Gather around. Welcome to my pungent tale. Let me tell you of blood numbed, sizzled sharp with sichuan peppercorns. May fiery novacaine tingles rush through your veins as you hark my tangy story.
Eyeballs soak up tea leaves better than eggs. Re-hydrated skin has better texture than wood ear and lilies.
For the hot chili blood. Chop the ginger, collect the peppercorns and garlic, toss all into the wok with the fresh blood. For added flavor, add ginger, star anise, nutmeg, cardamom, sometimes cinnamon sticks for sweetness. Shake the crackling spices around until they brown. The blood will become deeply fragrant.
Keep the burner flame set to medium, not too low, not too high. At boiling point, the blood will congeal, the spices will burn black.
The blood is ready when the metallic odor turns musky and piquant. The aroma will waft through your kitchen, settling onto your clothes for days. With each murder and meal you’ll learn which body parts fit best for which recipes.
You will begin to prefer cooking in your own kitchen, among your own seasoned woks, rather than in the kitchens of those you kill.
My coworker Jack was my first. He thought it hilarious to mock the accents of food delivery guys who brought us dinners during late night client asks. With jolly cheeks shining from office pantry wine, he rid of the letters L and R: Herro, yoah ordurr is hurr, ching chong. So I stabbed him in the neck with the wooden chopsticks that arrived neatly packaged with his General Tso’s Chicken, his body quietly crumpling over his desk. Moonlight shone through his coveted corner office windows, the ones he had won after stealing my ideas, presenting them in a neat PowerPoint with minimal slide animations. His blood was surprisingly viscous, a slow current infecting the mahogany grains in his desk when I chopped up his torso. This was the only part of assassination that surprised me: his mouth ran faster than his blood.
I hand-pulled his intestines with noodles topped with salted peanuts, eating them neatly meal-prepped and packed for lunch at my desk. Back then I preferred desk lunches in the safety of my cubicle. The extra half hour spent working meant I could leave at six instead of six thirty.
Book club Donald, my second, was a great joy to cook. He spent an exorbitant amount of money on skincare products laced with real minerals from faraway mines. His skin looked as fresh as it tasted. I cubed Donald’s butt, mixed it with tofu covered in cornstarch, and stirred it all into hot oil to make mapo. Donald believed that all books read at book club should be written by authors like him. White dudes from the Midwest who move to New York City in search of cheap rents in Latino neighborhoods to become the Next Great American Novelist. Any other book wouldn’t be American enough for him to understand. I smashed Donald’s head in with a hardcover copy of The Joy Luck Club in the unlit alleyway next to our club’s meeting spot. His brains splattered into the street puddles, luckily washed away a few hours later by a New York City August rainstorm, the kind that comes magically and suddenly, forcing you to take shelter in a strange warm bodega you’ve never been to before.
Bethany was next, my dear friend, one who stuck with me through my awkward high school years. She had the type of milky white skin that made my own pimples throb. Her face was surrounded by unnatural clumping jet black mascara, framed by deep blue eyes. Bethany had an unfortunate tendency to proclaim anyone who didn’t have a devout belief in the existence of god would go straight to hell. I always declined to accompany Bethany to church, so she often told me I’d end up in the devil’s chamber. When I was younger, her preaching never bothered me. We all have our sins. If Bethany thought mine was that I unrepentantly did not attend church on Sunday mornings, whatever, because I thought hers was that she did attend church on Sunday mornings. I only snapped years later, in the throes of our friendship.
Bethany was over at my place to celebrate the final payment of my excessive student loans. She told me, as my homemade chocolate chip pancakes drenched in syrup dripped off her fork, that I was going to hell because I didn’t look like the others in heaven. So I took off my jade pendant necklace gifted by my mother on my eighteenth birthday and choked Bethany to death with its long red string. I fried Bethany’s toes with flour, salt, chives, eggs and ½ cup of warm water, folded, topped with sweet bean sauce.
Bethany flavored jianbing. Unfortunately not as delicious as those made at the street carts in Beijing.
If you are struggling to understand why I eliminated these people, my story is not for you.
If you are struggling to understand how I justify my massacres, my cooking, my absolute pleasure in the sensory assault of my dinners, think of Newton's third law.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
My spree continued. I had noticed Richard at yoga for his excellent downward posture, asking his advice on headstands. He insisted on calling me Young Lady and Sweetie and, most horrifically, Beautiful Girl. His pulverized bones mixed well with smashed tofu and sprinkles of chopped spring onion; the dish was salty from the sweat of warrior one. Ben I blended into savory douhua, with vinegar and zha cai, because he kept asking where I was from, no, where I was really from. Chunks of Kelsey, a beauty influencer, went in a mushroom sauté, vegetable oil caressing enoki and wood ear and shiitake. She gave me leftover makeup, which I thought was nice, until I learned it was really because she thought I was pretty for an Asian. Steve, my career advisor who assumed my major was chemistry and not comparative literature, baked with tofu at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, slabs of skin dipped into soy sauce and a hint of sugar. Marissa was painstakingly grinded into a powder, mixed with sticky rice, and poured into lotus root coated with date sugar, drizzled with honey, a sweet dish for her sweet comments like you’re basically white. Zach was sprinkled with salt and left to dry on my kitchen counter, then shredded into long pieces and fried with long skinny eggplant. Before his jokes turned sour, he made me smile more than cie zi.
