They grin—a subtle, instinctive apology offered on a crooked row of short, fat teeth screaming for braces and fluoride. Held out on a silver tray, the smile is meant to flatten the offense they don’t yet recognize. They’re too young and they don’t understand taxes or sex or the government or the reason they’re the ones chosen for the roles of Mary and Joseph in the Christmas play every year, but something about this feels right for them. Another step inside and another above you. This is the glorious product of adolescent thoughtlessness and pure American humor and you are worthy of witnessing it. You feel the urge to drop to the floor and kiss their dirty little feet and press deeply into your arms with the purple crafting scissors. The cool ones that everyone fights over, the ones that cut in pretty patterns.
Arms rise, index fingers poised toward their eyes, the smile slowly waning. Their fingers rest in the corner of their eyes and then it happens. Their skin is pulled taut and what remains are two narrow slits where their blank eyes existed just seconds before. They look like you. Our eyes are the same, they must look like you. You tell yourself you don’t look like that, but it’s so funny and true, and your saccharine laugh is harmonizing with theirs in a way that makes your throat close tightly over your pride. It feels utterly narcotic, this sense of belonging.
You want to crawl inside your own skin and your eyes are lit up with the same smile you’ve practiced over and over again in your mom’s full-length, antique mirror decorated with the foreign swirls and symbols that feel like a finger shoved into the back of your throat. You suggest playing house, pressing your tongue against the roof of your dry mouth desperately. You’ll play the housekeeper again. They can be the mom and the dad and the screaming baby and the perfect little family. They smile and nod, onto the next thing that makes them feel giddy and easy inside. This is who you are.
* * *
They say you look weird today. Their bright blue eyes scan the fine wisps of black baby hair framing your flat face, searching for cracks in their novel little possession. Your hands freeze reaching into your locker and you lower your gaze to the locker room floor, rifling through acceptable excuses. The muscles in your stomach tighten, noticing their focus lingering on your small eyes, framed by even smaller hairs caked with thick black clumps. Your sister made you wear the mascara today, she’s so crazy sometimes. No, you know you look bad, of course, haha, it was just a joke. You roll your eyes to lighten your self-deprecating answers to their high-pitched interrogation, your heart dropping with every word.
They laugh approvingly, snatching your Japanese Cherry Blossom body mist out of your locker, spraying it all over their soft bodies. They laugh harder and say you’re so funny. Of course, this is the perfume you use, they laugh some more. Can they have it? Of course, you sputter, of course, you didn’t even like the smell, take it, you insist. They leave. Your white mom loved that perfume. Then your white family bought you from China. They held you between their hands and kissed your forehead, pressing your head and drowning you beneath the surface of that scent, coating you in the reason your bath water turns pink every night. You’ve sat on the shelf to dry ever since. The suffocating fumes thin out across the emptying room and you feel anchored to something you can’t feel. Something you want to douse with gasoline and watch as it turns to weightless ash. That’s what you are.
* * *
They say their dad is from Russia, but their mom is Irish, and they’re not ginger because not all Irish people are ginger, and it annoys them when people ask them why they’re not ginger. Their eyes blaze with a sense of pride, veiled thinly by a righteous feeling of injustice. You laugh and compliment their golden blonde hair, voicing your desire to be Russian because the accents sound so freaking cool. The edges of their mouths reach the apples of their cherry red cheeks as they beam, bursting with delight. The anticipation for a returned compliment hangs between you and them, balanced on a greasy lunch table.
They get the hint. No, but you have it way better than them. Your background is so cool. They elaborate without you asking and your intuition tells you to prepare your perfectly straight smile for what you’ve learned to expect. Because you’re, like, Wasian, right? Half white, half Asian? You totally get the best of both worlds, they draw on. Everything you’ve wished for and envied and told yourself night after restless night falls into perfect place. Your mouth is prepared to display a sheepish grin, your mind already forming amicable words when they grin. Their fingers are poised. Asian eyes look like this. Slits. Your eyes look like this. Beautiful circles. Laughs all around. You’re white and Asian, haha, the best combo ever.
You don’t tell them they’re so wrong. They’re not your eyes; nothing belongs to you. Not the balls of black crust on your pillow, not your two-inch fingernails slathered in electric blue. Not even yourself. You smile. You feel pink lips peel back into a real smile and you feel pretty. You’ve just dominated the playground game at the expense of everyone too scared to tell you you’ve broken the rules. You inhale the trail of body mist you’ve snatched and sprayed, leaving the room in a cloud of control. The eyes you’ve poked and jabbed and held open for hours don’t squint shut as you laugh loudly, obnoxiously, confidently, truly. You’re the center of the universe, a bowl filled with water, stepped on and swam in, cradled in the hands of some ethereal being that you see every day. That’s what you are.
* * *
They’re all so wrong, just as unhappy as you are, you tell yourself. You mumble to yourself at night and make your face drip pathetically with blood when your older sister points her long finger at your nose and tells you it’s flat and shiny—you worship the same things that you’ve placed between yourself and them. When you cry, you stare at yourself with more love than you know what to do with. You wish your lashes always looked that dark and your eyes always looked that bright and your cheeks always looked that red and beautiful, spreading life-giving heat against your pale, glowing skin. You feel yourself splitting in two. A deep chasm, wider than the glowering eyes you could only dream of, grows in a part of you that you’ve tried to tear out every day of your life. Stretched and confined, anchored and distanced; what else? You’re not yours. Something you can’t put your finger on, something small and biting and sharp that hardens the perfumed shell surrounding you—there it is. You can’t tell if it’s digging deeper inside of you or rising to the surface, but it’s changing you. You’ve watched it happen with your own eyes.