Authors: Jean Kwok
Impulsively, I touch her shoulder. “I’m so sorry you lost Grandma. You must have loved her very much.”
Surprised, she blinks rapidly before pulling away, but the smile she gives me is genuine. “Yes, you are quite different from your sister. Thank you, Amy.”
I’m placed in the attic, in what was probably once Lukas’s room. I can hear the deluge pounding against the roof tiles outside. The air smells wet and a bit musty. The space is large since it stretches across the length of the house, and it has been stripped bare. The bed is made up with a green coverlet. I see my bags sitting beside a simple desk and office chair underneath the dormer windows, which intermittently flash with the lightning outside.
I shiver. “Is this where Sylvie was staying?” At Helena’s nod, I turn around slowly. There’s no trace of my sister anywhere. I had been hoping to hold something of hers in my hands. “Where are her things?”
Helena shrugs dismissively. She waves her hand in the air. “She packed everything and took it with her. That is why we thought she flew back to America. And she was in Lukas’s cottage most of the time anyway. I think she liked it better over there.”
Despite the moment of intimacy we shared earlier, I am irritated by Helena. What is she trying to imply? I turn to face her directly. “S-strange, Sylvie’s not one to complain.”
Helena’s smile reminds me of a mannequin’s, plastic and fake, and her eyes remain cold. “Well, she was also practicing that cello day and night. It was disturbing Grandma. We decided it would be better if she was not here all the time.”
I blink. Are we talking about the same person? “Sylvie doesn’t play any instrument. She’s never been interested in music.”
Thunder booms and Helena crosses over to pull the shades shut. She yanks the curtains closed with an aggressive flick of her wrist. “She started taking lessons while she was here—with that handsome music teacher, of course. Good looks never hurt, right? Old friend of Lukas’s. And no, she does not play. She was terrible.” Helena emits a short laugh, devoid of humor.
I stammer, “B-but Sylvie’s married . . .” Then I remember her separation from Jim. “Anyway, she never looks at men like that.” Sylvie, who would breeze by as male heads turned, only ever focused on whatever her next big project was. I had once arrived late to a party given by one of her colleagues and peered shyly into the packed room to find her sitting on a couch surrounded by admirers. Sylvie had beamed, rushed over, linked her arm through mine, and whisked us away without a single backward glance.
Helena walks to the door and leans against the frame. She taps her finger against her cheek. “Your heart is too big and”—I can tell she’s about to say
but instead she chooses—“innocent. You should be careful. People will take advantage of you.” Then with another false smile, she leaves.
After she’s gone, I collapse into the chair and think about what she said. My body is clammy with cold sweat. I brush my forehead three times with my left hand, like Ma would tell me to do, to ward off her words, and I realize my hands are shaking. Who might take advantage of me—she herself or some other member of her family? Or does she mean Sylvie somehow? And what in the world was Sylvie doing with a cello?
Saturday, April 2
One Month Earlier
s the plane descended, I remembered the game Lukas and I had played as children—rock, paper, scissors—and so I felt: plummeting downward onto the flat sheet of the Dutch landscape, the Netherlands wrapping around me like a sheet of paper, cradling my worn stone heart. I was finally coming home from a cold carnival, disappointed after a long trip.
In the confusion of my departure all those years ago, the doll Grandma had made for me, Tasha, had been lost. Tasha had always been by my side and then, suddenly, she was gone. Lukas and I had looked everywhere. We had avoided each other’s eyes, throwing ourselves into the hunt, knowing with the instinct of children that after this day, we would be searching for each other instead. And my ma was nothing like I had imagined. She was thin to the point of frailness, tiptoeing around the house like an unwanted guest. In my fantasies, she had been warm, plump, and strong, filled to overflowing with love for me. This woman spent hours in Grandma’s room, whispering secrets, and when I crept into Grandma’s lap instead of hers, she stared at me with trembling lips, as if it had been my fault that she had abandoned me. Helena’s sharp eyes never let Ma out of her sight, like she was afraid Ma would steal something precious to her.
