Week of the Cat
by Emily Yang / 楊佳諭
On Sundays, the day her week begins, Cat goes to the movies. She loves everything about it, the movies: the below-freezing temperatures, the plushness of the plum velvet seating—even the salty knock of unpopped corn kernels against her teeth. She loves watching those miracle fingers of light blanch away the dark and orchestrate meaning, sometimes majestically, other times clumsily. But most of all she loves the bone-deep immersion, the way something as synthetic as projections on a screen inside a darkened room can afford her a forgetting of the circumstances, as well as the occasional heightened sense that yes, perhaps she and life can arrive at a mutual understanding after all.
Today, after she deletes the voicemail from Rat and forgets she needs to restock on Kleenex, she decides to watch a screening of an old foreign film at 誠品 Art House. It’s an artifice of a film, really, because half the characters speak English while the other half speaks a language that is no longer in circulation, at least in this world. The characters speak to each other in their own respective languages, never demonstrating any aptitude for that of their interlocutors, and yet they manage to understand each other perfectly and exchange airtight capsules of conversation unmarred by interruption, stutters, or even thoughtful silences. Cat is excited about this, because she loves artifice that wholly embraces its artificiality, whatever that means.
Halfway through the film, however, the light tilts, and something in the air shifts fundamentally. Out of the blue, Cat senses that something has gone terribly awry, or else has been irrevocably lost. She can’t put a finger on why, but the Chinese subtitles all of a sudden seem to her a series of willfully misfired translations. A silent shot of a hand caressing someone’s freckled cheeks is accompanied by the subtitles “Fuck off, fruit fly!” At an American fast food chain, the main character gestures at a picture of a double cheeseburger on the menu and says, “Save your crocodile tears.” The dialogue is stilted not in the charming way of much translated speech, but quite literally in the destabilizing way of people speaking of rental cars when they mean who are you, or else water spirits when they mean corrugated metal. What are these characters talking about, and who are they talking to? Is this an intentional component of the film, a clever treatise on the slippage between and within languages and all other forms of communication and meaning-making, or is this a simple malfunction, one where the subtitles have been glitched out of sequence thanks to the slip of somebody’s hand, somewhere offscreen? What has gone wrong, and how long have things been wrong for? To put a stop to this stressful line of inquiry, Cat dozes off.
On Monday after work, Cat goes on her second date with Pisces, a genderless Korean American fish with lots of feelings, which they attribute to having lost their other half—also a fish—when they were just a fingerling. (Pisces is a Korean War adoptee to white American parents.) Both times Cat has met Pisces, they’ve had a silver choker collared around their neck, and Cat imagines melting the chain clasp on her tongue like a tab of mint, nipping the seams apart and descaling Pisces then and there with her teeth. She wonders if the wiry cord has gnawed some sort of permanent indentation into their slippery skin, if their head would lop off as in a gothic fable, how maybe that’d be sort of hot—you know, as long as she receives Pisces’ consent—but for whatever reason she does not yet know. Something something animal instinct?
Having just graduated from an elite liberal arts college in the States, Pisces is presently employed by a cram school to teach English to Taiwanese children, about which they have many difficult and conflicting feelings. Being part of a neocolonial apparatus like this does not please me in the slightest, Pisces felt the need to explain on their first date. They were at a shisha bar named Kowloon—after the Walled City, presumably, but probably just for the aesthetics and none of the politics. Neither of them ordered any shisha.
As Pisces rambled on about choice under global capitalism, the LED light fixtures on the walls of the bar graduated from a bright red to a deep lilac. The fluorescents plumed and purpled Pisces’ apologetic contours, and right then a smoke ring from the neighboring table emerged and dematerialized above their head, a wispy halo drained promptly of its light. Cat was simultaneously turned on and emboldened, perhaps due to her positionality in that moment as the neocolonized to which something is owed.
Show me how to say “finger me” in English, she replied, and my pleasure and your complicity might cancel out. Also, this drink’s on you.
Oh, Pisces had said. Cool. Disingenuous political calculi aside, this is how Cat came to climax on Pisces’ nimbly angled fin-gers in the bar bathroom, her moans swallowed by lychee-flavored smoke and pulse-quickening industrial house music. This is also how a second date came to be arranged between the two of them.
