Authors: Jean Kwok
He smiled and then gave me three kisses on the cheeks, with none of the forced intimacy of American hugging, where you have to keep your breasts away from the closeness of the other person. But still, my body remained stiff. He held me at arm’s length, an intense burning in his eyes I now remembered. “You are unchanged.”
His voice was so deep, not squeaking like it used to when Lukas laughed himself sick. I searched for something to say to this person I no longer knew. I wanted my old Lukas back. “So you came back from Nepal?”
“I had enough of the continuous traveling anyway.”
I did not mention Grandma. A cloud of grief hid behind his eyes. I already knew why he had returned. There was another awkward silence. I looked around for Helena and Willem. They had not come. She had outsmarted me once again. What a fool I had been, choosing my expensive, seemingly casual slacks and blouse with such care. Fixing my hair and makeup in the mirror on the airplane, to ensure Helena would know that a new Sylvie had returned.
Lukas’s quick eyes understood without my saying anything. He stumbled over the words, his cheeks stained with shame. “It was not possible for my parents—”
I cut him off. “I understand.” We both knew what an insult this was.
He slung his large black camera bag across his back, then took my suitcase with one hand and started shouldering his way through the crowd. As we dodged past people on our way out of the terminal, he said, “I thought about picking you up with my scooter but we could not fit your luggage. Is the train good or do you want to take a taxi?”
Helena and Willem had not let him use the car. “I love the train.”
“Did you ever ride on one before you left?” Lukas punched the buttons and bought two tickets from the yellow machine.
“Class trip to that museum in Amsterdam, do you remember?” I smiled at the memory. He had been my partner, as always. We used to hold hands as we skipped across the schoolyard, even though some kids tittered at us for being a boy and a girl and still so close—my best friend and my cousin. On Sinterklaas, we both had pathetic surprises made by Grandma, who knew nothing of Saint Nicholas. As the other kids unveiled huge papier-mâché creations of robots and hockey fields filled with candy and presents, we had thinly curled cardboard surprises that barely resembled anything but the toilet paper rolls they were. For the first time, I wondered what Lukas had endured after I had left.
He grinned. “I remember we fought about who would sit next to the window until the teacher threatened to separate us.” Anything but that—we had quieted down immediately.
“How is everyone?” I asked as we strode down the motorized walkway to the lowered train platform. The wheels of my suitcase emitted a high-pitched whine as they scraped against the ribbed metal floor.
We waited for the train in the underground station as he filled me in. Estelle was flying for KLM; his photojournalism was going well, he had spreads in a few good Dutch and international magazines, but it took time to break into such a competitive field; he was renting that garage apartment from his parents and hating it, even though it was practical for now.
Then our sleek train arrived and we got on. I sat across from him and studied him as we traveled back to our little village along the coast. Underneath the lean sculptured lines of his face, I could just make out the boy he had once been: shy, loyal, mischievous. His eyes were still warm, lit with humor and intelligence, and slowly, he came into focus for me again, my Lukas. When you truly love someone and you see them again, even if it is many years later, their new face blends back into their old face and it is like no time has passed at all. We sped onward through the tunnel and, finally, burst through the other side. I now saw the orderly green countryside that was so familiar to me, like a half-remembered memory of a lullaby that had comforted me as a child. Even from inside, I could feel the difference in the wet and caressing air. The clock at home ticked in a way it ticked nowhere else. The rain beat steadily above our heads. “How does it come that you have grown into such a giant?”
He laughed—a booming sound that surprised me. “How is it you are not different at all?”
“What?” I said with mock outrage. “How can you say that? Look at this.” I point to my right eye. “And this.” I bare my perfect teeth. “Years of wearing that eye patch. And it cost me a fortune to get that tooth pulled and a fake one put in its place. I had it done the moment I went away to college. Now you say I am no different!”
“Actually, I still have regret about that accident with your tooth.”
I sniffed. An accident is hidden in a little corner, where no one expects it. When I was seven years old, I had been riding on the back of Lukas’s bike when we crashed and almost knocked out my front tooth. “Well, it was a tiny bit my fault too.”
“You were swinging back and forth, singing with a full chest. You did your best to make us fall. That you succeeded in too.”
Outside, it began to rain cow tails and I traced my fingers along the streaks the water left on the exterior of the windowpanes. We were warm, safe, and dry. The patter of the rain beat against the steady roar of the train and, between the beading raindrops, I caught a glimpse of our reflections in the glass. Lightning flashed and for a moment, it was as if our images flickered between the children we had been and the man and woman we were now.
“I cannot believe how long it has been,” I said.
“You never came back.” There was sadness in his voice.
“You did not come to visit me.” Then we were both silent, thinking of the intervening years. How I could not bear to have one foot in both countries. How I had become aware of Helena’s underlying hatred of me once I grew older. How my love for him and Grandma had not been enough to overcome my fear of Helena. And my complicated, twisted relationship with Willem had not helped matters.
Finally, I dared to ask, “How is Grandma?”
“She does not have much time left. She has been waiting for you.” When we were seven years old, a stray kitten, a puff of gray fur and bright blue eyes, had followed us home from school. Lukas had not let it out of his sight, crawling around on the floor with it, creating toys for it out of newspaper and cardboard. Despite all of our begging, Helena had made us give the kitten to the animal asylum after only a few days. Lukas’s eyes had looked like this then, as if they could not contain the depths of his hopelessness.
I pressed my lips together and nodded. We were silent again.
Then abruptly, Lukas said, “My parents would have come but there was an emergency at the restaurant.” A flush mottled his neck.
Why did this still hurt after all these years? “You do not need to lie to me. Did I ever tell you? I phoned the restaurant of your parents last year to congratulate you on your birthday since I could not reach you on your mobile.”
