Steffie could spike the ball and whack the field hockey stick and had hair like cotton candy. She never got pimples on her pointy nose; knew just how to pop a collar; always found a way to show off her perky breasts. Word was that she was a slut, that she’d let you finger her, that her brother was a juvenile delinquent. Her parents divorced in middle school. She was nice enough to me, but we weren’t friends. I was in the smart kid classes and she wasn’t.
I know she has a husband whose name she has taken; she refers to herself as Mrs., but ironically. She has two towheaded sons and lives in LA but rides a bike when she can. She was a model for a while and occasionally catches sight of an old TV commercial or billboard still in circulation, her image a preview of a residual check to arrive in the mail. She sewed curtains for their breakfast nook: white with pale orange peaches. She had a greeting card line for a short time that specialized in mean, brutal messages. She bakes and has a collection of that pale green kitchenware you find in antique shops. Recently she’s posted in support of Black Lives Matter and is reading a book on how to be an antiracist with her older son.
I don’t know why I follow her or click through her stories. We have not spoken in more than thirty years, and even then, the words were close to nothing. But I feel angry sometimes: does she have any idea? Does she know what she’s done?
I have no specific memory of a cruelty or rebuff, of any particular violence, but my body remembers. Perhaps it was just the way she saw through me or over me or past me: Invisible. Outside. Ugly.
Vin was once reprimanded for handling one of her second graders too roughly. What I didn’t say then was that I had seen it too, while she was getting one of them to wash their hands. The child squirmed under a grip so strong his feet lifted briefly from the ground. I was there to read them a story; Vin had praised my expressiveness, my animation. I swallowed the compliment as I swallowed the question: isn’t that how you read to them too?
Vin grew up in the Philippines but lived in the United States most of her adult life. I don’t think I ever saw her wear a bra. She wanted to be a writer, spend more time on her poems. That was her plan for when she retired, a date known and counted down towards. She smoked or ingested pot regularly. She considered herself ugly because that’s what her aunties said, but she wasn’t. Like my mother, also an immigrant from a poor, war-flattened country, Vin preferred to be around beautiful people or things: she’d deem them cute, or not; pretty, or not: her girlfriend, the dog, a girl I was dating, a new acquaintance, the rabbit. I passed some kind of muster and was flattered for it. She bleached her short hair bright white before chemo, knowing she’d shave it off before long. I delivered steaming hot blood stew to her hospital room when she was able to eat, and all the Filipino nurses declared their approval.
She called me to her a few days before the end. I sat next to the couch on the cold floor holding her hand. Tell stories about me, she said. Talk about me. I want to be remembered. The rest is difficult to recall.
We formed a circle around her as she died, a flotilla of Asian American dykes. We listened to her breathe in and breathe out and moved to the bottom of the house when she was no longer Vin but a body to be taken away.
Sofia was the first girl I ever fell in love with, the door of my closet in human form. She lived four rooms down and had pronounced dimples on both sides of her mouth. We attached right away. We spent long hours sitting in the hallway with our legs stretched out, other students stepping over us on their way to the showers, wearing plastic slides and carrying plastic caddies holding loofah sponges and shampoo bottles. Sofia had the confidence to order a pizza at midnight, after which we’d eat a pint of ice cream. She always had a black elastic band around her wrist for tying back her long brown hair. She liked to lie on top of me, her back to my chest, and just rest there, talking. She told me how she had once come simply by lying still on a bed, letting a breeze wash over her. After I spent a weekend at her parent’s floor-through apartment overlooking Boston Common, she told me her mother worried we were lovers, which we both laughed at. Her family was something akin to Spanish nobility: her parents had been married in Gaudi’s Sagrada cathedral and she aspired to the same.
She developed a crush on Chris, a tall, athletic blonde who played the guitar, but Chris ended up with Laura. Jorge, a fellow Spaniard, and a man named Michael pined after Sofia, coming up to our table in the dining hall to clumsily ask if we were done with the box of Cocoa Puffs. They would linger, like the others, the many others. They were all bewitched, somehow. Which I didn’t understand. Which is ridiculous, considering how deep in I was myself. She got a boyfriend with blue hair and somehow we drifted apart enough for me to realize what I had felt was love. The revision didn’t interest her and there was no name for how my heart was broken. Nothing had happened. We had been friends.
She is married to a fellow architect. They have an office in Williamsburg and a house upstate. I can’t tell if there is a child, or children. She looks the same: pear-shaped, delicate hands and shoulders. Most of the photos I scroll through are taken by her, not of her, and they feel all the more intimate.
