Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
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Samuel tucked his hands into his armpits and pressed the bruise where Faroozi had kicked him yesterday at school. It was still tender. “I told Ms. Keller I’m going to be an astronaut,” he said to his mother, who was relaxing in her beach chair on the narrow terrace of their sixth-floor apartment. Her eyes were closed. A hardcover book lay on the ground. “But Oscar doesn’t care about it, about going to the moon, he said so in PE,” Samuel said, moving his finger from bruised to unbruised and back again, circling the spot.

“Hand me my sunglasses, will you, baby?” his mother said, reaching for her book.

“Oscar said he doesn’t want to be anything, but Ms. Keller made him go to the blue chair. He always has to go to the blue chair.”

“I think an astronaut’s a fine thing to be,” his mother said.

He pressed the bruise and there was Faroozi again, the big kid on the playground, the first-grade-repeater, standing with his two feet planted on Samuel, who was lying on his back beneath the monkey bars. Faroozi, covered with too much thick hair, already sweating. The other boys herded around him like a shadow. Samuel didn’t know why. Faroozi, with his snotty nose and hairy everything and the crazy way he said things, with a voice that was always too loud. Faroozi and his herd of boys hung over Samuel, squinting at spots of sun in the sky.

It didn’t matter. One day, he told himself, one day. He looked up to where the moon would later rise, and he pictured himself there, standing on the moon, looking back down at their tiny, mean heads.


Samuel’s mother took her sunglasses from him and slid them on. She felt the sun warming her face, her bare arms. It was Sunday. All week she had spent wondering about Peter. She replayed his words and the way he stood in the long line at the bank on his lunch break, waiting for her teller booth to be free so he could give her the book. It reminded me of you, he said. He handed her the hardcover book, nicely wrapped in bookstore paper. They’d been dating six weeks. This was his first gift to her. She felt a mixture of curiosity and embarrassment at seeing the tired, onlooking customers waiting, wondering, glimpsing a moment into her private life. She started reading the book that same evening. (Yokiko was a young Japanese nurse who had come to the United States after working on a Japanese army base. Her younger brother, Wan, had recently arrived in New York from Japan and was struggling with his new life. Halfway into it now, she still wondered why Peter had thought of her.) All week she read it slowly, searching for clues as to what Peter meant. She felt a neediness to find herself somewhere in the pages, as though this would lend some clarity to their relationship—what it meant, where it was heading.


The bruise was the size of a penny or a grape. It didn’t hurt. Just spidered when he touched it—a tingly feeling. Bruised. Unbruised. Bruised. And Faroozi’s voice was loud and deep. “Girl,” he spat and then kicked Samuel hard  . . . right . . . there.

“Pussy,” his voice, still deep, lowered. A shadow of boys laughed. Samuel clawed two fistfuls of woodchips in his palms. Another kick. A soft thud. Gym shoe in his armpit. Sunspots in his eyes. Laughter fell in bursts then disappeared.

It was the first time Samuel had been tagged. Usually it was Joey McKinnley, because of his red hair and matching splattered birthmark that took up over half his face, or Hooper, because nobody could tell where he was from or if he even knew how to talk, since he never did, but mostly because of his name. And of course, Willie—because, well, because he was Willie.

Samuel didn’t tell his mother. He thought it would make her do the thing she did before she cried, and he didn’t like that—her nose scrunched and her chin all wrinkly; it made her face look strange, and nothing good ever came after that, so he didn’t say anything.

Probably because he didn’t have a dad. That’s what Samuel thought. Why he was tagged. He never had a dad, but maybe they were just now figuring that out. At least he had a mom. Not like Pete Peterson. But Pete would never be tagged, probably because everyone knew Nick and John were his big brothers and nobody wanted those toughies against them. It didn’t matter, he kept saying to himself now, on the terrace looking through the bars. Nothing would matter from that far away. From space he wouldn’t even hear them laughing.


