Content Warning (CW): violence, dismemberment, implications of zombie-ism and vampirism, blood, short descriptions of anti-Asian racism, sexual content, mentions of genitalia, body horror
Salt for a Tongue
Ally doesn’t remember The King and I being such a long movie. But she also doesn’t remember if she watched the animated version or the live action as a kid, only that she enjoyed the puffy skirts of the main character.
She never gets hungry during class, but she can hear the crinkling of her classmates’ chip bags in the creaky desk next to her, and it makes her aware of the button of her jeans digging into her abdomen. She sits straighter in her chair.
“Do you want some?” the classmate whispers to her. It’s Wendy. She’s another East Asian student. STEM. Taking this class for gosh knows what. Ally feels a pang of competitiveness with her, but knows it’s irrational. They barely speak. They’re not even in the same major. And she’s offering food.
Ally holds up a hand and shakes her head. She glances at the professor. He’s still turned towards the movie.
“You sure?” Wendy asks again.
Ally wishes she’d stop asking so loudly. But Professor Jones is unmoving, the glare of the movie reflecting off his glasses. She manages to whisper, “Yeah, no thanks.”
Wendy shrugs. “I’ve been ravenous lately.” She sits deeper in her chair and faces forward again, pops a chip into her mouth.
Ally cringes every time the CRUNCH resounds through the room. Is no one else bothered by this?
She glances around. No one seems fazed.
She decides to take more notes, latch onto things in the movie that she can bring up during discussion later.
When the movie is over, Professor Jones turns on the lights. “Five-minute break and then we’ll get back here to discuss.”
Several of her classmates rush out to the hallway, and it’s only her and a classmate named Oliver and the professor there. She looks over her notes.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin makes an appearance??
The actor is white
Professor Jones is in his early seventies, not retired yet. Hardly any professors ever retired. He takes a sip of water from a Poland Spring bottle and sits at the edge of the desk at the front. Scans the room. “How’d you like the film?”
It’s just her and Oliver here. He has nice brown hair that curls at the nape of his neck and thick-framed glasses. He’s the preppy type, with his lace-up boots and tight pants, but not in a loud way. She remembers he said he was from Massachusetts, about an hour away from the university.
He looks to her, as if letting her speak first.
“It’s much different from what I remember as a kid,” she says, her voice lilting at the end. A question, a suggestion. She’s always been gentle and she’s working on it. She’s read recently that women in academia need to have their tone descend. You don’t want your authority questioned, a linguistics professor once said, his long finger wagging in the air.
“Didn’t you say your family was from Thailand?”
She never has. She’s never mentioned her family background in class. “Um,” she says, looking into his eyes. They aren’t malicious. They are rather kind. And Professor Jones is older than her father, who speaks clumsily about people all the time.
Oliver looks to her. She can sense his eyes on her. The air is taut.
“No,” she decides to say, gently. “They’re not.”
Professor Jones’s face, round and mustachioed, contorts severally in the next second. Embarrassment, laughter, and dismissal pass through his expression before he waves his hand in front of him, as if swatting away a bee. “I must be mistaking you for another student I talked to recently—” he begins to say.
She wants to release them all from this situation. She waves her hand as well, feeling foolish in mirroring his motions. “No, no, it’s okay, my family is from China.”
He stops the waving and taps his temple. “That’s right! We talked about this when we watched The Good Earth.”
They, indeed, watched that film three weeks ago.
But they hadn’t spoken about her family then either.
After class, she packs up her books as swiftly as she can. Out in the hallway, she senses a shadowy presence sidle up to her.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hi,” she says. Again, it’s like a question.
“Sorry about what Jones said,” Oliver says, earnestly. She likes the way he grips his backpack strap on one shoulder.
Before she can say anything, someone else chimes in, “What did Jones say?”
It’s Wendy. She is walking on the other side of Oliver and now Ally feels like the shadow.
Oliver explains what happened. “I don’t know,” he concludes, turning to Ally, “maybe you did talk to him about it weeks ago?”
