Read The Year She Left Us Online

Authors: Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us (9 page)

BOOK: The Year She Left Us

“Let's call her,” A.J. said. “Maybe she'd like to hear about Beijing.”

“Let's not,” I said. WeiWei hadn't bothered to answer any of my texts. I'd gotten one e-mail from her assistant assuring me that WeiWei would be in touch at some point.

“At least let's call her before school starts,” A.J. said. “It's coming up so fast. When do you sign up for classes?”

“I haven't a clue.” I gripped the backpack at my shoulders; its weight was beginning to drag. “I don't want to go at all.” She had heard me say it before. I hadn't applied anywhere else because Gran was paying, as long as I went to Bryn Mawr. Gran had practically filled out the application. All I did was defecate a bogus essay and upload the document and push a few buttons. My essay topic? My illustrious, colorful, famous, talented, tragically persecuted great-grandfather: Dr. W. W. Wu, denizen of Shanghai, International Concession.

“If you didn't want to go there, why didn't you tell them?” Sometimes A.J. could be as absolute as her mother.

“Don't take their side,” I said.

“Stick up for yourself,” said A.J. “That's what WeiWei would tell you.”

“I don't need you, or her, giving me advice. She's got somebody else to worry about now. I can take care of myself.”

In the half-light of the forest, I saw A.J. cast two quick little glances my way.

“She's just busy is all. She'll want to see us next time she comes to San Francisco.”

“She can't stand not being in the spotlight. It's like the rest of us don't exist.”

A.J. paused to look up into the redwoods. “I wonder what it's like, finding out you have a sister.”

I shook my head and walked on. WeiWei Chang. The Girl Who Put Her Hand Up.

he trail dropped steeply through the trees. A creek ran beside us; in late August, the water was low, but ferns grew thickly along its banks, and moss grew bright on big logs and downed branches. I tried to focus on the beauty around me, but it jumped and wavered, a jerking curtain of browns and greens. The backpack was heavy with apples, water, and wine, a bottle I had smuggled from Charlie's closet. I felt sweat spread at the small of my back and tugged at the straps again.

“I'll carry it,” A.J. offered.

“No, I've got it.” She had noticed that I was walking with my left hand raised in a wave to the forest. When I let my hand dangle, the blood expanded my fingertips until they felt like they would burst.

“Let me take it for the ladder,” she said. The ladder was coming up, a ten-foot climb straight down to where the trail continued.

“You don't have to take care of me,” I said. “I get really tired of you mothering me.”

“Well, you're not taking care of yourself. That much is obvious.”

“If it's so obvious, why do you keep bringing it up?”

“You're leaving soon. I want to know you'll be all right.”

“Maybe I should leave now.”

“Maybe you should,” she said.

We walked in sudden silence, stunned by our exchange. Ugly words jumped into my mouth, but before I could speak, A.J. made me madder.

“Your mother is really worried about you.”

“I don't care. I don't want to hear it.”

“I don't believe you,” A.J. said. “You're better than that. You do care about your mother. She only wants to help you.”

I grabbed her arm. “It will kill me if you start talking to me like that.”

She shook herself free. “You need to talk to someone—if not me, then somebody else. You're right; I can't look after you, and nobody else can, either. What's going on with you? Why did you do that in Kunming? We'd been to the orphanage before. It wasn't so awful, was it? The kids have clothes, they have food, they get attention. You need to get over it, or you'll drive yourself crazy. Please, Ari, go to your mother or Les or your gran or somebody who can help you. Stop hanging out at Pen and Parchment. You're really scaring me, and I don't like it.”

I ran. I should have dropped the backpack with its bouncing water and the bottle of wine like a brick between my shoulders. Twenty feet ahead of me, the trail dropped into the ladder. The only way was down, and I flung myself onto it and stepped blindly, my feet slipping on the wet rungs, my left hand unable to grip. I missed the last rung; I fell on my back and cracked against the bottle. A.J. was yelling, sliding down the ladder, oh God, oh God, oh God. It was just like Kunming, the whole drama repeating itself to remind me just how fucked up I was. The backpack, she cried, was dark and soaked through with something, and she didn't dare move me, and her cell phone had no signal. When I finally could move, the wet turned out to be water. I was badly bruised, but the wine bottle hadn't broken. We sat in the middle of the trail, A.J. sobbing. I didn't speak. Maybe twenty minutes later, a young couple came along and fed us trail mix and walked us gingerly to the beach.

