Friday to Monday by Joy Guo
Precise and punctuated with urgency, Joy Guo’s short story “Friday to Monday” captures specific yet intense moments in volumes. The story begins on a Friday night, when main character Jia, a TA for Syracuse University, encounters a boy, a stranger, spewing racist verbal attacks at her. Stunned into silence, Jia watches the boy leave with a heavy heart, wishing she’d responded with something equally “devastating” back to him. From there, the story chronicles her weekend, inwardly revealing memories of her mother and her friendship with Ming. In her author’s note, Guo reveals the “idea of stretching it over the span of a weekend presented ready-made guideposts to both anchor the action and illustrate how, through a series of daily, banal moments (going to the supermarket, hanging out by the pool), the interior of a character comes to light.”
With the increase of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence, “Friday to Monday” reminds us that even the briefest exchanges or moments have lasting impacts: “The exchange was less than a minute old, but Jia promised herself that she would remember him.” Whether on a familiar street or campus, where institutional support is nonexistent, or wanting to fit into cultural standards, Jia’s displacement is tangible as she is expected to quietly endure everything—verbally or physically—directed at her.
Guo builds tension slowly to great effect, setting the tone to the story’s impending climax. Two simple words such as “Shut up!” show the dualistic nature of language; this further heightens the many complex dualities framed in the story. In a final act foreshadowed from the beginning—one that deeply resonates—Jia becomes “the full-throated force of herself.” —CRAFT
That Friday night, on her way back from the library, Jia saw a boy in a baseball cap coming toward her. She listed to the side, knelt to tie one shoe, then the other, hoping he’d walk past. But he slowed, waiting for her, with all the time in the world, and finally stopped, less than a foot away. She squinted, her eyes weak from grading problem sets under flickering fluorescents, trying to make him out. He squinted back, mocking.
“What are you looking at? Can you even see anything out of those slits?” He put two fingers at the corners of the eyelids, lifting them up and widening them in a grotesque imitation of hers.
Struck dumb, Jia could only stand there as the boy sauntered away. After a beat, she came unstuck, hitched up the straps of her bookbag, and walked back to her apartment, head down, heart a battering ram. She wished she had said something devastating to make the boy retreat. But all she’d done was gape. The exchange was less than a minute old, but Jia promised herself that she would remember him.
She lived in off-campus graduate student housing, in a condominium complex called Germonds. The rufous brick upper levels jutted a few feet over the stucco lower levels so that from a distance the townhouses looked like poisonous, red-capped mushrooms. Jia lived on the bottom level. Every day, something in her unit snapped off, or fell from the ceiling in a massive chunk, or short-circuited, or leaked in bilious protest against her living there. Her upstairs neighbors had decided the stretch between 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. was the best time to be productive. They galloped up and down the hallways and rearranged furniture, all to music with a bass that throttled the walls. Below them, Jia made her own beat, irregular and hardly audible. She raised a broom over her head and bashed the handle against the ceiling.
“Shut up! Shut up!”
Tonight, she went straight to the bathroom without taking off her shoes. She stood in front of the mirror and gently tugged her eyelids up. Just a little. A stranger with the same face stared back, coquettishly. Jia leaned in. With her thumbs, she patted the valley right above the lash-line, trying to rub out the fold. The stubborn skin sprung back.
A stereo began blasting upstairs.
Jia escaped to the local ACME, despite how disorienting American supermarkets could be. The tomato sauce aisle alone was confounding. She grabbed the cheapest option. Heinz. It would go well with noodles. She was also puzzled by the sheer quantity of food that came in varying shades of white and degrees of viscosity: sour cream, yogurt, mayonnaise, whipped cream, clam chowder. She once devoured a whole cup of what she later realized was ranch dressing. At the time, she had marveled at how, in this country, soup came squirted out of a bottle and didn’t need to be heated.
Each time she went to the supermarket, Jia bought two jars of creamy Jif, one for herself, the other to add to the supply in her suitcase to take back home to Chengdu. It was her mother’s favorite thing in the world, the only thing she asked for. Jia would peel the lid off a new jar, carve out a spoonful, and dab some on her mother’s lips.
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“They have a crunchy version too. I’ll get it for you next time so you can try. The little bits might be too hard on your teeth.”
Years ago, Jia’s mother had been forced to climb an old, decommissioned factory flue as part of her reeducation for being a counterrevolutionary. Jia had been an infant sleeping in a swaddle on her mother’s back. They made it to the top and then back down, but, somewhere along the way, her mother cast off most of herself as extra weight. Now, she was little more than a cotton ball for a head.
Jia regaled her mother with stories about the freshmen she taught as a TA, how the snow in upstate New York fell in sideways slants, swallowing the roads in seconds. As she prattled on, Jia wondered if her mother realized that how she sounded and what she felt wasn’t always the same. Could she tell herself? How was it that she could sound so falsely happy in one tongue and so truly miserable in another?
The next morning, Jia went over to Ming’s. They sat by the pool, fully clothed and hatted, Jia even wearing gloves, against the sun, arms crossed, watching a woman apply sunscreen to herself as luxuriously as a cat licking its coat.
Ming was her only friend here at Syracuse. They understood each other’s homesickness, the ache of always having to ask what a particular phrase or expression meant. Though Jia aspired to eventually befriend women who looked nothing like her, conversations with Ming held a certain lazy comfort.
They also commiserated in having the same doctoral advisor who called them by each other’s names. Waiting outside his office one day, Jia heard him shouting, “Ming, come in! Ming! Ming!” She had ignored him until his assistant snapped her fingers and mouthed, He means you. The first time they’d met, Ming bounded over, saying, “Don’t we know each other already?”
