by Jiaqi Kang (亢嘉琪)
Jiaqi Kang (亢嘉琪) is a Sino-Swiss editor, writer, and art historian. She is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Sine Theta Magazine, an international, print-based creative arts publication made by and for the Sino diaspora. She can be found online at jiaqikang.carrd.co.
I blew my nose, hard, into the strip of tissue I’d ripped from my napkin. Zainab winced at the trumpet-like noise, seemed to shrivel up as people from neighboring tables turned to look. “Sorry,” I said.
“Just keep it away from my avocado toast,” Zainab replied, though I hadn’t been talking to her; I knew she didn’t really mind. It was a bit too late for her to express disgust at my bodily fluids. Defiantly now, I stuck the pointed, wadded-up tissue up my nostrils, using the weapon to scratch the dull itch inside my cavity. I winked at her while doing this, let slip an exaggerated moan.
Zainab shuddered. “Isn’t it funny how people need to take a look at their tissue after they’ve blown their noses? Like, what do you expect to see?”
It was my turn to raise my eyebrows now. “I have stuff in my snot all the time,” I said, waving my bloodied tissue indignantly. “You’ve clearly never visited a city so polluted that your tissue came out spotted with black. Whereas I’ll never forget winter 2012 in Beijing.” I tore off another piece of napkin, used it to swipe the ghost feeling of moisture by my nose, while my other hand rubbed vigorously at my eyeballs. “Now I’ll never forget June 2019 in Oxford, either.”
“I think the title of my next poem is going to be ‘Don’t Wave Your Used Tissue in My Face’.”
I sawed off a piece of pancake, chewed it as I imagined Zainab at our university literary magazine’s next event, belting out an emotional performance about snot––at the end, the spotlight would turn blood red, and she would point a long, beringed finger across the audience’s heads to me, alone, in the back, and open her mouth to release an accusatory scream. “I can see it,” I said. Suddenly, I lifted my chin, squinted my eyes, and, extending my own finger at her, began to recite: “And the booger-monster / dripping with thick, bulbous gunk / will put all those afflicted by allergies out of their misery / will eat their hearts / like the mangos of Pakistan / which I’m sad about––Ow!” Zainab had kicked my shin under the table.
“Don’t make fun of me,” she warned, barely able to contain her smile.
As I watched her tuck into her brunch, I felt that swell of affection crash into me again. I sipped my coffee to hide the grin that always involuntarily came when I thought about us, how lucky I was to be able to see her in the golden morning light, her black hair in a ponytail, her eyeliner crisp and sharp, wearing my college sweater with my name emblazoned beside the St-Catherine wheel. Under the table, I reached my foot over and hooked her ankle, swung them together the way we sometimes swung our hands when we traipsed drunk through Port Meadow. She looked up from her plate and met my eyes, and I knew that I loved her, and I knew that I had to tell her.
Our university was full of traditions, most of which had clearly been invented fairly recently to make students feel self-important. Much of my first year I’d spent alienated, drifting through a fog of suicidal ideation from which I finally awoke shortly before end-of-year exams; in those two weeks, intoxicated by a particularly aggressive onset of hayfever, I experienced things almost manically, feeling drawn to the very presence of the air even as the pollen it carried brought me to constant tears. I thus derived a sense of euphoria from the pseudo-rituals that came with Prelims: the black-and-white sub fusc uniform paired with ill-fitting Commoner’s Gown; the metallic echoes of my footsteps across the tiled floors in Exam Schools; the carnations that I pinned to my lapel, with fresh white for my first paper, budding pink for my middle papers, and a wilted, defeated red for the final one; and the trashing as I came out, triumphant, on that last day, walking with purpose to the cordoned-off side street behind the university buildings where my college friends waited to douse me in copious amounts of shaving foam, holi powder, glitter, silly string, and Lambrini, me turning around and smearing it back onto them––
And then the dive––trekking back to the piece of river behind our college, a large pond, really, with a wooden bridge overlooking a small cascade and the pool surrounded by hunchbacked trees that dripped vines toward the rippling surface. Standing barefoot above the cascade and holding hands with my Maths cohort, the pond shimmered with magic as a joyful oasis into which I gladly jumped, forgetting––perhaps fully knowing––that I could not swim.
When I hit the water, I was surprised at how quickly I sank, how unnervingly deep the bottom was. I flailed my arms, tried to draw arcs with them the way I’d seen swimmers do, but only became tangled in the irregular form of my gown. As I forced my eyes to open to the green murkiness, I saw an enormous shadow rush towards me, a blurry white cloud made of some sticky and unctuous substance; involuntarily, I gasped, and let gallons of water flood my lungs. As I half-choked, half-swallowed, it felt as though I were being possessed by a spirit that broke out of my ribcage and spread its wizened limbs inside me, stretching and peeling so that its hands became my hands and its feet became my feet.
I sank deeper, and the plants that lived at the bottom of the pond seemed to want to grab at me. Suddenly, I felt a strong grip across my torso––I emerged, finally, from the water, thrown onto the shore where more hands pulled at me from beyond the low-hanging branches, flipping me over, thumping my back, making me wheeze and hack, one anonymous pair of fingers even prying open my mouth and prodding my gag reflex. I lurched around and threw up. People were still crowding around me, their voices merging into a single mass, but I sat there watching my sick float atop the water and come into contact with some other filth that had been collecting in the corners of the pond for some time; peering closer, I saw specks of artificial coloring and realised that it was the gunk washed from students who had been trashed, the shaving foam and microplastics coalescing into creamy meringue-like dregs. A friend hovered into view, used a tissue to wipe my face, and I could see that the substances that were coming off were also of that off-white slurry which continued to wobble on top of the tissue as though alive and breathing.