Now, they sit across from each other at a bookstore-café in Ximen, survey one another in the flat glare of overcast daylight with a slight undertone of disappointment. In an act of silently casual monstrosity, the glasses of oat milk latte they have ordered subsume their respective ice cubes into their bodies, coolly and inequitably casting off the distinct ontological borders between them by assimilating all of ice cube into oat milk latte. Pisces points this out, maybe a little too unironically for someone not on drugs, and there’s a lull. (CAT: ……)
Then: a rush of contrived dialogue. They end up oversharing, each of them, Cat about how tired she is of everyone assuming she wants to be a member of the Zodiac when she’s perfectly happy being excluded from that institution, Pisces about their anxieties regarding Taipei’s present water shortages and the emotional toll of negotiating the contradictions between their transnational anti-imperialist leftist solidarities and the current condition of the so-called Indo-Pacific as the US’s principal theater for the coming Second Cold War. How to keep up a non-US-centric, transpacific dialogue that centers regional nuance critical of institutional bodies like the Chinese state, you know, while also acknowledging that the US is, without parallel, the greatest historical and present-day threat to the geopolitical stability of the Global South, not to mention global liberation? they say breathlessly. As a Pacific Ocean fish and a Korean American allied with people like the Taiwanese, I feel like I’m uniquely situated in this liminal space, like I have some sort of intimate individual obligation to try to alleviate or even resolve these tensions, untenable as that ambition might be.
It becomes clear that it’s been months since Pisces has spoken to someone who isn’t active on Twitter. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Cat is in fact active on Twitter, and the two of them end up having the sort of conversation that is structured like a mutual interview both are underpaid for, each discharging elaborately constructed questions at the other in a violent bid to the keep the silence at bay, neither interviewer particularly interested in nor engaged with the answers of their guest.
Later, after what feels like both too much and not enough foreplay, they fuck hurriedly in Pisces’ blue-walled apartment, somewhere in the rain-pelted gut of Ximen. When Cat approaches a stuttering climax, Pisces impossibly nicks her insides with one of their extremely well-trimmed lesbian nails, and visions of drowning judder through her body, barbwiring the hair along her spine and mugging her of both breath and climax. She jolts against Pisces’ slick, thin-lipped mouth, and the slap of her flesh against theirs—a strangely deflating reminder of the respective meat sacks they both inhabit—instantly depletes her of any semblance of arousal.
Shit, you okay? Pisces asks.
Yeah… let’s just stop, says Cat. Her voice thuds just a touch too urgently against the muted blue walls, and she cringes. Later, as she buttons up her coat and collects her belongings, they both decide, independent of one another, that they will not reply in the event that the other asks for a third date. They could talk, yeah, but it’s not like they’ve really connected. Whatever that means.
On the walk home from the station, Cat stops in front of the neighborhood camphor tree and breathes out of her mouth. It’s a habit she’s had since she was young, maybe from high school. Whenever the wet cold of Taipei winters begins to cut her cheeks and redden the tips of her ears, she makes a point of stockpiling steam in her mouth on her walks home, then letting her breath bleach this tiny pouch of air before her. The camphor tree her witness, its branches always winding toward the noise of the sidewalk like eager, long-necked gossips, her breath for its intense, woody musk—some sort of equivalent exchange. She doesn’t smoke, so it’s her only opportunity to see her own breath move, to confirm the fact of her body by leaking something of herself into the visible world, where things are knowable. (Technically, piss and shit and mucus also qualify as the same sort of empirical evidence, but this is much more romantic.)
Today, though, Cat’s breath doesn’t take, and nothing colors the air before her. Spring’s coming, she thinks, and when she surveys her surroundings, she finds that folks in her neighborhood have taped up their 春聯 for the coming New Year, red rice paper lettered with delicate gold foil and elegant ink strokes sheathing each door dazzlingly bright.
The year that was supposed to be hers approaches, and Cat tries not to look it too hard in the eye.
