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.

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?

“Let go,” Isa says to me.

The morning Isa starts her job, I find her in the bathroom, trying on her uniform, a mustard-colored bowling shirt with matching slacks, and orange shoes that fail to give her the height she’d hoped for. She checks herself in the mirror, moving her shoulders forward, then back, shifting her waist to the right, to the left. “What do you think,” she asks me. “Do I look like Cheryl Tiegs?”

“You look like Nora Aunor,” Darwin laughs, walking by the bathroom. “You look like Vilma Santos.” He goes on with a list of the corniest Filipina actresses, and Isa gets so mad she douses him with a Dixie cup full of bright-blue toilet water. “Immigrant bitch!” he shouts.

American bitch,” I correct him.

Isa bends down, puts her hand on my cheek, and says, “I love you.”

After breakfast, my father drops us off at the bowling alley. Before Isa can get out of the car, he grabs hold of her wrist. “This is a good opportunity for you,” he tells her, “so work hard, and be good. And you two”—he looks at Darwin and me—“watch your sister.” But as soon as my father drives off, three boys approach on bikes, and Darwin high-fives each one. They’re friends from his school and he goes off with them, tells us he’ll be back when my father picks us up in the afternoon. “Have fun being bored,” he says. Every day after, he leaves us.

So from the beginning, I am the watcher of Isa and this is what I do: each morning when we arrive, I take a corner booth and watch her ring up meals and wipe tabletops and counters, all day long. I know she wishes I weren’t there, so I stay quiet and still as I can, but after a week, I’m a problem. “He’s here again,” Isa’s boss says. “Why is he always here?” Isa moves her arm in fast circles as she wipes off a nearby table, as if she is trying to come up with a story for me. I give her one. “Our mother is dead!” I shout this out to make sure Isa’s boss hears me. “No one is home to take care of me!” Isa looks up. I try winking at her but instead I blink, and suddenly tears I didn’t plan come streaming.

“I’m sorry,” he says, patting Isa on the shoulder. “Sorry.” That day, he tells Isa to keep all the money in the tip jar, and says I can eat all the corn dogs and Eskimo Pies I want.

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