My Dear You

Rachel Khong

I selected fifty-four millimeters for the space between my eyes. All my life, my eyes had been far apart and, growing up, the other kids called me “Hammerhead.” Something nobody tells you is that when you die a death in which your face and body are utterly maimed, you get to choose your face in heaven. Your body, to some extent, as well, because you’re given a body that corresponds to your chosen face. But skin color, nose shape, lips, and teeth—it’s all up to you. That’s the silver lining.

“Take your time,” said Richard, whose position or rank was I don’t know what. I thought of him as my prison guard, even though this was, I was pretty positive, heaven. He spoke in short, authoritative sentences, and seemed bored, like prison guards on TV. It was just how I thought of him—I’m not saying that’s what he was.

We were vacationing in Australia, Adam and I. It was a crocodile who murdered me, who clamped on my face and body with its many sharp teeth, and crushed my bones. It didn’t chew me. That’s not what they do. They swallow prey whole and grind up their food with countless little rocks in their digestive tracts; if the prey is too big to swallow whole, they tear it into smaller pieces first. The tearing and the rocks left my face entirely fucked. “Crocodile tears” are insincere tears because crocodiles cry when devouring their prey. Did this one cry when it ate me? They told me yes, because that’s just what their glands do. How old was it? They told me seventy, meaning that this crocodile outlived me by forty years, which I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad about. Was it a male or a female? They told me a female. So really I got my life ended by an old crocodile bitch—though they’re not called bitches but “cows.”

I asked Richard how much time I had in reality to mull over the face and the certain aspects of the body they were permitting me to do over. He said twenty-four hours, but that heaven hours worked a little differently.

“Why, do you need an extension,” he said without inflection.

I said it was okay. Richard had been so patient and accommodating with the questions I’d had so far, I didn’t really want to impose further.

“How does this work?” I’d asked him.

“What part?”

I wanted to know what the face would be for. Would I be eating with my new mouth? Would I be tanning with my new skin? And, another question I had, was there the possibility of ever falling in love again?

He’d said yes to all of the above, and that I would soon see that death wasn’t so different from “life”—he used scare quotes—except for the new people. New-to-me people. I saw David Bowie ride by on a bicycle just then. But was it David Bowie or someone who’d chosen his face? Richard wasn’t sure.

I chose brownish-green eyes with speckles. There was a computer program for this, and all I had to do was drop the features into a shopping cart–type basket, as though I were online shopping, and it would show up more or less instantaneously on my face, which I could then check the fit of right away in the mirror. I chose my original style of ears, a lightbulb shape, with soft lobes with a peachy fuzz, because Adam had liked them. In our hotel room the night before the accident I had polled him on what he liked best about me. We were on our honeymoon, if you can believe. Earlobes, wrist, smile, he’d said, flashing me his cheesy one. I didn’t have a strong opinion about ears, it turned out. They all looked serviceable to me. So I just picked my old ones but I made them stick out less. I’d never liked my teeth so I changed those too; I made them slightly bigger and whiter and more rectangular. Adam would’ve hated this but he wasn’t here, was he? We were thirty years old and had just promised, underneath a gazebo, in front of most of the people we cared about, that we would spend the rest of our lives together. And it was true that I did, I kept my part of the promise.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to still be a Chinese person, so I saved that detail for last. It felt a little unethical to get to choose. I closed my eyes and clicked the mouse at a random point on the screen. Chinese, it said, and my eyes sharpened at the edges, into the almond-shaped ones I’d had all my life. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little crestfallen.

What Richard had meant about the time being weird was that you felt it differently. One day I was playing racquetball with my new friend Heidi, and we were having a blast, swatting maniacally, unsure how to play because we’d never played before. Then we heard angry knocks at the door. It was a couple, holding rackets and looking testy. “Can we PLEASE use the room,” the woman said. “We’ve been waiting.” She had thick eyebrows that she raised at me, and no visible face bones. It was clear that this had been her face in life and that she had lost her life peacefully, perhaps in her sleep, or to cancer, which is not peaceful, I don’t mean to offend, but you know what I mean. The man was less confrontational—he stared too long at me, at my perfect features, or maybe he had an Asian fetish. Then he looked at his feet. “We’re so sorry,” Heidi said, deferring in her Southern drawl. When we looked at our watches we realized we’d been in there for four years.

