It’s Thursday, three-thirty in the afternoon, and I’m standing in front of the mirror thinking about the Chinese woman and her husband. Right about now she is getting ready for work. While she applies her thick foundation, I paint my lips the color of dark plums, coat my eyelids in a shadow called Dusk. While she irons her uniform and pulls on the dark panty hose that hide her hard-earned spider veins, I try on some of the lingerie her husband bought for me. The purple push up bra and thong are my favorites; I like the way they deepen my eyes from brown to violet-black to night itself in the changing light.
Behind me, my sister Maddy stares into the mirror just like she did when she was a little girl. Ever since she was about two, my sister’s been preaching at me with those eyes. After our Mom got married again and moved to Miami, I took Maddy in so she could finish high school. She’s been living with me ever since. You’d think she’d be grateful — or at least that she’d have the common courtesy to keep her judgments to herself. I push her toward the door with a stern Out! But my sister has never left a room before she was ready in her life; she stubbornly plants her feet.
According to Maddy, I have no morals. But the truth is I live by more rules than Moses. On a good day, I’ve got at least 14 commandments running around in my brain, messing with me in a big way. You want to know how I ended up with two kids, borrowing someone else’s husband when I needed love? Morals, that’s how.
If my second Rule for Life hadn’t been NO DRUGS WHEN THERE’S KIDS IN THE HOUSE, I would have married the only boy I ever loved way back when I was 16. But after our daughter was born, I started looking at Pi’s $200 a day dope habit in a different way. Do what you want, just don’t let me see it, I said. Before long, there was so much of Pi I couldn’t look at, he disappeared altogether.
You probably say 16 is too young for marriage anyway, not to mention babies. And didn’t I happen to notice the guy was a goddamn drug addict before I went out and got myself pregnant? Well, du-uh. But he was a lot of other things besides, like blue-eyed handsome and so sweet and it could make you cry. Not to mention smart. Back in ninth grade when Pi was plain old Sean Morrissey, he was so good at Algebra that he got renamed for some math thing. Everyone said he was on the fast track to college, scholarships, some job with a company car and a sexy secretary to make him coffee just the way he liked it. Course, he had his pick of the finest girls at school. Girls like Sheena Santos who had boobs like those girls in magazines. And Lucy Emerson whose hair was so damn yellow that I sometimes spent an entire English class wondering how nature ever thought up such a color.
Yeah, Pi could have had any of them, instead of plain old Sandra Fine, a girl with so much un-charisma her own daddy walked out on her when she was four, and never once bothered to call. A girl so absolutely dumb that the only kind of pie she knew about before she met Sean Morrissey was chocolate or lemon meringue. That was the Sandra who Pi loved more than the height of his own shadow, more than the color of his blood, more than just about anything — except dope of course. And the truth is having sex with Pi was the best, the clearest, the truest thing I ever did in my life. Just look in our daughter’s ice-blue eyes and you can almost see a little bit of that purity I’m talking about, a little bit of that truth. Which brings me to my first Rule for Life: LIVE PURE, LIVE TRUE.
Course when I tell this to Maddy, she laughs. “Pure? You? You’re about as pure as a coal yard. And true? Where’s the true in messing around with some other lady’s husband?” I know she’s thinking about the woman who stole our daddy away. But the way I see it, any man who could forget a wife and two daughters that easy wasn’t going to be around long anyway.
Standing behind me in the mirror and telling me how to live my life with her eyes is easy for my sister. Maddy walks around with her chin tilting at the stars and everything falls in place for her. Even though the fragile walls of our house shook with the rise and fall of Mom’s romances, Maddy managed to keep her focus on what she wanted. You can bet my girls and me were right there in the front row the day my sister graduated from high school with honors. She could probably have gone to college and everything if she wanted to, but Maddy has this crazy thing about becoming an actress. Not that she isn’t good. In those high school plays she used to do, she could bring an audience to their feet with the roaring of her voice and heart. No getting pregnant junior year for her. No falling for boys with clear blue eyes and a yen for dope that was stronger than love. My sister was going to Make It, capital M, capital I.
