You came to America because you had a dream, and now that you’re here the dream is like that song on the radio with the title you can never remember, sung by the woman with a large voice. There are large dreams and smaller, more easily tackled dreams, like clouds in your coffee or tiny forkfuls of meat cut out from a large rump steak, and in the morning you try to tell your husband about the small dream you had recently.
“I dreamt that I was a bird, except I wasn’t flying,” you say. “I was lying on the road, run over by a heavy truck.” Sunlight enters from a window, streaking the bed you share. In the dream, you were both on the road and watching from the sky, a god. You saw your sharp bird bones jutting from the stretch of your jugular. Your intestines were spread outside of you as well, arranged neatly beside your carcass. “What could it mean?”
“It means you should watch before you cross the street,” your husband says, squeezing your thigh under his own, and you know two things: Your husband doesn’t believe in premonitions. Your husband is a good man. You know this from the patient way he scrubs oil from dishes, the quiet way he makes love to you. He loves you, but there are some things you keep from him.
You don’t tell him that one of the girls from class, Tracy, has told you about a new business opportunity. The company is called Vitatonix, and it mostly sells different kinds of vitamins — tangerine orange vitamin C powder, grape-flavored magnesium chews, digestive enzyme tablets that dissolve into bright cadmium in water — but also a line of dietary, weight-loss inducing supplements with names such as TrimTea, CORE! Fat & Carb Inhibitor, or LadyBURN (with Omega 3).
Tracy says you can do the business all by yourself. Last year, she went to an international conference for the company in Miami. In Miami, Tracy told you, she stayed in a villa looking over a green golf course, where, beyond the gilded front doors, there was a fountain with granite dolphins jumping in midair. The conference showed her that even she, with only a degree from an agricultural vocational school in Beijing, could become an independent distributor (Vitatonix’s term for a business owner) on her own.
Tracy has sent you tapes from the conference, and you push them into the VCR like coins into a gumball machine, watching each one sizzle to life on your old television set in green static patches. Your favorite tape is a speech from the company’s CEO, a man named JP Thompson. JP wears violet-tinted sunglasses and an open blazer, revealing the sweat stain flowering across his chest. In the tape, JP stands on a stage before an arena full of Vitatonix distributors. “Our number one product: belief,” he shouts into his headset microphone, raising his arms, the motley crowd cheering. “Belief in a business built on people, built by people.” His armpits are drenched. He stands in front of a huge LED screen displaying graphics of tiny, pimpled fireworks.
“Let’s take a look at the life of someone named Mr. John Nobody,” JP says. He is never really speaking, but always yelling in a voice that is focused and urgent. In an instant, men wearing black roll a coffin onto the stage. For a minute, you think there is a real body in there. The stage fills with white fog, and a tombstone rumbles out from the floor. The men in black vanish. The tombstone is plastic, engraved with HERE LIES JOHN NOBODY / 1955–. The crowd guffaws.
“All his life, John hasn’t had any dreams. He hasn’t done shit.” JP lifts the lid and climbs into the coffin, the audience roaring. “He kicked the bucket and there was nothing in the bucket. He let other people down. Now, do you want to be like John?” he yells.
“No,” the crowd yells back.
“Now, do you have a dream?”
“I said,” stepping out from the coffin, moving the boulder, “do you have a dream?”
Another deer has been struck, splayed on the road by your house. You notice it on the way back from the supermarket, walking alone on a sidewalk ridden with patches of flora, littered grocery bags. Your husband is in the lab and you are making dinner, but the supermarket has run out of tofu. You’ve always imagined dead deer to be beautiful or poetic. This one is on its side, almost comically fat, its belly ruptured pink.
The largest dream you’ve come close to: the news that your husband was hired by the laboratory — a sprawling complex that covers a 500-acre swath of land in this little town. It’s the town’s industrial heart; the matching condominiums, shopping centers and forested developments all seemed to grow around the lab. You glimpse the glass facade of the building when you and your husband take the car to the city — a behemoth of steel, nine stories glaring at you behind towering oaks — but you’ve never been inside the complex.
