Danielle Shi


The ringback tone for the photography lab and the mental hospital were one and the same. Two places you had dwelled—belonging to, two. Her. Saving your mother from ocean death. Saving, Heidegger said, meaning only to set her free into her own presencing. She was once all your shelter. Dependencies. Extrication. Flight. The pilotess of a balsa wood model, nosediving into the bonfire pits exuding firelight over the dunes.

After the line went dead, you found the portrait you had taken of your grandfather before you learned that the Chinese did not photograph the same. Full frontal, informed, agreed upon images were rote, permissible, allowing the sitter to become their idealized self with conscious deliberation; the backwards angling side alley pictures you took, in return, subversive and wholly disrespectful. For the duration of your stay you had taken many such photographs, from the side, from the back, knowing your time in his isolated naval compound home was in free fall. Parachute child.

So far and near, spring amounted to the need for a retro 旗袍, eighty-eight dollars of Shanghai 家乡 embodied in muted red fabrics, to fall snug around your bosom, waistline, derriere, for you to live up to your namesake. Red girl. Red maid. You switched on Rouge in the background, silencing the rustic album your date had played on the ride home from his neighborhood café. Safe. The movie started without you. Irène Jacob’s train announcer tones. Dulcet. You wanted to speak French this year, tall modern woman like Sylvia angling to learn German amid all her teaching responsibilities. Poesy, and subsequent death by sewing machine.

Christmas Eve Sunday alone. You left your father’s apartment to take out the trash and roach carcass. The grass, dewy. Stepmother’s name meant dew. Her lasered face, dewy. Younger than yours. Doodoo. She hadn’t spoken to you since smashing the television over Mother. Somatic anguish in the China hospital. Mama. She was in the institution, and you had declined the first, overbearing date’s invitation to service with his entire Chinese family, flying home instead to see her. Left him for a reserved and smoothly formal man who identified himself as nonreligious, whom you liked much better. A Southern gentleman.

Architectman invited you to a cathedral for your next date. Had chatted amiably along to your rhapsodies about Ando and the Church of the Light, Kuma, the cross-shaped ken of his pineapple Starbucks. Running man said he didn’t know DeLillo but you forgave him when he boasted about eating 煎饼 every day in Beijing, for a week. Had let slip then that you liked country music best. Dirty little secrets shored up, seashoring. Change the subject to John Denver. Folk, you both agreed. Your parents’ old song, that you were singing all along. Are you going to start singing, he teased as he turned in front of the bus, with you in the crosshairs.

Herb pointed out the homes for the elderly that were under construction and repeated a turn of phrase you had used. You felt comfortable enough to tell him about your aging father. I’m reading Fitzgerald and Rosemary is known for her role in Daddy’s Girl, you laughed sardonically, watching the birds fly across the sky in formation. Rosemary Folk. She can’t find another part. Baba, I’m home. You’ve never said come home now, but I’ve come home. It was in his eyes. Green like jade. 余, 与 , 玉 . Yu. You. Yoohoo. Aw naw. No more bar karaoke, whiskey. Leaving behind your souvenirs of the country town and the city where you went by Rose Dear.

A rose is a rose is a rose is sweet and warmpetaled, sepaled, its inverted cupola a building unto itself for the sky. A dwelling. To belong, is it so different from to raising an edifice after all?

The first time you saw the beauties of the world, it was like you didn’t see them. At eighteen your eyes were closed. Your ears, open, hearing only Spoiled. Camera. You tuned out. The guttural voices. Picking strawberries in Düsseldorf with a boy and his uncle underneath a dream. Winged Victory of Samothrace. Walk faster, flats worn thin. Insipid, dressed in a sack, hair olive from the dye fade. I.M. Pei. I.M. Not Pei.

Mother has always wanted you to draw her, though you don’t have a single image for all the years of art class she drove you to. Nights at the community college. Languor of summers in studio, vine charcoal smearing across the flat of your palm. Putty erasers, stretching thin, you were as putty so silken so soft once pulled taut. She was your top model, body her temple, fit for the shutter. Your fitspo. Fruit for lunch. It was hard to please her;— easily jealous of hyacinth girls, glamour poses in all four seasons, silent in her fury.

