‘As children, she liked purple, I liked pink. She liked turkey, I liked ham. She liked American cheese, I liked Swiss.’
In the opening scene of Bonnie Chau’s story, the narrator and her older sister prepare for their annual visit to kanyanjing—“see the eyes.” The Chinese phrase for getting one’s eyes examined highlights the perceptual conundrum that we can’t actually see our own eyes without looking at them through a mirror. The very organ that enables us to navigate, to know when to step off the curb at the right time, to halt at the edge of a cliff, is also the organ we can’t use to look into itself. Chau’s story also asks: What about the subjective I? Can the I know itself without first looking into a mirror? Often, close siblings end up becoming that mirror for the self: one stands before them and sees the same nose, the same chin, but it’s warped feedback at best. Chau’s story beautifully depicts the quiet, painful moments when a younger sister faces off with her older sister and must take up a position. I am me: What are you?
There is the dry heat of August, and there are the two of us, pushing lightly through it. My sister and I are 11 and 9. Our mother is taking us on our annual visit to Dr. Chinn, the eye doctor, to kàn y?nj?ng—see the eye.
Hailey and I dread seeing our eyes. She says nothing to me, but I assume it must the same for her as it is for me, because we are sisters and this is how it is for us. The visits are excruciatingly shameful horror-shows, as we dig our own graves with our halting recitation of the letters and numbers. Then comes that small sheet of paper, torn off a pad. The new prescription is concrete evidence that our eyesight has deteriorated yet again. I eat dozens of baby carrots in the week leading up to our appointment. But there is no hope, not really.
The sallow-skinned teenage receptionist is a cousin or niece of the Chinns, forced to work there for free during her summer vacations. She asks politely, in perfectly enunciated Mandarin, “Would your mother like to go in with you?” I look back at my mother, hoping that for once she might let us go in by ourselves. But she always follows us in, sits on the bland mauve chair, crosses her ankles, presses her lips into a tight horizontal line, watching us as we stumble over our Es and 3s and Fs and Bs. The eye chart moves further and further away and becomes a rapidly escaping, glowing blur. Everything inside my quiet 9-year-old body starts to twist and furl, compressing itself into a tight foil ball sitting inert in my abdomen. When I struggle, my mother presses her lips even tighter, and then tightly announces that we shouldn’t be reading so many books. I dread this pronouncement every year. All I have are books. We walk out of the medical plaza, seemingly hours later, the sun white, the buildings blinding, my eyes feeling sorry for themselves. But at least we are free until next summer.
Hailey is 16 and I am 14, and I am in 8th grade. The first two weeks of health class have been reserved for sex ed. This phrase, sex ed, has been sprinkled into our middle school conversations, with a feeling similar to the tentative first uses of swear words, forbidden and sweet. Our homework assignment is to find an empty box, wrap it in wrapping paper, tie a bow on it, make it nice, and bring it in. On Monday afternoon in 5th period, Ms. Kruger explains the significance: these gift-wrapped boxes are ours to keep and treasure, because our virginity is a gift that can only be given once. It must be kept intact for the perfect person who will receive our gift. She keeps repeating that word, gift.
At the end of class, to review the various genital parts and functions, Ms. Kruger calls me up to the paper cutouts taped on the whiteboard in front of the room. “Make the penis erect,” she orders. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I shift the paper penis on its brass paper-fastener axis, and make it perpendicular. “More,” she says. I move it again. It swings back down. Nobody makes a sound. I clench my teeth, smile to nobody in particular, sit back down.
My mother got upset at me the afternoon before, when I hadn’t been able to explain why I was wasting so much of her wrapping paper and ribbon. The only box I had been able to find to wrap was a really big one, the box the vacuum cleaner came in. My sister snickered from the family room coffee table where she was doing homework. My mother left the kitchen where she was busy preparing dinner, chopping something with the big rectangular Chinese knife on the big white cutting board. She stood in the middle of the living room and sounded stricken, while I sat on the ground in front of the hall closet, wrapping paper everywhere. I ran upstairs and tried to slam my bedroom door—even though it had been designed to be slam-proof—and in my head angrily did literal translations of things my mother said in Chinese into English. “Are you wanting to harm me to death?!” It made her sound stupid.
