Please Be Well
Angela Hui | Fiction
We lived in a backyard shed that had been converted into a studio. Legally, it was uninhabitable. The walls were particleboard, the ceiling low enough to touch. Rainwater had warped the floorboards and marbled them with rot. Still, the rent was impossibly cheap, and there’d been no need for credit checks or cosigners. Our lease agreement was something I had drafted from a free online template. I realized too late that I’d forgotten to fill in some of the blanks, but it didn’t matter. Nothing about it would have held up in court anyway.
When we first toured the apartment—or so it had been called in the listing—our landlords explained that they had built it as a play house for their daughters, who were in their thirties now. “But we’ve completely redone it,” said the husband. “Brand new plumbing, WiFi, everything.”
“Central heating?” Neil asked.
“It doesn’t get that cold here,” said the wife.
The yard was not accessible from the street, so the only way to get to the shed was to go through the house’s attached garage. For this reason, the landlords had stopped listing the unit on Airbnb. “We only want people we trust,” they explained. I’m not sure what they saw in us that seemed trustworthy. I suppose we had an aura of seriousness and domesticity, despite just having graduated from college: Neil was a law student, and I told them that I was a teacher.
“You’re not polyamorous, are you?” The wife squinted as though scrutinizing us for signs of deviance. I shook my head. “Good,” she said. “No nighttime visitors.” Neil told me later that he’d been worried they wanted us to swing. But I took it that they’d had to deal with debauched tenants in the past, which made me feel sorry for them. Really they weren’t so bad, even though they took most of our money every month. I was charmed by the remnants of the play house they’d made. Peeling from the walls were little murals that they had painted for their girls: bacon frying on a pink stove, the moon, an orange sun. There was old sticker residue on the windows that they couldn’t figure out how to remove. When they gave us the keys, I saw that their hands were spotted with age. If it came to it, I thought, perhaps we could skip a month’s rent and trick them into thinking we’d paid.
I had been rich as a kid and didn’t know how to be a disowned adult. I’d spent the first month of college subsisting on canned soup, which I drank unheated and straight from the can. Everything at the student store was marked up, especially the food, but I knew nothing of frugality. I liked abstaining from the dining hall, abstaining from anything for once, though my body ached for protein, and I grew weak. Soup-sickness, I called it. One night, in a daze of hunger, I stole someone’s cream cheese from the dorm fridge and swallowed such a large mouthful of it that I thought I would choke. I gave in and bought a meal plan the next day.
By the time Neil and I graduated, I had a better sense of budgeting. I knew we could afford nothing better than the shed. Our income was limited. He’d taken out student loans, and I worked a few hours a week tutoring kids who were like I used to be, except stupid. Sometimes I walked dogs. I could do no more than that, owing to my intractable laziness, which at the time I still called depression.
I liked to joke that I lived like a housewife, but in reality I did far less. I cooked out of hunger and cleaned out of disgust. I scribbled a few stick figures now and again and told myself I was storyboarding my novel, which was going to be about gay bodybuilders or perhaps the Taiping Rebellion. When I mustered the effort, I could get myself out of bed by the time Neil returned from class, but more often I remained horizontal until sundown. At Neil’s gentle insistence, I had tried numerous times to adjust my schedule; my longest diurnal streak had lasted six days. This is not to say I did nothing. I frequented the library, checking out bags full of books only to return them unread several weeks later. I could spend hours roaming the grocery store nearby, which carried all manner of exotic ingredients and didn’t close until midnight. The owner was an old Slavic woman who always directed me to the freshest vegetables, even though I never bought them. I preferred frozen things because they never went bad.