“I think I was in Africa covering a story then. No reception.”
“A woman speaking perfect Dutch answered the phone. She told me you were not there and then asked who I was. She had me spell my name. At first I had not recognized her voice and thought it was an employee, but, slowly, I realized it was your mother, pretending she did not know me.” I swallowed down echoes of the anger and humiliation I had felt. “I did not confront her.”
Lukas winced. “I am sorry, Sylvie.”
I reached over and laid my hand on his arm. “It is no use.”
His head was resting back against the seat, but he studied me as if he could not believe I was truly there. He pulled a huge camera from his bag and asked, “May I?”
I nodded. When we were little, Lukas had used up the film in his Polaroid camera at an amazing rate. He spent the rest of the train ride taking photos of me, the landscape, a tear in the seat next to him. The jet lag was beginning to catch up to me. I half closed my eyes, leaning my forehead against the window, and continued to dream.
Luckily, in one of those abrupt changes of schizophrenic Dutch weather, the rain had stopped by the time we got off the train. I breathed in the gentle air. It smelled like cut grass. Clouds danced in the bright blue sky. As soon as I saw the uneven brick streets, I paused for a moment, shook my hair loose, and sat at a bench to change out of the heels I had worn to impress Helena into flat shoes. Their house was not far from the station and it was an easy walk along the Vecht River. Lukas pulled my bag, the wheels bumping against the smaller bricks that made up the sidewalk.
People nodded to us as we passed. I had forgotten. No more of that strict avoidance of eye contact learned in New York City. They considered me with curiosity, but as long as I smiled and said
back to them, they were satisfied. There were a few changes to this former medieval fishing village. A large modern supermarket in the center, a bank, ATMs, an office building with only four stories. There was a little red mailbox beside a large blue trash receptacle that looked so much like the mailboxes in the United States. When I had first arrived in New York, Ma barely stopped me in time from throwing my sticky crumpled tissues into the mailbox, which I had assumed was the garbage can.
There was the house again. My stomach clenched. It was just as I recalled—dark and cold with impenetrable windows. They had built an apartment above the separate garage for Lukas. No, I had never missed this house, only some of the people in it. As Lukas let us inside, I was surprised by how much I remembered.
The way the front door stuck and would not click shut behind you unless you gave it an extra push with your hip. The key rack was still there, with extra sets to the house and garage, now Lukas’s apartment. I had grown tall enough to reach it easily. They had changed the interior to modern: the old dark wood replaced by gray and orange garishness. The room simmered with flickering shadows. The lights were off to conserve electricity, as was the case in most Dutch homes. The heat was set low as well—
Thick sweater day: why not wear one, it is better for the environment and your energy bill
. My feet knew where to slip off and leave my shoes. My arms recalled the coat hangers that jangled against each other. My hand reached for the light switch half-hidden behind the old Vermeer print on the wall without a thought, even though I no longer had to go on tiptoe.
How I had dreaded the mornings, the time Helena and Willem were home before leaving for the restaurant and returning late in the night. The afternoons and evenings had been lovely, only me and Lukas and Grandma, eating our simple meals of fresh rice in the lamplight instead of the rich restaurant fare Willem and Helena brought back. Most days, I was in bed before they came home. I made sure of it.
But there had been good times with Helena too. Days when she took me shopping for dresses, bought me colored elastics for my hair. One winter, the Vecht River had frozen over. I was amazed to find it packed with people I recognized as neighbors. I hugged the shore, expecting the ice to crack and swallow everyone whole. It was one of my nightmares, to be trapped underneath the surface of the water. But earlier that morning, Helena had rooted around in the garage until she found pairs of skates for Willem, Lukas, me, and herself.
“I picked these up at the open market during the last Queen’s Day,” she explained. People sold their used toys and clothing for almost nothing then. “The children’s skates are adjustable, so they should still fit the two of you.”
Then, while Willem taught Lukas, Helena pulled me into the center of the river, the ice smooth underneath my feet, the treacherous water tamed into submission. I hung on to her and she laughed. Then she unfolded the plastic chair she had brought for me. I held on to its back like many of the other children around me.
“Push with your legs,” she said. “Keep your weight forward. You are doing fine.”
I used the folding chair as a skating aid and learned to glide across the ice with Helena by my side. I remembered my initial surprise that she could skate perfectly, but of course, she had grown up in the Netherlands. It had been a glorious day.
Now Lukas was watching me. “Welcome home,” he said, his face falling into serious lines. He knew better than anyone how bittersweet my childhood had been.
Although everything in the house had been replaced by something more expensive, the furniture was equally ugly and grim. I could see from the uncomely marble tiles that they had floor heating now. The old flowery couch wrapped in vinyl was gone. The fireplace still sat cold and empty because the smoke would damage the furniture. There was no cozy rug to dispel the chill because rugs collected dust. The curtains were as gloomy as ever.
No books, no music. But all around the room, photos of Lukas: on the beach, at preschool, wearing an enormous paper hat with a number 4 stapled to the peacock-like tufts—his fourth birthday, ready to leave and start elementary school the next day. That was my hand on his shoulder. I was not in the photo but I had been there, watching him, trying not to cry that my Lukas would be departing our preschool while I had to stay until I too turned four. Lukas holding up his A diploma for swimming, beaming, missing his two front teeth. Helena had used the silly prophecy that I would die by water as an excuse to stop me from taking swimming lessons, which every single other child in the neighborhood did. In the Netherlands, water was everywhere. Kids could fall into canals next to their house, by school, in the fields. The danger of flooding was always imminent, and the Dutch were forever aware that it was the nature of water to flow back to reclaim its own.