First Place Creative Nonfiction: “Dear Lilah” by Jessica Wang

Dear Lilah

Jessica Wang


Yesterday my tongue fell out of my mouth and into the bathroom sink. Slippery organ twisting red into the porcelain bowl. The smell of ash and salt from an incense candle. Nainai warned me that something like this would happen. She told me Western ideals would darken my mind and scramble my brain until she couldn’t recognize her own granddaughter anymore. Gut my heritage like fish bones from flesh and strip me from my roots. As if ethnicity is something to be earned and maintained, a title gifted and taken away. Lilah, I wish you could have seen her expression when I told her about you, how her mouth foamed and spluttered, withered lips curling as she accused me of throwing away everything she worked for.

When I was younger my Nainai loved me. She made me sticky white rice with guttered pork belly and washed my back with rough cloth. We were from mirror worlds, same blood, different bodies, extension and predecessor. Every spring she would fly us to her farm in Chongqing letting me run between the sea of butter-colored daisies and flat mushrooms scattered from her old garden patch. I ate wintermelon popsicles, climbed on her apartment’s rusty overgrown roof, and sucked on sugarcane sticks with my Chinese cousins, the sweet syrup sticking over my fingers like gleaming cobwebs, tangled yet connected. Her neighbors called me Wàiguó rén, foreigner with another tongue. A white-washed granddaughter who spoke thickly and chased the fluttering tails of red roosters underneath the hot sun. My mere existence earned me another label, another term to describe the unknown, to describe the outsider.


One rainy day I clung to Nainai’s leg and watched her stand by the kitchen sink and slice the layers off wild scallions with a large vegetable knife. As the sky wept and the knife kept cutting, she told me a love story. There once was a cowherd named Niulang. He fell in love with the weaver girl, Zhinü, but their love was forbidden by the Jade Emperor. As punishment the emperor cast a sea of stars and galaxies between them, purple waves pulling the two lovers apart. But on the seventh day of the seventh month they would be reunited for one day. That night Nainai and I watched the sky from my bedroom window and we saw a shooting star, a crystal drop that fell from the same celestial sea. I wished for my own Niulang and Nainai promised me that I would find one.

But loving was a blade, Lilah. A curved vegetable knife with a peach wood handle. Loving smelled like salt and reeked of Nainai’s wrinkled breath. It carved me with its edge, eviscerated me into something else, deemed me unworthy of something I never had to earn.

Lilah, I’ve never learned the Mandarin character for queer. Never saw its scratched letters on the cubed paper dished out by my Sunday school Chinese teachers. Never heard it pronounced near plates of pickled mustard roots and red paper lanterns. Never rang its syllables on my tongueless tongue. But sometimes I saw flashes of it, a curve of a character, Pinyin dangling above my hair, a black dot seeping into my skin. A friend of a friend of a friend who left the groom on her wedding day. A cousin of a cousin who refused to date. Clipped articles of young girls abandoned for the traitorous act of loving.


The day Nainai found out she threw me into the bathtub, steam fossilizing my hair as I drifted in the simmering water face down, liquid puckering my lips. She scrubbed me raw, peeling back a body of a body until I was nothing at all. Jessica. Jessica. Jessica. She whispered, spitting my name like a slur, her breath a mantra in my ear. As if repetition would birth me a new body that loved the right way. As if lineage is only as deep as the people you love. I stared at the bottom of the tub with my eyes open, dead skin floating in the water, the ancestors of my ancestors cursing my existence. I wept salt because queerness has no roots, no heredity for me to cling onto.

Lilah, I never wanted to be a martyr. I never wanted to sit by the windowsill and write pretty letters I’ll never read to you. I never wanted to pray to a god I don’t believe in for the permission to live without shame, kissing the ground I kneel on for another’s gospel. I never wanted to lose myself for something I cannot control. After that day Nainai had wrinkled her forehead and asked me what I hoped to gain from all this. Was it for attention? For the white man’s sympathy? The truth is I want nothing. I want the barest existence, the silence of a room, the privilege to live the way everybody else does. I want to look at you without shame. I want to be happy with who I am.

I dreamed about you last night as I wilted into half of myself. Monolids thinning and nails popping off like bottle caps. Anatomy wrung inside out. In my dream we sat on a park bench and ate grape ice pops together, purple staining our teeth, saccharine flowing through our veins. You told me about school, how you were studying AP Chem and hated your teacher and couldn’t wait to leave this town and go to college. I told you about the mountains in Chongqing, the bitter gourds plumping over my grandmother’s apartment, the white gangly chickens pecking at dirt,


the brown river winding through Nainai’s town. How the water reminded me of the color of your eyes. How I wanted to take you there one day.

I loved you without loving you. I loved without even knowing what love was.

Lilah, would you be my girl? Which is to say, would you hold my hand when they come for my bones? When I lie in my bed and cry because I fear losing things is the only way I am taught how to live. An empty space in a Mandarin dictionary. My Nainai’s touch. A severed tongue. We were just teenagers, two high schoolers who drank spiked pink lemonades, wrote Expo marker poems

on car windshields, and screamed karaoke songs until we were hoarse. All I did was hold the way you held me. All I did was be honest with what I was given.

Lilah, I want to let you know that I remember everything about us. I remember the sun freckles on your nose, your two crooked dimples creasing your pale cheeks. I remember your forehead on mine, your lips whispering a secret I’ll never say. You were just a summer friend, a girl from my English class who I spent time with out of convenience, until you weren’t. We spent a sticky yellow afternoon drifting in a sailboat together. You wore an oversized life vest and held your tan arm towards the sky, fingers clenched to your shiny iPod that sang songs about Watermelon Sugar and July sweat. We talked about high school boys with citrus gel hair and washboard abdomens, giggling over gossip and celebrities. You told me your letterman jacket crush behind your cupped hand and I told you my basketball jersey one. You watched as I got up and stood at the mast of our boat and shed yellow skin in the Long Island wind, bare feet fracturing into spiderless spider webs as I stared into the sun.


Tongzhi. Tongzhi. Tongzhi. Say it with me, whisper it into my ear when I find you past the street corner waiting for me, when you cup my face and I fall into a dream about the moments we never had. That’s the character, Lilah. I’ll never write it in their boxes, never show it to my godless Nainai. It’s our word. I’ll keep it here on the tip of my tongueless mouth, chew it with no teeth, run my lipless gums over the cool texture.

That day on the boat I had slipped, fell briefly into starry limbo before I lost myself in all this saltwater. Everything is foggy under the sea, muted. The fuzzy bottom of our boat. White flapping sails. Your face red from the sun. Zhinü, my weaver girl from the sky. You were so much more than Western ideals yet I paid the price anyway. You dropped the boat rudder and reached out to me, dipping your hand into the dark water, fingers tangling in mine as you pulled me up into the air, skinless, limbless, and whole.

Mandarin Footnotes:
Nainai- Paternal grandmother Zhinü – Weaver Girl Niulang – Cowherd Boy Tongzhi – Queer