I Aspire to Urinate as Powerfully as My Boss


I Aspire to Urinate as Powerfully as My Boss

An excerpt from Cecilia by K-Ming Chang

I saw Cecilia again when I turned twenty-four and switched jobs for the third time that year. In the laundry room of the chiropractor’s office, I folded four types of towels and three sizes of gowns, my fingers sidling along seams and clawing the lint screen clean. The towels, which were stored in white laminate cabinets and laid out on the examination tables, had to be folded into fourths and rolled thick as thighs. The fraying ones were retired to a metal shelf along the back wall, a columbarium for cloth. I mourned them all: the aging towels were the easiest to fold, to flatten. They were softer and thinner and hung like pigskin over my forearm, clinging directly to my meat, nursing on my heat. They didn’t get lumpy or beady when I tucked them, and their pleats never pickled into permanence, never stiffened into ridges.

The laundry room was a windowless space at the back of the clinic, painted pink and white like pork belly. I only ever saw the chiropractor and the receptionist when they entered to use the employee toilet in the closet next to the dryer. The chiropractor’s peeing was astonishingly loud, almost symphonic, resonating inside the walls and harmonizing with the retching of the washer. His stream was so insistent, so unflagging, that I sometimes imagined it siphoned directly into the pipes at the back of the washer. It was his piss that filled the machine, battering the glass window, seasoning the sheets. That would solve the mystery of the sheets on the gyrating table, which yellowed too quickly even when I bleached them in the sink, turning the insides of my wrists translucent. The gyrating table was my name for the uncanny contraption in treatment room two, the largest of the rooms. Once or twice the chiropractor had attempted to demonstrate its function to me, even inviting me to try it out myself. It was like a dentist’s chair, slanted at a forty-five-degree angle, its cushions made of foam and green pleather, except you were supposed to lie on it face down, and once you were cupped to its cutting-board surface, it began to rotate and twist and tip and rock and hum and sometimes even shudder. The chiropractor turned it on with a remote control and explained to me that its movements were expertly calibrated, allowing him to deliver the correct amounts of pressure to targeted areas without straining himself or distorting his own spine—but when it was empty, whirring without any body, it looked to me like a severed tongue, a fish flailing to speak. It wriggled in the dark like antennae, trying to tune in to a language it had lost. When I sprayed it down after appointments, patting its glossy flank to soothe it, convincing it not to buck anyone, I squinted at its stillness and imagined what word it wanted to say.

Unlike the chiropractor, the receptionist peed so discreetly that I found myself inching toward the door after she locked it, perching my ear against the thin plywood, listening for the rattle of her bladder. But I never heard anything, not even the shriek of her zipper or the applause of the toilet seat lowering, not even the sound of the faucet fidgeting. I imagined that her pee was like the rain in movies, a shimmering sheet so embedded in the scene that you could no longer distinguish its rhythm from the voices in the foreground, the faces feathering the screen. A rain like bestial breathing. A few times I became so entranced I forgot to flee, and when she opened the door, I was standing there with my ears flexed like wings. I pretended I’d been waiting for the bathroom myself, but I could tell she didn’t believe it, and she avoided speaking to me except to let me know when a patient had left. She began turning on the faucet while she pissed, and the sounds were unsortable, threading together into the weather. When it was time to address me, she knocked on the laundry room door, competing with the sound of towels fistfighting in the dryer, and said, Get the room. This was my cue to wipe down the tables and replace the towels and gather the soiled laundry.

In addition to doing the laundry, which overfilled the hampers and slumped like dead birds on every surface, I mopped the floors, vacuumed the rooms, and cleaned the patient and employee bathrooms. I refilled the soap dispenser in the patient bathroom, which dribbled like a nosebleed, its residue jellying on the rim of the sink. Every hour, I sponged away the gum. The toilet bowl turned brown because of mineral buildup, and although I scrubbed it daily, it always looked like someone had recently stewed their shit in it. The toilet-paper dispenser was broken and had to be bandaged with Scotch tape.

When I stirred the brush inside the bowl, I heard the contents of my own bladder sloshing, slapping all the walls of my body. I became aware that I needed to use the bathroom, but I abstained. I liked to see how long I could wait. My bladder stiffened into bone and became my fist. It tautened into a grape of pain.