As the time passed I could picture faces from life less vividly. My mother’s was the first to go, then my father’s—even though I’d seen their faces for thirty years, even though I would have said to you that I knew their faces intimately, almost as intimately as I knew my own face, which I began to forget as well. Troublingly, my boss’s face remained clear. And his body. Smug, clueless, doughy. The other copywriters and I, we lived in constant fear. He was what you would call a “Toxic Boss.” I once read an article about types of bosses—“the Micromanager,” “the Inappropriate Buddy,” and so forth. I recognized ours as a blend of “the Tyrant” and “the Incompetent”—slightly Machiavellian, though not intelligent enough to be fully so. If you had an idea you wanted implemented, you had to convince him it was his idea. We wrote copy for a few products: Reddish Fish, a knockoff Swedish fish. A special kind of antibacterial athletic sock. I remembered the companies and I could not remember my mother’s or father’s faces.

In the beginning here, I would see a man and think to myself, His chin looks like Adam’s or His hands, with their big rectangular nails, look like Adam’s. But after a decade I couldn’t remember those hands, or his chest, or even his height. Was he tall? Was he short? I held as tightly as I could to the memory of his face, Adam’s face. Every morning I reconstructed him from the facts I clung to. The color of his eyes: hazel. The color of his hair: dark brown. The length of his eyelashes: long. His body was gone and his scent was gone, but his face I had, and kept, and I swore I’d keep forever.

Maybe it was an unhealthy fixation but he was the love, you know, of my life. From a purely numbers perspective, he was seventy-five percent of my relationships.

Everyone in heaven is thirty-three years old, like Jesus. I was aged three years, and babies get aged a lot of years. Old men and women get years shed from them, but retain their emotional IQs and their years of life experience.

I know what you’re wondering, and the answer is yes: people in heaven are smoking hot. Thirty-three is a hot age to be, especially when you’ve got the wisdom of an eighty-five-year-old. And, as you’d expect, octogenarians with thirty-three-year-old bodies are a little . . . well, let’s just say they have one thing on their minds.

Sex wasn’t what I was here for, of course. I mean, not that I was here for any particular reason. I was just going to be here, so I had to make the best of the situation. Not having to work at the agency was nice. I’d pick up some new hobbies, I thought. I joined a book club. I took a drawing class, mostly so I could draw faces, including you-know-whose. After about twenty years my racquetball skills turned a corner and I began beating Heidi, to both of our surprises. I enjoyed, for the first time in my “life,” a fit, athletic physique. Not that my heart could give out, not that cardiovascular health mattered. But my new body looked good—for a while, anyway, until it was no longer novel.

Day in and day out I tried to remember my facts about my former husband, the golden eyes and brown hair and long eyelashes. I drew his face over and over in my class, though it never looked completely right. And what was his name? Sometimes I couldn’t recall and would have to check. ADAM, I wrote in tiny, nearly imperceptible letters on my bedroom wall, but the janitor kept erasing it, and so I wrote it, ADAM, on a scrap of paper, and tucked it underneath my fitted sheet, and remembered to retrieve it before every laundry day, which was Tuesdays.

We had had our problems, Adam and I. Of course we did. We respected each other, though, and that, to me, was always the main thing. We talked through our differences. The conversations were always helpful, but in my mind, they reinforced how separate we were, as people. The day we got married I caught, in his eye, a glimmer of worry about what we were about to embark upon. That glimmer was like a shard of glass that flew over to me and caught on me like panty hose to a dry patch of skin, like a burr to a sock, and I had to excuse myself from our table to cry in the expensive, carpeted Port-A-Potty. “Tears of joy,” I said when I got back, and a few tears fell out, and Adam smiled, and vacuumed the droplets off my face with his mouth—a joke we had.

For some reason, I constantly checked the paper under the mattress to remind myself of my husband’s name. It was embarrassing how often I did this. I tried distracting myself with other activities: I played racquetball with Heidi, and sometimes we got brunch on weekends. I baked cakes for friends, experimenting with different recipes and alternative flours. I didn’t stop long to wonder what the reason was because I’d tried that once, and as a result I spent a year just crying, which utterly wrecked my face, which took another year to unpuff.