Your husband says little of his job, but the details he offers you never fail to enthrall you. “You should see the horn antenna at the lab. Really the only thing worth seeing anymore,” he tells you. “They once used it to measure the distance between galaxies. It’s also where they discovered important radiation.”
“What does that mean?” The two of you are eating dinner on plastic storage boxes in the unpacked dining room. It’s the first time you’ve seen him all day. The house is peacefully vacant, animals clicking outside in the dusk.
“Pigeons kept shitting on the horn antenna. They heard this low, static hum all the time and nobody knew what it was. Everyone thought it was pigeon shit, or traffic from New York. So they scraped the pigeon shit out, but the sound was still there.”
“What was the sound, then?”
He scrapes the bottom of his bowl clean. “Cosmic background radiation. Evidence of the Big Bang.”
Before this town, this lab, you lived in a tight condominium, in a neighborhood where there was more to do than memorize the colors of cars passing your window. (Today: black, then red, then silver car, almost 30 minutes apart.) Before, there was a Cantonese grocery store a block away. All the women, wives of Chinese engineers, would walk there together, gossiping at the seafood stand as the workers sliced the scales off of red trouts. What’s your husband doing now? I heard Vicky is pregnant? How are they going to live? Three people in that terrible, tiny apartment? On Saturday mornings, you all packed into a vacant middle school classroom for ESL. The instructor was a much older, Taiwanese woman with a soft mustache, who you suspected did not like anyone in the class at all. She never taught, only left the audio recording on loop as she read pulp novels, propped on her jiggling stomach. The recordings were nursery rhymes recited by a room of schoolchildren:
Maids in the kitchen;
Maids in waiting.
In this new home, there are moving boxes everywhere: lining the hallways, dotting the floor of the living room. Here, the blinds are always open. Here, it occurs to you that, since the houses are so far apart, you can leave all the windows open, walk around the house naked and no one would notice. Here, the supermarkets are full of wealthy wives, who wear shirts that seem made for Roman matrons, and never have tofu.
While your husband is away, you work diligently, quietly through the Vitatonix tapes. Your husband doesn’t know, and you feel guilty, almost perverted — as if masturbating. In this tape, How to Start with Nothing and Gain Everything!, JP is still on the arena stage. This time, he is standing next to a human-sized hamster wheel. Pyrotechnics explode behind him.
“You go to work every day,” he says to the nodding crowd, sunglasses shifting on his wrinkled nose. “And it’s all the same, right? All the same. And what do you do?”
A woman cries: We love you, JP! He starts taking off his blazer.
“I’ll tell you what you’re doing.” He puts one black dress shoe on the wheel, watching it teeter. “You’re running the rat race.” He is walking steadily now. “You’re working hard, and you’re conned into believing you can make it,” he says, panting a little. He starts a steady jog, round belly jiggling under his white shirt. “You think, I’m gonna get a job, and my dreams will come true. That’s what your parents tell you, that’s what school tells you, that’s what life tells you.” He runs faster, and the wheel creaks, shrieks, his sunglasses fogging. “So you keep running faster and faster, but you don’t realize” — crowd cheering, wheel spinning, and you worry that this little man will lose his balance — “that you’re not getting anywhere. Nowhere.”
Tracy comes to talk to you about Vitatonix. It’s nighttime when you let her in. Your husband’s in the lab, and the streets, as always, are silent, save for the clicking of cicadas. You imagine existing as one of these patient insects, always heard, never seen.
“It’s called the five-year plan,” Tracy says over a bowl of sunflower seeds. “The first, second and third year are all about products, just buying them in bulk and selling them to people you know.” She cracks a seed between her teeth, tonguing out the pulp. “The fourth year is about recruitment — getting everyone to join the Vitatonix family. By the fifth year, you’ll make almost fifty grand.”
“And what year are you in?”
“This is only my second year with Vitatonix,” spitting out shell, blackened pulp, “but you know Lily? She tried TrimTea for a week, lost half of her waist. And Wei? His grandfather had colon cancer. But he drank a glass of C every day, every day for half a year, and now he doesn’t have to do chemo anymore.”
