2013 David Rice Ecker Short Story Prize
Showering together all the time also means that you know your sister has two dimples painstakingly installed on her inexplicably tan left thigh, while she knows that the skin on the back of your knees is so pale that your veins underneath look like carved inlets and that you have a sinistral scapula that could sculpt diamonds. During middle school, when you are both on the volleyball team, you compare burst forearm capillaries and furtively glance at each other as you strip down into spandex shorts, cold critics of appearance. Not that this was incongruous with Waipo and mother’s bimonthly appraisals.
I was also chubby as a teenager, Waipo declares. You can’t tell: her cheekbones and chin are exquisitely angular, her dark hair bound into a bun at the nape of a tense, slender neck that your mother has inherited. She brushes your sister’s hair with broad, soothing strokes, parting it so that you can hardly tell the difference between their two faces.
But you’ve gotten fatter as you got older, your mother comments to your sister as she imitates Waipo’s motions for your hair. They twist deftly, pinning the sleek coils in place with chopsticks and tradition.
And why are you so sickly-looking? Waipo asks you. You shrug your pale lopsided shoulders, looking only at your sister whose eyes are full of summer and whose freckles crumble around her nose in an avalanche of melanin. She’s managed to net the genes that make relatives ask if she’s half, while keeping the ones that make her exotic enough to crave. In the future, she will lose the pins when her white boyfriends tell her that her hair looks better down.
The joint showers continue until maybe the summer before freshman year when in the bathroom she takes off her underwear and finds sticky red streaks oozing from between her legs like some sort of jiaguwen calligraphy. When you see this you laugh at her and she walks out of the bathroom in her towel and goes to bed without even turning off the light. You tattletale to your mother and she discreetly buys an extra box of sanitary pads the next day.
This is around the time when your father gives you a Rubik’s Cube. Unlike the multiplication table poster that he decorated the room you share with your sister with on her 5th birthday or the upright chestnut Yamaha that appeared on your 8th, you practice this for three hours every day willingly and without parental supervision. Unlike the multiplication table and the piano, your sister has no interest in it, does not become better than you, and your parents consequently do not spend your high school parent-teacher conferences asking how you can be more like your sister in the Rubik’s cube’s respect.
On the cube, you twist and shout like you might if you had the confidence of a white girl. But because you are a Ching Chong-Hong Kong hybrid, you become a weirdo bodhisattva: quiet, cross-legged under a tree, holding the meaning of life in a bizarre mudra of red green blue orange yellow and white.
Master Mulan and Mini Mulan, yell the baseball team as you and your sister walk home. Your sister blows them a kiss and flips them the bird.
You aren’t even that yellow, you complain to yourself. The paint chips at Home Depot indicate that you are Sweet Cream. Your sister, though, Sandstorm and Golden Chrysanthemum, spreads flavivirus among the hapless colonials quicker than mosquitoes, so they whistle at you both. You keep your head down and focus on creating monochromatic cube faces.
You explain your obsession to the two girls who sat next to you at the Asian lunch table (Emily and Amanda, two of the laziest names a Chinese mother could give to a daughter because she probably heard them from the mother next door, or the fifty other mothers who also have Emily or Amanda porcelain-faced China-doll daughters). You’d met at one of the infinite Asian parties that you were shepherded to—the ones where the parents and sunflower seeds and Qin Dynasty clay teapots occupy the main dining table and the kids occupy the play room, trying to ignore the the one-upping bloodbath of My daughter made Dean’s List again and My son is going to math camp at MIT.
There are only two ways to turn a face and only six faces Right-Left-Up-Down-Front-Back RLUDFB, you say. When you turn a face clockwise, you simply name the face and let the change remain silent; when you turn counterclockwise, you call it i—inverted. And at the end, every cube is in the one correct position that it can be in. Emily and Amanda nod while you all wrap your chopsticks back up into Saran wrap and repack your lunch bags.
For the next umpteen months, you screw around with the algorithms while your sister screws her JV quarterback behind the school (some sort of affirmative-action Harvard-bound amigo whose massive deltoids don’t prevent him from shooting up his hand to answer every question about partial derivatives). Your parents give you the birds and the bees a.k.a. boys are the earthly incarnations of Lucifer himself lecture—at the same time, of course. While eating lychee one night, you both argue with your mother about whether or not you should be allowed to use tampons.