Inside the book’s cover, Peter had written an inscription: For my sweet marionette, and in parentheses her real name, (Serena). He told her once about a traveling puppet show where he grew up. That it would appear on a street corner every now and then, cranking out some old accordion music from a box atop a bicycle, and marionettes would jump and twirl and collide. He told her how he loved those puppets, dancing from some invisible strings. He was so certain they were real and thought if he wished hard enough one might dance right out of the box and march home with him.

Peter was thirty-eight. He had never been married. Didn’t have children. He was a friend of a friend of a friend, and he was the first man she had dated in six years, since Samuel’s father left. She didn’t have any contact with Samuel’s father and never knew where he disappeared to. She had raised Samuel on her own. She wasn’t sure how to date or what the rules were anymore.


Big Shit, Samuel thought and checked to see if his mother had somehow heard. But she picked up her book and was deep inside it now, and the Asian woman on the back cover stared blankly back at Samuel. So he thought it again, tried it louder in his mind. Big Shit. But still the boys circled. Faroozi drooling like a dog. Woodchips in Samuel’s palms. Sunspots. The kick.


She glanced at Samuel before turning another page. 128: Yokiko is in her apartment, and the phone is ringing.

“You’ve got homework, baby?” Samuel’s mother said.

He shook his head. Eleven-year-old Paolo from next door was riding his bike on the sidewalk below. Paolo’s little sister was drawing with colored chalk on the front steps.

Maybe he would tell her.


128: Yokiko answers the phone and it is her brother Wan on the line. He tells her that their father, who is still in Japan, living as a widower, is sick and needs some money and care. Kabocha, Wan begins.


“Do you want some cherries? Are you hungry?” Samuel’s mother asked from behind the book, the Asian woman watching without moving her lips. “Go ahead,” she said, holding her hand out to the space between them.

Or maybe he wouldn’t tell.

The herd of boys moved away, business done, circling the grounds to follow girls.

The girls giggled, running away, their voices confetti. Colorful bits of sound floating up and down as they scattered across the playground. The boys in all their toughness
hovered, unsure how to enter the sphere that surrounded them. “Go away, boys!” the girls shouted, their cotton dresses fluttering.

Under the high-arched monkey bars, his armpit throbbed. “Samu-la, Samu-la, what a girl!” Laughter carrying his name away.


The terrace of their sixth-floor apartment overlooked Maple Street. A tree-lined city street. A mix of new and old constructions on the block. A squirrel skittered on a branch, nervously working a nut with its claws. The sun was bright. The occasional passing of a bus sounded from one block away.


Kabocha, Wan begins, and the author explains this is a Japanese kind of pumpkin—a nickname Wan made up for their father when he was six and his sister nine and they would hide in the attic room, looking through cracks in the wooden floor where they could see their parents arguing. Wan, always trying to make Yokiko laugh, whispered see, laughing as they held their faces close to the cracks. Blowing dust, he squeezed one eye shut, straining to see their father’s face moving in and out of view. Kabocha, right? Look, it’s true! So green and turning bright orange inside like it’s going to explode! The angry voices boomed beneath them, and he spread his body flat against the floor, palming the wood, trying to see. Their father’s face, a fat pumpkin on top of his padded body, wobbling from the weight, the heat, an imaginary flame growing a darker shade of green, and inside a brighter shade of orange every time his voice rose. Kabocha! Wan cried, blowing out his checks, shaking his head left to right as though it were too heavy, about to fall off, and they’d cover their mouths to mute their laughter.

Kabocha, Wan, now twenty-five years old, says softly into the phone, and Yokiko knows this is for real. Father needs our care.


Samuel’s mother turned another page. She took a drink of her water. The glass was warm. A bowl of cherries sat on the ground between them and Samuel took one. She slid her bare feet out against the terrace bars.


Yokiko holds the phone with both hands tightly against her ear. What’s the matter with Father?


Below, on Magnolia, a policeman was writing tickets. Samuel closed one eye and held the cherry by its stem over the spot of the policeman’s cap. He moved along the short terrace, trying to keep the cherry on top of his cap. He imagined it falling, dropping on the cap and painting his police face red. But the policeman went ahead and the cherry moved off.

