It was a Sunday.
She always said her funeral would be on a Sunday. Not because she believed it holy but because she figured not many people would be working, and everyone could beat traffic on the freeway or catch a late plane out of La Guardia and still be home in time for work Monday morning.
My mother the pragmatist.
I arrived on the red eye at four a.m.. My sister Tess picked me up from the airport, her eyes dark and flanked by creases like napkin folds all across her face. She was so much older than I remembered, so much more tired.
“How long has it been?” she asked between car horns and turn signals in the Lincoln Tunnel.
“Seventeen years.” I didn’t say anything else and she didn’t ask. We just drove in silence, the buildings slicing past our eyes fast and precise as the skyline ahead flickered in the growing sunrise. Better that way. No questions.
The last time I was in New York I was sixteen. It was PS-129 and stealing I <3 NYC shirts from the sad Asian men in Times Square storefronts to sell for $1.50 to any tourist on Broadway willing to buy. I slept too much and wore too much eyeliner, and sometimes, in the boiled neon of those too-late nights, believed it would always be so simple.
My mother once said she would sooner drink bleach than go to a funeral, and now I understood why. The room was soaked in pity. It crawled syrupy and slow across the room, settling in the pools beneath my brother’s eyes and the dip of my aunt’s all-too-visible collarbone. I walked through it as if in a trance, brushing past the whispering eyes of cluster after cluster of old gossips. Who is she? She looks just like Elizabeth. I pretended not to hear.
And when they spoke directly to me, those women in wide black hats and shaky lipstick, they always carried paper plates of finger food, pausing to take delicate bites of mini-quiche and caviar crackers to fill the awkward pauses between questions.
How did you know Elizabeth? I never knew she had another daughter. She never said anything.
She never said anything.
She never said anything.
The quiche went down like a wad of wet Kleenex and my feet ached in heels two sizes too small.
“Sarah, you’re shaking,” Tess said when she found me two hours later, sitting at the kitchen counter with my hands tightly twined around a glass of wine.
I looked at her, her glassy eyes, her ratty brown hair, the black dress that ached to fit over her delicately, but instead hung loose and awkward on her thin frame. She spoke again, but I was gone. My sister, my sister. Beautiful and tragic where I could only ever be piteous. Fingers yellow at their tips and hands that always felt cold against my cheeks.
“Sarah,” she tried again, “do you want to sleep?” I nodded. I let myself be led, cold hands in cold hands, to a room and a bed and the dark comfort of closing my eyes and letting it all go. Only when I awoke with strains of light on my face and my feet aching from inside my shoes, did I realize I was lying in my mother’s bed.
When we left New York it was for San Francisco. Another promotion. We were all to be very happy for him, my mother told me. I was, I said, I was. She didn’t ask me if I was lying so I didn’t tell her. The lie wasn’t real unless my mother called me on it. That was the rule.
On the bus one day, a man in a bleached white vest told me California was the edge of the world. Besides Hawaii and the crumbs of forgotten Pacific Islands, there was nothing beyond it until the International Date Line, that jagged power line of time where everything began and ended.
At school I met a boy with olive eyes and coffee skin who spoke Arabic at home. When he wrote my name it looked to me like snakes crawling from his pen. Reptilian language, even when he spoke it came in delicate whispers, like hissing. I loved to listen to him talk lilting and smooth to his mother on the phone. He didn’t understand why and when he held my hands he said they were always cold. I told him it ran in the family.
The day after the wake, the apartment was still jammed with people. I didn’t recognize most of the faces. They scrolled past me in solemn silence, rotating the casseroles in the refrigerator and throwing away the wilting flowers.
Thank you, thank you. When Tess spoke, she always smiled too wide. It was in those moments I could see where the folds in her face had come from. It wasn’t sadness that had carved them, but trying to pretend she felt otherwise.
The woman he left us for had tiny wrists and hair that fell in soft brown ringlets. She was exactly the age of my mother, a sales clerk at the suit store my father frequented.
The custody agreement said we would see him once a week for two hours, but he never called and I never cared. My father had never been home anyway. I knew him only as the reason we were always moving. If he wasn’t going to be that anymore, I didn’t know how else to think of him.
My mother was strangely stoic. Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce, she told me, and the other fifty percent end in death. She laughed when she said it; her laugh was already growing thin. Someday it would be a quivering mess that sounded more like a cough than a reaction to humor, but then it was simply a tremor poised to break.
On Tuesday, I went with Tess to the bank. Our mother’s account had to be cleared, she said, her voice soft with heavy acceptance. I wanted to ask, was she tired? Why hadn’t she given up? Instead, we were silent, the rain splattering against the car and the inside slick with generic pop music. At the bank, my sister took out jewels and our grandfather’s immigration papers.
“Is that everything?” I asked, surprised.
“What about her wedding ring?”