The day my second daughter was born, Maddy showed up at the hospital and announced she had become a celibate. “A what?” I wanted to say, but I just nodded my head. Figuring it was some kind of job I said, “I hear they make good money.”
Later when my obstetrician popped in, I asked him what the word meant. Alternately rubbing his bald head and his hairy chin, Dr. Sanchez sat down on the bed and explained celibacy to me, adding that he thought it was an excellent course of action for me.
“Just cause a person is curious about China doesn’t mean she wants to live there,” I said, drawing the blankets around my neck as if the obstetrician who delivered my two babies had looked at me in a more intimate way than ever before.
Reliving the moment as I get dressed for the Chinese woman’s husband, I feel a surge of anger toward my sister. Sometimes it seems like she spends half her life just trying to prove she’s better than me. As if it isn’t obvious.
“Don’t you have some studying to do?” I say to Maddy as she watches me strut in my purple lace.
“You really can’t see it, can you?” she says, taking off her uniform and slipping into an old pair of jeans. Maddy works as a CNA — just until she makes it as an actress of course. However, right now her only goal is to earn enough money to get her own apartment. Enough that she won’t have to sit home every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and watch the kids while I spend a couple hours with the Chinese woman’s husband.
“See what?” I say, walking right into it.
“The man is pond scum, that’s what. And from someone else’s pond.”
As always, I don’t answer.
“I guess it’s your business,” Maddy says, when I’m on the way out the door. “I’m just tired of being part of it.”
But I only flick back my hair, give my girls a kiss good-bye, and pretend I’m deaf, the way Maddy and I did when my mother brought her boyfriends into the bedroom next to ours. I guess ignoring my sister’s nasty comments comes under Rule for Life Number Six, NEVER BELIEVE RUMORS ABOUT YOURSELF.
As always, the door his wife painted an ugly red color is left unlocked. Even though it’s daylight, the apartment is dusky as my eye shadow. I don’t say anything when I go in. Just start peeling off my clothes right there in the living room. But I can’t help noticing the Chinese woman’s citrusy fragrance. I take off my jean jacket, my little skirt. Scoop neck shirt with just a hint of purple lace peeking out. Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time getting dressed when the Chinese woman’s husband never looks at anything but the underwear he bought for me the week before. From the wall, his wife stares at me with her wedding day smile. She was a lot younger then — probably my age. If you saw her now, you’d never recognize her. Still, I can’t help thinking how much he must have loved her when he posed for that picture, standing close as a shadow, close as Pi once was to me.
“Come on in, baby,” her husband calls from the bedroom where he is seated on the bed, working the controllers of his Play Station.
“Forty-five years old and still playing a boy’s games?” I say, sitting beside him and staring into the screen that has captured his attention.
Ignoring my question, he flicks off the screen and jumps up. From the back of his closet, he produces a bag which he holds behind his back. “For you, baby,” he says, extending the bag, his face so boyish that for a moment I forget the way he looks in certain lights, or that my sister is always reminding me that he is older than our daddy.
This week’s bra is ivory white and surprisingly plain. The panties are the cotton waist highs. On closer inspection I notice little butterflies fluttering across them.
“These look like a little girl’s,” I say, smelling the cotton. The scent reminds me so much of my childhood that for a moment I feel something hot in my throat. But as soon as he touches me, I no longer care what kind of game he’s playing. His touch is so gentle — almost religious — that I close my eyes and let it happen. No one has touched me like that since Pi, and sometimes I’m scared no one ever will again. As always, he plays his game and I play mine. Pi, I whisper, when he kisses my neck with the softest mouth you can imagine. Pi, I shout when I come. What I love most about the Chinese woman’s husband is that he has never asked who or what Pi is. Not once.
When I’m on the way home, I spot Mrs. Jenkins sitting on a crate by the dumpster. Lady’s so old her skin doesn’t even fit right, and so nosy she can probably tell you which blackbird is mating with which in the parking lot. I swear the old busybody makes it a point to keep vigil by the dump every time I visit the Chinese woman’s husband.
