Oranges by Jules Chung

Oranges

For a long time, I had no belly button. It was a point of pride. I lifted my shirt and kids screamed Look! during those bizarre moments at recess when everyone revealed whether they had an innie or an outie. The smooth, doughlike surface of my belly drew horror, which I loved. Along with the shrieks, fingers speared toward me, but I never let anyone touch. If a hand came too close, I yanked my shirt down like the shutter at a peep show. 

“You’re so wild,” Umma said. “You should have been a boy.”

I learned to tuck comments like that away like candy wrappers, the piles I stuffed under the mattress because I had to steal from my own Halloween haul, which Umma confiscated so I wouldn’t get sick from greed. Anyway, my mother’s comments weren’t serious. If anything, they made me tougher. I proved it by being the best at Squeeze the Lemon, a game where kids careened sideways down the slide to knock off the person sitting at the end. I learned how to plant my sneakers so they fused with the asphalt. No one could dislodge me. I became famous for it, and then I became famous for ruining it. No one wanted to play anymore, at least with me. My friend Dierdre explained, “People like knocking someone off. It’s no fun when someone never loses.”

I kept winning, though, all without a belly button and all the way to a storied college. But the place may as well have been Mars. I spent four years adrift. I stopped eating. I ate too much. I stopped sleeping. I slept too much. I slept with boys I hated just to feel something, and what I felt was that I hated myself. I discovered I wasn’t strong at all. I was bled out, squeezed dry.

To protect them, I stopped talking to my parents. Or our talk was empty, sure to skate around my darkest secret, my lack of a belly button. How would they get over that deformity? Feeling more and more estranged, I disappeared into the galaxy of educated young people in cities who scrabbled. Then, one day, I was at a rooftop party and noticing my numbness at the idea of falling when I got a call. It was my father. Mom was sick.

I remember helping her shower. I remember pretending not to notice that her wig was too black and made her look like a child dressed as a ghoul. I remember buying unscented face creams so she could still pamper her skin, which somehow looked more luminous once her eyebrows and eyelashes were gone. I remember jumping out of the car to support her while she puked a lutescent rush studded with popcorn kernels onto some wildflowers on the side of the road. We had tried to have a day at the movies. It was too soon.

At first, there was hope, but then they had to take out her uterus. She got mean after that. One day, when she was particularly vicious and I could see death cozying up to rest his head on her shoulder, she brought up my swimming career — a ridiculous word since it lasted exactly 18 months before I told her to go to hell and that I would never swim again. The beating I got from Appa would have made it necessary to skip a month’s worth of practices if I hadn’t quit, so it was amazing that she still remembered the time as one of crushing disappointment for her.

“We thought you would be the first Korean swimmer in the Olympics. But you were too nice. Every time you took the lead, you slowed down at the very end and got passed. You’re still too nice. Except to us.”

“I’m nice, Mom,” I said. I rubbed lotion into her feet and focused on her tender cuticles. I couldn’t call her Umma just then. I felt a twinge like I was being sectioned.

“Oranges,” she said. “When we came here and I got pregnant, all I wanted was navel oranges. All those vitamins. That’s why you’re so strong.”

I flexed like a bodybuilder and that made her laugh, which made me laugh. We spent the next hour in a blissful state where we fell into step like a pair of bitchy girlfriends who spent all their days saying horrible but hilarious things about other people. This one shouldn’t diet; why bother? That one was so miserable, no wonder her husband never came back. Oh, and the way that one bragged about her son’s job – so annoying! – and how awkward when it turned out he had never even worked there. People are funny!

She needed sleep. As I tucked her in, I suddenly thought of Dierdre saying no one likes it when some annoying Chinese girl always wins. I fled the room as if Umma might see my thoughts, and then I started laughing. I laughed at how the brain plays tricks, and the spasms stabbed my belly, making me double over.

Jules Chung (she/her) writes poetry and fiction. She is a parent and the daughter of immigrants from Korea. She writes mainly about family, gender, and middle-class joy and malaise. Jules was a Finalist in the Pleiades Kinder-Crump contest for short fiction, judged by Matthew Salesses. A 2021 Finalist in the One Story Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship competition, Jules has been published in Quince Magazine, Lumiere Review, Armstrong Literary, and has work forthcoming in Chestnut Review and an anthology in the United Kingdom. She was accepted to this year’s One Story Summer Conference and VONA.


Jules lives in New Jersey and is at work on a novel, Lisa Bae: A Diasporational Fairytale. She can be found on Instagram @glorifyandenjoy and on Twitter @andthewordwas.

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