Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Monday, May 2
I am standing by the window of our small apartment in Queens, watching as Ma and Pa leave for their jobs. Half-hidden by the worn curtains Ma sewed herself, I see them walk side by side to the subway station down the street. At the entrance, they pause and look at each other for a moment. Here, I always hold my breath, waiting for Pa to touch Ma’s cheek, or for Ma to burst into tears, or for either of them to give some small sign of the truth of their relationship. Instead, Ma raises her hand in an awkward wave, the drape of her black shawl exposing her slender forearm, and Pa shuffles into the open mouth of the station as the morning traffic roars down our busy street. Then Ma ducks her head and continues her walk to the local dry cleaners where she works.
I sigh and step away from the window. I should be doing something more productive. Why am I still spying on my parents? Because I’m an adult living at home and have nothing better to do. If I don’t watch out, I’m going to turn into Ma. Timid, dutiful, toiling at a job that pays nothing. And yet, I’ve caught glimpses of another Ma and Pa over the years. The passion that flickers over her face as she reads Chinese romance novels in the night, the ones Pa scorns. The way Pa reaches for her elbow when he walks behind her, catches himself, and pulls back his hand. I pass by my closet of a bedroom, and the poster that hangs on the wall catches my eye—barely visible behind the teetering piles of papers and laundry. It’s a quote I’ve always loved from Willa Cather: “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” I’m not sure I believe the sentiment but her words never fail to unsettle me.
Our cramped apartment still smells faintly of the incense Ma burned this morning in front of her mother’s altar. Grandma died in Amsterdam a week ago. She lived there with the Tan family: Ma’s cousin Helena; Helena’s husband, Willem; and their son, Lukas, who is thirty-three years old, the same age as my older sister, Sylvie. I never met Grandma but Ma’s grief has poured over me like a waterfall until my own heart overflows as well. The skin around Ma’s eyes is rubbed red and raw. The past few evenings, while Pa hid in their bedroom, I held Ma’s hand as she huddled on the sofa, stifling her sobs, attempting to stem the endless stream of tears with an old, crumpled tissue. I wear black today too, for Ma’s sake, while Pa dresses in his normal clothing. It’s not that he doesn’t care. It’s that he can’t show us that he does.
Sylvie lived with Grandma and Helena’s family in the Netherlands for the first nine years of her life, and flew back there a month ago, as soon as she heard Grandma was ill. She’s handling a consultancy project for her firm there as well. Dazzling Sylvie, seven years older than me, yanked from her glamorous life in Europe back to our cabbage-scented apartment in Queens when I was only two years old. Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. And me, I am only a shadow, an afterthought, a faltering echo. If I didn’t love Sylvie so much, I’d hate her.
How did a brilliant creature like Sylvie arise from such mundane stock as our ma and pa? Any time I had a teacher in elementary or high school who’d taught Sylvie, they’d say, “Ah, you’re Sylvie Lee’s little sister,” rife with anticipation. I would then watch as their high hopes turned to bewilderment at my stuttering slowness. This was followed by their disappointment and, finally, their indifference. Sylvie went to Princeton undergrad, earned a master’s in chemical engineering from MIT, worked a few years, then went back to school for her MBA from Harvard. Now she’s a management consultant, which is a profession I’ll never understand no matter how many times she tries to explain it. Like me, Sylvie adores all sweets, but unlike me, she never gains an ounce. I have watched her eat one egg tart after another without any effect on her elegant hips, as if the sheer intensity of her will burns the calories, consuming everything she touches. She used to have a lazy eye when she was little and wore an eye patch for years. Now the only imperfection in her lovely face is that her right eye still shifts slightly outward when she’s tired. Most people don’t even notice, but I sometimes console myself with this tiny fault of Sylvie’s—See, she’s not so perfect after all.
I go to the pockmarked cabinet where I have carefully wrapped and hidden a cluster of small orange loquat fruits. If I’d left them on the vinyl kitchen tabletop and Pa had caught sight of the vulnerable snail hidden among the pear-shaped fruit, he would have killed it. Pa works in a fish market in Chinatown. He’s been forced to become insensitive to death—all those fish gasping on the wooden chopping block until he ends them with his cleaver.
The tiny snail with its translucent shell is still perched on one of the loquats and seems fine. Anything strong enough to survive such an arduous journey from China deserves a chance to make a life for itself. I take a used plastic bag, gently lower the loquat and snail into it, and head for the door. I shrug into a light jacket and grab my wallet and cell phone. Before I step outside, I remove my thick purple glasses and shove them into my pocket. I don’t bother to put in my contacts. Vanity plus laziness add up to my living in a blurry world much of the time.
