When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moonby Frances Park
An enchanting and very moving novel about the bond between two sisters growing up first generation Korean-American is now in paperback. Cleo was everything her little sister Marcy wanted to be: beautiful, alluring, and fiercely independent. But when Cleo comes home from college Marcy realizes that her older sister is no longer the person she once idolized. Their summer together is a tramatic one, of emerging sexuality and a sudden death. When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon transcends all borders with its universal story of the importanceand inevitabilityof family.
- Miramax Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 0.65(w) x 8.00(h) x 5.25(d)
Read an Excerpt
MOMENTS AGO, on this evening of the day Cleo's husband was buried and after the last guest was gone, a summer thunderstorm struck without warning. Again. Lightning danced like ghosts on the bay and Cleo made her bewitching entrance while I rocked her younger child, June Moon, to sleep. At forty-two, the widow Cleo is still gorgeous. Impossibly so. Her lustrous black hair gives off pearls and those eyes could stun a dead man back to life. Well, almost. All day Cleo has wept crocodile tears with in-laws she despises more than ants in her sesame noodles. Now she's fixing up her own storma late supper for uswhile the sympathy buffet goes cold. The delight she takes in stir-frying vegetables alarms me, as does the way she pours on something called Cha Cha Cha Chili Sauce with drunken abandon. After all, her husband is dead.
Behind a veil of smoke she grieves. "How will I fill my days without Stu?"
She's already doing it, spooning sizzling vegetables onto plates. Sauces, her raison d'etre. How can she cook at a time like this? Much less eat? Maybe the answer lies behind the smoke screen.
ONLY I know the real Cleo. Her darkness. Others see a delicious Asian woman who bottles sauces with her picture on every label. But I see a girl who rode the rocky waves, then settled down with Stu, a rich guy by way of Brooklyn, then Wall Street, now Montgomery Street. He was older, possibly insecure. Did she love him? Could Cleo ever love a bald guy? Or anyone?
When she called me two days agoher first call to me in yearsit was totell me that Stu was dead. According to Cleo, they were driving home from a dinner party when a thunderstorm struck out of nowhere. Stu was driving. A bolt of lightning blinded him, and he lost control of the car. They veered off the left-hand side of the road. That's all she remembers. After I expressed my shock and condolences, I asked Cleo whether she was hurt. "Oh, no, I'm fine" was her matter-of-fact reply.
I came face to face with Cleo's darkness a long time ago. But I'm not here to judge her today, despite what history breeds.
If I were home, none of this would be in my eyes or ears. I could trade in this spicy plate for a bowl of Pablo's soup and ponder desert peace. If I were home, the world would fall into place again. The wind would come through the house, bringing all the spirits with it. My bones would settle my soul down. If I were home, I'd chalk up my uneasiness to a bitter herb and make a pot of chamomile tea.
June Moon would like it there. I could rock her to sleep to the distant sounds of wild horses and our rivers to nowhere. And she would sleep as she's never slept. So soundly. The assault of radio, television, telephones would not creep into her dreams.
Think of a big city, then the opposite edge of the earth. Think of a million-dollar home, then of a cabin with floors that creak with secrets and worn curtains that speak for themselves. A porch out front, a second-story porch out back. Downstairs is our shop; upstairs is our home. Here, in between our dreams, Pablo and I make our life.
Cleo frowns. My bare-bones living makes no sense. No money. No man. Pablo doesn't count: he's blind in one eyea freak. No plans to create a sauce a minute. How appalling. We don't shoot for the same stars. How could we be sisters?
Pablo and I like modest living; it grounds us to our purpose. We fix up a big pot of soup Sunday night and it lasts all week. The potatoes soak up the broth, and by Wednesday it's stew. To Cleo, it's the same old soup.
A candle burns between us in memory of Stu. No sad ceremony here. Cleo's face grows radiant. Between bites, she says, "So you're still at that thrift shop, what's it called?"
"Cactus Bear," I reply, "and it's not a thrift shop. I mean, we don't sell junk."
"But some of the things you sell are used." She shudders.
"Yes, but we like to call it hand-to-heart art."
"Do they pay you enough?"
"Actually, no one pays us. We work for food, shelter, and the knowledge that we're helping others."
"So what do you live on?"
She groans. "I honestly don't get it, Marcy. You could have been anything you wanted to be. What the hell happened? Why do you live on soup?"
"I love soup."
"Look, at least I can admit I was a drifter who was looking to land happiness and got lucky. But you, you were a phenom. You could juggle a dozen books at once. You aspired!"
I correct her. "You aspired for me."
She thoroughly doubts me. "Did I?"
Once we were so close our flames burned as one. Now no more. Cleo put us out. Except for a few scattered letters and phone calls, she was not in touch for years. No wonder our touch today is cool. Yes, her husband is dead but I barely knew him, might not recognize him in a crowd. So why did she plead with me to come here? And why did I come?