On Tuesday morning, Cat receives another voicemail from Rat and again deletes it without listening. During lunch break, she tries out the new taco place in Dunhua with her work friends Libra and Natto; they have all independently and collectively concluded that Mexican food in Taipei will always be categorically mediocre, and yet they still try. When the tacos do in fact turn out to be mediocre, they do not know whether to celebrate being right or to mourn the constancy of this fact.
As Libra and Natto bicker over who it was that had suggested giving tacos in Taipei another go, Cat spaces out and, against her will, finds herself holding her breath inside the wet casing of a memory. In this memory, she is not yet afraid of water, and she is in love for the first time with someone who doesn’t speak her first language. In this memory, he’s walking her home from school, his thumb orbiting the base of hers like a devoted exoplanet, and she’s trying again and again to explain a Chinese axiom to him in another language, the one they both speak. Cat can’t quite remember what the phrase is, but she remembers the danger seeded inside of it, the decisive rhythm of its unexamined cruelty. What was the name of that famous Chinese butcher again? Was the proverb’s origin story about cows, or was it about goats? Either way, the proverb she was trying to communicate to her then-lover was one about butchering an animal in the most efficient way possible. How to cut someone best with the least amount of effort.
Sorry, but I just don’t get it, she remembers him saying in the end. On the way home, Cat again forgets to buy Kleenex.
On Wednesday, Cat meets up with her high school friends Minyue, Yuchen, and Rabbit at a trendy bar that specializes in craft beers. For months now, Cat has felt a creeping sense that the four of them—an established “friend group” from their high school days—have outgrown one another, perhaps a little bit irrevocably. Minyue is married with a newborn, Yuchen a successful banker engaged to an older Chinese businessman. Cat works as an interpreter for the Taiwanese branch of an American media company and moonlights as a pansexual, aspiring lesbian, and Rabbit runs a moon-worshipping bubble tea shop that has recently been bought out by a CCP-backed franchise.
The only thing they have left in common is their shared memories, a both cliché and hyperspecific tableau of vomit-strewn, fluorescent nights out, trips overplanned by Yuchen by the end of which no one wanted to be around each other, cramming for exams at the Daan branch of the city library, gossipy sleepovers, hot meals at 熱炒 and KTV joints and hole-in-the-wall eateries, popsicles and 茶葉蛋 at convenience store stops, and the occasional session of crying on each other’s shoulders about boys and the internalized disdain they felt for their respective bodies. The years have carved a sizeable rift between them, one steady inch at a time, and before she knew it, Cat suddenly understood one day that the distance had become more than she could bridge with a well-worn tape reel of painstakingly lacquered memories. Remember? one of them would always end up saying at one of these gatherings, and Cat began to find that she didn’t want to, then wondered if she ever did. In her least generous moments, she would wonder how they still haven’t taken the hint of her silence in these conversations, how they could still know so little about and be such incompetent readers of her after all these years, this supposedly oceanic bundle of time they’ve gathered between them. In those moments, she would forget that they had ever been able to understand her at all.
Their pints of beers arrive in a clatter of clinks against the glass table, and Cat is thrust again into the present, where Yuchen is rambling on as usual about something her fiancé has told her. In lieu of a personality, her fiancé possesses a terrifying handle on a comprehensive array of trivia. Yuchen calls this “worldliness,” a quality that allegedly helps businessmen amass millions, more so than their fathers being the founders of the companies they now run at the impressive age of something under 30.
So this Human Interference Task Force, Yuchen says between sips of honeyed lager, it’s founded by the US government in like, the 1980s or something, right? The Department of Energy and the largest construction company in the US convene this team of engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, and behavioral scientists, and the sole goal of this task force is to reduce the chance of future humans accidentally intruding upon nuclear waste repositories. Specifically one they want to drill into some mountain out in Nevada.
Cat coughs. Probably sacred Indigenous land.
Yuchen glances up slowly, then looks back down at her phone, lit up by the Wikipedia page of the phenomenon at hand. Rabbit’s pompom tail twitches nervously as Minyue’s eyes dart between Cat and Yuchen.
