Stories

China Baby – Vivi Hayes

I am the biggest victim on the planet because I never even stood a chance. I was born with generational fatigue- the hard work of my bloodline, laborers who didn’t have the option to be lazy, has seeped pure exhaustion all the way down to my father’s spermatozoa, and I am forever subjected to being all the world’s most useless girl. I am incapable of anything substantial. I don’t remember playing with the neighborhood kids as a child, I have no recollection of how my high school looked. I might have appeared there to other people but I was checked out, catatonic, God has plagued me with the ability to turn it all off. To go about my life without a stream of consciousness. Thankfully, my parents identified this uselessness during my early developmental years. They never got on my ass about extracurricular activities, grades, or deadlines. Upon high school graduation, my parents lined me up with what I can describe as an entirely useless remote administrative job within their company. They still pay my rent. I am able to stare at the ceiling for hours, not a single thought or idea arising in my head. I go days without moving. I survive on half a Dasani water bottle daily. My piss is amber in color.
        For the first time in my life, I have assigned myself a task. My task is to tell the story of the best girl I’ve ever known, my Zoe. I’ve obsessively searched for her online for five years now, to the point of my bedridden illness. My searching brings me the same feeling of sleuthing through your boyfriend’s phone looking for signs of infidelity, that same stomachache. Masochistic excitement matched with heavy dread. This is my only task: to be the voice of this sweet girl I once knew. I tried looking her up online this morning. No luck, similar to all the days preceding yesterday, and probably all the days to come. I looked up her parents as well, to no avail. To be scrubbed off of the internet is a scary thing, because it doesn’t really seem possible. Years ago, I would have been overjoyed, but I wonder how you eat Zoe. Where do you sleep, how do you exist if not funded by and subject to the eyes of the masses? I still hope I never find you again online, Zoe. I hope this image I have of what you might be now is never realized or displayed somewhere I can see it. Stay away from my screen, sweet girl, I cannot bear the pixels of separation between us. We had watched Lilo and Stich: The Series, and you told me I reminded you of Nani. I’m supposed to be your mother and sister. I was supposed to climb up to your balcony and kidnap you, give you a duffle bag, and five minutes to pack. I’m not supposed to picture you, my now eighth-grade Zo, hanging out with nineteen-year-old boys and posting cringe-inducing pictures set to songs by $uicideboy$. Zoe, I cannot bear to see you suffering, or worse, corny.
        Zoe was the little girl who lived in the apartment above mine. At this time, the building was a new development. The year before it had been a few small houses on a slower street, bulldozed to build this new complex, which boasted many amenities. A gym with one weight rack. A rooftop lounge with a hot tub that would get only slightly warm. Organic snacks in the lobby vending machines. The wall’s tenuity allowed you to hear your neighbor’s every breath and heartbeat. You could make out any words whispered, you could probably hear someone think. I was safe in that regard. On their move-in day, people shuddered at the sight of the first tenant under eighteen. There was a sense of hostility, but Zoe won over everyone’s heart. It was Zoe’s parents, David and Colette, presenting the problem.
        My next-door neighbors had tipped me off that David and Colette were “influencers,” whose content focused on family and parenting. This explained why the three never left the apartment, and all the strange rehearsed lines that droned on, singing me to sleep. The two had propositioned me as I took out my garbage on a Monday night. The week before, they went on Instagram Live to announce they were adopting a baby. From China. They never left the China part out, they spoke so fast and excitedly that it started to slur together- Chinabebe, the Chinabebe. Of course, everyone in the building had heard about the adoption prior to any sort of announcement. They invited me into their apartment, and in a manic haze explained how The China Baby was the most exciting thing in their lives, The China Baby was a blessing from God, The China Baby was going to take up a lot of energy and resources and for the sake of The China Baby, they needed me to watch over Zoe. They paid me eight bucks an hour and would let me snack on whatever I could find in the kitchen that was not labeled “Zoe and Avery don’t touch!!!”. There was never a lot of food in the apartment, but I could consistently count on a box of frozen pizza rolls or a bulk bag of Skittles. I double-tapped their Instagram post about never feeding Zoe Red-40.