Arlene was born in Cuba; she spent most her life in the United States. She trained as a landscape architect and liked to hug trees and talk to moss. She had a laugh that turned into a honk sometimes. Her brother died of AIDS in the 1980s and her daughter, also queer, moved to be close by. Arlene called her port Bumpy and the chemo drip Fanny. As in fanny pack. The daughter and her fiancée moved their wedding date up; Arlene was able to attend, and celebrate her last birthday, and their ten-year anniversary. When Arlene and Ansje got married, we hadn’t known them long, and weren’t formally invited, but Arlene said come on, throw those babies in a car and drive out to Montauk. The two women called themselves the A Team.
When we bring the children to see her, Arlene tells us the doctor said four to six months, and that she will begin a new treatment next week. Later that evening she flutters her hand in what I think at first is a tremor but is part of her story: There’s always one leaf like this – the rapid flutter – while the rest are just floating, back and forth in the wind. She eases her hand into a soft, slow wave. She continues: To birds, every tree branch is entirely different from all the others in the world. They always know which one is theirs. Arlene looks at the children, gazes at their lengthening limbs and changing bodies, and I wonder if she is thinking of how she will never see them go forward in time.
Arlene once told me of a recurring vision of hers: a woman, just ahead, walking. Arlene had never seen her face. When she got sick, the woman stopped walking. Arlene still couldn’t see her but the woman was still, waiting there. I can’t wait to meet her, Arlene said.
I haven’t known Michelle long, and we’re not really friends. When we first met, she was uninterested; I think she still is but has to engage because we’re in a book club together. She wears beanies and high waisted vintage jeans and long coats and it’s only recently that I realized she must dye her hair, that the white blonde can’t be natural. She grew up in a commune in California, her father a painter and her mother an art historian. Michelle’s husband is a ceramicist who insists on artistic integrity, saving Michelle from selling the rights to her book to HBO but also excusing the family from a steady income which now comes from Michelle and her work writing copy for major brands and their websites. At one point Michelle started a writing institute. I scrolled through the website and everything about it screamed white girl, but I couldn’t articulate exactly how.
Michelle says this about being a mother: you always have to be the strong one. Like, even when you’re scared. She sighs as she says this, the exhalation of breath making clear that this is a new habit for her, one that she’s taken on with this new role and definition, and I can’t think of a single thing to say in return.
I first knew Isaac by another name but that one doesn’t matter. He left behind a girlfriend named Martha and we helped box up the apartment afterwards. He had a cat named Q and another one – the second one – named Newbie. He liked to walk around without a shirt; after top surgery he could do it anywhere he liked. He and Martha visited once and brought a set of balls of various sizes that made various noises for the kids, who were just babies then. We held onto those toys for much longer than made sense, because they held something in them besides plastic and distracting sounds.
Isaac’s mother flew out from San Francisco for his memorial, and I remember being surprised at how little of an accent she had. I learned later she had spent most of her years in the US though she was fluent in Cantonese. During the elegy she never once used the wrong name or pronoun and I saw then just how strong mother love could be. It wasn’t until later that I realized Isaac’s father wasn’t there at all.
When watching someone die you wait for each breath to be the last but are surprised when the next one doesn’t come. It’s stunning, how startled we are.
Miss Beaudette brought in eggs that turned into fluffy yellow chicks under heat lamps. We held the chicks in our hands and could feel their skipping heartbeats through the tips of our fingers. I already knew how to read but pretended I couldn’t so Miss Beaudette would teach me, and later in life be the one to say she did. She would sometimes put a palm to the top of my head and speak to me in a quiet voice with her head tipped to the side. I dreamt she was my mother, with her soft brown hair and perfect English. In the middle of the year, Miss Beaudette became Mrs. Tracey. I never got used to her new name and tried to say it as little as possible. I don’t think I could find her now, nor do I want to. I never knew her first name. I wonder if she would remember me.
We have a stapler with a large sticker on it: Joannie’s written in dark black marker. And on an extra-large Tupperware, two last names written in permanent ink in a circle. Same on an extension cord, a pair of scissors. She died six weeks after the children were born. The fact of this still takes my breath away. I had forgotten the cancer had gotten to her brain. How does a fact like this get forgotten?
One of the kids says she wishes she had gotten a chance to know her. I remember my relief when a friend confessed her irritation at the pile of takeout containers Joannie had left with her when she moved away. She wanted me to take them to the recycling center, the one only open on specific Saturdays that took that kind of plastic. This is the kind of annoying thing Joannie did, could get away with.
Was she my friend? Did I love her? I don’t think these questions matter any longer. She was the first to die, the first for me to witness. The defining calamity of my life. When watching someone die you wait for each breath to be the last but are surprised when the next one doesn’t come. It’s stunning, how startled we are.
Elaine H. Kim is a queer Korean American fiction writer born and raised in the Midwest. She has won fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and was the Justin Chin Memorial Scholarship Fellow at Lambda Literary’s 2021 Emerging Writer’s Retreat for LGBTQ Voices. Elaine’s work has been published in Guernica, Joyland, So to Speak, and upstreet. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their twins.
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