Yuchen’s long acrylic nails clack against the screen as she scrolls, and she continues as if Cat hadn’t said anything at all: So what’s super fascinating about this, Michael says, is this problem of how we can write messages to people in the far future—like, the up-to-10,000-years-later kind of far future. After deliberating for a bit, the task force basically concludes that today’s written languages will likely break down, or have evolved beyond recognition by then. They end up using pictograms and hostile architecture plus texts with four different levels of complexity, and these are examples of the kind of wording they suggest the messages use:
This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor… no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.
What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location… it increases towards a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
When Yuchen finishes, Cat is horrified in a vague, outsized way. Minyue and Rabbit laugh, Wow, that’s insane, then somehow manage to pivot the topic to their Lunar New Year plans, the mood of their significant others, the bubble tea shop’s transition, how the baby’s teething is going. The kind of safe everyday details we accumulate of each other’s lives as time passes us by, relieving in their capacity to be transmitted and received without much difficulty on either end.
On Thursday, Cat dreams about Rat for the first time in years. In the dream, she’s hooking up with him in her apartment, the walls a blue somewhere between ocean and sky, and he still sucks at fingering, inexplicably stabbing and scissoring her whenever he approaches being remotely decent at it with his stubby, uncurled middle and ring fingers. She has to tell him multiple times to move his fingers away from her asshole, and she wonders whether it’s possible to actually just be this bad (yes), if he just doesn’t care about her pleasure (also yes), if he’s trying yet again to prime her for the anal sex she would never consent to with him (having sensed, from the get-go, that there’s something vaguely misogynistic about the way he would go about asking what she was “down for”), or if there’s some sort of finger-magnet lodged in her perineum that she needs to surgically excise.
In the dream, just as Cat and Rat are about to engage in certain unspecified sexual acts, Pisces bursts into the apartment four separate times, offering her different items like a salesperson peddling Cat’s various lacks. Most of the items escape her memory—a wilting chrysanthemum? A value-size bottle of lotion with a “smart pump”? Or that pair of saltwater pearl earrings she saw an IG ad for the other day? She doesn’t remember the details of the first, third, or fourth times, but the second time Pisces whips the door open, they offer her a tissue box.
You ran out of Kleenex, they say matter-of-factly, the box dangling loosely from their grip.
Annoyed at being interrupted a second time, Cat snatches the tissue box away and slings it violently onto her nightstand. Thanks, she says. Now can you go? Pisces dematerializes somehow, and then, even as her body brims with unadulterated disdain for him, she returns to Rat again, then again.
When Cat wakes up, she wants to cry but doesn’t, her own tears being her least favorite body of water. How could she still be dreaming about him, all these years later, and why the fuck did Rat have to reach out? Didn’t they have a tacit agreement to never speak to each other again, to leave each other alone for the entirety of the foreseeable future? How could he still have this sort of power over her, even now? A dude called Rat!
Lingering in this post-dream dust cloud of self-pity, Cat sneezes five times in a row. Snot ropes out of her nostrils like sadistic, mocking snakes, and she reaches for the Kleenex on her nightstand, only to feel her fingers close around air, around nothing.
This makes Cat cry, finally, and she does this for ten minutes until she simply stops, blows her nose on toilet paper, gets dressed, fixes her face, and shoulders the door open to head to work. Today, she says out loud, I won’t forget. She’s not sure what exactly she’s talking about.
Everyone on the island has their own version of the story—the one where Rat betrays Cat, that is.
Here’s how it goes: once upon a time, Cat and Rat are long-distance friends. Soulbond-close, but not best friends by any stretch of the phrase, though without the distance it’d be hard to say. One night, she texts him to look up at the moon, look how full its belly is tonight, how fleece-soft its papery luster. it’ll be like we’re together, looking at the same sky! she writes. It’s supposed to be a romantic gesture—Cat loves romancing her friends like that. When he receives this text, however, Rat is gaming in his apartment. He decides he’ll check the moon out later, maybe after another match or two, and puts off replying to Cat. When he finally pops his head out the window a few hours later, clouds have thickened the sky with their insistent gauze, and the moon is barely visible, whittled down to a tendril of ailing light. This is a betrayal.