Hailey is 17, I am 15. We are in high school when the storm hits. El Niño. The boy. It hits some of my girl friends like a cartoon punch in the stomach, a stampede of boycraziness. Hordes of boys. Everyone else is blooming, flowers everywhere, the sky dusty with pollen. People can’t see. I keep my head down, my throat back, mouth in perpetual laughter, as my eyes watch it pass me by.
I am late to the party. A “late bloomer,” I decide later. But for now, I am tortured, scarred from being barred from sleepover parties in elementary school because a number of my friends’ parents were divorced. “You can’t trust that,” my parents had countered. “Who knows what strangers might be in their homes? New boyfriends, new girlfriends…” They considered this explanation an act of generosity. They weren’t under any obligation to provide me with an explanation—they were my parents.
Hailey is 18, and I am 16, and we are feeling it. We are trapped in Orange County, where suburbs mean rich and safe and uniform, not like the banlieux of Paris. In French class, Madame Vaillant smuggles in a copy of La Haine from her sister, a professor in the film and television department at USC. Madame’s graying feathered hair sways back and forth as she vehemently paces around the classroom. She wants us to see what Paris is really like. She wants to dispel all the romantic notions we had that made us want to take French in the first place. “This is the real France,” she says, jabbing the top of the A/V cart. I leave class on Friday repeating aggressive phrases of French slang in my head. Quoi! N’importe quoi! De quoi tu parles?! Je m’en fou! Ferme ta guele!
We are 20 and 18 now, my sister and I. Along with our mother, we are making our annual summer pilgrimage back to Dr. Chinn’s office. We still make our appointments together after all these years, and always in August, in the clean, shimmery heat of the Orange County summer. The only difference is that now my sister drives the station wagon instead of my mother, who rides shotgun. On the way there, I think about the eye chart. What font was that anyway? An ugly one. Though I can make spot-on judgments about the typeface and kerning, the receptionist is still a desperate-looking Chinese teen who speaks perfect Chinese. She makes me feel angry—at her, at myself.
People look up as we enter the waiting room. They probably look up every time the door opens, but I imagine they stare longer at us because they are not used to seeing Asian kids like my sister and me: hot pink hair, camo pants, baseball tee that says ‘Label Whore’ (my sister), lightning bolt shaved into the right side of my head, hippie dress, cowboy boots (me), and tattoos (both of us). I have never wondered about this before, how it must be for my mother to have the two of us as daughters in a town like this, two Chinese girls, who, while arguably obedient and well-behaved and polite enough, only care about literature and art and food and faraway places. A town where Asians and Jews and Persians and 5th generation USC WASPs alike climb and clamber over each other in piles of straitlaced limbs, racing to become surgeons and corporate lawyers and masters of money.
My sister and I have carefully cultivated low-culture tastes in order to balance out all those summer family vacations traipsing around Monet’s garden and the Burgundy wine region. I like Led Zeppelin, donuts, trashy romance novels, and monster truck rallies. Despite the inconvenience of my Chinese-ness, this basically makes me white trash in a place like Orange County. Or rather, as my sister writes in a Berkeley sociology class paper: “These second-generation immigrants are proto-western aliens, cultivated in a family dynamic that is pressurized by overachievement and suburban stasis. When these suburbanite children masquerade as white trash wannabes in the big cities, they are defiantly enacting—performing—a sublimation of their parents’ upper-middle-class dreams.” Ta-dah! I find this very impressive at the time.
“Mom says I have to go to the dentist,” Hailey is saying as we drive up the 110 toward Highland Park. She is 25 and I am 23. We have managed to escape from the first obligation of the evening—a summer fundraiser put on by the organization where Hailey works. We were there taking advantage of the complimentary dessert buffet, watching as Young Hollywood and CAA agents mingled their fucking hearts out, having the time of their lives in high heels.