As we waited for the bus, A.J. quietly said: “I want you to tell Charlie what happened in Kunming. That it wasn't an accident, that you cut off your own finger. I don't want to see you again until you've told her.”

I stared ahead. I pictured A.J. in her red pajamas, singing in Mandarin the song that our teacher had taught us, a song about happy children that we accompanied with hand motions and the stomping of little feet in matching Chinese slippers.
Clap, clap, clap. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Clap, stomp, clap, stomp, twirl in your red pajamas.
We weren't children anymore.

went straight to Pen and Parchment. I was hungry by then; it was four o'clock in the afternoon, but I didn't have any money, so I sat on a box in the corner of the stockroom and shook out a cigarette.

“There's no smoking in here,” said a mocking voice. Kurt, the manager, stood over me, looking down. I quickly got up, but Kurt didn't step back. I felt my heels pressing against the box behind me. Kurt looked me over, his pupils unnaturally contracted, as if he were in a bright room and I was in a dark one. I could see the rims of his contact lenses, the plastic disking his eyes.

“You've been hanging around here,” he said. “Weren't you supposed to go off to college? Improve your mind? Make something of yourself ?”

I had no answer. I couldn't breathe very well. He had his hands in the pockets of a new leather jacket, an attempt to look Niall's age, ten years younger. He constantly made fun of Niall, calling him “surfer boy” and “Master Niall.” Kurt had colored his hair—the gray that before had speckled his beardlet and his sideburns had been replaced by an even sheen of black.

“You can't be looking for Niall,” Kurt said, “now that he's got someone else in his pocket. So what do you want?” He shifted and let a little space come between us. Katie and I had had a rule that we would never be alone in the stockroom with Kurt. He never tried anything, but he checked us out every day, dropping remarks about a skirt one of us was wearing or the color of our tights. He didn't get why I was with Niall. “You're not blonde enough for him,” he'd said, and I'd felt the scrape of his envy.

But I found, staring back at him, that I wasn't afraid to be alone with Kurt. He was harmless, I could see that, a narrow man in a narrow job whose own fantasy life didn't take him further than a grope and a fiddle between the boxes with any girl. His leer was more comical than creepy.

“I'm not going to college,” I said. It was as simple as that. I had passed through a door I didn't even realize was there. “I need to make some money so I can get back to Beijing.” I had no idea what I'd do when I got there, but I pictured myself in my room, or walking the crowded streets, or drinking Mrs. Du's soup with the taste of dark greens in my mouth. “Have you got anything for me? Anything you can think of?” It was my turn to leer at him.

He looked nervous to be faced with what he had halfheartedly fished for, so I suggested we leave and go someplace to talk.

“Wait here,” he said, and he backtracked into the store. Katie appeared, frowning and squeezing her forearms.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I'm taking Kurt out for a drink.”

“That's not a good idea. You should go get something to eat”—she pulled her wallet out of her backpack and tried to give me some money—“and come back here in a little while. I'll go out with you. You don't need to go with him.”

I shook my head. I knew what I was doing.

“Jesus,” said Katie. “Don't be stupid. If you need a place to stay, you can come to my house. Drue and Niall won't be there. They're going to Oakland tonight.”

“Did they move in?” I said. The upper shelves, I noticed, were full of neon-colored boxes—green, harsh yellow, and a screaming pink that offended me all of a sudden. We weren't supposed to put heavy things on top. I grabbed the stepladder, dragged it over, and set my foot on the bottom rung. Steep Ravine had sent me sprawling, but I was going up and no one was going to stop me. Katie grabbed the ladder and gave it a shake. I swore at her.

“Well, fuck you, too,” Katie panted. “You're really crazy these days, you know that? You said you wanted the room, but the first of the month's coming up, and you haven't claimed it. My housemates offered it to Niall, that's all. He hasn't decided yet.”

I kept my eyes on those boxes. “Go ahead and give him the room. I'm going back to Beijing. Why would I want to live with you? All you do is work in this stupid store and put ugly tattoos all over your ugly body.”

