LiLi’s head was in my lap. Her hair, falling away from her face, was spread over my thighs, leaving exposed her right ear. LiLi was self-conscious about the size of her ears, saying they were too small for her head.
Her head pressed against my legs, a warm, heavy globe whose heat radiated from below the center of my body, hotter than every-thing around it. I imagined the blood circulating just under her skin. The parts of her hair caught in the sunlight glimmered, a paler black than the rest, and were warm to the touch. I leaned down—my shirt fell to touch the back of her head—and peered into her ear canal. The skin inside was so pink and soft-looking, like a baby’s. The wax, I was sure, would also be soft and clean. “I’m going in,” I said, keeping my voice very neutral, “don’t move.” I took the wooden pick and angled it carefully. My fingers trembled slightly.
“Ah, it’s so hot today, I can’t stand touching another human body,” LiLi groaned. She squirmed and the weight of her shoulder lifted, the gap between her body and mine introducing a tiny interval of coolness.
Yes, she was right, it was hot, it was an afternoon at the end of summer. It was the time of day and the time of year for suspension, for longing—for a person, a song, a walk, a tree leaf, a fall of hair—the time of year for standing in front of electric fans while the cicadas whined, waiting for something to happen.
LiLi’s head in my lap was heavy, it was hot, I was so hot, I was burning. Her eyes were closed, the curves of her lids like the keel of a boat. The afternoon sun through the window was glaringly bright.
“Stay still,” I coaxed her. I looked deep into her ear canal and searched for the deepest pieces of wax.
I was born with small eyes. My aunt, when she saw me, exclaimed, “She looks like her mother!”—divining in my wrinkled newborn features my future square-jawed face, delicate ears, long eyebrows, and well-shaped neck. I weighed eight pounds; my mother had eaten four, sometimes five meals a day during her pregnancy. “The only shame,” my aunt continued, “is that she didn’t get her mother’s eyes,” for while my mother had brilliant, bright, wide double-lidded eyes, mine—alas!—were small and hooded, like my father’s, a thick strip of flesh and no visible crease at the top.
When I was thirteen, my mother took me to a photo studio where a makeup assistant cut out slivers of tape in the shape of fingernail clippings and pasted my eyelids up. While powdering my face, she asked my mother, “Ma’am, you have very big eyes. Have you considered getting your daughter’s eyelids done? If you do it while she’s young, people will think it’s more natural when she’s older. Some people get double eyelids naturally through puberty, you know.”
“Did you get yours done?” my mother asked. The makeup assistant had a soft, doll-like face, her hair piled in an updo, her big, round eyes framed by luxurious lashes.
“I was born with mine,” she said matter-of-factly. “But that girl over there did,” and she nodded at the makeup assistant at the next counter, who looked edgy and bold with thick wings of eyeliner swept right above her creases, making her eyes look long and elegantly tilted.
“She’s pretty,” my mother said.
When the photos were developed my mother came into my bedroom with the album in hand. Impossible images of me flicked by on thick matte pages, a skinny teenager with fake Sailor Moon–style buns engulfed in tulle dresses, wearing fluffy shorts and holding a large stuffed rabbit, or buttoned into traditional high-collared two-pieces that looked like they were from the Tang dynasty, hair in long artificial braids.
“Xiao Yun, look how pretty you look,” my mother said. “Everyone said you look like a model.” Her hand, with the red bracelet she always wore around her wrist, trailed along the lower corner of the book.
It wasn’t even the heavy makeup or Photoshop retouching that had made the biggest difference. It was my eyes, so bright and so wide. The makeup assistant had glued on false eyelashes that flew to the ceiling and dusted the inner corners of my eyes with white glit-ter. Though I was virtually unrecognizable to myself in those photos (my smile stiff, my skin artificially pale, my expression unnatural), I startled myself with the inviting roundness in my photographed gaze.
That night, after everyone else fell asleep, I slipped out of my room to page through the album again. I lingered over the photos, over the pretty girl with the bright cheeks, the smooth hair, the big eyes. Did having double eyelids make such a difference? In the photos, I had the expression of a kind person, of someone at peace with the world. What, I wondered, did that girl in the photographs see?
The chemistry teacher was a family friend who came to our mahjong nights every Friday. He had gotten his PhD in the UK and spoke good English; despite this, he had chosen to return to China. He always wore long, tailored pants made of a thick, expensive material, even in the summer. He was not old, but sometimes he used a polished wooden cane, which only made him seem more British. He had a clear forehead, thick hair, severe glasses, and a quick, intelligent voice. He was always reading foreign novels, he wore cologne, and when-ever he smiled, it was with his mouth closed, so it felt like he was hiding a secret, that he was laughing at something behind you that only he could see.
