weekend-readsA Boy and His Sister

Thirii Myint

Say a boy is born in a village in Vietnam. But he is a Chinese boy, so already his family is different. And on the day this boy is born, his sister falls into the village well and is never seen again. So this sister, she dies in the well. Or say she is seen again, but when they pull her out of the water she is heavy and bloated and purple so it is better to say she is never seen again. And this boy, because he is Chinese, because his sister falls into the well and dies in the well, because all this happens on the day of his birth, this boy is different.

Or say a boy is not born in a village. He is not born in Vietnam. This boy is born in Connecticut. And he is a Chinese boy, so already his family is different. On the day this boy is born, his sister falls into the deep end of the pool and is never seen again. So this sister, she drowns in the pool. Or say she falls into the shallow end and hits her head. Either way, she dies. So it is better to say that she is never seen again. And this boy, because he is Chinese, because his sister falls into the public pool and her blood turns the water pink, because all this happens on the day of his birth, this boy, he is different.

This boy’s sister, she was in love with me. The one who drowned herself in the public pool on the day her brother is born. When they pull her out of the water, she is heavy and bloated and purple. The water is pink where she fell.

“Why did you do it?” I ask her.

Because, she says, I could not find a well.

Say a boy is born in Connecticut. His mother and father are Chinese from Vietnam. They live in a one bedroom apartment beside a factory. Say the factory makes paper clips. Or wrist watches. Or eyedroppers. It doesn’t matter to the family. The boy’s mother works two jobs. The boy’s father does not work. One day, when the boy is too young to remember, his mother slaps his father on the face and his father punches her in the mouth. His father cuts his hand open and his mother starts to cry. But the boy is too young to remember. Then one day, when the boy is old enough to remember, his mother throws the telephone at his father and his father beats her with the plastic folding chair. The chair that is kept folded against the wall and put aside for guests. It is bright red and has creaky hinges. The boy remembers. The next morning, the boy’s mother cannot go to work. The boy’s father leaves the apartment and does not return. The boy does not see him again.

But say the boy does see his father again. Say the boy is twelve years old and he is smoking his first cigarette, leaning against the metal fence of the school yard. The boy is small for his age and has chubby cheeks. He is smoking with a group of other boys, all in the seventh grade with their baseball caps and oversized jeans. They call him Baby Chino and rub his hair. They take care of him because he is small for his age. These other boys, they are his brothers. But though they are his brothers, they are not his father’s sons. So when they see his father stumbling down the other side of the street, these boys do not know him as father. Father who broke the red plastic chair. These other boys, they only see a drunken homeless man. They throw their rocks, they have their fun. So it is better to say the boy does not see his father again.

This boy’s sister, she was in love with me. She tried to tell me once, one night, when I was walking her home.

“Why do you only date Jewish girls?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” I said.

“It’s a pretty big thing not to know,” she said.

“I’ve thought about it,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “It’s a pretty big thing not to think about.”

She did not say anything then.

“You know,” I said, “the Chinese are the Jews of Asia.”

“No,” she said, “The Jews are the Chinese of Europe.”

We reached the factory.

“I probably wouldn’t marry a non-Jewish girl,” I said, “But I might date one.”

She tried all the wrong keys to the building. She would not look at my face.

“OK,” she said, “Goodnight.”

I listened to her footsteps going up the stairs to the apartment. Then I crossed the empty street and looked up at her window. The light was off but her face was pressed against the glass. She looked so young. She saw me looking at her looking at me and quickly hid herself. I did not know how to feel.

“Why did you do it?” I ask her.

But she is heavy and bloated and purple. She does not answer.

That night when I am asleep, she climbs into bed with me and crawls under the covers. Her feet are cold. Listen, she says, I have a story to tell you.

Say a girl is born in a village. Her mother and father are Chinese in Vietnam. They live in a three story house besides the factory the family owns. Say the factory makes lunch boxes. Or handkerchiefs. Or packets of sunflower seeds. It doesn’t matter because the family is wealthy. The girl is well-educated. She speaks four languages and studies geography, calligraphy and the two-stringed violin. Her mother does not work. Her father manages the sunflower seed factory. One day, when the girl is too young to remember, there is a street riot and a rock breaks through the girl’s bedroom window. The rock lands at the foot of the girl’s bed and the broken glass falls to the floor. But the girl is too young to remember. Then one day, when the girl is old enough to remember, there is a street riot and someone sets fire to the sunflower seed factory her family owns. The servants run away and the girl is alone with her mother and father. Her mother and father run through the house unlocking all the doors and windows. They pull out trunks and trunks of valuables from under the beds, under the floorboards, under white linen sheets. They open the trunks, leave them open in the doorways. The last trunk is filled with red embroidered silk. But these are my wedding clothes, the girl’s mother says. Forget them, the girl’s father says. The only door they lock is the door to the attic.