That night, the friend insisted on staying with me, slinging his air mattress beside my bed to make sure that I didn’t choke on something while I slept. He quickly began to snore, and I lay there––on my side, as he’d instructed––looking at the full moon whose turgid roundness was distorted by the rows of striped blinds on my windows, knowing that something inside me had changed. I could hear my heartbeat inside my ear, abnormally fast and strong, and I imagined my feeble, tired heart pumping infected blood around my body. By then, I guessed, the strange gunk that I’d ingested would already have spread into my kidney and liver, attached itself microscopically to my haemoglobin, and I felt relieved knowing that something was looking out for me, even if it was only because it depended on my body for its own survival.
All this, and more, Zainab did not know; by the time we’d met, slush-piled winter of second year, I’d become a different person, brave enough to attend an ice skating class by myself, not even afraid of falling, knowing that my skin had become malleable enough not to rip. At the rink, I’d run into one of my coursemates with friends from her college, including art student Zainab, unnervingly tall, equally inept on the ice. The two of us had clung to each other and to the railings, and, afterwards, shared a bottle of wine and hushed whispers in the cold night of her garden, and we’d wanted to meet again the next day for coffee, and again, and again.
Her favorite color was green, she collected cookbooks, and she had a small gap in her front teeth that I liked to touch with the tip of my tongue. I felt safe in the knowledge that, to her, I was just another girlfriend outside whose lecture halls she could wait, my enigmas no more difficult to unwrap than the wax paper from our favorite sandwich shop on Little Clarendon Street.
Once, kissing and writhing on my narrow bed, with me on top, I’d stopped to gaze at her face, and a fat glob of snot had dripped onto her cheek. She’d giggled it off, but I’d been mortified because she hadn’t seen how opalescent the droplet had been, how it had seemed to put roots into her skin. I’d said nothing because I’d figured she’d dump me soon and didn’t want to hasten the process, make her think I’d gone insane.
But six months later, she was still around; sometimes she drooled in her sleep and I had to reach over and make sure the slobber coming out of her mouth was of a normal texture.
After brunch, we ambled towards Honey’s on High, the kiosk across the street from Exam Schools where students purchased overpriced trashing items; the queue snaked out from the thin doorway and spilled onto the pavement. As Zainab and I jostled for space, it began to rain. Dark spots appeared across my sweater on Zainab’s shoulders, like leopard print. I wondered if you were supposed to say I love you theatrically, with flowers, like a proposal. I wondered if I should look it up on the Internet. She was fiddling with her hair, trying to shield it from the moisture; if I slipped it in now, she could pretend she hadn’t heard me, if that’s what she wanted.
I took off my baseball cap and gave it to her, and said, “I hope they have biodegradable glitter.”
“Will your college daughter refuse to be trashed if it’s not eco?” Zainab asked, tying her hair into a ponytail and tucking it through the hole on the cap.
“I don’t know. It just feels wasteful. And City Council needs to send people to barricade the street outside Exam Schools and check people’s bags to make sure they’re not going to throw eggs.”
“You sound like my coursemates! Don’t be so boring. Let me experience a trashing just this once, even as a bystander.” When I didn’t respond, Zainab nudged me, cracked a smile to show she was teasing. “So, where are we going after this?”
I shrugged, looked out, past the roaring double-decker buses, at the Ruskin School of Art’s stained Gothic façade across from us, which, in the rain, seemed deathly stiff and stared back at me with a million rectangular glass eyes. The downpour was getting worse now, raindrops ricocheting violently off the cobblestone streets and onto my bare shins. I began to shiver.
“Hey,” Zainab was saying softly. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, but it only made the tears jump out faster, stinging my sore eyes as they trudged down my face.
I tried to turn away, but Zainab gripped my still vibrating forearm, guided me out of the queue. “Come on,” she murmured, “I’m going to show you my latest, okay?” I nodded again, and, with an arm slung across my shoulder, she took us through the oncoming traffic, briskly dodging buses and cyclists until we arrived at the Ruskin and jogged up its worn steps.
Inside and upstairs, we were wrapped in the musty remains of that morning’s warmth. I wiped my feet on a doormat in the hallway and followed Zainab to her studio space by a window that overlooked Merton Street, where a canvas sat, its surface covered with a blue underpainting whose swirling and twisted strokes I couldn’t decipher.
Zainab cracked open the window and the din of the town came floating back to us, along with a quiet, rattling breeze that reminded me of the wetness on my cheeks. I wiped it away with my hands, sniffed loudly, feeling some phlegm shoot down the back of my throat. Zainab rustled through the papers on her desk, and procured a set of polaroids, which she pressed into my palms. I rifled through them: the abstract black-and-white forms gradually resolved themselves in my eyes, and I realised that I was staring at photographs of the gunk at the pond behind St. Catherine’s. There were dozens of images, from every angle possible, at different points of the day. In one of the images, Zainab had scooped up some of that dirty foam and created a sludge pie in the mud, round and bouncy, inside which she’d inlaid pebbles and twigs to create a smiling cartoon face.
I looked up. Zainab had lit a cigarette, was leaning on the windowsill to blow the smoke out, but kept looking at me with intensity. She expected me to say something, but what? There was a drawn-out silence between us that seemed to take on a stronger form with each second, seemed to get thicker so that Zainab’s face increasingly blurred, though maybe those were just my tears, brimming, again. I could feel my nose begin to run again, and I desperately needed a tissue. Finally, I spoke.
“This is where I was born,” I said. I held the stack of photographs so tightly in my hands that they were beginning to hurt. I felt I should explain, but didn’t know where to start, so remained standing there, breathing in, breathing out.
Zainab only smiled, came over and cupped her hands over mine. She dabbed my lips with her sleeve, wiping away the salty snot that had begun to dribble everywhere. Then she kissed me, and said, “I know.”