< dense, opaque, and confusing
Julie shoos her sister away, telling May to go watch television, which she does, and during which Julie wets two washcloths, wrings them carefully, and presses them to her mother’s now empty eyes. Julie is twelve and May is six. It is 2004. The washcloths are actually dishrags. Julie’s mother has, in what will only later be attributed to a reaction between prescription drugs, self-enucleated or oedipised herself. Pressing down, Julie stanches the flow. The cloths, cooled from the faucet, gradually grow warm. And when the men come to take their mother, finally limp and pliant, Julie almost forgets to retrieve her sister, rapt and still, whose eyes have entered into a left-on History Channel documentary on the great mausoleum of the first emperor Qin.
It is 2014. Julie’s phone buzzes like a headache. Five minutes later she is taking US-10 W at twenty over, kneading floaters from her eyes, trying to get her phone to rest on the dash. When she finally does, and it says the next important turn is in eighty-three miles, her knuckles un-blanch. Things cool and slow. She lowers screen brightness. The summer triangle, faint as the speedometer’s tritium needle, appears out the passenger side. May’s texts are barren, almost featureless, but they hurt, though Julie would like to believe this hurt isn’t meant for her.
Each draped across their own bean-bag chair, Julie and Faye discuss how she, Julie, is unable to reconcile the memory of pressing on her mom’s eyes with the one she has of holding the landline receiver. She couldn’t have done both. It is the winter of 2013. Chronology is complicated, says Faye, who says things like that the relationship between trauma and memory is also complicated, and so are fathers, and so is sex. Successive questions have led to the two toward their vulnerabilities and fears although, from Julie’s perspective, Faye’s are less interesting. When Julie adjusts her posture the bean-bag rumbles. The apartment, Faye’s, has no humidity control, and Julie remembers that when she was younger she was prone to nosebleeds in air like this. Head up, back, nose pinched. When Faye hyperextends herself, her spine rings out, the hem of her shirt lifts, and Julie sees the midriff’s pale crescent. Faye is very tall and pallid. Julie thinks about having left May at home tonight, and whether May will eat the boxed macaroni she left or starve again in protest. Julie says we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, preemptively blocking Faye from saying the same. She has been worried about appearing defensive lately. She has been worried about appearing as if she lies or omits the truth, which she does. Faye talks about dating uninteresting men in high school who gave bad head, which could be interpreted, Julie guesses, as vulnerability. Again they submerge into silence. It’s not that she doesn’t like Faye. Julie sometimes thinks that radical honesty can come across, if not tempered by self-awareness, as anything from radically boring to radically cruel.
Bean-bag chairs can have a sinking or suffocating effect, Julie thinks, but despite her immense stress, and that the draft from outside slinks around her ankles, and that she excuses herself to go to the bathroom where she cannot hide her panic-vomit, the two of them still move their bean-bag chairs closer together later that night, and they still kiss, and Faye still falls asleep on Julie’s arm, and this arm, bloodless and painful, screams upon waking.
At age thirteen May sweeps four consecutive competitions and decides to commit to solidifying her modern and classical Mandarin. She is already beyond excellent. It is 2011. Julie now shuttles or chauffeurs May across southern Minnesota, western Wisconsin, and northern Illinois; she learns arcane facts about the cleanest rest stops and the cheapest gas—has bought tire jacks, snow chains, large-gauge jumper cables, and automotive flares. It’s not just ribbons anymore; May returns from regional recitation conferences with trophies and medallions and marble statuettes; she outpaces the 11–14 bracket by two levels and draws ire from parents whose children, unlike May, Julie notes, pace before call-time and have, many of them, developed tics and oral fixations. May is tic-less. Julie knows how to find ice in convention centers, free parking outside stadiums, and bathrooms in basements. Words like wunderkind, prodigy, savant, and genius are not foreign to the slope of May’s rise’s curve. She gets on stage and delivers, every single time. Julie has seen it. It makes her feel that her sister is impregnable.