In those days I was plagued with abdominal pain almost every day upon waking. On occasion I had nausea that Neil feared was morning sickness, but then blood would materialize reliably in my underwear, my sole biological constant. Neil had an anxious temperament and was grateful for my regularity, but I saw it as a marker of the time I had wasted once again in the intermittent four weeks. Sometimes, I had the secret thought that it would not be so bad to find myself pregnant. At least it would give me something to do, a strict twenty-some week deadline to meet. I would have a reason to get out of bed, make an appointment, and go. I imagined the curettage as an obliteration of everything inside me that was bad; I would emerge empty and virtuous and needing to be cared for. My long hours of reclining would be passed off as recuperation. Neil would spoon-feed me guiltily, seeing this ordeal as something he had caused and not something I had brought upon myself by being unable to wake, let alone take a pill, at the same time each day. But I knew, luckily or unluckily, that this scenario was unlikely to happen, for Neil was so agile in his withdrawals that I sometimes suspected he knew about my strange fantasy.
There was a girl, Dara, whose parents’ idea of tutoring was for me to ghostwrite all her homework. I would meet Dara at the coffee shop near her house and type away on my computer while she sat beside me and stared at the screen. Every so often I’d ask a question like “Does your teacher want APA or MLA format?” to keep her mind active. “I’m not sure,” she’d answer. One of her assignments was to go people watching and make up little vignettes. “There’s a woman in this cafe with greasy black hair,” I wrote, scratching my scalp and then sniffing my fingernails. “There’s dandruff on her shirt and pimples on her forehead. Before long she’ll look like the kind of person you’d cross the street to avoid.” This got a B+. I called Dara’s mother to explain. “Smart people don’t become English teachers,” I told her. “I can’t help it if this guy’s got bad taste.”
Dara did not tell me about her final paper for history class until the day before it was due. “I’m sorry,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “I forgot about it. My mom’s going to be so mad.” That’s right, I thought, because now I could charge my rush fee. I flipped through Dara’s textbook for a few minutes. Her crying was starting to irritate me. “Calm down,” I wanted to snap at her. “You don’t even have to do anything.” Instead, I told her I would go home and finish the paper myself.
On my way back to the shed, I took a bottle of bleach from the landlords’ garage. Then I opened their dryer and grabbed some of the husband’s thick white tube socks. Our shower needed a deep clean. For several days, I had avoided washing myself because of the pink mildew blooming in the grout. I poured some water into the bleach bottle and splashed the mixture on the tiles. The smell made me dizzy. I balled up the socks and started scrubbing for what felt like hours. Afterwards, I took a long hot shower and fell asleep still wrapped in my towel.
Neil woke me up the next morning because my phone was ringing. It was Dara’s mother. “Oh fuck,” I said. “Don’t pick up.” I tried to go back to sleep but she kept calling. I turned my phone off. When I woke up again that evening I saw that she’d left me several long voicemails, which I deleted immediately. I sent her an email. “Dear Mrs. Arnett,” it said, “I have awakened to the realization that it is not morally permissible for me to do Dara’s homework. In fact, her school would likely consider this cheating. Please be well.” I turned my pillow over to feel its cold side on my cheek. My towel was still damp. I’d sweated profusely in the night.
“Neil,” I called. “I think I know what’s wrong with me.”
“What do you mean?” He was studying at the little folding table that we called the kitchenette. If he stacked the hot plate on top of the microwave or toaster oven, there was enough room for his laptop and a book.
“I’ve figured it out,” I said. “It’s all the Red 40 I consumed as a child.”
“Oh? Not the Yellow 5?”
“Maybe that too.” I closed my eyes and did some calculations. Mrs. Arnett had been the source of almost half my income. Neil’s parents in New Jersey had put both of us on their phone plan, but I doubted they could pay for anything else. I imagined my skin sagging empty, Neil turning soup-sick. I felt so tired all the time that clinging together as we withered to nothing didn’t seem so bad a fate. But I was pretty sure that Neil was the kind of person who wanted to live.
“Neil,” I called again, “has being alive always been so exhausting?”
He glanced up from his book. “I can’t remember.” I guessed from the weariness in his eyes that an exam was imminent, which meant that it was the perfect time to suggest a suicide pact.
“What if we just called it quits?” I tried to sound sultry and playful.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think my parents will be mad if I don’t get my JD first.”