What had my husband and I done together? I sometimes jotted things down, like a grocery list: I jump-started his car when he left the headlights on. He bit the backs of my knees, in a playful manner. We watched streaming television. We had dinners with my immigrant parents, and his normal ones. We took selfies on our phones from crazy angles and sent them to each other, and tried to outdo each other’s hideousness. Before getting married we’d talked circles around marriage—what it would be, what it meant to people, was it a thing we were going to do? Sometimes the talks ended in me turning away, so my mouth could contort into a ridiculous down-turned shape, and I could cry quietly. There was never a warning: the sadness would overcome me all of a sudden. When we would each respond to something simple, like “how was your day?” or “how was work?” I would listen and wait for the truer answer: how he felt and what he was scared of, some insight into what one of his brain regions said to another of his brain regions. It was exhausting, I bet, for him. It was exhausting for me too.

In the end, he was my husband for a day. Was I too demanding? I just wanted to know him. I thought that was the point: knowing people. But what did I know, I guess, really?

On a Tuesday I was busy destroying Heidi at racquetball, and I forgot to hide the slip of paper that said ADAM from the housekeeper, and when I got back, my sheets were freshly laundered and the slip of paper was gone. “Don’t cry,” I instructed myself, out loud, feeling myself about to. I called Heidi and we got drunk on artisanal gin and I didn’t cry even though I couldn’t believe myself, couldn’t believe what I had done. You stupid bitch, I repeated to myself that night, incredibly drunk. How could you? And Heidi repeated Buddhist-type platitudes, like, Cultivate mindfulness. She’d been a mom, and she’d had a heart attack at age fifty-six; she couldn’t remember, any longer, how many children she’d had, let alone any facts about them.

“Where are you from?” people sometimes asked me, admiring my face.

“California,” I would say.

“I mean, where are you from originally?” they would ask, and I would think, Come on. I would think, Is this really still happening, here?

I saw Richard from time to time at the grocery store. We would strike up light conversation. It turned out he wasn’t my prison guard, but just doing community service, volunteering with the new folks.

Somehow, things started to change. Without even trying, I met a guy. It was at the art studio, where I was drawing what I could remember of my husband’s face—which lately wasn’t much, just that he had one, with all the regular stuff on it—and this guy was making a mug. He was stretching some clay into a handle. “Who is that?” he asked and though my husband’s name was on the tip of my tongue, I didn’t have it. It eluded me. “I’m sorry,” he said, when he noticed how troubled I seemed not to know the answer.

“I’m Adam,” he said.

“Hi, Adam,” I said, liking the name, liking how it sounded when I said it. Adam asked did I want to have dinner sometime. “I don’t know . . .” I started to say. “I’m new here,” he said, very kindly. I almost said, “I’m new here too,” but in fact I’d been here for over fifty years.

We got burgers at the drive-in. We made small talk. He told me he’d died peacefully in his sleep. He was eighty-four. It was Christmas Eve. He’d been sick with pneumonia and his wife was asleep in the room; she’d been tending to him. He’d had a nice day with his daughters and son and their families. His was a pretty good one, he said, a little wistfully.

“Death?” I asked.

“I meant life,” he said. “But yeah, that, too.”

He asked some basic, new-to-death questions, like: Can I just eat whatever the hell I want without gaining weight? And: They do your laundry for you? (Answers: yes and yes.) He ordered a chocolate milkshake and chili-cheese fries, and wiped his greasy hands on his pants.

“Can you watch your family?” he asked. “Like, haunt them?”

And I said, “No, of course not.” A little insensitively, I realized, when he seemed deflated. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“It makes sense,” he said.

Adam was easy to talk with. He cracked a lot of jokes, some that made me groan and a few that made me laugh and laugh like I hadn’t laughed in years. He didn’t ask me where I was from originally, or try to get into my pants. I have a hard time feeling comfortable with new people in general, but somehow he put me at ease. Depressing that that kind of person comes around only once every half a century, but again, I try not to dwell.

“You remind me of someone,” he said. The word “remind” was practically foreign to me. I knew it meant something to some people, and I understood it in theory, but I couldn’t put my finger on ever having felt it.

“Could we do this again sometime?” he asked.

“Well,” I said. “I’m kind of busy these days.”

“I’m joking,” I added quickly, when he looked disappointed again. “It was a joke! You’ll get it soon,” I said.

“Tomorrow?” he said.

“Sure, tomorrow,” I said.

He turned to go, then paused.

“Where are you from again?” he asked.

I held back a sigh.

“California,” I said.

“But, like, where in California?” he asked.

“I don’t remember,” I said, honestly.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, it’s not important. See you tomorrow.”

