Subway Triptych




The first universal law states that a body in motion will remain in motion.


Chipped fuchsia polish. A creased map of the metro system: glimpse summer at dusk. Mouths muffled in the back of a moving wagon and hot bodies crammed together, metronoming in unison. Memories from long-ago that are not my own, that have been passed on and pull me under: my grandmother’s wedding band. Too poor for gold. And I think of you.



I see you sometimes in my electrified daydreams as I stare down at the third rail, waiting for the subway at 72nd Street.


High Voltage. That’s what the metal sign says, and I agree. You live in the cruddy filth with the tunnel rats, feeding on loose coins and empty chip packets. You are a phantom-like rat chewing its way through the thick chaos of the afterwork rush, too many mouths to satisfy, a hand over the eye; a knife to the throat, a wallet in exchange for a life.


That’s my almost-brother down there!


What if / Too late / Where are you / Now? — the guilt and paranoia threaten to erupt from my thundering lips.



If you happen to see the station turn white despite the daily insistence of color—being here, holding the world here with me—then you have drunk in sweetness wing to wing. The meaning of a parentage, pulled apart. Exiled and devoured.



Conjuring you, this is how I know that to be adopted is a process of dislocation. An exercise in forced solitude. I negotiate with the existence of duplication. The translation of a joint creation myth, told and retold.



I’ve heard that when I laugh, my hand tends to cover my teeth, each molar, incisor, and canine dripping wet like pearls. I am acutely aware of my cosmetically perfect teeth; my fully-fledged American weapons.


My habit—the one where I conceal my face when smiling—marks me as someone who is fresh off the boat, when I’ve lived here since I was three. In one movement, I am no longer myself, but every other schoolboy and schoolgirl in Beijing, Tokyo, Saigon. I am you.



It’s said that the act of self-camouflage is a behavior that comes from the mother country. The Chinese and their crooked, beautiful, gummied teeth: hand suppressing the tongue. Tongue the mother tongue.



My Taiwanese grandmother fed her wedding ring to the earth while immigrating to America with my grandfather, and in doing so lost the keyhole she used to peer into herself. It is still there somewhere, buried in a galaxy of debris; a small sachet of fluency.



Unless usurped, innovated, or acted upon by another force.


Our lives: two origin stories. Appearing and reappearing.


In losing her relatives through war, was the adoption of another Chinese into an interracial, multigenerational family like cupping a handful of too many oceans for my grandmother? I feel closest to her—the glutting, wet, neat cut like a hyphen.



What I really mean is that the whiteness of the subway station could be satiated with all we do not say; the jet black syllables of my drowning.



They tell me teeth are the last part of the body to decompose. When the voice is the most flammable part of the body, the pieces left behind are reduced to teeth. Afterwards— the teeth have resigned themselves, split themselves down to their roots. Don’t you know yet? Death is really the same as desire, an exit wound through the cranium. Desire. Desert. Dearth. Death.



A filament of time, incensed and burned like paper money for the dead. The curve of dilating pupils. A clenched fist. A subway station, the place where we choose to commit mutiny. The language of movement is a quiet one misdiagnosed with sound.



A train thunders in between us and shoots sparks across the tracks. The flares ignited by you, going nowhere, consuming.


My express 3 train is now shrieking to a halt in the underground.



Given that I am actually full of wanting, maybe the hand does not obscure the soul, but protects it from the fingers that long to let things slip through.



Each Qingming festival, I watch my grandmother burn the letters grandfather wrote to her on his tombstone, the tongues of her ancient, transplanted grief consuming.



In Chinese, there is a word for fate that also means margin or edge. How is it that you have lived in another hemisphere, but also inside of me, without making a sound? My birth parents gave me up for being assigned female in a country that turns sons into household deities. And my family gave you up to adopt one child instead of two, one child of two. one of two. one. two.


Because two was too much, because one was enough of a handful. Because in a sea of open mouths, my mouth opened the widest, consuming.



From the first universal law, I discover we are particles that must be appeased as our bodies fall away to time.


6824 miles away, I become more like you every day. In the way I self-fashion, sculpt, decide my chest flatter. Reject biology. My pancake hips a letter, and I still hear you.



I think of your cleft lip, that swell of skin. My brother who was almost my brother when that was possible. Do we exist in a third space now, in a reality not much different from my buried longing?


Succumbing, I let you tear me open like a home.



And we call it inertia.


Which is to say that in my twenty-three years, I have learned that speech is a tool sharpened by butchering. Each incision a thrum on the track as the train lurches forward with me inside. I sit here in the belly, but I am really running, crawling, on the road back to our names. To the offerings I left behind with you when I was tending my own shrine of knowing.

Jean Li Spencer (they/she) graduated from Wellesley College in 2021, where they majored in English and Education Studies. She is currently an Editorial Assistant at a Big Five publisher of children’s books. Their writing is informed by a medley of exploratory non-binary experiences, being a Chinese adoptee, the space between words, and the multitudinous nature of everyday existence.