Tomatoes and Mangoes, Monica Wang
This story was originally published as an ebook and in an anthology by the now-defunct Torquere Press.
“So, who here isn't a child of divorce?”
No one responded but Becca, who looked around the table before raising her hand.
“Not one of us! Not one of us!” said Kei. She had gotten up to pour herself tea before the conversation in the living room devolved into a tally of emotionally damaged children. Now she leaned across Cory's kitchen counter, pushing off one arm for reach, and poked Becca in the back.
The warm flesh beneath soft sweater wool resisted Kei's cold fingertips. She drew back in surprise, without allowing her hand to slide or linger.
“You'll have to do something about that, you know,” Kei said. “I mean your parents' being happily married.”
Becca turned around and smiled at her.
They sat next to each other tonight as they had on most game nights since late autumn, although everything from game selection to starting time—Cory, the host, didn't always show up first—shifted each week. Kei was the only one of the seven who hadn't attended high school with Cory. They had met through graphic design, and two months of game nights passed before Kei spoke to someone other than him directly. She tried to be polite to everyone, though, and felt she'd shown great restraint in having played no more than two pranks on Becca.
In an early session of tabletop role-playing she had guided Becca's healer character into the mouth of a boss-level creature and looted the area alone. Becca had had to fill out a new character sheet and re-roll stats for fifteen minutes while the others continued playing. Then, when they put together an order for Chinese delivery two weeks ago, Becca said she couldn't handle spicy foods.
“You should try the dip in the fridge,” Kei said, as they covered the game with flyers in lieu of a tableclolth. “It'd be great on your spring rolls. Cory made it.”
Becca had arrived last and missed Cory's offer and description of the dip, which contained three types of hot peppers from the quayside market that also carried Himalayan salt deodorant and kombucha starter kits. She peered under the lid of the repurposed margarine tub.
“The red comes from sun-dried tomatoes,” said Kei.
“I love sun-dried tomatoes.” Becca bit down on a crimson-peaked tortilla chip.
After her torment ended, she smiled at Kei with glossy, pink-tinged eyes. Becca's smiles drew her chin upward, further rounding out her round face. Like the moon, Kei thought. If she were to draw a moon goddess for whatever reason and could draw more than stick figures, she knew it would resemble Becca.
Kei lifted the teapot to hide her face. “Anyone else want more tea?”
Two people did. Becca set their mugs on the counter behind her.
“Wait, are you expecting me to pour it because I'm Asian?” asked Kei.
“What? No, not at all.” Becca froze.
“It's OK. This sort of thing always happens.” Kei lowered her head. “It's systematic. Tea being Asian, Asian women being meek, Orientalism and all that. Most people don't know that asking Asians to serve tea is an ancient put-down.”
Becca got up and moved around the counter. “I'm so sorry, I had no idea. I haven't really learnt about this—it's not an excuse, it's more that I don't think of you as Asian. Not to say I'm colourblind—” She saw her friends' expressions and stopped.
Cory assured Becca that she hadn't said anything terrible, at least in regards to tea.
“The tea thing isn't a thing.” Kei gave Becca a pat on the arm.
“Thank god,” Becca said, touching the side of her head to Kei's. Then, in a lower voice, “I thought I'd hurt your feelings.”
Kei giggled exactly as she meant not to. Faced with the need to say something clever, the feeling of Becca's warmth against her hair, and the imagery of the shorter, lighter strands overlaid against her own, she gave up multitasking and simply hoped her hair didn't stink of bus commute. The back of her neck tingled as a half-thought formed. If I turned slightly toward her face...
Becca moved away and smiled at her. Kei poured the tea without seeing, and they carried the mugs back.
Everyone in the group had exasperated Cory with their poor in-game decisions—breaking out of jail, killing the jailers, and then breaking back into jail, for one—and on this night he scrapped his story, their world, without warning. His new tabletop RPG campaign sent them to a moon station, where only bad things befell them.
For half an hour Kei's character sat trapped in a broom closet.
“Kei, give me your number,” said Cory. “I need to text you about your character's secret supporters.”