The chiropractor claimed that at his busiest, he saw over one hundred patients a day, and though I never knew if this was true, never saw anyone coming or going, I gathered the aftermath of their bodies: alcohol-soggy cotton balls sunken in the trash cans, paper towels souping in the sink, handprints of sweat gilding the tables, bouquets of dark hair arranged in the chamber of my vacuum cleaner. Though the job was full time, the chiropractor said he’d only take me on as an independent contractor, which I knew was just a way of saying I’d have no benefits. My brother told me those were the best kinds of jobs: make sure they pay in cash, he said, you won’t have to pay taxes. He collected bills from handyman gigs and rolled them into sausages, encasing them in socks that were sweat-encrusted and mildewed—a natural repellent against thieves. In my family, we weaponized our stench.

It was Wednesday when I saw Cecilia. Unlike the receptionist, who had to keep track of appointment dates, I never knew the day of the week or whether it was winter, though it was winter. In the windowless room, it was always warm, and the wet fluorescent light flicked my earlobes with its tongue. At work, all conscious thought was caught in the mesh screen of my mind and balled away, and what remained was the beeping of the machine when it was done or overloaded, my fingers groping for corners, the volcanic power of the chiropractor’s piss as it plundered the pipes and grew gold roots beneath my feet. My only aspiration was to expel myself that fluently. On his best days, there was no trickling or tapering off: it ended as abruptly as it began, the stream severed cleanly as if it were snipped.

I learned it was Wednesday because the chiropractor, after exiting the bathroom that morning, turned to me and said, A lot of new patients today, and on a Wednesday. He said nothing else, and the words caught in my mind’s screen, separate from my living. Inside this room I was ghostly, a fly’s wing, leashed to the light above me. I folded to the rhythm of on a Wednesday, pluralizing each pleat, manufacturing halves and then quarters, rolling and stacking, bending and filling.

The receptionist knocked twice, Get the room, so I abandoned the hand towel I was using to wipe the window of the washer, leaving it to puddle on top of the machine.

Inside this room I was ghostly, a fly’s wing, leashed to the light above me.

The treatment rooms lined a narrow carpeted hallway, rows of sliding doors on either side. Unless you dislocated the doors a little, jiggling them in their sockets, they didn’t slide shut properly, or they made a metallic scraping sound that turned your spine to slime. When the doors were left half open, it was a sign for me to enter and clean the room as quickly as possible, without jostling the requisite plastic spine model. Each vertebra was labeled with a number, the spaces between them glowing like keyholes, inviting any finger to try and unlock them. As much as possible, I liked to face the spine while I cleaned; if I didn’t keep an eye on it, I heard the bones jingling like forks. They pricked my skin, took bites of my mind.

The door to treatment room two was open. It was the largest room and had its own gravity, holding the gyrating table in its orbit, and I braced myself for that giant tongue, that half-born word. The room was dimmed to let me know it was dirty, and I entered so quickly that for several steps, for a handful of feathered seconds, I didn’t notice there was someone still inside. I walked toward the cabinet where the bottles of cleaner were kept, the neon liquid sloshing like the acid in my belly. Only when I began to kneel did I see the bright piping of a gown, a hem I had flipped in the right direction, a slight heat still wafting from it.

My head jerked up, and I saw her standing directly in front of the spine model, the table tilted behind her, slick and poised to speak. Her diamonded gown was glowing, so dew-clean that the hallway light clung to her front, and I climbed the lattice of its pattern before reaching her face.

It was a face I had dusted off in my memory so frequently that seeing it now, in the present, made me wonder if this one was a bootleg, if the original had been destroyed to keep me from corrupting it. Her long hair was loose, which was unusual for patients, who were asked to arrive with their hair tied back so the chiropractor could traverse the full territory of their spines. She wore her gown unknotted, the strings limp at her sides like desiccated insect limbs. Her posture seemed perfect to me, not at all like the stance of someone who needed to see a chiropractor, who experienced gravity. A shadow clogged the doorway, and I glanced behind me to see if it was the receptionist or the chiropractor, telling me to hurry up or leave.

When I turned back around, she had taken a step closer to me. Her legs and feet were bare, the gown bunching at her sides, and I tried not to imagine what she looked like from behind. Though she was technically facing me, I felt her true gaze was pointing behind her. The opening in her gown was a flickering eyelid. I looked at the wall behind her, avoiding her face, knowing that it had changed since I last saw her. I didn’t want to look at it now, to reinstate the years between us. I wanted to turn and flee. I wanted the intimacy of distance, to be far enough away to see her entire surface.

Her heat hemmed me in, electrified the air. She was smiling, and her teeth were a single rind of light. I stood slowly, shifting away from their sour radius. The fresh towels clamped in my armpits were slopping out of shape, expanding in the steam of my sweat.

You remember me, she said. She didn’t say her name. Because I didn’t know how to answer, I stepped back toward the door and said I was sorry, I’d leave her to undress. When you leave, I told her, you can leave the door cracked. The lobby is straight ahead.

