The second place winner of the LeVar Burton Reads writing contest, as co-presented by FIYAH Literary Magazine and Tor.com!
Chelle’s friend, Wenqian, has everything Chelle doesn’t. A slim figure, pale skin, and most notably the affection of her longtime friend Preston. Like the ocean waves she calls home, Chelle feels transparent and overflowing all at once. So when she’s given body oil that promises to fix all of her mistakes, she’ll use as much as it takes to reach perfection; no matter how much it hurts.
Today, I am made of water. My thick legs propel me through the surf, and my skin tans where the sun kisses. Foam licks my neck, beckoning me to swim farther, but I look back to shore. Preston shakes his sun-bleached mane as he whispers the last breath of “Dani California.” The blue waves break against his toes, and I am caught in the sand beneath his feet.
But his eyes and hands rest on her alabaster thigh. Wenqian adjusts the sunglasses on her button nose and gingerly hands me my towel when I emerge from the water. I am starkly aware of her slim wrists and, liquid armor gone, how comparatively large mine are. I clutch the wrap around my shoulders, trying to compress my fleshy land form.
“Afraid to get wet?” I tease, hoping her fox-eyed gaze will overlook my soft jaw, flat nose, and broad cheeks.
She shakes her head. “I have audition tomorrow. Cannot ruin my skin.”
I wish Preston would look at me when he says, “An audition? That’s awesome!”
She reaches into the purse nestled in her lap and presents a curved bottle that glistens a pearlescent white. Preston’s eyes drift to the gap between her thighs, and my heart tenses. He asks, “What’s that?”
“NuYou. Is whitening, slimming oil from Shanghai. Free sample for audition sign-up.” She opens the lid and rubs a drop into her cheeks, beckoning Preston to lean in for a closer look. He does. “So smooth. Magic!”
I force a smile and ask, “Where’d you find that gig?”
“Open post on Weibo.” She shrugs and offers me the dropper. “You use some, too.”
“Trying to help. I thought you also want to be actress.” She shrugs, and her ruffled blouse slips, making Preston bite his lower lip.
A highway patrol car rolls past on the cliff above, and Preston checks his phone for the time. He hisses, “Let’s get going before we get a ticket.”
Wenqian slips manicured toes into jeweled rose-gold sandals while I walk away to shake sand from my towel. To my surprise, Preston follows and pulls me aside. “I really like her, Chelle.”
“Well, she’s beautiful.” And I’m not. I am the tide: both overflowing and transparent at once.
“I mean yeah, but she’s smart and funny and doesn’t take crap from anyone. And she has that exotic accent.” He wiggles his eyebrows. I roll my eyes, but he keeps going. “I wanna ask her out. Do you think she’ll say yes?”
“I think what I say won’t matter.” I think I want to dive into the sea.
“But it does! You’re my best friend, Chelle. You helped me pass freshman calc. You got me to stop dressing like a high schooler. That trip to the Galleria is still one of my best memories. What you think matters.”
I stifle the laugh that bubbles up when I remember the fake Oscar he bought me as a thank-you. “You can make your own decisions,” I say. “She’s just my roommate, Preston. The administration likes sticking Asian kids together.”
“All right.” He twists his lips into a familiar expression that I know means confusion, frustration, and resignation.
He steps away to help Wenqian fold her lacy towel, and the wind carries their words to me. “Hey, Wen, you don’t have a car, right? Where’s the audition?”
“That’s pretty far from school. I can drive you. Maybe we could get boba after?”
She twists her silken curls as she thinks. When I twist my hair, it’s crunchy with salt. Finally, she concludes, “I like that idea. I go 2 p.m.”
“Great!” The breeze brings me the excitement in his voice, and my chest tightens. Then he remembers more. “Oh, and—you know the script my dad’s working on? The superhero one?”
“The studio starts auditions in a few days. There’s this Taiwanese girl, Lana Choi, who goes by Tokio Rose. She’s a triad boss’s daughter with flamethrower powers.”
Wenqian narrows her eyes.
Unable to process her silence, Preston stutters, “What I’m saying is—I- I can get you an audition.”
At that, she cedes. “That sounds like good opportunity. Yes do.”