He and my uncle had once worked together at the paper factory where my uncle had been a foreman and the chemistry teacher was a laboratory researcher. After the factory closed down, the chemis-try teacher got his job teaching chemistry and my uncle didn’t get another job at all.
When I was young, before I entered high school, the chemistry teacher used to take me out for ice cream. Whenever we walked home through the park, he would lean down and whisper to me: See that woman, pinched around the nose because she is stingy with money. And that tall woman, long-necked and slender—she sleeps on her stomach, has bad dreams and insomnia. And that young boy scampering around the playground—has no stamina, he will certainly burn out by thirty.
As humbly as I could, I would ask the chemistry teacher how he knew these things. He would shrug. “I can just see it,” he said, “just by looking.” And I never quite managed to ask him what he saw when he looked at me.
When I was sixteen, in my second year of high school, I finally took his class. On days we were scheduled for chemistry I tried to look my best, brushing my hair, straightening my bangs, hoping the smell of my scented body soap would linger, putting on a little bit of the sheerest lip gloss and eye makeup that you could get away with—a bit of mascara, a little tape. I rolled up the hem of my uniform skirt and put a tiny pin inside my jersey to emphasize my waist.
I was one of the best students in his class. “If a strip of magnesium metal is added to a solution of silver nitrate”—he’d tap his chalk against the board—“what is the balanced equation for the reaction?”
Often, I would be the last one he called. “Xia Dengyun,” he’d say, and there was something in his voice when he said my name that made my spine straighten. Well, everyone, his tone implied, now that you’ve all tried and failed, here is Xia Dengyun to show you the way. And up I would go.
Mg + Ag+ —> Mg2+ + Ag
At school the chemistry teacher and I spoke formally, as though we did not know each other. We spoke of personal things only once. The spring I took his class, he called me to the teachers’ lounge. He looked through the papers on his desk. “Xiao Yun,” he said, calling me by my family’s nickname for me, “you’ll be taking the entrance exam next year.”
“Yes, Tang Laoshi.” I was never talkative in the best of circumstances, but around the chemistry teacher I grew even more tongue-tied and shy, always looking down at the ground, never knowing what to say. Now I looked at the ground again, at his pointed-toe oxford shoes. There had been a rumor going around in PE. An older girl told us that she had seen Tang Laoshi’s pants leg lift up once and there had been a gleam of metal, she said that in his shoe he had a metal foot. We were all awed into silence. It makes sense, LiLi had said. This is why he carries a cane. Another girl said softly, her voice filled with wonder and pity, I wonder what happened. He’s so handsome.
“You’re a diligent student.” His voice came down on me. “Have you thought about where you might want to go for university?”
“Nanjing University,” I said, only because it was the most well-known university in the area.
“That’s a very good choice. Though perhaps you could also study abroad. Your English scores are high. What do you think? That would be good for a young woman like you.”
“Really?” I asked politely. “I never thought about it.” And it was true, I hadn’t thought much about my life beyond the next day, the next week, thinking about the future was like looking through a telescope the wrong way—everything so small I couldn’t make anything out.
“Your parents told me they might be interested in sending you abroad.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“You’re a curious girl. Would you like to see more of the world?” His voice was commanding, and I looked up. I liked his straight eyebrows, and his forehead, so noble and clear.
“I don’t know, Tang Laoshi.” Though my classmates all seemed to have dreams and interests, to go abroad, own a coffee shop, start a fashion line, earn a large salary, I was not in such tune with my own desires, or even aware if they existed. I had lived in the same neighborhood in Nanjing all my life. I was comfortable living with my talkative mother, my old-fashioned grandmother, and my stoic and hardworking father. I knew which bookshops and convenience stores to go to for the latest magazines, which dessert shops gave the largest portions, which cosmetics stores had free samples, and I knew how to study. I read magazines, watched TV dramas with my mother, and on the weekends, talked on the phone with LiLi, my first friend after entering high school. And aside from all of that, when I had extra time, I memorized chemistry. What kind of life did I want after this life? Why should I want any other kind of life?
