Hot Tub

Shanhu Lee

Ko Pha Ngan

Whenever I am in the hot tub,

I feel I haven’t looked at my body

For a long time.

I discover a red spot on my leg,

Bitten by the brown recluse spider,

I find acne on my belly.

I stretch my legs as long as I can

To reach the far side of the bathtub.

I let my body sink into lilac-scented bubbles,

I contain my arms in the hot water,

I close my eyes.

Then I sigh, deep & long.

Each time in the hot tub,

I feel I haven’t seen my body for a long time.

My skin is rough, my bones ache.

It seems this body doesn’t belong to me.

Seems this body doesn’t need a man,

Who wants to admire me.

How did this happen?

When I am in the hot tub,

I think of Ko Pha Ngan,

The pristine beach and coconut soup.

But I cannot remember

What I have done today.

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Dingle Peninsula

Featured at Rattlecast 139 (1:49)

Shanhu Lee

Cicadas and crickets cry aloud,

compose a waggish orchestra. A garden spider

sways between layers of silk net, like an old

woman shuffles in the moonlight.

Camelia blooms. Crepe Myrtle

jaded. Chanterelles all me from the woods

on this September night. Air smells

like the sea—

as if I was on the Dingle Peninsula.

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Lobster Dream

Shanhu Lee

Maine Lobster Festival

Last night, I had a lobster dream.

In my dream, I was at the Maine Lobster Festival with a whole bunch of people.

They were eating fresh boiled giant red lobsters. The lobsters were not cooked well, so some of them were still moving on the table, stretching their legs, sprawling and rattling.

And everyone was naked. Their loose skins were hanging from their decayed bodies, and they used their bare hands trying to grab the half-alive lobsters and open the shells and eat the half-cooked-half-alive meats. And red-yellow colored blood was dripping from the mouths and hands of people. Their hands were long and bent and moving clumsily, like lobster legs.

I could not tell the difference between lobster-eating human beings and half-dead-half-alive lobsters.

They were all immersed together into a group of mad wild animals.

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Bluebird

Shanhu Lee

Birds & Blooms

I have a complicated relationship with bluebirds.

I read from Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project that bluebirds are a symbol of happiness.

I bought a watercolor painting of a bluebird from Boulder Arts Festival during my sabbatical and it has been hanging on my bedroom wall for more than a decade. In my kitchen, I have another oil painting of a little bluebird. Every morning I drink coffee with my favorite bluebird mug, eat my toast on a bluebird plate. So I had a wonderful relationship with bluebirds, until this spring. 

I saw a baby bluebird on the front porch when I took my dog, Aspen, out for a walk. Maybe a half-size of a robin. Crawling slowly. Aspen immediately attacked it. I quickly pulled Aspen hard, and gently released the little bird.

Then, suddenly two large bluebirds, perhaps daddy and mommy birds, were flying straight at me and attacking my head. I had to instantly pull my fleece jacket over my ears. Good thing that I had a baseball cap and sunglasses on. The birds were striking my head over and over. I was screaming but the birds did not reduce the speed and they would swing in the air and struck at Aspen’s little head.

After we finally went to the street and walked for about 20 minutes and then returned to our front yard, the two bluebirds were still waiting on our porch and started to attack us again. 

Now we made enemies with bluebirds.

Bluebirds seem to not know that I do not eat animals, especially I do not eat birds. 

How can I make bluebirds forgive me? I want to have a good relationship with bluebirds because I still believe that bluebirds are a symbol of happiness, even though I am scared of them every time I see them, even when I drive. 

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Big Shot

Shanhu Lee

When I came to a small college town in Ohio for a job interview at a state university, Nick came to the airport to pick me up.

We introduced ourselves and shook our hands. He had an enormously wide shoulder, attached to bulky and short arms like swollen balloons. He stood upright before my nose, his green eyes were staring at me like burning torches. I could hear his heavy breaths from his nose and mouth. Then suddenly he grabbed one of my hands and said, “Girl, I will take care of you.”

Nick told people in the university that he was a big shot in the biotechnology field. I was also in the same field, but I had not heard of his name before the interview.

Shortly after I was hired as the first and only female faculty member in the 38 years of the department history, one day, Nick appeared in my office. He sat down across the desk without saying a word, staring at me, the two torches burning again like wildfires.

I waited a minute for him to speak, but he was silent, only staring at me. I started talking slowly, then faster and faster. I started to sweat. I took my sweater off over my head. Beneath the sweater, I had a long-sleeve green shirt on. He was still staring at me, in the same manner of someone looking at Michelangelo at Uffizi. After about a half-hour, speaking alone, I finally gave up and turned to my computer as a polite signal that I needed to go back to my work. Mike slowly stood up, with his thick arms still crossed, and left my office, without a word.

When I looked down, the second and third buttons of my shirt from the top were unclosed and my red bra was visible from the wide-open spade-shaped slit.

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Pearl Necklace

Shanhu Lee

Pearl

I have had this beautiful pearl necklace for more than 30 years. When I was a graduate student in Japan, someone presented this to me. Someone badly wanted to go out with me.

Japanese people dress like they just jumped out from the Vogue magazine. Every woman wears expensive designer clothes and several pieces of beautiful jewelry and carries the same Channel handbag. It was 1990. I just came from China. Back then, China was still very poor and I had only ugly cheap clothes. Then someone presented me with this pearl necklace out of nowhere on Christmas.