“Fool girl,” she says when I pass. And when I ignore her as I always do, she just talks louder. “You’re not the only one, you know,” she yells into the wind. “Last Thursday when you went out with your babies around three o’clock? Wasn’t a half hour later, the other girl was at his door.” For a minute I’m tempted to stop and ask what the hell she’s talking about. Or maybe just find out whether my nosy sister is paying her to tell me lies. But following Rule for Life Number 13, NEVER GET INTO ARGUMENTS WITH DRUNKS OR CRAZIES, I keep walking.
But that night when Maddy gets all dressed up in her best jeans, a slinky shirt and some pointy stilettos and goes off to see a show, I do exactly that. I look out at the spot the old lady has long since abandoned and start squabbling with her ghost. “He may be old enough to be my daddy. He may be married, but that man loves me,” I say to the vacant crate beside the dumpster. “Not that you or my haughty-ass sister would know anything about that. But me, I know. See, I been loved. I been loved the kind of way that comes through a man’s fingertips. The kind you can’t hide or fake or turn away from no matter how wrong it seems. The kind that is true and pure no matter what you say.”
It’s right about then that I realize I’m no longer arguing with Mrs. Jenkins; it’s Maddy I’m seeing when I peer into the dark. Maddy who is staring down at some other actress from the cheapest seats in the house and imagining herself in the part, whispering the lines the way my grandmother used to whisper prayers. Or the way the Chinese woman’s husband sometimes gets when he describes my body to me. Eyes closed. Each word enunciated. Yes, it’s Maddy, my celibate sister who would rather have no love at all for the rest of her lonely, proud life than take the kind that messed up our Mom’s life. Or mine. So if I’m arguing with two missing parties, why do I still feel like I’m losing? Why do I feel that some crazy old lady with nothing to do but sit beside a dumpster and feed the birds might know something about my own life that I don’t?
The next day is Wednesday, the Chinese woman’s day off and I do something I never did before. I wait for her to leave on her errands, then I ask my friend Awilda to watch the girls for a little while. I got something to take care of, I say, something that can’t go cold.
The Chinese woman’s husband is shocked when he sees me at the door. For the first time in the year and a half I have been visiting him, he looks at me like someone who might be dangerous. Someone he might have touched, but has never known. But as always, the man is smooth. He recovers quick. “Yes?” he says, making it sound kind of like Can I help you? Like I’m the Avon Lady or one of those men in suits who come around to save your soul. Only when I am inside does his voice get low the way it usually does around me. “Baby, it’s Wednesday,” he says as if I don’t own a calendar. “My wife — she could be back any minute. . .”
“I’m going,” I say, squinting at the apartment in daylight. Though I’ve been there a hundred times this is the first time I’ve seen the place with the shades up. Seen the order the Chinese woman creates in his life, the warmth of the rooms she’s built up around him. I stare straight at him: “I just need to know something first.”
He watches me, hand on his hips, and as always I admire his straight back, tapered waist, the lines of his face. He may be old, but this man is fine. He cocks his chin like he’s ready for a fight. Go ahead.
“I need to know if there’s someone else,” I say. I know I sound like a bad movie or an afternoon soap, and the truth is most of my life has run like one of those sorry scripts. All except the part where the girl suddenly walks into some great job, or a handsome guy with a truckload of money who has absolutely no problem with a couple of stray kids and a younger sister with no place to go.
“Someone else?” he laughs, then sits down and begins to straighten his wife’s magazines on the coffee table even though they’re already perfectly arranged. “I’m married, baby; course there’s someone else.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” I say.
He looks up warily, staring at me through hooded eyes. “Where’d you hear that?” he asks, clutching one of his wife’s magazines as if it can protect him from the threat I’ve become.
I see everything he doesn’t say in his eyes. For a moment, we stare at each other, then I take the flat of my hand and scatter the Chinese woman’s magazines everywhere.
“You better go,” he says, seizing my wrist with a meanness that was never far from the surface. And that’s it, a year and a half of my life and a whole lot of lies I told myself dismissed in three words. You better go. Not even a baby tagged on to sweeten it.
