Authors: Jean Kwok
Well, I would really like the contact information for that consultancy project she’s doing in the Netherlands.
I’m a bit confused.
Your company sent her there, right? Maybe she’s left a message or something. I don’t know how to get in touch with them.
. . . I’m afraid Sylvie doesn’t work here anymore. She left more than a month ago, at the end of March.
What? B-but she never said anything . . . Are you sure? Why did she leave?
I truly apologize but I’m not permitted to disclose that information. She’s probably been sent there via a new employer and this is just some sort of mix-up.
: I’m scared something’s happened to her. [Chokes back a sob] I can’t believe she didn’t tell me she left your company.
I wish I could do more for you. But don’t worry, Sylvie is extremely competent. She doesn’t need anyone’s pity.
Why would I pity her? Was she fired?
Well, we don’t let anyone go here. People sometimes are encouraged to explore new horizons—that’s all. Of course, it’s not up to me to say what’s fair or unfair. When you reach your sister, I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it.
Tuesday, May 3
Everyone, sorry to bother you but has anyone heard from my sister Sylvie in the past week or so? Do you know anything about a possible new job of hers by any chance? It’s really important. Thanks.
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Nope, but isn’t she abroad? She’s probably just caught up with her work.
Sorry, haven’t heard from her. But she doesn’t tend to write much. Probably just a time difference thing. Don’t know anything about a new job. Hey, when are we getting together for a drink? Been too long. Noah says hi, by the way.
She went to Denmark or Finland or something, right? Always get confused with those foreign places. I’m up for a drink, can I come?
She went to the Netherlands. Has anyone heard anything?
Min Ho Chung
Judith van Es
? Please tag anyone else you think might have heard from her. We’re getting pretty worried.
Hello? Has anyone heard anything from her?
Wednesday, May 4
Hi, this is the voicemail of Sylvie Lee. Please leave a message after the beep and I will get back to you as soon as possible.
Please pick up. We’re scared. It’s been so long. It’s totally not like you to disappear like this. I’ve checked with Lukas again via email and there’s still no sign of you. If you can hear me but for some reason can’t answer, it’s going to be okay. We love you and I’m flying to the Netherlands tonight. I know, I’ll probably die of fear before I even arrive. Ma and Pa don’t want me to come but I used my bank account money, you know, all those red envelopes we saved our whole lives. And at least I have a passport. It’s a good thing you always make us keep our passports valid, in case we need to flee a sudden war or something. Of course I didn’t dare to actually tell Ma and Pa I’d bought the ticket, I just left the confirmation page on the table for them to find. Pa turned quite red but he didn’t say anything. I’m so nervous about leaving the country. I practically threw up after booking my seat, but you’re more important.
You hang in there, Sylvie. I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re in but we’ll get through it together. I’m coming for you.
Friday, April 1
One Month Earlier
t was late in the evening and I sat on the airplane at JFK, waiting for it to depart and bring me home to the Netherlands. When I was little and still living there, I had chafed at the bit. I was a troublesome child, had already started the dolls dancing even then.
She has pepper in her butt,
the Dutch kids had said. In a society that graded you down if you wrote extra pages for an exercise because you had not followed the rules of the assignment, I had always wanted too much, tried too hard.
Just do normal,
the Dutch said, and I was many things but never that.
But as I fastened my seat belt, I felt as if I was returning to a safe haven—east, west, home was best. I was going back to the place where no one had ever needed me to be extraordinary. How many times had I dreamed of going home over the years? Why had I never returned before now? It had been a long trip of the spotted cow, filled with trials and tribulations.
When I was nine years old and newly arrived in the United States, I had to wear that hated eye patch and the American kids had laughed at me; for that and for my accent and my crooked front tooth. I could speak only a few words of English then. Even after I learned the language, I kept the accent that, for many years, they thought was Chinese—
chink, go home to China, you can’t even talk right, stupid Buddhahead
—but was actually Dutch. And I had watched as those syrup lickers fawned over the girl with French parents because her accent was so European. Only Amy would dance with joy when she saw me each day. Amy, who slipped her tender hand in mine, wrapping it around my icy heart.
Where I was cold and false—a beast of artifice like the bejeweled mechanical nightingale the Chinese emperor bought to replace the one of flesh and blood—Amy was genuine, a sweet little piece of licorice, always true to herself. She had a habit of pushing up her glasses with her middle finger, as if she were giving everyone the bird, and I found it incredibly endearing that she had no idea she was doing it. She was a giver while I was a consumer, burning up everything and everyone I touched. Naturally, I had been jealous of Amy ever since she was born. Amy, the wanted child, and the only reason my parents brought me back to the United States, so I could babysit her. Ma cared nothing for what I did. I could go to bed past midnight and she would not even mark it. I often left the apartment without eating breakfast because I wanted, just once, to hear Ma’s soft voice say, “Sylvie, come back,” but she never did. Meanwhile, Amy had to button her coat. Amy could not leave without a warm little bite in her stomach. Amy had help in everything.
