Searching for Sylvie Lee (3 page)

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I wrote to Helena to say I would bring my baby girl in the tenth moon. I still should not have done it. But I was twenty-three years old, newly married, newly emigrated, and struggling not to drown in this vast ocean called the Beautiful Country. I told myself it was only for a year, and then we would bring her back. I did not know it would be nine years until I saw her again.

I held my girl close to me that endless time in the flying machine until we landed in Holland on a black day of excessive water. Then I understood: I had brought my daughter to a landscape of tears.

Chapter 3

Amy

Monday, May 2

S
ylvie’s fine, of course she is. I hang on to my seat as the subway car rattles its way to Brooklyn Heights and try to think. Aside from all of her other qualities, Sylvie’s like a female James Bond.
Overachiever
doesn’t even begin to describe her. If our faucet leaks, Sylvie fixes it. She’s enhanced my old laptop with so many extra drives and so much memory that I nicknamed it Frankenstein. Even if her plane crashed, Sylvie would be the one to parachute to safety, after saving all of her fellow passengers. I’ve never been on an airplane, but she’s told me a million times to always count the number of rows to the nearest exit door, so that in case of an emergency, I could crawl there in the dark. She even learned how to shoot a gun at a shooting range. You never know, she said.

One of the few things Sylvie can’t do is swim. When we were born, Ma and Pa had our prophecies written by the monks at the temple and Sylvie’s forbade her to go near water. When I’d heard this, I’d said, “Isn’t that kind of self-fulfilling? If she doesn’t learn to swim, she’ll definitely drown if she falls into the water, right?” But Sylvie didn’t want to take swimming lessons anyway and everyone ignored me as usual. Our parents didn’t share anything more about our prophecies. When I pressed Ma years ago, she said, “Must not open book too far. But your bone weight is heavy. Good fortune will come to you.”

“And Sylvie?” I asked, proud to have a substantial bone weight, whatever that meant.

Ma’s lids lowered, shuttering her thoughts. “Mountains of gold everywhere, but thirst too.”

I get off the subway at Brooklyn Heights and try to call Jim again. It goes straight to voicemail. How can a guidance counselor be so hard to reach? If I were a suicidal student, wouldn’t I be dead by now? I leave another message and try Sylvie’s number too. Again, it goes straight to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s me,” I say. “People are getting worried about you so please get back to me, okay? I’m going to use that key you gave us for emergencies and break into your house. I hope you’re okay with that and that Jim isn’t there, showering or something. All right, bye.”

Not that I’d mind seeing Jim nude. He’s pretty hot, if you’re into the blond scruffy type. But ever since Sylvie brought him home from Princeton, I’ve always been slightly irritated by the way he leans in too close to everyone, his hand casually resting on their arm or shoulder. We Chinese are pretty much the opposite of touchy-feely, although Sylvie drinks up his warmth like a thirsty plant—and I’m happy for her. Sylvie needs to be in control and hides her affection most of the time, but I’ve caught her watching him, the look in her eyes so tender and open. I’d give anything to experience that kind of love. At first, Ma and Pa didn’t like that Jim wasn’t Chinese, but since he was Sylvie’s boyfriend, they accepted him. Sylvie always could get away with anything.

I exit the subway station and step out into the kinder, gentler world that money can buy. I brush past a nanny pushing a pram along the shady, tree-lined cobblestone sidewalk and hurry to reach the waterfront, where Jim and Sylvie live. Along one side of their street, sloping walkways lead to the Promenade. As I hurry past, I glance down at the long esplanade and see a model surrounded by reflective screens posing against the spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. In the distance, I hear little kids whooping as they chase each other around the large playground at the end of their block. What Sylvie and I would have given for a place like that when we were small, filled with tire swings and a huge jungle gym.

“So Jim and I will be moving again,” Sylvie had told me a few years ago, right before they married. I was meeting her for lunch at Rockefeller Center, where she had just started a new job as a management consultant. She was rubbing her short, roughly bitten fingernails against the gleaming tabletop. They had moved back to NYC a couple of months earlier, after Sylvie finished her MBA at Harvard. They were renting a studio apartment in the East Village.

