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.

Then someone comes. It’s Isa. She has a suitcase in each hand, like she’s running away. But they’re empty, and she drops them to the ground like trash, pushes them against the wall with her foot. Then she paces from one end of the garage to the other, never seeing me, and stops at the driver’s-side window of our new, blue Impala. She stares at her reflection and sighs, then rests her forehead against the glass, clasps her hands together below her chin.

When I pray, I pray for us: my parents, Isa, Darwin, and me. Who knows what my sister prays for? When she’s finished, she writes something on the window with her finger, looks it over, and hurries back inside. I wait two seconds so I won’t be seen, crawl out of the box, and run to the car window, expecting a message from Isa. But all I see is her name, in fancy cursive letters, underlined twice.

I write my name over hers. I do it again and again, until all the dust is gone. Then I crawl back into my box, thinking how funny that Isa never knew I was here, that I still am.

Finally: we start school. The morning of our first day, Darwin and I are sitting at the kitchen table, eating instant champorado from a packet, a thing I’ve always hated: rice boiled in chocolate has never made sense to me, and when I say, “We should have left this back there,” Darwin socks me in the arm, tells me to not say things like that in front of our mother. I’m about to jab him in the head with my spoon when suddenly Isa appears in the kitchen, and the sight of her dazzles me: her eyelids are as blue as our toothpaste, her cheeks so pink I think rose petals have melted into her skin. I want to tell her, You are beautiful! and I’m about to, but Darwin says, “You look like a hooker,” and when my mother turns from the sink and looks at Isa, I know that trouble is ahead.

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.

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