Here’s how it goes: once upon a time, Cat and Rat are the best of friends, but Rat has always been more ambitious (in this version, he’s a Capricorn). One day, the Jade Emperor assembles all animals and announces a race to determine the Chinese zodiac based on the first twelve to finish. To win the race, they must ford a river with an unforgivingly rapid current. Neither Cat nor Rat can swim, so they recruit the generous help of Ox, and on the day of the race they saddle themselves onto his back for a painless crossing. When they near the riverbank, however, Rat leaps hastily for shore, shunting Cat off Ox’s back in the process and leaving her to almost drown in the currents. He wins first place, and it’s unclear whether he shoved her by accident or on purpose. Cat never forgives Rat—and that’s why cats today love to hunt rats, the consequence of experiencing betrayal being an insatiable, bottomless hunger. With sharpened claws to boot.
Here’s how it goes: once upon a time, Cat and Rat are the best of friends. One day, the Buddha announces a race to determine the Twelve Zodiacs of the lunar calendar. Cat and Rat both want a seat at the table, though what the table is for, precisely, they cannot say. The morning of the race, however, Cat finds that she’s still exhausted from her effectively 9-to-7 job. She decides to take a quick nap, asking Rat to wake her if her alarm doesn’t work. Worn down to the bone, she sleeps through the alarm, and Rat doesn’t wake her. It’s unclear if he forgets to, or if he does so as sabotage. Cat never forgives Rat, not because she particularly cares about the whole Zodiac thing, but because he goes on to win the race and leaves her behind on the victory tour, and then all of a sudden he’s got these eleven new friends because he’s part of that something with them and has no time for her even though he said he’d make it up to her, and then all of sudden it’s unbearably clear that they’re not really friends at all, not anymore—and that’s why cats today love to hunt rats. It’s a cat-eat-rat world, yes, but the important part here is the chase. The catching up to someone who has left you behind, compulsively playing out in the bodies of your descendants for the rest of time.
Here’s how it goes: once upon a time, Cat and Rat become monogamous lovers after starring opposite one another in a famous romcom. The years don’t belong to anybody, and neither do the memories, because everything that happens between them has already happened in their movie, every first shared between the two of them hauntingly preordained, felt in the body long before the feelings could even be called theirs. Whatever Cat and Rat experience with each other offscreen pales in comparison, lacking an emotional intensity typically lent by some form of perceived exceptionalism. Cat worries around this lack, grows nostalgic for things she’s only seen onscreen: enemies-to-lovers sex with sharded glass and unceremoniously ripped buttons; perfectly lit tears that coruscate like diamonds lashed liquid against the cheek; monologues not pocked with self-conscious acknowledgements of one’s present monologuing. She begins to resent Rat for bite-sized deficiencies, like him not noticing a tiny beauty mark on her forehead that all her previous lovers had enjoyed fetishizing, or him forgetting the name of her favorite director more than twice. When he goes off-script by veering into another well-worn one and cheating on her with an actress he has on multiple occasions called stupid, she feels relieved at how tangible the betrayal feels. How paralyzing yet existentially affirming it is to wake to the unblunted hurt in her chest. You, she almost says out loud when she feels it. You’re still here.
Here’s how it goes: once upon a time, there is no race. Rat doesn’t do anything wrong; he just doesn’t do anything right, either. Cat doesn’t give a fuck about being part of the Zodiac, about owning a whole year. Cat doesn’t know what she gives a fuck about, but she knows that time has never been hers. This, too, feels like a betrayal.
Here’s how it goes: once upon a time, Cat and Rat matter to each other, but not enough. This is sad, but nothing particularly tragic.
On Friday, Cat interprets for one of her company’s executives at a business lunch with two employees from an American distribution company. They’re trying to negotiate an exclusive distribution deal, and the higher-ups have gone all out—they made reservations at the only three Michelin star restaurant in Taipei months ahead of time, and as exquisite platters of Chinese spinach and salted egg dumplings, white gourd stuffed with shrimp and decadent crab meat, and several other dishes she cannot identify crowd the table, Cat feels resolutely out of place.