Samuel watched his mother’s toes press against the terrace bars. They were painted red. Bright like ten red apples. One, two, three, four, five. Five red apples. But the last ones were so small and wrinkled, he decided they didn’t count. Two rotten apples on the end. Eight shiny red apples. Four for you. And four for you.

The cover of the book blocked his mother’s face. Samuel moved closer to his mother’s bare feet. He pressed his thumb over her big toe. One . . .

Her foot jumped and she pulled it back. The Asian woman fell away into her lap. “Sammy, what are you doing?”

He was glad to see his mother’s face. Her sunglasses blocked her eyes, but her mouth was smiling.

“Shannon wants to be a ballerina, but Oscar said there weren’t real ones, but she brought her thing to show-and-tell and put it on and Ms. Keller let her wear it to lunch. She wants to go to the moon, too.”


She looked at her six-year-old son, at the light spread of freckles across his nose, the almond shape of his eyes, the innocence she often forgot was still so much a part of everything he saw. And she was filled with that familiar, all-consuming rush to protect him. To keep him safe from the dangers and disappointments of life. It was this instinct that happened as a mother, this instinct to zipper and comb and hold out your hand, this leaning forward, that she didn’t think Peter could understand.

“I gave her my helmet and she said I could wear her ballerina thing if we were on the moon,” her son continued. “But Oscar said his dad said we can’t.”

“Why not? You can be whatever you want.”

“But I know astronauts can. I saw it in the reading corner.”

Not that Peter didn’t seem capable of understanding.

“Go on in,” she said, “bring out some paper and color a picture. You can be your astronaut.”

Samuel’s mother lifted her book, found her place again.


What’s the matter with Father?


“Go on. Bring some crayons from the kitchen.”


What’s the matter . . .


Samuel watched the book-woman’s face once again. He looked again at his mother’s fifth wrinkled toenail, the red paint cracked with tiny brown lines, and he moved his finger toward it, and with one quick tap, touched it before jumping up to go inside through the sliding door.


How serious is it? Yokiko wants to ask, but the question doesn’t seem necessary. She knows from her brother’s voice and the way he calls him Father. She agrees to put her money together with Wan to send to their father in Japan. They will hire him a nurse to come. But something about this unsettles Yokiko. Wan is now on his way over to her apartment on West Eighty-third Street. He is traveling all the way up from his studio near Battery Park, so she knows she has some time. She puts on a kettle of water for tea, and even though her apartment is perfectly arranged, she starts to straighten.


Inside their single-floor apartment, it was quiet. Samuel went into the bathroom and shut the door, turned with both his hands the skinny silver lock. Then he checked for Rita in the mirror. He knew she didn’t come today. Rita came on Tuesdays—this he made himself remember after what happened last time, how she snuck up, how he didn’t even hear her coming, how she yelled in her loud Spanish voice and yanked his hands from his mother’s drawer, how the drawer came off its rollers and everything went falling, spilling out onto the bathroom floor. It was her fault, he knew that for sure. A hundred tubes of lipstick rolled around their feet. Rita bent down, hugging her wide arms across the floor, sweeping the lipsticks together. They clicked and clattered and Samuel stood staring. A pink paisley case slipped behind the toilet. He begged it not to move. Smacking her lips together, ay, ay, mi hijo, she dumped her chestful back into the drawer, then pulled his arms too hard over the edge of the sink, stretching them until they reached the faucet, and pressed his hands between her palms as she scrubbed them together. No más, no más, she said as she washed his hands under the warm, running water, squeezing each little finger with soap.

So now, he checked the mirror for Rita, looking in every corner of the reflection, and though he didn’t see her, he thought that Rita came from nowhere all the time. He checked out the bathroom window overlooking the street for any glimpse of her big black hair, maybe even floating, he thought, like a witch. Big Rita and her smoky spine. But nobody was there, and he double-checked the lock, then slowly pulled open his mother’s drawer of makeup.