Katie slammed out of the stockroom. The hanging lights swayed above me. I went up rung by rung. Kurt came in and pulled off his jacket. I turned around to face him. I let him reach for me while I clung to the ladder. When I opened my eyes, I saw Niall looking in, his face white and passive against the dark of the doorway. I stayed right where I was. I had only to get the money. I'd stopped thinking of anything else.



ri didn't come home that night. Charlie texted and called but got no answer. She tried not to worry, telling herself that it wasn't the first time that Ari had spent the night over at a girlfriend's house or with a group of kids crashed on somebody's floor, though who those friends might be, Charlie was uncertain. Now that A.J. and Robyn had returned, she hoped that Ari would put Beijing behind her and turn to matters at hand. There were only ten more days before Ari left for college, and though Charlie had agreed months ago that Ari could take herself to school, Charlie had thought—before Beijing, before Ari's freeze-out—that the two of them might spend these last days together. “See you for supper,” she wrote in blue on silver paper and tacked it to Ari's door where her daughter would be sure to see it.

It was a Saturday morning, and Charlie was due at Gran's. She drove first to Japantown to buy her mother a present. Her neighbor kept on his balcony a collection of bonsai trees that Charlie often admired, and when Charlie had asked him about it, he gushed for twenty minutes about the thrill of raising bonsai. She had in mind buying one for her mother that she hoped might spark a lasting interest. Gran was happiest or anyway the least amount of trouble when she had a project and a goal to strive for, preferably one that didn't involve Charlie or Les or Ari, and though her mother had never been a hobbyist, maybe she was ready to slow down and develop an interest in something harmless. She was a good cook, but her sense of smell had dulled and her pride no longer allowed her to cook for others. She went to church but didn't like the other ladies. There was no garden to tend, and she had never liked needlework. Rose was an excellent handicrafter who made darling strawberry hats and sweaters for her eight grandchildren and the grandchildren of all her friends. “She's Madame Defarge,” Gran declared, “always with her needles, knitting.”

The Japantown shop had specimens galore. It was hard to decide which one her mother would like. Charlie finally chose a pine tree with a gracefully curved trunk and added two little charms to the moss beneath its branches: the tiny figure of a white crane and a small ceramic tortoise, “To honor old age,” the Japanese saleswoman suggested. The gift was expensive, over a hundred dollars; she couldn't let Gran find out how much she had paid or she'd be chastised repeatedly for wasting her hard-earned money. She drove to Millbrae with the tree tucked in tissue.

“How are you, Ma?” Charlie asked, kissing Gran on the cheek. Her mother looked well in a pair of navy slacks and a bright pink silk blouse with a bow around the neck. She wore low navy pumps with flat black ribbons across the toes. Charlie had on scuffed brown boots, a stretched-out green T-shirt, and worn jeans. The chunky heels on her boots made her feel substantial, but between her mother's big-boned frame and superior posture, Gran stood a good three inches taller than Charlie. Gran had played every sport well—badminton, field hockey, volleyball when they let the girls compete—unlike Charlie, who ducked when a ball came flying. In recent years, Gran had lost a modicum of height, but her thinning hair and the hollows under her cheekbones had given her head a sharper, more angular look, which defied anyone from observing, even silently to themselves, that old age was causing Gran to shrink.

“Lesley called,” her mother said. “Apparently, it's more convenient for her to come for lunch today.” Usually Les and Charlie alternated their weekend visits.

“Shall I put this in the window?” Charlie showed her mother the bonsai in its dark green polished dish.

“Oh,” Gran sighed. “Something else to take care of.”

“I thought you might enjoy learning about it,” Charlie said. “Bonsai is an art form.”

“I hope you didn't pay too much for that. Put it on that shelf. Move that picture”—a snapshot of Charlie and Les in matching Easter dresses—“put you girls over there, next to Father.”

Charlie set the smaller snapshot next to the large silver-framed wedding photograph of Gran's parents, W. W. and Eugenia. From her half-white, half-Chinese mother, Gran had gotten her big hands and broad shoulders and a mouth full of horse teeth, Eugenia's slightly bucked but Gran's straight and strong. Her father, Wei-Wen, was the handsomer of the couple, a young man in a dapper Western suit, with black hair combed back in a low pompadour. He wore a confident grin that Charlie and Les agreed was downright sexy, and, instead of a boutonniere, there was a trout fly pinned to his lapel. Gran had saved one of his favorite fishing reels as a keepsake, which she had let Charlie play with like a spinning toy when she was young.