I trudge the few blocks to the small park near our home. It’s early enough that some of the shops are still gated and I shiver as a chilly breeze sweeps down the concrete sidewalk. A bitter stink arises from the wide impersonal asphalt of the road, lined by blank buildings that have always intimidated me. A mother dragging a small, grubby child behind her averts her eyes as she passes. No one makes eye contact in this densely populated, lonely, and dispiriting place—no one except for guys trying to hit on you. A group of them are hanging out now in front of a broken store window with a large sign that says something about fifty percent off. They are mere bruises in my peripheral vision as they yell after me, “Ni hao! Can I put my egg roll in your rice patty?” and then break into raucous laughter. Do they have to say the same dumb thing every day? As long as they maintain their distance, the vagueness of my vision is as comforting as a cocoon. When I’m practically blind, I can pretend I’m deaf too.
One day, I’m going to return to my program at CUNY and finish my teaching credential so I can get out of this place. I’ll move Ma and Pa too. It doesn’t matter that I dropped out last year. I can do it. I already have my master’s in English; I’m almost there. I can see myself standing in front of a class of kids: they are riveted, laughing at my jokes, eyes wide at the brilliance of the literature they are reading, and I don’t trip over a single word.
Wake up, Amy. All you are now is a savior of snails, which is not necessarily a bad development.
Sylvie and I were both raised Buddhist, and some ideas, like all life being precious, have stayed with us. When we were little, we’d race around the apartment with butterfly nets, catching flies and releasing them outdoors. However, as evidenced by Pa and the killing-fish-and-many-other-sea-creatures thing, religion only goes so far when confronted by the harsh grind of daily life.
The park is still recovering from the severe winter we had and I struggle to find a nice, leafy area. I am bending down with the snail held gingerly between forefinger and thumb when my cell phone rings. I jump and almost drop the snail. I set it down, manage to pull my phone out of my jacket, and squint to read the number. I am just about to answer when the caller hangs up. The number’s long, beginning with +31. I’ve seen this before on Sylvie’s phone. It’s someone from the Netherlands—probably my distant cousin Lukas, except he’s never called me before. He only speaks to Sylvie.
I consider the cost of calling Lukas in Amsterdam and wince. Hopefully he’ll try me again soon. Instead, I head for the local music shop. I love to linger in one of their listening stations but almost never buy anything. My stomach clenches at the thought of my staggering mountain of student loans, built up degree by degree. Years of flailing around, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life before deciding on teaching—and then, that old stutter of mine resurfacing as I stood in front of the group practicing my teaching assignments. I have outgrown it, most of the time anyway, but the fear of my stutter proved to be as powerful as the thing itself: all those blank faces, my panic suffocating me like a thick blanket. Sometimes I think I should have stayed an uneducated immigrant like Ma and Pa. Some fledglings leave the nest and soar, like Sylvie; others flutter, and flutter, then tumble to the ground. In the end, I couldn’t face my classmates and teachers anymore. And Sylvie, of course, was the one who bailed me out when my loans passed their grace period. She took over the payments without a word.
Sylvie’s rich, at least compared to me, but she’s not so wealthy that she can shoulder that burden without feeling it. She and her husband, Jim, are even more weighed down with student debt than I am, and Jim doesn’t make much money as a guidance counselor at a public school in Brooklyn. Even though he’s from old money, Jim’s parents believe that kids should make it on their own, so he won’t see a cent of his wealth until they pass on. That is, except for the ridiculous present they gave him when he married Sylvie. As for me, instead of helping Ma and Pa, who have already spent so many years working their fingers to the bone, I’m living in their apartment and eating their food. I temp here and there but despite my ability to type really fast, the only true skill I have, work has been scarce. It’s the economy, I tell everyone, but of course I know better. It’s me. Sylvie tells me I’m not fulfilling my potential and I tell her to shut up and leave me alone.
Inside the shop, I head for the classical section and begin to relax as soon as I hear the lustrous and velvety voice of Anna Netrebko floating from the loudspeakers. She’s singing Verdi. Neat racks of CDs sit beside rows of musical scores and bin after bin of vinyl records. Old guitars and violins line the walls. I love the way it smells of paper, lacquer, and lemon detergent. Zach, the cute guy, is working again. At least, I believe he’s attractive. It’s hard to be sure without my glasses, which I wouldn’t be caught dead in around him. To me, the lines of his face and body are appealing, and I love his voice—warm, rich, and clear. He always sounds like he’s smiling at me.
