Read Searching for Sylvie Lee Online
Authors: Jean Kwok
To Erwin, Stefan, and Milan
In memory of
my beloved brother, Kwan
Monday, May 2
am standing by the window of our small apartment in Queens, watching as Ma and Pa leave for their jobs. Half-hidden by the worn curtains Ma sewed herself, I see them walk side by side to the subway station down the street. At the entrance, they pause and look at each other for a moment. Here, I always hold my breath, waiting for Pa to touch Ma’s cheek, or for Ma to burst into tears, or for either of them to give some small sign of the truth of their relationship. Instead, Ma raises her hand in an awkward wave, the drape of her black shawl exposing her slender forearm, and Pa shuffles into the open mouth of the station as the morning traffic roars down our busy street. Then Ma ducks her head and continues her walk to the local dry cleaners where she works.
I sigh and step away from the window. I should be doing something more productive. Why am I still spying on my parents? Because I’m an adult living at home and have nothing better to do. If I don’t watch out, I’m going to turn into Ma. Timid, dutiful, toiling at a job that pays nothing. And yet, I’ve caught glimpses of another Ma and Pa over the years. The passion that flickers over her face as she reads Chinese romance novels in the night, the ones Pa scorns. The way Pa reaches for her elbow when he walks behind her, catches himself, and pulls back his hand. I pass by my closet of a bedroom, and the poster that hangs on the wall catches my eye—barely visible behind the teetering piles of papers and laundry. It’s a quote I’ve always loved from Willa Cather: “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” I’m not sure I believe the sentiment but her words never fail to unsettle me.
Our cramped apartment still smells faintly of the incense Ma burned this morning in front of her mother’s altar. Grandma died in Amsterdam a week ago. She lived there with the Tan family: Ma’s cousin Helena; Helena’s husband, Willem; and their son, Lukas, who is thirty-three years old, the same age as my older sister, Sylvie. I never met Grandma but Ma’s grief has poured over me like a waterfall until my own heart overflows as well. The skin around Ma’s eyes is rubbed red and raw. The past few evenings, while Pa hid in their bedroom, I held Ma’s hand as she huddled on the sofa, stifling her sobs, attempting to stem the endless stream of tears with an old, crumpled tissue. I wear black today too, for Ma’s sake, while Pa dresses in his normal clothing. It’s not that he doesn’t care. It’s that he can’t show us that he does.
Sylvie lived with Grandma and Helena’s family in the Netherlands for the first nine years of her life, and flew back there a month ago, as soon as she heard Grandma was ill. She’s handling a consultancy project for her firm there as well. Dazzling Sylvie, seven years older than me, yanked from her glamorous life in Europe back to our cabbage-scented apartment in Queens when I was only two years old. Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. And me, I am only a shadow, an afterthought, a faltering echo. If I didn’t love Sylvie so much, I’d hate her.
How did a brilliant creature like Sylvie arise from such mundane stock as our ma and pa? Any time I had a teacher in elementary or high school who’d taught Sylvie, they’d say, “Ah, you’re Sylvie Lee’s little sister,” rife with anticipation. I would then watch as their high hopes turned to bewilderment at my stuttering slowness. This was followed by their disappointment and, finally, their indifference. Sylvie went to Princeton undergrad, earned a master’s in chemical engineering from MIT, worked a few years, then went back to school for her MBA from Harvard. Now she’s a management consultant, which is a profession I’ll never understand no matter how many times she tries to explain it. Like me, Sylvie adores all sweets, but unlike me, she never gains an ounce. I have watched her eat one egg tart after another without any effect on her elegant hips, as if the sheer intensity of her will burns the calories, consuming everything she touches. She used to have a lazy eye when she was little and wore an eye patch for years. Now the only imperfection in her lovely face is that her right eye still shifts slightly outward when she’s tired. Most people don’t even notice, but I sometimes console myself with this tiny fault of Sylvie’s—
See, she’s not so perfect after all
I go to the pockmarked cabinet where I have carefully wrapped and hidden a cluster of small orange loquat fruits. If I’d left them on the vinyl kitchen tabletop and Pa had caught sight of the vulnerable snail hidden among the pear-shaped fruit, he would have killed it. Pa works in a fish market in Chinatown. He’s been forced to become insensitive to death—all those fish gasping on the wooden chopping block until he ends them with his cleaver.
