Emma’s Reminiscence

Jacqueline Xiong

Emma grew dying hawthorns in a cracked black box behind our apartment. They dotted the dusty box in sad, pale, patches. Every time I visited, I would crouch down to brush my fingertip against the sting of their thorns, and Emma would slap my hand away. Their bones were too brittle, their thorns not quite prickly. She always said that, and the hawthorns never grew.

The hawthorns were a remnant from my grandmother to my mother. Emma watered and visited whenever she remembered, but I went to see them every day, watching as they shriveled and wilted, and then perked at the slightest droplet of water. It was a kind of miracle, I thought. It had to be, the promise of tiny roots pulsing beneath the dirt, something beautiful blooming outside these four white-washed walls.

Within these walls, we had nothing but a clumsy block TV, lugged from our four-hundred square feet flat in Hong Kong to the teeming archives of San Francisco. It was long motionless, the box long void of moving pictures. Emma took its empty shell and hammered it into a wall facing the west. Above it, she put three photographs side by side — our grandmother, our father and mother, and at last, the two of us.

Our faces were too weary and shadowed. Weeks later, when Emma threw Mama’s photo away with the Tuesday trash, I told her that there was no point, because we all looked too alike.

Through the ghosting dusk light, Emma was fixing the hole in the wall that the missing portrait previously filled. “You look like strangers you’ll never meet. Mama is just a stranger.”

“But she’s Mama.” The words soured in my mouth, like some kind of treasure disintegrating into ash. “We’re supposed to love her.”

“Says who?”

“Says Baba.”

“Baba is a coward who watched as his wife went to a big city with a rich boyfriend.” Emma’s fingers constrained and buzzed like clockwork, and I didn’t know whether she sounded bitter or glad. “She’s not our Ma if she gives us nothing. Do you miss her?”

“I love Baba. And I love you.”

She hummed, low enough that maybe she was listening. “I sure hope you do.” Then, quieter, “I’d love her more if she was a stranger.”

One month in, we are running low on money and promises. Emma comes home at midnight smelling of barren winter chill and manufactured computers, and I come home in the afternoon to do my homework. When late November frost gathers on our windows, I blow on my hands to keep them warm and slip them into Emma’s pockets, warding away the cold.

Everyone talks about coming to a new place to start a new life, but somehow, San Francisco doesn’t feel like a new life at all — it’s the same routines over and over, the same shadows dogging the streetlights, the same ice dampening the air. Before he died, Baba said that we would stay together no matter what, the older and the younger. Like how your Ma and I didn’t, he might have wanted to say.

But all he ended up giving us is an empty promise, something out of a fairytale about how America is a land of dreams.

When she was younger, Emma was still in school, and she still dreamed and sang and read. There’s a paperback novel packed within the folds of her suitcase, but the pages are torn and the cover so tattered you can barely make out Jane Austen’s name and its title: Emma. That might have been a dream, too.

In America, you can work overtime or leave everything behind, but it’s always hard in San Francisco, where you might be young and promising if you’re a nineteen-year-old graduate from Stanford or UCLA, but when you’re a nineteen-year-old Chinese college dropout, you’re just stupid and slow. Emma says that in Beijing, in the old days and nowadays, they go by 996 — numbers that for once matter, even when not put beside a dollar sign. Numbers that don’t seem to determine your worth, but do anyways.

Two months in, it’s almost Christmas. Emma brings home another TV when December breaks through a white fog, and she sets this one on a table facing the westward window. It’s a Samsung, thin and smooth and graceful, and Grandmother’s face sits above it like a silent phantom.

I am watching moving pictures on the new TV when Emma comes through the door, her gaze falling upon me like my mother’s, like my grandmother’s.

On the screen, it is already Christmas, and lights dance across the protagonist’s face like a blessing — strings wilt and die. At last my sister sighs, her breath leaving her in a rush. “You’re just a child, Anna.”

Snow has fallen, covering the narrow screen. My body feels small and foreign, sinking into the couch covering Emma stitched with Grandmother’s old needles. Children are people who don’t have to be heroes. Far away, Emma looks different, maybe like a hero, maybe like a watery mirror. She doesn’t look like Emma without Ma. Instead, her lips are moving in a promise, an oath breaking the silent monotony we come home to every day — providing and accepting, accepting and providing, giving and taking.

In San Francisco, everyone lives off trade except the people that don’t know how to. Emma says that those people trade, but they never bargain — you trade hours for objects, trade giving for taking and sacrifice for profit. It has to mean something, she tells me when she comes home, calculating value and worth of what we have, selling and leaving them out for people to take away. It has to mean something, because we’re doing this for a reason.

I don’t remember half of my childhood anymore, but one thing’s been etched so many times into my mind that I don’t know what’s fiction and what’s memory. Emma tells me that Mama left with a rich boyfriend and a newborn son. She left feeling like a bird, you know, freed from this claustrophobic Hong Kong life.

