Charming Chinese Sisters
Rain falls with soft white noise, swelling the moss around the ostrich fern outside the window. “When the rain stops, I’ll go out there with a trowel,” Dahlia thinks to herself. The fern had a good, long life. Eighteen years ago she planted it in front of the house, along with two camellias. Benjamin was only four then. He wore dinosaur rain boots and dug in the mud with a sand shovel. This year, October came with storms and a promise of cold winter. Bubbling paint on the windowsill is a sign of water damage and rotting wood. In her chilly living room, Dahlia shudders at the possibility of termites devouring her home. She’s saving on energy costs, a vast shawl wrapped over her sweater and jeans. She poured eighteen years of her life into her little Victorian house, as she did into her son. The son has left, but the house’s still hers.
Dahlia takes a sip of steaming water with lemon- her old lady drink. Can’t do coffee anymore. It makes the antique letter opener tremble in her long, white fingers when she opens her mail. A letter from the Employment Development Department says she is eligible for an unemployment extension. She exhales. No need to buy coffee. Everything is within walking distance. If the roof doesn’t leak, if there are no termites, she can make it through a few more months.
She sorts her mail into three tidy stacks: Overdue bills that threaten to cut off her utilities need immediate attention, less menacing bills can wait, all other correspondence makes up the smallest pile. There was a time when she never worried. Everyone was prospering from “dot coms” and jobs were aplenty. After Benjamin started Kindergarten, she went back to work at Metotech and soon became a senior technical writer there. She enjoyed her career and loved being a mom.
Faces of Benjamin in different stages cluster like grapes on ochre walls: The irresistibly chubby baby, a smiling little Superman, a longhaired teenager, a college kid - so perfectly American, handsome, sunny. “He’ll always stay close,” she thought. There will be Happy Mother’s Day outings, hockey games, and girlfriends over for dinner. At the end the ex-husband won. He lured Benjamin across the country through an undoubtedly intentional encounter with his friends’ daughter. Dahlia can imagine how it was. Her ex and his third wife are mixing cocktails in their post-modern house in upstate New York, where Benjamin spent every July. Another well-heeled, well-traveled middle-aged couple comes over with their daughter. Lola is going to Brown in the fall. She’s a rock-climber with a sleek, long body and a perfect tan. Lola is a reluctant guest and would rather be with her girlfriends, planning a trip to Greece; then she sees Benjamin and everyone’s lives begin to alter. If Benjamin was here, he could have gone to Berkeley, to Stanford even, but he chose Brown after meeting Lola.
Outside now, Dahlia digs around the fern in yellow latex gloves. Rain covers the city, separating her from the people safely concealed in houses and cars. She is an island stooping in a watery midst. A little girl points at her through the window of a minivan that slowly floats by. Dahlia wonders what the girl is thinking. “A crazy old lady is digging in the mud in the rain.” There are little clumps under the moss: peanuts. The squirrels buried them all over. They still scrape on Benjamin’s bedroom window demanding that he feed them. Dahlia is so lonely. She misses Benjamin so very much, but he will never know. She won’t shadow his happiness with guilt.
Her job developer wants her to apply at the local school district as a teacher’s aide for special education. The longer she stays unemployed, the less are her chances of finding a job, he tells her. “They just want to stick me anywhere and write me off,” Dahlia grumbles to herself. This job pays next to nothing. She doesn’t want to work at a school, especially not for special education, though she loved having kids around. Little boys and squirrels scampered through her backyard. She used to get mad at Benjamin for feeding the squirrels because they dug in her flowerbeds. Now she feeds them herself sometimes. She fumed when kids tracked mud into the house. Now her hardwood floors are flawlessly clean. She used to think spotless floors would make her happy. They don’t.
