mèi mei n. Chin. YOUNGER SISTER
By Colin Wolcott
I’m at Lucky’s Lounge tonight. My sister asked me to come. Actually, I’m still in the parking lot. And I’ve been in the parking lot, sitting in my car (a Lexus), for nearly 10 minutes. This neighborhood, this establishment, is a little, ah … out of my “comfort zone.” When I pulled into this place there were two men and a woman standing out front, eyeing me as I parked. They were taking turns smoking an item passed back and forth between them, so it seems unlikely to be a cigarette, meaning it’s probably, what, marijuana? Something worse? In this part of town, who knows? Meth, maybe? Is that how meth is smoked? I’m not getting out of this car until they leave. Hopefully that means exiting the premises altogether as opposed to heading inside. I’m not having this car keyed, or the tires slashed, simply because someone else is poor, or high, or pissy about their rotting teeth, and wants to take it out on someone who isn’t. I wasn’t tremendously eager to be here in the first place, so take your time, finish your smoke; I can wait.
It’s somewhere around the 15-minute mark before I grab my purse (I’m not letting it out of my sight) and walk toward the front of the Lounge. The smoking trio finished getting high, or whatever, a few minutes ago, but stuck around to chat before going in. I have to lean my body back to pull open the heavy door, and inside it’s dim, and noisy, and humid, and I can just feel myself getting dirty. I can’t imagine why Naomi wanted to meet here, unless it was for the express purpose of making me uncomfortable. Which seems like something she might do.
The only luck visible inside Lucky’s is the hard kind, but what I can see is neon, mirrors, and dark wood which probably gets “wiped down” at the end of each shift, but never actually cleaned. I get a few glances as I stand on the edge of the room, trying to get a sense of the layout and searching for Naomi. In the periphery of my sight, I can tell that one of those glances, from a derelict-looking man at the bar, lingers a bit long. Lust? Anger? Curiosity? I disregard his stare (I doubt we’re even the same species) as I scan the establishment.
A rectangular bar occupies the center of the Lounge, with a row of booths against the far wall. One of them holds a lone woman with dark hair, hunched over the table, tracing the rim of a rocks glass in front of her with a finger. Circling around the room, I approach her seat from behind, and as I near, I try to draw out a convincing smile. I think about the vacation Mitchell and I have booked to Corsica this summer, and I don’t have to fake smiling about that.
Naomi doesn’t even notice when I stop at her table. She keeps fingering the glass and staring at the melting ice like it’s some sort of gin-soaked crystal ball. Jesus, she looks like the other mouth-breathers inhabiting this place.
She starts, then smiles. “Cara!” As we embrace I feel a twinge of anxiety shoot through me; our meetings often begin cordially, but seldom end that way. I take the bench opposite her. There are crumbs on the blue vinyl cushion.
Naomi seems a little anxious. She smoothes non-existent strands of hair away from her face, and I can see she’s got streaks of magenta running through it now. That’s new. It’s trashy; low-class. A waitress comes by wearing a shorts and t-shirt ensemble which suggests she’s no stranger to getting slapped around by her boyfriends, and Naomi addresses her as “Aurea.” They don’t have a wine list and my only choices are “a white and a red.” I don’t even try to hide my eye roll and take a chance on the red. Naomi asks for another glass of gin.
We small-talk for a bit: Yes, you look good too (you don’t). It has been a while, over three months, I think. No; no trouble finding the place. Mitchell is doing great, he got the go-ahead to hire another employee for his unit—yes, another one, I know, that’s three in the past year. I talked to Father and Mother last week; they’re well, they asked about you.
Our drinks appear and I don’t even have to hold my stemware to the dusky light to know it hasn’t been properly cleaned. Still, I can tell it’s not a tragedy when I take my first sip. I’m having trouble identifying the grape and guess that it’s probably a blend (thank God no one will see me drinking this), but don’t want to appear uncomfortable with the wine so I control my expression as I swallow. Naomi lays into the glass of gin like she’s trying to prove something, and I want to wince just watching her do it.
There’s a bit of silence, so I ask her why she chose this place to meet. I’m surprised when she says she works here now. It’s a step down from the Macy’s she was at the last time I asked, but she defends the switch. She makes more here, she says. The hours are better, she says. These people are her friends, she says.
Roots showing, holes in the socks, calluses on the hands; they’re good salt (scum)-of-the-earth types, clearly.
Naomi swivels and catches Aurea’s eye across the room. “I’m having another,” she says (continuing a string of first-rate life decisions), “you?”
