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.
My sister, Isa, speaks English and Tagalog. But one word, she could say in many languages: koigokoro, beminnen, mahal, amor. “It’s the most important thing,” she used to say, “the only thing. L-O-V-E. Love.” So when we learned that we would be moving to California, to a city called L’amour, she called it home, the place where we were always meant to be. I believed her.
This was January of 1974, our final days in the Philippines. Isa was sixteen, I was eight, and we were from San Quinez, a small southern village surrounded by sugar-cane fields and cassava groves, with a single paved road winding through. Every house was like ours, made of bamboo and nipa and built on stilts, and every neighbor was somehow family. No one was a stranger where we lived.
Like many Filipino men at the time, my father joined the U.S. Navy, and after he had served in Korea and Vietnam, his request for a transfer to America was finally granted. “Our plan from the very beginning,” my father said. My mother stayed silent, rubbing the leaf of a houseplant between her fingers until it ripped. My brother, Darwin, who was twelve, said he didn’t care one way or another. But Isa started packing that same day. “L’amour, L’amour,” she went on, like it was the name of a special friend she had that others never would. Friends and neighbors called her stuck-up and boastful; our oldest cousin called her an immigrant bitch. “American bitch,” Isa corrected her, and called our cousin a village peasant who would never know a bigger world. “You’re stuck here forever.” As though no place was worse than the one you were from.
This is us on the plane, the day we leave: across the aisle my mother stares ahead, barely blinking, never speaking, and my father rifles through papers, rereading each document as though he can’t figure out its meaning. Darwin sleeps next to me, so deeply that I double-check the rise and fall of his chest to make sure he isn’t dead. On the other side of me is Isa, and only when she looks at me do I realize I’m crying. She unbuckles my seat belt and lets me sit on her lap, promises me that I’ll be fine in L’amour.
We land in San Francisco but we keep moving. As soon as we claim our boxes and bags, we board a shuttle van and head south on the freeway, turn east hours later. I’m lying down for most of the ride, my head on Isa’s lap, feeling our speed. We never traveled so quickly or smoothly on the dirt roads back home; I could almost sleep. But suddenly we’re slow, and the driver yawns, “Almost there.” Isa looks confused, then panicked, and when I sit up all I see are endless fields of gray stalks, the miles of freeway we leave behind, and, up ahead, we seem to be driving into a cloud. “Fog again,” the driver says, and down the road, a sign becomes clearer. Welcome to Lemoore, CA, it says, ENJOY YOUR STAY!
They sound the same—L’amour, Lemoore—but I know they’re not. “Lemoore.” I tug at Isa’s sleeve. “What’s that mean?” She doesn’t answer.
We exit the freeway, turn into the Lemoore Naval Air Station. We drive through foggy streets to a section of military housing, passing rows of gray and concrete rectangular houses with low, flat roofs, then down a street that ends in a cul-de-sac. “That’s ours,” my father says, and we pull up to a house with a faintly lit doorway, newspaper-covered windows, a grassless yard. We step out, unload our cargo, drag boxes up the driveway to the front door. Most things are too heavy for me to lift, so I stand by the van to guard our belongings. Across the street, a balding blond man mows his dry, yellow lawn; two houses over, a lady with a shirt that says RENO! soaps her car, sprays it down, soaps it again. Then I see a family sitting in folding lawn chairs in a line along the sidewalk, their faces toward the sky. I have never had to meet a person before—back home, everyone knew everyone—and now is the time for someone to say Welcome or How are you? But by the end of the day no one says hello, not even us.
I hate my house. Too many walls make too many rooms, the hallway is long and dark as a tunnel. Nothing scared me back home, and I always knew where we were: you could hear a person breathe in the next room, and the floor shook when someone ascended the bamboo stairs. Now, brownish-orange carpet mutes our footsteps; I never know when a person is coming or going, who’s here and who’s gone.
Strangers come each day with heavy cardboard boxes on dollies—a refrigerator one morning, a kitchen table the next. When my father breaks down the box for our new oven, I drag it to the garage and build it again, turn it on its side, and wedge it between the washing machine and the wall. I crawl in, close the flaps. I fit perfectly. Minutes pass and I decide that I’m hiding, so I wait to be found, for someone to call out, Where are you? Where did you go? But no one searches, even as the afternoon fades and the garage darkens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who knew a person could form circles from smoke? Or cry and laugh at the same time? This is a day of learning new things: I look at Isa looking at me, and I think we are amazing.
