Lily Hoang

On My Birthday, Dragons, & Intestines

Today, I am thirty-three, the year of Christ.

My parents are devout Catholics. Before my sister is dead, she is a perfect failure of a daughter. To God, they ask: why?

My dead sister’s son puts heroin through his body. He calls it: dragon.

Because he does not remember it is my birthday, my lover says today is sarcasm day—when all of Facebook does.

My hypochondriac mother on odysseys to explain sadness, because it must be something physical. Until—her insides push outward: uncontrolled liquefied shit: while driving, in stores, not quick enough to the toilet: its stain and stink. Its embarrassment.

Cancer does not explain my mother’s sadness, but they prescribe her SSRIs all the same.

They prescribe her medicinal marijuana pills to bring appetite back, to disrupt pain. When I tell her what they are, she throws them in the trash. Drugs, she says. She says, No, both words in English, to show how bad drugs are, medical or not.

I write a story in which I list out my parents’ prescriptions—the battle of journals to publish my Asian American plight.

I disgust.

I write an essay in which I list out my prescriptions. It feels too honest, but I publish it anyways.

I am not worth a nickel of shame.

My dead sister’s son, I can’t imagine how the cessation of dragons feels, his fall.

From one map come others, centuries ago: Here there be dragons, at the edges of our flat world, but there were never any dragons.

The amount of medical marijuana I smoke daily. For me—psychiatrically—it is prescribed: legit.

Many months ago, a friend gives me a bottle of oxy. I crush them up and snort.

Many days after that, I am reading at a conference in Denver and I am rationing my lines and I remove my intestines into the toilet of my hotel room, I gather all my shakes and fevers and sweat it on out. I am a ghost. Imagine the dragons.

Is it bad that I continue to check social media, counting the well wishes for a birthday that portends death and resurrection?

My mother on the edge of the world, hardly surviving.

I remember—the shadowing of her skin, how warmth to her feels like ice—the perpetual motion machine of excuses for my absence.

I cannot handle my mother’s sickness. It is not fear of contamination. It is simple fear.

My simple fear: death—hers, but that doesn’t happen yet, instead I have a dead sister and we are all guilty.

Bhanu, writing me a letter that will one day add up to become a book, about the rape of a woman in India, her intestines mashed up with a metal pipe.

My father smokes a pipe. Daily, my mother warns him of cancer, using herself as proof.

Yesterday, an explosion. My lover texts me: an explosion. I take pictures as proof, as memory, the building was vacant, intestine intact.

Later, he says: All the other guys’ girlfriends took way better pictures. I say: I’m not your girlfriend.

I don’t say this. I’m lying. But I wish I’d spoken up, for proof that we no longer are, or maybe his mind is changed, but it isn’t—I know.

The day my sister dies, I am on a first date with the man who will become my boyfriend who will later become my lover. There is weight to this, significance, I just don’t know what anymore now that we are only lovers.

It’s too cold for me to be writing outside, but I like the view or I can only smoke outside.

The number of times my ex-husband calls me a liar: exponential.

The geography of my house in Carmen’s Milk & Filth, we are the intestines of my house.

A doctor draws me a picture of my sister’s heart, he shades a valve, explains how that is vegetation, that there is no blame, genetics, maybe.

My brother was supposed to be a doctor. He was getting a MD/PhD in neuropharmacology. And then he quit. And then he trimmed. And now he marathons. And now he queers it on up.

How many versions of this essay will I save? Control shift S.

I am supposed to be a doctor. This is the immigrant parents’ dream and I am its failure.

If not a doctor, my mother suggests: diplomat, dentist, pharmacist, doctor—it’s not too late, for me, even.

Being a professor is not nearly enough.

Being a writer is an indulgence, yes. Smoking and birth control mean an increased chance of blood clots.

On Game of Thrones, I say: Once a dragon appears, it’s game over.

My nephew tells me how much weight he’s gained now that the hero has slain the dragon.

My lover burns below my skin, or, I make my own sadness appear again.

My lover and I remove the shells from crawfish and eat their innards. In less than a week, we have put a dozen of their pounds into our mouths and swallowed.

Half my life I refused my body of meat.

My own dragons of escape.

To my parents, my sister is pure because they have forgotten how she blew damage into our bodies like fire.

To my mother, borderline means Forest Gump. That is not the same borderline as my sister.

I am afraid because my dead sister and I are too similar and I am not safe enough.

I chose Notre Dame to appease my Catholic parents.

What if all these medications don’t work? I odyssey for Princes Charming to save me,
diasporated anywhere but here, where I am. Hashtag longdistance.

Patronymic: alone: second generation diaspora.

To potential suitors, I explain: I have a fetish for long distance relationships.

In the middle of this all: I am damaged.