Faroozi and his stupid herd. He would forget about them. Draw them away. Go to the moon. Dance. Whatever. They couldn’t get him there. Maybe they wouldn’t find him ever again.


Samuel’s mother pressed her toes against the terrace bars. She reached back to slide shut the screen door.


Yokiko’s kettle of tea is now whistling. Wan will be there soon, and Yokiko, who just set out a saucer of biscuits, is now looking through her kitchen drawer for the right kind of tea, the Japanese tea that she drinks with her brother, the only kind they have ever drunk together. But she can only find box after box of American herbal tea. Sure that she must have some left somewhere, she pulls the entire drawer from its hinges and sets it on the countertop, starting to feel a sense of dread warm through her.


Samuel took out three tubes of lipstick from his mother’s bathroom drawer, uncapped them all, and lined them up next to one another so they stood like red and pink soldiers in shiny gold armor. They faced the mirror, and Samuel leaned in close, choosing the brightest pink first. He started at his eyebrow, then down the inner side of his nose, making a circle around his left eye. He rolled the lipstick higher from its tube, and then filled in the circle completely, making sure none of the skin around his eye was left undone. Then he took a red, the color of his mother’s toes, and rolled it up, watching the pointed wedge of color rise. He drew a mouth larger than his own around his lips, starting beneath his nose and continuing across the middle of his chin. He remembered the show he saw on the TV, and how their faces looked with all their bright colors, flying high above the stage from some invisible ropes overhead. The two faces painted together on one. What were they called? He tried to remember as he filled in the mouth around his own with red.


But the kitchen drawer does not have any Japanese tea. Yokiko slides it back onto its rollers and wonders what to do. She is worried that Wan will think poorly of her and her American tea. He will think she has abandoned more than she bargained for, more than she promised when she left Japan for New York. He will think she is no longer the daughter, the sister, the nurse she used to be. She is worried he will not know her anymore. She is afraid of that searching look she imagines he will turn on her as he tries to place the person before him.


Samuel’s mother felt a flight of worry in her chest. What would it mean if it didn’t become clear by the end why Peter had been reminded of her? She let this thought pass by, feeling the tenderness beneath it, the vulnerability, as if exploring it further would mean the possibility of something giving way. Six weeks was not a long time, not long enough to really know someone. She let her worry go, settling somewhere inside her, resting like a sheer scarf over a dark hole, wavering slightly to let her know it was there. She found her place back with Yokiko turning off the kettle hissing loudly on the stove.


Yokiko moves it off the burner and checks the boxes in the back of her closet now for the right kind of tea. Something desperate flies through her, but it is too thin and amorphous to grab hold of. It moves through her like a ghost, like the wind, and makes her cold.


Samuel ran up the hallway back to the terrace’s screen door. He pressed his painted face against the screen and shouted to his mother on the terrace, thinking he’d got it.

“Mommy,” he called, “What’s a Siming twin?”

“What?” Her voice trailed slowly back to him inside.

“Siming twin?”

“You mean, Siamese twin?” Through the screen he could see the back of her ponytail over the low plastic chair. He could see the small black type on a corner of the page as she held up her book to shield the sun.

“Yes, that!” He pressed his face into the screen, closing one eye. “I’m gonna be one,” he told her, pressing his hands to the screen. “I’m going to be a Siamese twin.” He saw the back of her ponytail swing lightly as she shook her head.

“They’re born like that, Sammy,” she said turning another page. “You can’t become one.”

“Why not?” he said. “A Siamese twin and an astronaut.” Samuel slid open the screen. His mother removed her sunglasses and lowered her book. Now there were two sets of eyes looking at him.

“See?” He showed off his face covered in his mother’s lipstick. “It’s how they looked,” he said, “with the pink like that on one eye, and the mouth.” He squiggled his finger in front of his face.

“Ah, Jesus, Sammy, come on, let’s go wash that off. I told you that’s not for you. You don’t use makeup to draw on your face like that. Come on inside.”