Julie usually eats slowly things like dried fruit and granola bars from the sidelines, to pass the time. Competition judges have greeted her by saying May does not memorize but appears instead to emit, as if inspired, or possessed, the cadences of Song, Tang, and Warring States poets. But Julie has seen the volume of data her sister consumes, like an open-pit strip-mine. May secures access to Interlibrary Loan at the U of M and is bimonthly driven to Wilson Library, scavenging the latest from Harvard–Yenching. The bowls of macaroni Julie makes for late-night study sessions go congealed and untouched. Julie has heard that thirteen is a pivotal age for young girls where subtle influences can have outsized effects, but to be fair Julie is not eating well either. Julie thinks May might be making phone calls in the middle of the night.
May admits one day to scraping her sister’s bank statements for routing information. Modest prize scholarships appear in Julie’s personal account. And at thirteen and a half May spends her first summer at Sēn Lín Hú, financed, it seems, by sheer force of will. She bankrolls double month-long sessions, June to August at 8k per annum, disappearing into the language camp which is at such Minnesotan latitudes that sunset is 10pm local and occasional boreal aurorae are not unheard of. She attends: 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. It makes her happy.
The abandoned JC-Penny parking lot where the chartered buses drop off the 10–18-year-olds always crackles with English and an effortful Mandarin. White teens in bandanas play Mahjong on mats on asphalt and May, richly bronzed, perfumes Julie’s car with bug spray, sunscreen, and rust. This rust is from the communal showers’ pipes and dyes the skin of all ‘doublers’ like her orange, she explains. Julie learns about a lake with leeches, a sloping green hill, a deciduous forest, and a replica pagoda. Apocryphal tales are told of students disciplined for kissing on the lakeshore, in the forest, in the communal showers, in the pagoda. No one is allowed to use their real name but must pick a Chinese name. When her sister returns she sleeps terribly, refusing to shower, orange arms sharpied in hurried telephone digits, laced in characters whose meaning Julie doesn’t know.
Two hours pass. Julie’s phone dies but she finds a charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter, and sets it back on the dash. She reads her sister’s message again: not a threat, but a notice: a memorandum. Jimsonweed, shattercane, dandelion, wild-oat, and sawgrass edge the two-lane, though Julie can’t see them now, only knows that they are there. Knee-high corn and shorter thickets of soybeans populate fields that split at the road’s gash, and in darkness it all acquires the depth and velocity of an inland sea. Monticello, Becker, the relative metropolis of St Cloud on the river, Rice, and Royalton pass before the fuel gauge blinks. Julie has expected her sister’s depression for a while, as if it were an ulcer, or an aneurysm, or a thousand-year calendrical cycle, doomed to dynastic convergence.
The pump in Little Falls prints fragile tickets instructing Julie to pay inside. Unflattering light does not fall on but rather adheres to the station attendant, Beth, who says to drop the ticket into a slit in the counter, only afterwards asking how much it was for. Cigarettes arranged on the wall behind her compose a tapestry.
Julie learns without asking that Beth’s husband is a ‘hauler with a rig,’ that Beth thinks cigarettes are very overpriced, and that Beth’s dog Paul died last month, having eaten nightshade growing by the local elementary school. Julie thinks this sounds like an ancient, almost noble way to go. She learns things like that dogs can smell unimaginably better than humans can, that the seeds contain more poison than the flowers, that the good die young, and that Beth still hurts, every single day. She learns that all landscaping in front of Lincoln Elementary was ripped up after, piled in the center of Jaycee Park, and burned. Some of the cops who got too close to the flames got horrible nightmares for days, Beth says, from the fumes, like of their children melting, or their own bodies turning inside out, and that she, Beth, thinks they ought to have done it at Pine Grove, but they didn’t. It’s over now, though, she says. Julie thinks that Beth has had a miscarriage, and if she’s wrong it’s not the kind of wrong that matters. Beth asks if Julie was about to say something, but she wasn’t. The fuel gauge does a full sweep, horizon to horizon, before settling on F.
