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Zeaz, Soldite, and Nephosa

Zeaz Lu tried to swallow the ache in his chest like a tree toad with a tree in its throat. His heartache, born from years of dormant romantic lack of reciprocity, surfaced in the Year of the Tiger as a rubescent lunisolar lantern. His heart sat under a tree like a half-bitten apple as he sipped some coconut water and swallowed a painkiller. An Italian woman had once told him that the pill was “anti-inflammatory and more powerful than a leaf.” He imagined the leaf’s vascular appendage, its verdant city of fragility, its photosynthetic poise, and its epicuticular radiance and thought perhaps the leaf had more power than he had given it credit for, even if that power only resided primarily in its autotrophic climate. Zeaz Lu and his wife, Soldite, had been together for almost a decade. And Soldite behaved in their marriage more like a soldier than a nuptial entity with dyadic appetite and passion. He would do things like running errands and grocery shopping and making love or even washing the dishes and laundry with the efficiency of a sentient robot. Had she possessed any intention of killing anyone, the way she moved through the world spoke the same equivalency as a sociopath.

He tried to reason with her a couple of times a month, telling her that if she put more heart into everything she did with a depth of love instead of depth of efficiency, their marriage wouldn’t be on its way to collapse. Zeaz recognized that Valentine’s Day was just around the corner and that the morning he sent her on an errand to Target was the morning of the Lunar New Year. They spoke frequently about quietly celebrating it. His grandmother and mother were Chinese. His father was from Eastern Europe. And although he wasn’t a preserver of traditions, the Lunar New Year was his favorite holiday. He liked having a new year in which the day of its celebration wasn’t fixed like it was in the Gregorian calendar. Each year that new year, that lunar new year, could land somewhere in January or February and its expected unpredictability greatly excited him. Yet she was a white American woman with white-centric history saturated in French, German, and a hint of Irish. She didn’t really care to celebrate it with him. Soldite spent the morning Zooming with a coworker then proceeded to run some errands and by the midafternoon, she had fallen asleep on their sofa. During her afternoon errands, she hadn’t even driven to the dilapidated Asian grocery store a few blocks away to grab them some lunar cakes or lunar celebratory eateries such as longevity noodles or octagonal candy boxes filled with roasted watermelon seeds, lucky red candy sweets, gold chocolate coins, candied winter melon (his favorite), candied lotus root, candied coconut, or dried kumquats, which he mentioned almost every single day before the celebration. Each time he brought up the festivity, she would say, “Yeah, for sure.” And then proceed to have selective amnesia.

During holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, she would fly back home to her family without him. Over the years, he had grown accustomed to his exilic experiences with the holidays. He had spoken to her about how isolating and alone and sad it was for him as he considered her to be his family. Yet the words entered one of her ears and exited the other. It went without saying that she always referred to her parents and older siblings as family. Although he had expected the Lunar New Year would be isolating, with the tiger roaring its agony back at him, he didn’t expect it to be this isolating, this dividing. Zeaz understood then that even if one foresaw an event coming, it could not diminish his agony. By the tenth year, he thought he would get used to it but each time, each holiday, the pain of cultural and social alienation opened in him like a freshly cut wound.

So he watched her sleep and when Soldite woke up to prepare for the next day’s work, he just let her. He walked to the kitchen to wash some leftover dishes and he folded the last load of laundry. He had understood marriage as a way for people to be close together by maximizing their respective, individual isolation. He suspected that people got married so that the mirror of blame and excuses could point away from their respective selves, a way of blindly dismissing their own accountability. Had they been alone, they would have been forced to face their own terrors and demons. They would, at least, have tried to tackle some of their weaknesses instead of directing the velocity of their failure toward their “seemingly” innocent spouse. Zeaz understood this on a fundamental level and so, in the Year of the Tiger, he prepared legal papers to divorce his white wife and faced what he feared the most: himself, a biracial man with intermittent epileptic episodes, who was less dominant than a leaf.