“She ran it over with her car and then sent it back to dad.” She barely blinked as she said it, sliding the bag of jewelry into her pocket and walking towards the door. I didn’t know if I should laugh so I didn’t, just ran to catch up to her like I always had.
On the drive back, we passed a bank with a sign flashing the time and date. 4:44 p.m. November 17th. I squeezed my eyes shut and made a wish. When I opened them we were at a stoplight, Tess’ face tilted slightly towards mine.
“What did you wish for?” she asked, her eyes on fire as if we were ten again, sharing secrets.
My daughter, I wished for my daughter.
“I can’t tell you,” I said softly, my throat constricting. I forced a quick grin as I turned the other way. The light turned, and her eyes flicked back to the road. My daughter, I wanted to scream, all of this time I’ve been wishing for her.
The summer I turned eighteen we moved into a tiny rent controlled apartment just outside of Chinatown. To be closer to our school, my mother said, but I knew it was really to be as far as we possibly could from my father, whose downtown loft was cavernous and barely furnished. She lived there with him, that woman whose name we never said. She lived there with him and we lived here, ten miles and one uncrossable betrayal away, in that box of an apartment that barely fit the three of us.
In our new building, we were the only white people, and our door was the only one that didn’t leak sharp Mandarin chatter and the pungent smell of dumplings. Every night I watched the tourists from my window as they flashed pictures of themselves holding cheap Chinese trinkets and laughed with the shrillness of cheap Asian beer.
Two floors down, a Korean family ran a grocery store that sold us wilted lettuce and stale crackers at outrageous prices. But the woman gave me free cigarettes when her husband wasn’t there and never asked me why I threw away my Planned Parenthood pamphlets in her trashcan instead of my own. I never knew her name, only her smile, her two missing teeth. She always smiled at me.
In the evening, we prayed over Tess’ lasagna and tossed salad, our mouths full of blessings I barely remembered how to say and her hands soft in mine. It was then, as we dropped our palms and picked up our forks, that she finally asked me.
“Why did you do it?” I swallowed. My throat wasn’t dry, but I did it anyway. I needed something to do that didn’t involve words, that didn’t mean I was telling her this.
“What would you have done?” It was less defensive than curious. I had always wondered, had I not been me, would things have been different. The possibilities ran like veins through my hands, I was shaking again.
“Mom would have helped you.” She set her fork down, gently, turning her full attention towards me.
“Come on, Tess, don’t say that. You know she wouldn’t have.” She folded her napkin. I coughed. Her head snapped up, and I saw then that her eyes were full of tears.
“Tess…” I began, but she shook her head.
“Don’t.” She choked.
“Tess, I’m sorry for what I did to you. I don’t regret it; I had to. But I never wanted to hurt you.”
The tears came faster now, but neither of us moved, spoke. We were always well practiced in silence.
“Please, Tess, I really need that money. I wouldn’t ask you otherwise.” She was sitting on her bed, staring at me helplessly. Even at 15, she looked like a child, frail and too forgivable. I already knew she was going to give in. I was just waiting for the moment.
“Can’t you borrow it from mom?”
“You know she doesn’t like me to go visit Amir.” Amir was my boyfriend. Amir was my lie. Tess sighed and pulled open her dresser drawer. She reached to the back until she found what she was looking for, a ratty pair of pale beige panty hoses. I gulped as she pulled out a wad of bills and counted them slowly. She peeled off one, put it in her pocket, and handed me the rest.
I kissed her, my beautiful sister. She shrieked as I fell on top of her. “Thank you, Tess. You have no idea.” She laughed and laughed.
“Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
Outside, the tourists were taking pictures of the full moon over McDonalds.
She drove me to the airport in loose sweatpants and no makeup. That morning when she woke me, she whispered something into my ear. I was only conscious for the end, for the final “I love you,” but when I looked up, she was frowning and I said nothing. This wasn’t the time. We must always be pragmatic about our grief.
On the way to the airport, I thought of her. She would be sixteen now. She would have a car now, and a boyfriend and a love for empty nights and sleeping through winter days. She would be me but more beautiful.
Tess let me out at the passenger drop off. When she hugged me her palms were so cold they sent shivers down my spine and I longed to wriggle free, as I had always done as a child when my mother held on too tight. But this time I didn’t move. I just let her hold the small of my back and breath ragged breaths into my shoulder until her lungs were empty. Then she pulled back and held my hands.
“Take care,” she said.
“I will.” When I looked back from the window of the terminal, she was gone.
I never paid her back. I never came back. My mother knew why, though she never said. Later, my sister knew too. The three of us, it was our secret. And she, she was our shared daughter, me in Marin cleaning houses for CEOs and corporate lawyers, and them across the bay in that Chinatown apartment, the three of us poised at the edge of the world and never wanting to turn back. Sometimes at night, I imagined my sister watched out the window just as I had, watched those stumbling drunks giggling up and down the sidewalks while light pooled in the cracked cement and the street stood transfixed.