Teresa Shen Swingler
The anthill is in front of my house. It started
with a cupcake I dropped on the ground, frosting first. The ants started
to congregate, carrying sprinkles and cake crumbs into the deep sidewalk
crack. A week later, they created the hill. Around it, we stand; you,
three other boys, and me, the only girl in the neighborhood. It is early
afternoon, the sun sits high in the sky, heat seeps up into our shoes.
I am holding a pot of boiling water. The bubbles have calmed down but
the steam rises into the hot air. You crouch down and peer into the ants'
world. They are marching in lines, busy, so busy, ever productive. They
march toward their home, hauling sticks and pebbles and grains of sand.
I look, too, but all I can think of is how you kissed me behind the shed
The ants march forward to the hole
in the hill. I wonder where it leads—to secret tunnels beneath the
earth, to a series of rooms and hallways we will never see, dark and cold
and private. You and the boys don't think of these things. One of them
pokes at the ants with a branch, the other smears an ant across the sidewalk
with the sole of his shoe. You pinch one between your fingers and smile
at me. Then, you say, with your head cocked and one shiny piece of hair
hanging over your eye -- "You gonna pour the water or what?"
I hesitate, looking down into the
pure, clear water. With all eyes on me, the waiting, I think about my
dad, a botanist, and how he meditates in the morning among the cobwebs
in our house, alone with the spiders, at peace with nature and all its
creatures. But, there is intensity in your stare—a promise we will
go behind the shed, again. Maybe you will stand between me and the wall,
lean into me, and put your mouth to mine. Maybe you will put your fingers
behind my neck. I tip the pot.
The water trickles at first, then
pours over the anthill with a big splash. You and the boys watch closely
as seventy-some ants that once had bodies, antennae, and legs, shrink
instantly into tiny black balls the minute the water hits them. The sounds:
they are high-pitched, like tiny squeals, as the heat makes them pop,
sizzle, and scream. I cover my ears and shut my eyes, and hear your laughter.
A week earlier, after our kiss,
while playing in a dirt lot behind an abandoned house, I stand invisible
behind a corner as you and your friends pee on the side of the house.
My legs are crossed tight. I need to go to the bathroom, too, but our
houses are miles away. I hear you say, too bad Mei can't piss like a guy.
Mei, you say, will stay out here as long as I want her to, if you know
what I mean.
You cross your arms and whisper "Sweet".
The air is hot and quiet, the earth stands still. Everything is still—the
anthill is completely still. I purse my lips and look into the sky, to
prevent those hot, hot tears from falling. You high-five your friends,
and you all turn and walk away.
For a minute, I got mad. He said to ease up, he would introduce me to
his family someday soon. It was just hard for them to accept, he said,
him dating a non-Muslim. Then he cocked his head to the side, smiled up
at me, and said "A hot one, too" and pulled me toward him. He
kissed me on the mouth, sticking his tongue inside, and I pulled away.
It wasn't that I didn't want to kiss him, it's just that this image kept
coming back to me, because of a story he told me earlier that day. Two
years ago, he went to Vegas with some buddies for a bachelor party. He
lost two hundred bucks at blackjack and couldn't afford to go to the strip
club, so he headed back to the hotel while the rest of the guys headed
the direction of the neon pink XXXs. I almost wish he had gone with them,
because nude girls wouldn't even really bother me that much.
Instead, he walked back to the Frontier,
a beer sweating in his palm. As he approached the hotel, he saw a hotel
employee leaned up against the outside walls of mirrored glass. She was
smoking a cigarette with her left hand. She had dark hair, and red lips
that matched the polyester red uniform she was wearing, with its gold
buttons buttoned all the way up to her chin. Her eyes, he said, were deep
set and familiar. I wanted to think she was some long lost relative—a
cousin, maybe, but no. He had never seen her before in his life, he just
recognized her as someone from his home country, Bosnia. And he also noticed
one of her arms was crippled; permanently bent at the wrist and elbow,
like the neck of a swan. He says he wasn't interested in her that way.
He just didn't meet people from Bosnia very often, so he went up to her
and started talking in their language.
"When did you escape?" he
said to her, just like that— he was probably feeling his beer by
now, which makes him much more direct and to-the-point, no frilly formalities.
She stared at him, for what he said
felt like five full minutes. She looked bored. Her bent arm emphasized
the bored look even more. She was probably thinking of a snappy comeback
like "The asylum? Yesterday," or "There is no escaping
the Frontier. Yee Haw." But she probably recognized in his eyes a
look I've never seen—a look of sincerity. Because she answered straight.
To which he replied "'94."