Ally shakes her head.
“He’s a racist pig,” Wendy says through clenched teeth.
“It’s fine,” Ally says, feeling iron in her throat at—she isn’t sure—at Wendy? At bringing the topic back up? At Professor Jones?
Racist pig sounds a notch too harsh for the old man.
“It’s really not fine,” Wendy insists. “We’re not all the same.”
Oliver nods, his brows knit together. Ally nods too, but it’s more an echo.
Wendy sighs. “You’re sweet,” she says to Ally. It’s not mean. It’s a lamentation. “Well, I’ll see you.” She bounces off and joins the stream of students walking downhill to the dining hall.
Ally watches this and glances at Oliver.
“I’m going to go too. Are you headed to dinner?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “I have leftovers I should finish.”
“That’s very responsible,” he says.
She prickles for a second, wondering if there’s a tinge of mockery in that. But there isn’t.
“Well, cool, I’ll see you. But I wanted to ask: is Ally short for something?” His blue eyes twinkle, even in the dusk.
She smiles. “No. Just Ally Chu.”
“Not just,” he says, pointing a friendly finger-gun at her and walking backwards towards the dining hall.
For some odd reason, she musters what it takes to flirt back. “Is Oliver short for something?”
“Oliver Smith,” he says, sweeping his hand through his hair. “Simple.”
She watches as his silhouette recedes and she turns towards her dorm. She has leftovers there. A test to study for. And her parents to call.
At her dorm room desk, she waits for her parents to pick up.
It’s her mom. They still have a landline phone. “Ally, have you eaten yet?”
She looks down at her plate of pasta. “Yes, Mom, eating right now.”
“You have to eat well, okay? Health comes first.”
It’s a refrain her parents tell her often. They’re both in the health field.
“Yes, Mom,” she says, setting down her fork. She feels jittery, her fingertips tingling. It’s a cold Boston evening and her appetite has never been big.
“How is school?” her dad chimes in. He sounds far away, as if whisked from a task to the phone.
“Good, I have some papers,” she says.
She hears her dad come closer to the phone. “Ally?”
“Mmhm?” He hasn’t used this tone with her in a while. She sets down her pen.
“There have been some Chinese women in New York, very sick and no one knows why,” he says, his voice lowering.
A poisonous dagger of a thought flashes through Ally’s mind, but she swats it away immediately. She clears her throat. “Were they college students?” Maybe it was a college party gone wrong.
“I don’t know, didn’t read the whole thing,” her father admits. “I will send you article.”
“Okay, thanks, Dad,” she says. She notices her fingers tapping on her knee. She stops.
“Mm,” he says into the phone. “You need to eat well, sleep well. That’s all that matters, okay? A, B, C, I don’t care.”
This is something her parents always have emphasized. They let her major in film. Her father, in fact, had wanted to be in the arts before political upheaval robbed him of his childhood. Although she knew some of her Asian classmates didn’t have the luxury to pursue what they wanted to, her reality was more nuanced than the stereotypes.
In fact, more often than not, even for her STEM classmates, this reality is more nuanced.
She thinks back to whatever it is that made her feel like Wendy’s competition.
She ought to be nicer.
Especially if the thought that flashed through her mind is true.
Which, she reminds herself, would be absurd.
The next week when the film seminar meets again, Ally gets there later than usual. She doesn’t want to be there alone with the professor.
He’s a nice man, she reminds herself, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be that kid sucking up to the professor before class begins. She already stands out enough.
Oliver has switched seats—positioned himself in the seat next to her usual one.
She gives him a small smile as she sits down, thinking perhaps he doesn’t catch it.
But he does, performs a small wave with his hand.
Professor Jones does roll call, his mustache bobbing up and down as he speaks.
He points his pen at the empty desk beside Ally. “Anyone seen Wendy?” When no one answers, he grumbles to himself, clicking his tongue. “No essay from her either.”
Another moment. “Have you seen Wendy?”
