Content Warning: Rape
The abortion pill box sits unopened on the edge of the sink, a few weeks away from uselessness. Acidic aftertaste burns the back of my throat, the smell prickling the hairs inside my nose. Vomit sits in the toilet, beginning to crust on the inner rim of the seat. Long black hairs litter the floor, accumulated over several weeks of excuses — moving in, starting work, it’s not that much anyway, I should clean the black-dirt-lined windowsills first. It’s been an hour. The nausea hasn’t settled.
I lean my head back, closing eyes that sting with a reprieve from use. My joints grow stiff as I sit on the bathmat in front of the toilet. Late morning is blurring into early afternoon outside, and the day I called off work is almost halfway over. I push myself up, my hand pressing against the cool tile beyond my matted oasis on the floor. My back slides up the wall, catching my hair, and I let it pull my head back until the trapped hairs tug on my scalp. I stand still, letting the pain deepen until adrenaline rushes in and turns it warm, then lean forward to release my hair. My American mother used to scold me for these small punishments. They won’t save you anything, she told me. But I still hope they might serve as my penance.
I haven’t attempted this kind of cosmic bargain in years. In the face of a different pill box, a different nausea in Nanjing six years prior, I hadn’t known what else to do. Sun and smog had trapped me in a wet heat as I stood outside a pharmacy. The man who had raped me only hours prior thrust a cardboard box at my hands. I turned my back to him as I wiggled my forefinger into the opening. The characters on the pill box were unfamiliar, but I didn’t ask for a translation. I hadn’t been able to understand the man’s conversation with the pharmacist, but I had watched him search for “Chinese plan b” on expat forums before entering the pharmacy. Pedestrians and cyclists swerved around me as I slid the sheet of plastic out, punctured the metallic layer with my index finger, and pulled it out so it sat in my cupped palm, small and round and dry. The man tried to offer me water, but I swallowed the pill and started walking.
We were only in Nanjing for the day, and we were closing in on our final hours. I had planned the weekend excursion so I could see Gaoyou, my hometown, but he was determined to see the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. I didn’t yet know appeasement would never be enough for him. As we stood before a mass grave preserved in a cavernous hall, the nausea began. Cameras clicked as people jostled past each other, voices flattening into a dull cacophony echoing off walls, louder than I’d ever heard in a graveyard. I pointed to a half-covered skeleton, ribs and skull in full relief from the dirt.
“She was only nineteen.” I wanted to add, I’m only twenty. I wanted to ask the girl if she had been raped before she’d been killed, if her body was part of why some historians call it the Rape of Nanjing, if she understood how I wished I could cast myself into the grave with her. The man pressed his lips together in distaste and said, “Makes you kind of nauseous, doesn’t it?”
Years later, my phone buzzes against the bathroom tile floor. The heat of six summers past fades, and I rub my palms along my upper arms in a poor imitation. James. I pick up the phone but let it ring as I walk out of the bathroom, through the bedroom, and into the living room. My grandmother’s desk — wood stained dark with a glass sheet carefully laid on top — sits pushed against the wall. Cardboard bankers boxes dot the floor, half-filled with books slowly migrating to the bookshelves on the far wall. A black lacquer fan sits on the fourth shelf from the bottom, tilted back in its stand. Gold ink outlines a man and a horse on the bank of the Grand Canal, with two columns of characters rising from the water like steam.
The Canal had once been the heart of Gaoyou, vital to the early imperial post system, ferrying messages, supplies, even prisoners in and out of the post office complex that still stood under the sweating sun. At one entrance, a tall gate, painted dark red and detailed with gold along the top, stands at the end of a stone street. The roads, wide enough for horses and carts and messengers, were empty when I walked them six years before. Hollowed buildings, roofs curled at the tips, lined the smooth stone streets. I searched for ghosts in the shimmering heat, straining my ears to listen for Chinese conversations I wouldn’t have been able to understand.
Informational plaques and signs spoke of hundreds of years prior, never mentioning the fall of imperial China, never explaining the barrenness of the haunted streets, seeping into the Grand Canal. Water that once churned with mail, commerce, leisure boats sat stagnant and murky. A stone pier and wooden pagoda stretched beyond the bank, somewhere between history and the past. Propaganda posters in shades of faded red and gold hung on the sides of buildings. A hammer and sickle punctuated each bullet point; on the bottom right, 2014. I stopped, searching for characters I recognized. Xi Jinping, si, dao, 2020, I took a picture so I could read the rest when I knew how. I glanced both ways, as though someone might stop me.
Two weeks prior, I had snaked through an apartment complex into the basement of building number four. A sign warned against taking flash photography in the Shanghai propaganda museum. The curators allowed non-flash photography, but I was too stunned to photograph the smiling nurse in a white cap and apron against a pink background that I would remember as green. She held a pamphlet in one hand and a pill bottle in the other.