Cecilia didn’t move. Though the room was sapped of light, her shadow lapped at the floor, licking up my ankles. From where did her shadow summon its water?

She tilted her head, an unfamiliar motion. Cecilia’s movements were never minor, and this slight angling was so foreign that for a second I was comforted, wondering if I’d mistaken someone else for her.

But then she approached me. The spine model shifted into view as she stepped forward, which gave me the strange impression that she’d left her bones behind. That her spine was standing in its previous place, fully assembled, and only the sheet of her skin dangled in front of me.

It was her face. Her narrow chin, which I’d envied. Glistening as if I’d licked it. Even in this dim, I could see the canopy of her lashes, trapping any light that tried to reach her eyes. Because they could not reflect anything, her eyes were quiet as an animal’s, turned inward, preoccupied with the darkness inside her own skull. She still had the mole underneath her left eye, protruding slightly like a nipple, which she’d tried to scrape off with her mother’s As Seen on TV vegetable peeler and which had grown back identical, though she’d claimed it came back larger, fat enough to nurse on. I could see the color of her nipples through the gown. I ducked my head. Patients weren’t required to remove their underwear. The more I looked at her nipples, the more they widened like rings of displaced water, seeping across the front of her gown until I wondered if she was bleeding.

She itched her wrist, dredging up flecks of dried skin. She used to say she would someday scatter her own ashes. The impossibility of this act only strengthened the promise. Many times in my life, I had seen someone across the street or out the bus window, scraping plaque off the roots of their kumquat tree or laughing open mouthed at a flippant cloud or frothing from both nostrils while arguing with a stranger, and the way they were moving their hands and arms—with a fledgling’s awkwardness, elbows crooking like wings—disturbed me into indigestion. Only much later would I realize: my sickness was the shock of seeing her shadow appropriated, her behavior plagiarized.

She used to say she would someday scatter her own ashes. The impossibility of this act only strengthened the promise.

You look the same, she said. Her voice was lower. She glanced down, and it was the first time I realized she was uncertain about how to address me. She rolled her lower lip between her teeth, and I watched it ripple and shine with spit, the slug of my love.

I’ll change, she said, I just really like this room.

I was surprised. The room was so familiar to me I no longer saw anything in it—it was too staged, shaped like a room but not a room, the poster of a seaside view on one wall, the green glass lamp in the corner, the filters combing out the air. Only the motored table remained alive in my mind. I tried to imagine her magnetized to it, her body flung in elliptical orbits, her knees bouncing on the cushions. But when I thought of her lying on the table face down, I could only see her steering it, paddling it out into the day.

Cecilia turned around, ushering the scent of her sweat into the air, the loose curtains of her gown fluttering open in the back. Her skin was so sudden. The white elastic of her underwear, bare as bone, snapped against my throat. I recoiled and scurried out the door, the walls of the narrow hallway grating my shoulders, whittling me down. Behind me, I heard the door scraping shut.

My heart wrung itself out, and I felt the blood return to my wrists and hands and head. Two more knocks on the laundry room door, two more rooms cleared out, and treatment room two was still shut. No light sludging out the crack of its door, but I didn’t want to knock, so I waited until the receptionist let me know that room two needed getting. When I returned to it, I saw that the door was indeed cracked, but so slightly that only a thumb would fit in the gap. That was how she defined an opening.

I cleaned the room slower than usual, searching for a raft of stray hairs or some message she’d left for me. I even checked the ceiling. It would have never occurred to me to do this, except Cecilia used to enter a room with her chin tilted upward, pining for light. But when I looked up, I only saw shadows. Spores speckled the ceiling, fuzzing the light fixture. Repulsed, I lowered my head and knew I would never be able to enter this room again without thinking of the pelt above, thickening by the minute, begging to be petted. Even as I shuddered, I imagined stroking the spores: a row of nipples stiffening.

No message was left behind for me. Only the pile of used towels on the table, the gown flickering on top of it, stirred slightly by the air-conditioning. The gown’s fabric was starchy, the way the chiropractor preferred it, soft only at the armpits and around the neckline, where her sweat and heat might have congregated. I balled it up and tucked it under my left arm, then bundled the towels to bring to the laundry room. When I got back, I sorted only the towels into their correct hampers. The gown I tossed onto the folding table behind me, where the clean laundry was stacked into obelisks. Though I turned my back to the gown, I felt its presence cleaving to me, felt its sleeve holes whimpering for my wrists.