“Cool. I’ll talk to Dad tonight.” He takes a note in his phone and then gathers Wenqian’s belongings: umbrella, towel, handbag. Then he asks, “Chelle, could you grab my guitar?”
“Sure” slips out of my mouth. An automatic response after years of friendship.
“Thanks!” He winks. “You’re the best.”
I pick up the instrument and wipe sand from its back, imagining my hands running down Preston’s spine. We bought this together after sophomore homecoming at a now-closed music store off La Brea. I set it gently in its case before tending to my own things. By the time I’m done, Preston’s in the driver’s seat of his red ’90s Mustang, engine already purring. Wenqian tunes the radio next to him. I load the guitar and myself into the back seat, avoiding my reflection in his rearview mirror, where I pull out my phone and download Weibo.
It takes two hours on public transit to reach Woodland Hills. It’s the hottest part of the Valley, and sweat pools in the folds of my skin. I sigh with relief when I reach the air-conditioned office building. The elevator ascends to the eighth floor and opens to show a flyer with directions in three languages: Chinese, Korean, and English. I can only read the last.
The sign leads to a repurposed conference room. Fold-out chairs line the hallway, each occupied by a Chinese woman roughly my age. All of them are smaller than me. None of them have outlet mall clothes. They cross slim legs and tap cell phones with acrylic fingernails. I take a seat. With my head so near the wall, I can hear three voices inside. Based on the pacing and tone, they’ve moved from the script on to casual conversation in Mandarin. A chair scrapes against the floor as someone rises to leave.
Wenqian exits with a pleasant laugh, floral dress dancing between her legs. Her gold bracelets jingle when she waves thank-you in words I only half understand. I hunch down to hide my plain button-up, but I still spill from my too-skinny jeans.
She sees me, and stifles a gasp. “Why you here? This audition for real Chinese people.” “I’m Chinese.”
“Chinese-American. Not enough roles for Chinese already. You cannot take! You already have Chinese-American role.” She mutters something under her breath that she thinks I won’t understand: glass girl—looks like a person, but there’s nothing there.
Her phone vibrates. When she picks it up, I glimpse blond hair and a broad grin on the screen. Preston. “Ai-ya, sorry,” she tells me and skims away on kitten heels. Then a woman with thin-framed glasses and a tailored blouse asks for, “Michelle Chao?” I follow her and sit down. She introduces herself as Zhang Xinyi, executive assistant. The casting director scans my body with an inscrutable expression. He must see how much thicker I am.
“Hello,” he says in Mandarin. “I am Wu Zhenting, head of this project. Have you heard of NuYou before?”
I nod. Wenqian uses it. “Well, Wenqian told me about it.”
“What’s your name?”
“No, your real name.”
“Your Chinese name.”
“Chao Mingshing.” My grade-school accent mangles the tones, rendering them clumsy and meaningless.
“I’ve never heard that name before.”
I don’t have the vocabulary to respond, so I admit in quiet English, “My mother made it up.”
They look at each other, disapproving of the code switch, and my stomach drops. “Very well,” Wu says in English, “let’s proceed.”
Wu sticks to English as he explains the high concept, citing international campaigns from Clinique and SK-II. Zhang hands me a paper. Thankfully, the script’s in English. But discomfort penetrates my entire read.
“Burn away the fat! Have skin like sunlight! With NuYou!”
Wu leans back in his chair. “You seem like a nice girl, and you have good English, but we are selling a Chinese product to the American market. So we need”—he gestures at me—“a different look.”
I smooth down the front of my shirt, wishing I’d worn a dress instead. “I’m sorry?”
“Your style—it doesn’t fit: tan, boy hair, cheap clothes. In Shanghai, we’d say it’s too old, too country. And let’s face it—you’re a little fat. NuYou is a luxury product representing modern Chinese fashion. We have a brand to maintain.”
Wu waves at me to stand, and Zhang escorts me to the door. She hands me a business card with an apologetic smile, which I stuff in my pocket without looking. “We might have another role,” she says. “A washing machine commercial. The main character uses Mandarin, so we can’t cast you for that. But we need an extra to play the maid. No speaking parts!”
I clench my teeth because the only words I have are still English. But I manage to bow a little and mumble an awkward xiè xie. Even then, I find myself hoping she didn’t hear my accent.