The hour is late, the thunderstorm is over. We're on a palatial balcony with a view of the Bay Fog rises like ghosts in my eyes.
"Why did you want me to stay on, Cleo? You had four hundred guests at the funeral. Why did you say I had to stay or a quake would swallow you up whole?"
"Because something's wrong with Luke."
Luke is thirteen, father unknown. At the time Cleo was working as an exotic dancer.
"He's not sick, is he?" I ask.
"No, he's not sick. At least, not physically. See, Luke's a loner at heart, he always has been, but now he's brooding in cyberspace. He can't hear me up there and he won't come back down to earth."
"He just lost his stepfather, the only real dad he's ever known. I'm sure he's in a great deal of pain."
"Yes, I know that, but that's not it."
"How do you know that's not it?"
"This has been going on for a while," she explains. "Before Stu, it was always Luke and me. We were inseparable, we lived like gypsies. We went to the zoo, parades, fairs. When Stu came along, Luke took to him right away. Stu was thrilled, of course. He married late and fatherhood was never on his list of things to do. But he was good at it, like everything else. The two sailed, played golf, tennis. But a few months ago, Luke called it off, said he was too busy, which was bull considering he spends half his time playing Suicide Spell at some horrendous hangout called Pier Pressure with a bunch of average little shits. It's especially heartbreaking because Luke is like you, a high-IQ-er. Anyway, Stu was crushed, naturally, but he never let on. The problem is that Luke is so defensive. I try to talk to him, confront him, but he won't let me within arm's length anymore. My God, do you think my own son hates me?"
For all I know, the widow Cleo may be faking her tears for Stu. But this is Luke, her flesh and blood, the son she gave up her tassels for.
"Of course not," I say.
"Maybe he's jealous of June Moon," I submit. "Her biological father was around and his wasn't."
"Nonsense. We've always been open on the subject of his mystery dadthat's what Luke calls him. Sometimes a man of a certain descriptiontall and blond with wire rims, don't ask me whywill pass us and Luke will look at me like Is he the one? So it's not like some twisted secret that's weirded him out."
"Then I give up. I'm sorry, Cleo. I wish I could help."
"Marcy, you can't give up just like that. You were always good with kids. You had those magic brain waves going," she says.
"Yes, yes, you brought those two backward brothers out of their fogs, remember?"
The memory glows in the back of my head. Two backward brothers. Out of their fogs. A tiny black poodle, shivering in the corner. Come here, Afro, come here. Such a helpless thing. A voice, ancient and haunting, whispers to me. Cactus Bear, Cactus Bear, Cactus Bear.
"You've got to help me, Marcy," Cleo's pleading.
Wasn't coming here enough? What got into me in the first place? Even though Pablo doesn't know the whole story, he told me to grow up and try to forget all the bad blood. When I told him I happen to still be bleeding, he rolled his good eye. So I walked out of Cactus Bear without a farewell meditation.
"The last nanny left without notice and I'm pulling my hair out over what to do. Marcy," she utters as if her life depends on it, "there's another reason I wanted you to stay."
"What is it? Tell me."
"I need your help while I prepare for and attend the Global Gourmet Food Show next week. I need you to watch Luke and June Moon. Will you do it?"
"Cleo, I can't believe what I'm hearing. Your children have just been left fatherless. June Moon is barely ten months old. What could be so important about some food show?"
"It's not just some food show, Marcy. It's the big trade show where all the buyers in the food industry descend on New York to see what's new out there, what's hot. I did the San Francisco show last winter and nearly doubled my business. This one's even bigger. It's a market I haven't cracked yet. I've already booked a booth, but what with the funeral, I haven't had a chance to get my act together. The price sheets got lost and the publicity packets are still at the printers. I'm introducing six new sauces and the labels came in gold instead of copper. But I absolutely can't miss this show, Stu wouldn't want me to; it's been in the works for months now. Don't you see, it's my chance to expand Cleo's Creations outside the West Coast. It's my East Coast debut! I'll pay you double what you make, Marcy."
"I make nothing," I remind her.
"Okay, well, stay twelve days and I'll create a sauce in your name," she says. "A tempting offer, wouldn't you say? You can't pin a price on fame."
Cleo and I are not on the same globe; we spin in different directions. Her orbit is fame and million-dollar homes and sauces called Wild Oriental Plum and Mango Tango Glaze. From where she's spinning she can't see who I am.
Cactus Bear is who I am. Pablo and I opened Cactus Bear on a whim; we were in Nevada in a Bob's Big Boy, of all places, when we heard from a moccasin maker the legend of the White Sky Indians. The ancient White Sky were magicthey could turn fires into stars and bones back into buffalobut their magic put fright in the heart of other tribes. So they were banished to a plot of land in Nevada and they named it after themselves, White Sky.