Say a boy is born in a city. And on the day this boy is born, his sister falls into the shallow end of the public pool and hits her head. So this sister, she dies. The boy does not know he has a sister until he is twelve years old. He is smoking his first cigarette, leaning against the metal fence of the school yard. The boy is small for his age and has chubby cheeks. He is alone. On the other side of the street, he sees his father stumbling down, a drunken homeless man. The boy knows him as father. Father, who broke the folding chair put aside for guests. The boy’s father crosses the empty street and walks up to the boy. He speaks to the boy in Cantonese. You look just like your sister, he says.

This boy’s mother is living with another man now. She has been living with this man for the past six years. This is the man the boy calls Dad. Dad works three jobs. He takes the boy to the park on weekends and teaches him how to play basketball. He helps the boy with his homework. One day, when the boy is at basketball practice, the boy’s mother slaps Dad on the face. Dad says to her, I don’t want our son to grow up this way. The boy’s mother says, he’s my son, not yours. But the boy is at basketball practice and he does not hear what his mother said. Then one day, when the boy is watching TV at home, his mother throws the telephone at Dad. Dad says to her, I won’t let our son end up like his sister. The boy’s mother says, he has no sister. But the boy hears what Dad said.

This boy’s sister, she was in love with me.

“Why do you only date Jewish girls?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s a pretty big thing not to know,” she said.

“I’ve thought about it.” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I think about you.”

“You know,” she said, “The Jews are the Chinese of Europe.”

“No.” I said, “The Chinese are the Jews of Asia.”

“I probably wouldn’t marry a non-Chinese boy,” she said, “But I might date you.”

“OK,” I said.

“Goodnight,” she said.

I listened to her footsteps going up the stairs to the apartment. Then I crossed the empty street and looked up at her window. The light was off but her face was pressed against the glass. She looked so young. She saw me looking at her looking at me and waved. I waved back. I did not know how to feel.

Her feet are cold under the covers.

You want to know why I did it? she asks me.

“Just tell me your story,” I say.

Say a girl is born in a three-story house beside the sunflower seed factory her family owns. The girl speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, Vietnamese and French. She knows all the major mountain ranges and bodies of water on the continent. One day, when the girl is old enough to remember, there is a street riot and someone sets fire to the sunflower seed factory her family owns. Someone sets fire to their factory because her family is Chinese and wealthy. The servants run off to join the riot and the girl is alone with her mother and father. Her mother and father say to the girl, go upstairs to the attic and lock the door. But the girl does not move. She watches her mother and father run through the house, unlocking all the doors and windows. They pull out trunks and trunks of jewelry and porcelain and fine cloth. They leave the trunks open in the doorways. The last trunk is filled with red embroidered silk. But these were supposed to be her wedding clothes, the girl’s mother says. Forget them, the girl’s father says. They carry the girl up to the attic and lock the door.

In the attic, there is a small window through which the girl can see the sunflower seed factory her family owns. She presses her face against the glass and watches the smoke rise into the sky.

Say a boy is watching TV at home when his mother throws a telephone at the man she has been living with for the past six years. The man the boy calls Dad. Dad says to the boy’s mother, I don’t want our son to grow up this way. I don’t want him to end up like his sister. The boy’s mother says, get out of my house. Dad picks up his car keys and walks out the door. The boy listens to his footsteps going down the stairs to the street.

Dad pays the rent, the boy says to his mother, so this is not your house. The boy’s mother slaps him on the face. The slap stings, but the boy does not start to cry. Dad takes care of everything, the boy says, why won’t you marry him? Mind your own business, his mother says. I want Dad to be my real father, the boy says. I won’t let a black nigger be your father, the boy’s mother says. The boy punches her on the mouth.

But of course the boy does not punch his mother. He turns off the TV and picks up the telephone that his mother threw at Dad. He says to his mother, I wish my real father had killed you that day with the folding chair.