I purse my lips slightly, “No, thank you, not right now.”
When the next glass of gin arrives, my sister again assaults it. Some of the other Chinese people I know can’t drink. For all intents and purposes, they’re allergic to alcohol. I think we’re fortunate this doesn’t run in our family, although it’s certainly not something to be celebrated or tested. But Naomi has always seemed to want to wallow in the negatives and unpleasantness of life. She’s never been able to understand there’s an inflection point somewhere between enough and too much of a good thing. She’s always appeared to enjoy—to take a certain pride in—her suffering (Mother would point out she was born in the Year of the Ox). She seems content to spend life slowly swirling around the drain. Is it possible she doesn’t realize things could be otherwise, that they could be better, that the Lexus in the parking lot could be hers if she only chose differently?
Naomi tells me she’s a lesbian. No preamble, no foreplay, only the statement. I don’t know what to say. I have no idea why she’s telling me this and I don’t understand what it has to do with me. I do think the gays often find that coming out to certain family members can be difficult, and can generate hostility. It makes sense to have the more amenable individuals already “on board” as it were, to provide support when things turn negative. Certainly our parents, having been born and raised in China, are not likely to be pleased by this decision. Especially not at her age; she’s nearing 30. Fifteen years ago this might have been forgiven as “youthful indiscretion,” or the impetuousness of a morose child, but those excuses won’t work anymore.
I peer down at the wine, running my fingers up and down the stem, considering. Across the table, I can feel Naomi watching me, waiting for my reaction. I pick up the glass, take a measured sip, and look up at my sister.
“Ok,” I say.
She stares at me. She wants more (who’s being baited now?); a gesture of acceptance or an offer to help. But I’ve made real efforts to iron this kind of messiness out of my life. I’ve gone to lengths. And I don’t want any more of it. I have a husband who is successful, a 4100 square-foot house, my children are in private school, and our parents are proud of me. My life is like a sheet on a bed which I’ve smoothed and smoothed. It’s creaseless and even; an unbroken plane of pure white. And I want it to stay that way.
My sister seems thrown off track. As if she’s failed to gain whatever momentum she thought she was going to get with that declaration. She sits up and leans over the table, staring down into her glass. The cubes have melted a bit, and there’s a layer of diluted alcohol collected at the bottom which she doesn’t let go to waste. She says I’m the first member of the family she’s told. I think she intends it as a privilege. She asks if it bothers me that she’s like this. If I’m OK with it.
I tell her it doesn’t bother me, but I’m not sure why it matters, and I don’t see how it changes anything.
Naomi says that it doesn’t have to change anything, but she wanted me to know. She asks me not to tell Father or Mother—she doesn’t think they’ll take it well (surely you don’t think, after everything else, this is the thing which will make you a disappointment?).
“Cara,” she says, “I’ve been living with this for a long time. Since we were children. It hasn’t been easy.”
“Ok,” I say.
She sighs and slouches back into her seat. She tells me I’m like a rock. Like a statue. I remember the carved marble and alabaster in the Louvre. Perfect bodies draped in flowing stone, unblemished and timeless. I don’t imagine she intends it as a compliment, but the comparison is favorable.
She calls for another drink and looks at me.
“Please,” I say.
“Another round,” she says.
We don’t speak for a while. Naomi rattles the icy cores in her glass and slurps up every last bit of gin. I pick at a divot in the table until I realize I don’t want to chip my polish, then take a moment to more closely inspect the Lounge. It’s lightly patronized. The music is louder than is necessary, and they’re playing the kind of classic rock that is country-influenced, and proud of it.
“Naomi,” I ask, “why are you telling me this? Why now?”
Her eyes are unfocused and staring down into the middle of the table. In a soft voice she tells me she wants to make some changes in her life. She says there are issues she’s ignored for years and she needs to begin addressing them. Hidden things which have taken a toll and that she doesn’t want to conceal anymore.
“But I don’t see how my confidence will help,” I say. “You’ll still be hiding from the rest of the family. It will still be a secret, even if one other person is aware. I don’t want to be your sole support in this. I’m not interested in that responsibility. The rest of the family, including Father and Mother, will have to be told if you want to be free of whatever burden you’ve imposed upon yourself.”
“You’re the only one I need to tell, Cara.”
“Why is that, Naomi? What is it you expect me to do?”
She gazes out across the dim room, her lips are pressed thin. “Life hasn’t been easy for me,” she says.