Hailey starts opening and closing her mouth, testing her jaw. “My jaw makes a weird clicking sound. Does yours do that?” She keeps jawing the air, brings a hand up to her jawline. “I don’t know, I think it might be because I used to grind my teeth. But mom says I might get lockjaw.” “Really?” I say, only half paying attention. Lockjaw seems kind of extreme. “I can hear that,” I tell her. “What?” “Your jaw.” “Oh, shit, really? You can hear that?” She resumes clicking her jaw. “Yup,” I say, turning back to look out the window. “Too many blowjobs,” she says suddenly. “Ha,” I say. “That’s ridiculous.” “Think so?” she laughs. I shrug, and resume my survey of the passing scenery outside the window, the gas stations and pool halls.
There are certain points in my life when I am sure that I’m not supposed to be doing what I am actually doing. Riding in the car with my sister after leaving some benefit to go play pool in Highland Park is something I probably am supposed to be doing. But some things I just know I am not. Last Thursday evening, I was the only person still working late in the office, for the tenth night in a row, and I was stabbing at my two-day-old leftover apple pear coleslaw and cold bacon lunch with a plastic fork, instead of at a gross, whisky-sodden party on Temple, where everyone else in the world was.
Was. But I kept stabbing at the julienned fruit, skirting the curls of limp bacon.
I don’t think I am supposed to be doing that, doing this. These days, these office hours, these smiles that appear and disappear, they carve the thinnest, most delicate of slices, a peeler skinning a mango. After the skin, I start peeling the fibrous yellow-orange flesh juicily away, and now, now I am skinning off the pieces of the heart, sunny squawking toucan yellow-orange pieces, and the tangy sweetness folds, pales, shrinks, disappears.
I wish I were a snake. Rubbing, rubbing at my neck, rubbing until my entire body of skin, a skinsuit, rubs off in one piece, a one-piece skinsuit. I would shed, molt, all the fucking time. Get the shit out of my skin, get the hell out of Dodge.
Hailey and I get to the bar. There are a lot of mountain-men-looking guys there—long hair, beards, plaid shirts—and some Latino guys who look straight out of Wassup Rockers. I have a brief run-in with my friend, Freddie, who is always texting me, “noodles.” “Noodles??” “Noodles!!” Sometimes spelled wrong: “Nooddles!” “Nodoles!” perhaps in the throes of hunger. After I say hi to Freddie, Hailey and I play pool with a couple of the rocker guys—one is Mexican, and the other Filipino—and then we go with them out front to smoke a joint. They have locked their fixies to a fence. One of them works as a bike courier downtown. They rhapsodize about bicycles. Hailey and I laugh at the same time, out of nowhere and for nothing. The two boys, Johnny and Ruben, grew up in Highland Park. Johnny is saying, “…yo, those white guys walk around this neighborhood and they’re not scared at all! And me? I’ve lived here all my life! And I walk around, and I’m scared. Why am I scared when these white kids aren’t scared?” Hailey and I wait for the answer, wait for it… “Well, it’s because they’re white. Nobody will bother white kids. And if they do get bothered, cops would take notice. People would care.” Hailey and I nod. “Do they bother Chinese people?” we ask. They shrug. “No, probably not.” My sister and I look at each other. Then we leave them to go get tacos.
My sister and I are 28 and 26 now, and the Hailey-and-Peter-Blackburn engagement after-party is at Peter Blackburn’s apartment on Lanterman Terrace. The narrow apartment balcony looks out onto a squash court, seemingly squeezed into a very odd courtyard space in the middle of apartment buildings and dark palms. On the other side of the buildings, I can see lights over by the L.A. River. Here, though, there is only a single light shooting vacantly down on the empty court.
I turn back around to look through the sliding glass door. My sister is still explaining the rules of Taboo to the uninitiated. I haven’t seen her in about four months. She looks thinner. I glance over at Peter, watch as he teasingly slaps Hailey on the thigh. I look back down at my whiskey. They are in love. Hailey is marrying this guy at his family’s estate in the Hamptons next spring, and then they are moving to Chicago to attend business school together. This is a legitimate life she is taking on.
