughed nervously. Ha ha ha.Why ask? “I don’t have a dream car” I say hoping he’ll get off my back and we’ll move on from this awkward conversation.
“You pick any car and I buy for you.” He tried to say this sweetly, but the raspiness of his voice wouldn’t let him. I stayed quiet, and still. Still quiet. I flicked my right wrist as if shooing away the fucking bullshit nonsense he was spouting, but he only noticed my watch. He grabbed my wrist and asked about the brand of my watch, tossing in a brief comment about how skinny I was.
“Daniel Wellington” I answer and pull my wrist away.
His contorted face told me he hadn’t heard of it before. With his ego too big to admit he was confused, he moved on from that conversation and opened his glove compartment loaded with big dollar bills. My eyes were fixed on the steering wheel; I wanted to leave. I diverted my gaze from his as he returned to his comment about my weight. He called me a pretty girl, a skinny girl— really, I was just a scared girl. Cigarette Man grabbed my permit situated beneath my right thigh, the weight of my body like a paperweight, and tucked his earned greens into the stapled pages of my creased permit.
“Use this money to buy food.” He sounded sincere, but fuck this guy. I just wanted to go home. I was giving Baba’s $10 to this fool and he wasn’t teaching me jack shit. It had been an hour and three-quarters already. We weren’t paying for a sugar daddy, we were paying for a driving instructor. I shoved the dollar bills back into his palms reluctantly, not wanting to touch Cigarette Man. Mom and Baba taught me to not accept money from people. Without a moment’s hesitation, he shoved it right back to me, and tucked the unknown cash number in between my closed thighs. I let it be. A drowning wash of unease doused the situation, and I put the car back in drive to escape back home; the money was in my lap.
After two lefts and a right, I was home again. I parked the crusty Corolla across the street, busted out the car with my permit in my hands, and rang Baba up so he could pay the bastard. I didn’t know what had happened with this son of a bitch, but I knew I was scared. The beads of sweat confirmed my feelings of unrest. I stood on the sidewalk accompanied by patches of lovely lush greens and dandelions growing on its side. The phone was still ringing. Then, the call went to voicemail. I dialed again, panicking that if Baba didn’t come out soon, Cigarette Man would do something. Whatever something was.
As I waited for an answer, the mechanics of my mind were parsing Cigarette Man’s sentences: braids of English and Taishanese; I could understand both, yet a piece was getting lost in translation. The emotional aspect. My emotions were big clusterfucks birthed in the toxic confinement of this man’s car. I forgot how to breathe. Bits of my deteriorating spirit had been lost in the crevices of his car. Cigarette Man was possessed by his nicotine addiction. I remembered the smell of smoke that was deeply infused in everything in it. It tainted anything inside and left its signature scent as a reminder. I remember the stench and how it latched onto the loosening seams of my shirt after sitting in the moving death machine for two hours for a single lesson. How could I forget?
My rolling thoughts were interrupted by Baba’s feigned spritely voice: “Ah, good man! Oo dyeh!” He handed over the $10 and clasped Cigarette Man’s hands between his, showing him immense gratitude. Cigarette Man didn’t deserve any praise, but I was just glad that I wasn’t alone with him anymore.
The two talked about my driving. “Oversteering…. understeering…” I tuned them out until Cigarette Man asked to schedule another lesson. My head spun around, facing them. It was angled to show my confusion. I was trying to process the irritable suggestion. Before any other words were shared, I took the reins on the conversation and bursted in: “I might be busy. I don’t know my schedule yet. I’ll let you know.” These speedy succinct sentences were lies that would buy me some time. The truth was that it was early summer and I didn’t have any plans. Even so, I was busy. I was busy trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. My emotions were knotted up with one another, a big clusterfuck of questions rendering me wholly confused. Cigarette Man was too occupied with his grimy hands in his pant’s pockets to notice my forced emotions. His fingers were rubbing together cunningly— rustling the small bank of dollar bills he kept in his thin khakis. He took my answer for now and hopped back in his silver Corolla. Sitting cross-legged, he lit another cigarette. Meanwhile, my baba and I crossed the street to return home.
I dashed inside the house. Still clutching my learner’s permit and stuffing it in my back pocket, I hoped to get in before Baba. As my body entered through the door, my chest lifted. I arched my back, inhaling so much life to possibly rebirth and cleanse me. When I exhaled, my breath staggered, catching onto the lumps of discomfort that had built up in my system in those past two hours. I ran to the restroom past the foyer, past the hallway, past my room, and screamed streams from my eyes. The tears pooled together to commemorate the loss of my body’s innocence and sense of safety.