“Hey, Amy. What would you like to listen to this week?”
I try to express friendliness with my face but think I’ve wound up contorting my features into something extremely awkward. “D-do you have any suggestions?”
He’s only supposed to allow paying customers to sample the music but never seems to mind my lingering visits. “Well, how about some Joseph Szigeti?”
In my enthusiasm, I forget to be shy. “I just read an article about his version of the Prokofiev Concerto no. 1 in D.”
“It’s phenomenal,” he says, pulling out a CD. “He’s proof that technical perfection isn’t everything.”
But as we walk over to the listening station together, my phone rings.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumble. “I have to take this call.” I duck my head and leave the store. I manage to answer my cell in time and the moment I hear Lukas’s voice, I know something is wrong.
The line is full of static, probably due to the transatlantic call. I cover my other ear with my hand to try to hear him more clearly.
“Amy, I must speak to Sylvie right away,” Lukas says. His voice is strained with urgency and his Dutch accent is heavier than I’d expected.
I wrinkle my brow. “But she’s in the Netherlands right now, with you.”
He breathes in so sharply I can hear it over the phone. “What? No, she is not. She flew back on Saturday. She should have arrived by now. Have you not heard from her?”
“W-we didn’t even know she was coming home. I just spoke with her after Grandma’s funeral. When was that? Thursday, right? I thought she’d stay awhile longer. She also mentioned her project there wasn’t finished yet.”
“Sylvie is not answering her phone. I want very to speak with her.”
Precise, responsible Sylvie would have let us know right away if she were back. She would have come to see Ma and tell her about Grandma. My heart starts to throb like a wound underneath my skin.
There must be some simple explanation. I try to sound reassuring. “Don’t worry, I’ll find out what’s going on.”
“Yes, please see what the situation is. When you find her, ask her to call me, okay? Immediately.” There is a painful pause. “I hope she is all right.”
I quickly put on my glasses and hurry to the dry cleaners where Ma works. The faint smell of steam and chemicals engulfs me as I push open the door. I find Ma standing behind the long counter, talking in her broken English to a well-dressed woman with sleek, honey-blond hair.
“We were quite horrified to find one of the buttons loose after we picked this up,” the customer says, pushing a man’s pin-striped shirt toward Ma.
“So sorry.” Ma’s small face looks wan and pale against her black clothing, her eyes puffy from crying. “I fix.”
The woman taps a manicured nail against the countertop. Her tone is both irritated and condescending, as if she’s speaking to a child who has misbehaved. “It’s not really the quality we expect, especially after your prices went up.”
“So sorry,” Ma repeats.
I glare at the woman’s bony back. I want to tell her that the owner hiked up the prices. Ma had nothing to do with it. She’s never even gotten a raise in the long years she’s worked here—standing on her feet all day, lifting heavy bundles of clothing, steaming, ironing, and mending. But I keep my mouth shut. I wait until the customer finishes berating Ma and leaves.
A smile lights up Ma’s face, despite her grief, when she sees me. Even though I can understand some Chinese, I never learned to speak it well, so Ma always talks to me in English. “Amy, why you here?”
I had resolved not to worry her but find myself grabbing her wrist, crumpling her thin polyester blouse. “Cousin Lukas just called. He says Sylvie flew home this past weekend, but she’s not picking up her phone.”
“Ay yah.” Ma covers her mouth with her other hand. Her large dark eyes show too much white. “She not tell us she coming home. She must be okay. Just a mistake. You call ah-Jim?”
“I tried all the way here but he’s not answering. There haven’t been any plane crashes or anything, right?”
“Of course not! What you saying!” Ma brushes her forehead three times with her delicate left hand to ward off the evil of the words I just uttered. She stares at me until I lean in so she can do the same to me. We’re almost exactly the same height and when I catch sight of our reflections in the store mirror, I’m reminded of how much we look alike—except that I wear thick glasses and can’t compare to the photos of Ma in her youth. She had been the loveliest girl in our village in Guangdong. Now in her fifties, her skin is still fine with only a light etching of lines, a silky cream that sets off her warm eyes, and there’s something gentle yet wild in her gaze, like a deer in the woods. “You go to their place. See what happening. Use the key, in dry ginger jar at home.”
“I have my own key. Sylvie gave it to me before she left. But are you sure, Ma?” I cringe at the thought of entering Sylvie’s house without permission. My mind races: What if Jim’s there? What’s happening to us? What could have happened to Sylvie?
“Sure, sure,” she says. “You go now. Quick.”