“Hey, why does she get extra help?” said someone across the table. “Both the Earth army and moon security guards are shooting at me. And I don't have Kei's number, either.”
“Does everyone have everyone else's contact information?” “No.” “No.” “Let's do it then.”
Kei recited her digits in relief. Asking for phone numbers felt personal; she didn't dare to herself. She'd brought up social media and found that none of the others used them anymore. She would have read food photo captions and pseudo-scientific clickbait if Becca posted them—not that she thought so little of her. To console herself, Kei had dug through Cory's old Facebook albums for sightings of Becca. Becca in different settings, at different ages, smiling at her friends or at the camera...
“Kei, I've been meaning to ask. Is your name short for anything?” Becca tapped numbers into her phone.
“It's Kevlar.” Kei avoided eye contact. “My parents were first-generation immigrants. They heard the word and thought it sounded nice, but I didn't want to be Kev.”
“That's such a cute story.” Becca reddened. “Your parents sound sweet. And your name is...unique—"
Laughter interrupted her. Although she told one friend to “shut it” and threw an eraser at another, Becca gave Kei a glowing smile.
Beyond the first message to confirm numbers, Kei received nothing from Becca. Weeks passed. Fearing that Becca merely tolerated her in the group setting, Kei texted her during a board game. Less daunting than waiting for a reply at home.
I'm going to focus on collecting all the wheat. It will help us both if you accept this trade.
Becca pulled out her phone and read in silence. The couch shifted beneath them as she leaned in for the trade, sliding Kei toward her. The gap between them closed; their cards touched, their thighs touched. Kei shivered. She hated how she reacted to these miniscule things. At least the group knew she was always cold.
After the uneven trade, Kei acquired Becca's resources and soundly defeated Cory. The others didn't play competitively enough to count. Kei gloated, all the while wondering if Becca was too polite to move her legs away.
“Good game. You have strategy.” Becca beamed.
“Thank you.” Left without the distraction of gameplay, Kei grew too aware of the gentle warmth that flowed from the other woman and pooled in herself as a tension both pleasant and uncomfortable. She hadn't felt like this since her early teens. She hadn't felt like this about a non-fictional person ever.
Never mind that he introduced them and brought them together week after week, when Cory stepped onto the couch and between them to grab something from a shelf, Kei wanted to beat him. Like with his own hardcover game guide. Fuck Cory.
Still, the wheat incident gave her the confidence to message Becca a few times a week, or fewer when she felt like a bother.
One night a low-magnitude earthquake shook their city. Seconds after it stopped, Kei's phone shook on its own.
Did you feel the earthquake just now?! Scary!!!
Nope, Kei wrote back, squatting by her coffee table. She considered pulling out the junk pile underneath to Duck and Cover, in case of aftershock, but the cheap table seemed more likely to kill her than any glass from the single bulb above. Then she tossed earthquake safety aside. Are you OK? Feeling like there's an earthquake is a symptom of the flu that's going around.
One of Becca's many qualities was that she stayed attentive during conversations. A search online would have quickly deflated Kei's lie. Instead the two discussed Becca's health condition until they realised that they had to work the next day, and Kei went to bed a happy quack.
Becca's next major message came in late March. Cory's birthday is next week. I'm thinking of bringing cake next games night! What do you think?
Kei's hands shook as she typed. Sounds good. Need help baking?
I'll probably buy it actually. Don't have time to bake! Want to help me pick one out? : )
OK, even though it's my birthday, too. : (
Kei waited several messages before admitting that was a lie. The planned outing cheered her. That it stemmed from Cory did the opposite. She lay awake in the night, mentally sifting through her closet and storing up witty or at least misleading things to say.
Kei ran through the mall more than half an hour after their agreed time. She spotted Becca through the crowd at the end of one corridor. Wrapped in a slate-coloured shawl, Becca seemed to shine softly in the light of the nearby storefronts. In this grand, garish hall full of noise and movement, she looked more like a moon goddess than ever. Kei wanted to pour forth her devotion, her possessions, her soul.
Instead she said, “It looks very warm.” She gestured at the shawl.