Usually, I watch Hailey, and decide either to do the same or the exact opposite. Looking back down at my drink, I am blindsided by the notion that I don’t know how I feel about this new legitimacy. I don’t know if it makes me want to cry or throw up.
I look up. “Where have you been all week,” Dieter asks impatiently, possessively, and I can feel it, can feel myself liking it, so I frown. I slide him a brief glance which is all I have to spare, and then look away. “Chinatown,” I say. He doesn’t say anything but continues to look at me. “A couple art show openings,” I say, as if I go to openings all the time. I shift my glance casually back to him. “How’s it going?” “Good,” he says, but there is a layer or edge of something, in how he says it. We walk around to the other side of the balcony and down the stairs, so that we are standing on the cliff of one of the hills outside Peter Blackburn’s place.
“For a city with so many holes, L.A. sure is impenetrable,” he remarks, nodding out toward the open valley below. There is smoke streaming out his mouth as he exhales in the dark. I wonder if he is trying to say something big, maybe something about me. Below: the lights of Frogtown, the empty black strip of the river, Cypress Park, Mount Washington. Lights, lots of them, but tiny pinpricked points.
Back inside, Hailey waves me over to where she is sitting on a brown leather sectional sofa. “Remember when James and I broke up, you cried?” she says. I hold still for a moment, helpless to the feeling of alcohol in my blood, before I remember that this is true. She does this sometimes, brings up incidents that happened long ago, incidents that I have forgotten. Usually it involves me crying.
“I totally forgot about that,” I say, kind of smiling. “I don’t know. I was really shocked. I thought that was it. I thought you guys would be together forever.” James was her first boyfriend. We had all gone to the same elementary school, middle school, high school, college. He had lived only three blocks away from us. But he was the star lacrosse player in high school, which made him seem far, far away.
“Yeah, well,” she says. She flicks her cigarette at the black block-shaped ashtray on the table, and looks over at Peter who is standing on one foot and making kicking motions on the other side of the room. “It’s not ever the end of the world,” she says, “not even love or the end of love. None of it.” She turns back toward me, looks in my eye as if challenging me to take up my usual position on this, contrary to hers. As children, she liked purple, I liked pink. She liked turkey, I liked ham. She liked American cheese, I liked Swiss. I try to pull an exasperated expression over my face, but find myself glancing over at Dieter. I feel suddenly cold, a soreness in my throat.
“Let’s try to do something this weekend,” I say. I look back at Hailey; she looks surprised. I am not known for saying things like this out loud.
Dieter and I get back to my place around 2 a.m., and we share my microwaved leftovers from Chung King. We decide it would be the best idea ever to take a ride on his motorcycle, despite the fact that he’s drunk, despite the fact that his bike has been unreliable for the past two months. Three weeks ago, I had to pick him up off the side of the 101 freeway on-ramp and help him push the gleaming, recalcitrant thing to the side, so that he could go home and get a part, and then go back and patch something up so that he could ride it all the way to the shop.
Reasons not to go on the ride are overshadowed by our drunken enthusiasm, and we grab at helmets, pull on boots. I send Hailey a text message as Dieter guides the bike backwards down the driveway, something about having lunch over the weekend, just so I’ll have said something to someone. Just in case something happens, I’ll have said something. Dieter and I decide we want somewhere scary—a cemetery!—we shout at the same time. He wants to go to East L.A., where there is a cemetery his coworker talks about a lot. It’s off the 60, never mind why his coworker would be talking about any cemetery a lot. I rack my swimmy brain for other, more viable cemeteries, and throw out the one in Westwood off Veteran, the one on Venice Blvd across from Loyola High. We decide the closest one is Hollywood Forever, but after a blur of a ride that feels supremely long, a ride that in reality must only have taken ten or fifteen minutes, we come upon barricades and cops blocking the cemetery gates. So we turn around, and try to get to the old L.A. Zoo ruins at Griffith Park. But everything is barricaded, blocked off, gates down, closed. Everything fails. Even in my ruffled teal skirt, we fail.
