***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Mira T. Lee
A summer day in New Jersey. A house with a yard. The younger one, four, likes to fold her body over the seat of her swing, observe the world from upside down. She circles her feet, twists the pair of steel ropes until they’re all the way wound. She kicks up her legs. The swing spins. She likes the sensation of dizziness.
The older one, eleven, in the kitchen, chops ginger and scallions, puts on the rice. Sets out a small plate of pickled radishes.
It is early morning. Their mother is still asleep. On Mondays and Thursdays she attends night classes at the local college. On Fridays she works at the accounting office until late. “One more year,” she has said, though she has promised this before. She has come a long way since her husband died and she was forced to come alone to America. The mother will soon sit for another actuarial exam. “An excellent profession,” she tells the girls with pride. They know only that it involves a lot of math.
The older one sits at the kitchen table. Opens her tin pan of watercolors, paints with quick, smooth strokes. She will try a still life today, that bowl of peaches, or a vase of Shasta daisies fresh-picked from the garden. She likes the feeling of focus. When the rest of the world falls away.
“Jie! Come look!” her sister calls from outside.
The older one doesn’t look up.
“Come here, I found something!”
She sets down her brush, heads out to the yard. The screen door slams shut behind her.
“Can you see it, Jie? There.”
In the corner, by the fence. Wet grass tickles her feet. The younger one points to something in the low branches of the dogwood tree.
“It’s a spider web, Mei-mei. See how its threads stretch from this branch to that one?”
It is their first summer in New Jersey. Their first house with a yard. Before, they lived in Third Uncle’s basement, in Tennessee.
The younger one’s eyes, wide.
“Don’t worry, Mei. You don’t have to be scared. Spiders won’t hurt you. They catch flies and mosquitoes and all kinds of other insects. See the web? The spider spins it with a silk from its body. It’s sticky. The bug gets caught in those strands and the spider eats it. It sucks out the blood.”
The younger one nods, ponders this information. The older one turns to go back inside.
“ But . . .”
The older one, impatient, though she isn’t sure why. “What, Mei?”
Her sister is pointing to the web again. It shimmers in the sun.
Catches the morning light.
“Look, Jie. See? It’s beautiful.”
Lucia said she was going to marry a one-armed Russian Jew. It came as a shock, this news, as I had met him only once before, briefly, when I was in town for a meeting with a pair of squat but handsome attorneys. His name was Yonah. He owned a health food store in the East Village, down the street from a tattoo parlor, across from City Video, next door to a Polish diner, beneath three floors of apartments that Lucia said he rented out to the yuppies who would soon take over the neighborhood. He had offered me tea, and I took peppermint green, and he scurried around, mashing Swiss chard and kale in a loud, industrial blender, barking orders to his nephews, or maybe they were second or third cousins (I never knew, there were so many), because they were sluggish in their work of unloading organic produce off the delivery trucks. He yelled often. I thought, This Yonah is quite a rough man.
He dusted the wine, mopped the floor, restocked packages of dried figs and goji berries and ginseng snacks on the shelves. He was industrious, I could see, intent on making his fortune as immigrants do. Lucia said he played chess. I’d never known my sister to play chess, though she was always excellent at puzzles as a child. Yonah didn’t seem to me the kind to play chess either, nor to drink sulfite-free organic wine or eat goji berries. But as they say, love is strange. And I wouldn’t begrudge my sister love, nor any stranger, not even one who smoked, and was the kind of man who looked disheveled even fresh after a shower, and would leave his camo briefs lying around on the bathroom floor. I admit I was disturbed, creeped out, by his prosthetic arm, which he wore sometimes, though more often I’d find it sitting by itself in a chair.
Lucia brought him to visit our mother, who was dying. Our mother was tilted back in a green suede recliner, wrapped in cotton blankets, watching the Three Tenors video we’d given her the previous year. She took a long look at this man—his workingman’s shoulders, his dark-stubbled jaw, his wide, flat nose. Her Yoni had the essence of a duck, Lucia said (endearingly), or maybe a platypus, though she’d never seen one up close. My sister liked to discern people’s animal and vegetable essences. In fact, she was usually right.
Our mother winced as her gaze settled upon his left arm, a pale, peachy shade that did not match the rest of him. “What happened to your arm?” she said.
“An accident, when I was twenty-one.” He said it quietly, but without any shame.
“In Soviet Union?”
“In Israel. I moved there when I was teenager.”
“You are divorced,” she said, and I tried to read his thoughts in the fluttering of his blue-gray eyes. I wondered if Lucia had warned him that our mother was like that. I wondered what had been shared, what omitted, when the two of them exchanged stories over chess, over wine. I wished to say to this man: Do you really think you now know our Lucia?
“Thirteen years,” he said. “I have been divorced for thirteen years.” Our mother winced again, though it could’ve been from the pain shooting through her bowels, or her bones, or her chest.
“You are Jewish,” she said. “Jewish are so aggressive. You have children?”
“Two,” he said. “They are with their mother, in Israel.”
At the mention of the other woman, our mother spat. Once, I suppose, she would have wanted to know more, like what did he do, or how old were the children, or what were their names, or did they play musical instruments, and we might have told him that Lucia could recite twenty Chinese poems by the time she was three, or that she was a real talent on the violin, or that she’d suffered a terrible bout of meningitis at age six and nearly died.
“Why are you divorced?” she asked.
“We were married too young,” he said. The skin of his face seemed to hang off his cheekbones. A basset hound, I later said to Lucia.
