Eliot Li ~ Dignity

Dr. Betty Liu is about to put her hand around anoth­er man’s penis for the first time since her hus­band died.

She wraps her­self up in a lead apron. Stretches the sur­gi­cal mask around her nose and mouth, sheathes her fin­gers with pur­ple nitrile gloves.

I’m going to wash your pubic area with beta­dine,” she says to Mr. Kawasaki. “Then I’m going to insert a rub­ber catheter, and inject x‑ray dye.”


Six months ago, her hus­band Kwan unex­pect­ed­ly dropped dead at age 63 on an ear­ly morn­ing jog. Had no idea his coro­nar­ies were filled with so much fri­able cho­les­terol. The night before his death, she didn’t know it was the last time her hand would be around him, her mouth, her lips. “You’re just get­ting me even more hun­gry,” she said, when he began to rec­i­p­ro­cate the pleasure.

Why didn’t we try more of this when we were younger?” he said after­ward, though she was so entire­ly spent and sati­at­ed at that point that she was already asleep, and didn’t get to hear his final words.


Mr. Kawasaki is lying on his back on the flu­o­roscopy table. She unties his hos­pi­tal gown, peels the adult dia­per off of him, breathes through her mouth to mit­i­gate the odor of stale urine. She sat­u­rates cot­ton swabs in beta­dine, coats his gen­i­talia in a lay­er of brown cleanser.

She’d done plen­ty of ure­thro­grams before Kwan died, but most of the patients had been old white men who looked noth­ing like her hus­band. Mr. Kawasaki has her husband’s face. The fea­tures not exact­ly, but rather the dig­ni­ty of an aging Asian man. The soft­en­ing of the eyes, the high pro­trud­ing cheek­bones that turned shiny as the skin ripened. She had trou­ble dis­tanc­ing her­self, from this man whom she’d nev­er met before. Maybe it was unpro­fes­sion­al. But as she dips the tip of the catheter into clear lubri­cat­ing jel­ly, her eyes start welling up.


You’re the only one I’ve ever been with,” she told Kwan, as he lay on his back in her tiny stu­dio apart­ment. It was their last year of med­ical school, a few months before he would pro­pose to her. “You fell from the sky into my lap.”

I’m glad I res­cued you from your soli­tude,” he said, run­ning his fin­gers through her tight perm that she just had refreshed in a Japantown salon. She saw him glance at her clos­et, the rows of plain white blous­es and neat­ly fold­ed trousers.

I’m hap­py by myself,” she said, speak­ing with a Taiwanese accent that Kwan told her he adored. I think about G‑protein recep­tor loops every five min­utes. I don’t need any­thing else, except maybe some good Taiwanese food.” She rose up, took a cou­ple steps toward the kitchen, and pulled a plate of pork buns from the fridge.

You’re like a horny teenag­er,” he replied. “Except you think about micro­bi­ol­o­gy instead of sex.”

Why would any­one think about sex?” she asked.

Moments before, when Kwan had guid­ed her hand to him for the first time, she felt like she was mak­ing a sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery. “It’s just like a gar­den hose!” she exclaimed, unable to sup­press her laugh­ter at the moment of his climax.

Imagine all the things you would’ve missed out on if you’d refused to go out with me,” Kwan said.

The water was start­ing to boil. She laid the buns onto the parch­ment paper, and set them inside the steamer.


You have a stric­ture,” she tells Mr. Kawasaki. She points to the nar­row­ing on his x‑ray film. His face is stoic.

The ure­thro­gram now fin­ished, she lath­ers her hands with dis­in­fect­ing soap out­side the pro­ce­dure room. She remem­bers wash­ing her hands in her apart­ment all those years ago, in front of Kwan sprawled out on the car­pet. She had let the water run over her hands for­ev­er. Looking back on it now, she real­izes he must’ve been so offend­ed by her laugh­ter, her com­plete lack of ten­der­ness dur­ing their first inti­mate moment together.

Upon return­ing home, she hangs her white coat up in the walk in clos­et, and peels off her scrubs. She looks at the rack filled with Kwan’s clothes, the stuff she doesn’t have the courage to remove yet. His white coat with the curled up stetho­scope still dan­gling from the front pock­et. She loved it when the two of them hap­pened to arrive home at the same time. The hug in the liv­ing room while wear­ing their respec­tive hos­pi­tal attire.

She search­es for some­thing com­fort­able to wear for the rest of the evening. She’s tak­ing a set of plaid flan­nel paja­mas off the hang­er, when she catch­es her reflec­tion in the mir­ror. Her chest and waist, thick­ened with age, between her beige bra and underpants.

When she lament­ed to Kwan about her weight gain last year, he bought her a col­lec­tion of lin­gerie, lacy peek-a-boo gar­ments with garter belts and frilly trim. He said it was roman­tic grow­ing old and fat togeth­er with her. Each night, he’d choose one for her to wear, and she’d mod­el it for him, swivel­ing her hips while he watched, fin­ger­ing his chin.

After his death, she put the lin­gerie in a card­board box, and stuffed them in the garage behind the bro­ken rice cook­ers. She’d nev­er be with anoth­er man again. It was how she was built—100% devo­tion to her hus­band. Her appetite, her capac­i­ty for sati­a­tion, she had resolved to shut this part of her­self down for good.

In the qui­et of the clos­et, she hears Kwan’s voice.

Honey, tonight I pre­fer you to wear noth­ing at all.

She drops the paja­mas on the floor. She walks to the kitchen, feel­ing the cool air of the house against her bare skin.


Eliot Li has work forth­com­ing or pub­lished in Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Flash Frog, Cleaver, and Gordon Square Review. He is a grad­u­ate of Harvard College, and got most­ly B’s in all his writ­ing courses.