Until the last moment, I had believed we would find Tasha somewhere, but we never did. I had burst into tears, grief for my doll overlaying my sorrow for leaving Grandma, Lukas, Willem, even Helena. Lukas, always my loyal companion, bawled right beside me. Willem had taken me into his arms then, sheltering me from Helena’s cold gaze.
“Shhhh.” He kissed my forehead and tucked a lock of my hair behind my ear. “Tasha will always sit in your heart, just like I will. Now, if you hold up with crying, I have a surprise for you.”
I sniffed, blinked away my tears, and peeked at Helena. She never liked it when Willem and I were too close. I had called him “Pa” once when I was little and she had dragged me by the arm to my room, and made me swear never to do it again. “You have your own pa, you little fool, do you understand?” she had hissed, red with fury. Now Helena glared at us, but with Ma looking on, and this being the last day of mine in the Netherlands, she did not dare say anything.
Willem pressed a small red silk envelope into my hand, just like the ones Grandma had. His eyes clouded with tears. “One day, you will grow up to become a beautiful woman. I will not be there to see it but I want you to wear these for me.”
I unzipped the envelope and tipped the contents into the palm of my hand. A pair of sparkly stud earrings fell out and twinkled against my skin. I gasped and threw my arms around his neck. He smelled like grapefruit and cedar, as he always did. “They are so shiny! But my ears are not pierced.”
“They will be,” he said, his voice low with promise.
I felt someone pry my fist open. It was Helena. She took the earrings from me and held them up against the light, her hands shaking with anger. “These are real.”
Willem laughed his deep melodious laugh. He released me and went to his wife. He put his arm around her and hugged her to him, like in a scene from a film, while we all watched. “Silly one. Of course they are crystal. But set in silver and still very pretty, right, Sylvie?” And he had winked at me.
I always suspected, especially because those earrings had never tarnished. So I had them appraised a few years ago—nearly flawless diamonds, more than half a carat each, in a platinum setting. It was a wildly inappropriate gift for a little girl but I still wore them today. Willem had always been the generous one. He would take flat squares of origami paper and, like magic, dinosaurs and butterflies, dragons and airplanes would bloom from his fingertips, delighting Lukas and me. I never saw Willem follow a design from a book. He must have known hundreds of patterns in his head.
“I am a bad Chinese,” he would say, shaking his head. “Resorting to Japanese arts. But it soothes me.”
“It is because you have no family, no roots,” Helena answered. “Wasteful habit. Uses up so much paper.” But despite her scolding, she had sought out beautifully patterned origami paper and left the packages around the house for him to find, as if by accident. Helena was kind to everyone except me.
The last time I had been at Schiphol Airport, I had taken the hand of a woman I did not know and walked away with her to start a new life. She was the mother I had yearned for, but my heart had no more room for her. It had been too late. Turning back to look at them: little Lukas with his woebegone face, Helena’s thinly hidden relief, Willem filled with regret, Grandma staring at both me and Ma as if she wanted to run and join us.
And what had I accomplished in all these years away? I wanted so much and had been able to hold on to so little of it. When had it begun to fall apart with Jim? Was it after our conversation on the way home from his friend Caitlin’s baby shower?
Of course, Jim had tons of female friends. Caitlin and Jim had gone to the same exclusive private school before Princeton. She was tall, freckled, adored horses and sailboats. In college, we had spent a weekend with her and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Xavier, on her father’s ranch in Wyoming. “Would you mind terribly if the rest of us went out for a ride?” she had asked me apologetically, assuming that poor immigrant me would be at a loss. “Oh, I think I’ll join you,” I had answered, “I love horses.” It had been satisfying to see her mouth slacken as I swung into the saddle and nudged the mare into a trot. I did not tell her that my old friend Estelle had been horse crazy, like so many Dutch girls, and had dragged me along to groom and ride her horse Umbra every week. I had shoveled lots of horse shit with Estelle.
About a year and a half ago, Jim and I were in the car on the way home after congratulating a heavily pregnant Caitlin when he said, “What about us?”
I stared out the window as the highway sped by, pretending I had not heard him. I jumped when he reached over and touched my hand.
