Day One

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            Four years ago I was twelve years old, and I said to my sister, I said, “I cannot wait until you go to college. Then I can get some peace around here!” I stood at the foot of the stairs spitting my poison words, never knowing that now I will be living them.


            She has already driven away, into the foggy streets, faster than I can run from the kitchen, from breakfast, through the hall, through the garage, down the driveway in my white-sock feet, faster than they can carry me there, faster than I can even say goodbye one more time. I stand at the curb and look at the empty space where her car was; think of the bookshelf which is half-empty now because she has taken the best ones with her; our room which is half spotlessly clean now. She was half of me, I think. I do believe it. How can I ever exist without her?


            My father says nothing; even my mother, who is full of criticisms and stories and ideas, she is silent too. They go inside and I stay here, looking at the trees, looking at the purple heads of flowers (“Agapanthus!” she said they were called), looking at the daffodils sodden with rain, looking at the prickly lawn where we used to jump amid sprinklers spraying their rainbows. The whole world is crying, I imagine, maybe foolishly.


            My father comes out again with his jacket and lunch and keys jangling, he get in his car and drives away. I barely wave.


            When I turn around, I close my eyes and let my feet, my white socks, do the walking. I hope, hope, hope they carry me somewhere else; childhood, Hawaii, the park, school even, anywhere but…here. I am alone in the kitchen and I haven’t finished my toast. It is moist with that pseudo-butter stuff that my mother always buys. Even this reminds me of my sister; how she used to make fun of it, always saying she wouldn’t have any, because “If I can’t believe it’s not butter, then what the heck is it!?” even though we always told her, time after time, that it would made out of vegetable oils like it says so right on the container. But I don’t want to eat it and there is no one to stop me when I take it on its ceramic plate and refrigerate it.


            My heart is squeezed to a little lump the size of a pea, like a great star would shrink into a black hole and consume things, anything that comes near to it. Yes, that’s my heart—a black hole, suffocating me.


            Even my footsteps on the hardwood floor scare me a little bit, I feel as if I can hear an echo; a second set of footsteps walking alongside me; so used am I to walking out of the kitchen with my sister. We wouldn’t always walk together, but we finished our meals at the same time usually, and started out of the kitchen together. Sometimes she’d race ahead and sometime she’d walk slowly. But today, now, it is only me. Walking to I don’t know where.


            But my feet just carry me, walk my useless body to the computer room. My fingers press the on button of the monitor, and my knees bend so I can sit down in the spinny chair. When the screen turns blue I login, I open a browser, and drown myself in the games, YouTube videos, and social networking. It barely passes through my mind when the fog and drizzle outside let up and the sun comes out. It doesn’t matter anyway, does it? But yes, as the hours go by and I find myself losing interest, my mind returns to my misery and my sister. I miss her, which is silly. She’s been gone longer than this. So why does it have to feel this way?




            I’m almost relieved when my mother calls me for lunch. I microwave leftovers; all of them because I’m the only one now. My mother, for once, says nothing. It’s a very uneasy silence, which should be filled with her and my sister’s banter. It seems every moment is stolen from somewhere else, punctuated only by my slippers squeaking and the beeping of the microwave timer. I start to notice things around the room. Had the curtains always been like that; dappled with light from the trees? I’d always been too busy fighting or laughing. Why is there so much empty space? How could one person have taken all of it with her?


            When I finish I sit down on my chair and eat half-cold noodles, but slurping them up isn’t half as satisfying as it is when someone else is, too. How is it that I will ever get used to this?




            The bike ride to the badminton place feels good. The sun is bright but it’s not too hot, and the breeze is blowing the right way so my hair isn’t in my face. My racket case feels secure, snug on my left shoulder. I almost feel like smiling.


            When I get there, it’s crowded already. The receptionist at the front recognizes me; I’ve been here every week, at least. She’s blond and really skinny, but always nice to me. I wave at her and go in, unzipping my case.


            Inside, it is noisy with words, swings of rackets and birdies popping, plopping to the ground, the air is sweaty and wonderful. Birdies fizz over my head like they are really going to sprout their wings and fly away. This is my favorite place in the whole universe.


            “HEY! CATHY!” Some girl I don’t know runs toward me, she’s familiar looking though. Why did she say my sister’s name?


            “I’m, uh, do I know you?” She’s probably one of my sister’s friends and has mistaken me for her.


            “Oh, wait. You’re her sister. Sorry.” She walks away.




            But I hesitate. Who am I going to practice with?


            So I shout, “Wait! Want to rally with me?”


            She turns around. She looks pained. “Sorry, I’m kind of busy. I just thought you were…”


            Oh. “Oh okay, no it’s okay, it’s fine.” I stumble over my words, my bitter, sour words.


            On an empty court I hit one of my own birdies up in the air to myself. Forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand.


            All my life, I have been known as Cathy’s little sister. Teachers, other kids, even my aunts and uncles.


            Forehand, backhand.


            Maybe I was the doomed one, cursed to always be trailing behind straight-A’s, a girl’s mile record, first-chair violinist in the seventh grade, and debate team prodigy. I got a B+ the second quarter of sixth grade. I hate running and all sports, except badminton, of course. I was third chair alto saxophone and I quit Band, too. I hate speaking in public so I didn’t even consider joining the debate team.


