Joan Li is a Northeastern native living in the Midwest. Her work has been published and/or recognized in The Seventh Wave, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Best American Essays 2017.
The summer I started to live on my own, I bought a pig. I bought it off the side of the interstate, hours east of the city. I was exhausted, having driven a U-Haul halfway across the country with a man my father paid to drive but not to talk, and it was a miniature thing. Its clumsy pink stumbles made me smile for the first time in days, and I thought that ought to have meant something.
The people selling the pigs were a stereotypically large and chipper Midwestern family. Lined up, they could’ve been Russian dolls; the fourth youngest a miniature of the third, the third a miniature of the second, and so on. The children said they were mini-pigs, like the ones you see in teacups online. The mother said that the smallest ran for 2000 while the largest, no bigger than the size of my hand, was 750. The father said that whichever ones didn’t sell by the end of the month would be put down. I took out my wallet to save a life. I pointed out the only girl in the litter and bargained her down to 1200.
Teeming with girlish excitement, I asked my driver to stop by a convenience store, where I purchased a small carton of whole milk. I offered to her the lip of the tilted carton. Her small tongue hardly touched the liquid before the shudder of the truck splashed the contents into her face and onto my shirt. Her mouth found the drops of milk that collected on my pinky. The delicate suction of her mouth drew thick and foamy joy. I bottled the raw desire to squeeze her.
My happiness was shallow, but people in life transitions cling precisely to joys like these. Beneath, everything else had become a moving variable, a bag of marbles spilled onto the floor, making life hard to walk on. So I was grateful to be, for at least the rest of the ride, at peace with the surface of things: the bundle of my piglet’s body warm in the crook of my arm, the tickle of her tongue, the nibble of blunt baby teeth, the summer glaze over white-gold fields.
. . .
I decided on the name Zhuzhu. I wasn’t creative and had never been the kind of child to dote upon animals, live or fake. My sheltered childhood had cultivated a suspicion of them: the diseases they might carry, the germs they could bring in. But Zhuzhu never went out. She was mine with the exception of a charming predisposition towards the squares of sunlight that snuck through the window. She followed me out the door every morning and ran towards the rattle of my keys. She knew to stand still in the sink as I bathed her, and she knew to sit on my lap whenever I was on the ground, where I cried openly because there was no one to mask my homesickness from. She caught the snotty refuse that fell down my chin with her tongue.
No one else would ever know about Zhuzhu. Not even my parents, whom I called nearly every evening that year, my first year away from home.
“Be careful about going out in the evenings,” my father warned. “Have you seen the news? There’s been an increase in sexual assaults. Don’t go out if you don’t have to.”
“But you should go have fun,” my mother added.
“Be careful around men. Don’t drink too much around them.”
“Put yourself out there! You’ll never meet a boy unless you start putting yourself out there.”
At my age, my parents had me and jobs in a country with a language they could hardly speak. My accomplishments paled in comparison. But my mother had hope: She believed marrying would be the palliative to the aberrations which she refused to admit I possessed. She could not explain why her daughter struggled to perform tasks others did without thinking, but with a husband all the pieces would fall into place. On my own, I was incomplete.
“Have you tried—what was it called, Honey?— Timber? Our friend’s daughter brought home a really nice boy last weekend and they said they met there.”
There was a sense of urgency in our conversations, as though I was hurtling towards a deadline. I needed to be shipped out before I expired, like a package of meat. I needed to stop thinking so much, to stop making things complicated. To have the mind severed from the body and become someone observed rather than lived in.
I never knew why I called, but when they hung up the apartment was still. I had no friends, I didn’t like going out, having people in groups and people with other people to meet see me, alone.
“Hrumph,” Zhuzhu snorted, reminding me to breathe.
I patted her head. My palm formed a perfect crown over the curve of her padded skull. She welcomed it with a happy wiggle. Together, we looked out the window as though it was a single eye gazing down into the portion of the street swallowed by the building’s shadow.
. . .
It soon became clear that the family that sold me Zhuzhu had lied about her maximum size. I had thought that she was overfed when she reached the size of my pillow, but when I cut her diet, she continued to grow to the size of my coffee table.
