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.

I stand the flashlight on its end. The whole box glows. I take a red crayon to draw a picture of Isa’s night out, but I don’t know what’s beyond Lemoore, maybe lit-up cities with high-rising buildings, strangers who wave and say Welcome, and tell you their names. So, instead of Isa’s story, I start drawing ours instead: with blue crayon I make a circle for our cul-de-sac, and inside it I draw five people in a row, tallest to shortest. Then I surround the circle with stars, and I decide our cul-de-sac is the whole world itself, our bodies so big we fill it, as if we are everywhere at once.

There is a line of morning light beneath the garage door when I open my eyes, just enough to help me find my way into the house.

Isa didn’t wake me. Maybe she forgot. I go to her bedroom door. I whisper her name and wait for her to whisper mine, so we both know we’re here. But there’s only silence, no matter how many times I say her name, so I open her door slowly and peek inside. Her bed is still made.

She’s not hiding in the closet or under the bed. She’s not in the living room, or the kitchen, or the bathroom, and now I’m thinking that I’ve messed up, that she’s on her way home, and I came back too soon. Everyone still sleeps, and I don’t know what to do. I climb on top of her bed, wait for her all over again.

I wake the second time to shouting and panic, to my father’s face in mine. My mother is behind him, and Darwin is in the hallway, shivering with fever. “What happened last night? What have you done?” My father is shaking me, harder and harder. “Where is your sister?” But I have nothing to tell. All I prepared for was Isa’s return, so I wait for it, refusing to speak, even if he hits me.

The answers come, later that night, when Isa calls from a pay phone in a place she won’t name, to tell us she’s not coming back, that she’s sorry but happier this way, that she is with Malcolm and she is in love. I’m listening to this on the telephone in my parents’ room, my hand cupped over the receiver so they won’t know I’m here.

Isa is gone, and now the house feels too small. No matter where I go, I can hear my parents fight, shouting things I shouldn’t know—that my mother never wanted to leave, that my father wishes he was alone in America, free of the worries we cause. “Our plan,” she says one night. “Is this what we planned for?” My father doesn’t answer. He just stands there, jangling his car keys in his pocket, as if he could leave at any moment. Darwin never mentions Isa, but once I catch him bouncing his basketball outside Isa’s window, staring in. When he sees me, he pops me with the ball so hard that I fall backward to the ground. He walks off, and when I breathe, I hurt.

Isa doesn’t call again. We go for help, but the Navy can do nothing. Neither can the police. She’s gone, not missing, is what they tell us. I don’t know the difference.

We do what we can. One morning, my mother and I go door-to-door through the neighborhood looking for her, but she makes me do the talking. “Did you see my sister?” I’ll ask a neighbor, then hold up a picture of Isa on her sixteenth birthday. Sometimes I catch my mother peering into their living rooms, her head turning slowly from side to side, like she is trying to learn how other people live. No one has seen Isa, but we go house-to-house with her picture the next day and the day after, and people start to know who we are.

My father searches at night. Once, he lets me go with him. I sit in the back, kneeling on the seat with my chin on the headrest, looking out the rear window. We drive for what feels like hours, up and down the same streets over and over, until finally we are outside of town on a long, two-lane road. Suddenly he pulls to the side, and when I turn my father is leaning back, his hands still on the wheel. “I don’t know where we are,” he says to himself. But I do, only now the fog is gone, the gray stalks are sprouting corn, and behind us is a row of palm trees, almost as tall as the ones back home.

Sooner or later, we stop searching. I don’t know when, I don’t know why, but my parents decide that we must learn to live this way, and one night at dinner, I find only four settings on the table. “If she wants us, she’ll call,” my father says, scooping rice onto his plate. And, just like that, things go back to normal: my father sleeps early again to rest for the next day’s work, my mother cooks and cleans, Darwin plays basketball and rides bikes with his friends. The busier we stay, the less my parents fight, the less Darwin bullies me, and soon, school begins again. I’m a third-grader now, learning things all the time: that our final states are Alaska and Hawaii, that anything times zero equals zero. One morning I wake up and my mother tells me, “You’re nine years old today.”

Days feel fuller than they ever were, and after dinner, when everyone is tired and almost ready for bed, we gather in the living room, in front of the new TV. It’s color but still secondhand, and one night half the picture comes in lines so wavy that they almost hurt my eyes. So I look away toward the window, remembering myself on the other side of the glass, the way I watched my family as they are now: non-moving and silent, their faces blank and glowing blue from the TV screen. We couldn’t be truly happy, but somehow everyone rests easy, as if the fact that we are four instead of five is simply a number, and not a tragedy. No one even cries, and I can’t understand why.

I put my head on my knees, close my eyes. Somewhere, Isa is fine without us; here, we are fine without Isa. And this is the truth I don’t want to know: that the ones who leave and the ones who get left keep living their lives, whatever the distance between. But not me. When I was outside in the night, I watched my family; I knew they were fine. When she thought she was alone, I watched Isa; I listened to her pray. For the rest of my life, I will be like this. It’s the difference, I think, between all of them and me; even when I was gone, I was here.

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