“This is life,” he said to our mother.
She did not seem quite satisfied with this answer, though she nodded, expelled a heavy sigh. “Take care of my daughter,” she said.
But she was not looking at him. She was looking at me.
She fell asleep. Two weeks later, she was gone.
“Three piles,” said Lucia. “Everything in three piles.”
Keep. Salvation Army. Trash.
This was our strategy, tasked as we were with selling the house in New Jersey, as specified by our mother’s will (our childhood home, marred by death, now considered “inauspicious”). So we sorted CorningWare and gas bills and soy sauce and ice trays and Cabbage Patch dolls and garden hoses and yarn and frying pans and Maurice Sendak books and twin bed sheet sets with faded Raggedy Ann and Andy pillowcases. Keep. Trash. Keep. Keep. Salvation Army. Trash. And when we reached Ma’s bedroom, a hallowed hush, as if to acknowledge the finality in this sacred act of disturbance on which we now embarked. The desk where she’d worked, pencil in hand; the throw pillows Lucia sewed one year in home economics class; the portable radio; the clock; her Reader’s Digests; the bed where she’d lain tethered to her morphine drip, eyes closed, silent, body slack at last.
“Fashion show?” whispered Lucia.
“ Well . . .” Why not?
We peered in the closet, the one we’d raided often as impish children. We picked out two vintage cotton sundresses, one with chevron stripes, the other, zigzags. “Twirl!” said Lucia. “You,” I said, and in unison, our skirts puffed out like upside-down tulips.
We burst into tears. Twelve cycles of chemotherapy, three surgeries, three courses of radiation, two clinical trials, three remissions, four recurrences, over nine grueling years—yet the permanence of Ma’s absence still came as a shock.
We worked until late. At two in the morning, we decided to bake. We blasted Abba and Blondie and the Rolling Stones, broke out in song as flour and sugar flew everywhere. “Almonds!” said Lucia. “We need almonds!” Chinese almond cookies were Ma’s favorite, so we set down our spatulas, drove to the twenty-four-hour pharmacy to shop for nuts.
We’ll be roommates someday in an old folks’ home! We’ll be cranky and play bridge and complain to the nurses about our hemorrhoids. Ha ha, when you’re eighty I’ll only be seventy-three!
No doubt the grief made us giddy. The late hour. The fatigue. But it was like that, to be with Lucia.
We fell asleep in the family room, the house buttery warm, the waffle-weave of sofa cushions imprinted on our cheeks. And then morning came. And with it came Yonah, roaring up the driveway in a giant rental truck.
They married quickly, in City Hall. Lucia wore a sparkly tank top with pink bicycle pants, silver hoop earrings. She beamed, like a bride. Yonah wore his best khakis, a wrinkled white shirt, a bright red tie. I thought, this is who my sister is marrying: a man the shade of gravy, with a missing limb and a spaghetti-sauce-colored tie. I’d never expected my sister to marry a more conventional man, or a Chinese man, or a highly educated man with a spotless résumé. Lucia had dated a Greek boy in high school, chosen NYU over Cornell, rejected math and sciences for English, all to our mother’s dismay. And while her college dormmates had busied themselves with one incestuous hookup after the next, Lucia met a soft-spoken drummer who lived with four other musicians in Tribeca, ditched her violin for electric bass. She found her wanderlust, too, forgoing the air-conditioned offices and suits our mother and I were both familiar with to teach English in Ecuador, tutor in Brazil, volunteer at an orphanage in Bolivia. In her early twenties, she worked as a travel writer in Latin America for a small start-up firm, before returning to study journalism. She wrote feature articles now for a newspaper in Queens—the next best thing, I suppose, as there she was friendly with halal butchers, Egyptian barbers, Salvadoran cooks and the old Chinese grocers who sold dog penises and exotic mushrooms for six hundred dollars a pound.
Still, I had not imagined this.
Yonah beamed, like a groom. He beamed with the whole of his wide, duck face and his wiry brows and his small, sticking-out ears. “Take picture now!” he barked, and I followed him through the rectangular window of my camera, trying to see what Lucia could see, and yes, he was rugged, fit, masculine. Attractive, one could say. I’d never thought of Lucia marrying before me— after all, she was younger by seven years. My mei-mei.
They had signed prenuptial agreements, at my insistence. I did not think Yonah was marrying for our mother’s money (not a fortune, but far from meager), nor for Lucia’s American citizenship, but I felt my concern was reasonable. “Take more picture!” he said. I did not like how often he spoke in imperatives, though I understood that English was not his native tongue. We had that in common. I did try to like him, I did.
After the two-minute ceremony, he hugged me fiercely, strong as a bear. “Sister!” he said. “Achoti! Hermana! Sestra! Belle soeur!”
“Jie,” said Lucia.
“J-yeah!” he said in a remarkably accurate third tone. He laughed from his belly. I liked that about him. Then he scooped up Lucia with his good arm and carried her down seven flights of stairs, out to the plaza where spring blossoms danced and songbirds chirped and a rainbow might have appropriately appeared. He spun her around and around and Lucia shrieked with delight, her arms outstretched, head thrown back, bobbed hair and sharp chin shining in rays of new sun. “My wife, she is beauuuu-ti-ful,” he sang, and Lucia’s eyes shone with such clarity that even my most shrouded worries burned off like a morning fog. They were in love. Our mother, I was sure, could know this safely, from wherever that place is where the dead view the living.