His mother stood and led Samuel back through the door that was now stained with bits of pink and red pressed into the grid of screen.


Samuel went into the bathroom and his mother stopped short of the door when she caught a glimpse of the metal tubes lined along the mirror. Something wide and flat stretched out inside of her. A blankness she didn’t know what to do with.

“Come out when you’re done,” she called to her son gently after shutting the door and returning to the terrace.


Yokiko is measuring sugar for the herbal tea, hoping that if she sweetens it enough, her brother will not notice. But still she feels the coldness again move through her. Wan will ring twice. This is their code because there are no intercoms at Yokiko’s building. He will ring two short buzzes and then walk up the narrow flights to her one-bedroom apartment. He is coming to discuss the details of how to help their father. He stopped saying Kabocha on the phone. For the first time in as long as she could remember her brother was calling him Father. She thinks this is part of the coldness, the ghost she feels move through her.


Of course, Samuel’s mother thought, she could just ask Peter.


The setting now has changed to their sick father’s farm in Japan. One of Yokiko’s childhood friends who is still a nurse at the soldier base in Japan is sitting by Yokiko’s father, warming his face with a washcloth as he lies in bed. She is reminiscing about Yokiko and Wan to the sick father, about how they used to play games, the game they loved with the berries, how they’d squish them to use the color to mark a path on which the others would get lost. A game of hide-and-seek plotted by berry stains. If they were found, they’d pick a whole new batch of berries to start again on another path so as not to cross the new trails with the old. The friend brings the washcloth down Yokiko’s father’s cheek, around his chin and neck, to the back of his head, which she lifts gently with her palm. She is a good nurse, the father wants to tell her, but part of what makes him unable to say it is the constriction in his chest and the rawness in his throat. The other part has something to do with the fact that his own daughter is a nurse just like this one, but this is not his daughter. And listening to the young nurse retell stories of her youth with his children, after all these years he is not sure of the girl’s name. He can picture her in braids standing with his daughter, being called in for tea and afternoon naps, he can see the girl’s mother and father, the easy conversations they would have when coming from next door, but now on his bed where he lies being washed by the grown girl’s hands, she is somebody new, and he does not know what to call her. But the nurse goes on, remembering her youth as she tends to the bedside of a dying man who was once her best friend’s father, and together she is nurse and woman and the childhood girl from next door.


A bird landed on the rail of the terrace, startling Samuel’s mother from the page. Her son was still inside. She put the book facedown on its open spine next to the bowl of warming cherries and left the Asian woman’s face to stare up at the bright sky.

“Sammy?” He didn’t answer. She walked down the carpeted hallway, past the bathroom, the linen closet, her bedroom, and another closet, to his bedroom at the end of the hall. Her eyes still adjusting from the change of light, she went to his room, and stopped in the doorway. He was lying in his bed. She stood quietly looking at her son’s body under the sheet. Through the curtains held open by the tiny nails, the sunlight fell in one thick stripe across him.


A few months ago, Samuel was lying in bed listening to his mother hammer tiny nails into his curtains. She kept hammering one after the other until they were pinned open to let in light. She pulled back the sheet and made him get up. You sleep when it is dark in here, she said, that’s all, it’s a beautiful day. She kept saying, it’s a beautiful, sunny day, look at how sunny and bright. Samuel got up and thought, “Mama’s in love with the sun.”

“Sammy?” she said now and walked toward his bed. It was that flatness again stretching inside her. “What’s the matter? Are you OK?”

He was halfway dreaming. Bright painted faces marked with kisses, the round lipstick Os that stay on cheeks. So many O-marked faces calling his name, perfectly shaped letters floating through the air with all their swirls and curves.

She sat down, feeling her son’s back through the sheet. “Sweetheart,” she whispered. “Wake up.”

The letters spelled his name. The sound of his name carried away. But not by Faroozi. Not by his gang. He heard his mother say his name softly.

She felt the small cradle shape of her son’s head and stroked his hair gently. Across the room a little gold frame sat on his dresser. It was a picture of the two of them together at the zoo. It was from a couple of years ago. Samuel had grown since then. She thought of Peter, imagining how it would look with him standing there in that picture with them.