Julie snaps an unsplit bud off of a dogwood and hands it to Faye, who says that in bloom the trees, flocked with pearly inflorescences, smell like cum. The two of them sit on the sloping lawn in front of the Cathedral of Saint Paul, on Summit, overlooking the encampments. It is the spring of 2014. Grass pushes out dead grass. Birds yell. Faye had insisted on wearing a tee-shirt and asks, as Julie expected, to borrow her jacket. She is a braless graduate student at the U with a garden level apartment and so ought to understand, Julie thinks, how to sit quietly—to work at something until it yields. It is not fair or reasonable that Faye is able to spend two years translating Weimar literature while staying as firmly closed and emotionally infertile as she is. Faye describes a summer job she has gotten at a well-funded German immersion program up north, and Julie pretends not to know it. Faye explains fellowships, translation, and how other people suck. Their allowances for each-other sit easily together, like two smooth stones. They split a package of Fig Newtons that Faye has packed in a First Avenue tote. Premature dandelions, bruised by a late frost, bend here and there. And Julie asks what Faye thought of her before she knew she liked her, and Faye says that, sometimes, she thinks she likes people who show interest in her only because this means that something about her was interesting. Julie removes a dandelion’s pistils and stamens. Wind scooped off the river rises toward the cathedral behind them and Julie says quietly that she liked Faye before Faye liked her, and that’s okay: someone always has to go first. The sunlight grows oblique and steely. Faye makes fun of the Ecolab building, the US bank building, and the skeletonized granaries of old Saint Paul, though Julie has never really hated any of these things, not really. It takes five minutes for Faye to notice the goosebumps on Julie’s arms, another minute to touch them, another minute to lay her lips against them, and another still before she returns the jacket and they leave.
At her apartment Faye makes chamomile tea; she uses an enameled goose-neck kettle that sits on the stove and which Julie thinks is beautiful. Its extravagance, an idle object among the discount apartment, rhymes with an idea that, while Faye is committed to doing some sort of work, this work does not involve real people, and does not involve Julie. It’s not that Julie hates her. The tea is packet tea. They sit across from each-other in what Faye jokingly calls the breakfast nook, but it’s just a corner. The white oven has dishrags around its handle. There is a bowl of sweet-smelling bark and flowers up on a sill. They wait for tea, water in the mugs leeching yellow from paper. Sterile tubes of light from high-set basement windows hang in the dust above them. The light is also tea colored.
When Julie says it to Faye, having finished the tea, having been unable not to say that she had never liked chamomile all that much, which had led to her saying more and more, and made a whole thing happen, a thing she could now not undo, like put smoke back in a candle, Faye does not ask what she did wrong, or whether Julie was okay, or if there existed some sort of thing like second chances, but instead just states that she had never previously been the one broken up with, only the one doing the breaking.
May lies face up on the ground floor of the replica pagoda, holding one green glow-stick in each hand. Julie lies beside her, still clutching the car keys and her phone. Attestations of love and vulgarity, written in childlike Mandarin, cover the wooden ceiling, not three feet from their faces. Julie can’t read them, but she can guess. They grow more numerous as her eyes adjust. Also on the ceiling are pendants hung by campers, coins lodged in cracks in wood, and the fibrous cocoons of caterpillars. It smells like sap and rot. The pagoda is five levels tall and took twenty minutes for Julie, still trembling now, to find. But she did. May was careful. She had already bandaged her forearms, not telling but showing this to Julie when she’s found, and who kneels in response outside the false pagoda, her forehead to the ground, noiselessly shaking. She has to crawl inside to touch her sister. May’s hair is very dirty and she smells like summer.
May tells her sister, when Julie’s chest slows, that if she stares long enough at the messages on the ceiling, they disappear, as if her eyes get bored, or exhausted, or maybe, and she says that this is what she really thinks, they sense something else, something behind the letters, to look for. And this requires immense effort. They look together, though Julie’s eyes can’t focus long enough to blind herself—to see what her sister claims to see. May asks the air whether, if she looked long enough, letting the blackness overwhelm her, if anything would reveal itself—if a second sight would come—or if whatever it was, behind it all, was forbidden. Julie finds her sister’s questions dense, opaque, and confusing—worries that this is May’s intention.