Seated in an intimate, dimly lit booth with a sea green brocade sofa and dark blue velour cushions, the men cycle through the various niceties requisite for a business lunch, and Cat midwifes their words legible. This is the specialty dish of Taiwan’s most famous Macawese chef; we had to preorder this months ago. 多吃一點，你要吃多少我們就點多少， thank you for your thoughtful hospitality, 不用客氣！ We love what you did with Daebak in South Korea, and we think something similar in Taiwan would have enormous potential for your company’s growth. By the way, this is delicious. 讚吼？ Here, have another, some joke about the Four Asian Tigers, ha, carnivores need to eat plenty! As the conversation progresses, Cat gradually slips into what she thinks of as the interpreter equivalent of what athletes call “the zone.” In the zone, Cat is a processing plant that receives language and empties it out of her in another form; she delivers language as if in a trance, possessed in short, efficient spells by the ghost of what has just now been said until she can exorcise it through an open mouth. In the zone, language has no meaning except its capacity to be converted from one currency into another, and Cat exists merely to service this conversion, to ferry it to completion.
When one of the head chefs carts a whole freshly roasted duck to their table, however, the men all collectively pause to marvel, and Cat is tugged out of the zone by their silence. Gloved and armed with a long, slender cleaver, the chef carves away at the amber-crusted duck with firm and artful strokes, the warp and weft of his knife excising crispy skin from tender meat with clinical precision. Cat watches as the duck meat gasps open with steam, watches as its juices track down the chef’s gloves and drip down the holes in the metal tray, and it occurs to her that she’s never really had to make her own language on the job. Over the past five years, she’s interpreted at countless important meetings and lunches and dinners and conferences and trips, and the men have never asked her anything about herself or had her weigh in on whatever topic was trending through the conversation at hand. There’s some small talk here and there, of course, and they know the basics about her, but even in social settings she’s largely confined to her role as interpreter, an instrument of conversation best valued when seated quietly and shuttling their language from one end to another. How long has this gone on for without her noticing? she wonders. And didn’t she want to tell her own stories, once? It occurs to her that she might resent them, these men, and she begins revenge-fantasizing about jamming this clockwork, about advancing her own financial or creative agenda somehow through a series of carefully constructed mistranslations. But before she can elaborate on this fantasy any further, the duck has been carved to perfection and set on the satin tablecloth. The men resume speaking, and Cat returns to her post in the zone, pliant and faithful as ever.
After work, Cat is still hungry, likely because she didn’t have much time to eat in between all the interpreting. When she gets home, she wrests off her blouse, pencil skirt, and stockings and heads for a popular food vendor street nearby in a hoodie and sweatpants. She buys takeout 紅油抄手, 燙青菜, and 貢丸湯 from a family stall. At home, she eats her dinner while watching the latest supposedly anticapitalist K-drama that her friends keep telling her to watch, though she has only relented to do so after catching wind of a loosely lesbian subplot.
Halfway through the first episode, Rat texts her, and the notification sound pings through the air like a hollowed dart. Cat pauses the K-drama and considers the text, trying and failing to slow her dread-drumming heart through the sheer force of her willpower. As she scrolls aimlessly up and down the chat box, the narrative possibilities unscroll before her:
1) If she chooses to ignore this text, she will go about the rest of her days wondering, at the back of her head, what was so urgent that Rat would reach out like this, over and over. She’ll cycle through the motions of her everyday life, at peace with her decision and yet also unsettled by it in some vitally draining way. She’ll spend money at bars, restaurants, food courts, department stores, night markets, bookstores, cafés, and bookstore-cafés, meet up with friends and talk about nothing, watch films alone and sometimes with company, every Sunday. And then, maybe a month from now, she’ll find out that Rat has passed away from Stage IV prostate cancer and before that, had changed, had wanted to make amends, to do things right by her, or at least let her know that what happened to her won’t be happening to anyone else, because a), he’s going to die, whew! and b), he’s really changed, he has! She’ll regret it, her decision, which she would not have regretted in any scenario but this one.
2) On the other hand, if she chooses to respond to this text, to open herself up to the potential for violence that comes with having expectations for another being, particularly one that was born as and still identifies as a Male, she will end up spending the rest of this week anxious about their impending conversation or meetup. She’ll mount a series of fantasies in which he will say all the things she used to think she needed to hear from him, the apology, the performance of remorse, the final reveal that he has been miserable this whole time, because that’s the consequence of the harm he has caused her, that’s what he gets in a karmic universe that incidentally revolves around her. When she meets up with or speaks to him, however, he will simply say something along the lines of, Hey, so I heard you work for this company, and I need a favor, and she will regret it, her decisions, all of it.