After week-long benders of blood and bone, like clockwork I would start craving vegetarian dishes to reset my palate. Mainly cooking carnivorous meals meant my vegetarian cooking abilities were diminished. I would venture out of my Brooklyn apartment onto the F train, getting off at East Broadway, walking along the slightly grimier side, Little Fuzhou, with less boba cafes and more dollar bus travel stops.
Treading through Chinatown was physically and mentally restraining. I was constantly buffeted by tourists, cameras draped down their necks, gawking at the raw seafood on ice spilling onto the sidewalks. They snapped photos of elderly aunties as exotic subjects for their travel photo albums. I’d meander past empty run-down family eateries, shaking with anger at the new trendy dessert hangouts next door with white walls and golden lighting, lines down the block. However, I could not crush their skulls like I wanted; Chinatown was home to generations of lineages and legends of neighborhood heroes. I could not sully the ground with my violent unimportant butchering, drenched with my sensitivity.
I would trek west to the original Buddha Bodai for vegetarian dim sum, or north to Spicy Village for vegetarian dumplings slathered in oil. I’d stop at Kam Hing for a dozen of their springy sponge cakes, baked to the tune of murmuring old locals, or to Mei Lei Wah for a fresh pineapple bun, the favorite for vegetarians who could not savor their famed pork buns. For dessert I’d visit Fong On, for their idyllic bowl of sweet douhua, saturated in grass jelly, taro balls and red beans. In months when my paycheck was slim, I’d forego all the above and come to rest at Joe’s Rice Roll, where I could nourish an entire plate stuffed with vegetables for four bucks.
Sometimes my lover of the month would accompany me to these restaurants, as if us sharing these foods would turn our crumbs of attachment into a feast of passion. I had many lovers before. My favorite meals would become theirs, shared intimacy within the constraints of a fervent affair.
The boys I loved from afar. I still admire their naivety and unwavering belief in themselves. They could never make a mistake, and if they did, it was so endearing that I, the teachers, the bosses, the moms, would simply giggle and say, not again. I liked to dig under their skins, metaphorically, to find out how their parents hurt them, and how lonely they felt during holiday parties and New Year countdowns. They had such bright eyes, blue and green and hazel. When they looked at me, squinting, their pupils would dilate slightly, to let in more light.
The girls. I was attracted to thickness, the ones with broad upper arms and round cheeks and stocky midriffs. They came to me naturally, with neither makeup nor pretension. We would gossip and giggle together in corners of parties, never malicious, ignoring all but each other, wrapped in a haze of cigarette smoke and arousal.
Every relationship of mine was an old squishy armchair, much loved for the comfort of familiarity. We sat in rooms lit by fireplaces with windows that led to fire escapes, which we’d clamber onto if we needed a fresh breath of air. We fell apart slowly at the seams, our cushions meant for cozy nights, until our foundation broke in half without possibility of repair. My partners would break. A small mistake, just an innocuous comment, but one that I could never forgive. They promptly forgot about it. Sometimes they apologized, sometimes they didn’t, but the apology didn’t matter. I couldn’t tear their remark out of my head until I tore off theirs. So I killed and ate them. I saved money on groceries and heartbreak. In bed, my lovers had given me warmth around which to wrap my arms; when cooked, they soaked up flavor like they did alive with my vulnerabilities.
In the end, Lily destroyed me, ending my spree and forcing my transformation into a fugitive. We met at a book signing in Brooklyn and bonded over our favorite fiction. Words brought us together and broke us apart. Honestly, I had thought Lily was the one I would spend the rest of my life with, the kind of relationship that suffuses through poetry. Lily’s fast tongue was made for sharp wit and steamy nights, but never for comfort. Lily made me look forward to our future together like no one else had. I looked up to her, went down on her, sucked on her skin with pleasure.
Small plates of sliced Lily sat on the table prepared for hot pot, yet I couldn’t bring myself to cook them in the broth. I lacked enough strength to even turn on the pot itself. The broth lay cold and the chunks lay decaying, serrated from my erratic movements, coated in my fingerprints. I couldn’t eat. Perhaps I had loved Lily too much to enjoy the meal, perhaps the hot pot felt inadequate for the passions I felt. Our relationship needed the spiciest of sichuan peppers. I remember leaving my used chopsticks adrift, forlorn.
