Jen Soong

What a rotten day. Not just a tad bit rotten, but curdled-milk, cow-shit rotten. There I was holding a gas nozzle, cursing the insanity of fuel prices, calculating how short I was on rent — the first of the month was only three days away — when I came face to face with Eve. Fuel stained my brown withered hands.

At first, I didn’t recognize her in a canary yellow sundress. She had hacked her flowy dark mane into a knife-edged bob but there was something familiar about her flouncing hips and steel-jutting chin marching toward my pump. Gasoline reeked something holy.

Boy was she mad. Screeching mad. You left us, she screamed, tongue on fire and black eyes singing with rage. A girl about five stood by her side. Two pigtails, a raggedy stuffed bear dangling in one hand. Her eyes, coal black like Eve’s. Her blaze thumped my chest.

Man, can’t breathe. My lungs burned. What you mean, us? I spit out, each syllable stuck in my throat. The last time I saw Eve she danced in a grass green dress dotted with pink rockrose blooms, a breeze toying with her long dark mane. The green dress is what I see now. Those pink flowers jitterbugging in my head. The shock of her wearing anything at all brought me to my soft knees. 

The garden teemed with life. Birds of paradise tilting skyward, lilies and vines hugging trees like old lovers. You’ve never seen anything like it, greens of every shade: forest green, lily pad green, emerald green, verdant beyond belief. Honeyed birdsong filled every tree, every cloudfluff, every cell. We danced from sunrise to sunset, ecstatic twirling with God’s creatures. No plagues, no pests. Only laughter bloomed. We were deeply, madly in love. Weren’t we?

You left us, she repeated. I blinked twice. Sweet fumes invaded my nostrils. There was that us again. This time I did the math. It had been five years since The End. 

Who’s this? I asked. My burning chest already knows. 

She’s Mar, her mom said. Like the sea, I asked. Like Mary, the virgin mother. I couldn’t meet her charred eyes. I knelt to say hi, shake her hand. I’m Adam. Her eyes grew wide. I saw a light glowing in the back of her irises. 

You look like shit, Eve said. 

She wasn’t wrong. For the past five years, I had been wandering the earth with bare feet and wild hair, desperate to find a wildflower field, a meadow, hell, even a mossy riverbed, to steal a second of peace. Nights were the worst. I avoided sleep like the devil. When I closed my eyes, I dreamed about the garden and all her glory. 

Whenever I woke, it was gray and hollow. A second death. My boss at the video store howled to lay off meth. Freaking hypocrite stoner. I paced the cigarette-stained Videodrome carpet, land of the lost remotes and zombie sleepwalkers. Pause, rewind, no fast-forward button. Everyone already dead inside.

Why? I wanted to shake her bare shoulders. My eyes spoke: You listened to the snake. You bit the forbidden apple. We had paradise and you chose the wrong gate. Why? My voice broke, my eyes clouded with tears. The way we once laughed rippled green in front of me.

Guess I was bored, she shrugged. Her mouth was lined with ghosts. We been looking for you, she said, softer this time. She stretched a tanned hand toward my face. You look different. We stared at each other, still like algae-stained garden statues. I looked into her eyes and saw flecks of green floating in a squandered dark sea.

And then I understood. Her true nature. She never belonged to me, or her Father.

Is she mine? I finally asked. Duh, she said, smacking my shoulder. Who else’s? Freaking immaculate conception? Her unbridled laughter was lush. An offering. 

Hop in. Let’s splurge on crunchy tacos. Abandoned crinkled chip bags and apple cores littered the backseat of my corroded hatchback.

Her green eyes met mine. Tacos,a truce.

Okay, her shoulders dropped, let’s go home. She scooped up the girl clutching her teddy bear. From the backseat, my daughter smiled at me in the rearview mirror, revealing a gap in her front teeth. Just like mine.

A man with long dreadlocks, lean with hunger, whirls in circles next to a rusted pump, head bobbing wildly toward a powder blue sky. Tires squeal. A woman in a polka dot dress and a young girl with a teddy bear drive away in a pickup brimming with raked leaves and pop tunes. Shriveled vines and bass beats fall to the earth. Clouds of dirt roil as the man laughs and laughs, his bare feet turning into roots and his body decaying to dust.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen Soong grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Northern California. An alum of Tin House and VONA, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Audacity, Black Warrior Review, Witness, and Waxwing. She earned her MFA in creative writing from UC Davis. Her memoir-in-progress, which is a reckoning of myth and migration, was shortlisted for The Feminist Press’ Louise Meriwether First Book Prize (2023). Find her work at jensoong.com.