It came with a gorgeous gift box which had a lovely silver ribbon. It was wrapped in hundreds of layers of soft peach-colored papers and placed inside an outlandishly large shopping bag. The ivory-colored pearls were breathtakingly beautiful. They looked noble, very special. It was such an extraordinary piece of jewelry that I had never tried to wear it. Even when I went to friends’ weddings, I didn’t dare to wear the necklace. I was afraid I would lose it when I was drunk or dancing and I would not notice it.

When I moved from apartment to apartment, from country to country, from continent to continent, and even when traveling for conferences, I always carried the necklace in my purse. It was a nervous-breaking task to keep this valuable piece of jewelry with me wherever I was traveling.

Last year, during the Pandemic lockdown, I became very sentimental and started to look at my precious necklace and wondered what I would do with it if I caught COVID or I would die suddenly. I started to wear the pearl necklace in my house, with my pajama on, indulged myself in the reflection of the dazzling pearls in the mirror. I regretted having not worn it at all these years.

It occurred to me I would like to know how much it would be worth. I brought it to a jewelry store to ask about its market price. The guy, who was in his 60s, with a huge belly and big chest, studied the pearls with a microscopic magnifying glass and looked at me. Then he said, “They are not pearls. They are glasses.”

I was shocked, I felt I almost fainted out.

He asked me aloud, “Do you want to know why I say they are faked?” He placed the pearls in a glass of soap water, and quickly I saw some thin plastic foils peering out from each peal and floating in the water.

I came back home, and put the entire necklace into the soap water inside a large soup bowl, and waited until every pearl lost its plastic foils. I took the necklace out and gently rubbed it in a bath towel. Now each glass-pearl became completely nude and looked even brighter than before without plastic wrapping.

So all these years, I kept this faked glass-pearl necklace as the most valuable thing I owned in my life and did not wear even a single time.

The next day, I dressed up in crispy white shirts and a black skirt with black tights and went to another bigger jewelry store. I had my faked pearl necklace on me, I also had diamond earrings and a blue sapphire ring. A good-looking woman in the store instantly noticed me when I entered the store and smiled warmly towards me. I pulled out my necklace and handed it to her, “Could you tell me if they are real pearls or not?”

This blond middle-aged woman had many diamond rings on her fingers. She looked at my pearl necklace carefully and told me cheerfully: “Yes, they are real. They are gorgeous. They are really beautiful.”

I smiled back to her, “I had this for 30 years and this is the first time I am wearing it outside of my home.” As I walked out of the store, I still felt her brown eyes following my back.

Since then I have started to wear this precious faked pearl necklace. I always see someone admiring my necklace as if I was wearing some expensive real South Sea pearls.

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Shadow of Delights

Shanhu Lee

As I was walking my dog this morning, I saw a large bush of sweet potato on the street, the vivid lime-colored leaves shining brightly in the rain. I felt my worries grow, like an aggressive tumor in my brain, like this vigorous invasive plant.

I worry all the time, and I live in this shadow of delights.

I worry about my mother. She is in her later 80s and living alone in my hometown in northeastern China, Yanji. Does she have enough money? Is she ill? Can she get groceries by herself? What if she falls on the stairs and no one notices? I wish she lived with my brother’s family.

And I worry about my brother. Does he feel content with his life? Is his wife kind to him, or mean to him (like the way my mother treated my later father)? Is he still drinking every day, like our father?

Then, I worry about my father, who passed away three years ago from Alzheimer’s disease. I worry about why and how he died alone in the hospital, without the presence of my mother, my brother, without me, without anyone, even a nurse. When I arrived at the airport of Yanji in the December morning in a heavy storm, my father had already passed away six hours before. How did he die in the cold bed, alone, in the dark? What was his last thought? Did he feel lonely? Did he look for me when he died? 

I don’t have hypochondria, but I constantly worry about whether I will have Alzheimer’s disease when I become old. My blood pressure is occasionally jumping up very high when I measure it at home, and I am not sure if this is a sign of hypertension. But whenever I visit the doctor’s office, my blood pressure becomes normal, always in my disbelief. I call it inverse-white-coat-hypertension. 

I worry one day I will die in this beautiful house, alone, and no one will notice for months that I have died.

I worry about my dreams and the meaning of my dreams. I have many violent, disturbing dreams, recurring with variations.

I have dreams where I perform sex with a group of men and women in many dramatic poses, all simultaneously and together, in the public. And sometimes, I have sex with my mother. Do I have these dreams because I was not bonded to my mother when I was a baby, or because I have been longing for my mother’s love for my entire life? Or does this mean I am bisexual? Or asexual? Does this mean I am sexually repressed or oppressed? The poet, Ross Gay, wrote that he had recurring dreams of having sex with his mother. I wonder if everyone in the world has dreams of having sex with their mother, but they just never discuss it. 

I have dreams that I lose my dog, and when she finally returns home—with many other dogs that look identical to her—I could not identify which one is my dog. In other dreams, I open my contact lens cases, inside are dozens of lenses stacking up together, all larger than my face, and I would have to cut them with a pair of dull scissors into a smaller size, but then I find they are just plastic sheets.

When I wake up, I try to trace back to every small corner of the dreams and analyze them blindly. Whatever implications I may seek out, I will always end up worrying even more.

I feel as if I live in Crime and Punishment—only without Crime.

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