Jia and Ming practiced their English together every weekend, but were never able to make much progress. Neither synonym nor cinnamon could be mastered. They blundered through the “su” sound in words like usually. English also had a rigid specificity that their mother tongue lacked. Here, to forge ahead, something had to be identified as he, she, or it. In Mandarin, the same pronoun was used for a man, a woman, a shrub. Uncle and Auntie could be your bloodline, or they could be strangers wandering off the street into your home.
Against the din of doggy-paddlers and cannon-ballers and Ming’s fumbling attempts to order coffee, Jia had to shout to make herself heard: “Have you ever considered getting eyelid surgery?”
Jia pinched back her eyelids and showed Ming.
“You look like you’re being blown away,” Ming snorted. “One of my cousins got it done. Waste of money. She looked no different at all but had to spend a whole month lying in bed with a compress over her eyes.”
“She didn’t even look a little prettier?”
“Maybe, after all the swelling had gone down.”
They watched the woman finish with the sunscreen, pull the straps of her swimsuit down, and flip herself over. At the sight of this, Jia chanced taking off her gloves. She rested them against her thighs.
That night, over hot pot, they watched a movie about an old man administering gua sha to his grandson. Child protective services was summoned when the grandson went to school with his back and shoulders blooming with bruises. It was child abuse, no doubt about it, despite the family’s protests. Until it wasn’t, because the family’s American friend said so. He tried the treatment himself and was surprised to find it didn’t hurt at all. Ming, who had a six-year-old son in Beijing held back by visa issues, sobbed her way through a whole box of tissues.
Jia did not cry at all. Her eyes would swell shut if she did.
On Sunday night, Jia stood in front of her bathroom mirror again. She pronounced usually as delicately as she could, like peeling a used stamp off an envelope. She said it again and again. At last week’s TA session, she had bungled that word and, instead of just barreling on, had stuttered to a stop and given it room to breathe. The giggling began in one corner and spread inch by inch, until all fifteen freshmen had their faces pressed to the crooks of their elbows, twitching helplessly.
Looking out at the expanse of smooth, white, expectant faces in class on Monday, Jia felt sweat seep through the back of her shirt and her calf spasm. She clenched and unclenched her fingers, which had gone numb. Someone in the back coughed.
Jia bent over the attendance list and snatched a name at random.
“Mr. Cherro,” she said, “Please give us answers for problem set on page two.”
He pulled off his baseball cap, rumpled his hair, put the cap on backwards, and stumbled through the answer. It was him. Jia tried not to gape. She knew it. Some things you just don’t forget.
“Wrong answer to Subpart B,” Jia said. “Come up here. Go through steps so we figure it out together.” She held out the chalk.
“Uh, okay.” He looked around, as though the joke had gone sailing over his head. “You want me to come up there?”
With many pauses and sideways glances, he managed it. “Good,” Jia said, gritting her teeth. He smiled and brushed his hand against his forehead in a mock swoon. Chuckles and a smattering of applause from the others.
Such surges of levity were rare in her class, despite Jia’s best efforts to convince them all to like her. The evaluations described her as unapproachable, blunt, clipped, bordering on mean. “I explain,” Jia had said to her advisor. But she couldn’t. He steepled his fingers and said, “Well, Ming, I don’t know what to tell you, except maybe smile more.” (“Well, maybe we should smile more,” Ming said.)
All right. She could smile and accept this sudden flush of goodwill from the class. She could let him go back to his seat, save him any further embarrassment.
But he had hitched the corners of his eyes all the way to his temples.
Yes, some things you just can’t forget.
Jia took a deep, steadying breath. “Now do Subpart C. You did Subpart B, so now do next one.”
Matthew Cherro’s smile unbraided. The class hushed on a collective inhale.
“I…” Seeing no mercy, he turned to face the board and wrote down the first few lines.
“No, not right,” Jia said.
He wiped the chalk with the side of his hand and started over.
“No. Come on, Mr. Cherro. Same as Subpart B.”
He tried again.
“I don’t know how to do this.” He put down the chalk and started to walk away.
“Not yet, Mr. Cherro. Stay there.” She pointed at him and then gestured at the board. “Anyone else know how to solve?”
Of course not. They wouldn’t betray a fellow classmate for her. Jia was breathing hard, as though she had started the race before the gun.
“Ms. Thomas? Mr. Simon? Ms. Wester?” Nothing.
“Surprised. Urually, you would expect—” She stopped.
This time, the laughter wasn’t giggles suppressed under a thin film of politeness. This time, it was torrential, the kind that shakes the windows with its strength. This time, they brayed in riotous condemnation. In the commotion, Matthew slipped back to his desk, but not before squinting at her, almost pitying.
It wasn’t him. And even if it was, it didn’t matter now.
Jia smacked her hands together. She slammed the textbook down on the desk. She turned to face the blackboard, counted to ten, not caring if they saw the sweat stains on her blouse, and swiveled back around. She cleared her throat exaggeratedly. It was no use.
Finally, Jia gave in to what she had longed to do every day since arriving in this country. She yelled, in unbroken, unaccented, perfect English.
“Shut up! Shut up!”
She kept shouting, those two words cresting again and again, waves lifting upon themselves. She couldn’t stop. She reveled in the full-throated force of herself. She was lost to it, the release that came from finally knowing exactly what to say in return.
JOY GUO lives in New York with her husband. She is a white collar and regulatory defense attorney. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Okay Donkey, Passages North, Atticus Review, Maudlin House, and SmokeLong Quarterly.
Featured image by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong courtesy of Pixabay