Though the education at my high school was mostly academic, I was, along with the other girls, also undergoing an alternate education—how to become a woman. We knew the best dieting tricks, how to eat noodles made from a root with zero calories, to drink a whole bottle of water and wait fifteen minutes when we were hungry, to avoid rice, to chew ginger root. We passed around magazine pullouts that showed stretches you could do at night to slim and lengthen the line of your legs and exercises to improve your posture. We knew how to measure the distance between the corners of our mouth to our nose to find the best side of our face to take pictures of. But for girls like me, that is, girls with monolids, the trickiest thing to learn was how to make our eyes look bigger.
I was an expert in all types of eyelid adhesives, each with its own pros and cons: single-sided, double-sided, transparent, nude-colored, eyelid glue, tape string, fiber mesh, to which you applied the glue your-self, from a bottle like that of nail polish. There were different sizes and different shapes, long and narrow, short and wide. There was eyelid tape printed black on the front side so you could get your eyeliner and double eyelid in one go. There were tips for how to cut the tape, where to place it, high or low, near the inner corner of your eye or at the out-side. There were tutorials on how to shape your eyes like Jolin Tsai’s, Scarlett Johansson’s, Maggie Cheung’s. I had my preferences and go-to brands, and each morning I could put on my eyelid tape, using the double-sided type, which I cut myself, in three seconds flat.
Finally, the summer after my year of chemistry, the summer before my last year of high school, I went under the knife. My mother saw my grades were good and convinced my father for me, as a reward. She asked around to find the best surgeon who would give the most natural results. We went to Shanghai for the most modern doctors, and found one who had studied in Seoul.
At the consultation, the surgeon, who was not pretty, showed me different possible styles. “How about Fan Bingbing?” she asked. “Do you want a shape like hers? Or Kim Soyeon? You could get a Korean style.” She cradled my face gently in her hands, touching my eyelids lightly with her gloved fingers. Ptosis, yes. Fat deposits, yes. She recommended placing the incisions low rather than high.
I told no one I was going for a consultation, not even LiLi. LiLi had bright, smooth skin, an athlete’s tan, beautiful eyelids, and a gummy smile as bright as the slice of a white peach. Half the boys in our grade were in love with her. The bleached collar of her uniform shirt seemed to shine more than everyone else’s. Our friendship usually consisted of her calling me on the weekends to go out for desserts and gossip about celebrity crushes and new boy idols. Meanwhile, every Friday I waited for the smell of the chemistry teacher’s cigarettes to enter our apartment.
When my mother had paid the deposit with the doctor, we set a date for the appointment. Then we took the train back to Nanjing. When we got home it was Friday, a mahjong night. The chemistry teacher was in our living room, playing checkers with my uncle and smoking his sweet-smelling cigarettes. He knew all about my consultation.
I asked the chemistry teacher: “You’ll keep it a secret at school?” My aunt clicked her tongue and came over to pat my cheek. “You worry too much, everyone will think it’s puberty.”
I repeated to the chemistry teacher: “You won’t tell anyone?”
“When school starts,” he replied, “it’ll be like we’re meeting for the first time.” He smiled with his mouth closed.
But when I got to my room, I found a fistful of white flowers sprawling from a dark green pot on my desk. The pale petals were long and ruffled, gathered in careless cascades. They looked like a flock of birds about to take flight.
“What are these?” I asked my grandmother.
Irises. The chemistry teacher had brought them for me. My grandmother sounded mildly puzzled; no one we knew ever bought flowers as gifts. But the chemistry teacher was full of strange customs. I was tired from the train ride and lay down in the dark of my room, trying to nap, but I found it hard to fall asleep. I kept my eyes closed, and heard sounds from outside, muffled by my pillow. The front door opened when my father came home and, sometime later, there was the clatter of the mahjong tiles, my uncle’s guttural laugh. When my mother came in to check on me, the faint smell of cigarette smoke floated through the crack in my door. I could distinguish two types of cigarettes: one, the typical sour odor from the Baishas my uncle smoked; weaker than that was the faintly cooler, minty-sweet smell of the chemistry teacher’s cigarettes. I didn’t know which brand they were, but I had never smelled them anywhere else.
Whenever I cracked open my eyes I’d see the irises, waxy and astonishing against the shrouded window. The green glass of the vase glinted. I wondered how my life would change now that I was going to be beautiful.
For two weeks after my surgery I stayed at home. LiLi called me to say a boy she was dating wanted to introduce me to a friend, but I told her I had allergies, I was sick. With the oppressive summer heat, my parents turned our air conditioner on full blast, while the humidity outside turned all the trees a brilliant yellow-green.
