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Sugar Cubes by Leland Cheuk

August 18, 2019
August 17, 2019
Poem as place to speak to my father 25 years ago by M. Wright
August 19, 2019

Anthony plucked twin cubes from the porcelain sugar bowl and popped them into his mouth. On the table, his overturned phone haloed with silent notifications. When the cubes melted, he plucked and popped two more.

His wife’s best friend Michael’s fortieth birthday. Private dining room in a three Michelin star restaurant in The City. Twins with the au pair. Twelve courses had come and gone. Anthony was still hungry. Dessert wasn’t sweet enough. Thus, the sugar liquidating upon his coated tongue.

Nights like these, in places like this, he tried to find solace in how far he’d come. A hometown so small it was little more than an intersection with a post office off a state road. A childhood of looking forward to snack cakes and Saturday breakfasts at the local waffle house. His parents immigrated from Wuzhou, tried to be as American as possible, their lives ignored in the mostly white town. They were owners of a Chinese restaurant that also served sushi and pad thai. Anthony now bought and sold the equivalent of their lifetime’s net worth in a few minutes of his workday.

His wife was dancing with the birthday boy now, her straight blonde hair a gilded runner over her narrow back. She’d been very open about looking forward to this night for weeks. She wore her favorite ballgown, which was strapless and pink and appeared to orbit rather than cling to her body. Though Michael was gay and married, Anthony wondered whether his wife had ever touched herself while thinking about her friend, a scion of southern blue bloods.

Halfway through the sugar cubes, Anthony tried to flag down one of the dozen waiters, standing shoulder to shoulder in the far corner of this cavernous rectangular room with vaulted ceilings. He always needed more, his wife once claimed.

She hated his job, said it was disrespectful what the firm expected of him, what he allowed it to expect. How much money is enough? she’d asked. She threatened to leave. Several times a week in recent months, in fact. She never threatened to leave for other people, only other cities, even after they moved to the suburbs for the schools. Quiet places like Mykonos, Siena, Bermuda. For “a life more sweet,” she called it, quoting Emily Dickinson or something.

His phone glowed again. Fuck.

The first rule of the email list is that there is no email list, he’d written to its recipients. So how the fuck did the SEC know that there was an email list? From the start, he had been concerned about Danny, the other Chinese fund manager. The guy wasn’t born here and would send bald-faced messages like “hi i have some illegel info today: INTC to miss ernings.” But when Anthony met him at Tanorelli’s beach house last summer, Danny seemed normal, even had a white wife and two MBAs: one from HBS, another from Wharton.

After Anthony’s firm liquidated its entire position on Intel and avoided $20 million in losses, he made the mistake of texting Danny “Sweet, Dude!!!! Nice job on Intel!!!”

Forty guests for Michael’s fortieth. Anthony tried to make sense of these people. No other gay couples. Curious. Some sort of market inefficiency? Lots of bearded, bespectacled white guys in their thirties—Michael’s fellow coders at the video game design firm. A black couple. Michael’s partner was a Japanese guy, who claimed to be a novelist, synonymous with unemployed, a kept man. He was the only underdressed guest (hoodie and jeans).

Anthony wouldn’t trade places with any of them. No upside.

His wife was giving the toast now. She was saying she’d always admired Michael’s ability to focus on what really mattered in life, the things money can’t buy.

“All I have to say is,” she concluded. “Michael, you remind me how sweet life can be!” She raised her glass, and the guests save Anthony did the same, cheering.

He finished the last cube in the bowl. His mouth tasted rancid. He tingled from the neck up, from the tip of his nose to the helices of his ears. His cranium tumesced with blood.

He flipped over his phone and skimmed the texts from his attorney, reassuring him that he could still avoid jail, laying out next steps. Then he scrolled through the panicked emails from the recipients on a list that everyone once agreed did not exist.

Striving for a life more sweet.

Anthony held up the empty bowl and looked again for one of the servers. What did he have to do to get served?

Michael embraced Anthony’s wife. They kissed each other on the cheek, smiling, gazes linked, and Anthony felt suddenly, with the sugar coursing through him, that he was a guest at a wedding of strangers. A waiter planted a fresh bowl of sugar cubes in front of Anthony, removing the empty one from the table with a hooked finger. Anthony resumed popping cubes in his mouth, thinking that if he went to jail, at least his wife would have Michael, a man born with a satisfactory answer to her question: “How much money is enough?” A hand padded his shoulder.

“Thanks for coming, Anthony,” said Michael, arm still around the waist of his wife.

Anthony burst up from his seat and clenched the birthday boy’s hand, jerking him forward into his chest.

“Congratulations,” he snarled. Anthony released Michael but pushed him away harder than intended, and the birthday boy lost his balance, twisting and throwing his hands out, knocking over the bowl of sugar cubes as his torso toppled over the table. The guests gasped. Anthony clapped Michael’s back loudly and held him down like an officer apprehending a criminal—smiling, dry lips sticking to filmy teeth, repeating over and over “Congratulations” while his keening wife asked what he was doing and then, as he backed away from his wife’s bent-over best friend, what he had done.

Leland Cheuk by Lisa Kristel.

About the author: Leland Cheuk is the author of three books of fiction, including the novels THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG and most recently, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, forthcoming from C&R Press in October 2019. His work has appeared in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, among other outlets. He has been awarded fellowships at The MacDowell Colony, Hawthornden Castle, Djerassi, and elsewhere. He runs the indie press 7.13 Books and lives in Brooklyn.