They wouldn’t leave New York so soon, would they? I’d just gotten my sister back. “Where are you going?” I’d asked, taking a big bite of my burger to cover my alarm.

“His parents have given us an apartment in Brooklyn Heights as a wedding present.” Her voice was determinedly casual, as if gifting someone a place worth more than a million dollars happened every day. She didn’t meet my eyes and toyed with her salad with her fork.

I stopped chewing. I’d heard Jim’s family was rich but it had always been theoretical, with his battered car and wrinkled T-shirts. I’d even wondered if Sylvie had invented that part of his background to appease Ma and Pa for her marrying a white guy.

Sylvie looked up and saw my face, her eyes bright. Her dimple appeared in her left cheek. “Close your mouth, Amy. You’re going to choke.”

I finally managed to swallow. “Now I feel bad. I’m getting you guys a blender.”

We both giggled.

I exhaled. Sylvie was staying. That was the important thing. “How do you feel about it?” I asked.

“Fine, of course. It’s a lovely present,” she said, but I heard the undercurrent of shame in her voice. Sylvie loves to show off her nice things, but she’s also proud. In high school, she once had a math teacher who was infamous for saying girls didn’t belong in his classroom. I still remember her intense, rigid back as she bent over her math books night after night until she’d beaten everyone in that class.

When I arrive at the tall, sleek brownstone where their garden apartment is located, I open the gate next to the outside staircase and pass by the large glazed dragon pot Ma and Pa gave Sylvie. It’s filled with some indestructible shrub she never remembers to water. I go down three steps and reach their blue front door.

I ring the doorbell a few times.
Come on, Sylvie, open up. You’re inside sleeping off the jet lag. Your phone broke, that’s all.
My breath quickens as I wait. Finally, I pull their key from my pocket. But when I unlock the heavy door and try to push it open, it jams.

A large pile of newspapers and mail blocks the entryway. What the hell? Sylvie’s been away for about a month, but where on earth is Jim? The air in the hallway is still and musty. I step inside and look around.

The apartment has been beautifully renovated, with tasteful recessed lighting, large bay windows, and a sleek modern kitchen, but Sylvie and Jim still live in it like two college students. There are piles of books everywhere and stacks of magazines on their upright piano. Sylvie has never cared about anything remotely domestic. She’s a terrible cook, blackening every slice of toast and attempted pot roast. A couple of months ago, I accompanied her and her colleagues to a Broadway show when their company had free tickets. The conversation was stiff and none of her coworkers asked me anything about myself. After a while, I felt like I was interviewing them. How did Sylvie survive among such uptight people? At one point, I mentioned what a disastrous cook Sylvie was in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere and she glared at me, later chewing me out for my unprofessionalism. I wanted to say,
Sylvie, if people know you’re human, they’ll like you more,
but I remained silent, as usual.

I peek in a few kitchen cupboards and find the pots and pans pristine, of course. Neither of them ever cooks. They live on takeout sweet-and-sour pork and tikka masala. Despite Sylvie’s chronic messiness, I’m unprepared for the chaos I find when I open their bedroom door. A pair of slacks has been tossed across the turquoise footboard of their large bed. Wrinkled shirts are strewn all over the floor and small piles of scarves and earrings lie scattered on the mattress, as if Sylvie packed in a hurry. Then I notice that every item I see is Sylvie’s. Where are Jim’s belongings? I open their closet door. It’s a violation of their privacy, but I need to know—and, indeed, only Sylvie’s pressed suits are hanging there. The other half of the closet is bare.

My chest constricts. It’s clear no one has been here for a long time.

Chapter 4

Sylvie

Saturday, March 5

Two Months Earlier

P
eople call French the language of love, but the only language lodged deep in my heart was that of my childhood, Dutch.