My sister asking me to mail her coke, her specific instructions, my delivery tax. This is all before she died.

One day, when I am younger, someone tells me that if I touch an animal on hallucinogens I will transfer my high and my apparitions onto them. Unintentionally, I pet my sister’s dogs. I am on LSD and they go missing for twelve hours. When they return, they are changed, and I become a believer in nonsense.

My irrationality is funny.

Like the time my ex-husband back when he is my husband throws my phone at my face because I lied to him about receiving a text from Carmen, because I had said she texted me first when I texted her first and our marriage counselor asks if I deserved it, and I end up agreeing with Karl that it was all my fault, especially the sweltering bruise blasting around my right eye.

My ex-husband is an anarchist and now I pay him alimony. Hashtag irony.

Carmen insists I write a book called Anarchist Alimony.

His abuse was only physical once. The rest is clogged in my body, actual hate.

I have never hated anyone before, and now I know an entirely new emotion.

I pay alimony because I told him I would. I said: Go. I said: I’ll pay you to not be here anymore.

Another lie: but he was on a plane twelve hours later all the same.

I am a liar, but I maintain the honor of my words.

My bank’s overdraft fees rush me until I am tackled.

My lover does not have a trashman. He has a trash valet.

The cultural capital of being a professor, it is a not for profit labor.

My mother’s colon is the problem. A decade of remission and it is still in the present tense.

Bhanu and I, writing on the colon, the body, desire, shame: post-colonial everything.

Selah, periodically saying, My dead mother, the way I say, My dead sister.

Carmen and I write a book together. It is not about our dead sisters, but now that they are dead, what isn’t about them anymore?

Even my dead sister’s cells are lies.

Her inheritance to me.

My mother wears the clothes my sister gave her: iconic legacy.

My parents spell my dead sister’s name Mary, for iconic purity.

She changes it to Mari, to be less common.

Besides heart vegetation, my sister’s brain aneurizes, leaking blood. A catch-22, the doctor says. I ask if he likes Joseph Heller.

Like my dead sister, I am a complete liar. My response to the doctor, for instance.

To Jeremy I type: I am perhaps a better judge of aesthetics than character. Because I am vain, I type to him. And he agrees.

To Jereme I type: Mail me drugs. Because heredity is sorority.

I would rather be less high more often than more high right now. Hashtag rationing. Hashtag rationalizing.

The catheter they seamed into my mother’s chest, better to chemo you with, my darling.

How many other lies have already been deleted?

The catheter my sister keeps pulling out: comatose brain, thrashing body.

How much of this is honest?: but it is all vulnerable.

My dead sister disembowels her sons’ life insurance, their inheritance, while she is still living, for the sake of addiction and name brand purses, drug cocktail dresses.

Like both my brother and my dead sister, I too have a fetish for Louis Vuitton.

I journey ten miles by foot as avoidance, at midnight.

Bhanu asks: Have you ever been edited for your over-enthusiastic use of the comma? I say: Look at my liberal use of every punctuation mark!

I don’t actually say this. I don’t type it. I just lied to you. Again.

The delicacy of intestines.

My dead sister and I, the drugs we shared!

My lover and I, the drugs we share!

In workshop, I would delete every exclamation mark.

I give this essay to Carmen to edit and she is a magician, making lines into lyrical arcs.

My friend David warns me of the relapse that mourning brings.

Another lie: there is no relapsing back into what never ceases.

My lies slime out with authorial reliability.

To myself and others, I say I am allowed a year of mourning, a year of hiding in pills and anything else to modify my dead sister’s demonic genetics. And then I say: two years, two years to grieve excuses.

Today is national sarcasm day, did you know that?, my lover asks me.

My friend Jeff says: Sarcasm is the weakest form of irony.

My friend Jackie does not understand sarcasm.

I do not understand irony.

Yes, I do: this is another lie.

Counting the birthday posts as they rupture the blackness of my telephone screen. The blare of color, the explosion. Hashtag blowing up.

For Christmas, I give my parents an ugly puppy that I cannot train to shit outside. It remains untrained and it is my father’s favorite. Hashtag victory.

Her name is Penny and she is half Pug half Chihuahua, which is technically called a Chug, but I think Pughuahua has so much more charm.

My sister and I buy my father’s approval in the currency of Chihuahuas, back when she is not yet my dead sister.

The chasm in my father’s mouth where a tooth should be. He goes to Vietnam: extraction.

The guilt of our Catholicism, we are martyrs.

The guilt of our Otherness, my father tells me I must be smarter and work harder than white people, if not they will never respect me. Respect, my father says in Vietnamese—because it is important for me to remember.

The guilt of our difference.

I write this against the landscape of a graveyard. My lover’s luxury apartment with a luxury view of a graveyard.