Another silence, and then Ally looks up, realizing that Professor Jones is addressing her, specifically. “Uh…” she says, feeling ridiculous. “No. Not since last class.”
The air feels taut again. Ally wants to shrink into her chair, run away. Why her?
Oliver pipes up, “Nor have I.”
The air loosens a little. Ally feels relief, gratitude. It’s not just about her now. The Professor tried to make it, and now it’s not.
Roll call continues. Ally doesn’t want to look at Oliver in the eye, lest she make more of a scene. Class discussion of The King and I is rather bland. Much of the conversation lingers on shots and angles.
After class, Oliver sidles up to her again and asks, “What did you write your essay on?”
“Costuming history in newer period dramas,” she says. She wanted to write about the female automaton in old twentieth-century films, but she didn’t know where to start.
“Oh, very cool, I didn’t know you could write about stuff off the syllabus,” Oliver says.
She tucks her hair behind her ear. Her hair is long and straight, more like an Asian ghost rising from a well than Wendy’s cool, short bob.
She shakes the thought away and asks, “What about you?”
“The Kantian sublime in horror films. It’s a rough draft of what I think my thesis will be about,” he says.
She nods and they talk more as they walk, the shadow of Wendy not here today.
When she goes home, she Googles Kantian sublime.
She wakes up to a buzzing the next Monday. A high-pitched drone in her ear.
It’s her phone. She almost never gets phone calls.
It’s her parents.
“Ally?” her mom sounds frantic.
Ally raises herself up on an elbow. “Mama?” The word slips out, primordial. She hasn’t called her mother that in about a decade.
“Your father is in the hospital last night.”
“Is he okay?”
“Needs stitches, but he’s okay, thank goodness,” her mom says. Her voice sounds tired, shaken. “He was pushed by someone last night while walking home from the store.”
“Who did this?”
There’s a pause. “We don’t know.”
“What kind of person would do this?”
“You know what kind,” her mama says lowly, and Ally recalls the fear so many white people had about Asians during the last historical event, and the one before that, and the one before that... “But that doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does,” Ally says. “It does matter.”
“You need to stay inside as much as possible,” her mama says. “There is no new information about the disease but people are scared. Don’t go out after dark. Stay on campus.”
She agrees to everything her mother says, promises she’ll call.
She hears a gurgling sound. “Are you okay, Mama?”
“Nauseous all day,” her mama says. “Too much hospital smell.”
She tells her mother to get some rest.
And when she rises, she puts her feet on the linoleum tiles, takes a steadying breath. And researches what happened in NYC.
Four East Asian women, two of Chinese descent, one of Korean descent, one of Japanese descent. All in their late-twenties and early-thirties. Red eyes, bloodshot. Pale skin, cracked lips. Ravenous appetites.
These women have been quarantined in various New York hospitals.
Severe cases of anemia one doctor says.
A sex trafficking scandal another posits.
Some epidemiologists are more skeptical, wondering if it’s a new pandemic, the likes of which are yet to be determined.
Ally does the thing she knows she shouldn’t do. She looks at the article comments.
NEW ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE? WE’VE SEEN THE MOVIES.
She rolls her eyes.
OF COURSE IT’S THEM.
Ally feels a roll of nausea, creeping up her throat. She swallows the acidic bile. She was born in Pennsylvania. She’s on a college campus. Surely she is fine in Massachusetts. People have been nice to her.
Not always, but nice.
10/10 WOULD STILL DO
She slams her laptop closed.
When she gets to film class that night, there’s a sign on the doorway that says: CLASS RELOCATED. CHECK EMAIL.
She checks her email. Refreshes. Refreshes it again.
She checks her spam folder.
Then the trash folder.
She emails Professor Jones:
Where is class meeting? I got here and I saw the sign, but there was no email. Sorry about that.
She pauses, then erases the apology. Tries again.
Where is class meeting?
She checks this against the lists and memes she’s seen on feminist websites. She sighs and walks across campus back to her dorm room. Shouldn’t Oliver have emailed her?
Silly. There’s no reason why he should or would.