Even after my stitches were taken out, the healing incisions looked red and raw. In the mirror my face was bruised and swollen, my eyes inflamed and weeping—a nightmare face, the face of a demon. My grandmother brought me congee with pickled vegetables and soup with carrots and goji berries. I watered the chemistry teacher’s irises and kept them turned to the window in the kitchen, the sunniest part of our apartment. Each day, I looked at myself in all the reflective sur-faces I could: the iron of the water kettle, dark windows before dawn, the distorted metal of the showerhead.
Fifteen days after the surgery, my mother declared me recovered. “They look so natural,” she said admiringly, brushing my bangs back in front of the mirror. “Look, your eyes look so much brighter and more awake.”
“We should go to a photographer,” my grandmother said, “and order some professional shots.”
We decided to go to a restaurant, and invited my aunt and uncle and the chemistry teacher as well. For the first time in two weeks I put on nice clothes, a short dress with a tiny floral print and white sandals with a heel. I went through my makeup bag and threw away all the substitutes: the eyelid tape, the eyelid glue, the fiber mesh, the adhesive string. I drew dark lines across my new creases and stepped back to judge the effect. I added mascara and pink lip gloss, and patted shimmer powder onto my cheekbones and the inner corners of my eyes.
Under the fluorescent lights at the restaurant, everyone else looked tired. My grandmother’s pink blush was too strong, and her lips were brittle and thin. My father wiped his hair away from his face, showing the shining forehead, the receding hairline. I lifted the tablecloth to peek underneath. The chemistry teacher’s feet were directly across from mine. His shoes were polished, shining and clean, and I could see his socks, a rich navy color with brown stripes, probably expensive. He always had been a well-dressed man. I looked back up. The chemistry teacher licked his dry lips and got up to go to the bathroom, picking up the cane leaning against his chair.
When he turned away, I saw the thing on the back of his neck: an enormous white-coated pink tongue. I knocked over my soup bowl with a clang. Heads swiveled around to us.
As I fumbled with the napkins, my mother took over, blotting the tablecloth with her napkin. I blinked again and again.
“Xiao Yun, do your eyes still hurt?” she asked me.
“They’re fine,” I said breathlessly.
When the chemistry teacher sat down again, I excused myself to the bathroom. On the way back to the table, I deliberately walked behind him. I hadn’t been wrong. The tongue was really there on the back of his neck. It looked almost like a tattoo. It was big, bigger than a normal tongue, and underneath his hairline I could see the mouth it came from, a red stamped line. It looked greedy, I could imagine it licking me up, from toe to scalp, taking a little more of me with each lick until I was gone.
But even as I looked, I could tell there was something extradi-mensional about it, something that indicated it was not really part The Girl with the Double Eyelids
of his skin. I blinked again and again. I knew the chemistry teacher would not have gotten such an ugly tattoo.
And it was ugly—it looked like a sick tongue.
During dinner, everyone laughed and ate as usual. From the front, the chemistry teacher looked clean, handsome, and kind. He spun the lazy Susan, leaned over to place morsels of fish on my mother’s and aunt’s plates. No one else seemed to notice anything wrong with his neck.
When we got back to our apartment I watered the irises. The dark window reflection showed the top of my head, the overhead lamp, the steel cabinet handles. I looked down from the window and back at the counter. Along the stems of the irises a hundred eyes blinked open.
I dropped the watering pot and covered my eyes. Spilled water dribbled over the floor, wetting my socks.
Then I removed my hand and looked again. The eyes on the flower stems blinked occasionally, some of them looking at me, others looking away. There were so many tiny eyes, it should have been disgusting, but my body didn’t react with fear, I didn’t tremble or feel nausea.
I closed my eyes and gingerly reached out to touch the flowers. I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. The smoothness of the stem, the velvety texture of the petal, they all felt the same as any unremarkable fresh flower. My thumb and index finger found one petal, and I crushed it between them.
When I opened my eyes, there was a soft white smear on my fingertips. But the eyes on the stems of the living flowers still blinked slowly, unchanged, some looking at me and some not looking at me. They had the same tattoo-like quality as the tongue on the chemistry teacher’s neck.
I threw the crumpled petal away, went into the bathroom, and washed the makeup off. What was happening? What was going on? My face floated up before me—bright-eyed and pretty, prettier than before. My eyes were definitely bigger, and I knew instinctively that I, too, was now someone who could see things without being told.
From Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go by Cleo Qian. Published with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2023 by Cleo Qian.