Silent tears. They used you, the new cuckoo, acting photographer for Selina’s birthday, Old Hong Kong themed, everybody dressed like aunties and uncles but you in sunao kuwahara milk cream dress and mesh Oriental embroidered flats, butter leather motocross jacket. Artistic auntie. Selina forgave you. Mother saw the pictures and cried. She was happy when you chose her. She thought you loved Selina more. You can tell how much someone loves you by the photographs they take of you, she believed. So beautiful and so strong. Skin. Supple. Familiar with the rhythms of nature, Earth Mother doing the shopping at Mother’s Market.

It’s really nice out today here. Wearing a skirt. Off to the mental hospital. The cabbie asked you for your number and said he could wait for you to finish visiting your mother to take you home. You politely declined. Manager, you found yourself barking out. Visiting hours were over. Adolescent visiting hours only right now. The woman two days ago had given you the wrong information. I flew in from San Francisco. Today is Christmas. The institution operates by its own laws in order to stand. But my mother. I flew in. A little bird told me to come now. Come home now.

Locked doors opening, a crowd of people, the timelier visitors, dispersed. Milling around. Happy. Asian father cutting you in line to argue with the front desk as you argued on the phone. Staring at the gaudy tinsel tree reaching for the high ceiling of the facility. Latched. She’s sleeping, said the kindlier male nurse, sympathetic. I could get her for you for a minute, but she’s sleeping. He sounded remorseful. You can leave the bag at the front desk for her.

She was still sleeping six hours later, and then to bed. You imagined your beautiful mother waiting as the visitors arrived, flocking to their family members, loving, gaiety— waiting for you, why wasn’t she here yet, where is she, is she not coming, she promised me she would come, she said so, because I hung up, it's because I hung up on her, she’s punishing me, she doesn’t love me, nobody cares about me, this is their way of showing you they love you, look at how they love you, these are the last words, these are the last words you will ever say to me, these are the last words you will ever say to me she said to you on the phone and then she hung up the receiver.

To seek; the seeking is the destroying; to seek the worthwhile, to seek the right pathway to fulfillment—such eternal in the temporal was a thing you wanted, if abstract essence could become materiality, as a paperweight crushes a bulb on a stem. If you could speak English better it would be easier, the path would be cleared of rubble and the soot would clear itself away from the grate. Sootberries. In the end it’s all very acquisitive, the learning of a language; to say it flowingly, readily, naturally, the heft and weight falling across your tongue like it was your first speech, idiomatic. Herb and I. Or to always be in exile. Me and Herb, the incorrect form to belong. To dwell. To stay, was a decision you made when things grew hard. They call golden deer like you 海龟: cash cow gold dollar ingots brick of glowing gold. There was a life waiting for you back here. Father left. Abandon ship. The Pequod sank. America, that place having been and still to be.

The best photographers work from paintings. A photographer you admired informed you he did. The best photographers work from the eye. Retinal art is less meaningful. After the mental hospital your mind feels like an aggregated pile of fragments, shards interlocking and overlapping in corners, and you sigh and force yourself to belly breathe as you think about how you waited to text Herb all day, breathe like you’ve been teaching your students during social-emotional learning class on Saturdays, your single Saturday nights, counting to four as you inhale and hold your breath for another four seconds, exhaling, exhaler un temps mort. Herbie was the name of the robot who lied in the story.

Reader, you are standing in your skirt from yesterday in a Nijiya in the produce aisle during your lunch hour, where it is just you and a Japanese obaasan with hair like yours, all gleaming moonshine in a mushroom crop. You didn’t do your hair today, and stared longingly at the Palty box dyes in New York Cool Girl Ash, stopping to pick up the lotus root Selina likes so much, read the unfamiliar Japanese name, and set it back down gingerly, noting how the edges of this root are fuzzed over and appear hard to cook without mistake. The obaasan in her politeness does not look up at your lapse, averting her gaze to the satsumas piling up in pyramidal structure in the neighboring stall. Mother shopped at the Persian market, finding the Japanese mart 奢侈. She liked to buy dates there, and jujubes. It was possible she did this dance with the Persian ladies, in the shadow of the fragrance of freshly baked sangak.