He had told me his name was Jim. It was only later that I learned his true name. My first semester at Princeton, I focused solely on my grades and my future. After all, when poverty enters, love flies out the window. I understood better than anyone that smoke does not come out of the chimney from love alone—and never forgot that Amy, Ma, and Pa were counting on me back home.

In a writing seminar, my second semester at Princeton, I noticed Jim. We were working on a practice exam in a lecture hall with soaring, pointed arched windows and slender columns that made the room feel like a Gothic church. I finished long before the others and rechecked my paper for style, spelling, and grammatical issues but was still surrounded by bent heads and pens scratching lined notebooks. I gazed out the window, watching as the angels shook out their cushions atop the backdrop of trees. At first, I was so hypnotized by the snow I did not notice how the cool sunlight cast a halo of gold upon the guy sitting in front of the glass. His hair curled in loose gleaming waves, unrestrained and free. He was sprawled in his chair—legs spread wide, jeans so torn I could see bits of hairy leg through the holes. I could never take up space like that, as if I had been born unfettered, as if this world were my birthright. Then I met his eyes. So warm and wicked, I could drown in them. He had been studying me the whole time. I quickly looked away, but found him waiting for me by the doorway as we left.

“I’m struggling in this class,” he said, his mischievous eyes now entreating. Even his feathery eyelashes were golden. He bent closer and almost breathed into my ear, “Please help me.”

It was a lie and also our beginning. For many years, I found the excuse he had used to meet me charming.

Jim was the perfect combination of high- and lowbrow. He bought a wreck of an automobile for six hundred dollars and named it after Grendel from
Beowulf
. I was delighted to have a boyfriend with knowledge unfathomable to Ma and Pa. We rode around in his car, feeling young and carefree. Jim wanted to do things that would never have occurred to me, like scoring beer even though we were underage. Neither of us liked the taste but we drank it because it was the sort of thing normal college kids did in the movies—and that was what we wanted to be. I sputtered, unused to alcohol, and Jim, driven by his desire to seem ordinary and manly, disguised his distaste. He was more accustomed to the fine wine of his parents’ collection.

I wanted to escape my poor background and forget about ugly Sylvie with the crooked tooth and eye patch, and he was pretending to be someone other than James Quaker Bates II, a name I never even heard until he took me home for Christmas during our second year. I should have known that was why the prep school kids always trailed after him and laughed too hard at his jokes. I had naively thought it was his charisma that overcame all boundaries. It was not until Grendel drove through the gate at his family’s coastal estate on Lake Michigan and continued past a half kilometer of landscaped garden before reaching their Georgian mansion that I began to understand that he had a life like a god in France.

Now, many years later, I was not sure if we had truly loved each other or merely the versions of ourselves we had seen reflected in the other’s eyes—as if we had acted out a play together, both of us player and audience alike. I was what he had dreamed of as well: someone who had gotten into Princeton based on drive and brains alone. My lack of connections and money had reassured him that he too had made it there on his own.

My heart ached at this realization. The revelations and drama of the past week had gone straight through my marrow and bone. Who was the man I had married: Jim, James, or someone else I never knew at all?

Chapter 5

Amy

Monday, May 2

M
y palms are wet and clammy and my heart is running a marathon inside my chest. The robust security guard behind the desk stares at me as if she’s wondering whether I should be at a mental hospital and not at the high school where Jim works. I give her my name. She calls him, listens to something on the other end of the line, and says he’s unavailable.

“Please,” I say. “H-his sister, I mean, my sister—”

“I can’t help you, ma’am,” she says. Her tone is polite but firm. “Please exit the school premises.”

I stand outside and wait among the pushing, writhing crowd of raucous teenagers for what feels like hours. A group of them lean against the gate, smoking pot; the musky odor clings to my hair. Jim will come out for his lunch break. He’s one of those overly energetic people who’s always taking long walks or jogging places when he should be resting like a normal person. I hate myself for waiting. Why didn’t I have the guts to elbow my way into the school? I’m nauseous with worry about Sylvie yet still a coward. How could Jim be unavailable? He’s family and Sylvie is missing.

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