Authors: Frances Hwang
Her uncle now revealed to them his plan for the day. He had to make his rounds and could drop them off where they liked and
then pick them up in a few hours.
“You have to work on Saturdays?” June asked.
“How do you think I make any money?” her uncle said, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. “Every day I have to try.”
“What do you want to do?” Helen asked June.
“Let’s go to the beach. It’s gorgeous outside.”
Gerard let out a whining hum.
“What’s wrong, Gerard?” June asked.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Why not? Don’t you ever go to the beach?”
Gerard paused. “I have sensitive skin.”
“He’s afraid of sunburn,”Helen said.
“But I’m paler than you,”June said, putting her arm next to his. “We won’t go for too long. And you can put sunblock on.”
Helen and Gerard went upstairs to get ready, and her uncle took June aside. “You talk to Helen, okay?” he said, and June nodded.
It was low tide at the beach, and people were climbing over rocks to look at the shallow pools that had formed. June sat on
the sand with her cousins and took the sunblock out of her bag, passing it over to Gerard, who did nothing but stare at it.
“Don’t you want to put some on?” she asked. “I thought you were afraid of getting burnt.”
“Here, Gerard,”Helen said, and she took the tube from him and squeezed a dollop onto each of his arms. Gerard began to spread
it slowly in a straight line with one finger, and June felt exasperated just watching him. He was like a child and could do
nothing for himself. “You have to rub it over your entire arm,”she told him. Helen helped Gerard spread the lotion across
his arms a nd massage it into his skin, and when they were done, June asked Helen if she wanted to go look at the tide pools.
They left Gerard behind, drawing patterns in the sand with a stick he had picked up.
June wasn’t wearing sturdy shoes, and she tread carefully over the slippery rocks, listening to the crunch of barnacles beneath.
Helen was a few feet ahead, bent over one of the small pools left from the receding tide. When June caught up with her, she
saw Helen holding a purple starfish in her hand. One of its arms had broken off.
“Is it alive?” Helen asked. “I won’t take it home if it’s alive.”
The starfish didn’t move at all when June held it. There were traces of a jellylike substance along its arms where it had
clung to a rock. June thought it should be less brittle if it werealive,that it should give way some, but she wasn’t sure.
“Shouldn’t it be able to regenerate the missing arm?” she said.
An older woman wearing a yellow T-shirt paused to look at the starfish they were holding. “Do you think it’s alive?” Helen
“Alive or dead,”the woman said, “you don’t want to take that thing back with you. Starfish have a really bad smell out of
Helen reluctantly put the starfish back into the tide pool. She looked chastened, though June knew she wanted to take the
starfish home. They followed the woman over the rocks and located a cluster of starfish—whole starfish—brilliant and still,
along the underside of a rock. One of them was bright orange, the color of a tiger lily.
A seagull hopped and fluttered along the shore, dragging Helen’s starfish in its beak. It did a little dance in the air, as
if it were trying to lift itself up, but the starfish slipped from its beak and fell into the water. The seagull flapped down
to retrieve it.
“Seagulls eat starfish?” Helen asked.
They watched the seagull snap up the starfish, trying several times to get a proper hold. It eyed June and Helen for a moment
before spreading its wings, flying only a short distance before it dropped the starfish again. The starfish fell from a spectacular
height, bouncing off a rock. Immediately a large wave came in, flooding it over.
“We should go back,”June said, worried that the tide was coming in. Helen nodded, and they climbed back over the rocks. From
a distance, they could see Gerard standing and poking at something with his stick.
“Does Gerard have any friends?” June asked.
Helen hesitated. “Not really.”
“It just seems like he can’t do anything by himself. Why is that?”
Helen shrugged. “I guess he’s used to us doing everything for him. My mom still cuts his toenails.”
“What?” June laughed.
Helen smiled. “We must seem odd to you.”
June thought about her own family, and said, “Not that odd.”
“I feel bad for him,”Helen said. “My parents are always worrying about him. He’s not sure of himself, I think. At least my
parents gave me a little more space. I was expected to help out and do things.”