This is she, she sang today on the phone when you called after lunch, sounding absolutely delighted. They are 胡扯八道, of course I wasn’t sleeping. I don’t sleep that much. You have to come today earlier. Drive safe. It’s a date. Love you, your voice echoed, stunned. Dwelling suddenly in the imaginary she had created, for the two of you to hold still in. Her creation. Cultivating a make-believe, as Vincent’s farmer does his fields of gold and ochre. You were her creation. You belonged to the earth. You stumbled into the bathroom to redo your makeup and change into bell-bottom jean capris. Mother liked to see you looking your best, from head to toe. She would surely point out the spot on your face you had scratched open and tried to cover with foundation.

Were you one and the same, belonging together, mother and daughter, in hospital and out, sane then not-sane? Another
Asian daughter, in the dreams you dreamt of her so young as she clutched a palm tree and smiled at the camera between the
evergreen fronds. Deliberately, after Stepmother told you your
father had asked her to cut her hair short, like your old college haircut, you had chopped yours off, like Mother’s in college, her at the center of the group photograph of her friends, boy girl boy girl, eight girls to a dormitory room, at the seaside as the waves lapped at the rocks, brushing them clean. Brushing your hair back behind your ears, that gesture of grooming, preening. Forever young. You couldn’t wait to tell your mother about the moon in the sky that night as you drove over the hill in the back of the Uber. Moon represents my heart. Goodnight, moon. The driver pointed it out to you as you rounded the hillside. Yellow, bulbous, wreathed in misted tendrils spreading out like concentric circles on the muted dark.

While in the waiting room you saw a woman’s profile through the locked doors, her hair silvery. That can’t be, you thought, startled. She passed by before you could tell, but the way her head was bent downwards, angled as though in meditative prayer, you thought you recognized Mother, and braced yourself. For when you identified her as one and the same, the differences belonging to one person, the group of solemn visitors having descended in one large elevator and lined up against the wall together, filing in one by one to the room of square tables set at diagonals to each other, a roomful of individual tables set for visiting, you saw her waving at you from across the room and hardly recognized her in her handmade skullcap, her twisted braided hair, the way it hung around her face like dryspun stalks of wild sweetgrass.

She had put on weight, and smiled at you, still becoming. You felt secure, then, in the presence of the woman who would always love you, no matter your leaving her, your returning, prodigal daughter, filial dog, to her arms as she opened them wide for you in her loving embrace. The woman who would always love you. Your Stepmother had asked you to choose. You had refused. Seeing Mother well-fed, you could almost look past how much she had aged, asking her to open wide so you could check her teeth, and they were whiter than yours, and then she peered into your mouth too, and you finally relaxed against the seatback and complained that the coffee she had made you was much too sweet. Laughing out of relief. Safe in the thirty-minute interval they allowed visitors, barely enough time to breathe.

I’m not sick, she said, her expression severe in its sudden intensity. Yes. She relaxed and sized up your sweater, asking you how much it had cost. It was inexpensive, forty dollars. Your secondhand stores, she smiled. Cashmere is cheap these days. Where are you working now? I’m still taller than you. She stood up from the table and turned, her back facing yours, inching close until your shoulder blades were touching through her hoodie; its cords, cut off for patient safety. You’ve grown, she said into the silence. You glanced up, becoming aware that the others were lined up on the opposite wall, waiting for you to leave her. Time.


The height and depth of the sky. This was what you fixed your thoughts on, holding open the view finder in front of the miniature folding screen, the cherry blossoms decorating its visage abloom across the pale cream skein of the shade. An establishing shot. Gunning for precision, the even patterning of the Venetian blinds casting itself across the wall as it let in the light of day. It had been a week and a half since you last took a photograph. The winding knob feels unfamiliar under your skin, too heavy and clunky, like it hadn’t been used for centuries. Decades, you remind yourself with a wry grin, wiping your hand on your shirt and closing the hood. The camera was a relic of the fifties, not a dinosaur. Millennia. Millennial. Terra cotta, 5,000 years of history, Summer Palace, Forbidden Kingdom, Great Firewall of China that was censoring your 日记片 video diaries on Vimeo. Good grief.