The school district office is an old building with naked windows and walls slippery with rain. A marker shrieks against the whiteboard as the coordinator writes down the application process. Dahlia’s Metotech office on Berry Street had a view of the bay and a Knoll desk. There was a juice bar in the lobby. After the economy took a dive, the juice bar disappeared, and the high-end furnishings began to slowly lose their luster. Dahlia’s hair started to turn gray and lines crept down her face as if her time of aging came alongside the fraying and scuffing of the world around her.
At home Dahlia carefully sands the peeling windowsill and seals the cracks with tar to stave off the termites. There’s half a gallon of white gloss in the basement and the doors can use a touch up, too. She must slow down the aging process, or her quiet existence will spiral into a dullness of mind. Lost in rhythmic sweeps of the brush, she jumps when the phone rings, splattering a fine mist of white on her face. It’s Benjamin. He’s not coming for Thanksgiving this year and wants to know if she could fly out instead. “I can’t, Honey,” she says. She tells him about the rain, the squirrels, the San Jose Sharks, and sends thousands of kisses over the phone. Her voice, hopeful and happy, crumbles into a sob as she hangs up. Benjamin is better off where there is vitality and abundance. Perhaps she should just sell this albatross of a house and move closer to him. Maybe the job market will be better there, and she can even meet someone, before she’s completely shriveled up. Yet, this house is the only tangible proof of her accomplishments, of her existence. She belongs to it.
A week later, the school district assigns her a job. Dahlia dresses with apprehension in the morning. “Wear comfortable clothes, athletic shoes are preferable,” she was told. What does it mean? Is she going to be chasing the kids, or will someone be chasing her? The school sits on a hill where houses are encased in iron bars and storefronts smell of urine. Can she even safely leave her car in that part of town? The faded floor of the school corridor glistens with some mysterious substance. Outside, cold rain pounds the high, grimy windows. A familiar smell – a mixture of musty books, dusty basketballs, and sweaty bodies too young to care about hygiene, reminds her of all the schools she’s ever been in. Dahlia freezes in front of room 113, then slowly opens the door.
Her senses are assaulted. A stench, indescribably vile, nearly makes her gag. A loud, low wail of “Leave your sinful ways behind!” pervades the room, dissipating other clamor. A portly boy of nine or ten sways in a chair singing the mournful hymn. Another boy, thin and small, creeps past Dahlia on spindly legs. He peers into her face, shrieks and jumps away towards the corner of the room. There, two more children observe Dahlia with misgiving from a bench cluttered with pillows and stuffed toys. A tall man, his body depleted of fat, of substance, crouches near a cluster of desks. Dahlia’s mind desperately reaches out for the stillness of her house, but it’s too late to run away. The man stands up and looks at her through myopic gentle eyes, calm in the midst of the cacophony. “Hello, I’m Fred Hall.” He stoops down again and swiftly whisks a child from under the desk: An Asian girl with a bowl haircut and a face frozen in an angry scowl. Her little teeth grind out a howl of discontent; feces fall out of her pant leg as Fred pulls her towards the bathroom door. She stuffs a thumb in her mouth and her face suddenly relaxes and alters from grotesque to lovely- part baby, part child, part otherworldly. They disappear into the bathroom, yet something of her remains and it’s not just the mess on the floor. Dahlia turns around. Another girl, a carbon copy of the first, softly sways behind her, graceful fingers catching invisible snowflakes in the air.
The twins are Dahlia’s charges and their names are Samantha and Sylvia, both autistic and nonverbal. The girls were abandoned by their mother at birth and live with their grandmother. That’s all Dahlia knows about them, since she’s only a long-term substitute, not privy to students’ personal information. Samantha carries her backpack the proper way and sometimes sits down next to Dahlia during book time. Dahlia moves Samantha’s finger along with the words they read, until the girl pulls it out of Dahlia’s grasp. Samantha must be watched constantly so that she doesn’t swallow marker caps or pebbles in the yard. There’s not much to be done about Sylvia, the snowflake dancer, who doesn’t seem to live in this world at all, refuses to wear shoes and spends her time in the corner catching invisible friends.
