Harmless Like You

Interstate 95, September 2016


Celeste sat on the front seat wearing her black turtleneck sweater. She had three sweaters: black, blue, and festive. Celeste got carsick if forced to sit in the back seat. She liked to sit in the front, upright as an Egyptian, eyes on the road. The baby also got carsick but no position helped. Eliot seemed to find the entire world abrasive.


I glanced in the mirror. Mimi sat with one arm around the infant seat, adding an extra fleshy layer of protection. One of her eyes was lined in black kohl, the other bare. Eliot must’ve interrupted. Oddly, I preferred the bare eye, the pink lids curling petal-like. Someone honked. You’d think I’d have been better at keeping my eyes on the road after my father’s death, but the long traffic-clogged sweep rendered me indolent.


‘Hey, cheer up. It might be cathartic. Maybe you’ll get over avoiding an entire country.’




‘Catharsis. Meeting your mom. Closure. Yada. Yada.’ Mimi was smiling, in her I’m pretending to be an upbeat positive person way. Her gestures of comfort were often sincerity masquerading as irony.


‘She’s a bitch, but so what? I said I’ll go. I’ll go. No big deal.’


‘Every time someone asks about art from Japan you turn them away. If it’s a choice between your issues and the Waldorf crèche, I’d rather we wasted money on the crèche.’


‘It’s not just my mother, okay.’ There were lots of reasons I didn’t deal Japanese art. That market was saturated, and I didn’t like Tokyo. You couldn’t eat on the subway, and they used soy substitute in their ice cream.


‘Oh?’ Mimi rubbed her neck, which had been giving her pain since the pregnancy.


‘I mean like you know the legend about how the goddess who gave birth to Japan had another child first.’ Mimi cracked her neck, and irritation swooped through my knuckles. ‘This baby of theirs, he had no bones. Hiruko. The name literally means leech child.’




‘So what did Japan’s mom do? She pushes this baby out to sea.’


‘Jay, you’ve told me this story already. You told me after the first ultrasound.’


‘But you get my point, then. This is Japan’s mother. So, of course, for hundreds of years anything wrong with a kid – the Japanese pushed it out to sea.’


‘Oh come on, didn’t the Vikings leave their babies in the snow? And the Spartans on cliffs? It’s not as if China has the greatest record with baby girls, but you like Shanghai just fine.’


‘Who calls their first baby a leech?’ But bloated and squishy, Eliot did look rather leech-like.


Celeste coughed.


The one thing a hairless cat shouldn’t do is hairball. Mimi was convinced Celeste ate our clothes. This was better than my theory that the hair in question was mine. Celeste especially liked to lick my legs, arms, and the back of my neck. I took one hand off the wheel to rub the cat’s back, my thumb working down, pressing out the knots.


‘Keep your hands on the wheel,’ Mimi said from the back. ‘Don’t crash the car giving a back massage to the cat.’


Traffic was stalled, and we weren’t about to hit anything. I circled a thumb around the cat’s shoulder blades.


‘Look, I’m not saying this to be cruel, but you should just get her put down. Would you want someone sticking a pill up your butt every morning?’


‘Diabetes isn’t a life-threatening condition.’


‘Would you want to be a bald, diabetic cat?’ Her tone was calm, the words slow, like she was talking to a slow child. I felt the anger sprout anew. Was it only last night I’d told myself that I would be kinder? That we would be kinder? Fuck that.


‘Don’t be jealous—’ Here I mimicked her voice ‘—of a fucking cat.’


‘When was the last time you massaged Eliot?’


‘We can pull over. You can drive, and I’ll hold the baby.’ I was sure, or at least I thought it was pretty likely, that I loved my kid. Yet when I said I’d hold her, even I could hear that it sounded like a threat.


‘You’re a shit dad, you know?’


Unfortunately, I did. My dad was a fantastic dad. He agreed to stick pills up my bald cat’s butt. In the words of Hallmark, World’s Greatest Dad. I wanted to take after him, I did. But I didn’t like touching Eliot. She was an inarticulate, pink flesh-sack. Yes. I was sure. It would be better when she was a person. It would. It was just she didn’t look like a person. She looked like a thing. I’d like her more when she could read or draw. Please, gods.


‘I’m doing my best,’ I said. ‘It’s not like I shake the baby.’


‘Yes, you’re an excellent husband. You don’t abuse your kid,’ Mimi replied. ‘You barely look at her.’





New York, October 2016


I pressed the phone between my shoulder and my ear, while I lobbed socks from my bed into the suitcase. I timed each toss to a bleep of the phone: goal, goal, goal, miss, goal, miss, miss. Seven days in Berlin measured out in cotton-viscose blend.