This was true. His parents were hungry for prestige, presumably because they had been denied it themselves. Neil did not want to be a lawyer. He had dreamed too freely as a child and still had yet to recover. At six, he’d wanted to be an astronaut. At ten, an oncologist. By the time we met, he’d long abandoned his medical aspirations, but we still played a video game together, Surgeon Simulator, that involved slicing and sawing the beating entrails of a pixelated patient. Sometimes, in fits of anger, I would amputate fingers and hands and entire limbs with impunity. My father was a doctor.
My father would have called us bums. Occasionally I felt him speak through me, as if I were a medium, though to my knowledge he was still alive.
“Neil,” I said, an edge to my voice this time. I stood from the bed and let the towel fall to the floor. He closed his book. “Don’t you wish you had a prettier girlfriend?” He shook his head. “Don’t you wish you had a girlfriend with bigger tits?” He shook his head more vehemently. “Well, what the fuck’s wrong with you?” I cried. “Don’t you have any ambition?” At this, he burst into laughter, and I did too. There was no ambition to be found in that shed. We wouldn’t have been together if there were.
Twenty minutes away by bus there was a free clinic where a surly nurse practitioner refilled my Lexapro prescription. She was always trying to convince me to get an IUD for some reason, but I’d heard that they could make you break out. In any case, I saw her every few weeks to tell her that my mood was stable and nothing had changed, and she would tell me to exercise more, and I would nod and leave and maybe buy dim sum before getting back on the bus. The city had recently unveiled a plan that allowed youth under nineteen to ride public transit for free, and I hadn’t paid a single fare since. None of the drivers had ever cared enough to challenge me.
A few days after sending my resignation to Mrs. Arnett, I had an appointment at the free clinic. This time, I told the nurse practitioner that I fidgeted a lot and had trouble focusing, and that this had always been the case ever since I was a child, but I hadn’t thought to bring it up until now. I looked at her meaningfully and tried to bounce my leg in a way that looked natural. I had some vague plan to start hawking Adderall outside the law school library, but I should have known better. The nurse practitioner sighed and handed me a pamphlet about amphetamine abuse. “I’ll be sure to read this. Thank you,” I told her, bowing slightly before I headed out the door.
On the bus, I sat next to a man who spent several minutes staring at a picture of a Greek statue on his phone. Then he used some app to highlight the statue’s limbs and facial features and animate them so that the figure appeared to smile and dance. At one point, perhaps sensing that I’d been watching, he turned to look at me and I pretended to be engrossed by my amphetamine abuse pamphlet. We were at a stop halfway back to my neighborhood when a woman in a reflective vest boarded. The logo on her vest said Municipal Transit Authority. A few passengers scrambled to get off the bus, and the man next to me closed his animation app and pulled up his e-pass. I felt my chest constrict. I’d never encountered a ticket inspector before; they were dispatched randomly and irregularly, mostly to buses downtown. The fine for fare evasion was over two hundred dollars. If I got cited, I’d have no choice but to commit an act of domestic terrorism.
The inspector worked her way down the aisle, scanning people’s passes one by one. Even when the bus lurched, she remained perfectly steady, never needing to reach for the handrail. She must have had years of experience. “I’m sixteen, and I don’t have an ID. I’m sixteen. I’m sixteen,” I rehearsed silently. But after she scanned the phone of the man next to me, she gave me a glance and merely nodded. Further down the aisle, she did the same to a pre-teen boy traveling with his mother.
For once, I felt grateful for my flat chest, my acne-spotted forehead. It felt good, I realized, to be mistaken for a teenager. If everyone thought I was sixteen, then no one could judge me for having nothing to show for myself. No one could think I was a fuckup for not having a real job or an insurance plan or a legally habitable living space. Nothing could be my fault if I was still someone else’s responsibility.
An idea unfurled in my mind. I checked the time and consulted the map on my phone. A few stops later, I pressed the button to be let off.
