Searching for Sylvie Lee (4 page)

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Finally, I catch a glimpse of his light hair. It’s immediately visible, like an albino rabbit. He’s surrounded by adoring teenage girls, mostly Latino and African American, all laughing up at their cute young guidance counselor.

“Jim!” I call out. When he finally sees me, he immediately averts his eyes and shoves his way in the opposite direction.

I am so shocked that it takes me a second to move. Jim is rather broad, and the girls tag along, still chatting, so it takes him longer to worm through the crowd than me.

I maneuver myself in front of him so he can’t avoid me. “Hey, Jim!” The teenagers take one look at my strained face and disperse.

“Oh, hi, Amy,” he says with a weak smile. I have never seen him look so terrible, not even when he was in grad school and pulling all-nighters. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair greasy, and he’s sporting a few days’ worth of stubble.

“I-I tried to see you at school but you weren’t available.”

He rubs his hand over his forehead as if he’s tired. “What? I was in a meeting all morning. I wasn’t even told you were here.”

I press my lips together but decide not to confront him about this. What would be the point anyway? “Where’s Sylvie? Have you seen her?”

A fire engine screams past us, distracting me, sirens blaring. When I turn back to Jim, his gaze is calm. Was he surprised at my question? “She’s still abroad, isn’t she?”

“Our cousin Lukas says she flew back this past weekend, but no one can reach her. I was just at your apartment and it looks like nobody’s been there for ages. What’s going on?”

He pinches the bridge of his nose like he’s in pain. “She didn’t tell you? Of course not.”

“Tell me what?”

“We’re separated.”

“What?!” That was too loud. The kids standing nearby are staring at us now. Images of a happy Sylvie and Jim flash through my mind. We spent this past Christmas at their house.

Jim bends closer to me and lowers his voice. “Since March. She kicked me out, Amy.”

“Why?” My eyes narrow. “What did you do?”

He holds up his hands in protest. “Look, you know Sylvie’s not the easiest person in the world.”

The blood rushes to my head. “D-don’t you insult my sister. If she threw you out, she had a damn good reason.”

He clenches his square jaw. “Oh, right, can’t taint the altar of the holy Sylvie. Well, hero-worshipping little sister, don’t let your illusions blind you.”

“What do you mean by that?”

He huffs out a deep breath and then easygoing, charming Jim returns. “Forget I said anything. I’m just upset by the whole thing and she’s refusing to be reasonable. Is she okay?”

“I wouldn’t know. No one’s heard from her.” Despite my frustration, I am desperate enough to ask, “Do you have any idea where she could be?”

His face is still. I catch a flash of genuine fear in his eyes. “I’m the last person Sylvie would contact or want to see. Believe me, I’ve tried. But come on, Amy, this is Sylvie. She’s fine. She probably just wants some time to herself.”

Sylvie is the most dutiful person I know. She would never make us worry like this. I turn on my heel and walk away. Jim calls after me, “Look, I’m sorry, Amy. If there’s anything I can do . . .”

I’d like to go back and punch him in his face. Sylvie’s marriage has been on the rocks for months and she didn’t tell anyone. She didn’t tell me. When we were little, I’d lie with my head on her lap as she stroked my hair and I’d tell her every tiny thing that happened to me at school: the girls who’d giggled over my cheap pants, the impossibly densely freckled boy I’d liked, the mean teacher with the face like a prune. She would laugh or commiserate and I’d always say, “Sylvie, we tell each other everything, right? Right?” And she’d answer, “Right.” But now I’m beginning to realize that maybe I’ve always been the only one doing the telling.

 

T
he shadows grow long as Ma and I wait for Pa to come home. Ma seems to have crumpled and shrunk over the past few hours, this blow coming on top of her mother’s death. As she prepares dinner, her hands shake so much I’m afraid she will cut herself. Several times, she stops and prays to our gods, her lips moving silently. We have carefully avoided any further conversation or decisions. There’s still no word from Sylvie. My head is spinning with the news that she and Jim broke up. I’d tried to find out if Sylvie had boarded any flights but the airlines wouldn’t disclose that information and we don’t have access to her credit cards.