Annika’s phone went to voicemail. ‘Annika, it’s me, Jay. Got your email and it’s such a shame. I mean, I completely understand. But, I’ve been working on this amazing opportunity. I happen to know that the Whitney is considering a show on Art of the Asian Diaspora, though of course I’m sure they’ll call it something sexier. One of the Mittals just dropped a considerable donation their way.’ This was true. ‘And I went to school with one of the junior curators.’ Also true. Nice enough girl. ‘And I happen to know she just loves your work.’ A complete lie. I hung up.


Perhaps if I hadn’t been going to fly to Berlin tomorrow, I would have come up with a better way to persuade her to stay. She was one of my best sellers and I could not afford to lose her. I’d think of something after I found Celeste’s suppositories. I looked under her festive sweater. They weren’t there. I refolded the snowflake-stitched sleeves. I lifted the slim phrasebook. The bag was thinly packed. Even if I found the pills, this meagre haul didn’t seem up to any serious odyssey. I’d wanted to buy a novel about Germany, something to help me imagine the place where my mother lived. But everything was about the Nazis and the broad pain of that time was too different from my own.


I went to Mimi’s study to ask if she’d seen Celeste’s pills. She was bent over the computer, baby in a sling around her neck. Adobe Illustrator grids hovered over Marcus and Zanya invite you to their Fire Island Wedding. Mimi switched the font from cursive to serif.


‘I have no idea where you left them.’ Mimi didn’t look up from her terminal.


Eliot, her face now full and fat, her skin smooth as the inside of an almond, began to whimper. The sling was recommended by a client who’d been transformed by India. I’d laughed, but proximity to Mimi’s skin reduced – though did not eradicate – the baby’s weeping. Eliot was quite literally between us, so I turned to leave, not wanting to inspire further panic in my child.


‘Stop.’ Mimi’s hand was raised, but her face still turned away. ‘I need you to take Eliot out.’




‘I have handled everything, the gallery, my clients, your child, for a week. The least you can do is take your daughter so I can get this done.’ We were both spitting stage whispers.


‘I’m packing for my 6 a.m. flight. I haven’t found Celeste’s pills.’


‘You can look for the pills later. Babies need sunshine.’



‘She isn’t a geranium,’ I said. ‘She isn’t going to wilt.’


‘I meant it, what I said about the cat. Celeste is too old. It isn’t fair.’ Mimi deleted the lovebirds from her design with two sharp clicks of her mouse.


‘I need her.’


‘Well, I need my husband to behave like an adult. If you won’t do it, I will.’


‘Mimi.’ I softened my voice. It was a plea. ‘I really need her now. I mean if you could come with me . . .’ Of course, she couldn’t. We had a baby. My wife snorted.


‘Just take your daughter on a walk. These were due yesterday.’


I allowed Mimi to strap my daughter to my chest. Eliot pawed at my shirt. This shirt was dry-clean only and nowhere on the label did it say, Suitable For Baby Fingers.


‘Do you want milk, sweetie? Do you want your mommy?’ Eliot made a noise like a bird being strangled.


‘She just fed. Don’t pull that shit with me.’


I walked Eliot down to the river, where some developer had put in decking. College kids sat eating ice cream. I assumed they were college kids. Who else has ice cream in the middle of an autumn workday? I sat on the pine decking and pulled out my phone, wondering how long we had to stay here before I could respectably return. Eliot grabbed for the device. My daughter had an instinct for expensive things. I hid the phone in my pocket.


There was nothing to do but stare at my child. She had droopy hound-dog cheeks and a fat forehead. When I’d suggested she was developmentally delayed to Mimi, she took offence. The child hadn’t even learned to smile. A silver bubble of spit hung between her lips. Despite her shrub of hair, she had no eyebrows. This with the slack jaw gave her an expression of constant amazement. I was reminded of YouTube videos: Baby wonders at life! Baby is awed by fathers synthetic tortoiseshell buttons. Chihuahua pissing demonstrates the myriad wonders of New York to infant. Baby stares enraptured at approaching Co-ed.


‘She’s adorable,’ the girl said. She was clearly too fresh from Idaho or wherever to understand that you shouldn’t talk to strange men, even if they are holding babies. Though in one hand she had a copy of Crime and Punishment, which would have led you to believe she would know better.




‘What’s her name?’ The girl was probably college age, she didn’t look the type to be reading Dostoyevsky for fun.




‘Oh my God. That’s an adorable name.’


My winsome daughter wrinkled her nose and pissed herself. I felt the lower body tense and release. The bright note of piss mingled with the smells of leaf rot, petroleum, whatever was floating downstream on the river. I examined the girl. Expensive shoes, those ballet flats with the big brass cross on them that all the Upper East Siders were wearing a few years ago. This girl would never damage an infant.


