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.

“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.

We never talk about the lie. Once it’s out, I can’t take it back. And why should I? My mother takes good care of us—food is always on the table, our clothes are always clean—but the rest of the time she’s sitting in her room, reading and rereading letters that make her weep. When we come home, she never asks how we are, or how we’ve been, and when I ask about her day, she just says, “You were gone. I was alone.”

It’s better here with Isa. She smiles for me at least, like when she spells my name in ketchup over a basket of fries, or when old ladies call her “Dear” and remark on her beauty and good English. One day Isa tells a customer, “Thank you for coming to Lanes,” and she sounds so pleased and finally fulfilled with our life in Lemoore that I need to hear it again. So I run out into the bowling alley to the pay phone by the bathroom, drop a dime, and call the diner.

Isa picks up. “Thank you for calling Lanes,” she says.

I whisper, “It’s me.” I can see her but she can’t see me, even as I wave. “It’s me,” I say again.

“Who?”

We have never spoken on the phone before—we have never been apart—and now I sound like a stranger. “Hello?” she says, turning side to side, as though the person on the other end is somehow with her in the room.

Before she asks again who I am, I hang up and go back, running.

Bowling-alley days get longer, I keep watching Isa, and nothing happens. So, little by little, I start to leave. At first I stick close by the diner door, watching off-duty sailors bowl, and I cheer their strikes and laugh at their gutter balls. Then I walk my fingers along the racks of bowling balls, looking for ones I can lift. I start to go farther: without coins I go to the arcade and pretend to play pinball, or finish abandoned games of air hockey. I like to push buttons and pull knobs on the vending machines, hoping that gum or a bag of chips will fall for free, and one day a roll of Life Savers actually does. I snatch it, look around to check if anyone saw, then run back to the diner to tell Isa about my incredible luck and share my candy with her. But when I get to the diner, Isa isn’t at the register or standing behind the counter. Instead, she’s in a booth by the jukebox, sitting across from someone, a boy her age with long white arms full of freckles and the reddest hair I have ever seen.

I press my hands and face against the glass door. I watch. They’re just talking, that’s all, but he’s holding a cigarette, and when he reaches to move a strand of hair from Isa’s face, she flinches, just a little. He keeps his hand there, even as the cigarette burns. I haven’t seen anyone touch my sister’s face since my mother, months before, the morning we started school.

His name is Malcolm and he’s always here. He bowls all morning in the very last lane, then visits Isa at noon, stays until we have to leave. He never brings flowers and they never kiss, but, once, they disappear. Returning from the arcade, I find a note taped to the cash register that says BACK IN TEN MINUTES. But I don’t know how long ten minutes is, and despite the clock above the jukebox I still don’t know how to tell time. So I go running out of the diner, to the arcade, the women’s bathroom, then the diner again, and when there is still no sign of Isa, I run out into the parking lot, up and down the rows of cars. The daylight is so bright I can barely see, and every direction I go is wrong. But finally I find her, sitting on the rear bumper of a sky-blue van, right next to Malcolm. A cigarette burns between her fingers.

I point at her to make her understand: You were gone! I couldn’t find you! but I’m crying too hard and can’t catch my breath. She takes my hand and pulls me close, kisses my cheeks, my nose, the top of my head. “Watch,” she says. She takes the cigarette to her lips, closes her eyes like she’s gathering courage, and exhales a wave of smoke. “See?” She opens her eyes. I breathe her smoke through my nose, and when it makes me sneeze, Isa starts laughing, Malcolm too, and now so do I. “More,” I say, and now Isa is making smoke rings, a thing I’ve never seen, and I try to break them with my finger before they float away and vanish.

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