I think back to Christmas at Sylvie’s apartment. It had been a bit stressful, but the holidays are always somewhat strained. Ma and Pa’s English is so poor and Jim doesn’t know any Chinese. Furthermore, Sylvie feels like that’s the one time a year she should cook—big mistake right there. Jim tries to help, but that’s pretty much the blind leading the blind. It’s as if Sylvie is trying to fulfill some fantasy of a real American Christmas, when none of us even know what that means. We’re still foreigners despite the years we’ve lived here. I may have grown up in Queens but my entire home life has been Chinese—chopsticks, bitter melon with carp on Sundays, Buddhist holidays, respect your elders—and Jim’s as close to royalty as you can get in this country. We always sit at the table while Ma and Pa struggle with the cutlery (“ay yah—knives on the table,” Ma whispered in Chinese the first time, staring), burned stuffing, cranberry sauce, and the language barrier.

I don’t remember this past Christmas being any different. The best part was always after dinner, when Jim played their piano and Sylvie and I sang Christmas carols and top forties hits together by candlelight. Even Pa would sit back, his eyes shining; listening to words he didn’t understand but carried along by the river of feelings conveyed through the music. Sometimes I’d even play a little guitar. I’d begged for lessons growing up, but we could never afford it. Still, Sylvie had bought me a guitar a few years ago and I’ve taught myself a few songs. Christmas at Sylvie’s had been the only time I was the center of attention and felt competent, joyful, and free. Despite the awkward dinners, those holidays together were some of my happiest memories: all of the people I loved at peace with each other and the world.

Of course, Lunar New Year is the most important holiday to the Chinese, but it’s hard to celebrate with all your heart when your festivity isn’t reflected by the society around you—no films on television, no displays in department stores, no friends with gifts, and no propaganda about peace and love whatsoever. Sylvie and I always had to go to school on Chinese New Year.

Sylvie, where are you? How could you not have told me what was going on with Jim
? I’ve seen her often since they broke up in March. We talk or text several times a week. She must have been in so much pain and didn’t let me help her. That hurts me more than anything. Ma told me not to tell Pa about their marriage problems, that it would only upset him.

When Pa finally comes through the door, he doesn’t realize anything is wrong. He is carrying a wrapped bundle of seafood from the store, as usual. After we greet him as is proper, he puts the package in the refrigerator and hangs his jacket on one of the bent wire hangers in the closet. He sits at the fold-out table in the kitchen and waits for his dinner, like he always does. He’s a large man with reddened hands that smell like fish. He scrubs them daily but can never entirely rid himself of the scent. Ma always says how much Sylvie takes after Pa, though I’m not sure I see it, with Pa’s hulking bulk and Sylvie’s greyhound leanness. She does have a dimple in her left cheek, and Pa, ridiculously, has one in his right—another similarity Ma likes to bring up. I’m always surprised when it appears on his hard face. Sylvie isn’t much like Ma either. They are both beautiful, but where Ma’s delicate and yielding, like a coconut rice ball, Sylvie is all long limbs and sharp edges, more a broadsword saber.

Pa unfurls the Chinese newspaper he’s brought home and grunts. He’s always been like this, as far back as I can remember: a taciturn, old-fashioned man. It must have disconcerted him to have two daughters. He would have preferred sons. They tend to chatter less. The old faded posters of chubby boys riding on carp and carrying gold and peaches that cover our apartment are remnants of his failed hopes, his thwarted attempts to bring male energy into the womb of his pregnant wife. But there’s something gentle about Pa too, a tenderness to the way he brushes Ma’s cheek with the back of his hand every once in a while. After they shop for groceries in Chinatown, he carries as many of the heavy plastic bags as he can, leaving as few as possible for Ma. He stands the entire day at work but if a seat opens up on the crowded subway, he guards it until Ma can drop her tired body into it. He makes sure our winter coats are warm and thick but has refused to replace his own shabby jacket for years, despite the way I catch him shivering through the bitter winters.

