Here was the situation: Pearl belonged to Ba, Em belonged to Ma, and I belonged to my sisters.
Girls and Women Who Lead and Succeed
We felt a little jealous of our fetal selves, I guess, so one overcast Sunday morning, when our parents were still asleep and church programming was the only thing on TV, we poured the brown liquid into a bowl and sat huddled on the kitchen floor, between the stove and the sink. We were six-eight-ten. The warm linoleum stuck to our legs. We passed the bowl around, one slurping mouthful after another until Ba walked in and said, “What are you three up to?”
Here was the situation: Pearl belonged to Ba, Em belonged to Ma, and I belonged to my sisters. Our family photos are proof of this. The earliest one was taken at a portrait studio in Walmart, us three looking like playground chalk in our white pantyhose and doily pastel rompers, cut and sewn from the same fabric by our Laolao who lived in California. Me, a baby, front and center; Em and Pearl behind me, leaning in so that their shoulders touched; Ma staggered behind Em, and Ba on the other side behind Pearl. Apparently the photographer did thirty-six takes before he got one of me smiling. “It was flapping his arms and jumping that did it,” Pearl told me and Em. “That’s how he got the shot.” She told us this around the time of the Vinegar Incident. Six-eight-ten. She imitated him on the platform of the stairs in our house, above which the photo was hung, and Em and I had yelled “Caw! Caw!” from the bottom, in what we imagined to be the sound of a frantic chicken. Pearl was five in the photo, the only one of us old enough to have any memory. It was tickling for me to know that as a baby, I’d had the power to inflict ridiculousness on a grown man.
When asked, Ma and Ba said they didn’t remember me being difficult at all; in fact, they seemed not to recall that day in any sort of specificity. “You guys were the sweetest back then,” said Ba, but that was what they said about every picture of us. Selective amnesia, Pearl called it, after she became a teenager and found our parents unbearably treacle. They kept only the good stuff, smearing the past into one pleasant swash, which made me wonder if they could forget the accident without forgetting Emily.
So from left to right, it went: Ma, Em, me, Pearl, Ba. Like a pack of migrating geese. It was as though the Walmart photographer had somehow imprinted this arrangement on us, and had in doing so determined, or maybe just formalized, who was whose charge. Ba ran errands with Pearl, and since he was always running errands, they were always together. He bought her slushies that turned her lips blue and told her she would be the first ever Chinese-American president, and that was what Pearl put in the Hopes and Dreams section of her fifth grade yearbook. He told Em she could be the second and me that I could be third, but the same ambition on us felt like a consolation—so Em put “Olympian” in her fifth grade yearbook, and I put the generic “world peace” in mine.
Ma, on the other hand, yearned for touch, which she didn’t get often from Ba on account of his animation, because this was Ba: going going going, ever-striving towards some small greatness—a new appliance or tool, his succulents, a class on motivational speaking. Perhaps her longing had to do with that sense of oneness she’d felt with us during her pregnancies. It was Em who gave her the most, every evening laying her head in Ma’s lap, the white glow from the television pulsing on their foreheads. Ma would brush Em’s hair with one hand and reach the other into a bowl of strawberries, occasionally dipping one into Em’s mouth.
And this was me: less distinguished at twelve than Pearl and Emily had been at that age, because my parents’ expectations came to me diluted, through my siblings. I learned everything a little late, Em and Pearl realizing suddenly each time that I still couldn’t tie my shoes or swim or fold shirts, and then working together to teach me. By the time we were four-six-eight, Ma and Ba had stable, well-paying jobs at Dell and IBM. They’d moved into a larger house in a newer part of Plano, a community with two swimming pools, trails, roundabouts, trees that flowered in the spring. They loved me easily, without the clinginess brought about by worry, which they’d each exhausted on one child already. I would have clothes, food, extracurricular activities, they were sure. They didn’t even have to worry about friends because I had sisters.
They didn’t even have to worry about friends because I had sisters.
Whenever it was time to take a picture, no matter the occasion or where we were in relation to each other, we would scramble to make our V. Graduations, recitals, ski trips; when Pearl placed second at the middle school science fair; Christmases, Chinese New Years, American New Years, Enchanted Rock; in the hospital after Em broke her arm doing a kickflip and got a hot-green cast we all signed; Disney World, Disneyland; when I lost my last baby tooth, which Ma for some reason thought was a big deal for everyone. “Our baby is no longer a baby,” she kept saying, and repeated: “Our baby is growing up.” In that photo we’re seven-nine-eleven, and I’m stretching my palm to the camera. The photo came out saturated, though, so you can’t really see the small groovy molar, only some bits of red where there was blood. In our home, the tripod sat permanently by the fireplace. Out in the world, we were that family that was always saying, “Excuse me, would you mind?”
Except for the time at Olive Garden, when Pearl didn’t want to.
“Why not?” Ba said in the booth. The metallic-pink camera dangled from his wrist. “You can drive now. That’s a big deal.”