‘Do you want to hold her?’


‘Yeah, sure, I mean I’d love to. If that’s okay.’


You really shouldn’t hand your babies to strangers. But she looked like she’d been a babysitter or, at least, she could have played the babysitter in a movie.


I knotted the batik bag to the girl. My daughter lunged for the girl’s Tiffany pendant and her fingers caught the metal. The chainlinks dug into the girl’s neck, shifting skin from pink-white to green-white.


‘Stay here a minute, could you? There’s this call I have to make.’ Would it seem more or less suspicious if I offered her cash? I pointed at a bench within easy sight, but just out of earshot. ‘I’ll be there. You’re a hero.’


The girl lifted her paperback in a flap of distress, but then said, ‘Uh, sure thing,’ sounding not at all sure.


I pulled out my phone. There was no harm in trying to make my words to Annika true. I didn’t have the number of the junior curator. But, yes, we were Facebook friends. I considered congratulating her on the Whitney job, but decided against it as too transparent. I’d Liked her status a year ago. I typed, ‘Hi, Long time no talk. How’ve you been?’


The bench was near the water. In the distance, trash barges bobbed in the direction of the Statue of Liberty. A white gull luffed against the white sky. I like gulls, salt-pigeons though they are. They’re a reminder that this metropolis-contaminated river leads to the sea. The college girl had been wearing a cable-knit sweater, the ecru of the gliding gull’s wing. I felt a flutter of gratitude. Looking at Eliot made me queasy. She really was a little leechling, all squishy, wet flesh. The girl was looking at me, and I realised that I wasn’t making any calls, just gaping like a tourist.


So I pressed the phone to the side of my face and began to speak: ‘There’s an epilogue to the leech story. Leech baby floated so long at sea that he grew limbs. These and his great luck at staying alive transformed him into Ebisu, god of fishing and luck.’ From here you couldn’t tell that the sling held a baby; it could be the sling for a broken arm. ‘This second half of the story is bull. A fake happy ending written in centuries later.’ If I walked away and left this girl with my baby, perhaps Eliot would one day say, Oh how lucky I am, it was so character-building. ‘But, luck isn’t surviving being pushed out to sea. Luck is never having that happen in the first place.’ I hung up my fake call.


The girl might not look like a fan of Russian Lit, but she looked like a good mom. Kind, responsible, probably the one who cleaned up after the sorority parties. As a test run for parental abandonment, it had gone pretty well. I couldn’t leave my baby with Missy America and Raskolnikov, but how easy it would be to follow my darling mother’s example and simply walk out myself.


‘Thanks,’ I said to the girl. ‘You’re a star.’


I gave her a twenty for her trouble. She took it, folding the note in her fist, and she didn’t say thank you. I wanted to tell her, this is the most you’ll get paid per minute unless you start stripping or hawking bad debt. We effected the transfer of the sling, and Eliot looked up at me with not one dribble of recognition.


My leechling reattached, I headed home.





John F. Kennedy, October 2016


Mimi didn’t wake at my alarm. No reason to disturb her and be snarled at. I found Celeste, lifted her off the bookshelf, where she had knocked down a signed gallery catalogue. Ai Weiwei; a cat lover himself and a man who understood that you cannot tell a cat what to do. I kissed Celeste on the top of her crinkled head. She coughed.


‘Time to go, love.’


Celeste was a registered therapy cat. She had a special visa to China. She had microchip tagging. She had an EU pet passport, which meant she could travel more freely than me and my blue US passport. If the gallery tanked, I could probably write a memoir: An International Cat of Mystery, or Travels with My Cat.


Celeste had a cage with thin steel bars. Slapped on the sides were yellow stickers saying MEDICAL AID COMPANION ANIMAL and a silhouette of a guide dog. We boarded the plane late, and she did not go unnoticed.


‘Do you think that means he’s crazy?’ –3F


‘Gross’– 14D


‘But Mommy, that’s a cat!’– 27B


‘Shh.’ – 27C


‘And he’s not blind.’ – 27B


‘Shhh.’ – 27C


I took my seat near the back of the plane, next to the toilets. I liked sitting at the back because it was easy to get an extra soda and pretzels, especially if you could get the flight attendant to like you. Though this depended on a) how she felt about cats and b) how she felt about bald cats.


I settled the cage on my lap. I looked around: no babies. It was just me and my cat. ‘Like the old days,’ I said to Celeste. It would be simple to just not come home. I had the essentials: passport, phone, wallet, laptop, cat food. Everything else could be picked up along the way. I tried to remember if I had said goodbye to Eliot, not that she’d remember. I didn’t have a picture of her in my wallet, but I had set my laptop background to her ultrasound. Another attempt to trick myself into enthusiasm. Did my mother have a picture of me?


