In Less Than 365 Days

By Jennifer Tan

I knew a lot had changed in my part of town since I left because cafes had cropped up all over the place, like small checker pieces from other boards migrating over to ours.
The luxury of time was absent in our neighborhood.
Rush hour lasted all day — 9-to-5 luxuries weren’t afforded to all. There were shifts throughout the 24 hours, physical labor was not confined to the parameters of 8-hour work days; time was actual money, as in every minute not working was spent worrying — worrying about bills, debt, food for the night.

The best part about working your bones until you can no longer feel your muscles is the brain-deadness that comes with it.

Summer was always the easiest time to spot the labored — that is, if you couldn’t already tell from their worn faces and their short tempers when their children asked them for more. The dead giveaways were the neuron-shaped varicose veins that snaked their way from soles of feet to calves to thighs, marking their territory.
A visceral badge of labor.
But when I saw the cafe from across the street the first time I returned, full of glasses reading, eyes wandering on screens, laughing mouths sipping from thick-rimmed cups, my immediate reaction was to peer inside at the skin color of the time-abundanced.
Where had this time come from? Where does it live? Is it shareable?

When I was young, my grandmother told me that time was a luxury for those with light skin, and since mine was so dark, I had better get used to washing clothes and cleaning homes.
But my neighbors who used to live across the street, those whose lives I peered into from time to time through our bedroom curtains, always looked tired, worn, and ragged — and yet, their skin was light. So I was confused. When my grandmother called, I told her about them. They seemed to never be home, I told her.

A house without any bodies.
I heard their car leave early in the morning, around the same time I used to walk over to the elementary school, and they would return 14, sometimes 15, hours later.
When they returned, they looked the same, except for their bodies. Their pale-colored skin looked gray. Their arms and legs moved as if unattached to a brain, as if, were it not for muscle memory, they wouldn’t be moving at all. I didn’t know where they spent their lives, but they perpetually smelled of cooking oil.
In her hair, in his shorts, in the wrinkle creases around her eyes, the smell seemed to live more comfortably in their home than they did.
But they are light-skinned, grandma.
Even through the phone, I saw her eyebrows raised in surprise and disbelief.
They are white people, she said — she asked.
It was unclear because the end of her sentence didn’t float up melodiously into a question mark.
Well, I said. I think they are Chinese.
She scoffed and said, Of course, they probably work in one of those takeout restaurants that serve over-sauced food to mask the poor quality. The Chinese work hard. But they are not white. You must never confuse these two. Some Chinese have money and even think they are better than you.
I nodded the whole time she spoke until she abruptly hung up.

My grandmother cleans 40 homes a week. She never meets the faces or bodies of those she cleans for, but she knows them, their habits, what they consume, their life in material goods.
There’s Good Man, whom she wants me to meet.
He occasionally leaves a few dishes, all rinsed beforehand so their former contents are a mystery. Good Man wears button-up shirts that require ironing and come in colors called fuchsia, winter green, and Bali blue. His apartment is sparse and neat and the only items inside his fridge are 5 to 7 gallons of whole milk (at any time) and ketchup. Grandma says we can overlook the ketchup since he is still rich, after all.
Rich peoples homes dont carry ketchup. Their food is full of flavors and health. They dont need a condiment full of artificialness, she once told me.
The apartment complex he lives in only houses lawyers, doctors, people in finance, fashion, and (now) technology. Grandma says Good Man is a sympathetic doctor who saves the young and the old on a daily basis, looking deep into their eyes as he tells them he won’t give up on them.
Good Man is a good man, the kind I should marry.

Then there is Sex Dirty Man.
Grandma hates cleaning his apartment the most.
Even though he lives alone, she finds colorful thin thin panties all over — stuffed in the sides of sofa cushions, hidden inside pillowcases, underneath rugs, and once, on top of the stove, inside a lidded pot. They come in bright colors like orange, yellow, and green, but also in deep shades of red, purple, and black. They are sometimes feathered, other times lacy. Grandma says they belong to different women because there is no way that one woman could possibly own so many thin thin panties. The apartment has a stench so foul she wears a face mask when she cleans Sex Dirty Man’s place. His fridge is almost always empty and takeout containers line the floor like ants marching to their fortress, except these ants never make it to the trash can where they belong.

Pill bottles, lipstick, a half-eaten turkey leg, used condoms — all things grandma once found in the bathtub.
You must never be with a man like Sex Dirty Man, she tells me.
He is a bad man, irresponsible and careless.

I wondered how she knew he was bad.

I once looked around the small room we rented and wondered if grandma would think I’m bad. Almost all the clothes I owned lived on the floor, some with half their legs or arms in my suitcase and the other half covering the colorfully-stained carpet. I never made my bed and usually burrowed back in at the end of a long day — I enjoyed coming home to a bed and blanket perfectly molded to my body’s shape, like it was waiting for me.

Was I a bad person?

Grandma hadn’t visited since we paid the deposit; it used to take her almost three hours each time she came to pay the monthly rent. This was before we moved 35 blocks down from the old high school, the one with the rusted metal fence and the dimly lit hallways where I had a locker of belongings for two years, before I started working full-time at the supermarket and part-time at the restaurant. Before we were told about the increase. Grandma said nothing when our landlord of 12 years apologized. I had stood in the hallway with her, watching her watch the tiled floor as he gestured. She had continued staring long after his hand left her shoulder, long after his back had disappeared.
White tile, white tile, black tile.
White tile, white tile, black tile.
White tile, white tile, black tile.