I wouldn’t learn jihua shengyu until I recognized the characters on the door in a government office building. The woman giving the tour smiled when she told the group about family planning. I didn’t understand how she never mentioned the one-child policy when she described the government’s enforcement. The nurse in the poster didn’t say those words either. Instead, she let the pill bottle, the parents with a single child, the children who danced and studied together as they decorated the poster speak for her. The nurse’s smile was soft, not in acceptance but invitation. She couldn’t know that two people had declined on my behalf when they left me without name or birthday for the welfare center to find. I wondered if the government had known it was lying, if they knew the bare branches that would grow when men outnumbered women by the millions, if they cared if the missing women who survived ever came back.
When I think of these places, I try to think of myself alone. I carve out the man who raped me, scraping him out of my memories. Most of the time, it is easier this way. At all other times, it is immeasurably harder. I no longer know what is more punishing, whittling away at my own ghosts who cling to me, begging me not to forget them for the sin of being inextricable from him, or carrying them with me and remembering why their eyes are as hollow as the buildings of Gaoyou’s post office complex.
I check my phone for the time, but the first thing I notice is a notification. James left me a message. I open it and press the volume button several times in rapid succession until I can hear him saying, “Babe, hey, uh, I wanted to check in … I guess you’re taking a nap? Um … right, well, when you get this, give me a call back. Love you.”
I groan, rubbing my eyelids until they hurt. I check my phone again, realizing I’d forgotten to look at the time. 13:37. Tossing my phone on the couch, I sit and pull my knees to my chest. The middle-distance blurs, and I count the days since I last spoke to James beyond a hello, I’m here, I’m alive, I love you, I promise. Eight? Nine? It feels too late to reach out to him, now. He calls twice a day — once in the morning and once in the evening. I pick up my phone and turn it over in my hands, dragging stretched fingerprints across the screen. It rings again, and this time I pick up.
“Hey, you said you wanted to call? Is everything alright?” Plastic rustles on Lauren’s end, accompanied by clunks of metal and glass against a countertop. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah. Sorry. I just — I don’t know.”
“About what?” The noise on her end stops, as does my vision of her. I want to tell her to move again, to drum her fingers against the nearest surface to let me know if she is still standing by the refrigerator or if she has sat at the kitchen table. I cannot bring myself to speak to an unembodied voice. Finally, I hear a chair scrape against the hardwood floor.
“I’m pregnant.” The words ring hollow against the wood of the bookcases and desk, swallowed by the thick fibers of the carpet. I worry I’ve put too much pressure on the “p,” overemphasized the “t” into its own syllable. But my tongue feels swollen in my mouth, unable to bend around the words.
Leather cushioning exhales under her as she sits. “Do you want to be?”
I look at the black lacquer fan, then pick at the loose thread on the seam of my pants. “It was so stupid. I just — with the move and everything — I forgot to take the pill a few times. I wasn’t even thinking.”
“Have you told anyone else?”
My hand rests on my knee, and I draw uneven circles with my forefinger. “Not yet.”
“Will you tell James?”
My finger stops. “No. I don’t know. I … ”
“Do you blame him?” she asks, and I frown, my brows tensing.
“I … no, I … ” I don’t understand why “no” is not sufficient when it is the truth. It is not his fault I forgot to take my birth control. It is not his fault the last time I took a pill to affect a pregnancy was after I’d been raped. I don’t blame him for making me take another pill, and four more once I find a way to bring them to my mouth. But I don’t know how to explain to him, to anyone, even to myself, that the ghosts who hold the memories of the man who raped me have returned, that despite my best efforts I see these ghosts when I look at James. Instead, I tell Lauren, “I don’t blame him. I’ll tell him. Maybe. After.”
“After,” she repeats, so quietly I’m uncertain if it’s a bump in the static. “I’m so sorry.”
Tears leak from my eyes, dripping down my cheeks, warm streams that meet at my chin and drop into my lap. My chest shakes, but the rest of my body remains still. “I don’t want to.”
“I know. I know, but it’s going to be O.K. I promise.” Her voice is soft but urgent, words strung together like pearls that have dissolved on her tongue. “I know it’s hard, but you’re going to get through this.”
I take a deep breath, but it fractures into a shudder and several short gasps. I try again, again and again.
“Please just let me know what I can do,” Lauren says.
“I don’t know. I know I have to. And I will. I know that.”
“Do you want me to go with you to the doctor’s? There’s a clinic near my house. I can drive you.”
I shake my head as though she can see. Remembering that she can’t, I reach my hand to my head to hold it still. “I already took the first pill.”
She’s silent, so I speak to fill the static. “Did I ever tell you about the propaganda poster I saw in Shanghai?” My words are distant even to my own ears, like I was hearing them through a tunnel — a tunnel where a woman in a white cap and apron stands smiling from the other end. In her hand she holds a small pamphlet and four small pills.
“Shanghai? You don’t live in that world. You don’t have to follow those rules — just do what’s best for you.”
“My birth parents did.”
“But you aren’t your birth parents.”
I close my eyes, but the woman lingers in the speckled eigengrau. “I know.”
“Just promise me you’ll do what’s best for you.”
“Did your parents ever talk about family planning when you lived in China?” I ask, biting my lip too late to stop myself. She sighs, and I hear fingers drumming against a glass tabletop.