She had long bored of milk. She craved fruits, then cheeses. When she was tired of that, she tried meat. Her taste buds demanded new textures and flavors outside of human digestibility. She was an omnivore in the truest sense. She chomped on paper—bills, ads, receipts—tore through leather—old boots, wallets, and purses.
Her appetite only made her more intelligent. On an unappeased stomach, she’d know to pound towards the fridge. The weight of her hunger rattled the furniture as though the pieces were nothing but jumping beans. She squealed as though I was torturing her. To prove otherwise, I gave in and allowed her one more bite.
She continued to grow to the size of the kitchen stove.
. . .
I bought groceries every evening until my card was declined. I had bags of food, enough to feed an entire family, crammed at the end of the conveyor belt and a line of people that swelled behind me as I fumbled for cash. In the end, all I could manage to leave with were four cans of soup and a globe of cabbage.
I meant to go home, but I overheard a man call his wife about donating their son’s old toys. He had in his hand a large trash bag, the contents inside bulging against the plastic. He turned the corner. I followed.
He stopped almost immediately before a large, metal bin. As my body irrevocably entered the man’s radius of attention, I grappled for escape routes. Out of fear of appearing awkward I started to turn around, muttering something about this being the wrong street.
“You’re in the right place. This is the donation drop off,” he said, nodding towards my cans.
I nodded, then rustled through the bag to stall for time until he left. I stood back up, meeting eyes with a homeless man across the street. I looked back down. I lifted the metal lid, and swiftly shot my hand into the bin, pulling out the trash bag of toys.
“You can’t do that! Hey you!” he screeched. Back out in the main street, no one seemed to give his cries so much as a glance before moving on.
Back at the apartment, I dumped the contents of the bag before Zhuzhu: a collection of trucks, action figures with faded faces, a porcelain piggy bank. She took a moment to examine my offerings with enlarged nostrils, then lopped off the peak of the pile with her tongue and ground the items down to synthetic mush.
Watching her made the entire ordeal worth it. The zest with which she ate filled me with an unrestricted ecstasy. It could’ve been love. As she continued to chew, mouth crackling with destruction, I wrapped my arms tightly around the thick of her neck. I felt the bulk of her meal slide down her throat.
“Rawr,” I squealed in adoration. I wanted to sink into her until my mind became simple flesh like her body. My arms parted green with bruises.
“Chomp, chomp,” Zhuzhu replied, then nipped my shoulder, signaling that her appetite had yet to be sated. “Chomp.”
. . .
From our window, Zhuzhu and I saw the kinds of things that took place when people thought no one was watching. We saw a woman ravish another’s face and a boy yank down his fly to take a leak. We watched an elderly lady leave a small cage. She looked around her, then looked up. I shut the curtains.
The next day, I received a message from my landlord about pets. As stated in the lease I signed, I was not allowed to have any. I reassured him I did not.
My landlord lived out of state but he apparently had a son in the city whom he sent to inspect my apartment anyway. He looked like a version of the boy next door that had gained fifty pounds and grown a beard. He whistled when he saw Zhuzhu spilled over the bathtub.
“Gee. I’ve heard stories of anacondas and apes, but you’re something else.”
I told him that Zhuzhu was actually not exotic at all and that I had picked her up only miles from the city. He shook his head.
“You’ve got a Vietnamese pot-bellied. Those farmers scammed you. I’ve read about this ‘mini-pig’ fad. It’s all marketing. With pigs, ‘mini’ can apply to species that grow up to four hundred, five hundred pounds.”
He was chatty, as naturally-liked people are apt to be. He could keep a whole conversation going on his own but at the same time made me feel as though I was good company nonetheless. I couldn’t help but like him. I didn’t think he would tell his father about Zhuzhu, but I never found the chance to bring it up because he asked to take me out to dinner. We exchanged numbers. He showed himself out.
He left me dumb and unsettled, my thoughts electric, my recent memory untouchable. I couldn’t revisit our conversation. I couldn’t so much as think without needing to pace or hum or do something. The back of my tongue rubbed against my throat, testing the presence of raw, acidic hope.
. . .
The following week, I was happy. I bathed my Zhuzhu every night and sat by the tub, imagining conversations.