The next night we were supposed to meet at the clock tower. In the plaza, twelve Chinese ladies who reminded me of my mother were doing synchronized exercises. They were all my age even though I’m sure they had been one hundred when they died. Every night is a full moon night, but the moon changes colors. Tonight it was the color of lavender. Under the lavender moon the ladies glowed purple, swinging their arms, singing along in Chinese, and Adam was circling them, looking for me, appearing nervous. “Hey!” I shouted at him. Right away, his face changed to a relieved one.

He had a paper bag containing two submarine sandwiches. They were cut in half, so we swapped halves and ate them on a bench by the river. “I miss my wife,” he said, softly. “I miss my kids.”

“It’s hard,” I said, though I couldn’t recall. Was it hard?

“It’s hard,” he agreed.

We got up to brush the crumbs off and started to stroll the river. He hadn’t finished his sandwich, so he clutched the paper bag as we walked. I wished I had something meaningful to tell him, in exchange for his vulnerability. Earlier I’d beat Heidi in racquetball. I threw a vase. My plan was to keep fresh flowers in the house more often, and the vase would hold them. I’d lifted my mattress and looked underneath, for some reason—I didn’t know why.

I wanted to ask him more about his wife and his kids, but we were discouraged from encouraging nostalgia in new residents. What else could we talk about that would make us better friends and bring us closer? I racked my brain as we ambled.

A dog came up to us—a beautiful golden dog that was thirty-three in dog years, like all the dogs were. It was without an owner, without a collar. It allowed Adam to stroke its golden head, so I reached out to touch it. It stepped back. It looked at me and started to snarl, and then bark. It was specifically barking at me. This was exasperating but familiar: this dog, unfortunately, was racist.

“There are racist dogs here?” Adam said, skeptical.

I shrugged—disappointed but resigned. “There are racist dogs everywhere.”

Adam reached into his paper bag and tore some meat from his sandwich. He gave the racist dog a little swatch of meat. The racist dog changed its tune. The racist dog was now begging us for more.

“Hey,” Adam handed me the sandwich bag, and I ripped off some meat too. I kneeled to give it to the dog.

“Here, asshole,” I whispered.

We fed the dog the rest of Adam’s sandwich, and started again on our way. The dancing women were no longer dancing, but chitchatting. The racist dog followed us. We would occasionally turn around to check if it was still there. It was.

“Maybe we should keep him,” Adam said.

“Keep that racist dog?”

“He’s reformed,” Adam said. “He could make it up to you.”

That had been my husband’s strength, I suddenly recalled. He was good at soothing you and at the same time you weren’t one hundred percent positive that he really got it.

I took Adam’s arm, then. It was a beautiful night, the purple reflecting off the trees, off the water, off the houses. I fell a little bit in love, and then a lot.

“You have beautiful ears,” he said, tucking my hair behind them, forgetting his wife already, his kids.

In the end we kept the dog. She turned out to be a she, and we named her Betsy and taught her how not to be racist, sexist, or bigoted in any way. Adam and I, we wound up being together for a hundred years, many of them great. We took Betsy for long walks, played doubles tennis, left our clothes at each other’s places, made conversation topics of our fears. We were tolerant; this was love. Though the breakup was amicable, I cried and cried anyway, and he sucked each individual tear off my face like a vacuum.

“I’ve never seen you cry,” I complained. “Not once in a hundred years.”

And Adam looked into the distance, appeared to focus really hard, and squeezed a single tear out of the corner of his eye.

“Get a spoon,” he said.

We slid the tear onto the spoon. Then he kissed me, gently, on the cheek, and was gone.

I used the spoon with the tear on it to stir sugar into my coffee, which is delicious here—it’s the fairest of trade. I took my time drinking the coffee. It was heavenly: smooth and lacking any bitterness. It tasted like flowers and dirt. When I was finished, I put the mug in the sink, and even though we had custodians, for some reason I washed the mug and the spoon. While I was at it, I washed my face. I put my running shoes on, and my earbuds in my ears. I touched my toes to stretch. I jogged out of my house to pop music. Outside, it was a sunny day.

Here’s what I know: Someone in my past mattered a lot to me. We had a beautiful irreplaceable relationship that was one in a million. Sometimes I’ll write him or her a letter. “My dear you,” I’ll start it.

 

 

Rachel Khong is a writer living in San Francisco. Her first novel, Goodbye Vitamin will be out in July from Henry Holt & Co.