“I know you don’t want to talk about it, but time’s running out. We’ve been married a year now. I’d hoped—” I heard what he was not saying.
You’re going to be too old soon.
When I finally met his gaze, his blue eyes told me what he longed for: a tiny soft being dependent on him, coming home to a wife baking banana bread, a faded landscape where he would be loved and admired as a king.
I tried to gentle my tone. “You know I work eighty hours a week, Jim. And my mentor says I’m doing so well.”
Jim gave a half shrug, like he did not care.
I rolled my eyes. So typical. “This current project, I’m involved from the conceptual stage to the completion and operation of the facility. Do you know what that means? I’m not saying never—just another year or two, that’s all.” I was not going to throw away everything I had done, everything I was. Why did it not matter to anyone else?
“Sweetheart, you know how proud I am of you. But aren’t
important too? We already waited so long to get married because of your career,” he said softly. The autumn sun was setting and as it soaked through the windshield, it turned his face into a pale golden mask. Brilliantly colored leaves were torn from the trees as we sped by, swirling in the air while they searched for a final resting place.
“Of course. But it’s my body that’s going to be taken over, Jim. My life that will be put on hold. It’s up or out at the company. If I don’t get promoted to engagement manager in the next year or so, I’m out. The coming period is critical.” My heart rate quickened at the thought of it—a crying baby, like when Amy had been a toddler with one of her tantrums and I was alone with her and all I wanted was to do my homework in peace and be free to play at other girls’ houses. This was my fault. If I had not wasted those years working as a chemical engineer, searching for who I was, I would not be older than the other associates. I would have had time to build my career and then have a child.
The car next to us beeped, suddenly veering into our lane.
Jim hit the brakes in time to slow down. “Jerk,” he muttered. His fingers clenched the steering wheel. “I can take time off too.”
I bit back the words:
You don’t really have a career. You always have your parents’ money and family name, a nice cushy safety net to land on
. But some of my guilt and bitterness escaped me anyway. “You have no idea what a baby would mean. I always have to be the practical one.”
The tendons on Jim’s forehead protruded and a flush darkened his cheekbones. He raised his voice. “You always have to be in control and you can’t bear to loosen up. Well, I’d like to come first in this relationship for a change.”
“You’re jealous.” I spat out the words. “You feel emasculated to have a wife who earns six times what you do.” There was a dreadful silence. I had gone too far. Jim had turned into a statue beside me. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. I was such a horrible person. “Jim, I’m sorry.”
He took a deep breath and gave me a cold smile. His voice was polite. “Let’s not talk about this anymore.” And we had not.
God, I was glad to get away from everything. We exited the plane and I quickly strode through the airport. My soul leaped as if it had been freed of its bindings. I had left the jungle of New York City and was back in the warm and welcoming plains. What a gorgeous and efficient airport. How many cities had I been in by now? So many flights for work. A week in a hotel in Atlanta, another in Chicago, then a couple of days in San Francisco. It had not been easy for Jim either.
No more of that, Sylvie. Leave it all behind
. I took a deep breath. My shoulders started to relax against the musical background of Dutch voices all around me. I almost shivered with pleasure. I could still understand everyone perfectly.
Little treasure, have you seen my boarding pass? Hallo, taxi, we have landed, where should we meet you? Now you have to stop that up immediately or you may not have any licorice.
I quickly found my bags and exited through the arrivals gate. My eyes scanned the crowd, looking for Helena, Willem, and Lukas, especially Lukas. Had he not come? Where was he? But then, there was a great Asian man standing before me instead of the little boy I had subconsciously been looking for. I did not recognize Lukas in him at all. The adorable chubby cheeks had turned into a sharp, angular face; where did this square jaw come from, the high forehead? Where were the scrawny, vulnerable shoulders? This was a stranger. My heart deflated like an old bicycle tire. The man was clean-shaven, his long hair neatly combed back, still wet from the shower. I spoke Dutch for the first time in years, my tongue slowly growing used to the twists and turns once again. “Are you Lukas? I recognize you not.”