Dusk has fallen over the Boston campus. The sky is a bruise above her, save for that sliver of a moon, like a scar.
She pulls her jackets closer to herself. Feels like crying salt tears.
It’s silly to be this angry, this upset. She’s got it great, no? She’s going to get a film degree. She’s safe and comfortable. She has shelter, an education, a boy who might like her. Is she not the object of envy? Even if she is walking home, feeling rejected and disgusted.
Much of the snow has melted since the storm, but a few dirty sloshes of it cling to the sidewalk edge. She steps on it, marveling at how brown it’s become.
She skirts around the dog poop that someone has forgotten to pick up. Neglected to? Forgotten?
She crosses the street, upwards past the library and past the old theatre building. Most of the windows are blackened now, people gone to eat dinner and shelter.
She barely misses another clump of shit on the ground.
And then something catches her eye. Something pale, wrinkled, like an old banana between the grass and the pavement.
There are dark splotches beside it, dark splotches in the snow.
She halts. Kneels down.
It looks as if it was ripped from something, the edges of it frayed. It is substantial, pink, and rounded at the tip.
Ally lets out a sound between a scream and a loud gasp. She covers her mouth. Feels the tears salt her face.
It’s a penis, ripped from the body it once belonged to.
The splotches are blood.
How does she report this? To whom does she report this? Without sounding absurd?
She glances around, somehow finds her footing and runs up the path towards her dorm.
Her boots click against the pavement, and then she sees a figure to her right, retreating from the alleyway between the old theatre and the library.
It’s Wendy, looking—looking scared. She’s covering her face with her sleeve as if she’s sneezed into it.
“Wendy!” Ally croaks out.
Wendy meets her gaze, her arm falling back from her face.
It’s covered in blood.
Wendy whisks around and runs, her silhouette retreating into the darkness.
Ally puts it all together. The dismembered thing on the ground, the bloodied face.
She goes home and vomits into the toilet, thinking of the thing on the ground, feeling absolute aversion to it.
And instead of calling someone, she falls asleep, waking up only once to get water for her cracked lips.
She has 37 emails the next morning.
Body of a white male found on campus, between the library and the old theatre. Neck torn open and penis dismembered.
SEVERE BLOOD LOSS. CHUNKS OF ITS ARM MISSING. IT SEEMS THE CULPRIT WAS NOT INTERESTED IN CONSUMING THE PENIS.
Another campus police report: WENDY XIAN MISSING, LAST SEEN IN A MATH CLASS.
Friends and classmates report being worried about her in the days leading up to her disappearance. “SHE WASN’T EATING MEALS ANYMORE,” a classmate, anonymous says.
Administrative emails, classes being canceled for the sake of mourning and counseling, and an entire PR disaster for the school.
An email from Professor Jones:
Ally, I’m so sorry. I didn’t see this until after the seminar and somehow I forgot to include you in the email about relocation. I will send you the slides.
She shakes her head, and sees one email from OLIVER SMITH.
I’m so sorry. I heard about what Professor Jones did to you yesterday. I didn’t go to class because I was going to ditch anyway to study for Philosophy. But to leave you out—whether intentional or not, especially in the wake of this political moment—is unconscionable. Maybe we can watch a movie tonight instead of watching whatever racist thing he assigned?
This feels like balm.
Ally takes another sip of water, smacking it around her lips, and responds:
I’d like that. I’m free after 7 if you’re available and wanna come over. We can watch a Studio Ghibli movie. I’m in Gibson 306.
The response is quick: Yeah!
Ally notices his orange socks first, and the shortness of his nails. He smells of fresh cologne, something like pine.
He apologizes again for the behavior of Professor Jones. “What are you going to do?”
She doesn’t know. “Probably stay in it for the credit.”
“Are you second-generation?”
The question surprises her. She watches as his fingers, now sprinkled with sugar from the sour candy, contract and retract.
“I am,” she says, and again it sounds like a question. Why?