“This looks good,” said Charlie, taking from the refrigerator the luncheon dishes prepared by Yan, who was out running errands.

“Where's Ari?” Gran asked. “When's she coming to see me?”

“She'll be down sometime. She's been catching up on her sleep, getting over jet lag.”

“She's too young for jet lag,” Gran said. “What happened in Beijing? What aren't you and Lesley saying? You make me feel old, like I need protecting. If she's unhappy, I'm sure I can help her. Sometimes it's better to keep the mother out of it and let someone else take over. When you were young and you didn't want to talk to me, you used to talk to your father.”

Charlie nodded. She talked only to her father, as best as she could remember. They would drive to the Saturday clinic and stop for hamburgers on the way home.

“I wish you'd tell me what happened with Ari,” Gran said to Les, who had used her key to walk in. She was tall, like Gran, and dressed like her, too, in pressed navy slacks and a cream-colored shirt. Her chin-length hair was expertly cut to show off her high cheekbones. Their great-grandmother's Caucasian stock showed up stronger in Les than in Charlie. Les had lighter skin, a higher forehead, and eye folds thick enough for the liner and shadow she artfully applied. In strong sunlight her hair used to flash natural streaks of red, but now it was fully black because she tinted out the gray. “She's my girl with red hair and freckles,” Gran sometimes described her, which as a child had infuriated Les, who, as far as she was concerned, was Chinese and nothing else. She, like Charlie, had studied that photograph of Gran's mother and father, and knew that the elegant man with the white teeth and confident smile was the ancestor of choice. Everyone looked up to Les. When she came into a room, the air felt charged, the light both softer and brighter. Even here in Gran's home, where the formality of the furnishings kept visitors stiff at attention, Les's presence altered the room. The tight-backed sofa and chairs upholstered in slippery gold-colored fabric, their tapered legs like limbs wearing silk stockings, seemed to Charlie to relax when Les walked through the door. The lamps glowed a little more warmly; the tied-back draperies breathed and rustled.

“What happened to Ari?” Gran asked again.

“She had an accident,” Charlie said. “It's fine now. I've taken her to the doctor.”

“So you say,” Les said. “It seemed like a strange accident. Why did you let her go back to Kunming? Wasn't one visit to that orphanage enough? I thought you said that if we took her when she was twelve, she wouldn't wonder about it when she got older.”

“That's what the experts advise,” Charlie defended herself. “Every child is different. Some have issues early; some deal with things much later. You're supposed to expose them over time. They learned that from the Korean kids who had problems when they became teenagers because nobody had talked to them about their birth parents or anything about their adoptions. It became like this burden, a big shameful secret. Secrecy is unhealthy. It bottles up emotions.”

Gran scoffed. “I will never go back,” she said. “Rose, she can go back all she wants to. There's nothing back there for me. Ari's an American. What good does it do to worry about where she came from? There's nothing to find out. There's nobody to tell her.”

“I'd go again if somebody paid me to lecture,” Les said. “I'd like to see Hangzhou, where Grandpa Wu was from. Our visit to the orphanage—” She didn't bother to finish.

“Was a disaster,” Gran said. “I told you not to take her.”

“I'm glad we went,” Charlie said to Les. “It meant a lot to Ari that you came with us.”

“Is Ari going to come see me before she leaves for school?” Gran asked.

Charlie nodded, moved by her mother's query until she caught a glimpse of Gran's iron frown.

“I'm sure she will,” Charlie said. She remembered uneasily her promise to Va that Manu would come home. “And Aunt Rose is nearby, once she gets to Philadelphia.”

Gran plunked the luncheon plates on the table. “What does Rose know about girls? I'm the one who has daughters.”

“She has daughters-in-law,” Les said. “Four of them, in fact.”

“And every one a paragon of virtue,” Gran said. “But do you know what Rose said to me when you girls were Ari's age? ‘I wouldn't know what to do with girls.' She was absolutely right; she would have been hopeless with daughters. Girls are much more complicated to raise than boys. Especially her boys. Who could have predicted that Bennett, almost as handsome as George, would produce such boring sons? No, if we're going to get Ari straightened out, it has to be soon, before she leaves for school.”