“First audition?” she asks. I nod, and she sighs. “Mr. Wu is blunt with his feedback. I
was like you when I started working here: not so pretty. But I worked hard. I changed. How about I give you a small help?” She hands me a jar. I recognize its shape from Wenqian’s purse. “New formula, not on market yet. New packaging will release next year for Singles’ Day,” she explains. “Should work stronger, but not tested. Be careful. Do not use too much.”
The bottle is strangely warm against my skin. I have difficulty believing it can do everything the script promises, but I say, “Thank you,” in English. I step back into the elevator, and Zhang calls in the next willowy girl with big eyes in a small, pale face. I see Wu nod approvingly.
When I get home, I see Preston, Wenqian, and his guitar all in her bed, laughing at something I’ve missed. Two empty boba cups sit on my desk because his guitar case takes all the space on hers.
I cough. Preston finally notices me and strums a playful trill. “Wen told me you were auditioning, too! How’d it go?”
I want him to comfort me, but what comes out is, “Fine.”
Wenqian announces in proud English, “I got callback for tomorrow. So fast!”
“Congrats.” But my fake enthusiasm dies when I see Preston settle his hand against her hip.
“Don’t worry, Chelle. Every audition’ll take their sweet time getting back to you.” He turns his attention back to Wenqian. “I’m hungry. Din Tai Fung?”
“I watching weight, but I will come. Din Tai Fung has vegetable I like.” She pronounces the restaurant’s name with perfect tonality.
“Sounds great. I’ll drive. You in, Chelle?”
I love dumplings, but today, even imaginary xiaolongbao makes me feel bloated. “Not hungry.”
“Cool. Text if you want anything. You’ve got bao with your name on ’em.” Preston fondles Wenqian’s hair. “Guess it’s just us.”
While he stows his guitar and she applies lip gloss, I take my towel and flip-flops to the bathroom for a hot shower. I scrub as if my loofah could resculpt my bulbous face into high cheekbones and a narrow nose. But as the water runs down my back, it undoes the knots in my body and mind. I’m afloat at sea again, shielded by the thundering torrent, deeper than anxiety can reach. But when I dry off, the mirror confronts me. I am a dark beached whale again.
Then I remember Zhang’s gift. I feel for the shape of the bottle in my pants, long curves like my body should be.
I dab beads of oil on my face and pat them with the balls of my fingers like I’ve seen Wenqian do. It goes on light and colorless but smells like sulfur and charcoal. It burns and turns my nerves to steam. The tingling continues long after I’ve dressed.
I check the mirror again and I’m shocked. My face is my face, but firmer, brighter, thinner. This might actually work. I massage more into my soft arms, jutting stomach, and radish calves. Sparks dance under my skin until I double over on the bathroom floor. I stumble through the ache and pull myself up to the mirror. The me that rises is brighter, lighter, slimmer. Maybe she can finally fit in.
Zhang’s potion worked. My sagging middle and bulging jowls burned away overnight. Even my hair seems longer, like curling smoke, and I keep running my hands through it. Wenqian is at class, but her callback outfit is already laid out on her chair. Maybe, just maybe. I pick up the scalloped shorts and hold them across my waist. I am still far, far, too large. Suddenly, all the places on campus feel too close, too constricting. I practically run to the Metro.
Hot air and hotter concrete scroll past me on the Expo Line. The subway doors open, and the breeze grows cooler as we near the beach. When I exit at the last stop, I sigh with relief as the marine layer kisses my skin.
On my walk to the Promenade, I pass a boutique that I’ve always dismissed as too ostentatious and too expensive. A pink satin dress teases me from the window with its lace trim. Its sweetheart neckline ends just above the mannequin’s breasts. It’s something Wenqian would wear. I think I want to try it on.
I am greeted by a tall woman my age with ombre waves and earrings shaped like owls.
“Hi! Welcome to StyleYes. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Actually, I’d like to try the dress in the window.”
“Are you sure?”
She doesn’t believe me? “Uh, just get what you think will work best.”
She heads deeper into the store and pulls a hanger off a rack. “I don’t think we have that one in that size, but this is a similar style if not color.”