He holds up a sugar-coated hand. “Oh, I just meant that I read in a Race Studies class that second-generation Asian Americans typically are taught by parents to like, put their heads down. Not complain. Do the work.” He pauses, his face scrunched up. He knows how awkward this sounds, at the very least. Surely he does. “Professor Wang said it.”
“I’m sure she did,” Ally says measuredly.
Before he can say anything more, she turns towards the laptop to resume the movie.
They get to the part in Spirited Away where the protagonist’s parents get turned to pigs.
She begins to remember the vitriol online about Chinese cuisine. Her parents weren’t restaurant owners, but she knew people who knew people who were, their places vandalized and abandoned by customers once enthusiastic about the cheap dishes.
She remembers Wendy’s look. Her eyes, wide and haunted, as if she had been the one to discover a bloodied figure in the night.
They both must’ve looked at each other like that, a mutual fear, a mutual recognition.
A tacit understanding, a shared secret.
Ally chews her thumb nail.
“Hey,” Oliver says quietly. “You okay?”
She takes her thumb out of her mouth. Nods. “Yeah, just thinking of everything happening.”
Oliver pauses the movie, and shifts beside her on the bed so that their knees are touching. “You’re so sweet.”
She looks at him, feeling shaken.
He registers her look. “I know, it’s wild. Do you think it’s…the new virus?”
She feels a dagger of annoyance at this. She crosses her arms over her chest. “It could’ve been an animal, you know.”
“The women in New York started biting people,” he says.
“You mean the Asian women,” she challenges him. Why won’t he say it?
“Right,” he says, unfazed.
She reaches across his lap to the candy box and plops one into her mouth.
“Did you hear?” he asks. “They’re saying patient zero might’ve been part of a New England country club.”
That doesn’t make sense. She raises a brow. “How?”
“Right? Isn’t that strange? I think country club and I think white man,” he says.
Ally is no STEM major but she pieces this together. Country clubs with their tinkling glasses and raucous white men laughing about things she’ll never understand. An Asian woman overhearing these jokes, jokes at her expense. Symptoms begin to show, her mouth begins to water.
Her stomach growls. She tugs down at her sweater, embarrassed, and reaches for another sour candy.
Her hand accidentally brushes Oliver’s thigh on the way to the box. Something in the air changes and she’s looking into his blue eyes. They’re pale, and not so shining, like the walls of a nursing home.
His hand lies on top of hers. She smells the pine, and something salty.
“You’re sublime,” he murmurs.
She laughs. She thinks she knows what he means. He means to say beautiful, perhaps, or something great to behold.
But she’s read Kant on the sublime and knows now that it means something like boundlessness, formlessness. Something like a tsunami, an earthquake, a storm.
He leans forward until his forehead is resting against hers and their lips are oh-so close.
If she is a storm, he is a leaf, his fingers trembling against hers. His breath is as gentle as a spring breeze.
His hand hovers over her breast. “May I?”
She nods, licks her lips.
His fingers caress the slopes of her breasts. “Sublime,” he says again. He chuckles.
She can see a bulge in his pants that wasn’t there before. It is disgusting, but she’ll take care of that later. She averts her eyes.
Her mouth moves down the slope of his neck, grazing it, and finds the part where his shoulder slopes down into his arm.
He is still at her breast, fondling it with his entire palm now. He lets out a soft moan.
“Stereotypes are definitely not true.” He chuckles to himself. “Your breasts are—”
She opens her jaw, finds the taut flesh.
Her stomach growls again, purring in satisfaction.
He shakes beneath her and then screams. As he does, she feels the sweet bitterness rush in.
Lillian Lu (she/they) is a queer writer of color and English PhD Candidate at UCLA. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a PitchWars alum in the YA division. Lillian's creative work has appeared in Immersion: An Asian Anthology of Love, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction (Rice Paper Magazine 2019), Prismatica Literary Magazine, and upcoming in the lickety split~. Her non-fiction can be found in The Rambling, Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism (NYU Press), and Eighteenth-Century Fiction.