Later, when my father picks us up, I tell him, “Nothing happened today,” then get into the backseat with Isa, put my head on her lap. Driving home, I watch her staring out the window, and when she looks down at me, she smiles and sighs, like her longing has ended, and we have finally arrived in the place we were meant to be.
Middle of August. Eight months in America, and Isa will be seventeen. The year before, the whole village celebrated her birthday, and in her white, floor-length dress, Isa looked like a bride. This year, we celebrate at the new Pizza Hut on base, and give small gifts: she gets pink fuzzy slippers from my parents, nothing from Darwin, and an egg-carton caterpillar I made in school, from me. “Next year you’ll get more,” my father says, and as I’m about to sing “Happy Birthday,” my mother shushes me. “People will stare at us,” she says. When I try again, Isa takes my hand. “You’ll sing to me later,” she says. But I never do.
The one who makes her birthday matter is Malcolm. The next day at the diner, he tells Isa he wants to take her out for her birthday, someplace far away from here. “Hanford,” he says, “maybe Fresno. Anywhere but Lemoore.” He takes the saltshaker and taps grains onto the table. “Goddamn Lemoore.”
Isa puts her hand on his wrist, right in front of me. “But Lemoore means love,” she says. “In French.” Then she says “love” all the other ways she knows—koigokoro, beminnen, mahal—and Malcolm lights a cigarette, nodding with every word.
That night at dinner, Isa says her boss needs her for a Friday-night late shift and will pay her double, maybe triple, even drive her home afterward. She says the late shift might lead to a promotion, maybe a raise, but my mother says no. “A girl out at night,” she says, doom and threat in her voice.
“Then I’ll be with her,” I say. I tell my parents how much Isa’s boss adores me, how I remind him of his son. “But that boy died. A car crash,” I say. “He was crossing the street. A van came …” The story is even better than we rehearsed it, and as I lie I’m picturing Isa in a car at night with the window rolled down, her ponytail like a ribbon in the wind, singing to any song the radio plays, and finally, because a dead child fills them with pity, my parents tell us yes, we can go, just this once. “Thank you,” Isa says to them, but she’s really thanking me. Beneath the table I squeeze her hand to tell her You’re welcome.
Everything is perfect. Darwin has come down with a fever and won’t be coming with us. My mother still refuses to leave the house at night, and insists my father stay with her. “We’ll be okay,” I tell my parents throughout the day. “We take care of each other.” They believe everything I say.
Just before dark, my father drives us to the bowling alley. Before we get out, he makes us kiss him goodbye on the cheek, which we’ve never done the other times he drops us off. He drives away, and I imagine myself in his rearview mirror, shrinking and shrinking as he travels down the road. I’m still waving even after he’s gone.
Isa hurries inside to change in the bathroom. I stay where I am. Then, as if he’d been watching, Malcolm pulls up in his van. He doesn’t say hello, doesn’t invite me in. He just sits there smoking a cigarette, then flicks it out the passenger window. I watch it glowing on the ground until Isa steps out and takes my hand.
“Let’s get him home,” Malcolm says. He reaches over and opens the passenger door. The backseat is crammed with boxes and crates, album sleeves, parts of a bike, so I sit in front on Isa’s lap. She goes over the plan once more, making sure I remember every step. Her arms are wrapped around my chest and I lean back, my head resting against her shoulder. She’s shivering and her knee bounces a little, like a mother trying to calm the wailing baby in her arms. “I’ll be fine,” I whisper, and Isa says, “I know.”
Off we go. Malcolm takes a different route home, and every turn becomes a street I don’t know. When we finally reach the end of our block, the fog is so thick I almost don’t recognize that this is where we live.
Malcolm pulls over. Isa and I step out. “Count eleven houses,” she says, pointing toward home, “and you’ll be there.” She pulls my hood over my head, tugs at the drawstrings, and as she knots them together she tells me to be brave, though she is the one who cries. Then she tells me that she loves me, and that’s the most important thing, the only thing.