I had never seen grandma cry.
She whimpered between the loud breaths, crying silently as if sobbing loudly were a luxury, as if sobbing were reserved for those who had an audience capable of intervening.
Even grandma’s tears were unselfish — they stayed hidden instead of leaving their marks.
After that day, I saw the tiles whenever I closed my eyes.
White tile, white tile, black tile.
White tile, white tile, black tile.
White tile, white tile, black tile.


The last time grandma called, her voice was full of excitement. I was at home after work when the phone rang. By the fifth ring, I could almost hear her impatience. I was wincing in pain with my neighbor, room No. 1, banging on the bathroom door, telling me she would go on my bedroom floor if I didn’t open the door immediately.

I was breathing heavily with the roll of toilet paper still in my hand.
My stomach quivers had started when I clocked in for my morning shift earlier that day. Two hours later, I was keeling over the register and taking change like a hunchback, greeting customers with my scalp and long dark hair. My supervisor delivered a monologue about laziness, excuses, and youth when I told him about my pains.

Even though I’d always been timely to my shifts, he often berated me about my tardiness, confusing me with Sheila and Terese, both girls who also had skin too dark for the luxury of time. $4.53 is your change, thank you and have a nice day, I told the middle-aged man who stared at me with suspicion as I peered up at him with my outstretched hand. When the collar of my blouse turned a deep blue and sweat escaped from my pores and congregated in my eyebrows like a Sunday church service, I took off my cashier apron and ran for the doors. I knew that the next day, I’d be forced to sit in the office in the dark to re-watch employee training video No. 2: How To Greet Customers To Ensure Their Return; it was the longest video and we weren’t paid the hour and 43 minutes it took to watch it. But for now, I ran the five blocks, unlatched the gate, and bolted up the flight of stairs.

I heard the ringing coming from my room and almost dropped the roll of toilet paper in my lap.
After our routine greeting, grandma’s high-pitched tone disappeared and the smile abruptly faded from her sentences. Sex Dirty Man’s apartment no longer surprised her and she had become bored of the thin thin panties scavenger hunt. Grandma was even calm when she detailed the nine furry patches of mold growing inside the takeout containers she found in the fridge.

But still, I imagined grandma excitedly pointing with her index finger,
One, two, three, four, five… six, seven, eight…
The white boxes were marked, “DO NOT THROW” using a pen that was already on its death bed so that without the deep indents in the Styrofoam, it read “DC NCT THI O V.” She had only opened them to confirm what she already knew:

a filthy filthy man.

The kind I could never marry, never date, never befriend.
Grandma listed her grievances against him and I made a mental note of all the characteristics my future husband could never have.
I stopped at, leaves lumps of toothpaste in sink, how wasteful.
Grandma had moved on.
Her curvy, twirling words returned as soon as they had left.
I have wonderful news. Ive sent you some mail that will make everything better.
Life will be better.

Whiter, Lighter, Better.
That was the name of the cream grandma sent me.
It was recommended by one of the maids whose youngest daughter had skin darker than mine. Grandma said the maid showed them a photo of the girl so she was sure of it.
Skin so dark no man would want it passed down to his children.
The girl was fair-looking but was cursed with her father’s sun-beaten, worn look, the kind that announced her destiny to the world. Even though she spent most of her childhood indoors and under umbrellas, outdoors — because that sun was always lurking, even when you couldn’t see it — her skin became shades darker as she got older, like a newly-opened leaf whose color spectrum only moved in one direction. She had started using the cream a year ago and just last week, she became newly engaged and was promoted at work.
Can you imagine? You are much prettier than her and maybe you wont even need to use it for one year. But just to be safe.
Only 365 days.
After that (or even before), life will be better.
Everything will work out now.

Grandma started calling twice a week, sometimes three, to ask for updates.
I stopped hearing about Sex Dirty Man, or even Good Man. There used to be other men, too.
Small Small Man, Sticky Man, Man Woman Man, Plant Man.
All these men whose lives I was no longer allowed to peer into.
She began each call the same way.
What is happening now?
What has changed?
I told grandma about the new shifts I picked up at the restaurant and the difference between daytime tippers and nighttime tippers.
What else?
The menus were re-laminated and the diner walls were re-painted.
What else?
After I told grandma about Sheila’s divorce and all of us comforting her after work, how her husband packed his clothes and some of hers, too, grandma hung up and didn’t call me for a week.

I started taking long walks because I could never just let the phone ring.
Early mornings before my shift and late at night after, I walked.
Circling became 10 blocks and 10 blocks easily became 20 blocks.
When I finally made it 35 blocks back to the other side of town, I didn’t realize that it had already been two years since we moved, two years since I’d last been there. The street names hadn’t changed; I checked to make sure because some buildings were the same and others were not. It felt familiar, like in a dream when you instinctively know where you are even though the colors, shapes, and sizes did not add up, even if nothing added up, even if nothing stayed the same, even if entire buildings no longer existed and in their place were rubble and a blue sky, a sky bluer than you remembered.

That’s when I saw the cafe across the street. That’s when I stopped and stared.
It was full of glasses reading, eyes wandering on screens, and laughing mouths sipping from thick-rimmed cups.
I stood there for five white walking mans and six red stop hands.
I didn’t cross the street.
The next day, I called grandma and thanked her for the cream, told her about the changes in our old neighborhood, and how I would soon be visiting the cafes, in less than 365 days.

Headshot of Jennifer Tan

Jennifer Tan is a born and raised New Yorker from Queens. She writes fiction and non-fiction, often on topics of race, class, and feminism. She has been published in Open City Magazine, Asian American Writers’ Workshop and was recently awarded a scholarship to attend Hedgebrook VORTEXT, and was accepted as a VONA/Voices Fellow and will be attending VONA/Voices 2016 at the University of Miami.

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