Copernicus High, I learned, was a medium-sized secondary school ranked fifth in the district. The principal was a Midwestern-looking blonde woman, and OJ Simpson was an alumnus, and just about anyone could stroll onto campus without encountering a single security guard. The courtyard was packed with picnic tables, where students sat eating lunch. A few months earlier, at around the same time the free youth transit program had been announced, the city had also allocated funding to provide complimentary meals to all public school students. Some residents had protested that they didn’t want their tax dollars to feed children who might not even be poor, but not even the most hysterical of the initiative’s detractors had raised the possibility of what I was about to do.
I found the cafeteria by walking upstream against the crowd of students carrying lunch trays. The entrée that day was pepperoni pizza. The sides were cheese crackers and plums, which I stuffed into my pockets to take home to Neil. I carried my slice of pizza to the courtyard and sat at an unoccupied picnic table. All around me students were chattering. There were so many of them. My high school graduating class had consisted of me and sixty other girls in navy skirts and white middy blouses. One of my classmates, I recalled, had dated a public school boy she’d met at a frozen yogurt shop. He was a drum major, and she had gone to several of his school’s football games to watch him perform at halftime. “It’s just like the movies,” she’d told us breathlessly. “Cheerleaders, bleachers, everything.” At one game, she’d held her pee for too long and gotten a UTI. “I could’ve caught something way worse from one of those toilet seats,” she’d said, and we’d nodded in sympathy and awe.
The pizza tasted like the paper plate it had been served on, but I finished it quickly and went back for seconds. Something about its being stolen made it feel delicious even if it tasted bad. I felt loved and lucky, as though someone had surprised me with a gift.
At one o’clock, the bell rang. I threw away my plates and followed a group of students into a long hallway. Lining the walls were posters and flyers advertising various clubs and extracurriculars. A signup sheet to audition for the winter play was filled up with fake names that were not even creative, like Gaylord Butt and Karl Marx. Down the hall and around the corner was a lost-and-found bin. I searched through it until I had what I was looking for: a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Copernicus High School insignia. It stank of mingled weeks-old sweat, but there were no obvious stains. I put it on over my jacket. It would come in handy, I thought, if I crossed paths with another ticket inspector.
The bell rang again. Lockers slammed shut, and students rushed into classrooms. I looked around, trying to figure out which way I’d come from. All the hallways looked the same, and I was disoriented by the students hurrying around me in every direction. Before long there was no one else left in the hallway. Just as I spotted a door marked EXIT, a man with a lanyard around his neck appeared and blocked my path. “Go to class,” he said. “Now.” I tried to walk around him, but he shook his head. “Go to class or I’m escorting you to the office.”
I headed toward the nearest classroom. He followed closely behind me, making sure I entered, and then he shut the door.
It appeared that I had walked into a social studies classroom. A world map hung over the whiteboard. Everyone was looking at me. “Hello,” said the teacher. She was a petite gray-haired woman with cat-eye glasses. “Are you in the right class?”
If I said no and left, the hall monitor would surely catch me again and take me to the principal’s office, where I would be found out. Then the police would be called unless I found a way to avoid consequences: pretending not to speak English, perhaps, so they would think I was a lost tourist; or feigning anaphylactic shock and then fleeing from the emergency room.
“Yes,” I said finally. “I just transferred today. I might not be in the system yet.” This answer seemed to satisfy her, and I took a seat at an empty desk.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Meredith.” This was the name of one of our landlords’ daughters.
For the next hour, the teacher, Mrs. Puliatti, lectured about the history of French Indochina. Whenever she asked a question, the room would be absolutely still and silent for several seconds, and then she would give a pained little smile and reveal the answer. After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore. I raised my hand.
“Hanoi,” I said. She looked so pleased that I couldn’t help but keep talking. I rambled for a while about Fanon and Graham Greene and the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. I had given these spiels many times while tutoring, searching for any words I could find to fill up the time. But it felt so much better to be a pupil than a teacher, to see my words received with pride and delight rather than resentment or apathy.
