On the Way to the Temple of Ten Thousand Skulls
In Vietnam, my aunt leans over and says, “Take notice of our oxen. They are strong and well fed.” And then we cross the border into Cambodia and my aunt says, “Now look at the Cambodian oxen. They are malnourished and poor. That’s how we were before and now we are rich.” She lifts her hands in thanks towards the cloudless Cambodian sky.
On the Genesis of Opportunity
Before there is Metanoia, there is Kairos. He is always before her, in front of her, leading. He is guiding. He is protecting. He never lets her go ahead of him, and it’s for her own good. Nascent chivalry and unintentional hard-ons.
Kairos, the god of opportunity, rolls around on his golden ball. Strong wings ripple at his ankles. He is swift. He has a tuft of curls right on the apex of his temple; otherwise, he is fully bald. The lesson being: if opportunity passes by you, you have to grab him by the hair and quickly, before he—and he is gone. Opportunity has passed you by, and who knows if you even noticed.
But luckily, right behind Kairos lurks the shadowy Metanoia, goddess of missed opportunity. She doesn’t have a golden ball or spectacular wings. She doesn’t even get a horse. No, her fate is to hobble along after Kairos, and to those she deems most worthy, she raises a cloaked hand to reveal a mirror. If you miss Kairos, Metanoia can show you a reflection of yourself, one that might incite change, transformation, a metamorphosis so drastic and necessary that you might surpass the potential of the opportunity Kairos has previously offered. And when Kairos passes you again, later, you will grab his curly tufts and you will pull. You will not watch him roll away.
When Harold and I break up, I set reminders on my phone for every thirty minutes to instruct me not to call him. My index finger hovers over that green icon, like breath waiting to intersect with skin.
It is snowing and the Little Match Girl stands outside. She strikes a wooden match and lets the fire prick at her fingers.
She looks through a window of a house and inside there is a family laughing and being together.
Her nails are very dirty. She would never go in, even if they invited her.
She drops a hot match, and it makes a single black dot against all that fluorescent snow.
My sister was dying, and I needed any asshole at all to buy me dinner. For those few hours, I could be anyone: I imagined telling him I’m a primate anthropologist or a nurse. And my sister could not be dying. I didn’t meet Harold that night, but a week later, he texted me, “So you don’t drink?”
“No. I’m allergic,” I texted back.
I was sitting in the ICU. My sister was hooked up to all sorts of machines. Once, I took a picture for my father, who was too weak to visit, but she looked so scary—so un-beautiful—that I couldn’t show him. I was folding paper into books, gluing cloth to dense boards: I was sewing. Outside, a storm was only threatening.
“So, want to watch me drink a beer?”
My sister died later that night. Harold invited me over and I spent the next month in a chaste bed with him, making adventures and playing board games. Nearly three years and many heartbreaks later, he still charms me.
Opportunity rolled past me on his golden ball and I yanked that tuft of hair so hard: when I fall asleep on Harold’s chest, he strokes my hair, which is still wet our shower. He doesn’t want his sheets smelling like smoke.
Three years later, out of revenge and injury and desire, I meet a man from fifteen years ago, and I know, immediately, that he is my Metanoia, but I cannot look in that mirror. I cannot see who I have become.
When I was married to Chris and we argued, he would call me a selfish bitch.
I worry that I am.
Harold is shopping for groceries and I am sitting in my sunroom critiquing student stories. He calls me and says, “Have you had sex with anyone?”
“So you have.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you have, I know you have.”
Later that night, I text and ask if he’s going to break up with me now.
He texts back, “I could feel it. Like I knew exactly when it happened.”
He tells me he’s never felt anything like that before. He almost threw up. His stomach plummeted down somewhere. He couldn’t breathe. This, he tells me, is exactly how I feel, too, about him—except all the time. I name this anxiety, I name it love.
After he’s been picked up at the Circle K across the street, Justin calls me collect. He says, “I’m sorry, Lily, but I got kidney stones again and they hurt so bad—I didn’t know what else to do, well, shit, you’re gonna see it anyway. I shot up, OK? I’m man enough to admit that I was weak just that once, but I had to. You don’t understand. It just hurt so bad.”
It’s not like I didn’t know: his erratic behavior, disappearing into his room for a week at a time, those evil eyes. He had me convinced that he hid in his room whenever he ran out of Xanax because his anxiety was so severe. I believed him because I needed to, because I couldn’t handle my own life. I couldn’t shoulder his life, too.
“So don’t freak out when you see the needles, OK?”
Justin will be extradited back to Texas for violating his probation by living with me. Well, technically, for fleeing the State of Texas. And his piss test will be dirty. He’s already been through Rehab for Felons. He’s been in a halfway house. I’m scared and angry—at everybody. Not wanting to chase ghosts, I pay a friend to clean out Justin’s room. He finds a lot of needles. “Yeah,” my friend says, “there’s no way he just started shooting up while you were out of town.”
I need to balance disappointment with boundaries: he has no one else and I can’t let him back in my house.
Halfway to her grandmother’s house, the girl looks left to the path of sharp pins with primary color baubles. Then she looks right to the path of needles with its many squinting eyes. She rejects feminine domesticity entirely, turns right around in her little red ballet flats and goes back to work.
-from A Bestiary, Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2016)
LILY HOANG is the author of five books of prose, including Changing (recipient of a PEN Open Books Award) and A Bestiary (winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's Non-Fiction Book Prize). With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What's Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. In Summer 2017, she was Mellon Scholar in Residence at Rhodes University in South Africa. She is Editor of Jaded Ibis Press and Executive Editor of HTML Giant.