“I just don’t want to, okay?”
“She doesn’t want to, Eric,” said Ma, still with that wooden gaze.
“Jessica, what about you?”
“Ba, why are you asking Jessie?”
“I don’t want to,” I said, to align myself with Pearl. It was also an apology for not being Em, who was normally her accomplice. In the past, no one asked for my opinion.
“See? There. End of story. Let’s go home.”
With that, Pearl slid out of her seat. She left me with them and walked out of the restaurant, her long straight hair trembling as she clopped through the parking lot in black one-inch heels, a gift from Ma on Pearl’s actual sixteenth birthday six months ago. Olive Garden must have been when it started: We had gone from three to one and one, which somehow wasn’t the same as two.
I said I needed to pee and shuffled out of the booth, feeling Pearl’s warmth as I passed where she’d been sitting. When I got back, Ma and Ba were hissing, speaking loud and soft at the same time. I stood and listened with my back against the corner.
“You were wrong for pushing the photo,” said Ma.
“Why are you acting like what happened didn’t happen?”
“What happened happened, but we have to help them move on.”
“We have to let them grieve.”
“It’s important to maintain structure.”
“It’s her first milestone without her sister.”
“There will be many more. Will she acknowledge none of them?”
“You’re impatient. You always have been. You were when I met you, and you still are.”
“Can we not discuss what we were like when we met right now, please?”
A waiter walked past me with breadsticks and I thought, for the first time, of when my parents weren’t Ma and Ba but Clarissa and Eric, two people with separate lives. It didn’t seem possible. Their silence was cut by tinny percussion, which I figured was Ma scraping leftovers into to-go containers, exaggerating her movements whenever she was upset. Plastic grunted, lids being shut, followed by silence again before Ba’s glasses clattered onto the table.
They say it’s common, when a person gets hit by a car, for their shoes to stay exactly where they were on the ground, just before the moment of impact. Emily’s skateboard was intact, not a single scratch on the deck. She skated mongo, meaning she pushed with her front foot instead of her back, which meant that her board was always a little ahead of her.
I picture it when I can’t sleep. Rolling on by itself, jittery without the extra weight.
None of us were there when it happened, but Ma and Ba brought the board home along with Em’s right shoe, while the left, they said, was nowhere to be found. We pass the intersection on our way to get groceries—me and Ba now, instead of Ba and Pearl, and occasionally Ma—and every time I can’t help but look. I know Ba is looking too. I’m afraid of seeing it, the checkered black-and-purple Vans, seeing it and knowing that all the parts of her are accounted for, which would make her truly gone, while right now, a piece of her remains still out there.
I was getting a glass of water when I heard a muffled “Shit!” and “Shitshitshit!” coming from outside. After the Olive Garden, Pearl had gone to a friend’s house. To study for a test, she’d said, though it was well past midnight now, and Ma and Ba were asleep. It was the first time I ever heard her cuss.
When she saw me, she muttered, “Oh hey,” and closed the front door walking backwards, staring at the ground. She raised her keys to hang them on the wall, it looked like, before snatching them out of the air and plunging them back into her jacket pocket.
I said, “What’s wrong?”
“You’re acting weird.”
“Fine, I scratched the car a little bit, okay? Don’t tell.”
“Nothing. I was taking Bullock Hollow a little fast, and you know how winding it is, how it’s narrow and two ways.”
I knew Bullock Hollow was a shortcut to the high school on days when the traffic was bad. I also knew it conveniently avoided the intersection.
“A car came out of nowhere, headlights turning everything white, and I got scared for a second. I was going downhill and didn’t think I could make the turn, so I hit the brakes and veered into the railing. The right side got dragged a little, that’s all. No big deal. I usually park on the other side of the street anyway, so even if Ma and Ba see the car, they won’t see the damage unless they walk around.”
“I won’t say anything,” I said, hurt that she was trying to convince me.
“Cool. I know I’ve been busy lately. I miss you.”
“Miss you too.”
“Me too,” I said, even though I wasn’t. “I can make us something.”
Pearl frowned. She walked past me into the living room, her voice trailing behind her. “When did you learn how to cook?”
Before Em was sent flying by a car going sixty miles an hour, she used to come home from school, let her backpack fall off wherever, and stick her head deep into the fridge, as though being sucked in by the light. Pearl liked food just fine but was generally not driven by appetite, and I was somewhere in the middle, which meant that when I got hungry I was only proactive enough to go looking for Ma or Em. But Em had shown me her basics. Guacamole. Roasted carrots with cinnamon. “So you don’t starve,” she’d said. “You need to know how to make your own snacks.”
Ma liked following recipes. She would buy ingredients in precisely the stated proportions, but then when it came time to prep she would look up from a produce bag and yell something like, “TOMATOES?” and Em would yell back, from wherever she was in the house, “GONE-I-YATE-THEM!”
