Cover Photo: Illustration by Ellen Weinstein for Catapult
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein for Catapult

Tell Me What You Think of Me

I knew how these small moments could accumulate over time, threading back to one another, changing how you behaved in the world.

I was stepping off the Muni when I heard a high, desperate voice. “Hold the train, please!” An older white woman, about a block down, speed-walking with great effort to the stop.

The trams rarely wait, backed up every day due to mismanagement and maintenance. When I turned around to alert the driver, the metal door had already slid shut. I looked back at the woman. She was about half a block away, and she looked devastatingly tired. As she drew closer, I could see her deep wrinkles and age spots.

Another tram will come soon enoughI’ve overstayed the situation

Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can do everythingYou think you’re working hard now? Wait until you work. 

But. But. But

The woman mumbled something I couldn’t understand. I put my face closer to hers and smelled liquor. Then a second note of detergent, something flowery or citrusy. She was drunk, but very clean. Her clothes were bright. Her hair, however messy, was recently washed. Close up, it was almost blindingly white, like snow beneath the sun. She wore brown orthopedic shoes, the expensive kind you see in the display windows of bougie-hippie shoe stores. Her left hand clutched money, at least two or three bills, the one on the outside a twenty.

I don’t believe in God, but in that moment I did, and I murmured my thanks.

The man helped me lift the woman to her feet, as his wife—I assumed, but she could have been a girlfriend or a friend or a sister—stood nearby with her arms out, ready to catch us, or perhaps shielding us from any staring passersby. I was in love with them both.

Once standing, I could see the tram just down the street, stopped at a red light. I touched the old woman’s shoulder. It felt solid and intact. I checked her arms and hands for scrapes and cuts. She was dazed, but unhurt as far as I could see. She was still gripping the money in her crooked fingers.

thank you The old woman came alive. She straightened herself up, animated by a mysterious source of energy unfurling inside her. She shook the arm the man held.

“Don’t touch me!” she said.

Get. Get. Get. 

With the old woman’s words stabbing the air around us, I looked at the couple more closely. I guessed they were South Asian, perhaps of Indian or Pakistani descent given San Francisco’s population. The wife/sister/girlfriend/friend, with her dark brown skin, wavy black hair that brushed her shoulders, and perfect, thick eyebrows that, in that moment, pressed in on one another in a look of concern and distaste above a pair of round, clear-framed glasses. The man, in his button-up and slacks, had lighter skin than his companion and black hair buzzed close to his scalp. He was retreating, as he’d been ordered to do.

We’re sorry, we don’t know you or this woman, but we tried to help and can’t anymoreWe see you, and we know you see us—you’re like us. Don’t feel sorry for this woman, leave her. Why are you with her? We’re sorry we helped either of you

had

I led the woman to a plastic seat near the door and placed her in it.

“Here,” she said, pressing something into my hand. The money she’d been holding. “Pay this nice bus driver and keep the rest, sweetie. For your help today.”

East Asian, White, East Asian, White, Latino, White, Black, White, East Asian, White, South AsianI’ll find the couple and give them this money

But they were probably home by then. They were probably watching Netflix, petting their cat, calling their friends, venting to each other about all the times something like this had happened to them.

I knew that feeling well—that vertiginous sensation that makes you sick. Your insides crumpling in on themselves. The numbness that sometimes follows—unless it’s rage, or confusion, or fear. The feeling that not only are you not yourself, you are nothing at all. I knew how these small moments could accumulate over time, threading back to one another, changing the way you behaved in the world.

Thank you for your helpSorry for the racist womanBy the way, she gave me some money—I don’t know why—and I want you to have itmemy

It’s not you. It’s me.

How had she not seen me? It’s my people, if any, who have taken over this neighborhood—the Chinese, since way back. 

What should I have done?

Alexandra Chang's debut novel Days of Distraction  (Ecco / HarperCollins) is forthcoming in 2020. Her short stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Glimmer Train, LARB Quarterly Journal, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Syracuse University and currently lives in Ithaca, NY. You can find more at: alexandrachang.com