3) Of course, there’s the possibility that if she responds, they will have a conversation that means something. She will be able to ask why did you betray my trust why did you take me in use me up and so easily toss me aside. She will be able to say I do not know if I will ever forgive you, but if you are near the end of something I will at least sit here with you and hold your hand for five minutes. She will, in the most ideal iteration of this scenario, have the option to say something meaner, like fuck off fruit fly!, but she finds that she can’t imagine this, that it doesn’t feel quite possible.
At this, Cat blocks Rat, locks her phone, and unpauses the K-drama. She commits to not regretting this decision.
On Saturday, after alternating all day between scrolling through Twitter to numb herself and reading shoujo manga just to feel something, Cat takes the blue line down to Ximen for dinner. She’s craving the fried chicken bento from a small intergenerationally-run eatery, tucked narrowly between an arcade and a tattoo parlor, and she’s willing to brave the weekend crowd at Ximending for this want. On the train, Cat entertains a wave of anxiety about finding the eatery suddenly closed and replaced by yet another café. She winds herself up for an imminent loss whenever she visits a spot she hasn’t been to in a while, Taipei’s establishment turnover rate being far quicker than she can keep up with. She used to think that storied family-run stalls were immune to this phenomenon, dedicated as Taiwanese people are to traditional street food, but after her favorite 涼麵 place closed, all bets were off, and she couldn’t afford to remain naïve any longer.
As Cat exits the station, she thinks apropos of nothing that if someone ever rips her shirt off during sex—like rips it rips it—she’ll just get anxious about making the sex worth the shirt’s price and won’t be turned on at all. When she cuts through a busker’s crowd and rounds a corner, she thinks about the distribution deal, how maybe it’ll be good for local filmmakers and showrunners, even if she disagrees with the politics of the distribution company. As she passes the flickering fluorescent sign for a U2 theater, she recalls something Libra told her recently, about how when martial law and its attendant censorship were lifted in 1987, troves of American, European, and Japanese literature, music, and film became suddenly available to the public, how cultural and social life on the island in this period was fundamentally animated by this precipitous information overload.
You had to be there, Libra had said, even though she herself was an infant at the time and hadn’t really been there, either (while her father, now a university professor specializing in Taiwanese literature, was). People would photocopy texts at universities and distribute them for free by hand. There were all these bootleg CDs of foreign films with super liberally translated subtitles sold at night markets, and people would circulate pirated translations of foreign books that sometimes didn’t even have the author’s name on them. U2-style mini theater boxes where you could select a VHS title from a massive ring binder and watch whatever available movie you’d like with a pot of tea and a meal popped up everywhere and weren’t just frequented by high schoolers who need to find a private space to feel each other up. As Libra talked, Cat tried to imagine what it was like to be there. All this silence, and then the flood of music. The island-wide rush to consume, to meet the incoming tide with wide-open mouths. She felt a swell of longing for this past she never had, and as she thinks about it now, threading through throngs of young people who—like Cat—don’t know a thing about silence, real silence—she feels that longing once more.
Cat? a voice suddenly sounds to her right, puncturing her train of thought.
She flinches, then turns to discern the source of the voice. There’s the silver choker, then the saltfish tang in the air.
Pisces, she says, stunned. She hadn’t really planned on seeing them again, but now that she has, she’s pleasantly surprised, which in itself is also a pleasant surprise. Why are you—oh yeah, you live here.
Pisces laughs. Yeah, I should be the one asking you that. Why are you here?
Cat points down the alley. Fried chicken, she says with more pride than she intends. That’s my favorite fried chicken 便當 spot.
Fuck, says Pisces. That sounds good.
Cat weighs out her options, considers Pisces’ energy for a moment. Pisces taps their foot, cups their belly in a disarmingly unironic way. Their words seem genuine and don’t reek of a looming self-invite, she decides, and she feels herself relax.