Before the sun rises, May, whose knowledge of the camp’s topography is comprehensive and loving, leads them from the pagoda on footpaths, around the campfire set with flagstones, through the old basketball courts, and down a wide, featureless lawn to the lake, on the shore of which the nurse’s cabin sits, like in an old engraving. It is the end of July and the moon has gone new. Julie hides behind a tree, doing what she’s been told, and watches May put her head down for a minute, as if in prayer, then calmly remove her bandages, putting them in her pockets, then bang on the door of the cabin, whose lights flick on, and from which emerges an adult woman who takes the now crying, apologizing, and seemingly incredibly small kid into her arms, into the light, to see what she’s done to herself. Julie, who expects a call, though not until daybreak, watches the screen door close, finding her way back in the dark.
May and Julie’s aunt makes them all drive to visit their mother in Rochester. Traffic on US-52 is effortless. It is 2008. It is May’s tenth birthday and their mother feels her daughter’s face, appearing calm. The nurses say she speaks sometimes, but she doesn’t that day, and May doesn’t seem to mind. She stands absolutely still while her mother touches her. She says that her age now has two digits, and that it probably will forever. She recites a poem in Mandarin, which none of them understands, their mother clapping at its close. Julie stands in the corner, scrolling through state laws about emancipation, about leases, about labor rules in Minnesota, but stops for the poem. Their aunt makes four cups of tea, but she is the only one that drinks any. They sit around a table and the thermostat clicks. Julie, May, and their aunt look out the window toward the gray city center. And as if cued, perhaps by the heat of the midday sun, their mother turns the same way.
Julie squints at the half-timber buildings that dot Waldsee, waiting for Faye. Volksmusik plays somewhere far away and she smells schnitzel. She received the expected call from Sēn Lín Hú while driving to Bemidji, forty minutes south, and told the assistant dean she couldn’t get there until the next evening at the earliest. She has to console the administrator, who cries. She apologizes neatly, explaining that the drive from Minneapolis is long, but that she’d make it. She will say, when she arrives, that Sēn Lín Hú is where her sister is safest, that liability and illness are words that people with good intentions use when they do not want to think about what can really lead someone toward or away from themselves. This is what she is good at. They will agree to allow May to call her, she will assent to having her sister watched, and May will finish the session. She will do the things she loves, for as long as she still loves them. Her skin will turn orange, she will get sunburnt, she will get as many bug bites as she wants.
Faye appears with pre-packaged lunches, and Julie’s apologies for the notice are dismissed before given. The sun is beyond radiant. Julie says she had been hiking in the area and had only just remembered what Faye had mentioned about her summer job. She acts sweetly and, when Faye makes a joke about having not spoken English for so long that she’s lost the ability, Julie laughs. She is not surprised when Faye allows her to slide back into place. They eat the food, and it is delicious. Julie learns facts: the camp is funded by the German Department of Culture, it is flush with cash, it is the most popular camp in the Bemidji hub, and that Faye has done things like ‘learned more from them than they from me.’
When Faye starts poking her sauerkraut, Julie says it looks like she wants to talk about something, and Faye says that she’s not sure she should, but does. Not everything about being a counselor is smooth sailing—that very morning, she says, she heard from some of the connected counselors that something had happened at one of the camps. Julie is told that some of the less popular languages have sites ‘in the middle of nowhere,’ and that it is harder to make kids at these satellite camps feel like ‘a part of the same community.’ A camper tried to—she slides a finger across her neck—says it’s not rare either, honestly. She explains things like ‘group think,’ pacts, cases in which large proportions of high-school classes have gotten pregnant at the same time, and what, if anything, these phenomena might mean. Julie says she doesn’t really understand, though maybe, she adds, all the hiking has made her tired.
When they finish, crumpling the wrappers into tiny balls, and when Julie is led around the camp, pretending to be a cook, a manager, an electrician—anything so that when campers speak to her in German she is excused from response, from explanation, from meaning—she feels happy. Faye holds her hand. She is very good at it, Faye is. And when she finally offers, as Julie had expected, that she have a real shower, a real meal, a real night’s sleep, she doesn’t say no.