Then, he took both his hands and breathed
heavily onto the mirrored glass next to her, and with his finger, he drew
a box. He drew the window to the outside, then the kitchen area, pressed
his finger down as he drew the heavy wall between the eating area and
the rest of the house. Then, he drew circles for his father, his mother,
his sister and himself around the kitchen table, a circle for his grandmother
washing dishes, and a circle for his grandfather who was walking through
the hall. He told her he was eight years old on that first night of Ramadan,
the new moon right outside their one window, and they all gathered to
eat after dark. He took his finger and scratched through the little line
representing the window—that was where the shelling came in, and
a piece of shrapnel flew right into his grandmother's back. Of course,
he said, he didn't know it at the time, but even today, he can feel it
in the raised surface of her skin. He said all he can remember is grabbing
his little sister and running for the door on the opposite end of the
window, and how he tripped over his grandfather's body on the way out,
and fell hard, on his knees, and scrambled to get back up again. They
left the next week.
I suppose he didn't have to do much
explaining. He didn't have to explain to her what a shelling was, like
he did for me, he didn't have to talk about how it was a bomb that split
out into many, many pieces of shrapnel —the purpose to take as many
human lives as possible. He didn't have to describe the sounds of the
shellings he heard in his bed at night, or how the fear of the shellings
prevented him or his brother from ever going outside. How they stayed
cloistered in their apartment building, shuffling downstairs to the basement
for daily lessons from a retired teacher in the building. He didn't have
to hear me repeat "That's so awful, that's so awful, that's so awful."
The girl with the bent arm merely
looked at him, and he saw tears in her eyes, just barely noticeable on
the inside corners, because they caught the neon light. She breathed onto
the mirrored glass and drew the hospital in Sarajevo, all the beds lined
up like dominoes, and the shelling that caused a doctor to pull her arm
so hard, the nerves somehow got unattached. And then, she stepped away
from the mirrored glass, and struck the ash off her cigarette, and then
sat down on the edge of the sidewalk and took a deep breath.
He didn't know what to do, he said,
so he sat down next to her and he hugged her. She hugged him back with
the one arm, rested the other elbow on his shoulder, and leaned her head
against her forearm. And even though he swears there was no attraction
there, he leaned over and kissed her upturned cheek, like he was kissing
a sister, and her tears were salty.
For many years, I was afraid of flying. Then, one day, I almost flew.
Why I married a pilot in the first place, I have no idea—besides
the fact he once came down to the ground for four days every two weeks
and brought me little treasures from the places he'd stopped—like
a kokeshi doll from Tokyo. Or wooden clogs from Amsterdam. I still wear
those things today. The painted Dutch ladies are completely worn off of
the toes. Only their eyes remain. The hollow sound of them against the
cement of our front driveway reminds me I'm here on the ground, while
he's up in the sky.
So, anyway, today I packed up the
clogs into a little rolling suitcase and headed to LAX. You see, it's
our anniversary, an important one— the 10th. Ten is an important
number. It's the number of years before a first high school reunion, the
number of commandments God gave to Moses, the number of pins in a bowling
alley. It's not a number you miss, especially for reasons such as flight
schedules or layovers. In other words, a woman shouldn't sit in a silent
house on a tenth anniversary, waiting for the phone to ring.
I packed my bag and drove to the airport,
along I-10. The 10s of the highway signs taunted me every few miles. 10!
10! 10! They were my tanned, big-calved male cheerleaders along the way,
and as I saw each one I gripped my knuckles tighter around the steering
wheel. I was going to do this. The rest was a blur—long-term parking,
shuttle bus, departure ticket line, escalator ride, until I reached The
I gave my ticket to the ticket taker,
and entered the portal, the birth canal, the entry into this other place,
devoid of air. I stepped up, only to be greeted by some bimbo stewardess,
I mean, flight attendant who smiled at me with her picket white teeth.
I thought to myself—"I am breathing in other people's sour
breath. There is no way out once they close us in. I will be in a Ziploc
bag, sealed tight until the red and blue make purple, with every bubble
pressed out with the palm of one's hand. The closing of that door is the
They gave me a window seat. I looked
at the Plexiglas next to me. It wasn't a circle, yet it wasn't a square.
It wasn't even a window, really. It was a false opening into the sky,
an illusion of escape. I pulled the seatbelt tight, the metal clasp sitting
heavy on my stomach, and gripped the armrests in my hands. I thought to
myself, "How many other sweaty hands have gripped these armrests?
How many others have imagined the yellow breathing masks falling from
the ceiling like octopus angels? And does anyone but me realize that they
can't be saved, that those things are there to strangle them, to wrap
their many suction-cup covered tentacles around human necks, to save them
from their own hysteria?"
