Fiction Fiction 2011

L’amour, CA

Isa couldn’t wait to leave the Philippines. But when we pull into an American town of foggy streets and gray, concrete houses, she looks confused, then panicked.

She puts her hand on Isa’s cheek, wipes off makeup, then rubs it between her fingers as if it were a strange kind of dust. “It’s my first day,” Isa says, but my mother takes her apron to Isa’s face. “What will people say about you, when they see you like this? Would you do this back home?” She asks more questions, tells Isa that just because we’re in Lemoore doesn’t mean she can look like any girl on the street, and she’s wiping makeup from Isa’s face the whole time, until nothing is left. When my mother is done, she steps backward, leans against the sink. “Go to school,” she tells us. She doesn’t walk us to the door. She doesn’t say goodbye.

We walk out of the house, down the driveway, and out of the cul-de-sac. The sun fades as the fog ahead thickens, and our windbreakers don’t keep us warm. “Walk faster,” Darwin says, blowing on his hands and rubbing them together. We lose him a block later—his school is in another direction—and when he leaves, he just shrugs and says bye, his teeth still chattering. Isa and I go on, holding hands even more tightly now.

Kids crowd the front steps of my school. Isa leads us through the building, down a hallway to my classroom. The door is barely open. We go in. We find rows of empty desks, blank chalkboards, and no teacher in sight. “Maybe we shouldn’t be here.”

“No,” Isa says, double-checking the room number, “this is right.” She bends down to fix my collar, promises that everything about this day will be fine, then looks at the clock above the chalkboard beside the American flag. I look too, thinking about the sixteen-hour difference between Lemoore and San Quinez, how here it’s today and there it’s tomorrow, but the arms of the clock don’t move, not at all. I don’t know how to tell time, but I understand that Isa is late and not ready for today. Her windbreaker looks like a plastic trash bag on her body, her face is smeary and gray.

The bell rings. Isa leaves. Kids come running in and around me to their desks, and finally the teacher appears with a stickpin between her fingers. “Wear this,” she tells me, pinning a name tag shaped like an apple onto my shirt, then leads me to the front of the class. She stands behind me with her hands tight on my shoulders, telling everyone how far I have traveled, and how lucky we are to be together. Then I tell them what my father told us all to say on our first day: “I am very happy to be here.” Two girls giggle and won’t stop, and when the teacher asks what’s so funny, one says that I said bery instead of very. So I repeat myself, and now I hear it too. Bery. Bery. Back home, my English was perfect; here, I can’t get it right. I don’t speak the rest of the day.

After school, I watch a janitor sweep the hallway while I wait for Isa outside my classroom. When she arrives, she says nothing, doesn’t even ask me how I am, or how my day has been. “Let’s go home” is all she says, then she turns, exits the school. She stays ahead of me the entire way, her legs so long and fast that I can’t keep up, and when I almost do, I catch glimpses of her face, her teary forward stare. Why do you cry, Isa? I want to ask. Did they laugh at you too? But before I can get a question out, I fall behind again. Half a block separates us by the time we reach our street, and when I’m finally home, Isa is already in her room, door closed and the radio blaring. In the living room, Darwin is lying on the floor in front of the TV, and in the kitchen my mother is staring at a boiling pot, her arms folded over her chest. When I tell them I’m home, they barely nod. So I go back to the garage and crawl into the box, practicing the word very over and over until evening, and time for us to eat.

The next day is not much different. All through class I’m silent, and I spend recess lining up pebbles along the bottom of the playground fence. What saves me from tears is knowing that the school day will end, and that Isa will come for me.

Some better days are ahead. Like those afternoons when Isa picks me up wearing school-spirit chains around her neck, or the time she wandered into a picture on the front page of the school newspaper. Once, I even catch her writing “Isa, Class of ’75” on the palm of her hand, as if she has always been and will always be a part of it. But when school is over, the autograph pages in her yearbook are empty and white. No one wished her a happy summer, or good luck for the following year. And though her name is listed in the index, Isa is nowhere in the entire book.

Early June. Summer vacation, and the days drag. Isa is always lying on her bed listening to the radio, and the thump of Darwin’s basketball is like the ticking of a slow-moving clock. I spend my time by the living-room window, watching kids bicycle and roller-skate by, chasing each other down with water pistols. Once, two kids walking a wolf-faced dog stop in front of our house, and just as I’m about to wave, they shout, “Vietnamese people eat dogs!” so I yell back, “We’re not Vietnamese people!” then shut the window and draw the curtains.

Then something happens: one night at dinner, Isa announces that she’s been hired as a cashier at Lanes, the diner inside the Naval Station bowling alley. “It’s summertime,” she says, “maybe I should work.” My mother says no, but my father says (quietly, like he’s embarrassed), “We need the money,” and he allows Isa to take the job on one condition: Darwin and I must accompany her each day, and stay with her until my father comes for us in the evening. “A girl shouldn’t be out there alone,” he says. But Isa insists she’ll be fine on her own, that nothing is dangerous in Lemoore. “Please let me have this,” she says. When no one answers, she goes to the window above the sink, slides it open. “Tell me what’s out there. Tell me what to be afraid of.” She looks like she might cry.

My father tells Isa to take her seat and finish her dinner. Isa sits, arms folded across her chest. I put my hand on Isa’s to comfort her, but now I’m wondering: When did she go to the bowling alley? Did I fall asleep without knowing it? Did I not hear her when she said goodbye?

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