In my bag was a pink folder with housing deeds, a blue folder with directions, a yellow folder with other Berlin-based artists, a green folder with restaurants, a second pink folder (the Duane Reade had had a limited folder selection) with every article about my mother ever written, most of which were in online magazines I’d never heard of and seemed to be rehashes of the same biography, none mentioning a son.


Celeste swished her tail, looked up and blinked at me three times. This, according to science, is how cats blow kisses.


I flew regularly to Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, and Taipei to buy art and scout talent. I had a sideline working as a go-between for an East Side gallerist who dealt European schmaltz: a lot of cows, farm girls and dead pheasants. I’d meet her Asian clients. I’d bring a new brochure: first-class spam. But Josephine – that was the gallerist’s name – claimed that nothing beat the personal touch.


Lately, Josephine’s clients were showing an interest in Asian American artists. I wasn’t sure what started it. Curiosity, a what if? Or a sense of triumph? They hadn’t left, they’d trusted Asia, backed the home team and look: they were winning. All of Fifth Avenue would fit into one of Singapore’s malls.


I didn’t need Celeste on these trips, but I preferred her there. It wasn’t the planes, or Shanghai’s swerving taxis, or the thick, sickly air of Beijing. It was the way Josephine’s clients looked at me and asked what I was. The artists from whom I bought saw me as the alchemical process by which sketches turned to dollars. At home, most white East Coasters and certainly Brooklynites had had that question beaten out of them. They just examined my face too long. I’d take the opportunity to ask, could I interest them in ceramics?


In Asia the clients came out and asked, ‘What are you?’ Sometimes their translator did the asking but I always understood the question. If I answered, ‘American,’ they asked, ‘Where is your family from?’


My Chinese and Korean clients, on both sides of the Pacific, felt at best ambivalent about the Japanese. It didn’t seem fair that I was smeared by a woman who hadn’t stuck around. So, I’d say, ‘I’m adopted.’ They’d assume I was a whore’s by-product. A Shanghainese client was sure that my mother was from her father’s province.


‘In the cheekbones,’ she said. ‘Very high and flat. High forehead, too.’


She’d been to Wellesley, but was now professionally married to a real-estate mogul. Her degree was in art history, and she’d keep me talking for hours, glad to refresh her English.


I told her I was raised by Canadian Americans.


‘Only in America,’ she said with the kind of admiration that Americans express when they talk about how spiritual the Indians are. I wasn’t sure if she was surprised that in America white people would choose to adopt a murky-blooded child. Or whether it was simply the notion of a Canadian American.


All of this made me twitch. I checked my face in the front of the Burberry store, in the silver elevator doors and in the face of my own watch. I didn’t know what I expected. Would my face somehow flex out of shape from its desire to fit in? Or would it be my mother’s, fighting its way through my bones to reveal the lie? It was good to have Celeste waiting in the hotel room. I’d fall on the bed and scoop her over my belly, where the warm weight of her soothed us both into a nap.


I opened up the in-flight magazine to decide which movies I would watch. The captain announced that the airline had hired a celebrity chef to redo their menu. For an additional cost of thirty dollars, there would be prosciutto pizza, featuring truffle-misted arugula. When did we start putting truffle oil on everything, and who knew a mushroom could be so greasy?


In my bag was a 100ml pot of moisturiser. The cabin air was arid and Celeste’s skin was sensitive. Cold chapped her, sun seared, humidity itched, sea breeze gave her sores. I dabbed cold cream on a finger and spiralled it into her side, and she pressed close to the bars, letting me do it. Mimi blamed the inbreeding, but I was a mongrel and atmosphere affected me just as badly. I worked the same cream into my jaw and inhaled the whiff of thyme.


is the author of Harmless Like You and Starling DaysShe is the winner of The Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask Award. Her work has been a New York Times Editors’ Choice, an NPR 2017 Great Read and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. She is the editor of the Go Home! anthology.



November 2014

Conversations About a Play

Louise Stern


November 2014

Editor’s note: The images in the slideshow document a conversation on paper between the writer and artist Louise Stern...


June 2012

'The Freedom of Speech Itself', or the betrayal of the voice

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso


June 2012

‘The instability of an accent, its borrowed and hybridised phonetic form, is testimony not to someone’s origins but only...


August 2016

Boy With Frog

Kristin Posehn


August 2016

My first impression was of a tall building laid down for a nap, with all its parts nestled together...


Get our newsletter


* indicates required