My oldest sister Shirley bashed through the barely shut restroom door and looked at me a little horrified. She’d heard a ruckus. My legs had collapsed onto the cold tile floor, and I was on the ground with my head in-between my folded knees. My compacted body was possessed by a wave of sadness that swallowed my soul and mutated it. As she approached me, I opened my swollen eyes a tad. I could make out her figure, but not as crisp as I could make out her words.
“What happened?” Shirley asked, demanding an immediate answer.
My breathing was still inconsistent. All my words were broken syllables detached from meaning. Then I composed myself and rehashed my driving lesson with Cigarette Man. Unwarranted hand on my inner thigh. Hair touching. Wrist holding. Car magazine. Money. As I wrapped it all up, Shirley went “how much money?” I still didn’t know. I maneuvered my hand to my back pocket, pulled out my learner’s permit, and turned over the first page. $300 worth of dirty green money laid in great contrast to the creased stapled white sheets of paper. As I looked at it, disgusted by Cigarette Man’s money, Shirley re-entered my head space with another comment. “Sexual assault,” she said. I shook my head, giving momentum to my closed eyes jogging left to right. She repeated her sentence: “What he did was sexual assault.” I blinked twice, letting her know I’d heard her, but my tongue was twisted. I’d heard the term before, thinking it to be something I’d never experience in the clean, well-monitored suburbs. No rats. But here was a fucking human rat. It was s**ual a******(?) The phrase seemed so Satanic. I didn’t think it would ever apply to me. But now it did, and it’s a common shared shitty experience. Shittingly common. It made my teeth grind with anger dissipating between each movement but never really going away.
Shirley left me to ruminate the puzzle pieces scattered in my mind. After X hours passed and the sun abandoned the sky, shifting its colors to a midnight blue, I crawled into the shower and turned the knob as far as it could go. The scalding water burned my skin, numbing the feeling of having been touched by Cigarette Man. I scorched off a layer of my skin with fire water and became more raw. Standing underneath the trickling shower head, I lost myself in my body that I no longer knew and loved. I scrubbed and scrubbed, lathering soap on my skin again and again until my flesh was pruney. Now, the water was clear and all the suds had swum into the drain. Yet, I remained dirty and marked by his hands.
I gathered my limbs and swaddled them in my bath towel; it absorbed my failed attempt at purifying my body. As I exited the wet space and dressed myself, my phone sitting on the white restroom countertop began to sing its familiar ringtone. I glanced over my shoulder and read the digits that illuminated from its screen: (626) 519-2019. It was Cigarette Man. I let the call go to voicemail, not touching my phone until it stopped. After seven sequences of rings from seven missed calls, my phone stopped buzzing. I picked it up and blocked Cigarette Man. All I could really do was virtually block him. He knew where I lived— this haunted the night.
Even after the ringing had ceased, they still echoed in my head, just louder, keeping me awake. The late hour’s piercing chills penetrated the safety of my mind’s secured borders, opening its gates to buried nightmares. Demons and devils inspiring evil in my dreams. It reminded me that I was just bones encased by thin flesh that couldn’t protect me. As I laid my head on my dampened pillow, my thoughts emerged in bubbles, remembering the day hour by hour. The memories basked in the crowded places of my head. Each voiced their emergence until I silenced them with new dreams filled with empty thoughts. I slept.