At the time Pablo and I had just met and wanted to find a common ground to live. Somewhere with no memories, somewhere where we could make them. In White Sky we found it in the form of an abandoned trading post that would become Cactus Bear. Our rent is free and we pay no taxes, but that's the limit of federal help. And the state, forget it; no provisions. We're a ghost town, not on the map. Because the White Sky only number seven hundred and twenty at last count, they are a lost, forgotten, impoverished tribe. No leader comes forth. A group called Native Americans in Need organizes craft and nature events and creative education classes, but the White Sky desperately need a clinic. Not a medical clinicthere's one next door in Mesa Crossingbut an herbal healing clinic. If their souls don't get attention, their culture will die.
At Cactus Bear we sell White Sky artifacts, new and used. Pottery, moccasins, coiled baskets, pictorial rugs, beaded vests, the most magnificent decorated water jugs this side of the Great Basin desert. We're not a tourist spot but people seem to find us. Pablo says we're listed in some guide called GaultMillau. We're not a trading post but we've been known to make a swap or two.
At Cactus Bear, all profits go to the White Sky. We're here to display their art, to help their ancestors rest in peace. We're here to make sure mouths are fed. But only an herbal healing clinic can help restore their magic. Otherwise, they'll suffer extinction.
At Cactus Bear, we operate under our own system. We set our own hours, lock up when the chimes just inside the door go still. There is no fear, no room for it in our lives. What I read in the San Francisco Chronicle does not compute in White Sky.
"Cleo, I'll help you if you help me."
"Name your price."
"Sponsor me for my Moccathon."
She laughs. "Your whatathon?"
"My Moccathon. It's a walkathon organized by Native Americans in Need. The money will go toward building an herbal healing clinic for the White Sky tribe. I've rounded up some sponsors but they're stingy state officials who just want my vote. It would mean a lot to me. And to the White Sky."
Her lower lip quivers. She's so amused. "I see."
"If you promise to pledge fifty dollars a mile, I'm yours for twelve days."
How many miles could I possibly walk, she's calculating. Five? Ten? Cleo can laugh and quiver all she wants. Her limited vision just might bankrupt her.
"Deal!" she says.
In the name of the White Sky tribe and Cleo's kids, I'm giving up my half-pot of soup and twelve days with Pablo. Twelve nights of meditation, of reaching Cactus Bear. Ever since his cooking class, he's taken over the stove. He says my batches are bland, I say his are heavy on the herbs.
* * *
The Bay air drifts with jazz through twin windows in the bedroom. Pale, frilly curtains move like unsettled spirits. I smell rain, summer, a San Francisco night. I am not used to this smell or the feel of this room. I am already lonely for home, for my big lumpy bed. Surely this bed is brand new, for show only. The mattress is so hard every bone in my body aches. And the pristine sheets scratch me with every toss and turn. Surely no one has ever fallen into a deep dream here.
A bed should be worn down with dreams. But I will not dream tonight. Not because June Moon is crying in the background. I will not dream tonight because questions are crossing my mind like trains over tracks. Is Cleo a good mother? Was she a good wife? Was she a good sister?
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This was a book I got at the dollar store, mostly because I liked the cover, but it was a great book, I loved it.
Though sisters, Korean-Americans Cleo and Marcy have not talked for years. That changes when the forty-two years old Cleo calls to tell her younger sister that her husband Stu just died. Apparently, the wealthy Stu lost control of the car when lightning suddenly struck right in front of him. Marcy drops everything to race to Cleo¿s side to help her with the funeral even knowing the true dark side of her sibling and that she probably never loved Stu. Marcy thinks back to when they were young and she idolized her gorgeous and fiery unconventional (at least in the Korean culture) sister. That is until Cleo left for college, came back on summer break, and left again for school, leaving Marcy to contend with their Korean born mother who never adjusted to her new country. Marcy resented Cleo then and resents her now as she watches a pro shed crocodile tears to gain sympathy from Stu¿s side. WHEN MY SISTER WAS CLEOPATRA MOON is an incredible novel that works on three levels: the rivalry between sisters, the Korean-American 1970s experience, and the difficulty of an immigrant to adapt to this country. The story line is insightful yet quite entertaining as readers will appreciate the key players. If this novel is any indication of her talent, Frances Park is going to become a star as she provides her readers with a convincing character study. Harriet Klausner
The character referenced in the book's title is an archetype of sexuality yet beneath the irresistable surface lie worlds of fascinating complication. The author conveys a realistic sense of isolation and self-discovery with which readers of divers backgrounds will identify. The insights are presented in the context of a Korean-American woman struggling to develop a constructive self-image in a complex domestic environment. But the subtle power of the writing will touch anyone who has ever felt a bit different from the other members of their environment. The story twists in ways which avoid convention and delight with insight. But even more impressive is the beautiful writing style which creates a unique poetry from echoes of the 1970's and the private language of a woman's deep introspection. A thought-provoking work which easily merits careful rereading.
'She wore a bikini that could fit into a thimble...' epitomizes the wildly sexy Cleopatra Moon. A page turner!