The dress she hands me is fire crimson. I run my hands down the smooth bodice and realize that this is bolder, better. The fabric sparkles like embers. It’s not who I am. It’s who I want to be. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s great, actually.”
I check the tag and see an M. I haven’t been since middle school. My heart leaps. My reflection in the changing-room mirror is my dream self, simultaneously recognizable and foreign. The neckline reveals dainty collarbones, and the cups hold firm breasts. The middle tapers into a flat waist that flares into a soft skirt. I move, revealing a coquettish glimpse of
pale thigh. I am alight in silken flame.
“Like it?” The woman says from the register.
“I . . . I love it.” After I’ve paid, she lets me wear the dress out of the store. I continue to the beach. When I step barefoot into the surf, the crowd around me disappears. Yesterday’s failed audition ebbs away with the tide. I check my phone for time and realize it’s still on that photo of me, Preston, and the Pacific Wheel. I know he has a break right now between music theory and audio production, so I start a new text message.
“Guess where I am.” I text him a photo of the beach.
“No fair. You know I’ve got class.”
I look down into the water, at the choppy reflection of this thinner me. I steel myself with a breath of salt air and ask, “You know that Lana Choi audition? Is there still space?”
“Didn’t think you wanted one. Thought you were more indie.”
“Well, I do. It’s a big opportunity.”
“Alright, I’ll text Dad.”
“That’d be so great! Tell him I said hi, and I hope the kitchen remodel goes well.”
“You got it.” He pauses. “And . . . and sorry, I didn’t ask before. I must’ve just forgot about you.”
I don’t reply, and I linger in the cool, blue water. Below the tourist voices, the ocean whispers that it is proud of me.
Back at the dorm, I lay the flame dress on my bed like an altar, resolving to wear it to the audition tomorrow. I look at my NuYou, my hope in a bottle. The elegant font warns me to discontinue use if I feel burning or irritation of the skin. But one more day can’t hurt, can it? I strip down and rub the oil into the folds of my skin. I will melt them smooth. It burns now, but the pain is worth the perfection.
I arrive at Preston’s dad’s studio and am herded into another room of Asian women. I hear Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, even Thai. Wenqian sits a few rows over, and I realize she no longer intimidates me. My nightly ritual has burned away the shameful parts of my body and filled the rest with fire.
As last-minute additions, Wenqian and I are the last to perform. She disappears into the office. Impatience licks the inside of my skin as I wait for her to exit the soundproof room. She reappears in thirty minutes with a polite “So very lovely to meet you,” and the same jingle of gold bracelets.
But instead of leaving, she comes toward me, eyes wide. “Chelle! I did not recognize you in dress. You look good! Did you lost weight? So fast! New exercise? Surgery?”
“No.” I cringe at her suggestions. “It’s this new oil from Shanghai.”
Her eyes widen farther. “You must let me try it. American boy has good business connection, but movies still hard for Chinese girls. We must support each other.” They call my name, and I stand up. The dress ripples around my new legs like flame. I shake hands with the casting director and exchange a hug with Preston’s dad. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Parker. Always good to see you, Mr. Shields.”
“Happy to see you, too, Chelle. You’re looking good.” Preston’s father is so well-respected that he comes to work in a muscle tank and full-sleeve tattoo. I sign some papers, and a PA hands me a scene featuring Lana Choi.
Preston’s father exchanges lines with me as Billy, the reluctant hero destined to win the tournament and the pretty white girl. Lana only exists on a paper, but I understand her: overlooked, underestimated, taken for granted. I fill her anger and desire with my own, and it carries through my voice, my face, my body. The dialogue finishes, and I’m almost in tears.
Parker takes notes in his phone as he speaks to me. “I originally conceived Lana as a quiet character, but you’ve got a style that’s edgier, more aggressive, kinda dragon lady . . . I like that. Callbacks are tomorrow at eleven. Can you make it?”
My whole body burns with joy. “Of course!”
Mr. Shields slaps me on the back. “You really expanded on the character. Didn’t know you had it in you. My boy’s got good taste.”
At home, I walk in on Wenqian wearing a sheet mask and watching K-pop videos. “How it go?” she asks.
She gives me a pitying smile that wrinkles the white cloth on her face.