She kisses my cheek then steps back, climbs into the van. I let them leave first, watching the red taillights of Malcolm’s van until they disappear into the fog, and that’s when I see it, for the very first time: my breath in the air. It floats before my eyes like a tiny ghost, and I stand perfectly still, marveling at the fact that I possess the power to project something from deep inside me into the night air. I breathe again, watching my breath and remembering the smoke rings Isa made, and I think we are exactly the same.
I start toward home, counting off houses. I walk up someone’s driveway, and though the garage is padlocked shut, I tug at the handle anyway, as though it might open. Then I run a zigzag line from house to house, breathing hard so my breath floats in the air again, and no one ever sees me. I’ve never been outside by myself like this, so late at night in Lemoore. I’m so brave that I even walk in the middle of the street and shout, just once, “Hello!”
I stop at the bottom of our driveway. The living-room window glows blue and I move toward it slowly, staying low. I peek through. Darwin is on the floor in front of the TV, wrapped in a blanket, my father dozes on his recliner, my mother leans against the doorway of the kitchen. Even as I move to the center of the window, they still think I’m gone.
My breath fogs the glass. It’s cold. I leave my family and hurry over to the side of the garage, find the key and flashlight we hid behind the trash cans, and let myself in, make my way quietly and slowly to my box. I crawl inside. In the corner is a pack of crayons and two foil-wrapped corn dogs from Lanes, a thermos of juice, and the roll of Life Savers that fell for free. Next to it is Isa’s watch. She’ll be home by 2 a.m., when she’ll come into the garage, get me from the box, and together we will enter the house, as if we were never apart. I look at the watch. I see the 2, but I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait. I don’t even know the time now.
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.
In the last hours of the school day, during filmstrips about good hygiene, our forefathers, and California history, I daydream of Isa: she zooms down a highway edged with cornfields that become skyscrapers, her face framed in the passenger window of Malcolm’s van. Wherever she goes, strangers bid her hello, and I think of her thinking of us: that we’re stuck here forever, that we will never know a bigger world.
After school, walking home, I daydream again, always of reunion: I’m at the end of our block when I see her, standing at the bottom of the driveway. At first she can’t see me in the fog, but then I emerge from it, and now I’m running to her and she’s running to me.
It never happens this way.
In December, on the last day of school before winter vacation, I’ve just walked in the door when my father calls out from the kitchen. “Come here,” he says, and before I can ask why he’s home so early, I see Isa sitting in her chair at the table. Her eyes are pink from crying, her lips are pressed together like she’s keeping a secret. “Hug your sister,” my mother says, so I move closer to Isa, who stares at her lap and whispers “Sorry,” over and over. Her face seems wider now, heavier, and one thick strand of hair crosses her forehead and trails down her shoulder to her elbow. I rub it between my fingers, wondering how long it took to grow, and I think I might understand the way time works: how its passing is impossible to see, but when it’s gone, you feel it. “You should cut this,” I say. Then I do as I’m told and embrace my sister, and that’s when I see it: the dome of her belly, bigger than it was the last time we held each other.
This is Isa’s story: Malcolm got her pregnant. He didn’t want the baby, and then he didn’t want her. He paid for a bus ticket from wherever they were to Lemoore, and sent Isa on her way. That’s all she told my parents; I never knew more than that. “But you shamed us,” my father tells her in a voice so soft he sounds like he’s speaking to the dead. “You shamed yourself. And if he shows up at my door—”
“He won’t,” Isa says, and she’s right: I never see Malcolm again and he never calls, but now a baby is inside my sister. I think of its curled-up and freckled body, and wonder what will happen when it’s born. Do I feed it when it’s hungry? Hold it when it cries? No one talks about it, prepares me for it. This baby is like being in America—a thing that just happens, a thing you learn to live with.
My mother is proof of this. One afternoon I’m lying on my bedroom floor staring at the ceiling, when I hear her humming. I run to her room, find her laying out baby clothes, their tiny sleeves and pant legs splayed out like X’s across her bed. “You wore these once,” she says, then holds the smallest shirt I have ever seen against my chest. “Now look. How big you are.” She breathes deeply, sits on the edge of her bed, puts her fingers on my cheek.
“Isa left us,” I tell her, in case she forgot.
I haven’t hugged or kissed Isa since she’s been back. Whole days pass and I won’t even say hello. She is the same way, and she joins us only at the dinner table, where all she does is stare at some spot on the table or the wall. Once, her stare is so long and steady she barely blinks, barely breathes, and I get suspicious: maybe she misses wherever she was, or is planning to leave us again.
