As a young girl, Lena imagines all sorts of gruesome endings to a family story about a man who was sentenced to the worst possible death by Lena’s great-grandfather.
She says that even as a young child, she could sense unspoken terrors in her house, ones that reduced her mother to a ghost.
When she is five, Lena falls into the basement, and her mother warns her never to open the door again, telling her that an evil man has lurked in the basement for a thousand years, ready to eat anyone comes through the door.
Lena begins to imagine all sorts of gruesome fates in everyday activity, i.e., a tether ball that would smash a girl’s head in.
Lena’s family moves from Oakland to the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, where their apartment is on a very steep hill.
Lena’s mother is unhappy in this new apartment, muttering about things not being balanced, and spends time constantly rearranging the furniture and appliances. Lena feels like the family is headed towards danger.
At night, Lena can hear a mother and daughter arguing next door. She imagines the daughter being beaten to death, or sliced to death with a sharp knife.
One day Auntie Su and her husband Canning pick Lena up from school and take her to the hospital.
Lena’s mother is shouting accusations at herself, saying that she knew this was going to happen, but she did nothing to prevent it.
She tells sort of a magical realism story where the baby boy’s head is just an empty eggshell.
Lena tells her father a different story in English.
Lena then watches her mother and father fall apart: her mother just becomes really distracted, and her father keeps trying to fix everything (unsuccessfully).
Lena comforts herself by telling herself that the girl next door has an unhappier life.
Lena begins comparing her mother to a living ghost.
Lena dreams of saving her mother.
In the present day, Lena is worried that her mother will foresee a bad future in Lena’s new home, which is a converted barn.
Lena’s mother points out all the house’s flaws with terrifying truth.
Lena is afraid that her mother will see the problems between her and her husband Harold.
Lena is convinced that her mother will see the marriage issues because of an incident from when Lena was eight-years-old.
We flashback to a dinner many, many years ago.
In an effort to get Lena to finish her food, Lena’s mother tells her that her future husband will have one pock mark for every grain of uneaten rice.
Lena thinks of Arnold, a mean twelve-year old boy with bad acne, who picks on her.
She doesn’t want Arnold as a husband, so she finishes her rice.
But her mother points out that Lena has left many bowls of rice uneaten.
That same week, Lena sees a film in Sunday school about people with leprosy, and determines that lepers must be husbands and wives of people who failed to finish their rice.
Lena figures that if she simply stops eating rice, she won’t have to marry Arnold. (Because then he’ll be a leper!)
She rapidly stopped eating just about everything. Hmmm that’s called an eating disorder.
Five years later, Arnold died of complications from measles.
That night, Lena devoured a half-gallon of strawberry ice cream and then promptly threw it up on the fire escape.
We get out of the flashback, and Lena explains her relationship with Harold.
They met through work, and on all their dates, Lena and Harold split the bill in half – even though Lena orders only a salad and Harold orders full-course meals. Yeah, she has "doormat" written all over her.
She’s really astonished that such an amazing man would fall for her. She worries that Harold will one day think she isn’t worthy of his love. (This is called suffering from a lack of self-respect.)
Lena encouraged Harold to start his own business, and basically saved his nascent firm with her new, smart ideas for restaurant design.
Although Lena does amazing work for Harold, she never gets promoted.
Meanwhile, Harold insists on keeping all the money stuff separate to ensure that their love is "pure" and "uncontaminated by money." But dude, it’s really, really clear that Lena is getting the crappy deal.
When her mother calls her on it, after seeing a list on the fridge that details shared expenses, Lena doesn’t know how to respond.
Later that night, Lena and Harold fight. They’re interrupted by the sounds of glass shattering.
A fragile table in the guest bedroom (where Lena’s mother is staying) has fallen.
Lena picks up the pieces, saying she knew it was going to happen.