I go to the bathroom. My leaner reflection is acceptable, but why be acceptable when I could be perfect? With one hand, I rub my face with product, admiring the new sharpness of my cheekbones. With the other, I text Preston. “Sorry you missed beach day.”
“NP. Got sushi with Wen.”
Jealousy grips my fingers, but I look at the trailblazer in the mirror. She wouldn’t be sad. No, she’d make things happen. “Wanted to thank you for the audition. Let me take you out.”
I already know what he wants to eat. He rewards himself with souvlaki after every exam. “Gyro House at six?”
“See ya there.”
I put down the phone and continue massaging oil into my jaw. Tonight, I am on fire. #
We meet at the restaurant in Santa Monica. I still have on the dress from the audition. When he sees me, his mouth hangs open a little. It’s cute. “You know, Chelle, I don’t think I’ve seen you in a dress before. You look fantastic.”
I am glowing, but I chide, “I thought you wouldn’t notice.”
He gets chicken souvlaki. But when the girl at the register asks me what I’d like, he steps in. “She’d like a lamb gyro. But fries in the sandwich, not on the side.”
“How’d you know?”
“I notice more than you think. You’ve ordered the same thing for four years.” He reaches for his wallet, but I knock his credit card aside.
“I said this one’s on me.”
We pick a table for two outside. He steals a fry from my sandwich, so I take the tomatoes that he’s picked off his. I take my first bite.
“Thanks for dinner,” he says, “. . . and also, I guess, for letting Wen come to the beach with us. I know it’s kind of been our thing.”
The pita turns to ash in my mouth.
I nod furiously but secretly spit into my napkin and wash the taste down with water. I force a nod and eat again. I try to talk, but my mouth is suddenly too parched. He fills the gap in conversation with his new date ideas for Wen.
Every bite feels like a new weight, a new curse, in my stomach. Each time I swallow, I see the food undoing the glamour on my skin. By the time he finishes, I still have half my meal, which I toss into the trash.
The ocean. The water always makes things better. “Walk down to the beach?” I ask. “Just us. For old time’s sake?”
He shrugs. “Still have twenty minutes on the meter.”
I expect the waves to be cold, but tonight, the water burns like ice. I hike the dress up to my thighs and wade in. The usually soothing waves threaten to push me over. Tonight, the ocean roars instead of whispers. A current grabs me by the ankle, and I fall into dark, wet, cold.
At first, I do not comprehend as my nose and mouth fill with ice, but it is quickly replaced by panic. I can swim. I know I can swim. I love to swim. I stretch my arms, but I cannot grab the water. I kick my legs, but I cannot rise. I am sinking, sinking, sinking.
Suddenly an arm grabs me and hauls me to shore. I think Preston’s lips are on my mouth, but they are cold and clammy. I do not want them. The water I cough up is as cold as it was going down.
Preston holds me with concern. I groggily remember he took first aid in freshman year. “Are you okay? I thought you were good at swimming.”
Me, too. “Let’s go home.”
Back at school, I slog to the bathroom and lock the door behind me. If anyone needs the toilet, they can go to another floor. I unzip the dress and it curls around my feet like spent smoke. After I dry off, I stare at my new, naked limbs, still shocked by their betrayal. They say nothing, only stare back with glassy perfection.
I stumble back to my room in my towel. Preston sits topless in Wenqian’s bed, wet shirt thrown over her chair. He is leaner, more defined, and I realize he’s been working out to impress her. My eyes drift over his chest tattoo of a bass guitar that I told him not to get. Wenqian is there, too. She pulls her blanket over herself, but I still catch a glimpse of her bra.
I don’t know what comes over me then. The new fire in my chest blazes up my throat. I choke on molten tears, and roar, “I almost drown, and you’re still trying to sleep with her? You’re supposed to be my friend.”
“I am your friend.” He hands me some dry clothes and leads me into the hall. With a whisper, he adds, “But you’ve got to be my friend, too. I like her, and you’re embarrassing me. She’s more delicate than American girls.”
The words boil out. I cannot stop this fire. “But I like you more.”
He sighs. “Look, I’m flattered, but you can’t just lose a bit of weight and expect people to magically like you.”
He goes back into my room and shuts the door.