I slam my hand on the table to bring her back. The forks and spoons rattle on our plates.
“Are you brain-damaged?” Darwin says, and when he kicks me hard under the table, I don’t even flinch.
Days before Christmas, at the start of each night, the neighborhood houses glow and blink with colored lights, but ours is dim and plain. “They don’t have Christmas trees back home,” my father says one morning. “Maybe we should get one?”
They shop for a tree that afternoon, and as they pull out of the driveway I go running to my father’s window. “I’ll watch Isa,” I say. But he barely nods, like he knows I’ll fail again.
After they leave, Darwin goes outside to shoot baskets, and I sit in the dark hallway, on the floor in front of Isa’s open door. She hasn’t felt well all day, so she lies on her bed, facing the wall. But we are alone in the house, just Isa and me, and now is the time for all my questions—where she was all those months and the things she did; if she dreamed of me as often as I dreamed of her; and did she plan, from the very beginning, to leave us, knowing that I would wait for her, inside a box?
“You were gone” is the first thing I say.
She nods her head.
“When you left, nobody talked to me. For a long time. Even though I was here.” I stare at the carpet, dig my finger into it. “We drove at night to find you. We couldn’t.” Outside, Darwin’s basketball thumps and thumps, and I dig my finger deeper and deeper. “I walk by myself now. All the way to school. All the way home.” When Isa turns to face me, I realize I’m crying, but I keep going, telling her more she doesn’t know about me: new words I’ve learned in school, the teeth I’ve lost, how now I’m nine years old and can finally say very the way you’re supposed to, but despite all these facts I always end up saying the same thing: “You were gone.”
“But I’m back,” she says, trying to smile. “I’m here.” She takes a deep breath, sits up, rubbing her sides like the baby takes up too much room inside her. Slowly, she gets to her feet, reaches into her dresser, and from beneath folded dresses she takes out a cigarette and a book of matches. She lights it, breathes deeply, and a ring of smoke floats toward me. “Remember how much you liked these? How they made you laugh?” She breathes and breathes, and more rings float my way, but I let them fade.
She doesn’t give up. She takes the cigarette to her lips, takes a long, deep breath, but instead of smoke rings all that comes out is a cough. She tries once more but coughs again, like she’s forgotten how to smoke. She stubs out the cigarette against the window screen, sets the butt on the sill, and now she hunches over, holding her belly as though it’s suddenly heavier than it was before. “I don’t feel right,” she says, squinting. She steps toward the bed, sits but misses the edge, falls to the floor. She looks funny and I almost laugh, but then I hear her say, “It hurts,” and when she looks down between her legs, spots of blood are on her pink pajama bottoms. She puts her hand there, then looks at the blood on her fingers. “Something’s wrong,” she says. She tries to stand, but she hurts too much to move.
I get up, step into her room, reach for the box of tissues on her dresser and try handing it to her. But she pushes it away and asks for our mother, our father, then says she should get to a hospital, and now I think this baby will be born now, here. But I’m not ready. I don’t want to be.
I pull out a tissue and lay it down by her hand. I tell her I’ll get Darwin, that he will know what to do. “Just wait here, okay?” I close the door, tug on the knob to make sure it’s shut tight, and tell her not to leave. I take a step back and listen to her shouting my name. “Just wait,” I tell her again, then run to the end of the hallway. “I’ll be back.”
I head to the living room and walk out of the house. I go down the driveway past Darwin, who keeps bouncing his basketball against the garage door. “Where are you going?” he says, but I keep walking, even when he tells me to stay.
I continue down the sidewalk, count eleven houses. When I reach the end, I cross the street, and at the next house a lady is in the front window, holding a teacup in her hand. She sees me standing at the bottom of her driveway, but instead of drawing the curtain or looking away, she just waves, takes a sip of her drink. I don’t wave back or even smile, but I nod to let her know I see her.
Then I turn back toward my street. Night is starting, but the air is warm, all the rooftops blink with colored lights, and Christmas trees full of ornaments and silvery tinsel light up every living-room window. Soon, our house will be this way too.
This is what L’amour was meant to be. This is the place my sister called home. Finally, after a long, long year, we’re here. And so I go back, walking first, then running fast, because I can’t wait to ask her, Isa, how are you? Isa, how have you been?