We cross the parking lot together, Martin, the black man who used to be Martin, ducked slightly behind my right shoulder, flickering in and out of my peripheral vision. Somehow I'm still possessed of enough of my faculties to remember to grab a shopping cart. The sliding door creaks on an unoiled runner, and we breathe in the comforting sting of Asian markets everywhere dried scallops and mushrooms, wilting choi sum, fish guts in a bucket behind the seafood counter. Mr. Lee looks up at me over yesterday's Apple Dailywhen did they start getting the Hong Kong papers?and says, you're too late, the cha siu bao are all sold out.
It's okay, I say. I need to lose weight anyway.
Yeah, says his daughter, stacking napa cabbages on newspaper in a shopping cart. You're too fat.
Lee gives her a dour Confucian look. Little number three, he says, that's enough out of you. And then, turning to me: is the black man with you? He doesn't speak Chinese, too, does he?
Martin has halted by the soy milk case, reading the labels intently.
Yes, I say. Yes, he's with me. And no, he doesn't.
Tell him we don't have candy bars or potato chips. They always ask.
I give him a noncommittal nod.
My wife was Chinese, I say to Martin, making my way down aisle one, filling the cart with black tree fungus and Sichuan chilies and dried beans and tofu skin. I lived there for three years before I got my Ph. D. She taught me how to cook. My voice sounds bland, conversational, informational: I've been stunned, that's the only way to explain it, stunned back into a certain strained normality. He follows everything I'm saying with lidded eyes and pursed lips, nodding to himself, as if it's exactly what I would have done, in his mind, as if he could have projected it all, with slight variations.
Hold on. Your wife was? You're not together?
No, I say, no, she died. She and my daughter died. In a car accident.
I look at my watch.
A year, I say, six months, three weeks, and two days.
Mr. Lee, who has never before seen me speaking English, is pretending not to watch us, stealing interested glances over a full- page picture of Maggie Cheung.
I was in Shanghai and Hangzhou once, Martin says. Only briefly, on business. Loved it. Loved the energy. Wish I could have stayed longer.
He reaches up and pulls the hood away from his forehead. His hair, a black man's hair, of course, razored close to the scalp, with neat lines at the temples and the nape of the neck. The look of a man who's close friends with his barber. I can't help thinking of my own scraggling beard, and the last time I tried to crop it into a new shape, how it looked, as Meimei used to put it, half goat-eaten. Fullness of time, I can't help thinking. The phrase just won't leave my mind. Fullness of time.
You know, he says. You're a brave man, Kelly. I think I'd have run away screaming. His voice is different. It is, thoroughly, unmistakably, a black man's voice, declarative, deep, warm, with a faint twang in the nasal consonants. It's just a couple of operations, he says. And some skin treatments. In the right hands, no big thing at all. That is to say, it won't be. When it becomes more common.
Does it, does it I'm flailing here does it have a name? What you've done?
If it had a name, he says, what would that change, exactly? Would it be more acceptable to you? Would it be a thing people do? Would it have a category unto itself?
I'm just playing with you, he says. You should see the look on your face. Kelly, of course it has a name. What do you think it would be called? Racial reassignment.
Excerpted from Your Face in Mine by Jess Row. Copyright © 2014 by Jess Row. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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