I lean over the table and point a finger toward her. “You made it hard,” I tell her. “Being this way makes it harder.”
“I don’t have much choice,” she says.
Naomi smiles at me, but her eyes are narrow. “Come on, Cara,” she says. “You know better than that.”
I see the waitress heading toward our booth with a tray of drinks in her hand, and settle myself (it’s important to appear composed). She sets the two glasses onto the table and I give her a nod and a tight smile. I take a sip and fold my hands back into my lap; my sister’s stubbornness agitates me, but I won’t let her goad me into another yelling match. Especially not over this foolishness.
I tell my sister that she insists on being this way. She insists on taking the hard road, she insists on being unhappy, and that these are her choices. I gesture at the room around us and tell her that I don’t remember at what point she decided to begin steeping herself in negativity and failure, but it’s gone on much too long.
“It’s far past time for you to grow up,” I say. “So you’re a lesbian. Fine. Father and Mother won’t approve, I don’t think your chances are good with anyone else in the family either, but this doesn’t affect me. If you’re looking to try to make me your accomplice, to make me offer solidarity and support in front of them, you’re mistaken. This isn’t my problem. I’m …” I take a moment to breathe, and adjust my voice down to its original pitch. “I’ve tolerated far too much grief out of you over the years to be interested in taking part in another one of your self-involved dramas.”
Naomi takes all of this without interrupting me, staring straight across the table. “It is hard. But I didn’t make it that way,” she says. “You know what can depress someone? You know what can cause them to spiral? When they realize the first person they’re attracted to is their own sister.”
“Cara,” she tells me, “this has everything to do with you.”
I feel as if my head has detached from my body and is floating there in the booth like a balloon, tethered to the dirty cushion below and swaying slightly. I excuse myself to the lavatory.
Walking to the rear of the establishment, my mind clears a bit and I feel more integrated. The washroom smells strongly of bleach and faintly of mildew and the tissue is thin. I scrub my hands for more than a minute, bent over the sink and staring at myself in the scratched mirror, before I realize I’m procrastinating and turn off the water. Heading back, I barely notice any of the other patrons, and although I’ve practiced a confident stride so many times it should appear flawless, every step I take feels as if it’s the wrong length. At the booth, it’s all I can do to meet Naomi’s eyes and acknowledge her as I slide back into the detritus.
We sit across from each other for a bit, and this time I’m the one heading for the bottom of my glass while she watches me. My seat doesn’t feel comfortable, and I shift in a fruitless search to find a tolerable spot.
“I’m sorry, Cara,” she says.
She shrugs. “About being the way I am. And, of course, for telling you about it. I know it’s selfish and it makes things more complicated for you.”
Naomi purses her lips and pauses. “Why am I sorry? Or why am I the way that I am?”
“I’m sorry because I’m really not trying to hurt you.” She gazes down at the table and picks at some small speck crusted there. “I … I love you Cara. And I mean that in a sister way now. It’s been hard between us, and I get that I’m a big reason for the problems. But I wanted you to understand why it’s so difficult for me to be around you sometimes.”
Naomi tucks her hair behind her ear and glances up at me. She hints a smile. “And it doesn’t make sense why I feel this way about you,” she says. “I realize it’s not right, but that doesn’t change anything. It’s been this way since we were kids.” She looks away again. “I really was aware of it—The first time I remember feeling it was when we were taking riding lessons. At the stable. I saw you kissing that girl Anna Kline in one of the stalls. You were—”
“She was kissing me. I was not kissing her.”
Naomi shakes her head. “That’s not what I saw, Cara.”
I raise my palm. “We were grooming one of the horses, and talking. Then she just put her hand on me and kissed me. I had no idea what was going on.”
“You didn’t stop her.”
“Naomi,” I say, “I was terrified. I didn’t know about that kind of thing. I was probably not even 15.”
Naomi slouches down and swirls the chilled remnants in her glass. “You didn’t look terrified, Cara. You didn’t look uncomfortable at all.”
I study the ceiling above me. There’s a substantially-sized Earl Grey-colored stain sprawling across the tiles. (what should I tell her?)
“Why were you spying on me?” I ask.
“I wasn’t spying. I had to groom my horse too, and when I came to the barn, I saw you from the door. You didn’t pull away.” Naomi drains the remaining liquid and pushes the glass away from her.
“It made me mad,” she says. “It took me a long time to finally … figure out? Admit why, I guess? But I was jealous, Cara. I was jealous of her.”