Our meals often contained a surprise. An apple pie that turned out to be half apple, half Korean pear. A salad that was hardly more than oily lettuce. When we were nine-eleven-thirteen, we ate hummus on spoons like yogurt because Em had finished all the bread, and that same morning we took our smoothies at room temperature, because when Ma had looked, there were no bananas in the freezer.
Em’s Munchies Incidents, we called these. Our Ma would learn to adjust, you would think, but she didn’t. She accepted the absent ingredients as a creative exercise, or maybe practice in the case of an emergency. If there was ever a task but something crucial had gone missing, what could you use as a substitute? What could you do without?
What could you do without?
I carried our grilled cheeses to the table and Pearl brought out a desk lamp from her room.
“Mood lighting,” she said, and angled the circular head to the ceiling, which I never would’ve thought to do because I wasn’t Pearl: attentive to detail and capable of wonder. The light fell over us like a fine net, touching us softly while we ate.
“I’ll show you a trick,” I said. It was Em’s trick. When I came back from the kitchen with Ma’s chili oil, there was only a wedge of Pearl’s sandwich left. I wafted the clear dispenser under her nose. I could smell the star anise.
Pearl pulled her face into her neck and said, “No.”
“It’s good, I promise.”
“Dairy plus Asian-spicy equals diarrhea.”
“What’s that thing Ba used to say? Unless you’ll die, it’s worth a try?”
“Horrible advice. There are way worse things than death.”
We got quiet. Pearl’s features—her quaint knoll of a nose, her apple-shaped lips; Pearl was beautiful—turned dark all of a sudden, like they were trying to hide. I noticed after a while that I wasn’t breathing, and that I was still holding the chili oil in Pearl’s face. I set it down on the table.
“Remember that time,” I said, seizing our moment of togetherness. “We were little, and we drank all that vinegar. Whose idea was that?”
Pearl stood and took a sharp breath. She became all bright again. “I’m pooped. Ha. I’m going to bed. If you want indigestion, you’re on your own. Love you,” she said, and kissed me on the cheek. “Let’s talk tomorrow.”
But we didn’t talk tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after. Through my window, I watched every night as Pearl’s car turned in, slowed down. The double flash of the headlights, the doors locking, silhouetting her as she pranced across the yard to the front steps. Weeks went by. No one found out about the car. Ba got a promotion at work. He was always in and out of doors, meanwhile Ma stayed still. She rinsed grapes at the sink for minutes and was always touching me, saying things like, “You know you can talk to me, right?” and then again: “Whenever you need me, I’m here.”
At night, I wait for Pearl to come to me. Em’s skateboard draws circles inside my head. When she doesn’t, I peek into her room to find her passed out on her stomach in a wide X, her jacket collar riding up and obscuring half her face. I peel off her socks. I switch off her light.
The Saturday after Pearl’s real sixteenth birthday, just ten days before the Incident Incident, my sisters tried teaching me how to ride a bike. It was only May, but all of Texas was swept in a record-breaking heat. It had become unseemly, they said, that at twelve I hadn’t learned this basic skill. That was the word they’d used: unseemly, because every few months, we found a new word and would use it mercilessly until we’d rubbed it down so that it lost its luster. Others throughout the years included preposterous, coy, gruesome, superb.
They had decided to run alongside me, but the question now was how. We’d been outside for minutes and already our temples were glistening, the space above our lips dotted with sweat. I was between my sisters on the bike, trying to find a good position on the seat. I hobbled on my one foot touching the ground.
“Ma held my handlebars,” said Em. “Otherwise you’ll go all over the place when you’re nervous.”
“Ba pushed me from behind. That way the pedals move”—Pearl rolled her index fingers, so fast that they blurred—“and you have enough momentum to steer on your own.”
“Let’s try both,” I said, and Pearl and Em had responded together, “At the same time?” and even though I’d meant one and then the other, I shrugged and said, “Yeah.”
We found a long flat stretch of sidewalk on a street two blocks from our house. Pearl was behind me, touching the bike seat and my shoulder. Em was next to me on the other side, one hand on the handlebars, the other on my lower back where I could feel sweat beginning to pool. I shook my helmet head. The straps tickled my chin.
“Ready, Jessie?” said Em.
“Too bad,” said Pearl. “You’re old. It’s unseemly.”
“You’re unseemly,” I said. “And old.”
“Good one,” said Pearl.
“On the count of three,” said Em. “One, two, THREE.”
They pushed. A slow jog at first and then faster. We were running, all legs and wheels, tangled arms, protruding elbows, a single moving entity. How did we look? I wonder. On nights when I’m up waiting for Pearl, I try to picture us. A three-headed creature. A machine.
“You have to pedal!” Em shouted. “Are you pedaling?”
I wasn’t. I was laughing. I was hardly even holding onto the bike. Eventually, we came to a crosswalk and stopped. “Let’s go back,” I said. “We can do this another time.” Through harrowed breaths they agreed, it was too hot, and together the three of us ran, with me on the bike, all the way back home.