My lover and I look at the gated remains of Howard Hughes in the graveyard adjacent to his graveyard.

That my dead sister has been dead for more than a year and still she lacks a grave stone.

In my lover’s graveyard, a simple X in stone.

Our ecstasy.

My friend Sabrina with her perfect beauty calls me from set and we expectorate gossip. She wishes me a happy birthday. Hashtag almostIRL.

We no longer take our coffee black, but our little secrets in the language of smiles and doe eyes.

My curves against her invisible lines.

That I have never asked any mirror about beauty, my sister having wasted it all before me.

Even now that she is dead: what remains?

My dead sister was as arresting as arrested, confidant as convict.

A world without dragons, can you imagine?

So far, 150 plus Internet people remember today is my birthday and I cannot count my irl lover among them. And the day continues on, without his change.

My mother buys a weighted hula hoop, to reduce her belly fat. She buys five, merriment in numbers.

They add up like Chihuahuas.

The more there are, the less their deaths will feel on my parents’ already portent sadness.

My clothes intestinal spin like viscera with my lover’s laundry—their smallness against his largess.

Jackie and I talk about our irredeemable obsessions, obsessions within to make witness.

How I wax for my lover, how he wanes.

My nephew calls to wish me a happy birthday. We talk about: the program, rap, Game of Thrones. Starting up again next month, we are excited.

The only time I talk back to my father, it is after his birthday and my brother buys him a cake and my sister is nearly dead and the cake is rotten and he eats it anyways. I beg him not to eat— the mold, its infestation—and he says something about an immigrant’s constitution and it is the only time I yell at my father and throw the cake into the trash. He finishes his slice, silent.

Our people do not disrespect our elders.

This is a lie. He does not eat in silence. He says, in emphasized English: If you cared, you’d live here.

He doesn’t need to say: You are a disappointment.

Carmen texts me daily, mostly just to touch electronically.

The gentleness of my lover’s skin, the brashness of his fucking.

My search for love, defined as a text message when my plane touches down.

My dead sister’s clothes in large plastic bins, which I pack into my car and drive across the state line into my closet.

My brother’s unopened closet.

Carmen texts and asks how I have experienced sexism. Racism. I reply.

My lover before he is my lover but my boyfriend tells me he cannot be my boyfriend anymore because he doesn’t want to marry me. He gives me a list of reasons I am all wrong.

I justify still seeing him: I don’t know.

My lover and I take mdma and close our night at a dueling piano bar.

Jeremy texts me: It makes me feel like I have no testosterone to be in there. Because even on mdma and even with my lover, I am texting another man.

Jeremy is a physicist. What is more sexy than physics?

And today I am finally ready for abandonment.

Sunday, I will meet him and I know he will reject me as my lover already has.

Jeremy and I, on the telephone, laugh because law school is funny and my lover is a lawyer.

Carmen and Evan text me videos of their children crooning happy birthday. Thank you.

I tweet: Smurf writer.

The creation of new friendships, in the middle of this all.

My sister is still dead.

My father’s heart, hiccup and burp. Backstrokes and butterflies.

How second generation immigrants imagine a homeland they’ve never been to: my abandoned geographic dissertation.

Today I am still not ready for things to end.

Once, my ex-husband’s grandmother explained that when a husband dies, the widow is a flower who is finally fed sunlight.

Today I cannot walk because it is raining.

When I am a child, I tell my father he has a watermelon hidden in his belly.

I am too superficial.

Aaron, back when he is my boyfriend, tells me I have fire in my belly. He puts his hand there. Too hot, he says, that Adonis smile.

My nephew spends more than a year in prison to rehabilitate from dragons.

My sister spends five years in prison. Exponentiate, if you count metaphors.

I spend a week in jail. The only person I call is my sister, who is now dead.

When I peel pomegranates, tenderness for my ex-husband strikes me like the release of venom.

I tell my nephew to call my friend David. Opiates, I say. He relapsed recently, I say. Dope, he says in return.

My nephew writes me letters from prison. He writes me poems. They are not for me, but I groove on them all the same.

If someone had submitted his poems to my workshop, oh, the wreckage of ego.

This isn’t really my jam, Zach says, driving me from my lover’s apartment. Too douche.

When I think of my mother’s cancer, shame blushes over me. I am a terrible daughter.

More than 200 wishes, except his.

If all loves could be so pure.

Finally, I tell him it is my birthday and we eat sushi.

This rationing of lies, my diaspora.

lily hoang pic
Lily Hoang is the author of four books, including Changing, recipient of a PEN Open Books Award. With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on the Avant-Garde and Accessibility. She teaches in the MFA program at New Mexico State University, where she is Associate Department Head and Prose Editor for Puerto del Sol.