Some nights you’re a headless animal, writhing on the parkway. A car passes. In the driver’s seat, you see your sister, one hand on the wheel, another on her cell phone.
“Wei Yu,” she says into it. Her voice sounds an ocean away. “Ba needs to talk to you.” Your dream collages memory: Your father’s cigarettes in the toilet, yellowing the water; your father locking the bedroom door. Other nights, the new language becomes shards of sunflower seed in your throat. You cough it up, pulling out dead things along the way.
Then your dream crescendoes, vividly, fearfully. You’re in an empty arena. The seats echo in silence.
JP is on the stage, dressed in white, an open coffin beside him. “Do you want to live like John Nobody?” he bellows. Static shoots through your vision, a violent green, then magenta, then blue.
You decide to sign up for a year’s worth of Vitatonix products. Each month, a new shipment comes through the door. Ten pounds of Vitatonix Vitamin C Health Mix. Boxes and boxes of Vitatonix TrimFit Protein Bars. Packets of magenta magnesium. The storage closet on the first floor, which you keep locked, becomes a Vitatonix buffet, and you love the way everything looks, stored neatly, color-coded on the shelves. You imagine showing guests the smorgasbord of supplements, a rich man showing off his wine cellar.
“Where are all the boxes coming from?” your husband asks. “I thought we had finished unpacking.”
“I’m just sorting out some stuff.” You can’t tell him. Telling him about the business would be as pathetic as a child showing a scribbled drawing to a parent.
You play the tapes when he’s at work.
“Welcome to the Million Dollar Club at Vitatonix!” JP is standing in a line with a multiracial group of Vitatonix distributors, all wearing clean suits, all smiling. “Everyone here is a Vitatonix distributor who has earned over a million dollars — one million dollars! — in commissions.” Behind them, a green golf course stretches toward the sea, and you hear the waves, or perhaps static.
Each distributor takes the viewer on a house tour. Pablo, from Cuba, leads you through his gilded mansion. You follow him through the marble kitchen, the winding staircase, the bathroom with a gold toilet, a man so wealthy he could shit on gold. “This is my pool house,” he says, standing next to a building bigger than your own house. “Usually we have the in-laws stay there when they visit.” The final shot: Pablo on the balcony, the blue horizon blanketing the golf course behind him. “This life,” he exhales, “this life, this life…”
You understand the fauna here — their stillness, how they exist, hushed, among the concrete developments. The robins making home in barren trees. The families of deer grazing on drying lawns.
On the last day of ESL, when you and the other women started packing to leave, the instructor rose from her seat. You thought it might have been the only time you’ve seen her stand, this stout, humorless woman.
“It has truly been a pleasure teaching you,” she had said. No one was listening. “I will miss you all,” she spoke again, after a pause. Then, as everyone began to walk out the door, the old woman started crying. She turned away so no one would see her face. You remember that, in a subtle way, this hurt you, the same hurt from your father’s burning cigarette, pressing into your eye, your body locked in a room.
You and your husband still eat dinner on storage boxes. He is telling you about his work in the lab. He’s even brought back a recording for you.
“It’s fascinating, how they found the radiation,” he says. Tofu sloshing in his bowl. “You point an antenna at a dark spot in the sky, expecting to get nothing, but you get this pattern of microwave emission that no one’s ever heard before.” You love watching him talk about the lab, the radiation — the way his eyes move, wildly, brilliantly.
He moves the cassette to your ear. “Listen,” he commands, and you do. The static sounds like waves on a distant strait.
You’re a doe, a doe with no head. In this dream. You wake, shaking your husband please please please believe me I didn’t have a head and he soothes shhhhh it’s okay, it’s okay, my love, stroking your hair, the hair on your head, your head still part of your body.
You see the same women at the grocery store each time you go, beautiful Italian wives who wear white dresses and jewelry that rings, clanging against their pretty wrists. You see the same deer on your walk back home from the store. Its flesh has turned gray. Fat, shelled insects have made home in its gut. You wonder how long it will stay there and you’re tempted to drag it off into the forest. Let some house cat devour it.