            Forehand, backhand.


            In fact, this is the only thing I ever had to myself. She had never wanted to play in the backyard, or ride the ten minutes it takes to get here; she said she preferred track and volleyball. Secretly I was glad, still am, because for a person who has to share everything, having something to myself feels good. Free to do it how I like it. I was able to keep this place—high ceilings and white-and-green nets, birdies slicing down like falling stars—all mine.


            The birdie goes up, and I ready my racket one more time—but then I drop it, but only because someone has shouted, “Hey!”


            At first I think that it’s Cathy’s friend again. But it turns out to be a tall, athletic woman in warm-up clothes, a sleek black ponytail, and a jacket that has the badminton center’s name and logo printed on it. I start to panic. What does she want? I paid for my membership a month ago. Then I calm myself down; she’s probably talking to someone else.


            But she continues on toward me; she shouts, “Yes, you! Blue shirt!” Her English is pretty good but I can hear a slight Chinese accent in her end consonants, just like my mother’s. I look down. I’m wearing my ratty old blue tennis shirt. It used to be my sister’s, but she gave it to me a few years ago, even though she had already stopped growing by then. She thought it made her look stupid and wanted to throw it away, but our mother had made her give it to me. The thought that maybe this lady somehow knows my sister and thought I am her goes through my head briefly.


            But it can’t be. Cathy doesn’t play badminton.


            “I saw you hitting it to yourself over here,” this lady starts, “and that was about five minutes ago, but I kept watching and you just kept in the air the whole time! That must have been two hundred times, at least—who’s your coach?”




            “I…uh, I just come here and practice sometimes. I don’t think I did it for that long, maybe you’ve been watching someone else?”


            She shakes her head. “You don’t have a coach?” and ignores my question.


            “Well, I just went to badminton summer class sometimes when I was a kid, I guess. But I don’t take private lessons, if…that’s what you’re asking.” I did volleyball even though I ended up hating it.


            “Really?” she sounds so genuinely surprised. Why is that?


            “Yeah…I…wanted to, but I don’t think I ever got around to it.”




            I can think of, now, biking home, the lady in the badminton center and her odd interest in me. The wind has picked up now; it’s stronger. The leaves have begun to blow off the trees; yes, it’s that time of late summer again. They never turn gold and crimson here like it says in the tourist pamphlets—only brown and brown…brown. Crinkly and brittle like that crunchy peanut candy we used to buy at See’s Candies, at the mall. People on the sidewalks tromp mercilessly over them, not caring, not noticing. They have their own missions to finish.


            My thoughts turn back to Cathy. I wonder what she’s doing right now. Is her dorm nice? Who are her roommates? I wonder what kind of people they are; do they hog all the space like she does in our room, would she yell at them for leaving their toothbrushes out on the counter like I do? I’d never known what it’s like to share a room with someone other than her. I hope I can get a single.


            I’m in front of my house now—it looks gray and lonely. After throwing my bike in the garage, I go to our—my?—bedroom.


            Me and Cathy, we’ve always shared our tiny tin can of a bedroom. Her bed is on the right, when you first walk in, and mine is on the left, and we have drawn an invisible line in the middle. We almost never remember the line, though. It serves its purpose when we’re fighting; the unspoken rule to never cross over or bad things would happen. The closet—neither of us used it—used to be our secret hideout when we were kids; we’d hide in the folds of musty moth-ball-smelling clothes and giggle like lunatics until the other found us. The clothes were our grandparents’, but neither of us had ever met them. We put our own clothes in plywood drawers from Ikea.


            I look at the closet now. It looks exactly the same as it did, maybe smaller. There was a clump of green satiny material we loved to hide behind—it’s still there, in exactly the same spot. It’s so heartbreakingly familiar, all of it. Like a miracle that so much else outside has changed; become unrecognizable, the people too—but here is like before, like a memory. It’s been like this for all this time; nearly a decade, just so someone could find it and remember all that it stood for.




            I look at my room now. The walls are clean white; all her movie posters and drawings gently extracted, her ceiling decorations and stuffed animals all gone, her bed stripped down to the mattress. The ceiling glares down at the pale emptiness. There is a blank circular spot on the wall facing the window and an absence of tick-tocking in here because she took that ancient thing with moldy hands with her to school. The potted plants on the windowsill are beginning to wither because she was always the one to water them. And the ugly maroon curtain is gone too.


            I can get a new clock from downstairs. I can take out my own posters and put them up. I’ll water the plants. I’ll buy a new curtain. But she’s gone, isn’t she?


            I remember reading an essay she once wrote, back when she was in the eighth grade. The title was What It Means.


            It’s a force of nature, like gravity maybe, but actually more like centripetal force, that keeps us together, spinning us round and round and round. And I know, that is what it means to be a sister.


            I never understood it before, and I still don’t. The truth is, being a sister is more about filling up the empty spaces. The places where life gapes wide open and waits, for you to fill them up with sunshine and words and silliness.




            Cathy promised to call us tonight before she goes to bed. She will talk about what she did today for a while…then my parents, mostly Mama, will ask the usual questions…and I’ll just listen. Like always.