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Seven years ago, when I was only nine and we had just moved into her house, Bubbe stood me in front of her. Seated in her chair, she could still look straight into my face, and then her eyes narrowed as she looked me up and down. “Frances,” she announced sternly, “you may have her delicate face and bones, but you are not going to be a dainty Japanese woman like your mother. You’re going to be a typical voluptuous Leventhal.” She put her hands measuringly on my hips and added disapprovingly: “And soon.”
Bubbe, my father’s mother, was of course a Leventhal only by marriage. Her statement felt to me like the curse of an evil fairy. Within weeks I menstruated for the first time, and also discovered that I was one of those women plagued by vicious monthly cramps. And naturally, it didn’t end there. My waist nipped in; my hips rounded; and my breasts swelled suddenly and painfully, so that for a while I had to clutch them to my chest with one arm when going up and down stairs.
Even before this I’d known myself to be somewhat strange in appearance. Yes, there was a strong facial resemblance to my mother. But other things about me made people blink, or frown in puzzlement. I’d seen the discreet double takes. I’d been asked countless times: “Where are you from?” I certainly didn’t appear Caucasian—that is, typically “American”—and I didn’t fit a single stereotype of what a Jew ought to look like. All would have been well if I had just looked Japanese, but there was also something about my looks that didn’t fit what people expected from a child of Asian ancestry. Something that seemed a little . . . off.
My premature maturity made things worse. It wasn’t just the uncomfortable weirdness of my changing body, or Bubbe’s patent disapproval, or even the fact that my father abruptly stopped being able to hug me. There was also an incident that I could not forget.
It happened a few months after we’d moved to Lattimore. I was waiting in a grocery line, holding our place while my father ran back for orange juice, when I noticed two women in the next line pointing. And then whispering.
“What is she? Some kind of Asian?”
“Yes, I guess—although, that hair? A mix? I don’t know. But, oh, look at the breasts. I could cry.”
“I know! She’s so tiny, they make her look like a dwarf.”
“Poor freaky kid.”
As soon as I got back to Bubbe’s, I locked myself in the upstairs bathroom. I had planned to take off all my clothes, stand on the step stool, and look at myself, naked, in the mirror above the sink. But I didn’t. Instead I sat on the closed lid of the toilet and cried. In my mind I could hear those two women. And after that I began wearing big, baggy clothes and avoiding mirrors.
It was also around this time that my brother, Daniel, and I began to suspect that our move from Cambridge to rural, dying Lattimore was permanent, and that our father honestly didn’t have a clue if our enigmatic mother would ever decide to come back from her Buddhist monastery in Osaka.
More importantly, that was when I began to draw.
I drew anything. Everything. Doodles at first. But I had a knack for reproducing what I saw, and soon my paper and pencil—and then later, my paints and charcoals—formed a strong, protective wall around me. They stood between me and everyone else in the world. I liked it that way. I liked being quiet, letting no one know what I thought, or how ferocious those thoughts were.
I let no one know, that is, but my brother. Just ten months older than me, and in the same grade at school (and, through some genetic freakishness, tall and mostly Caucasian-looking), Daniel was my best and only friend. Daniel was the only person with whom I was willing to share my real self, the Frances who was behind my wall of art, my habitual quiet mask. The real me. Me, Frances. Frances, who was screaming and angry inside. Frances, who was just . . . waiting, although I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for.
Yes, when we were first living with Bubbe, I had been able to talk to Daniel. He had meant so much to me. And yet, after we began at The Pettengill School, two years ago, I hadn’t been able to stop our closeness from slipping away, until it was irretrievably gone.
I used to blame Pettengill for that. I used to blame Saskia. Saskia, and Daniel’s friends in the Unity Service charitable group at school. I’d blamed Patrick Leyden, the entrepreneur who’d founded Unity and who Daniel longed to emulate. And, of course, I’d blamed Daniel himself.
I used to blame anyone but myself.
But now that Daniel is gone, I know better. My brother is dead of a massive, self-injected dose of heroin, and the only note he left behind was for Saskia. My brother was in pain, and I noticed nothing. Nothing.
Everyone who was anyone at The Pettengill School showed up at Bubbe’s house on the last night we sat shivah for Daniel. Some had come earlier in the week as well, but they seemed to think it was important to return on this final night. I helped with food and drinks. I was, in fact, nearly crazed after the empty days in which neither my father nor Bubbe had anything to say. Crazed with my own ceaseless circling anguish. It was a relief to have people around. “Cookie?” I asked person after person, quietly. “Chocolate chip? Mint Milano? Peanut butter? Please have another.”
In the hall I let my eyes rest on the black-draped mirror. I had a fleeting wish that it, and all mirrors, could stay that way always. I didn’t want, even by accident, to catch a glimpse of myself.
I kept looking for Daniel’s girlfriend, Saskia. I was girding myself to approach her tonight, even though I knew she would be surrounded by her friends. Unity, the charitable group. Daniel’s friends too, of course. I had never liked Saskia, and I knew that she despised me. But now . . . now.
I took a deep breath. I continued to circulate as I waited for her to arrive. I nodded; allowed myself to be gently hugged; to have my hands pressed and my face examined minutely. It felt odd, everyone being so nice. I didn’t know if I liked it. I had become accustomed to being ignored at school.
When would Saskia arrive?
I listened while Brenda Delahay told me at length how much she would miss Daniel. How kind he had been; how caring; how unusual that was. She washed down seven mint Milano cookies with Diet Coke. Then she excused herself. I watched her stick legs mount the stairs toward the bathroom and wondered if what I’d overheard about her was true. It had been Daniel who’d said it, under his breath to Saskia as our class waited for history to start. After Brenda had come running in, looking very pale, and slipped into her seat.