Working with autistic children sounded noble to Dahlia before she started doing it but now she doesn’t talk much about her new job. Every day, the yellow bus drops the twins off at the school curb by the garbage dumpsters. Dahlia forces Sylvia’s feet into shoes, drapes the backpack over Samantha’s back, and drags the girls up the driveway to their classroom. The day passes in a monotony of the same books, ABC’s, and horrible school lunches that often end up in her lap. Repetition is good for children, especially autistic children, but Dahlia doesn’t feel she’s making any difference at all. After Samantha decides to put her face in the toilet to taste the water, Dahlia gently scolds her, wiping her face with a chenille scarf instead of the rough paper towels. Samantha’s skin is extraordinarily soft.
By Christmas, a pile of bills on her desk shrinks and the house is animated with calls from Benjamin. He wants to know about her job and he’s the only one she’ll tell all about it to. He wishes he could volunteer in her class and that makes Dahlia proud, but there is a sense of guilt. Even though the two girls will never step into her house or even know her name, she cannot help feeling as if they’re her children too. Is that fair to her real son? But Benjamin is so far away and a mother is a terrible thing to waste.
Mr. Hall is soft-spoken, kind and humble in his haze of endless patience. In Dahlia’s opinion, he has a right to feel “noble” about his work. Often, his partner stops by with a violin and a cello, and the two men play music for the class. The children listen blissfully. A momentary miracle is often interrupted by “Leave your sinful ways behind!” Samantha has grown quite attached to the scarf after the toilet water incident. She squeezes the soft chenille bumps with her fingers, and rubs it against her cheek. Outside the classroom, Dahlia always holds Samantha’s hand. The hand, sticky soft and surrounded by a moist, chewed up sleeve, made Dahlia uncomfortable at first. Now she’s grown so accustomed to holding it, she’s painfully aware of its absence outside of the school.
The first spring day catches Dahlia by surprise, as the wind sends scents of green grass and California poppies into the schoolyard. Who needs an office with a view, when she can see the bay from the blacktop littered with basketballs and orange peels? Drowsy from the sun, she sits with the children on the bench outside, reading to Samantha whose eyes are lost deep in the bay. Nearby, Sylvia sways with her snowflakes in a white camisole blouse that hugs her slender silhouette. Dahlia stops reading to watch Sylvia. She loves the two charming Chinese sisters from the bottomless, primeval place where Benjamin’s umbilical cord connected to her. Suddenly, Samantha’s hands are on Dahlia’s face, as the girl gently turns her head back towards the book. Dahlia gasps at this unexpected progress, at the recognition of her existence, of the unfinished reading. She glances at Mr. Hall as tears well up in her eyes. She wants to hug the girls, to pick them up and cradle them the way she did with Benjamin when he was little and she was a true mother.
The city is infused with spring and it feels good to be out of the house where the windowsill is bubbling again with a certainty of termites. At school, Dahlia belongs to the twins. Now Samantha and Sylvia both hold her hands as they walk around. Other teachers notice and greet all three of them with smiles. Even kids from mainstream classes stop with a surprised look, then bounce away like dropped peas on the blacktop. Dahlia is beaming. There is progress. It may not have changed the twins’ lives, but it certainly changed hers.
One day, when Dahlia comes home, her phone rings and the number looks vaguely familiar. She lets it go to voicemail, and then listens to the message. “Hello, this is Steven Green from the Metotech HR department. I´m calling to let you know that due to our improved profitability in the last calendar year, your former position has been reinstated. We hope that you are still interested and available to work for us.”
Rain slaps the dark bedroom window. “Benjamin, if only you were here,” Dahlia whispers. She owes him something -a visit, at least. He is her son, a part of her. She has no past with the twins, only a lopsided love that spills onto everything in its path. Old age crawls through the cracks of the house that’s turning into an organic thing, alive with moss and termites and pieces of her life. The inevitable decision vomits tears into her mouth as she heaves with a sob. Tomorrow, she will return that call. Tomorrow, she will say yes.