They’re more convenient and I bet they don’t smell as bad says your sister as she rapidly disrobes each rust-colored globe. She subscribes to the cracking method, in which she pinches the fruit’s shell until a lengthy fissure appears and the cloudy white flesh is exposed.
Your family soaks the peeled lychee in salt water before eating them—it’ll get rid of the worms, your father claims that your grandfather told him. It takes most of your childhood to stop thinking about the worms, but not even your sister likes lychee without the initial salty hint anymore.
They’re dangerous, your mother says, frowning at your sister. What she really means is that they involve sticking something up there, which is as far as she knows a heretofore uncharted territory for her two daughters, even though from what you’ve heard, your sister could take up genital cartography as a side job if she was interested in anything other than writing self-tortured little vignettes on her Macbook (you’ve read them, secretly; her imitation of Foer is instead extremely clouded and incredibly verbose).
They’re not dangerous if you know when to change them, you say, refusing to look at either of them. You prefer to peel the lychee’s outer skin off piece by piece, flicking each sticky fragment into the pile of seeds and shells.
Well, your sister jokes, I probably would be too lazy to remember to change them.
You would be, you start to say, but you think better of it and pop the lychee you were just peeling into your mouth, biting your tongue and drawing blood in your haste to spit it out when you remember that you were supposed to soak it first.
Your mother and father both work full time, which gives your sister plenty of opportunity to parade her latest concubines in and out of the front door without fear. She tries halfheartedly to convince you that the traffic is all platonic, though the exits from the kitchen to your shared bedroom—Hey, I have a book that I want to show you—are never as well-written as you know she could imagine if she treated her spoken scripts to the same revisions as her poems. Even while plugged into Holst, you can hear the evidence against her. She, of course, makes no sound; her captives, on the other hand, could be the second coming of the Society of Righteous and Harmonious fists, loud and skilled but not nearly a match for her intoxicating invasions. Mars, Bringer of War.
She is always showered and clean by the time you hear the garage door drone open, gravely bent over another dead white man classic when they enter your room. How was school? your father asks. You rhythmically spin RI-BI-R-B, the finishing algorithm, on the almost-finished cube and let her answer.
Fine, she says, and unrepentantly conjures a description of how much she enjoys studying the supply and demand curves in economics. A mercantile tyrant, really, you almost say aloud as you think of her stingy supply and unquenchably high demand; you instead turn up the volume on Mercury, the Winged Messenger. And of course you never tell a soul, because what kind of sister would you be otherwise?
The new year brings new clothes for new luck as always, though you can’t remember a time when you wore anything other than the same blue jeans and cheap cotton threads from the clearance rack. Your mother is more than willing to buy your sister racerback tanks and skater skirts, clothes that make her look hot hot, clothes that convince even you to take pity on the boys that sit next to her in calculus. A wicked gorgeous heartbreak for the males and for your parents.
You should buy nice clothes too, urges your mother as she crowds you both into the tiny dressing room of a pungent clothes-and-dried-herbs gallery in the bowels of Chinatown and presses another sundress into your hands. You will look nicer, men will look at you.
The owners of every store of this type are shrunken and gray-haired, overwhelmingly solicitous and irritatingly persistent. They spend their spare time hacking and hawking phlegm with impunity, keeping one spotty, watery eye on you to make sure you don’t knock racks of silk scarves into the jars of preserved sea cucumber in the next aisle. Like Waipo and your mother, they are liberal with their judgments. You are reluctant to step out of the dressing room for fear of having to hear the words small, skinny, or pale ricochet through your ear canals in a well-rehearsed cacophony of traditional You are not the daughter we expected. Your sister hates that chorus as well, though it seems that her self-esteem has calloused itself enough that the lyrical criticisms no longer hold her spellbound.
You two strip down, don the proffered garments, and stand in the mirror for your mother’s reaction. She tugs at the waists, asks you to bend down, reminds your sister to try squatting in the shorts to make sure they’re comfortable, and turns us around in the mirrored cubicle.