So we make it back to my house, through the warm, windy darkness. We sit back down on the couch, in a post-drunk, pre-hangover haze, and talk about this thing we have been talking about, a marriage of convenience. He gets his laptop out and starts looking up procedures and laws and bylaws on EU citizenship and EU work visas. I kick myself for not having taken German in high school instead of French, even though at one point I had already kicked myself for not having taken Spanish instead. Hailey texts me back about meeting up on Sunday. Dieter and I argue about whether or not it would be a good idea for me to tell Hailey—Hailey who really is not the biggest fan of Dieter—about our upcoming nuptials. Nuptials! We cannot stop saying this word—oh man, our nuptials—they are fucking…impending! and how I will convince my parents I want to move to Europe when they think I should move to China. We fall asleep on the couch like that, laptop in his lap, phone in my hand.
My sister is 30, I am 28. I’m stuck by myself this time, with my parents. How did this happen?
“We didn’t ask that much of you,” my parents are saying. They don’t sit next to each other in the booth. “We didn’t make you be doctors,” they say. “We didn’t even make you marry doctors.” These have been half jokes my entire life.
“Do you know,” I begin, “I just realized yesterday that I’ve only ever attended one wedding without the two of you?”
My parents look confused. “So?”
“So? That’s sad,” I say.
“No it’s not,” my mom says, “It just means your friends haven’t really started getting married yet.”
“But why?” I ask, listlessly, rhetorically.
“Why haven’t you decided to get married?” she asks.
I roll my eyes, “I don’t want to.”
“Yes,” she says, “because you’re not ready to lose your freedom yet. And so you’re friends with people who are just like you, who also are not ready. Yet. You all know that once you get married, you lose your freedom.”
“Yeah, well,” I reply, “just remember you said that. And don’t be surprised or upset when I decide that I don’t ever want to get married.”
She inhales, “You’ve decided that? Your dad would certainly be upset.” I don’t look up to see what my dad’s expression is. I am trying to enjoy my dinner. Shredded pork and bean curd, hollow-hearted greens, ants crawling up a tree. I am trying not to listen. For the rest of the dinner, I open my mouth only to blast hot solid rectangular prisms of aggressive silence.
This is how I know I’m older, because people start saying these things. As if it’s ever appropriate to tell someone they should consider settling down. Settling down is what pilgrims and pioneers do. What school teachers tell their unruly pupils to do. In the car later, my mother brings it up again.
“You should still consider settling down.”
“I don’t have time,” I say vaguely, to bide myself some time.
“Don’t have time?” she asks, “You don’t have time to find someone, or you don’t have time for the kind of life your sister has, with a baby and a husband?”
“Both,” I say, again trying to hand over only the broadest, nothingest answers I can produce. I change my mind. “No, that’s not right,” I say, “I don’t really not have time. I just don’t have the desire.”
“That’s because you haven’t decided you’re ready to lose your freedom yet,” she says, triumphantly, as if we have made a true breakthrough, as if we have struck gold. I nod, as if I believe the same.
In front, my dad’s mouth is in the shape of a soft, blurry smile. I think that he must be remembering a joke, one that takes place in a distant land.
I am 29.
Two roads. One is straight, a logical continuation. The other one? Weird. I shouldn’t take it. It doesn’t make sense. It’s going the wrong way. It’s going backwards. It is backwards. But I guess I’ve taken it. This other one.
On an empty Sunday afternoon, I find myself driving down Pacific Coast Highway, near Malibu. The sun is hitting a path through to the horizon, and the surface of the sea blinks clear-eyed points of light over the opaque grayness of the water. A smattering of wetsuit-skinned surfers’ backs, bobbing, facing something I cannot see. Before me are road trip clouds stretching to the very edge of what I can see. Look, they beckon, look at us, look at this world, look what’s ahead.