Abby leans over the kitchen sink. She pours three cups of long-grain jasmine rice into a rice cooker bowl. It’s enough for dinner for her family of four tonight, for fried rice tomorrow. She runs cool water over the grains, swirls the rice and water with her hand. She tilts the bowl, letting foggy water spill over the edge. As she washes the rice, her mother’s voice from years ago brushes her shoulder and lands like a palm firm against her back.
You must not allow boys to touch you, Bee. If he holds your hand, rubs your back, pinches your waist, your mind will never forget. Then, hala! Someday when your husband touches you, you can only think of another man’s hands.
Abby thinks of her husband Ben, imagines their moments of intimacy co-opted by memories of other men’s hands and laughs quietly. Even in this private moment she stifles her smile, as though the memory of her mother’s voice might suddenly materialize and say, di ka na chio? What’s so funny?
In truth, it’s not when Ben touches her that she thinks of another man’s hands. Instead, it is every time Abby washes rice. She is transported back to a summer night in college, watching Jeremy Lo wash rice. At his apartment kitchen sink, she stood on her tip-toes, peering into the rice cooker basin in his hands. It was unfamiliar—a man’s hands in the rice, as well as the washing. Her mother, always rushing, did not wash rice before cooking it. Her father did not help with cooking.
Jeremy was a boy from church, a longtime family friend with whom she had shared bible studies, worship music, and 3 a.m. conversations at church retreats. He was soft-spoken and blushed easily. He’s the only Chinese man who has seen Abby without her clothes on.
That summer night, Jeremy taught Abby how to wash rice. Jeremy’s hand disappeared beneath cloudy water. His pale fingers, swirling the mixture, became clearer and clearer as the water ran over the side of the bowl. This is what Abby cannot get out of her mind.
She closes her eyes as she washes the rice, the sound of her children’s feet thumping up and down the hallway. She shakes her head and tries to remember those other things: the things her mother promised with great certainty she would not be able to forget. She braces herself excitedly, waiting for the moment to come flooding back. She strains to feel Jeremy’s hands on her back, his fingers gripping hesitantly, then hungrily. She tries to recall his lips, their similar noses pressing each other’s faces, his surprising breathlessness.
When memories of Jeremy fail to return to her, she searches for other hands and lips she has failed to keep away from her body. Her mind wades through snapshots of Ken’s jawline, Dev’s sweat, Jane’s arms, and Rae’s belly. She dives into memories of the giddy and curious heat of young bodies wanting. She awaits the shame her mother warned was inevitable. But the only thing to pierce through with clarity are Jeremy’s hands washing rice.
He cooked that single meal with Abby. She’d helped him: first the rice, then chicken sliced thin and marinated in cornstarch, soy sauce, and Shaoxing wine. He stirred the chicken in a bowl with a pair of chopsticks, the cornstarch dissolving quickly. Abby had imagined what someone peering in from the outside might see. Aw look, a cute Chinese couple! they might think before moving on with their day.
She had wanted to startle them out of their assumptions, to shock them with the sudden pounding of a stereo, to growl low and loud while pressing Jeremy’s body against the apartment’s shared wall. She had wanted to order pizza and flirt with the pizza delivery girl, winking as she shut the door. Abby could see that with Jeremy, she would always have these jarring urges to prove to the “imaginary someones” that she was not merely quiet, passive, and Chinese.
Jeremy was a leader at the Asian American Christian Fellowship group at his college. He wanted to become a pastor. He would become the pastor of a Chinese church someday.
Jeremy had also heard words of warning in his ear: whispers from his mother about how to be a good Chinese Christian boy.
Do not take a woman’s body before you are married to her. It might feel good, but you will have taken from her the greatest gift she has to give. She will be soiled, and no man will ever be able to look at her the same way again.
The burden of Jeremy’s wanting was too much to carry alone. He poured his dirty, secret desires out to Abby: he would describe how he touched his own body daily and how he was haunted by never-ending fantasies of women’s bodies. She held his head in her lap, stroked his hair, and told him she did not think his secrets were dirty. She told him God loved him and that his secrets were human and beautiful.
That evening, they had washed rice, ate dinner, and then Abby lifted all of Jeremy’s secrets up, spread them out before him. He pointed to the parts that he wanted, and she gave them all to him. He was eager for more, and she pushed herself toward him. He unwrapped her, piece after piece after piece, until they were both hoarse and gleaming.
In the morning, Abby opened her eyes and smiled. She found herself light and full and happy.
In that same morning, Jeremy opened his eyes and looked toward Abby, seeing the sun on her soiled skin and knowing immediately that his mother’s words had been full of truth. He could not look at her the same way. He asked her to leave, and never spoke to her again.
Twenty years later at the kitchen sink, Abby smiles while washing rice. Her mother’s words had been a lie. Lots of people want to forget, but Abby loves to remember.
About the Author
Lynnette Li is an API actor, early elementary music teacher, writer and mom currently living in Chicago.