Did she even graduate? Kevin will ask me later, when it’s just us, slumped on our flight back home.
There is a photocopied drawing of a deer that’s crinkled between the door and the backseat of Jenny’s beat-up BMW. The deer’s muzzle is smudged, perhaps intentionally. Its back is one sinuous line. Its hooves are a dark shade of gray, each one a different nippled shape.
It’s yours if you want, Jenny says, when she sees me smoothing out the sketch. I ask her who drew it. She says Sargent with a hooked smile, as if it were the name of a new pet or a new man, something that has to be trained. I make my mouth sweet and ask her who that is. Boyfriend, I’m thinking, because Jenny has always been loved. Kevin and I had seen photos on Instagram: blurry shots of Jenny posing with a wineglass in one hand and a hairier, larger hand around the stem of her waist, as if she were a wineglass too.
The three of us are driving to Jenny’s college graduation. Since Jenny’s school is in Massachusetts, Ma can’t make it, and neither can our aunts and uncles. None of the adults in our family fly. When they were kids, they escaped Vietnam by boat and then flew to Toronto. Their first and only flight. The plane was an escape. And they made it, so now they no longer needed to fly.
The year that Jenny left for college, Ma swore Kevin and me to secrecy. Jenny is your sister, but she’s not my daughter, she said, and she left us to figure out the rest. Is it a secret? No, but it’s a truth that feels like the cousin of a secret. Something unspoken, like how once when we were young, Kevin tried to smother me with Jenny’s jacket, and Ma beat him till his arms spangled purple. Afterwards, Jenny told us not to say anything at school, unless we wanted the police to take Ma away; we’d become homeless—do you want to be homeless? Kevin and I had looked at her big girl face, all of eleven years, and then Kevin took deep, shuddering breaths as I hiccuped. Jenny reached over. Two fingers around my neck. A hand. She collared the scream in my throat.
Our plane lands at noon. LaGuardia, New York. The floors are a soiled gray. A rank smell in the air, echoing. Jenny meets us at baggage claim. Tip-tap goes one shiny black boot. Got a new car, Jenny says, it’ll take us five hours to get there. She still looks the same. She looks nothing like us. She does not have my scoliosis or Kevin’s bad teeth. I wonder if her real father is done with flying, too.
Radio jangling. We minnow through local roads and onto the highway. I ride shotgun and Kevin takes the seat behind me. His feet are smelly and I tell him so, but he doesn’t move. Jenny ignores our sniping. I want to take the scenic route, she explains, even though her graduation is today. Ma wouldn’t have understood. Why not fly directly into Boston where her school is? But Jenny likes adventures.
First rest stop. Stamford, Connecticut. Not Stanford, Kevin says, but he’s not actually disappointed. Anyways, what did you want to show us?
Jenny blocks out the sun with one hand. There’s a Target and a Peter Chang’s. Next to the Peter Chang’s is a California Tortilla. We can smell the oiliness: orange chicken and mesquite chicken and non-chicken. Jenny just stands and lets the sun lacquer her hair. Fresh air, she says. I watch as the cars whistle past us, seats filled with America.
I wonder where they’re going, I say, and Jenny rolls her eyes and tells us to get back in.
Next rest stop, an hour later. New Haven is graphite gray, darker than Stamford, darker than the darkest darks of the deer now in my pocket. Above us, feta-shaped clouds chunk up the sky. Jenny dips into a corner mart. We’ll be late for your graduation, Kevin calls after her, voicing the obvious, but Jenny tells him to shut up and enjoy the ride. It’s America, Kevin, she says, handing us string cheeses. It’s an experience. We tear at the string cheese carefully and dangle hairs of it into our mouths, tasting nothing, tasting manufactured milk. We continue onwards.
We stop at Hartford. We stop at Willington. We hit rush hour traffic and watch while the sun pisses itself empty. Kevin puts on a true-crime podcast, and when we finally enter Massachusetts, the sunset has already garrotted the day.
Jenny doesn’t seem bothered. She sits steady in her seat. Steady hands, steady gaze. She makes us pronounce the names of Massachusetts towns. Worcester. Shrewsbury. Westborough. We don’t even look for rest stops anymore; Jenny just pulls to the side of the road and points. Here, she says. You gotta drop your r’s. Gotta slur your vowels.
The campus is dark upon arrival. We don’t see any students or graduates or families. Instead, Jenny looks at us with a strange, new look, and when she opens her mouth, her voice no longer jangles with that singular, chiding American tone.
I guess we missed it, she says, scanning the black-green lawn, emptied of chairs, stage, and celebration. I guess we missed it, I echo. Kevin keeps quiet because his question is already congealing into one that will become forbidden, years from now, when Jenny is married to the hairy-handed man who’ll buy her nice wines and a new BMW.
Did she even graduate? Kevin will ask me later, when it’s just us, slumped on our flight back home. Photos on our phones full of Jenny in a rented cap and gown, nobody else in frame. Did she even graduate? The question will beat against my throat the next time we visit her. She’ll stand before us, glowing and cocksure, the drawing of a reclining deer mounted behind her. No diploma in sight.