I’m his favorite daughter. Why, I don’t know, but he and Sylvie have never gotten along. Like ginger dipped in sugar, Ma says, simultaneously delicious and explosive. Sylvie’s even allergic to fish and seafood, which has been a source of irritation to Pa through the years. When we were younger, he used to growl about how it was a waste for Ma to cook separate dishes for Sylvie, as if it were Sylvie’s fault that she broke out in hives after eating shrimp. He seemed to believe that Sylvie was allergic because she thought she was too good for his food, and thus too good for him too. Now he looks up, sees me watching him, and smiles, unveiling his straight white teeth. That easing of the daily strain on his face makes him suddenly as handsome as a movie star. Pa used to pat me on the head when I was little and call me “my girl, my very own Amy.”

I exchange a glance with Ma, and then gently say, “Pa, we have bad news.”

He startles, sits upright. His English is a bit better than Ma’s. “What is this?”

“Sylvie’s missing.” The color in Pa’s skin drains away, turning it slowly to ash. I swallow hard and press on. After I tell him the whole story, carefully omitting the part about Sylvie’s problems with Jim, he hides his eyes with his hand until he finally pronounces, “Jim is her husband. He must act now. It is his duty.”

“I spoke with him today.” I decide to lie. “He’s too busy at work. He can’t get away to do anything and he thinks she’s just taking some time.” I’m a terrible liar. “For her career.” Anything to do with work is sacred as far as Ma and Pa are concerned.

Pa nods. “Jim knows best. We can do nothing anyway.”

I don’t have Pa’s faith in Jim. I say hesitantly, “Should one of us go to Holland?” Who? Me? I am terrified at the idea of traveling to another country. I don’t even like the thought of going to New Jersey. Ma? She can’t speak English. And Pa could never leave—he’s needed at his job, anyway. The image of Ma and Pa on an airplane is incongruous. They can hardly navigate this country. How would they ever manage abroad?

“No,” he says, anger filling each word. “Too dangerous and what you can do there anyway? You just little girl. Cousin Helena and her family know what to do.”

I have to bite back a retort at that. Ma doesn’t speak up. She never does. Whenever Pa is drunk and angry, she only becomes quieter. I suppose I’ve learned my silence from her. Their marriage, like many others of their generation, was arranged because their families knew each other. Pa often feels to me like he’s holding his breath, filled with frustration and rage at some wrong that’s been done to him in the past. Sometimes I spot a look that might be longing on his face but then I blink and it’s gone, as if it had never existed.

There were nights when I was little when they’d fight and Sylvie and I would clutch at each other in our room, hiding behind the walls that were too thin to muffle any sound. My memories begin a few years after Sylvie was brought home to Queens to live. I was about four years old. I couldn’t understand the Chinese words Pa called Ma then, but Sylvie’s cheeks would glow bright red. It often happened after he’d been drinking rice wine, and the next day, it’d be life as usual.

Sylvie confronted him once. I tried to stop her, clutching at her sleeve, but she marched down the hall and pounded on their door.

When Ma opened it, Sylvie said, “You waking Amy.”

Ma was horrified, more so than Pa, and quickly bundled Sylvie out and back to our room.

“You must never do that again.” Ma was a pale ghost standing in our doorway. “Never, never. Promise!” And we did, though we didn’t know if she was afraid for us or for herself.

“We have to do something,” I say to them now. But as I look around the room, I realize that none of us have any idea what our next move should be. Sylvie was the one we always called for help. There’s no one else, no one except me.

Telephone Call

Tuesday, May 3

BETHANY:
Hello, Bethany Jones speaking. How may I help you?
AMY:
Bethany, this is Amy.
BETHANY:
What a surprise. What can I do for you?
AMY:
I’m calling about Sylvie. [Voice breaks] She’s disappeared. No one knows where she is.
BETHANY:
What? I’m so sorry. Is there anything we can do?

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