        The truth was, and I quote, they chose to adopt from China specifically because they were “obsessed with Chinese people recently.” In preparation for their adoption, they had gone to the takeout place a block over and asked where they had sourced their decor. Closer to Thanksgiving, I witnessed the weekly arrival of Aliexpress delivery boxes- containing merchandise such as the “Chinese Style Landscape Canvas Painting Posters and Prints Wall Art Pictures For Living Room Home Decor” or the “Chinese Handmade Chandelier Light Woven Bamboo Hanging Lamp Home Lighting.” The larger truth, the baby’s purpose, was grimmer. As opposed to getting pregnant again, adopting would be more of a two-birds-one-stone effort. The idea was, that taking in a child and learning about a new culture, would make for great content. It would also be so distracting that they would forget about Oxycodone, they could make a fashionable switch to Kratom and then in the classiest way, be the kind of sobers who go to Kava bars. They wanted to be praised for their virtue. They wanted a cute and chubby toddler to dress up in teddy bear-eared onesies and record messes made while eating Cheetos.
        The thing about being a content creator is, you constantly have to evolve and expand. Consistency in content was so 2012, it died with the era of fifteen-year-old girls over-saturating the color grading to show off their Bath and Body Works collections. You have to keep people hooked, in a similar vein to pornography addiction. If content becomes too familiar and engagement goes down, you have to up the ante. So, they would receive not only the attention for adopting, but the adopted baby would probably be cute enough to generate new revenue. Added bonus, they “could get clean.” Pregnancy was never an option, as getting pregnant again would make Colette gain weight. She would be so isolated from her body that she would have to abuse stimulants again to lose the pounds. She then couldn’t make travel videos, holding her kids with her tight tan arms, captioned with a flower-emoji-bulleted list of the ways in which sobriety has given her a new life.
        It wasn’t long before I was hired to watch Zoe daily. Sometimes, it would be when they went out, but often they were just in the other room “having private time.” Most people would take this as a euphemism for sex, but I fully understood they were tweaking by the pacing and strange sounds, the typing, clanging, furniture rearranging, mumbling, laughing, moans of agony, and crying. Distressing if that was just what their sex sounded like. I felt confident it was not though, as my roommate was also their occasional dealer. Their addiction became the biggest concern in my life. It seemed to have no boundaries, consisting of uppers, downers, random powders, and intravenous concoctions haphazardly dumped in every drawer or container in their home. Admittedly, Zoe and I sampled some of the pills lying around. They weren’t running inventory and if they were, they would automatically point the finger at one another. I’ve tried Ativan and Klonopin. I hoped to feel something that would shed some light on their situation, but I just felt like taking a nap. Zoe did. Neither of us received any clarity.
        Zoe was just nine years old, but she might as well have been on the clock. Never in my life have I met a hustler like her. She was already more eloquent than my friends who were in school. She had first gone viral at age seven for a sweet thing she had said while Colette had luckily been recording. Soon, it became a daily fucking comedy routine. It became weekly toy reviews. A Mommy and Me outfit inspiration collage. For the clips, she would have a script to memorize, a minute-long video would be posted, and everyone would praise her parents for raising such a quick and witty child. The humor in the videos was not her own though. It was exaggerated Disney Channel comedy. I always wondered how anyone thought these videos could have been candid. Her humor was much more subtle and nuanced. Absurdist deadpan flair, quick quips, à la Harmony Korine on David Letterman. She was the most brilliant little thing. There was nothing more awful than seeing her image tainted with sponsored juice box ads. She understood this is what brought her to the apartment though, and it was much nicer than her previous one. This had gotten her her own room, at least for a while, a set of drawing paper, and Micron pens. She was happiest alone in her room, sketching away to the voices on NPR. The videos had gotten her this far. She was afraid of aging for this reason. She was always asking to borrow sunscreen and never drank with straws. As she hit a growth spurt and lost some baby fat she was worried the lack of chub would age her out of relevancy. I would mix ice cream and olive oil in a blender for her. Cold foods hurt her teeth enamel so I would let it sit out and melt until close to room temperature. I would have done anything.
        Often I considered going upstairs to work off the clock, just to watch over Zoe, but I feared weirding them out and losing my position. I would then face my most useless state- hearing their nighttime routine of moaning, and fiending. Hearing them say things like “We will be clean this time next month,” or “We will be so happy with something to take care of soon… baby soon…” and then you would hear Zoe’s shuffling footsteps as she entered the room to ask if she could have some orange juice.
        It was also to my knowledge that no effort was made in the actual adoption process. There was absolutely zero chance they would have let anyone into their homes to judge them as potential adoptive parents. I suppose their Adderall-induced aggressive typing could have been researching international adoption, but it could have also been workshopping long-winding Instagram captions, all ending with some supreme lesson of motherhood. My favorite one was titled “Why we only allow our child to play with toys that do not resemble a human shape” and discussed body positivity, and how this huge decision has led them to be able to “facilitate a proper environment for a child to obtain a healthy body image.” The immediate following post was about the benefits of Colette’s daily intermittent fasting, and how eating one meal a day at nine p.m. got rid of her “Mommy Pooch.”