So… are you coming or not? she says, and she laughs when Pisces gawks at the invitation, lagging until she starts walking toward the eatery without them and stumbling awkwardly after her, nodding Yes yes yes.
As it turns out, Pisces and Cat speak to each other with much more ease when they’re not on a date together, and Cat enjoys their presence without attending much to any sort of will-they-or-won’t-they plotline. After the meal, they duck into an alley to chat as Pisces lights a cigarette. Overhead, the moon is of course full-bellied, its papery luster soft as fleece. It’s like a movie.
Wait, so you don’t have nine lives?
(rolling her eyes)
廢話。 Okay, but wait—saltwater fish do what?
We’re always losing the water inside of us to the saltwater
’cause of osmosis. So we have to constantly drink
seawater and desalinate it inside our bodies to
not die of being too salty.
Damn. That sounds rough.
I mean, it’s fine. It’s like breathing, for mammals.
Our bodies do all the work.
So what happens when you’re in freshwater instead?
Pisces takes a drag, speaks when the smoke leaves their mouth.
We’d literally explode. Water always moves toward where
there’s more salt to balance things out, and our membranes
are permeable. So if we’re placed in freshwater, the
freshwater around us would rush into our saltier
bodies, and we’d literally fucking explode
from all that water.
幹。That’s fucked up.
(rubbing hands together to ward off the cold)
Seriously! That’s why I’m afraid of water, you know.
(rolling their eyes)
You literally didn’t even know about this ’til I just told you.
Also, you’re not a fish.
Whatever you say.
Smiling, Cat looks up at the sky, catches the shimmering tail of something in the nape of the night. For a second, she thinks it’s a shooting star, but it’s likely just a cargo plane. You can’t really see the stars here in the city, anyway.
You ever heard about how starlight travels for years
and years to reach our eyes? Like, there are stars
that are, like, seven to millions of light years away, meaning
whenever we look at a star, we’re looking at light
that’s seven to millions of years old.
Damn. That kind of makes me emotional.
It’s probably a cliché or something, at this point.
But when I really think about it, it makes me
emotional, too. It’s comforting, but it’s also
scary. Like, what does it mean that we live in
a city where we can’t see the stars most of
the time? What if we’re being cut off by light pollution
from some sort of really important message from
the galaxy? Something we need to know to be saved?
Cat feels a little embarrassed right after saying this, wonders how long she just went on for, if she’s being too earnest. But when she glances at Pisces, she can tell they’re carefully parsing what she just said, and she feels something more than relief wash over her.
…Okay, lots to unpack here.
Cat snorts through her nose.
But first things first: what do you think
you need to know to be saved?
Cat thinks about this.
I don’t know.
Together, Cat and Pisces stare at the space in front of them, neither registering any concrete shape, object, or material in their visual field. And then Cat decides to take it all in, to really take it in: the warm bodies of other smokers huddled nearby; the faded din from inside various establishments you have to press your ears against to hear; the neon signs of nearby bars saturating their faces and the dark gray pavement—still wet from yesterday’s rain—with reds, purples, blues. The narrow alley suddenly feels to her like the inside of the spine or the slick esophagus of some giant, slumbering animal in the shape of a nation, maybe burrowed somewhere underground. Or maybe it’s something more akin to the bowels of a mountain range, the moon a hole that some powerful culture from above has drilled open, an entry point for civilizations’ worth of toxic waste.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours, Cat recalls. The center of danger is here, of a particular size and shape, and below us… The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
For a moment, Cat imagines herself wandering through halls and halls of hostile architecture, uncomprehending, searching for a message that she can understand. If her past self could communicate with the her now, she wonders, what would she have said to save herself? What’s the simplest way she could describe what has happened, or else what will happen? What language would have broken down between then and now, across the distance the light has traveled? And where is the danger to be found, what’s its size and shape, what if she’s already safe from it?
At this, Cat takes a deep breath and opens her mouth.
Emily Yang/楊佳諭 was raised in Taipei, Taiwan and, for better and for worse, holds American citizenship. She is always missing papaya milk and her bidet, and she tweets unprofessionally @taromilkpng. You can find more of their work at emlyang.carrd.co.