This boy’s sister, the one who drowned herself in the deep end of the pool, I was in love with her. I tried to tell her once, one night, when I was walking her home.

“When you draw the boundaries of Asia,” I said to her, “Remember to include Israel.”

She laughed. Her laugh was so lovely. I laughed.

“Jews are Chinese with big noses,” she said.

“The Chinese are Jews with squinty eyes,” I said.

She pushed me off the curb and I pushed her back. I picked her up by the waist and she tried to kick me in the air.

“Why do you only date Chinese boys?” I asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“It’s a pretty big thing not to know,” I said.

“I’ve thought about it,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I think about you,” she said.

Under the streetlamps her eyelashes made long shadows on her face.

“What do you think about?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

We reached the factory.

“OK,” she said, “Goodnight.”

I listened to her footsteps going up the stairs to the apartment. Then I crossed the empty street and looked up at her window. The light was off but her face was pressed against the glass. She looked so young. She saw me looking at her looking at me. She did not move. I wanted her to open the window. I wanted her to climb back down the stairs. I wanted to say to her, I think about you too. But she did not move from the window, and I did not know how to feel.

She is heavy and bloated and purple. The water is pink where she fell.

“Why did you do it?” I ask her.

I don’t know, she says.

“It’s a pretty big thing not to know,” I say.

I’ve thought about it, she says.

“Why?” I ask.

Because, she says, it’s a pretty big thing not to think about.

Say a girl dies in a village in Vietnam. Say her mother and father lock her up in the attic, to hide her from the rioters. Say she watches them through a small attic window, the light turned off and her face pressed against the glass. She watches the rioters as they break down all the doors and windows, the doors and windows her mother and father already left open. The girl watches from the attic as the trunks empty out. The trunks of valuables, pulled out from under white linen sheets and left open in the doorways. Trunks with precious jewels and porcelain and fine cloth. She watches them empty out, trunk by trunk. And the red embroidered silk is torn into shreds. The red silk that was her mother’s wedding clothes.

But say this girl does not die in Vietnam. Say she is born in Connecticut. She is smoking her first cigarette, leaning against the metal fence of the school yard. On the other side of the street, she sees a drunken homeless man stumbling down the sidewalk. This man crosses the empty street and walks up to the girl. The girl is small for her age and has chubby cheeks, but she is not afraid. The girl knows this man as father. Father, who almost killed her mother with the plastic folding chair. But she is not afraid. My daughter, the girl’s father says to her in Cantonese, you’ve come back. I’m your son now, the girl says. But you look so much like your sister, the girl’s father says. I don’t have a sister, the girl says. Yes, her father says, but you have a brother. Your brother is a good boy, you would’ve liked him.

Or say a girl dies in Connecticut. Say she falls into the deep end of the public pool and she drowns. Or say she falls into the shallow end of the pool and hits her head. Either way, this girl, she dies. And say a boy is born on the day she falls into the pool and dies. Say this boy is now twelve years old and smoking his first cigarette, leaning against the metal fence of the school yard. He has run away from his mother because she slapped him in the face and called his Dad a nigger. On the other side of the street, he sees a car approaching. The car belongs to the man his mother has been living with for the past six years. The man the boy calls Dad. Dad parks the car and crosses the empty street, walks up to the boy. I’m sorry that your mother and I don’t always get along, Dad says. I hate her, the boy says. Don’t say that, Dad says, she’s your mother. I didn’t know I have a sister, the boy says. Your sister was a lot older than you, Dad says, she died before you were born. How did she die? the boy asks. She killed herself, Dad says. Why? the boy ask. I don’t know, Dad says, why does anybody ever do anything?

This boy’s sister, I was in love with her.

“Why do you only date Jewish girls?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s a pretty big thing not to know,” she said.

“I’ve thought about it,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

She did not say anything then. We reached the factory.

“Besides,” I said, “You only date Chinese boys.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

She tried all the wrong keys to the building. She would not look at my face.

“I probably wouldn’t marry a non-Jewish girl,” I said, “but I might date one.”

“OK,” she said, “Goodnight.’

I listened to her footsteps going up the stairs to the apartment. Then I crossed the empty street. I did not look up to her window. I did not see that the light was off, but that her face was pressed against the glass. I did not know how she felt.

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