“Are you two close?”
Helen reflected for a moment. “Maybe when we were younger. I remember he used to wear this jacket of mine that he loved. But
the kids at school made fun of him for wearing a girl’s jacket, so he stopped.”
As the three of them walked back into town, June studied Gerard with curiosity. His parents’ love had made him soft, dull,
and useless, yet he would always be dear to them no matter what. Such love was a curse and a blessing. For who else in the
world would ever love Gerard so blindly?
“Gerard,”June said. “Tell me something about yourself.”
He shrugged, half smiling.
“What is it that you really want?” she asked him. “What do you like doing?”
“I don’t know. I like to be on my computer, I guess.”
“You’re just like my brother. You like to play games, right?”
“What is it about the games you like?”
He gave her a shy smile, looking embarrassed. “It’s fun, I guess.”She felt him shrinking under her gaze, his lips pressed
close together and his hands in his pockets. This inquisition of hers was evidently causing him pain, and she stopped herself.
They had agreed to meet her uncle in front of a large discount store. The window displayed child mannequins with pale brittle
hair and glass blue eyes that held a sad clairvoyance. The tan of the children’s skin had flaked off to reveal a whiteness
underneath, and their curved arms floated awkwardly in front of them, their heads tilted sideways in wonder.
As June and her cousins were early, they wandered inside the store and ended up in the pet department. There were no cats
or dogs to look at, just a few tanks of fish and some hamsters in a cage. June wanted to leave, but Helen had stopped in front
of a display of bettas sitting in little plastic cups lined on a shelf. She stared at the fish for a long time, and June wondered
whether she wanted to buy one. The fish were iridescent though faded, like wilted peacock feathers, each one breathing heavily
at the bottom of its cup.
A salesman approached, and Helen asked how long the fish could live in the plastic cups.
“Oh, a long time,”the salesman said. “In the wild, they live in tiny pockets of water just like these cups.”
Helen hesitated. “It just seems like they’re unhappy.”
The salesman held up a mirror to one of the fish, and immediately its gills flowered. “You see that?” he said. “You put two
of them together, and they’ll end up killing each other. They’re Siamese fighting fish.”He grabbed a plastic bag from the
workstation and filled it with a little water from a nearby tank. “I kid you not,”he said, twisting the bag shut, leaving
the salesman had instructed her to do. Then she untied the bag and poured the fish into the bowl. She and June watched the
betta, its first stunned reaction to being immersed in another world, and then its recollection of itself as it wriggled through
the water. In just a few minutes, its color changed, and June was struck by the vivid red flame curving in the water. The
fish swam in its own glass world, rising and falling, trapped in a monastic dream of blue and clear stones.
They went out to a Chinese seafood restaurant that night. June’s aunt pulled disposable chopsticks out of her purse for them
to use, as well as plastic straws, so that none of them would have to place their lips against their glasses of water.
“This is really expensive,”Gerard said beneath his breath as he studied the menu.
“It’s okay,”her uncle said. “June’s here, and we want to give her a nice dinner.”
“Mom’s food tastes better.”
“Don’t worry so much, Gerard,”June said. Her aunt glanced over at her, and June realized she had misspoken. Her aunt had never
warmed to her and no doubt thought her untrustworthy, glib, and overly Americanized — all of which was true. She must have
noticed June staring at her sweater vest earlier that day because she had changed into a striped gray blouse with a low, frilled
collar. With her tight poodle perm, her aunt was more somber and confident, less flashy and naive, than when she had married
June’s uncle and come to live with him in New Jersey. The first time the newlyweds visited June’s family, her aunt had worn
a flimsy polka-dotted dress, her lipstick a shade too bright and her frizzy mass of hair pinned back with a plain brown barrette.
June’s mother later observed that this new wife was a sloppy dresser—had they seen her slip hanging from the bottom of her
dress? At night, her aunt had worn large, thick glasses that made her look even younger, more forlorn. She spoke little and
stayed in her room whenever she could, keeping her distance from them all. Perhaps she sensed the entire family judging her.
The waitress came to their table, and her uncle asked about the flounder. “Is it fresh?” he said in Chinese.
The waitress pointed to the large fish tanks lining the wall. “They’re alive, aren’t they? How much more fresh do you want?”
“How about the steamed dish here? It’s better than the fried?”
“How do I know what you like?”
“Well, is it any good?”
“Good or bad, it’s up to you to decide.”
Her uncle rubbed his chin as he studied the menu. “Maybe we won’t order the fish,”he muttered.
“There’s a mosquito on the wall,”Gerard observed.
“Where?” her uncle asked, looking anxiously around him.
“There.”Gerard pointed, and her uncle got up from his chair and slammed the menu against it.
After her uncle had ordered, he looked over at his daughter, then said to June, “You need to help Helen find a boyfriend,
“Oh!” Helen said, looking away and shading her eyes with her palm.
“Helen doesn’t need my help,”June said. “What about me? I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Why not?” her uncle asked.
“Too picky,”her aunt said with a faint smile.
“When are you going to get married?” her uncle demanded. “We are
June was relieved when the dishes began to arrive. Helen asked about her trip to San Diego, and June told her she was going
to rent a car tomorrow and drive down to pick up a friend, and then the two of them would drive along the coast to Mexico.
“Mexico!” her uncle said dubiously. June was afraid he would begin telling her it was too dangerous and that she was out of
her mind, something she had already heard from her parents, but instead he said, “Lucky you! You get to see the world! That
has always been my
meant “to think.”So her uncle had said traveling had been his “dream thought”?
“But you can always go to Mexico!” she said. “It’s less than two hours from here.”
“Yes,”her uncle said with a sigh. “But see, I have almost no hair left?”
“But my dad is older than you, and he doesn’t feel that way.”
“Your dad is fat and rich. Of course he lives a long time. But see?” Her uncle leaned back and tightened his belt a notch.
His wife looked over at him, saying nothing and chewing slowly.
When the waitress came with their check, June, who had been waiting for this moment, snatched up the bill tray and said she
would be treating. Her uncle asked her to give him the check and she said no. “Let me just look over it to see if they charged
the right amount,”he said. June shook her head. She got her credit card out and waved to get the waitress’s attention. It
was then that her uncle took action. He stood up and went over to where June was sitting and seized the tray, pressing her
thumb so hard that she let out a little cry of pain. He handed June’s credit card back to her and returned to his seat with
an air of grim triumph. “You want to treat your uncle,”he muttered, “but how can I let you do that?”
The waitress came and took the check from him, and her uncle said to June, “Next time you want to visit, all you do is pick
up the phone and say, ‘Uncle, this is June. I’m coming down this weekend.’ Okay? You live close by and should visit more.
Don’t avoid us because Gerard can’t flush the toilet.”
“This is your fault!” her aunt said, slapping the table with a flat hand. “You confuse him! You tell him to save water and
not to flush.”
“I tell him that?” her uncle said, looking bemused.
On their way home, they stopped at a video store to rent a movie. June and her cousins watched it together in the family room,
she and Helen perched on the broken couch, Gerard standing nearby, shifting from one foot to the other. Only when the movie
was over did June realize that she had forgotten to speak to Helen about the Christian cult she was involved in. There was
no delicate way of approaching the subject, and it seemed awkward to do so now when everyone was tired and getting ready to
go to bed.
She wasn’t truly worried about Helen, who struck her as the sanest member of that household. It was only a shame
that Helen, burdened by such a neurotic family, should try to slip free by submitting to another form of control. She reminded
June of a character in a Chekhov story, sensitive and kind, with a soul “as soft as wax.”She could do much with her life if
only she were given the right circumstances.
In the middle of the night, June awoke to hear the front door unlocking and saw Helen standing in the foyer, her long hair
shadowing her face, a light jacket over her nightgown. “Where are you going?” June asked her.
“I can’t sleep,”Helen said. “I want to walk around.”