“Or maybe college will give her the independence she needs,” Charlie said.

“You always hope for the best,” Gran said. “You didn't get that from me.”

hey sat for lunch. Gran served from elegant china. She always said that one should take the trouble. Les poured a chilled white wine she had brought. Retrieving her dropped chopstick, Charlie bumped the table leg.

“Somebody asked me this week about what year you left China,” Les said. “I couldn't remember. Forty-eight? Forty-nine?”

“Whose business is it?” Gran said.

“Forty-six,” Charlie said. “The year she started at Bryn Mawr.”

“And Aunt Rose came later?” Les asked.

“Forty-eight,” Charlie said. “I wrote it all down for Ari.”

“That's what I'm talking about,” Gran said, “wasting her time when she should be getting ready. Bryn Mawr professors have the highest standards, you know. She's going to have to work hard as soon as she gets there.”

“But Mu-you died in China, right?” Les said.

Gran glared and huffed into the kitchen. Charlie made a face at Les. They both knew better than to speak of Mu-you, Gran's younger brother. Charlie hadn't known about Mu-you at all until she was in grade school. A friend had stopped inviting Charlie over. Your mother was mean to my mother, the girl said. Charlie asked her father why.

Your mother spoke up, her father said. She did the right thing and spoke up and made the rest of the parents angry. The other girl's mother had complained in a PTA meeting about a boy in Charlie's class. The boy had been in a special program for slow learners and was ready to join a regular class. Your mother stood up at the meeting and defended the boy's right to get the same education as all the other children. The principal called to thank her, but she didn't want his praise. She did it because of her brother, Mu-you.

Charlie had asked, Was something wrong with Mu-you?

He was born the year after Rose, her father said. He wasn't like other children. He was cognitively impaired. Charlie didn't know what those words meant. Severely retarded, others might call him. I don't approve of the label. Mu-you died in the war, around the same time as Grandpa Wu and Grandma Eugenia. But don't speak of it to your mother. She doesn't like to talk about such things.

Waiting for Gran to return to the dining table, they heard her banging pot lids in the kitchen. Charlie made another face at Les.

“I was just asking,” Les hissed to Charlie.

“Drop the subject,” Charlie hissed back.

he left Gran's after promising again that Ari would visit. Her spirits rose when she drove down her street and saw the light on through her picture window. Ari must be home. She hurried up the front stairs. There had been times, many days in fact, more than Charlie liked to admit, when Ari was growing up, that Charlie had been impatient for the next stage, the next phase of childhood, but now that it was here, she didn't want Ari to go. I've never regretted it, she said to herself. For all the worry and responsibility and bewilderment—even now, when Charlie's anxiousness dragged on them both like a stone—she had never questioned the rightness of her decision. “What shall I do?” a mother once had posted on a Listserv that Charlie read. “I feel like I've made a mistake. I'm not cut out for adoption.” The plea appalled Charlie, who had quickly clicked away.

“Ari,” she called. She turned on the lights in the dim hallway. Ari wasn't in the living room or in the kitchen, either. Her bedroom light was on and Charlie's note on the door was missing, but the room was empty. Charlie threw her jacket on her own barren bed and paced back through the apartment. She called again, hearing in her voice the rising note, just this side of panic, that a mother might bleat if she'd lost sight of her child on the playground.

On the splintered landing outside the kitchen door, Ari sat in shadow, smoking a cigarette. Her narrow shoulders were hunched in a man's unfamiliar jacket, and her arms were wrapped tightly over her tented knees. She looked up; her eyes were glassy.

“Here you are,” Charlie said in relief. “Did you see A.J.? Did they get home all right?”

Ari stood. Something about the jacket made her look both smaller and older. “I've had a change in plans,” she said. “I'm not going to go to school. I've asked for my old job back at Pen and Parchment.”

“Not going . . . for the fall?” The jacket—was it leather?—had a peculiar shine. She wondered if Ari had spilled something on it.
If I get a rag
, Charlie thought,
I could maybe wipe that clean.

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Serpent by Neil M. Gunn
White Knight by Kelly Meade
The Curse Defiers by Denise Grover Swank
Sidekick by Auralee Wallace
Naked by Viola Grace