Is that true? If it’s true, then why did we leave too, even when we loved the city?

Even though Emma doesn’t speak of it, I think I know the answer: sometimes we stay not out of need but out of necessity.

Later, I think it’s a special kind of cruelty, because Ma’s love was the only thing Emma could’ve ever relied on. So after Mama and Baba left, we left too.

At school, my English is too slow to keep up. I speak with syllables stifled like a child trying to make sound, tracing words I don’t know and stumbling over passages in Anna Karenina. In my family, I have always been the youngest, the slowest, the weakest. My shadow drags longer and thinner on snow-coated pavement when I walk home, slowly trudging through grey.

There are always more dishes to wash, more floors to clean, and fewer paper bills to pay for it all. Emma comes home later and later as the days grow shorter and darker. My hands become cracked and cold as the sun sinks into its grave, and I think of the buried hawthorns, ticking mechanisms wearing down, a string of numbers and 996.

Emma doesn’t come home one day, but instead, she comes through the door as the new day dawns — a crack of light through the shivering walls.

I spend many hours waiting and more hours waiting to ask her what happened. It’s a story that speaks for itself; Emma’s steps small and quiet upon newly birthed light, white hospital shirt washed big and colorless around her shoulders. She is a superhero torn down at last. Her eyes are wide with something we pretend to be strangers to by now. When she sinks down into our shared bed, she feels like an apparition, a phantom of nineteen years. Later, when she shuts the door to the bathroom, I creep in to see remnants of chalk dusted over the counter, the pill bottles carefully tucked away.

I have only fourteen years stored in this frame, but it’s easy to lose the years as they stack up. You wish at ten to be eleven, eleven to be twelve, twelve to be thirteen. Baba says that adding years is less like adding days and more like adding memories, but I don’t want days or memories — I want something life-changing that comes with growing up, years that add up to answers.

In a few years, I will be like Emma. Emma, who seems too strong to crumble, so different from someone like me.

If I am older, I might have gone to the hospital before Emma came home alone. Someone might have greeted me in the waiting room, someone tall and in their mid-forties, someone who can be someone else’s mother for only one moment. A nurse might have called my name. People would look at Emma and see our similarity, and it would be life-saving, because when I put my entire life into a number on a page, it would be more than a small, insignificant fourteen.

Then the overly-bright light would catch some unprepared fault of mine — a question I have no answer to, years that would wear off me like layers of thorns stripped away. My sister collapsed at work because she was too tired. Because she was overworking. Because we have no parents, and she is nineteen, and she only has me.

Emma comes home alone because there is nowhere left to go but here; here, to this small and broken place we call home, a home we patch together with scraps of dead things. She takes her pills when I’m not looking and I store posters where she’s not looking, posters she might have once looked up like Now Hiring and Work Under 18. We have no insurance or money. So we fill up the empty space with whatever we can, always giving ourselves gifts.

On the roads, night has set, submerging San Francisco in a mesh of neon lighting. Emma and I walk side by side, our shoulders swaying and bumping together as a car screeches past, eager to go home at the end of the day. The red light switches to green, reflecting off the car’s shiny surface and casting Emma’s face in a red glow.

This late at night, the promises bathing San Francisco have worn off, painting it as just another restless city. It’s almost Christmas.

I wonder if at that pause between childhood and adulthood, we lose that innocence which binds our first five, ten years — or whether that is just the prolonged, inevitable process of slowly losing things that mean less and less to us.

Fireworks slip through two square windows scratched raw; somewhere buried in that dark, the muted roar of a motor churns and twists, sounding like a million moving pictures collapsing into one. Dreams and promises, Emma might say. Dreams and promises, hovering over our heads with a single chime of the midnight clock, knitting us so tightly together that we can’t escape even if we wanted.

Somewhere in the dark, Emma’s hand, calloused and skinny, finds mine. Hey, Anna. Happy New Year.

On the TV, I watch a dozen women tell an interviewer what they’d name their newborn child. The American channel is old, maybe twenty years back. The women still wore wide-legged jeans and metallic tops. The dark-haired woman who smiles the brightest has a brand-new ring on her finger, one she shows off like a trophy upon her round belly.

A few feet away, I trace our likeliness with my eyes. On the wall, Emma and I share the same weighted lines, the same tired faces.

You look like strangers you’ll never meet. I click off the TV. My grandmother’s face looks down from her photograph, impassive and kind — it’s much less terrible to love a stranger.

Emma comes into the room. Her steps are loud now, floor-shattering, like she’ll become a specter if she doesn’t leave something behind. She leans against the doorframe, her gaze hazy and unfurling in the late afternoon dust.

“Hey, Anna.”

I think of the hawthorns in the back of the apartment, some suddenly awakened memory. “You’re home early today.”

“I don’t have a job anymore.”