When I had nightmares, Amy would bounce me awake in that little bedroom we shared and say, “You’re speaking monster language in your sleep again.” No matter how many years I lived in America, I always dreamed in Dutch. Dutch was something that belonged to me, or so it seemed when I left the only country I had ever known. It was a complex language, filled with challenging sounds and a wrapped-up word order. Despite its intricacy, it was the language of my soul. Nowadays, we all lived in a time boundary when emotion defeated logic, an era when gut feeling reigned over rationality. There was no patience for the difficult, the indecipherable, yet what else was the human heart but that?
While at Princeton, I joined the Dutch language table for our weekly meal to converse among others who spoke it. Their surprise, when they first saw me, turned to shock when I started to speak Dutch, at first with some hesitation, then ever more fluently. They delighted in teaching me everything I had missed, from sexual organs to curses that often embarrassed them but not me:
cancer, typhoid sufferer, raisin snob, poop catcher, lamb balls
. I had to hold myself in so I did not laugh out loud. From this, I learned that curses were impotent unless powered by shame and the appeal of the forbidden.
And naturally, Lukas wrote to me in Dutch, but our correspondence tapered off as we grew older and were drawn further into our separate lives. When we were little, we would go to the library in our village and Lukas would pore over the art and photography books, inhaling the scent of each page as if he wanted to absorb every image into himself. Off and on through the years, I would receive a letter from him in his beautiful slanted handwriting about yet another new girlfriend (“you would like her, Sylvie, she is as brilliant as you”), his study by the famous Rietveld Academie (“the world has cracked open its lens for me”)—and then, as he was struggling to establish himself as a photojournalist, a view-card only once in a while from places like Bolivia (“freezing my butt off in the Andes Mountains”), Turkey (“stray kitten here has been waiting for me every day outside my door, bringing her home”), China (“leaving Guangdong behind me now”). He was less good with electronics: erratic and confused, sometimes writing me emails that ran on for pages, then not responding to my reply for months, only to later send an apology that he had found his unsent email in his drafts folder.
I told Amy she should not lose herself in her fantasies, but I was the one who had spent my life on dreaming. When I was living with Helena and Willem in their cold house, I longed for my own ma and pa, whom I had never met, parents who would love and accept me as I was. Then, when I was finally allowed to return to my real parents—
They only need a child minder for their new daughter,
Helena had told me—I clung to memories of Grandma back in the Netherlands. Her warm arms, her smell of Nivea cream and Chinese hair gel, of the rice and meat porridge she made for me and Lukas after school, of warm caramel waffles from the street markets and licorice in long, pointy plastic sacks. Lukas, who always had a new joke to tell me as we walked to school each day, and who made me toss stick after stick into the swirling water so he could capture just the right photo. Fool that I was, I always yearned for that which I did not have.
It was a risk, returning to what I cherished as my homeland. I dreamed of plaice and yet I ate flatfish; I always expected too much. Yes, that was the reason I had never gone back to the Netherlands on vacation, not even on our marriage-trip. I had changed and I was terrified that my dream of the one place I truly belonged would be overwritten and I would have nothing left, no solace at all.
But then Grandma called, her voice so weak on the phone.
Sylvie, you must travel back to see me. Quickly. Quickly.
There were only a handful of people whom I genuinely loved in this life and Grandma was one of them. She reached out because she was on the edge of her grave, close to being with the ants. My sweet grandma, who had held me as I cried over some cruel words Helena had said to me. I clutched at the raw pain that convulsed my chest. How many years had it been? Now, suddenly, there was almost no time left—and, even if only temporarily, the trip would allow me to leave behind the wreck that was Jim, my career, and the rest of my life.
When I had repeated Grandma’s words to Ma, Pa, and Amy, Ma had stiffened, and I knew that she too grasped what Grandma truly wanted. We had never spoken of the jewelry, but Grandma must have revealed her secret to her only daughter.
“I want to say goodbye to my mother—I mean, Grandma,” I had said. Ma had flinched. I had kicked her in her tender leg on purpose and I was glad. She had not been there for me when I was a child, and Grandma had. Then I had lied as hard as glass, telling them that work was sending me there. I knew that would pull Pa over the rope like nothing else, and Ma always did whatever Pa said, as if she were paying penance for some crime she had committed. If only they knew that the successful, competent Sylvie had nothing anymore. Would they be disappointed in me?