I plant my elbows and lean across the table, scrutinizing my sister’s face. “Is this actually true, Naomi? What are the chances you’re fabricating this?” I ask.
She won’t meet my eyes. “I don’t know why it’s you—I mean, it shouldn’t be. But I love that you’re beautiful, and strong, and confident, and …” She glances up at me before continuing to examine her hands. “It’s because you’re you, Cara.”
(those statements are all true)
I shake my head slowly. “This is not a good thing,” I say. “This is not healthy. For either of us.”
Naomi wipes her face with her hands and lets out a loud breath. “You know, I always thought it would go away. When I was younger, I could hardly stand for us to be alone in the same room.” The pitch of her voice wavers as she speaks. “I knew I couldn’t have you, so I didn’t want to be around you, and when I had to be around you, I was afraid of getting too close. I thought something might slip. Living in the same house, I had to keep it locked down all the time. I kept a lot of stuff locked down, to be on the safe side. I figured I’d get over you after I had a few girlfriends.” She gives me a faint tight-lipped smile. “But I haven’t. Still. Clearly.”
Naomi is staring into her lap, hunched forward like she’s folding in on herself. She resembles a dead, curling leaf; her tremulous shoulders and halting breath like a rustling wind.
She sniffs and looks up at me. Her cheeks are streaked. “So I have no idea what else to do now, Cara,” she says. “I don’t call, we don’t see each other for months, and then I’m still thinking about you. It’s awful, and I understand it’s wrong. But maybe I need to hear you tell me that it’s horrible and you’re disgusted. Maybe if you tell me it’ll never happen, I can get past it. Maybe if I hear you say it, I’ll finally believe it.” She lets out an uneven breath and whispers, “Or maybe we just shouldn’t see each other at all anymore.”
I lean across the table and take my sister’s hand. I give her a little squeeze and a smile that I hope seems supportive.
“Cara,” she says, “I’m so sorry.” She can’t even get the words out before she starts sobbing. I stand up and slide into her side of the booth. With my arm around her, I tell her it’s all right. I tell her that she’s not disgusting; that she’s not horrible. After a few minutes of this, she calms down and lays her head on my shoulder. I pull her hair away from her face and ask her if another drink would help.
She chuckles and gestures at the mess she’s made of herself. “No,” she says, “too many inhibitions is obviously not the problem.”
We sit for a while and talk. It’s more comfortable now; there’s less tension. A good cry can do that. We talk about Naomi’s feelings for me. About issues between us, and how they may change in the aftermath of what she’s confessed tonight. She’s worried the rest of the family will catch on, but I insist that they’ll never hear it from me, and they’ll probably be thrilled if we can simply manage to get along.
I call for the check and pay while Naomi heads to the back to clean herself up. In those few minutes, I try to let a little of the evening sink in and figure out how this will affect us. Granted, a romantic attraction for one’s sibling is taboo, but it isn’t like we’re brother and sister. Certainly the situation would be far worse somehow if the possibility of a troglodytic child were present. And it’s not as if Naomi and I will ever have that sort of relationship, but the appeal is understandable. I’m sure many of my qualities men find attractive make me desirable to women as well. Which isn’t really surprising. It’s probably lucky I’ve never run into similar situations with any of the female roommates I’ve had. That whole thing with Anna Kline could easily have been more than a one-time experience, and those would have been wrinkles which might have been difficult to get rid of.
With this new honesty between Naomi and me, we’ll hopefully find ourselves in fewer of the vehement disagreements which have plagued us over the years. And in fact, given how she feels, I suspect, if I pose my requests properly, I will find my sister very amenable to giving me my way in the future.
That’s something to look forward to: another crease smoothed.
Naomi walks me out. She’s going to wait until Aurea is done with her shift, then the two of them are heading to some other bar. Out under the yellow sodium lamps of the parking lot, things are again uncomfortable. Because we so rarely part each other’s company on good terms, the protocols here are not well-defined. I put my arms around her and don’t release the hug until I’ve counted ten seconds.
“Goodbye, Cara,” she says. “Thanks for coming tonight.”
“I’ll admit,” I say, “I wasn’t so sure about this when I pulled up, but I’m glad I came. It was a productive evening.”
Naomi smiles. “Hope to see you soon.”
About the Author:
Colin Wolcott lives in sunny Beaverton, Oregon where (he may or may not be lying by telling you) it actually doesn’t rain all that much. He spends most days juggling work, writing classes at the local Community College, and beanbags. In his free time, he enjoys writing and reading things he finds interesting.