        For Thanksgiving, a famous laundry detergent brand included them in their digital “GIVE THANKS GIVE BACK” something-or-other campaign. The idea was that each influencer contacted would do something related to giving back and also record it. Their idea was to “host a dinner to support the underprivileged in their community,” to which they simply invited a bunch of tenants of our building, much to our neighbors’ offense. However, the younger bunch of us (my roommate, some guys down the hall, myself) had agreed to go so we wouldn’t waste money on dinner this year. It felt like free entertainment. My roommate asked me which pair of jeans made her look more underprivileged.
        The family also invited two other mommy-blogging families to collaborate on the dinner and for the additional social media content. In the end, Thanksgiving included some of us sitting on the floor, and some of us standing eating our dinner off of the kitchen island. I was obviously in the group not deemed table-worthy. The Chinese decor mixed in with bowls of autumnal potpourri, and ceramic pilgrims, made the apartment look lively for the first time. I thought of Zoe’s minimalist room upstairs- a twin mattress on the floor, a corner with her sketchbook, and her stack of paperbacks against the wall. The actual cuisine was fine, minus the turkey which was memorable only for its dryness. I ate standing up and faced Zoe, who was seated at the table. Zoe, wearing a pilgrim-style dress, tights, and a burgundy headband. Zoe, who I can only now picture in my mind in her oversized Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt and a backward hat.
        Cue the violent hacking. The middle daughter of one of the families (who boasted a popular YouTube channel) began to choke on a piece of turkey. After she had gotten a little red in the face, the turkey and some other contents had been projected all over the table by one final cough. The girl was fine, and she immediately profusely apologized. She said that she choked because she wasn’t expecting the dryness of the turkey. Colette stood up and announced she would get the girl some water and clean the mess. Colette walked directly toward me. She motioned for me to grab her some water, as she scooted over a bottle of Doctor Bronner’s soap and felt around for something behind it. Close-up of her bringing her curved palm to her mouth. She threw her head back and swallowed. Cut to her standing, facing the sink for a moment. Cut to some sores on her left temple that I had not noticed until that moment. She turned. Bumped Zoe’s seat on the way back. Returned to the table. Placed the water in front of the girl. Gave the table a half-assed wipe with a napkin. She sat in her seat and gave an exaggerated smile. I was the only one looking at her. Everyone else looked at their plate and continued the meal. Her blinking slowed. She was both dazed and confused. She leaned against her chair, and it fell backward. The seizing began. An outcry, it sounded like my own voice, announced “SHE IS OVERDOSING.” Zoe ran to me instead of her mother. Like a scene from Disney Channel, she took hold of me by the shoulders and shook me- “WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT. WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT.” David rushed to his wife. David called 911. Paramedics arrived shortly. Exit other guests. Exit the beautiful Instagram families, the mothers shielding the children’s eyes. Exit Colette. Exit David, with a hiss in my ear “You should never have said that.” They didn’t ask me to watch Zoe. She went with them to the emergency room.
        Cut to that evening, my most useless moment to date. I heard the clanging above mine one last time. It was even more rushed and frantic this go around. Cut to David’s voice saying to “only grab the important things.” Exit David and little Zoe’s shuffling feet. Her shoes were all too big. All accounts belonging to the family would be disabled within the week. The leasing office manager sold the furniture they had left behind on the Facebook marketplace. My useless self had never taken any pictures of us. My useless self hadn’t screenshotted a video or picture from their pages, not once. There is one remaining video of them- a review they had recorded for a local frozen yogurt cafe reposted on the cafe’s own Facebook page. Zoe doesn’t say anything in the video, she just takes a bite of yogurt and gives an enthusiastic thumbs up. Cold foods hurt her teeth. I have just one physical thing left of Zoe.
        I used to keep this magazine in my bathroom next to the toilet- a monthly metaphysical magazine they would leave for free on a counter at my laundromat. I opened it and out fell a scrap piece of paper with a bulleted list in her handwriting. Purple Micron ink.

Goals to complete before 2019
Condition self to enjoy the taste of coffee
Drink coffee every day to stunt growth
Finish East Of Eden by John Steinbeck
Tell Avery she is my best friend

The note had fallen face up, under the sink. I haven’t touched it since. I take cold showers in fear of steam making the ink bleed. My rent gets higher every year. My parents account for the inflation.