“No, they didn’t.” The drumming stops. After a moment, she adds, “I’m sorry. If you don’t take the other pills, will it … ”
“I’m taking the other pills. I just … need to get there.”
“O.K. I’ll be here for you, no matter what.”
“I know.” I mean thank you.
“Talk to you soon.”
“Bye,” I whisper as she ends the call.
The light from the window grows brighter, gaining a watered-down lemonade tint. I stand, walk until my feet are warmed in the patch of light on the carpet, and close my eyes to feel it. Another sheet of clouds wipes the warmth from the room, and I open my eyes to Pittsburgh’s grey sky. The Dream Machine alarm clock my American father gave me when I began waking myself up for elementary school sits on the floor at my feet, plugged in with 12:00 still blinking. I sit beside it, picking it up and toggling the switch between clock and alarm, setting neither. I don’t know what answers I sought from Lauren’s parents, but I can’t help but feel cheated for not receiving them. I set the Dream Machine on the floor and sit down beside it, pulling the nearest banker’s box closer to me. Taking out the photo album inside, I lay it on the floor in front of me, lifting the cover and setting it gently on the ground. The plastic that protects the photographs sticks to my fingers, and I lift it just enough to let the photographs breathe. Before the sunlight can return to bleach the photographs, I search the faces of my younger self for the moment, tracing an American smile on a Chinese face. I wish I’d brought these photographs with me to my hometown. I wish I’d stopped strangers on the street and asked if they recognized this girl, if they recognized me.
When I visited the welfare center in my hometown, the translator asked if I had any questions, but instead of any of the questions whose answers I sought, I’d asked, “How many kids did there used to be here?”
He turned to the director of the welfare center, asked in Chinese, paused after the director’s response, then turned to me. “Many. When you were here, maybe a hundred kids were found a year, but a hundred were adopted, too.”
The director continued to speak, and the translator nodded, asked something, then spoke to me in English. “When you were adopted, this welfare center was known for good practices. People would travel here to leave their children.”
“Travel from where?”
“Across the province. Your parents … they want you to be taken care of. And your … ” A frown crossed his otherwise smooth face. “Your other parents also love you. You are very lucky.”
I blinked, brow creasing. “Thank you.”
“Do you have any other questions?”
I opened my mouth but could not bring myself to ask what I wanted to know. I shook my head.
Six years and several thousand miles away, I shift to lie down beside the photo album, curving my body around it. My mind empties as I watch the shadows darken, then dim, then strengthen again. Every now and again, I look at the Dream Machine. 12:00. The sunlight begins to dim to blue, and my empty stomach draws my skin tight over my hips. I stand, vision blotting with purple as blood pounds in my head. I walk to the kitchen, pull crackers off the top of the fridge and unwrap a new sleeve. I place them in my mouth salt-side down until my tongue is raw, then realize I’ve eaten half the package. I put the rest away and walk through the bedroom into the bathroom. Turning the knob on the shower, I wait for it to become scalding.
The heat stings, and I grit my teeth, letting the water hit my back and shoulders until the pain subsides into something bearable. In the hotel room in Nanjing, my tears were warmer than the shower. They slid down my cheeks, first for the nineteen-year-old girl who had turned one hundred in her grave, then for the girls left behind by their parents in the hopes of something better, then for the mothers who carried those girls only to lose them.
I think of my twenty-year-old self as I run my hands over my hair, pushing the excess water down my body, hoping it will fill the spaces I’ve cut away. I want to be as whole as I can be when the pills dissolve in my mouth, when they flush clots and tissue from my body. I do not know how to live with these memories, but I fear the loss of forgetting. I think of the other girls I’ve met, girls like me, girls left on busy streets, brought to welfare centers before American families took them across the ocean, where they grew up with American smiles. Some of them had names from before their adoption, even from before their abandonment. But my parents left me no legacy, no heritage, not even a name.
I often find myself wondering what they’d think — of me, of my life, of the names I’ve been given and those I’ve taken on. I wonder if they think of me, the girl they loved enough to leave in Gaoyou, but left all the same. And if they do, do they call me by my name? I know that, in twenty-five years, when I think about the pill box the doctor handed me, the bleeding and cramping that would follow, it won’t have a name. But I had to be more than an it, had to be if they brought me that far, leaving me in the hopes that I’d go farther. I want to find them in my reflection, stare at my face until it separates into two, beg them for answers no one else can give, cry for the names they might have given me, dedicate silence for the nameless emptiness, the I’m missing something I just can’t remember what.
I want to ask how to remember something without a name.
When I turn off the water, steam has fogged the mirror. I stand before the sink and close my eyes, wet, warm air still brushing my cheeks and forehead. The nurse is waiting for me, holding the pills in her hand, her smile just beginning to fall. She reaches down for my hand, unbending my fingers and placing the pills in my palm. She closes my fingers around them. Through the wall and across the living room, I hear my phone begin to ring. As the nurse steps away, fading past the mirror, I bring my hand to my mouth and swallow. My hand falls back to my side, and I clench my fist against nothing.
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