“Come on, baby. Why are you sleeping? It’s a beautiful day. We’ll go do something.” She rocked his shoulder lightly.

Samuel sat up. His feet hung only halfway to the ground, his soft cheek still smudged, she noticed, with a faint trace of red. She licked her thumb. “How about we go to the zoo?” His face contorted as she rubbed her thumb lightly over his cheek.

Samuel made a fist around his thumb and then with his other hand worked to open his first and last finger. He held it up and bounced it in the air, looking for a shadow on the wall. In the corner, a little clock tat-tatted, a metal head tatting and shaking what a shame. Something Rita would say, Samuel decided as he moved the rabbit to the sound of the tick across the green- and white-striped wallpaper. Except she would say it louder and in Spanish, he thought, and he wiggled the rabbit’s ears behind the green bars of the wallpaper cage. Rita—the big bad witch. How many brooms would it take, how much fire, how much water, or light, to make her shrivel into nothing, poof, make her go away for good? Tat, tat, tat. Shame, shame, Rita said. Her Spanish voice saying, shame on you, niño. Even though that was not his name.

Samuel’s mother stared at the frame. “What do you say? Huh? The zoo sound fun?”

Samuel moved the rabbit through the green bars, along all four walls of his room. The shadow of his hand passed quickly across the frame as he aimed his fist around the room.

Peter did suggest they all three do something this afternoon. She could call him. Ask him to join them. The three of them together. The little gold clock ticked in the corner. They could all go to the zoo. It was something people did. Something people did together.


At two thirty, they met at the front entrance by the seals. She was nervous. Samuel was eating a bag of popcorn. When she had grabbed her oversized canvas tote, she absently tossed in the book. Now the bag hung heavy from her shoulder, the book inside, as she and Peter watched Samuel run ahead to see the lions.

“Interesting,” Peter said, stopping to read the wooden signpost in front of the cage. “Peafowls,” he read. The ostrichlike birds wandered the edges of the lion’s cage. “Never heard of them, but amazing how they live together like that, isn’t it?” Peter seemed almost too comfortable being with her and Samuel, if that was even possible, like he was used to them being a family together. She watched Samuel sidestepping along the metal fence, one careful step after the next. She didn’t want to blame herself for Samuel’s life, how lonely, how different he seemed, but still she felt responsible.

“Sammy,” she called.

“Hey, sport, take a look at this,” Peter called to her son. He motioned Samuel to come over and then started to read the lion facts aloud from the wooden sign.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Samuel said.

The three of them walked together to the primate house, and inside it was dark and crowded. The stairs leading to the lower level where the bathrooms were located were packed with people.

“I can take him,” Peter offered.

“You sure? Thanks. OK, Sammy, go ahead with Peter. I’ll wait outside, right in front.”

She maneuvered her way through the crowds, past the smudge-covered glass where monkeys swung from branches, and went outside to sit on a bench by the gorillas. She would wait there. The largest gorilla was sprawled on its back with a baby the size of Samuel curled against him. Another pair was sitting together while one picked through the other’s hair. She liked looking at the gorillas. It felt reassuring somehow. A reminder of what was right, how things were supposed to be, like the gorillas had figured it all out and it really was all that simple.

She pulled the book from her bag.


Wan is tall and has to duck slightly to enter the threshold of Yokiko’s doorway. Yokiko has finished making the pot of American herbal tea using just one teabag and enough sugar to hopefully cover up the flavor so her brother will not notice. But deep down she knows he will. She leaves it on the stove and brings the plate of biscuits to the living room where she sits next to Wan on the couch.