He wanted so much of her time but ended up wasting all of it. That Denver oncologist is unethical and an asshole, she thought. He could have referred her right away to a radiologist but he was trying to milk the health insurance system and get her to lose herself in the red tape of getting unnecessary, expensive tests so that his hospital could make money. And now she was in pain all of the time. Sharp pain like she had been impaled with a chicken skewer. She could have had her treatment right away. She could have. Eventually she saw him because her sense of self-esteem was poor. His love for her was irresponsible, even fake, and could not be reborn. But she secretly craved his adoration. His quiet, psychotic devotion to her. It made her feel like she had power. Power over anyone. And he seemed like an ideal candidate for this power transaction. She walked with him along a narrow road where the ivy spread wide and long and high in the vertical clarity. The sky, heavy and broad, hovered over them. Eventually, an ambient aura of silence approached them like a sylphlike bodice of fog. And it listened in on them during their pain-torn conversation. I love you, he softly whispered to her, hoping that she would understand what it meant for this love to leave his mouth with little retaliation from his body. Even his fists wouldn’t revolt. His legs wouldn’t give out. His stomach wouldn’t cave in. His tongue wouldn’t misbehave. When she returned home, after climbing four flights of stairs in her thin teal winter jacket, she reached into her pants’ left pocket for her keys. How could she not know about him slipping his former lover’s heart into her pocket? It pulsated against her thigh like a vocal microphone dipped in organic pomegranate juice.

For 4.2 hours straight, Nephosa has been listening to the dryer spin. It spun in a circular motion, giving her garments motion sickness. Sometimes it vomited a trail of thread, fiber jettison, strands of lint, and sometimes dark cotton balls of built-up debris. She shared this dryer with five roommates and two dogs, beagles. They are known for their hunting skills but her building unit had 456 rooms, dorm-like in their structure and composition in the heart of San Francisco, and because San Francisco was not Washington’s Selkirk Unit 113, the dogs had to substitute their primal skills for a more modern, unwild one: sniffing carpets for trails of marijuana debris. Her rent was around $1,750 a month. The word “around” did not account for other fees such as parking, trash, and unusual services one would normally find in semiconvenient hotel destinations, but not for apartment-turned-dorm-like facilities. At one point, her mind briefly wandered away from the magnetic din and clatter of the dryer and shifted her attention to the kitchen cabinet. Her roommates each had their own cupboard. Not too large. Not too small. Just five stacks of ordinary shelves for condiments, snacks, dishes, paper towels, canned goods, and jars of peanut butter and ramen noodle cups. In her free time, she used to count her tea bags. In a secret journal, she would document how many had been used using an imprecise tally system. Sometimes she would forget to dock one or two tallies for those nights she couldn’t sleep and during the hours when she tossed and turned egregiously and restlessly. And for those nights when she checked the contents of her tea box and discovered the impossible she would fume silently as she slammed her bedroom door in a passive-aggressive fashion. In the morning when she noticed her roommate Nefali standing near the refrigerator waiting for his coffee to percolate, she would toss resentful gazes at him. “Were you the one who brewed my tea without my consent?” she thought. She would walk toward him coldly, coughing behind him as she reached for a pot from her own cabinet to boil eggs. Sometimes Nefali would flash her an uncomfortable smile, not entirely sure what to do with her tempestuous energy—sometimes calm like the sea and at other times explosive as fertilizer mixed with hydrogen peroxide and citric acid, etc. When the tea fiasco did not measure up to her micromanagerial aptitude, she ordered a milligram scale from Amazon for those nebulous calculations she could not achieve with her fingers and for things that usually did not arrive in mini packages. Every night before climbing into bed, she took each jar of sugar, salt, pepper, honey, and peanut butter, and even cartons of milk, to her room and weighed and documented each container. She would note each time she used a particular item in her journal, which had become more of a ledger than a diary of her feelings and goals. Needless to say, she should have been a drug kingpin instead of a customer representative who worked at the call center for T-Mobile. One time, she noticed that her sugar was six grams short, which meant that about one and a half teaspoons of it had been shoplifted or, worse, defalcated out of her jar. For days, she could not sleep or eat after her discovery. It was hard to see the dignity and rationality behind Nephosa’s meticulous documentation. It made no sense to have this power and to have that power all go to waste, reasoned one of her friends when she confided to them about her great detective work. Why did she take all this pointless time to measure and calculate and document when, with such potent knowledge, she wouldn’t do anything with it? But who is the culprit? the friend asked her. I don’t know, she replied. I just know someone, one of my roommates, took six grams of sugar from my jar without my consent. Her frustration grew and grew until one day, when she measured her salt container, it had 13.6 grams more than her documented amount. She thought her scale had broken. She even spoke to an Amazon customer representative who informed Nephosa that her famous digital scale had a 99.9 percent accuracy. She knows now the end of her life is near.

Vi Khi Nao’s work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Among her books are A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of FC2's 2016 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize), the novel Swimming with Dead Stars (FC2), and the poetry collection The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. She was the Fall 2019 Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute.