Authors: Frances Hwang
“Wait, I’ll go with you.”June got up and slipped on her shoes, quietly following Helen to the coolness outside and shutting
the door behind her.
They walked in a loop around Helen’s neighborhood, and June liked the dark rows of silent houses, how odd it felt to be passing
by them at night when everyone else was sleeping. Sometimes, a light still burned in one of the windows. Or they saw a distant
light shining through the pines. They continued walking, their chests expanding in the darkness, passing houses that seemed
to possess a photographic stillness, to be on the verge of a memory or a dream.
“Your father wanted me to talk to you about your church,”June said.
Helen gave her a quick glance. “He told you about all that?”
June nodded. “I hope that’s okay.”
“I’m just embarrassed.”
“Your dad is really worried. He’s afraid you’re going to lose your scholarship.”
“I know,”Helen said. “Ever since my parents found out, they’ve been forcing me to come home every weekend. I was hoping my
church would sponsor me for a trip to China this summer, but my parents would never let me go now.”
“But why China?”
“There are people I can help there. I know it sounds silly, but I want to be a good person.”
June smiled. “But you can help others and be a good person here.”
“Yes,”Helen said, growing quiet. Her brow was pensive and her lips were parted slightly, a look of waiting on her face. They
walked on in silence, retracing their steps and circling the neighborhood once more. “I don’t know why I get depressed whenever
I come home,”Helen said. “It’s like part of me is blunted, and I can’t wait to go back and be with people who really know
me, the better part of me at least. Your family always sees the worst in you, and you see the worst in them, and it’s like
neither of you can ever change for the better.”
“That’s a bleak way of looking at things,”June said. “I hope that’s not true.”And yet she recognized what Helen was saying.
It was hard not to feel limited by your family. She herself always tried to hide from them her tender spots, her weaknesses,
as best she could. Why was that? There was a gap, she felt, a flaw in their understanding. Their way of looking at things,
their assumptions about her and other people, so often seemed wrong, and she had learned to shy away from their judgment and
even their sympathy. No doubt her brother did the same with her and the rest of the family. June could be quite callous when
talking about him with her friends, saying he was a computer geek who holed himself up in his room, but what did she really
know about his life? She didn’t know what he did with his days, who his friends were in college, if he had ever kissed a girl
or been in love. At some point, a veil had fallen between them, and now so many things were left unsaid.
“Helen,”June said, reflecting a moment, “does your father ever mention his first wife?” There was a pause in which she realized
she shouldn’t have asked this question.
“What did you just say?” Helen asked. June was silent, and Helen said cautiously, “Was my father married before?”
June felt her mind racing as she grasped for a lie, a loophole she could slip through, but she could only nod her head. “I’m
sorry. I thought you knew.”She couldn’t believe her own stupidity. She had never imagined her uncle would be able to keep
his first marriage a secret from his family.
“Could you tell me more?” Helen asked.
“I probably shouldn’t. My father is going to kill me when he finds out I told you.”
“But I really want to know,”Helen said. “How did you know my dad was married before?”
June hesitated. “Well, I met her,”she said. “I was really young, maybe four years old, and we were visiting Taiwan. My parents
asked her to babysit me and Meg for the day, and for some reason, she left a strong impression on me. I thought she was very
beautiful.”June remembered how this young, pretty aunt of hers had made them laugh when she bent one arm up and the other
down and moved her head back and forth like an Egyptian. June and her sister had tried to imitate her in the mirror. Then
they had taken a cab together to a small boutique, and there had been the prettiest sparkling things inside, and all these
glittering bits had seemed to June like tokens of her aunt’s beauty. She had never met anyone so lovely and was devastated
when her parents returned to take her and her sister away. Her aunt smiled and bent down to kiss her—she had such bright,
clear eyes!—then took the rhinestone comb out of her hair and gave it to June as a memento. During the taxi ride back to her
grandmother’s apartment, June had clutched the comb in her hand and felt a delirious happiness. She put the charmed comb in
her hair, fully expecting something wonderful to happen, but when she had a chance to look at herself in the mirror, it did
not look so nice — or maybe it was she who did not look so nice. The comb was too large and slipped from her hair. She took
it out to inspect it more carefully and noticed for the first time that one of the little rhinestones was missing.
Soon after his divorce, her uncle drove down from New Jersey and stayed with them one weekend. He ended up moping about in
his room, staring at recent photographs of his ex-wife which he had dumped in a pile on the bed. He picked up one photo after
another, passing it over for June to look at, and she could hardly recognize the lovely aunt she remembered. Her aunt looked
tired and plain, without any makeup on. She did not smile in any of the photographs.
“She’s completely changed, right?” her uncle said.
“She looks sad.”
“Yes,”he said. “But why is she so sad? Why not smile at the camera? Why so sad?”
“She gave me a comb from her hair,”June said. “I liked her.”
Her uncle sighed. “People change. She’s not pretty anymore”
Her uncle married again a year later, and his second wife seemed nothing like the first. It was impossible for June not to
compare them, and perhaps the story she told her cousin implied this because Helen turned to look at her, and said, “My mom
was beautiful, too, when she was young.”
“Do you know why his first marriage ended?”
“I think your dad left her alone in Taiwan for the first year he was starting out in the U.S. He asked his cousin to look
after her while he was away. When your dad came back to visit, she was cold to him and claimed she’d been raped by a cabdriver.
No one knew if this story was true or not. Your dad went back to New Jersey, and in two weeks he received a letter from his
wife saying she wanted a divorce. She was in love with his cousin. The two had been having an affair for all this time, and
now they wanted to get married. The news was quite a blow to your dad. He and his cousin had grown up together, and your dad
considered him his best friend.”
“I feel so sorry for him.”
“It’s just so strange to think all this happened to him,”Helen said. “I would never have guessed it was possible. Your parents
always seem so ... devoid of mystery, you know what I mean?”
June smiled. “Did you ever look through the old family albums in Grandma’s apartment? Maybe everyone looks better in black
and white, or maybe it’s just that everyone seems more beautiful because they’re young. But your dad was really handsome then.”She
had once expressed surprise to her mother about her uncle’s striking looks, and her mother had said he was photogenic but
that all his beauty evaporated the instant he opened his mouth. In the photographs, he had a dark, intense gaze that was mysterious
and appealing, but in person her uncle’s stare revealed an obsessive anxiety, an inward spiraling of some kind. He had been
born with a birthmark staining his face which ran slantwise from the corner of his mouth all the way down to his chin. Children
had teased him in school and called him Black Mouth, and her uncle had been self-conscious about the mark and finally gotten
it removed by a surgeon when he came to the United States.
“I’m glad you told me,”Helen said. “I feel like maybe I can understand him a little more.”They had returned to the house,
and she wished June good night.
June was surprised when both her cousins woke up early the next morning to see her off. Helen looked sleepy and smiled at
June, clutching her elbows as though she were cold. She seemed so thin in her nightgown...June wondered what would happen
to her after she left. By the time they saw each other again, would Helen have seen China or would she be living with her
family or would her life have taken a new, unexpected direction? She hugged Helen close and then Gerard, too. “Take care of
Gerard smiled at her with closed lips. “So,”he breathed, “you’re going to Mexico?” He spoke shyly from the corner of his mouth.
June nodded. “Do you want to come with me?”
He only smiled at her, one hand in his pocket.
In the car, her uncle asked June if she’d spoken to Helen.
“Uncle, I don’t think you need to worry,”she said. “Helen will be fine.”
“You think?” her uncle said, touching the corners of his mouth. June could make out only the faintest outline of his birthmark,
a slight discoloration that reminded her of a territory with fading boundaries. Her uncle stroked the spot as if he could
rub it gently away. There had been a time, June remembered, when she had actively disliked her uncle. Her bad feelings toward
him arose one day when, in front of her parents, her uncle squeezed her leg, and said jokingly, “Fat is sexy.”She had been
stunned and felt her cheeks turning red. She was only seven or eight, but she would never forget such a humiliation. Her mother
said her uncle was brain-damaged and always making mistakes of this kind.
Her uncle dropped her off at a car rental place on the way to making his rounds. As she said good-bye to him, he gave her
one of his watches. It had a rectangular face lined with faux diamonds and a beige leather strap. June didn’t want to seem
ungrateful, but she knew she would never wear it and tried to give it back to him. “I already have a watch, see?” she said,
showing him the one on her wrist.
“You don’t like?” her uncle said.
“It’s nice. I just don’t think I’ll ever wear it. I don’t want it to go to waste.”
Her uncle hissed through his teeth as he took the watch back. He got out of the van and opened the side door, rummaging inside
for a while as June stood on the sidewalk. “How about this one? You like it better?” he said, emerging from the van and handing
her a small burgundy box.
A fake Cartier with a silver band was snuggled inside. June felt bad. No doubt it was more expensive than the previous watch
he had given her. “You like?” he repeated.
“I do, but—”
“Cartier!” he said fiercely. “Cartier!”
“It’s very nice,”she said. “I like it.”
“You wear this one?”
Her uncle smiled at her. “You have good taste. That watch is better than the other one. So you will visit us again soon, right?”
June took off her watch and put the new one on her wrist. She was surprised by how much she liked her uncle’s gift—she had
never liked anything he’d given her before—and she moved the dial to the center of her wrist, gazing at it for a moment before
smiling up at him.
our grandmother was a funny woman, my mother says. In the afternoons, she’d get into one of those rickshaws with a bicycle
attached and ask the man to take her to the movie theater. She went to see the movies every day by herself. The theater wasn’t
usually crowded, and you could hear the rats squeal when they got trapped in the seats. They were giant rats, as big as American
house cats, and they crawled up and down the aisles, waiting for you to drop a piece of food on the floor. Everyone threw
their chicken bones onto the ground, spat out litchi pits and the cracked shells of watermelon seeds, and there was always
a rustling underfoot as people shifted in their seats and the rats glided between their legs.
Your grandma really liked the movies. There was one movie in particular. A famous Chinese actress drowns herself in the Hangzhou
lake. The day after she saw it, your grandma took a bus to the suburbs outside Taipei and jumped into the river. The water
was too shallow, and she twisted her ankle on the rocks. A local fisherman picked her out of the water, all dripping and torn.
She had worn bright yellow silk for the occasion.
You have to understand that your grandma tried to cure herself many times. She would hear of some new remedy and be convinced
this would make her well again. For a while, she visited the local hospital, collecting placentas. She cooked a soup with
the bags because she thought the hormones would make her strong again. She also kept a container of crawling insects, not
too large, like shiny beetles. She fed the insects a high-quality medicine—it was ground into a powder and smelled very sweet—and
she would eat one of these insects live each morning. She did this for six months. But she did not get any better.
Bad things can happen to you when you take leave of the dead. That’s what my uncle, the feng shui expert, says. He sits at
his dining room table, poking a snail out of its shell with a toothpick. In front of us are a mound of steaming shells, brown-and-white-checkered,
the kind that my hermit crabs used to live in. The snail comes out with a sound of suction. My uncle pops it into his mouth
and then with one hand waves at the plate in front of us. “Eat, eat!” he says as he chews. My father has already taken a heaping
spoonful, my mother a lesser portion, and when the dish comes around to me I let two or three shells clink onto my plate.
There was a time, I think, when I ate snails and liked them. This was before language, when all things were equal and strange.
I remember the salty taste of their shells, the curled, rubbery meat against my tongue.