The pot in the kitchen lets out a thin rise of chamomile steam. Wan takes a biscuit and though he doesn’t say so, Yokiko can tell he is waiting to be given some tea. “I’ve figured my savings,” Yokiko says and gets up from the couch. She goes to the kitchen and gets a pad of paper and a pencil from the drawer next to the stove. She takes the teapot and fills the two cups on the counter, but decides to leaves them there for now, and goes back to the living room with the pad of paper and pencil. She sits down on the couch and starts to write out her calculations. She is avoiding his face, she does not want to see that look come over it, she is waiting for that searching look she knows will come. Wan nods, watching over his sister’s math, guarding with his palm any crumbs that may drop as he bites his biscuit. She scribbles the numbers down quickly and says, “How much will he need?” Wan is unsure. “He would never say something like that, you know it isn’t his nature,” he tells her. Wan has been in the United States less than a year, five years less than Yokiko, and though hers is mainly masked, Yokiko notices his accent when he uses English words. Yokiko says she knows that’s something their father wouldn’t say, it is typical, she says, agreeing, “Just like him,” nodding, nodding. The tea in the kitchen is getting cold.


“Mama!” Samuel’s voice called, and his mother’s heart jumped. She shut the book, put it back into her bag.

Samuel came running toward her, holding a cardboard tube up to his mouth. His knees were knobby and knocking together as he ran, cutting off a couple who stopped short. She caught the woman’s eye and held up her hand in apology. They smiled and said something to each other as they walked on.

Her heart was wild.

“Mama,” Samuel called through the tube, which was covered in what looked like the sticky remains of cotton candy. He ran into her legs and she took the tube from his mouth.

“Where’d you get this?” She held it out between her fingers.

“Over there,” he pointed to the cement path.

“On the ground?” She wiped his mouth with her palm. “Sammy,” she said, “this is dirty. It’s someone’s garbage,” she said.

Samuel tasted a little bit of leftover sugar on his lip from the tube and watched his mother crumple his newfound megaphone between her hands.

Peter came forward, and the three of them walked down the zoo’s path together. To all these strangers, she thought, they must look like a family—a mother and father and son spending a day together at the zoo. Most of that is true, she thought, looking out for a trash can to throw away the wadded tube.

She glanced at Peter, who was really perfectly fine, she thought, a nice middle-aged man who worked at an advertising firm. She felt that waver inside her again, that thin sheer scarf covering the black hole. She looked down at her son between them, his arms tightly crossed, hands tucked inside his armpits. They continued down the path, Peter talking about felines and their habitat, when they crossed between a young man (on the right) holding a camera to his face, and a young woman—his wife?—(on the left) standing patiently on the other side of the path. She thought the shutter had snapped, as she turned to apologize, and she hoped maybe they’d been caught, the three of them, on his film, looking like the family she imagined them to be. Somewhere there’d be a photograph, the three of them fitting into the frame in Samuel’s room. But, “Go ahead,” the man said, lowering his camera as they moved past.

The book shifted in her purse, and she held out her hand for Samuel’s. He took it and held it tight. Peter whistled and tucked his hands into his blue jean pockets, the three of them heading toward the exit while Wan waited for tea and Yokiko dreaded the searching look she knew would come into her brother’s eyes.


At their building’s entrance, Samuel’s mother thanked Peter for joining them.

“You can come up with us,” she offered. “Lemonade or iced tea if you want.”

“I would,” he said and looked at her in that genuine way he had, his dark brown eyes holding unafraid on hers. But it was already after four and he had some work to do.

She looked away. Her son was pulling her arm. She felt something shut neatly inside her chest. She didn’t know if she was capable of this.

Peter embraced her warmly. He smelled of shaving cream and mint chewing gum. He was so clean, everything about him, his life, so neat, so arranged. She didn’t know how there would be room for the two of them—her and Samuel, and all their frayed, messy edges.

He ruffled Samuel’s hair. “See you, sport,” he said, and Samuel pulled his mother’s hand to go, her limp arm yanking backward as though it no longer belonged to her. Sorry, I understand, then goodbye, high hand in a wave, aren’t they the darnedest, Peter’s left cheek dimple, just the darnedest, enjoy it while you can, sentiments that didn’t mean a thing.