You and your old college housemate Russell had started talking again recently after your move to his turf. He messaged you throughout the holiday while touring Beijing, WeChat custom emojis of a smirking “U GAY?” fox and an animated flying dick with flames streaming out of one end. I’m so interested in the people, he told you. Two girls had come up to him and asked him for a photograph. They must think I look so American. Touring the embalmed body of Chairman Mao in a whole mausoleum, guards afoot, with the furry hats. I don’t understand them, he admits, sending a parade of “U GAY?”s. dick dick dick U GAY? U GAY? U GAY? U GAY? blows up your screen as you message your video file directly for Russell to watch through China airport Wi-Fi. It shows a sequence of you in the hospital waiting room listening to ambient nature sounds. Filming your shadow self. U GAY? Wait this is really cute. Russell and your dad have identical perms, one reason you think he asks after him; or it could be that Russell was visiting you during your turn in the hospital when they first met, and stopped to speak to your parents about your condition. On the same wavelength. Wave perm.

You fell asleep in Russell’s bed once, one sun-soaked summer at the Julia Morgan-built co-op, beside him in his warm yellow-wallpapered and brick single, while he slept on soundly. After his alarm went off, you asked him whether he had heard anything amiss, surveying him with wide eyes. No. He shrugged nonchalantly and changed out of his shiba inu pajamas, with typical Japanese politesse, as though you hadn’t woken up screaming in the dark at four in the morning.

Russell had changed his avatar to a picture of him riding a wave. Curved comma balanced atop a surfboard, ocean yawning open behind him, a whole dimension of athleticism you could only admire from afar. Herb told you he surfed every morning, that the day after Christmas there was no one out on the water. You wondered appreciatively if they had ever been seen by each other in their tight matching wetsuits, hair slicked back by salt and spray, all lean muscle bound by black Spandex, compressed strength coiled like a spring.

He looks hot but very serious, Russell scrutinized an old photo you dug up. Has like a jawline of steel. What’s your next date going to be? A super gay architecture date? Looking at Frank Lloyd Wright buildings?

Aerial, sunlight, repose. Heat, holding, hopeful. Tawny skin turned pale as the face of the moon. Inside she can’t see the deep blue sky. They won’t let her out. Help, help, I can’t get out, said the starling. I can’t get out. You couldn’t bear to tell her about the moon that night, when it was all you wanted to tell her about, because she couldn’t see the same moon you saw, the moon you saw as you drove up the Interstate 5 away from her when she was sickest, when you ran, when you ran away, from your duty. To sing then songs of surrender as they stamped your hand red. Bite me. Little Red Riding Hood. The Woolf at your door. Woolf in Japanese Sheepman’s clothing. You wondered if your mother had received the Murakami. Phoning the hospital, to find, horror of horrors: Mother had been discharged. Sent away to be homeless in an Uber. The nurse who gave you the wrong information picked up the phone to help. We spoke earlier. It’s all a game.

At a certain point it all starts to feel unreal that everything happens to you, like you’re watching this happen to yourself from a bird, a plane, a ravioli; like you’re the victim of a giant prank that everybody is in on, the last person you were seeing had hinted at belligerently, before announcing loudly to your housemate that he, they, barely knew you, that you had thrown yourself at him, them. Cosmic irony, Baldwin’s gay narrator says, calling it deeply ironic to think that you are in control of your own destiny—and you reflect for a moment, the story verse slowing down to a standstill for the narrator to have the marvelous epiphany that there is no one to pick up the phone and call who would understand in this very instant when you are feeling most alone. You’re lucky in life to have even one friend, Mother liked to say, cruelly. Experiences of lonesomeness and unlonesomeness, comings and goings, taking place in a vacuum-sealed container covered up in a filmy plastic wrap, and shoved deep in the spare broom closet. Hidden away beneath moth-eaten rags and an old shoe. You’re an old shoe. That’s what the Communists called her in the book by the dead public intellectual. Herb still hadn’t replied to your innocuous message about Jonathan Franzen and the Times suing the AI. Killswitch. Kill fuck marry. D, None of the above. E. e.e. phone home. Monogram in red ink lower right. A seal.

Danielle Shi

Danielle Shi (史丹妮) is a writer and photographer based in San Francisco, California. Her writing can be found at California Magazine, ZYZZYVA Magazine Blog, Sine Theta Magazine, The Frida Cinema Blog, The Drift, Hyphen Magazine, UChicago Arts, UChicago News, The Daily Californian, and the Orange County Register. She has pieces forthcoming in The Rumpus and Jaded Ibis Press. Her piece “Rosemary Folk” was nominated for the 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. []

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