The tiny snail with its translucent shell is still perched on one of the loquats and seems fine. Anything strong enough to survive such an arduous journey from China deserves a chance to make a life for itself. I take a used plastic bag, gently lower the loquat and snail into it, and head for the door. I shrug into a light jacket and grab my wallet and cell phone. Before I step outside, I remove my thick purple glasses and shove them into my pocket. I don’t bother to put in my contacts. Vanity plus laziness add up to my living in a blurry world much of the time.
I trudge the few blocks to the small park near our home. It’s early enough that some of the shops are still gated and I shiver as a chilly breeze sweeps down the concrete sidewalk. A bitter stink arises from the wide impersonal asphalt of the road, lined by blank buildings that have always intimidated me. A mother dragging a small, grubby child behind her averts her eyes as she passes. No one makes eye contact in this densely populated, lonely, and dispiriting place—no one except for guys trying to hit on you. A group of them are hanging out now in front of a broken store window with a large sign that says something about fifty percent off. They are mere bruises in my peripheral vision as they yell after me, “
Can I put my egg roll in your rice patty?” and then break into raucous laughter. Do they have to say the same dumb thing every day? As long as they maintain their distance, the vagueness of my vision is as comforting as a cocoon. When I’m practically blind, I can pretend I’m deaf too.
One day, I’m going to return to my program at CUNY and finish my teaching credential so I can get out of this place. I’ll move Ma and Pa too. It doesn’t matter that I dropped out last year. I can do it. I already have my master’s in English; I’m almost there. I can see myself standing in front of a class of kids: they are riveted, laughing at my jokes, eyes wide at the brilliance of the literature they are reading, and I don’t trip over a single word.
Wake up, Amy. All you are now is a savior of snails, which is not necessarily a bad development
Sylvie and I were both raised Buddhist, and some ideas, like all life being precious, have stayed with us. When we were little, we’d race around the apartment with butterfly nets, catching flies and releasing them outdoors. However, as evidenced by Pa and the killing-fish-and-many-other-sea-creatures thing, religion only goes so far when confronted by the harsh grind of daily life.
The park is still recovering from the severe winter we had and I struggle to find a nice, leafy area. I am bending down with the snail held gingerly between forefinger and thumb when my cell phone rings. I jump and almost drop the snail. I set it down, manage to pull my phone out of my jacket, and squint to read the number. I am just about to answer when the caller hangs up. The number’s long, beginning with +31. I’ve seen this before on Sylvie’s phone. It’s someone from the Netherlands—probably my distant cousin Lukas, except he’s never called me before. He only speaks to Sylvie.
I consider the cost of calling Lukas in Amsterdam and wince. Hopefully he’ll try me again soon. Instead, I head for the local music shop. I love to linger in one of their listening stations but almost never buy anything. My stomach clenches at the thought of my staggering mountain of student loans, built up degree by degree. Years of flailing around, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life before deciding on teaching—and then, that old stutter of mine resurfacing as I stood in front of the group practicing my teaching assignments. I have outgrown it, most of the time anyway, but the fear of my stutter proved to be as powerful as the thing itself: all those blank faces, my panic suffocating me like a thick blanket. Sometimes I think I should have stayed an uneducated immigrant like Ma and Pa. Some fledglings leave the nest and soar, like Sylvie; others flutter, and flutter, then tumble to the ground. In the end, I couldn’t face my classmates and teachers anymore. And Sylvie, of course, was the one who bailed me out when my loans passed their grace period. She took over the payments without a word.