“Did you know that pigs naturally love being clean? It’s actually overheated farms that make them roll around in mud,” I said.
“We’re the real monsters,” he’d say.
“Can you believe that she was only the size of my hand when I first got”—no—“saved her?”
On the night of the date, I was washing Zhuzhu when I suddenly became tired. The exhaustion was nothing new; I had expected it. Still, two hours passed and I was sitting by the tub, droplets of water fat on Zhuzhu’s small hairs. She sneezed. She might be sick, I thought. I made the definitive decision not to go. Immediately, I felt better.
I did not make it to dinner, but because I had fully intended to go until the last hour, I considered it good enough. While this isn’t how life works, it was the only way I functioned—through a series of small, self-constructed tests that allowed partial credit. Otherwise, I wasn’t sure what I amounted to.
“Next time,” I said, then vigorously rubbed the towel against her hot, broad back.
. . .
I recited my apology when he called. I told him Zhuzhu wasn’t feeling well.
“Last night?” Then: “Oh! You mean dinner. You’re fine. It’s actually tonight.”
“Tonight?” I asked blankly.
“Maybe you misremembered. How is Zhuzhu feeling?”
I thought it strange, nearly impossible, that I would misremember a conversation, seeing as I had so few. It was not typical of me.
“Can you still make it?”
“I’ll see you then,” I replied in spite of myself.
. . .
Zhuzhu was not used to the sight of me getting ready to leave in the evening.
“I’ll be back,” I promised.
She watched as I plucked, tugged, and smoothed myself in the mirror. No noise of protest escaped her. She breathed as she always did, deep and laden with warmth, but I read her lack of reaction as disappointment and could see, through her eyes, betrayal.
. . .
We had pizza and beer at the same bar. There was a game going on and people were yelling, pounding their fists on the counter, which made it difficult for my mind to register words. I mostly ate and watched him talk in mouthfuls. Tomato sauce dribbled from the corners of his oily lips and clung to his whiskers.
I didn’t know any better to think it was a good or bad date. I thought it was fine to have him walk me home. It was dark and I liked the thought of me next to him, of being seen with another person.
He kissed me at my apartment door, his tongue persistent between my lips. Up close, so close that I could feel him at the tips of my eyelashes, his skin was dark and cavernous. But when he saw that I wasn’t going to reach for my keys, he pulled back. The hallway lights flooded back into my vision.
“I’ll call you,” he said.
Before I had a chance to react or even so much see, he reached behind me. His palm cupped around the bottom of my ass. He squeezed.
I noticed after he left that my neighbors directly across from me had their door open, the two of them dressed to go out. They nodded in polite greeting and I reciprocated. I couldn’t see in their expressions any indication of having witnessed what had transpired, neither sympathy nor disgust, outrage nor embarrassment. I was almost convinced it didn’t happen, that my pent-up uncertainties and inexperience had conjured a ghost’s touch, but the lingering sensation of having my flesh tested only grew tighter and darker, a vine twisting up and around my stomach.
“Oh,” I felt the pain as I walked into my room. My fingers found a piece of glass buried in my heel.
Zhuzhu had eaten the mirror.
. . .
“What happened?” I whispered furiously that night, burying my mouth into her thickness, as though to persuade the past to resurface itself, to trade secrets through skin. “Why did you do that?”
Perhaps my sweet Zhuzhu’s sleep was impenetrable, but I was plagued with nightmares. I envisioned the glass tearing her beautiful mass from the inside: doll limbs, cotton innards, photographed faces, and broken watches congealed into a monstrosity that spilled from her body and etched itself onto the dark canvas of my room. My Zhuzhu, its many voices drummed with hunger, my dear Zhuzhu.
. . .
I looked up vets in the area. I searched the cost of renting a car to drive back to the farm. I turned over these ideas fully aware that I would ultimately never execute them, no matter how detailed the plan.
Meanwhile, Zhuzhu’s condition followed the course of my worries. Her steps became as ragged as her breath. She opened her mouth and exhaled heavy, rotten air. Her fur receded to the gray of fossilized meat. I panicked. I only knew to give her more. I made my evening rounds, returned to my massive love with the kinds of things people shed throughout their lives: more dismembered toys, more lovers’ jewelry, personal when they were theirs, public when lost. I became resourceful, efficient about my pickings. I found that the traditional adage, the best place to hide was in plain sight, held true especially in the case of the city, where only a person or two might witness my actions but, seeing that the majority of those around them had not, continued about their lives.
