Sister

The summer after we moved to our new house on Glen Echo Road, my parents packed us into the red Ford station wagon for a weekend trip. We rode silently past the grimy run of oil refineries that line I-95 and the airport, across the longest bridge I had ever seen into Delaware, another hour along small cities with low rises and half starved trees, into a tunnel channeled under water my father said, lit with fluorescents to a sickly Halloween yellow. I closed my eyes and leaned into the depression in the seat cushion to keep my neck as balanced as possible and calm the nausea. On the other side, in southern Maryland, we careened on the beltway around the modernist spires of some kind of Temple, and then made an abrupt left turn up a steep hill in a middle class subdivision of Silver Spring. My mother’s twin sister and her family had been sponsored by a church group here, where they had also managed to buy their own house. I was to be reunited with my older girl cousins for the first time since leaving Vietnam.

Two or three times a year, when one or the other family would make the trek, I would bookend the reunion with tingling anticipation, and then a mixture of relief and loss when it was over and cars repacked with silent children for the ride home. My cousins had an entirely different inventory than I did; Barbie dolls and their wardrobes, make-up kits, teen magazines and a few years later, their own drivers licenses and credit cards. We laughed easily in the beginning, pre-pubertal years, when they let me borrow a bicycle with pedal brakes I had never learned to use, and I careened helplessly down the hill past their house until I panicked at the sight of the rushing highway traffic at the foot of the hill and purposely swerved into a tree. When I slept over, we made our own snacks by cutting up green mangos and dipping them in an absurd amount of nuoc mam, made sludgy with sugar. When they were teenagers, I let them give me facial make-overs and put rollers in my hair. I let them drive me to malls and prowl the long corridors, marveling at the volume of their purchases. When they snuck us out at night to local dances with Vietnamese kids and an occasional white face, I let someone tug my hand back and forth in a stiff cha-cha-cha, then hid in a corner with a cup of punch until they were ready to leave near midnight.

In between visits, my memories of them were static. We did not trade phone calls or letters. I would revert to my bookworm habits, jeans and T-shirts, and could no longer see the glamorous possibilities for my high forehead, oily skin, and vague eyebrows. I begged my parents for a sister, sobbing in desperation, afraid of what she would be like.

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