Tomorrow came. The wake of a new day was packed with light that infiltrated my room through its cracked open window blinds. I could see that the blue sky reigned over all and was lonely. No birds. No clouds. I didn’t want to move or do anything, still haunted by the events of yesterday. I curled up in my room and stayed put. The short ceiling was so blank and clean. I projected my mind’s images onto them. I was mesmerized by the irrationality of my imagination when I rested my eyes:
Shirley was outside calling me to help out in the backyard garden, probably wanting me to enjoy some fresh air too. The vines of the winter melon were growing unruly and needed a quick snip or two, but the brightness of the outside nauseated me. There was too much enthusiasm in its innocent and radiant nature that made it unbearable to be around when I felt like I was in the dark. My body had been devoured by Cigarette Man’s imaginary hands picking me apart. He was gone, but the feeling of his touch never left. I tried to remember that he was gone as I stuck my feet into the same worn sandals to really check out what Shirley needed from me. As I turned the creaky doorknob, my sister walked towards me with a smile, excited that I had finally migrated from the comfort of my room. Her smile soon broke as a bang went off. The house remained quiet. No movement from the others inside. Fear had wrapped its arms around them too. Shirley laid on the concrete limp with a bullet hole lodged in her upper right chest. Her body pulsed violently, trying to assess the damage. It folded over itself and marinated in its blood. I shook my head as if to diffuse the concentrated cracking sound and track its origin. Shifting my eyes around, I spotted a familiar face hovering over the black gates that were now evidently faultily designed but meant to protect my family. It was Cigarette Man. A smile slithered onto his face as he saw the fear that had emerged on mine. We stood frozen. Our gaze danced in the space that stood between us until he left with a skip in his step. He jumped in his silver Toyota Corolla and revved his engine so loud as if to applaud his victory. He got away.
The image of my surroundings began to blur. Tears erupted from my eyes and speckled the floor. Shirley still laid there, barely alive. I watched my sister struggle and called on Baba and my siblings now. A stampede of footsteps crescendoed as they neared. They dialed 911 quickly. The phone fumbled in their hands with great nervousness. Meanwhile, I hurried to the garden to fix up the vines of winter melon that Shirley had called me outside for. I couldn’t stay with her because all I could see was blood. She was losing life because of me and I couldn’t stand to see it. Fixing up the garden was all I could do, at least for her.
I tuned the cries out and approached the wild greens that were hanging on elevated criss-crossed lumber nailed together to make a grid. On the yellowing grass ground of the garden, were a pair of dodgy scissors dull from overuse. I grabbed them and clipped the tails of some of the vines. I didn’t stop until their thin bodies were fully separated, which didn’t take long. It was quick and easy. When I rested the scissors back on the untrimmed grass, I saw a pile of extra wood. Some of it was shredded. Baba kept them in case we couldn’t pay to turn on the heater. Starting a fire was what he had taught us all to do. It was another way to fend for ourselves when money was low. It was a way of survival.
I inched my body towards the wood and grabbed two of the larger pieces. One of them had already been marked. A deep groove was made to help start our fires. It was an essential piece. The other was fresh and new. I grinded the two together until the intense friction sparked a subtle fire. Then I dropped it on the grass and watched as it spread. I stood in the middle of it all, warmed by the magic of my creation as it slowly swallowed my body. I wanted to burn old miseries away for a moment. I was chasing a way out.
The quiet flames were drowned when the police came. It was the ambulance that had been called for Shirley. Their noses sensed the smoke that my family had been too numb to notice; their noses were clogged by the overwhelming snot and tears from today’s shitfest.
The police were accompanied by big men in neon suits.
“Get in there,” they said to the firefighters. Their words traveled in a blur and were faint. My vision was hazy when an arm wrapped around my shoulder and pulled me in and out of the fire. I was alive. The skin where Cigarette Man touched me bubbled from its high exposure to the heat. But the rest of my body remained the same. I knew I could heal. I just needed to be reborn.
The firefighters chased the fire away while my body was brought into the ambulance on a gurney. I was placed next to Shirley. As we headed to the hospital, I laid down thinking about old miseries Cigarette Man etched on my skin. I’d erased them in the fire and turned them into ashes. I found a way out of this nightmare.
My eyelids rose and I darted my eyes away from the ceiling. I looked at my unscathed body and sat up. Memories of June 19 haunt me, but I remember that I’m alive.
This story is a blend of fiction and creative nonfiction in how it blurs and capitalizes on the intersections of reality and my imagination in and out of sleep. Fabrications in this work, namely the introduction of Cigarette Man, the death of my mother, and the exaggeration of my family’s financial status were deliberate changes superficially made to engage with and amplify the plot. My experience with sexual assault and the settings they took place in are reflected accurately in this story despite the minor manipulations of certain aspects. This decision was made to help organize my scrambled egg brains that struggled to process these events; altering various facets helped give me an opportunity to compactly and wholly tell my story through an active lens.
Kitty Chu is a Chinese American who resides in Los Angeles, California. She was extensively exposed to variations of abuse growing up. To heal and understand herself and others, she writes poems and stories exploring different genres. Kitty is currently a first-generation undergraduate student studying Creative Writing and English at the University of California, Riverside. She loves coffee and the fine-dining of her local McDonald’s.