Cute, she will sometimes say, an attempt to mimic the chirpy advertisements of tall white women ecstatically wearing polka-dot dresses on the beach. Not your style, she says when your sister tries to buy a sheer blue tube top (even though she is delighted every time she sees a white boy double-take at your sister). In the end, she always allows that It is your choice. To which you respond by obligatorily picking the plainest options possible, while your sister inevitably bags the risqué remainder. On the car ride home, your mother reminds you to never, ever let boys touch you.
A girl who is not pure is like a flower bud ripped open early, she tells you as she drives past the racks of orchids that Home Depot is selling this year. Later that day, your sister reminds you that it was also your mother who taught you the He loves me, He loves me not flower-dismemberment game in Cantonese when you were both in kindergarten, making you think that all the white girls in first grade had stolen it from China.
Soon, the time it takes for you to physically segregate the tiny colored cubes is less than the time it takes you to recite the twelve-times table. You grease the cube with Vaseline like Youtube says to do. Your sister buys Shiseido with her essay-writing contest money and swears off boys for a while, though you know that she allows a few Steroids-and-Adderall muscular geniuses to court her on her angrier days. You begin reciting your favorite pattern—R-U-RI-UI—in your sleep and your sister, on the top bunk, mocks you in the morning.
Are you, are I, you I, she asks, and you laugh because you don’t understand anything she says anymore.
She picks up a particularly dainty way of swearing three-quarters of the way through high school, probably from one of the college intellectuals that she lures with poetry-ridden overtures that, in all honesty, are getting New Yorker-good. She pronounces the “ck” sound in “f_cking” very clearly and cleanly. “Godd_mn” is used often but gingerly—staccato, delicate, almost sing-songy. “Motherf_cker” even more so: you might believe that she was actually speaking with your father. Not that it is cautious or restrained—her speech is colorful enough to paint an entire frigging Monet. Girl is an artist, you explain to your first boyfriend, Andrew Lee, one of twelve Andrew Li/ee’s in your school district that you assume were also born out of lazy naming. And you suspect that’s why he eventually ditches you and asks her out—because she cusses and you don’t and you very clearly think it’s rebellious and incredibly edgy. She turns him down because she’s a great sister. A great frigging sister. It takes you fifteen seconds to unscramble the Rubik’s cube now, and your fingers are compulsively twitchy.
You deserve way better, she tells you from the top bunk in one of the quicksilverish hours after three in the morning.
What do you mean?
A boy that you want for reasons other than cancelling out mother’s mandate.
No, I guess not.
You fall asleep within what feels like a few seconds of hearing her first snore.
It’s easy to despise her after she conquers the Ivy League and is elevated to the status of crown jewel in your mother’s empire of Things My Children Have Done. But when she calls for you from behind the lacquered bathroom door two weeks before graduation, you quickly BI-R-BI down the hallway and jiggle the door handle to unlock it.
Don’t tell Mom is the first thing that she says and you know you won’t. Because this time the red strokes are less jiaguwen and much more kaishu, calculated and precise and elegant up and down her arms.
Don’t tell, she says again. You nervously flick the front layer of the cube back and forth while staring at her new duilian. They’re luckier in pairs.
I won’t, you say. A gilded coup de grace that promises nothing, because have you ever done anything to help her?
She holds out her arms and you’re not sure if she’s trying to ask for help or prove that she is hurt. You use an entire roll of toilet paper and at least a cupful of hydrogen peroxide to censor her calligraphy of the flesh, and you advise her to wear an ironically scarlet Christmas sweater after she washes herself off even though it’s communist red hot outside (the landlords sweat as much as the proletariat under Mao Ze Sun).
When you two shower together for the first time in four years, the spray feels colder and livelier than it did before. And you can see it, see the white laminate shower floor staining as vital bodily fluids drain into the pipes and the sea and all you can hear is Are You Are I You I; are you, are I? You, I; and the sound of your sister rummaging so desperately through her veins for a mother's accidental curses lodged leech-like behind her navel that she folds in on herself a la origami and twists you in as well. There are only two ways to turn a cube face. When it is to the right, it is silent. When it is not right, you call it I—I—me—are you, are I, I, I, I.