If anyone else said what she had said, I wouldn’t have been so hurt. It was that the person I loved so much had said it without perceiving the deep lacerations left in my heart. She had met my grandfather, wrecked with dementia, who couldn’t speak English. She had learned to take off her shoes before entering the house. And yet she still did not understand. Unlike the others’ comments, which were shallow cuts, Lily’s was a gaping wound, a bruise to the bone, drowning me with internal bleeding. My tears swirled with Lily’s blood down the kitchen sink drain when I hacked her to pieces. I was careless because I loved her.
The neighbors called 911 after hearing my screams and sobs. In my earlier slaughters, the police never deduced my identity. I was meticulous in my clean-ups. There were no traces left at my crime scenes. Though I was the connecting thread between all the people I destroyed, the police never suspected me, simply because I was what they perceived: a quiet little Asian girl who never broke the rules. But with Lily, my DNA was detected on the chopsticks, the plate, the cold leftovers.
With my name ubiquitous on Most Wanted lists, I went on the run, blending into New York City’s Manhattan Chinatown like a luxury handbag seller on Canal Street. My frequent visits had taught me the drumbeat of the area. I fell right into the rhythm. I looked like any other resident who had grown up and never left. I hid in grandparents’ closets, teenage bathrooms, restaurant storage rooms. Search dogs couldn’t smell past the roast ducks hanging in restaurant windows.
I became a local legend. With seven hundred sixty two apartments, the Confucius Plaza Housing Cooperative was a gentle skyscraper giant looming over Chinatown, giving shelter and keeping me well-hidden and unpredictable. I slept in a different apartment every night; the elderly residents were happy for the company. My former haunts were proud to say I had eaten there before, hanging up small red posters in their storefront corners to signal safe haven and a warm vegetarian meal. I was recognized in the streets but never called out. The fruit vendors under the Manhattan Bridge gave me their leftover overripe produce to tide me over another day. Tourist outlets, bakeries, ceramics shops, herbal marts, all began to hang up the posters too. Word travels fast there. The community is small.
Sometimes, if the cops came too close, I caught the shadow transit to Sunset Park or Flushing for two bucks. The drivers recognized me and let me ride for free. The police had never been able to successfully shut down the dollar vans, and the fellow riders kept me safe. I’d take the 7 or the D train back to Manhattan in the early morning rush hour, when other unknowing commuters blanketed me in camouflage. I was unmemorable to those who did not know my story. Eyes had a habit of sliding past me.
In my spare time, I became familiar with the darkness of the underground passageways on Doyers Street. These corridors were infamous for violent crimes, drug smuggling, and gang activity. The media reported that gang members would surprise their enemies by popping out at random times, shooting them with newly minted American guns. I tunneled through different ones, learning the network and which connected to where. Many had been converted into speakeasies, or simply served Chinatown residents as passageways to their apartments. The false infamy of these tunnels, risen out of fear of the exotic unknown, carried me through to the lightness on the other side.
My luck was cut short on a sunny spring day of long brunch lines. Certain restaurants in Chinatown had suddenly become hip, worth waiting for hours. I was suddenly out of place, dizzy with the mix of new and old. These establishments had history in the community. Their parents had opened the restaurant first, and on the verge of closing years later, the child would return to their roots after a short career blocks away on Wall Street, to remake the restaurant into something worth over one thousand five star Google reviews. The remade interiors were startlingly bland, even more than the food, but the family story was inevitably heartwarming.
A boy born and raised in Chinatown spotted me disappearing through one of the underground passageways. I knew him from high school. He was quiet and unremarkable. I would never have noticed or remembered him if he sat across from me in an uncrowded subway car. His parents owned a popular dim sum palace, one I often ate at for friends’ birthdays, since they could accommodate massive groups. But like all of us, who grew up here but not there, he dreamed that his parents would come home smelling of mahjong in the park instead of dollar chop suey. He knew turning me in to the police would result in a glowing recommendation letter from the Attorney General for his law school application. I hear he went to Harvard and became a corporate lawyer with excellent annual bonuses.
The NYPD arrived quickly after his call to surround the passageway. They couldn’t see me, for I was hidden down in the underpass, where the light couldn’t reach. The police refused to enter out of fear, standing there with weapons drawn for hours, walkie talkies chattering. I could hear them as I lounged in the dark, savoring my plate of two dollar vegetarian dumplings doused in chili oil.
After I finished my dumplings, I entered another tunnel that opened back up into Doyers Street. The Bloody Angle, the unique curvilinear corner halfway down Doyers, kept me hidden from the cops who stood guard on the other side. Years ago, it was speculated that rival gangs used this angle to creep up on each other, invisible until too late. No one could spy around the curvilinear perspective, no one knew who would burst out of which tunnel. The hooligans stewed in their poverty, brawling with each other instead of the decision-makers who had left them there in the first place. As I ran away, the remembrance of this community brutality haunted me, nipping at my heels to re-write my history, to re-create what was mine, to run faster, go farther, away, away.
My fight was divergent from the criminals and performers. We were misdirected, yet on the right, same path. Run, these ghosts whispered, get out of here, find somewhere new, somewhere better.
So I ran.
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