I walk numbly back to the bathroom. The deflated dress is still on the floor. Delicate. How can I ever be delicate? Arms still too flabby. Thighs still too thick. I changed so much, but I am still not small enough? I raise the last of the NuYou to my brow and pour. It burns and cuts my body into shape.
I massage it into my bulging stomach. That’s when I feel it: a small divot under my skin. I spread my hands around my navel and pull. The flesh thins and parts, turning into yellow smoke. I try to sculpt a leaner version of myself, but every handful evaporates into the air. I slip my hand through the hole I have made, and it goes clean through. When I look in the mirror, I see the gaping maw in my core. But I am relieved. My lighter self has returned. Is she finally enough?
The dress is still too wet to wear, so I go to callbacks in a T-shirt and jeans that are now too big for me. I feel burnt and light-headed from the April heat. My fingers tremble when I grip the bus poles. Someone collides into me without apology. The studio receptionist doesn’t even look at my ID. I am transparent again.
Less than a quarter of yesterday’s hopefuls remain, including Wenqian. She types on her
cell phone. To Preston, I bet. There are many empty seats, but I choose the one farthest from her. No one acknowledges one another, as if it is bad luck to make eye contact with the competition. Finally, it is just the two of us. The PA calls my name.
“Here,” I say, but he keeps looking around.
I stand. “I’m here.”
I walk up to him. He reads his sheet and calls right into my face, “Michelle Chao? Hello?”
Is this a joke? I wave my hand in his eyes. “I’m. Here!”
He turns around to talk to Preston’s dad, and I put my hand on his shoulder to stop him. It passes right through, and I gasp. I look around. No one heard that, either. The PA shrugs and continues to the next name. “Wenqian Li?”
No. No. No. She stands, her glance passes through me. She smiles because she sees a vacant room.
I press my ear to the door, listening to Lana’s lines, my lines, in Wenqian’s accent. I lean in farther to hear better, and I pass through it completely. I try to gather myself until I realize no one has seen me. I stand directly between Wenqian and the director, but I am completely invisible.
They watch the rest of her performance right through me. Her Lana is not mine, but she is beautiful: sweet and shy and heartbreaking, filled with an honest ambition. She yearns for affection and survival in a world that sees her as an outsider. She is painfully aware her love interest cannot truly understand her or her origin. As I watch, I realize this is not only Lana, this is Wenqian.
She curtsies, and the director claps. “Great work. I think it’ll really appeal to the China market to see one of their own.”
Preston’s dad leans over to him. “Told you Preston’s friend would work out. He knows how to pick ’em.”
I watch Wenqian sign a contract that could have been mine. Should have been mine? Mr. Shields heaps praise on Wenqian as he leads her outside. I follow. She strides over to a red ’90s Mustang and leans over to kiss the driver.
Preston beams. “Congratulations.”
I am unapologetically bounced and shoved on the bus ride home. Back in my room, I see Preston and Wenqian sleeping entwined in her bed, clothes on the floor. I expect to feel shame, sadness, or anger, but instead, I feel empty. Invisible again.
No product can change that. I wrap my ghost-fingers around the NuYou, expecting them to pass through. But they make contact. The surface burns. Overnight, gravity has pulled the last drops of liquid down the sides of the bottle, and there is just enough sitting at the bottom for one final application.
I look at Wenquian, and I understand her now. She’s someone who carves her own path with sharp words and acrylic fingernails because she’s never had one laid for her. Perhaps she will make better, less desperate and naive, use of this. I leave the bottle on her desk.
There are a handful of people at our little beach, but I know they won’t notice me. I walk barefoot into the foam and dig my toes into the wet sand. I wade in up to my knees, my waist, my shoulders.
Cool water floods the hole in my middle and soothes my mind. The surf whispers, “Welcome home,” and I realize I am no longer trapped in this thick, landlocked body. Gently, I dig my fingers into my breast and peel myself apart. The ash melts into the water until I am too thin to hold together. Part of me sinks to the seafloor. Part of me rides a current to another
ocean. Part of me swims with fish and sings with whales. The ocean fills the empty places in my heart.
I am so big, and it is so wonderful.
“Girl Oil” copyright © 2022 by Grace P. Fong
Art copyright © 2022 by Sara Wong