After class, Mrs. Puliatti took me aside and said she could tell I was a very clever student with a lot of potential. “Consider switching to my AP World History class,” she advised, “or doing dual enrollment at City College.” No one had spoken to me this way in months or maybe years. Certainly I had been noticed in high school, though it hadn’t done me much good in the end. In any case, I was much more impressive now.
“Thanks, Mrs. Puliatti. Could you write me a hall pass please? I have to use the restroom.” In the hallway, I glared at the man with the lanyard and marched past him, brandishing the pass. He was powerless to stop me as I pushed open the exit door, tore down the stairs, and escaped.
I didn’t return to Copernicus again, though I kept the sweatshirt and wore it sometimes to take the bus. There was another high school much closer to where I lived, and I started going there regularly with a backpack full of empty Tupperware. I memorized the bell schedule and always left well before the lunch period ended. My circadian cycle started to right itself. I never attended another class, though I reminisced often about Mrs. Puliatti’s praise. Neil worried that I would get caught, but I doubted it. “I really do look like a kid,” I said. Neil grimaced. “No you don’t.” He didn’t want to feel like a pedophile.
I thought of the fake ID I’d purchased in twelfth grade, how it had been confiscated immediately the first time I tried to use it. It was a high-quality fake, the kind that had to be ordered from abroad and paid for in cryptocurrency, but my baby face had given me away. At seventeen, I’d looked thirteen. How I’d seethed, wishing I could look more mature.
But I should have known even then that there were great advantages to looking younger than one really was. My mother had tried to teach me this years earlier. She was a well-known local news anchor, and the station had a history of letting women go once they developed wrinkles. The summer I turned ten, she announced that she was going to visit her sister in Waikiki for a month. That was the time it would take for her to recover from her facelift. When I saw my mother wheeled out of the hospital, face newly stitched, bandages wrapped around her head like a nun’s habit, I had sobbed soundlessly the whole ride home. She was swollen as a beached corpse, her features distorted beyond recognition. I didn’t know what had happened to her. I thought she would look like that forever. When she went back to work, the news director marveled at how refreshing her long vacation must have been. Later, with her especially generous year-end bonus, she really had taken us to Waikiki, though she’d stayed inside the whole time, worried the sun would undo her surgeon’s careful tightening.
Now I understood. One day, after stuffing a Tupperware with drumsticks that belonged to the city’s children, I went to the bathroom and washed my hands beside a girl who had stark tan lines on her shoulders. I looked in the mirror at her face and mine. I could imagine her skin becoming leathery, her hair losing its color. But I couldn’t do the same for myself. I couldn’t bear to. I had seen fine lines around my eyes a few days earlier, but I’d been able to smooth them with moisturizer. “Not yet,” I’d said, “not yet.”
Our second winter in the shed was one of the coldest the city had ever seen. It didn’t quite snow, but frost formed at night and melted when the sun came up. Our thin walls made the chill unbearable. I wore a thick down coat and ski pants even to sleep, taking them off only to change my underwear or to use the toilet. I didn’t shower, but it was all right. With schools closed for the winter, I rarely went outside. And it was too cold to sweat. I felt a subtle filth under my clothes, a layer of staleness that itched sometimes but didn’t stink.
I’d recently had an ingrown toenail removed, which had been a whole saga. I’d had to convince one of Neil’s law school classmates to let me impersonate her and use her health insurance in exchange for fifty dollars. The podiatrist had let me keep the toenail he removed, and I hid the plastic specimen jar between the mattress and the wall. When Neil was asleep, I would unscrew the lid and stroke the nail’s jagged edge, which was brown with dried blood. I liked to pretend it was a prehistoric artifact, the scale of some Jurassic fish. When I licked it, it was gritty and metallic, like something salvaged from the ocean floor.
Because of my one naked toe, I found walking painful. The cold air had dried my already eczematous skin, and I developed sores on my hands if I washed them too frequently. Neil left food and water by the bed and carried me to the toilet when I asked. I wiped myself after every shit, but otherwise Neil did it for me so that my hands could be exempted from washing. I was grateful for him, but I desperately wanted him to hit me or cheat on me so that we would be even.