When’s she going to figure out that it’s easier to do speed than throw up? Maybe somebody should ease her in with some diet pills.
Not so kind; not so caring; in fact, a rotten, mean joke for Daniel to make. But I knew no boy could possibly understand the importance of being slender. Not the way girls understood. And Daniel had liked thin girls—you had only to look at Saskia.
I realized I’d put my hand tentatively on my own round hip. I snatched it away. I swiveled. “Cookie?” I said randomly to the group of kids behind me.
“Sure,” said James Droussian. I noticed he was drinking milk, of all things. He took two cookies, said, “Thanks, Frances,” and grinned appreciatively right at me. And I felt my cheeks warm uncontrollably in response.
James just . . . well. There was that adorable brown ponytail, and the cheekbones so defined that they looked like they could cut paper. He talked easily to anyone, as if he didn’t have a clue that there were groups and cliques. On top of that, there was the way he smiled. For an instant his eyes looked directly into yours and said silently: You.
And you couldn’t help feeling, for that instant, that he truly thought you were interesting. That he couldn’t wait to get to know you.
Of course I knew better. James Droussian had only come to Pettengill this past fall, but it was already an open secret that he dealt drugs. He never touched anything himself; never urged anything on anyone. But he always had a little something around. So it was his business to have people like him, to charm people, and it didn’t matter who they were, so long as they could pay. He was everybody’s friend, James, and that smile of his—it was meaningless.
I turned my back on James and his little circle of burnouts. Then, for the first time, it occurred to me to wonder exactly where Daniel had gotten the smack he’d overdosed on. Was it possible James had sold—no. I dismissed the thought immediately. Daniel had had no more money than I had, and I’d heard that James didn’t do samples. I’d always thought Daniel had gotten his marijuana from friends, free. Someone must have given him the heroin as well. Who? And did I even want to know? What difference did it make, after all? It wouldn’t bring him back to life, or change the facts about me. My brother had had a major habit, and I’d thought he only smoked some occasional marijuana.
Suddenly I heard Daniel’s voice in my mind, jeering the way he used to: Frances, cultivate mindfulness. I felt my shoulders hunch defensively. After our mother left, Daniel had memorized literally hundreds of Buddhist aphorisms and catchphrases, from the profound to the preposterous. He had quoted them mockingly at every opportunity, driving me—and our father—nearly crazy.
I practically ran into the foyer with my now-empty plate of cookies.
I was just in time to put the plate down and greet a little circle of Pettengill teachers and administrators, who were trickling in from the front porch where they’d been stamping the snow off their boots. Headmaster Ferkell and his wife, who taught chemistry. Ancient Mrs. Kingston, Latin. Mr. Dickenson and Ms. Polke, history. Mr. Prodanas, math.
And then Patrick Leyden came in, looking thin and dapper and self-assured in one of his expensive wool suits. But, as always, I had to work to not stare at his earlobes. They were round and fleshy and swung slightly whenever he moved his head. Even tonight my fingers itched to draw a vicious caricature.
Daniel’s voice sneered again in my head. A disciplined mind leads to happiness.
More Pettengill teachers streamed in steadily, looking down into my face and pressing my hands (the men) or stooping to hug me (the women). All of them saying nice things about Daniel. I searched surreptitiously for my art teacher, Ms. Wiles. Finally I spotted her, looking especially young and pretty with snowflakes melting on her cinnamon hair. She was standing beside Patrick Leyden, who was talking at her nonstop. As if she felt my gaze, Ms. Wiles looked up and nodded, solemnly, directly at me. I nodded back, and the moment was like a sudden oasis in the noise and confusion and pain.
Sometimes I felt sure that Ms. Wiles could just look at me and understand things I hadn’t even fully formulated. Not that she ever said them aloud. She just . . . looked. As now. I can’t explain it. Yvette Wiles was just . . . special. We could be silent together.
Sometimes I wished I could be her.
As the stream of adults ended, I spotted Saskia across the room. She was with a few of her friends. Unity Service folks, as I’d expected. Wallace Chan. George de Witt, who was the Vice President of Unity. A couple others.
I wanted to talk to Saskia; I had planned to talk to her, but my stomach roiled anyway. Shame swept over me. How could I say what I wanted to say? How would she react? Maybe I shouldn’t—maybe I couldn’t . . .
Unity Service. Why, freshman year, had I so stubbornly refused to help out with their food and clothing drives for the poor, their scholarship fund-raisers? Unity Service was a big deal. Although only a few years old, it had become the largest and most respected student-run charitable group in the country. They’d funded my own scholarship, among so many others, but still I kept saying no. No, no, no. Even Daniel hadn’t been able to sway me. I’d just kept repeating that I wasn’t a joiner.
If I said now that I’d changed my mind, would they scorn me?
We wouldn’t have you now if you begged to join, Daniel had told me last year. You’re the only scholarship recipient in Unity’s history who hasn’t joined the organization. Who hasn’t helped out; who hasn’t given back. I’m actually ashamed of my own sister! Art doesn’t help anyone, you know. It doesn’t give people jobs, or food, or clothes, or opportunities. Business joined to charity does that.Business joined to charity. Those words were a straight quote from Patrick Leyden, and when Daniel quoted Leyden, he didn’t mock.
I wanted to talk to Saskia. Ethereal dark-haired Saskia Sweeney, unrecognizable as the poor girl from Lattimore she’d once been. Saskia, Daniel’s girlfriend, of whom I’d been so jealous. Who, I’d thought, had stolen my brother’s companionship and love from me. I wanted to beg for forgiveness. I wanted to be her friend. But I—I couldn’t. Not tonight.