Still, however large my yield, it was never enough for my beloved. Her eyes turned fearfully white while she stormed about the room, leaving trails of fitful saliva.
The one time I coaxed her affection back to me was an accident: I had been watching a travel documentary when a herd of wild boar foraging for truffles appeared on the screen. Immediately entranced, my sweet Zhuzhu crawled out of her sulky disposition, sat by me, and allowed my head to rest against her sparse, hoary side as we watched the boars bury their snouts into dark soil. I felt air travel deep into her lungs, then travel slowly, delicately out her nostrils. I recognized that kind of breathing. The kind one practiced when confronted with something precious.
That month, I spent my entire earnings for a variety of exotic plants which I ordered online. Pot by pot, I flooded the apartment with Asian flowers, vines, a few fruits, all sustained under grow lamps that cast an alien light. Their presence transformed the room into a sauna, the air oppressive and dense, the walls slick with leafy exhaust.
Zhuzhu shivered. Yellow pus gathered in her tear ducts. She transformed into a monstrous-looking creature, more an invention of drama and symbol than earthly laws of moderation. Unable to afford the upkeep required of a man-made jungle, we were quickly surrounded by a skeletal thicket of plant remains.
On the morning of my birthday I woke up to an empty apartment excepting some papery, dead foliage and Zhuzhu, eyeing me with her whites, bloated beyond measure, her breath staggered and hot.
I knew I had done tremendous wrong by my innocent Zhuzhu. I was not the lover she deserved. She wanted so much and I had little. All I could offer was a lap in which to cradle her heavy head. I closed my eyes and spent the entire day holding her, summoning all my love into action.
. . .
We went out in the small hours of the night, when all that was left in the open streets were fluorescent halos of abandonment. I played the part of a human collar, my arms wrapped tightly around Zhuzhu’s neck as she puffed vigorously, inhaling the ghosts of the day. Like a shepherd, I guided her hobbling towards the corner of the apartment, where no one would see her rummage through the trash.
Zhuzhu huffed and pushed through the contents, nothing that she hadn’t already tasted. She snorted and turned with slow effort before finding the abandoned cage. Inside, a tight-eyed kitten rasped. Its siblings remained motionless.
Before she could further investigate, phlegm-filled croaking emerged from the wall.
“Let’s go, Zhuzhu,” I said softly, careful not to startle the man huddled by the cage. Beneath the tarp, he could’ve been mistaken for another trash bag, his body dissolved in shadow except for the whites of his eyes.
He opened his mouth and unleashed an unintelligible, angry barking. The tarp rustled in loud protest as he started to get up. I started back towards the main street, but Zhuzhu pressed closer.
“Zhuzhu,” I pleaded, raising my voice over the din.
Her snout came up to his face and her shadow enveloped the rest of his body. I heard no sound of acknowledgement of my calling out to her in her heavy breathing. She did not recognize her name. She was my one and only. Never during my time alone with her did I have reason to use it.
“Zhuzhu!” I tried again and again nonetheless. Panic sheared my voice to an unrecognizable pitch. I anticipated the pressing presence of roused onlookers. The number of lighted windows multiplied in the periphery.
With one crack the man began to shriek and I watched Zhuzhu, unused to the resistance, pause, as though surprised. She looked to me with her jaws slack, her flat teeth stained, the throat beyond her blackened tongue like an otherworldly portal.
“Let’s go,” I said one last time.
She held me at a distance, in a gaze of recognition. She knew to wait for me to leave.
I returned to my apartment without her. I hadn’t registered its emptiness until then. It was as if I had never lived here. There was nothing to sit on, nowhere to sleep. Not even a clock present to fill the silence with time. I pulled aside the curtains and made out Zhuzhu, the mass of her still shifting in the building’s shadow. From the height of my window, she looked as small as she had been when I first held her. If I cupped my hand and lifted it against the glass, she could fit atop my palm. •