The boxes keep coming in. You sort them into the closet, same order: the pills in a storage bin, the protein bars in a jar, the powder packets filed like magazines.
“When were you first able to sell everything?”
“I haven’t.” You can almost hear Tracy shrug over the phone. “It usually takes time to build a buyer network.”
“You have one of two choices when you fail.” This tape features a younger JP, shoulder padded and mulleted, thinner. He is no longer on an arena stage, but in a smaller, carpeted room, with pews of people bookending him. “You can either say, ‘Poor, miserable me. Why does it always happen to me?’” He mimics an infant’s wailing.
The last time you visit Beijing, your father is dying, illness eating at his pancreas. “I have something for you, Ba,” you tell him over his hospital bed. He is only half your father now — most of his body wired, gauzed. Your mother and sister ward him from you. The room is stale with urine.
“Or,” JP says, raising his voice, his hands, “you can make the best out of it you possibly can. You go back and talk with more enthusiasm than you ever did before, the enthusiasm that makes 10 sales, right?” The audience murmurs in agreement.
“These products, they work,” you tell your sister. “Please.”
Young JP paces across the stage, steadily. “It’s all about your attitude. When things fall apart on you — your people drop out, you can’t make a sale — you can still make a pitch.”
“Do you think we’re so cheap?” your sister asks, almost spitting. “That you want to give these fucking placebos to us?”
The crowd hangs on to every bit of JP’s language. “Act like you’ve already sold something.” You question why he ever needed the hamster wheel, the pyrotechnics, the pageantry. He is one of the most magnetic speakers you’ve ever heard.
“My friend, Tracy, knows someone who used them. He took vitamin C for a year, and he saved his colon. I’m not trying to sell these, I’m trying to save him.”
“You’re not his doctor. We’re not your clients.”
The key is—
“He should try the aloe drink,” you say. Your father wheezes on his bed. “He doesn’t have to be here. If you could take him back home…”
—to stop complaining, stop whining and start doing.
Your sister slaps you, crying, “Do you think we’re so cheap?” and it feels exactly like when the Italian women in the grocery store refuse your products, or when your husband finds the storage closet full of vitamin powders, dietary supplements, protein bars spilling out of containers. “What is this?” he asks. “What have you been doing?”
On the screen of your television, JP Thompson has stopped speaking. He is sweating again, panting. “You can go as far as you want to go,” he says to the heavens.
Your husband hasn’t come home yet, and dinner is cold. There are creatures screaming into the night air, chilling as it nears autumn. You put on your coat.
The sidewalks outside are barely sidewalks; you dodge patches of garbage, grass. A dog yaps in the darkness. The houses in the neighborhood are solitary, silent beasts. Some have lights on inside; some flicker blue from television sets. In one house, two children sit on a couch, and you think they are watching an episode of Jeopardy!, blue and gold light bathing the living room. Dead things all over this path — crushed ants, cicada shells, a flattened bird wing.
The laboratory comes like a whale out of the sea. It bursts through the trees and night with its glass and reflection, this massive, modernist brute. You see the moon reflected on the slanted, glass roof. The heavy doors swing open. You step in.
The lab is black and empty. From the inside, it looks like a beehive, with layers of darkened hallways, a wide atrium. Silence across the hallways. You are searching for your husband, waiting for his shape to emerge from one of the honeycombs.
“Zhuan?” you call, and the atrium calls back, Zhuan? Zhuan? Zhuan? mockingly.
There is no one here. Nothing but windows. You look out of one, at the night sky, listening for the universe or insects. For a minute, you can see your future. You live in a bigger house, in the kind of neighborhood where you know all your neighbors, where your neighbors cook casseroles and bring them to each other, where you get together for community barbecues. There’s a pool, an in-law suite. You and your husband have children. A boy and girl. You watch them play in your green backyard, standing behind the screen door. There is hot food on the table. You are very happy.
Come in, you call to them, the smell of dusk on the block. Time for dinner. They keep playing, not looking at you.
Come, you call again, but they can’t hear you. They’ve stopped listening.