That night from his bed, Samuel watched a pale blue robe hanging from a nail on the back of his closet door. The empty sleeves hung like arms. In the glow of his night-light, it looked like a ghost—a woman ghost, Samuel thought, but he was not afraid, a good ghost, a not-Rita ghost, he decided. From the window came a breeze, and it lifted her arms, dancing her slowly at first before a gust twirled her quickly and then stopped. Samuel watched the woman ghost flying but not away, dancing, lulling him to sleep, but he wasn’t tired. He wanted to get up. He would go back outside. Look at the moon.


Samuel’s mother was back on the terrace, reading in the dusk.

She waited for Yokiko to tell Wan what she really thought, that she would never go back, that he would lose himself here soon, too. She asks if he misses home. He says, “I do.” He doesn’t ask her the same. She asks what he wants to do. He doesn’t answer. She asks if he wants to go back. With a subtle nod, he says, “Yes.” And Yokiko fills with a sudden urge to slap her brother, shout at him, “You can’t, it’s too late,” but she dusts her American blue-jeaned lap and bites her lips. He says it again, that he wants to go back. And this time she says, “Things will be different, you know. You’re not the same now.” But her brother, with his fingers gently folded together between his legs, doesn’t seem to hear her. The author explains how Yokiko remembers a childhood kite and feels herself like its golden tail flying up and away into the sky the day she lost it at the park, and that this is her Japanese blood, her connection to her dying father, and somehow in all these years away she realizes she has lost grip of this string inside her. After a few moments of silence, Wan says to his sister, “Let’s have some tea.” And Yokiko reflexively stands in response, but then stops midway and turns toward her brother before sitting back down. “I’m sorry,” she says, the two cups of herbal tea already cold in the kitchen. Because she knows that to him this would be true, “I’m all out of tea.”

The sun was a slice of orange in the horizon. She didn’t feel anything like Yokiko. She was Samuel’s mother. She was a thirty-four-year-old woman who worked at a bank; she was (trying to be) the girlfriend to a thirty-eight-year-old man who lived alone; she was a daughter; an ex-wife. She was Serena. So many fragments of different lives swirled inside her. Yet she felt none of these things completely. It was a kaleidoscope of shifting selves that she was made up of. How could she claim one over another?

The sun started to sink into the darkening sky, and she pictured the last bit of orange like the golden tail of Yokiko’s kite. None of these various parts had slipped away in her. It was Peter who had thought so. My sweet marionette. He had loved his puppets. And now, did he love her, too?

She shut the book on her lap and closed her eyes, feeling the little bit of whatever it was she almost had with Peter slip away. She knew she could not love him with all the many pieces that made up her heart. It hurt the same way it hurt to know the space between her and her son would keep growing.

Her son was sleeping in his room, dreaming of all the things he wanted to be. All the things he still could be. Dreaming of things he had not yet learned to name, things that, when he did, would fall away. He would learn which ones these were without effort or even knowing how, he would learn them like words to a song he never meant to remember. Somehow it would happen in the small, unspoken ways of faces telling him yes or no, telling him right or wrong, telling him boys don’t dance on moons, no one sleeps during the day, telling him green is for apples, blue is for moons, you are a boy spelled S-A-M-U-E-L. She knew there was nothing she could do to stop that.


When the full moon finally rose, Samuel was standing on the terrace, tracing the outline with his finger. It was a perfect circle, a wide open mouth calling O, one single hole in the solid black fabric of the sky, just wide enough to crawl through. And it wobbled slightly as if it were a giant head about to fall down, heavier than the sky that held it. His mother had fallen asleep in her chair, and the Asian woman lay watching from her lap. And in the little bit of moonlight on the railing, he made a spiral, then a leaf, then a small lost bird flying across the bars. And before he turned to face the wall where the light had moved, before he changed his fist to a finger so he could shadow-write his name, trying to connect each letter before it disappeared, he brought the bird down. And in this small motion, nobody, not even Samuel, saw the shadow’s sudden flight across his mother’s cheek and into the screen, where it disappeared for a second against the darkness.  end  

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