And when the air had grown too stale,
I stood up, gasping for breath, clutching my carry-on bag and shouting,
watching those passengers walk backward in their clumsy, pitiful way,
stepping on each others toes, steering their luggage backward, shuffling
and mumbling to themselves. I rubbed my hair wild with both hands, and
shouted. It felt good to shout. It made me think maybe ten is not such
a significant number, it is only one more than nine and one less than
eleven. As I ran the reverse direction— out of The Tunnel, floating
up into that gorgeous brick chimney bringing smoke to the sky, I could
see the light of the souvenir shop. I opened my suitcase, and took out
the clogs, and set them on a shelf next to the shot glasses and spoons.
And I kept walking until those little eyes could see me no more.
Her Giant Face
Here's the deal. I went to Chicago on one of those "find yourself"
trips, the first vacation I'd taken from my cubicle job all year. I figured
if Roxy and Velma could become infamous in this town, I could find my
own piece of jazz. I was sitting in a pizza parlor, eating a piece of
Real! Chicago! Pizza!, and reading a hot pink flier that was handed to
me. It claimed that if I called a certain phone number, I could lose five
dress sizes in five weeks. I was thinking about this...how a teenager
can make a woman feel so bad about herself by simply passing along a piece
of paper, when I glanced across my table, out the window, and saw a large,
familiar face looking at me from the side of a skyscraper. I'm talking
large-large, huge—almost five stories tall. I almost gagged on a
thick, doughy piece of crust, that's how surprised I was to see my old
friend Barbara on an ad for some perfume we used to call "ode de
toilette" when we were just kids. Thank goodness my crust didn't
get lodged in my throat, because I've been trained to do a personal Heimlich
maneuver which involves flinging myself over a chair—it's not a
pretty sight, especially after seeing Barbara looking so beautiful, so
I was pretty thankful I didn't have to make a spectacle of myself within
that very hour. Instead, I walked casually out of there, pretending that
her face wasn't looming over me. I forced my gaze up the side of another
building, where a couple of window washers were at work. They dangled
by ropes around their waists, just one slick wall of skyscraper in front
of them. They had interesting techniques. It was unique and very intriguing
and made me forget all about Barbara and her giant face. It made me forget
so much that when I looked back across the street at her, I could only
make out a pair of eyes, a nose, a mouth.
You figure they would change the ads
on skyscrapers fairly often. Not this one. It didn't budge. Every time
I stepped out of my hotel room to take a walk in Millennium Park or head
to the Art Institute—the bland face of large features was there.
I could even make out the peachy-beige speck of a face from the Sears
Tower. Considering that cars look like ants from that height, we're talking
about something gigantic here. Here's what I figured: something this large
cannot be ignored. It must be acknowledged before it can be forgotten.
So, I went to the corner bakery and ordered an herbal iced tea with a
chicken salad sandwich to go. I grabbed the sack and found a comfortable
bench with a great view of what I now could recognize as, yes, truly,
Barbara's face. And as I ate, I made myself analyze her pupils, the curve
of her nostrils, her lips. Her head was held back at an angle, in a breezy,
casual way that has a whole busy life associated with it—jet planes
to Milan, a handsome millionaire husband, a chance every weekend to wear
a ball gown. I started to laugh, softly at first, chuckling at how ridiculous
it was. Because, you see, I know the truth—that we really are only
a set of features on a face. I laughed so hard, I choked on a chunk of
bitter walnut in my chicken salad and ran around behind the bench. I flung
myself over the top of it and gave myself the Heimlich maneuver until,
red-faced and exhilarated; I found that I could breathe again.
The word "Taste" brings me
back to elementary school and the diagram of the tongue. That "taste
map" always puzzled me, with sweet on the tip of the tongue, salty
along the sides, sour further behind, and bitter way in the back. I remember
sucking on a lollipop and rubbing it against one side of my tongue and
then along the back, to experiment with this theory. The truth: it was
sweet all over. I recently learned that the "taste map" is a
myth. According to Wikipedia, it is "generally attributed to the
mis-translation of a German text, and perpetuated in North American schools
since the early twentieth century."
The characters in these stories are in
relationships with people who only allow a taste of themselves, instead
of their full selves. I attempted to explore these relationships in different
stages, from first/young love to sexual/physical love, from married love
to the post-marriage rediscovery of oneself. I guess this cannot really
be defined as "love", but perhaps the pursuit of love. I think
there is something so desperate, yet hopeful, about the attempt to taste
another person fully, to strive to "get" their complete flavor,
especially when the other person withholds it. I tried to capture the
desperation, that hopefulness.