I am the dullest person in the world. If only she could tell Becca how well the thick, soft fabric curved around her. If only she didn't risk scaring her off.
“It is! I had lunch with my parents earlier, and the place was toasty. I should've taken it off then.”
“You should take it off anyway. Didn't you see the news about the recall? It's horrible what happened to all those people with their shawls.”
As Kei made up a series of tragic accidents related to shawls, they visited the French fusion bakery, the hipster cupcake place, and the overpriced macaron shop. Becca couldn't decide on a cake, partly because she insisted on Kei's input. Kei was counting the number of times her arm bumped against Becca's.
“Looks like we won't be able to get it today,” said Becca. “Sorry for dragging you out for nothing.”
Startled into focus, Kei suggested her favourite Taiwanese bakery. “I don't know if you've tried Asian-style cheesecake. It's not as heavy or sweet. It might not be Cory's taste—”
“Let's go!” Becca reached out and squeezed Kei's hand.
They chose a fluffy spongecake topped with fruit and plastic baubles for Cory, then studied the display case for themselves.
“What would you recommend?”
“Apple custard cake is good,” said Kei. “Taro's heavy, but maybe more interesting. I'll go with the mango.” She jabbed the glass. “You should try that one.”
“Durian? What's it like?”
Kei's mother had brought home the spiky fruit once. Within minutes its odour had seeped out of the freezer. Kei's mother took it back out, ate the entire durian in one sitting, and brought the husk out to the backyard trashcan.
“Ice cream. It's like ice cream.” Not a lie—plenty of people described durian as ice cream-like. People who lacked smell and taste perception.
Becca smiled at Kei. A clerk moved up to them and said something in a cheery voice to Kei, who shook her head and made her request in English. The clerk left to grab a cakebox.
“Was that Mandarin?” Becca whispered.
“Becca! That wasn't Mandarin. That was Korean.” Kei didn't understand either language, but could tell the clerk indeed spoke Mandarin.
As Becca apologised for her correct assumption, Kei felt a now-familiar pang. If Becca didn't reward her with smiles, she wouldn't have become a fool tumbling toward an inevitable loss of favour.
They found a free bench in a corner surrounded by stores that overspecialised—in baseball caps, discount candles, and calendars, among other things. Becca threw back her shawl and picked up her piece of durian cake. Kei pressed on her cheesecake wedge, smudging its clean edges under the cellophane, without the desire to unwrap it. The failing stores depressed her; they reminded her of herself.
“You know what I've been thinking?” Becca said to the yellow block in her hand.
“What?” Kei thought Becca had picked up the scent of the airline-blacklisted King of Fruits through the wrapper.
“I was thinking how great it'd be if, how do I put this—”
“What is it?”
“Sometimes I wish you were a man.”
Kei tried to make eye contact, but stopped on Becca's chin. A cold, dead weight formed in her chest. “Why's that?” Would I have a chance against Cory if I were?
What felt like half an hour passed. Becca put down her wrapped cake. “Give me your cheesecake, and I'll tell you.”
Kei handed over the dented object. She'd never be hungry again.
“If you were a man,” Becca said, slowly. “I mean, you'd obviously be a pretty emotionally stunted guy. Then I could tell myself all this teasing is because you like me back.” She took a large bite.
Before she could swallow, Kei's lips met hers.
In seconds their lips reached the same temperature. The world smelt and tasted of mangoes. Becca's hand brushed against Kei's hair, and the latter's face tingled as if this miniscule friction set off a burst of sparks. There had to be sparks, because why else would she be burning?
“I don't want you to be a man, just to be clear,” said Becca, when they pulled away from each other. “You're perfect the way you are. Think of it as payback and an early April Fool's present.”
“It's OK. I only wish you didn't have garlic and durian right beforehand,” Kei said, tasting a trace of fruit, and something sweeter.
Becca smiled. Then the moon goddess jabbed Kei in the arm.
Monica Wang's fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in Electric Literature's Okey-Panky, The Temz Review, and Gaze Journal. She spent childhood in Taichung, Taiwan, and Vancouver, Canada, and now writes in Germany.