For a moment all I can hear are the women’s voice on the TV, happy and monotonous — and the silence comes too soon. I turn, slowly, as not to disrupt her. Emma sways on her feet, absent and faraway.

“It’s okay.” And then, because it is not, “It’s not your fault.”

She only shakes her head. “Someone more competent took the job. I’m not good enough. That’s all to be said.” Her voice is humorless, brittle as dry leaves buried beneath unmelted snow. “Without income, no one pays the rent and the bills. San Francisco has no space for people like us. We either leave or die.”

Leave? It has always been a word associated with Mama, to leave all of this behind. To give — to surrender. I whisper, “But people leave because they want to. We can still find a way.”

“No, Anna.” Emma stretches her lips into a smile. “Always, people leave because they have no other choice.”

Just when I think she will leave, Emma pauses by the door. She looks back.

“Do you miss Mama?”

By now, I’ve learned the right answer. The words come like nothing. “No, not anymore.”

Emma’s expression doesn’t waver. “If something happens to me, you need to go find her. Do you hear me?” She doesn’t wait for a reply, only faces me so her bony shoulders hang suspended in the wide doorway. “If something happens, you go find her. She’s somewhere here in San Francisco. If you go to her, she’ll let you stay. And no matter what, don’t look back.”

The next week, on an early morning, Emma packs our bare necessities into two suitcases and ushers us onto a bus. Her movements are wordless, her gaze withdrawn. Around us, San Francisco rushes past, timed to numbers we no longer follow.

Behind us, the apartment is empty and hollow. The clumsy and old things we use to fill it up are now just a shadow through the window; they’re like ghostly markers, marking us as one of many desperate, poor people who dared to dream of living here.

The hawthorns are already dead, beaten deep into the rain-drenched soil. Before we leave, I pluck a tiny bud and slide it beneath my shirt.

On the bus, I lean my head against Emma’s shoulders. She tightens her fingers around mine like how I used to tighten mine around hers, barricading us from the chill.

The bus jostles on, driving us away. The rain drizzles down. Somewhere in the dust-gray Hong Kong alleys, there is an old, old song — 996.

When the bus stops, Emma steps out to buy us lunch and promises to find me later. When I come out of the washing room, she’s gone.

I look in and out of the crowd, looks in desolate places where missing sisters might be. Looks on the empty bus and slow bus stations, look in the far and wet horizon. Even after the bus splutters alive and disappears into the distance, I keep looking. It is like someone has pulled me apart and sank my center of balance into the ground.

Minutes pass and then hours. People come and go. Someone asks me what I’m doing here alone. An elderly Chinese man offers to take me to the police. On the TV in the nearest convenience store, I look for notices of missing sisters and unconscious girls, but by the time the TV clicks off, there are no alerts of people who have left. They simply trickle away, like inconsequential currents flowing into a deep, bottomless body of water.

Emma left of her free will, like how Mama left. Desperate to escape from this sluggish, quicksand place, where people live off promises and find other ways to live when no promises are left.

Once, when I was very young, my mother told me a story. My mother said she knew she was prepared for burial the moment she was born. Much sacrifice had built an altar for her birth; her father had tried to exchange her for another boy, but my grandmother packed up her bags and went to America with my mother. My grandmother left because of generations that have come before her. She left because if she didn’t, she would have to sacrifice more than just a husband.

“Likeliness is how women survive,” she told me once, when the night was low, and my grandmother was faraway. “We survive through our blood in times when it’s easy to die, but it also generates much pain. Because women don’t have a choice but to save themselves.”

Overhead, the rain has stopped. The single hawthorn curls into itself in my blouse, fragile like a newborn despite living and dying so many times, and I think of Emma’s death. Think of giving up on her, like how our grandfather almost gave up on my mother, how our mother gave up on us, how Emma gave up on me.

We are all so easily killed, suffocated by one thing or another. The older sister and the younger, one reminiscence from another; generation upon generation, death upon death. White pill bottles that have stacked into small cities in our bathroom. Paperbacks abandoned in forgotten places. Our home in Hong Kong, our new apartment in San Francisco, the old block TV and the new. My sister has always protected me. Once, I have sworn to protect my sister.

Once, I stood still in bustling Hong Kong, waiting for my mother to take me home.

Standing alone, I watch as Emma approaches from the far side, blurry in the after-precipitation of rain. She had looked back. Ragged and weary, it is as if no time has passed at all.

Ever since then, we are bitter. My mother remained my grandmother’s greatest sorrow, and my sister hers.

At home, we kept a black box containing many moving pictures. The empty shell on the wall had long been taken off, and now we did other things for our pastimes; Emma read paperback novels while I planted baby blossoms behind our house, hearing their thin, vibrant pulses through the dirt.

Years later, we will take more photographs and hang them up like oaths. The hawthorns in the backyard will come alive at last, living off themselves and always hungering for more sunlight and water. And in our new home, we will remember nothing of the years that came before — the years left only of brittle, coldened bone.


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