by Sophia Zhang (@yuchiverse)
Editor: Tiffany Grimes (@theqtiffany)
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Growing up faithless and Asian American in the South is hard enough, but seventeen-year-old Melanie also has to deal with her parents’ constant fighting.
When a handsome stranger promises an escape, she jumps at his offer. Each date with Adrian is a new thrill more exciting than the last: illegal clubbing, midnight visits at her window, and literal fireworks. It isn’t long before their relationship devolves into a twisted web of desire and deceit that not only threatens Melanie’s moral framework, but also her mental health and physical safety.
Even her neglectful parents start to notice something is wrong. When her friends find incriminating evidence against Adrian, they intervene in an attempt to stop the cycle of destruction. But Melanie isn’t ready to share Adrian’s name with the authorities. As mounting pressure from her friends and law enforcement grows, Melanie must choose between saving her first love and saving herself.
A YEAR WITH MR. BITTER GOURD explores the question of why smart girls stay in unhealthy relationships. This contemporary #OwnVoices YA novel is complete at 63,000 words and tells the story of first and second-generation cultural clashes, the redemptive power of friendship, and the journey toward overcoming childhood trauma in order to build a better future.
I hold a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My nonfiction short story “Summer” is published in Fulbright Korea’s literary magazine Infusion.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your response.
First Five Pages
Saturday dinner rush at Tokyo Express stressed me out more than college applications. But it still beat being home. I ran back and forth punching hibachi steak, chicken, and shrimp orders into the register and bagging the to-go meals that the grill boys churned out.
I put on my smile. It was the happy mask I’d perfected. The one I always wore in public. “Out of the way,” snapped Linh. The waitress sidestepped me to load four entrees onto a tray to deliver to a dine-in family.
The door swung open, and another wave of customers flooded in. Good, no familiar faces. My shoulders relaxed.
I bagged another soy sauce-drenched meal. There was no way Tokyo Express’s combos could be anything close to real Japanese food, like how the Chinese restaurants around here sold greasy, sickly sweet dishes that were entirely different from Mama’s cooking. I handed a customer his receipt. Mama’s cooking was one of the few good things about home.
As I reached to bag the next shrimp and chicken combination plate, Lucas, one of the grill boys, seized my right hand and turned it over in his. His palm was warm and full of calluses that scratched my skin. He grinned.
“What are you doing?” My smile wavered.
“I can tell these are the hands of someone who hasn’t had to work a day in her life.” He laughed. One of his top canines was slightly crooked.
My happy mask fell. I snatched my hand away and wiped it against my oversized work uniform. The unisex shirt swallowed my five feet two frame, the sleeves pooling around my elbows. People needed to stop jumping to conclusions. I wasn’t some pampered princess. Lucas opened his mouth to say something else, but another voice cut in.
“When you’re ready, I’ll have the usual.”
My whole body tensed, the way it always did when he showed up.
Lucas waggled his eyebrows.
Grinding my teeth, I turned and flinched at familiar too-blue eyes staring back at me. They contained a hollow sadness I couldn’t place. I fiddled with the register, trying to control the tremor that ran down my spine. Definitely colored contacts. I’d never seen an Asian with natural blue eyes.
He propped his elbows on the counter and leaned forward, waiting.
I took a step back.
“Thank you. Your order will be out shortly.” I placed the receipt on the counter for him. Seconds passed before he picked it up.
Didn’t he have real Asian food at home? I resisted the urge to ask him that each time I punched in his usual: hibachi steak with an extra side of broccoli, white instead of fried rice, no onions.
He had come in every shift since I started part-time two weeks ago. Like all the other times, he picked the open table closest to the register and stared at me while he ate.
Today, his friends had joined him. Great, some of them were looking at me too. The whole group seemed a few years older. Judging from the 49ers T-shirts, most likely UNC Charlotte students.
I turned away, but the intensity of his gaze lingered on the back of my neck. My skin burned. Shoot. I’d entered the wrong order again. A sigh caught in my throat and I spammed the void key. Part of me wanted to flee while another part of me longed to draw closer, like a moth to a flame.