Come late December, Neil wanted to see his family, as we’d done the previous Christmas, but I told him we couldn’t afford the plane tickets. In truth, I hadn’t yet hit my credit limit, but I didn’t want to go to New Jersey. His grandmother would dote on him and expose how pitiful my love was in comparison. His parents would ask me how I was doing, and what I was up to, and the answer would be humiliating. No, this year, I refused.
As the temperature continued to dip, I took to hobbling into the landlords’ garage and squatting by a vent. Their central heating didn’t quite extend to the garage, but every so often I would catch a gust of heat. I was warming myself in this way when I met one of the landlords’ daughters. The garage door opened, and in came a steel blue car with Nevada plates. I recognized the driver from the landlords’ social media accounts, which I had examined before moving in. “Hello,” I said, standing when she got out of the car. “I’m your parents’ tenant.”
“I’m Irene,” said Irene. She opened the trunk and took out a weathered duffel bag.
“Is Meredith coming?”
Irene looked at me questioningly. “No.”
“Where is your mom going to park?”
“In the driveway.”
“Let me help you with your bag.”
She lifted it over her shoulder easily. It wasn’t a large bag. “That’s all right,” she said, “thanks.”
I went back to the shed, where Neil was heating a pot of water over the hot plate. “It’s faster if you microwave it first,” I said. I wasn’t sure that this was true. I just wanted to seem helpful. “Irene is here for Christmas,” I added.
I explained. “I think she hates us because we’re defiling her sanctified childhood play space.”
“I think she loves us because we give her parents free money.”
I nodded. This was also a possibility. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she might try to have us evicted. I could tell that she’d been a coddled girl and was used to getting her way. No other kind of child would have had a play house that took up so much of the yard. Kids like that could be quite destructive when they grew up.
That night, I went back to the garage to get a closer look at Irene’s car. I wondered if she and Meredith had visited last Christmas, too, when we were away. Why wasn’t Meredith coming? Perhaps the two sisters had fought. Or perhaps they ordinarily visited their respective husbands’ families over the holidays, but Irene’s husband was a wife beater and she had only just escaped. I hadn’t seen any bruises on her, but I knew that they weren’t always visible. Perhaps I needed to hide my not-yet-conjugal bliss from her, lest she try to tear us apart out of jealousy. Why had she driven all this way? I tried to divine the answer from the dirt caked in her tire treads. Then I saw that her driver’s side window had been left partly open. I made my way to the shed and back, walking only on the heel of my four-clawed foot. I slipped a hand through the car window and flung my excised toenail onto the backseat. She didn’t seem to have children, so I doubted the nail would be discovered any time soon.
I had an addiction to being wicked, you see. Like most people, I was born wicked, but it would take me a long time to outgrow it. It had dulled my brain, this wickedness, and left me unmoored; it was the reason my father had marked my eighteenth birthday by giving me an envelope of cash and then changing the locks.
What happened was this: right before I graduated high school, a teacher asked me about the purple thumbprint on my neck, and I couldn’t think fast enough to come up with a lie. The truth was that I’d deserved it, though I didn’t know how to say this. When the CPS officer finished interviewing my parents, I locked myself in my room, but my mother had the key. “You idiot,” she said, “do you want to send your father to jail?” I wanted to tell her that could never happen, that we had all said the right things, but I couldn’t speak. “Answer me,” she said, grabbing my shoulders. I tried to spit at her, but nothing came out, so I pried her hands off and then shoved her. Her head hit the floor.
There is a dark magic embedded in wicked acts that prevents them from being undone. I found myself in the garage again shortly before sunrise. I heard the blare of the car alarm, and the rapid footsteps coming down the stairs, but my hand was stuck to the door handle, my eyes fixed on the backseat. “There’s something terrible in this car,” I wanted to say, but I couldn’t loose the words from my throat. “There’s something terrible in me,” I said, flinching from the cold air as I awaited my judgment.
Angela Hui is a writer from San Francisco.