After stacking a load of dry towels, still hot enough to scald my fingertips, I turned back to the gown and lifted it, my nose roaming the fabric. It was bright as the leaf-brittle dryer sheets we used, even at the armpits. I tried to decide if the side seams were damp or just cold. I fluttered the gown flat on the table, looked around quickly, and bent to lick its loins. Like a bird chewing dew, my tongue dabbed at the diamonds patterning the crotch. The cloth was so devoid of flavor that it didn’t even taste clean: it was simply the fabric of absence. It hadn’t lived long enough on her skin to remember anything.

The chiropractor walked into the laundry room, and I shook out the gown and fiddled with the strings, pretending to be pleating it. When I stepped away, my lips lurked in its folds. But the chiropractor didn’t look at me, just headed straight to the bathroom. He flicked the switch, and the light lagged a few seconds before limping in. I saw his shadow coloring in the crack under the door. His piss trumpeted into the toilet, louder than I’d ever heard it. Then it thinned into a hiss, managing a few percussive beats before tapering into silence.

Cecilia was the one who first told me: Boys hold their dicks when they pee, isn’t that gross? We were thirteen and sitting on the curb together, waiting for the city bus. Whenever it arrived, jerking toward us, we made a game of seeing how long we could stay seated before its wheels severed our knees. Cecilia could wait the longest, the bus lunging toward her, the soles of her feet stapled to the street. I would watch the street while she watched the sky, refusing to move until the bus poured its shadow over her head. Then she would retract her legs and roll backward, bouncing up from the pavement.

When she told me this fact, I was so horrified that I didn’t believe her. Haven’t you noticed, she said, that you can never see a man’s hands when he pees? That they’re always in front, like they’re watering something? Guess what they’re holding. With a jolt, I realized this was true. My brother peed with the door open, the only one in our family of women, and from behind, I’d never once seen his hands. He was never holding a book in front of him, or holding a phone to his ear, or simply allowing his hands to slack off at his sides.

It seemed so impossible that I stopped watching the street. If this were true, it had to happen often, boys touching their penises. I’d never once touched myself while peeing, or even while not peeing. The idea hadn’t even occurred to me, touching. Underwear touched you. Toilet paper touched you, brief as a bee. But the directness of a hand was different. I thought everyone went their entire lives never directly touching the places they peed from, and when Cecilia repeated what she’d said, I still couldn’t believe it. They touch it every time? I said. Cecilia looked at the sky and laughed and said they had to. To direct it. The fact that it was a necessary and casual utility—like holding back your hair to drink from a water fountain— shocked me more than anything. It seemed grotesque and barbaric, designed purely to disgust me. But beneath my disgust was a constant awe, the kind Cecilia must have felt when she found a dead squirrel on our street, its flesh freed from the bone by a family of crows.

That is the worst thing I have ever heard, I said to Cecilia. That means they touch it every few hours! She smiled at me and reined in her legs, and I realized too late that the bus was lurching toward us. But we were linked at the elbows, and she pulled me up with her. We boarded the bus together, and I looked at the hands of every man inside it. Seven. Some were tall or old or ghosts. I looked at their hands for some visible evidence of savagery, moles or scales or knuckles poking out like horns. I waited for their hands to be let off their arms, free to sneak inside any skin.

Inside this bus, Cecilia and I were careful to touch very little. Our mothers warned us about the infectiousness of death. Even a safety railing or a bus strap could sicken us, so we pretended to be taxidermy, stiff and leaning against each other. I kept counting hands as they entered and exited, as they touched windows and green plastic seats and nostrils filled with moss and jean pockets and earlobes. There wasn’t skin between anything. The sky slipped and exposed the moon, and I wished Cecilia hadn’t told me the thing she knew. I wanted to know what was safe to look at.

When I got home, I sat down on the toilet. I listened to my piss prattle in the pipes, repeating her name. I didn’t touch anything but the toilet paper knotting in my sweaty fist, the bar of soap made of dog’s drool, the faucet spraying spittle, the frayed towel Ama mended once in a while. I was reassured by ritual. I inscribed my borders clearly. It didn’t matter if Cecilia was telling the truth, I decided, as long as I could inventory my touch, as long as I didn’t slip from my silhouette.

I kept my hands light, stuffing them with feathers and puppeting them in public, teaching them to flit from surface to surface. But they were not alone: they were hunted by another pair of hands, ghost hands grown in the darkness of my body, slicking out of me and into the toilet bowl. Shiny and skinless as organs. When they reached for me, I shut the lid and flushed.

That night, I lay in bed between Ma and Ama. Their creek of sweat hollowed out the valley where I slept. My hands doubled on each wrist, and I felt the weight of both pairs burdening the air, pulping my pelt, smearing me into the sheets. The knowledge of touch was touch.

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