“Someone has a handsome admirer.” Lucas winked.
I shook my head. It didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t that pretty or anything. The only plausible explanation was that he was surprised to see another Asian. There weren’t that many of us in Charlotte.
“We’ll wait for you outside, man.” His friends clapped him on the back.
He nodded at them and approached the counter. A minute passed, but he stood there, not saying anything.
I crossed my arms. “Would you like to order something else? Or are you going to stand there and count every pore on my face?”
He glanced at my nametag. “Melanie, right? I’m Adrian.” He extended his hand, and I hesitated for a moment before taking it. Heat radiated from his skin, and I jerked my hand back.
He arched an eyebrow. His were thick and full. Better groomed than mine.
“There’s a concert happening downtown tonight. I was wondering if you’d like to go?”
A green vein curved up his arm like a snake.
Chewing my bottom lip, I shifted my weight to my left leg. My right leg bounced, and I placed my hands on my hips. “No thanks. I appreciate the invitation though.”
His face fell. “Have plans already?”
“Not really. I just—” It was hard to find the right words with him staring at me like that.
“I make you nervous, don’t I?” His voice was low and smooth. The kind of voice you’d hear on the radio.
“What? No! I mean, maybe a little.” I tugged at my oversized sleeve. “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”
“It’s okay. I should be the one apologizing if I’ve made you uncomfortable.” He took his hands out of his pockets and rested them on the counter. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice you right away.”
My heart fluttered, and I coughed into my sleeve.
“You just…you have this aura of kindness about you. Although you do have a smart mouth.” He laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. “I could tell right away that you’d be fun to talk with. Life’s been rough lately, and I guess I was hoping to make a new friend. Sorry to bother you.” He slipped his hands back into his pockets and walked away.
“Wait.” My cheeks warmed when he turned to look at me over his shoulder. “You forgot your drink.”
Mouth curving to the side, he strode back over. But instead of reaching for the sweating Styrofoam cup, he grabbed a pen from the grease-splattered counter. I sucked in a breath as his hand found mine. Dark bangs fell over his eyes as he scribbled his number across my wrist.
“Let me know if you change your mind.”
Releasing a shaky exhale, I nodded.
After work, I drove straight home. My parents’ shrill screaming greeted me when I stepped into the dim entryway, their voices coming from the kitchen. It was times like this that I was grateful my room was next to the front door. Made it easier to slip in and out without anyone noticing. Not that my parents normally paid any attention to me.
I dropped my bag at the foot of the bed and ran a brush through my tangled curls. The ink spilling across the white of my wrist was like a flowering bruise. The digits winked at me. I whipped my head away.
“You can’t buy everything just because it’s on sale!” Baba’s Mandarin echoed from the kitchen. “The fridge is exploding. Half the stuff in there ends up rotting. How many times do I have to tell you we don’t need all this shit?”
“I’m the one who cooks and cleans around here. The shopping doesn’t concern you!”
I winced. Why did Mama have to engage him?
“It does concern me!” Bang. That was Baba hitting his fist on the counter. “I’ve been asking you for years—for fucking years—to cut back on the clutter. I want a simple life, but you have to make everything so goddamn complicated.”
My heart pounded in my ears. I should be used it by now, but every time they did this, I wanted to disappear. The pounding morphed to ringing, and I clutched my head. This cycle never ended, and there wasn’t a thing I could do. The pressure building in my throat made it painful to swallow. I slid to the floor, leg jostling like crazy. “You should’ve never married me! You clearly don’t appreciate any of the things I do for this family. All of the sacrifices I’ve made. Go on—try to find someone better. See if anyone else is willing to slave over a pathetic old man like yourself.”
A loud crash drowned out Mama’s words. I didn’t have to be there to see Baba dumping out the contents of the fridge. Broken shells and blobs of yolk splattered across the tacky green tile. Tubs of Mama’s homemade soybean paste rolling under the bar stools. A container of stewed dates knocked over on its side.
Someone get me out of here.
The numbers on my wrist grew larger, ready to leap off my skin.