I guess you could say that was the end of it. But, like Pi, the Chinese woman’s husband left behind a ghost who stayed with me for a long time. Who woke me up in the middle of the night, the scent of his sweet cheapo cologne floating in my bedroom window. Who called me baby in that hush-hush voice when I closed my eyes. Who spoke to me across the parking lot every Tuesday and Thursday. Come on baby girl; I got a present for you. But following my eighth Rule for Life, NEVER RETURN TO THE SCENE OF YOUR OWN CRIMES, I stayed away.
Still, I watched the red door marked 4052 obsessively. One glimpse of the new girl he was buying underwear for and I promised myself I would give it up. But no one ever came knocking. Not on Tuesday or Thursday or any other lonely day of the week either. Even old Mrs. Jenkins stayed locked in her apartment as if she knew the show had closed.
After a few weeks, I was convinced the old lady had lied to me. There was no other girl, never had been. But whenever I thought of calling the Chinese woman’s husband, or maybe drifting over toward the bright painted door, I remembered the way he had grabbed my wrist that last time, and I stuck to my Rules. Pretty soon, instead of spending all my time thinking about that man and his touch and the drawer full of pretty underwear he bought me, I was thinking about my own life. Thinking about taking a couple of courses like Maddy had been urging me to do. And though I would never have admitted it to my sister, that celibacy thing wasn’t as bad as you’d think. It kind of cleared your head.
By the time the truth came out, I was so involved in school and homework and my kids that it almost skated right by me. But apparently Maddy wanted me to know. Why else would she leave her at home pregnancy kit right there in the bathroom, the color on the stick clearly saying YES! Still, I didn’t get it right away.
“What? How? You haven’t even watched TV with a guy in months — not since that geeky artist boy down the hill gave up on cracking your celibacy pledge,” I said to my sister. We were in her bedroom this time, staring at each other in the mirror when I read the truth in her shadowy face.
I’d like to tell you I behaved fine, but for a moment I really lost it. I started hitting her the way I used to when she was a little girl and I caught her messing with my cosmetic bag. And for the first time I can remember, Maddy didn’t fight back. She just stood there with her eyes closed, arms at her side and let me flail and curse at her all I wanted. I couldn’t help thinking of the time when she played Joan of Arc in the school play senior year. All noble and ready to die for her principles, whatever they might be. Only when I saw the tears silently drizzling out her eyes did I stop.
“It only happened once,” Maddy said, a trace of the old haughtiness returning to her voice. “That afternoon you took Ivy to the doctor to check on her ear infection. I swear, Sandra — I did it for you. I wanted you to see what he was.”
I stared at her waiting for her to continue, but Maddy apparently considered that a sufficient explanation. After turning away from the mirror, she smoothed her jeans like she was wearing some elegant cocktail dress and rose to walk out of the room.
But, realizing that my own sister was the girl he had been imagining when he dressed me in those white butterfly panties, I wasn’t about to drop it. “You think I believe that shit, Maddy? Tell me the truth. Tell yourself the truth for once in your life. You’re never going to be in no actress, and there’s no way you can run from Mama’s life. It’s here. It’s right here.” I poked her hard in the center of her chest. I suppose I already knew my own life was better than it had been in years because of what my sister had done, but I wasn’t about to admit it.
Maddy slumped onto her bed like Joan giving up the fight and put her face into her hands. I sat beside her, so close that when she looked up I could see the flaming amber in her dark irises. And the tears she hadn’t shed since the day our mother moved to Miami. She cried for a long time, but I resisted the urge to comfort her like I did when she was little and some older kid picked on her, or like the times she auditioned for some show and never got a call.
“I really did go over there to talk to him,” she said when she had quieted herself. She sat up and stared into the mirror again. “Talk, threaten — whatever it took to keep that bastard from ruining your life.”
“So instead you let him ruin yours?” I whispered. Sitting beside her, I put my hand on her flat abdomen. Even then I knew she would have the baby and keep it. No matter how impossible or crazy it seemed, women in our family always held onto their babies.
“But you’re right. I didn’t do it for you. When he reached for my arm, I suddenly understood how much I wanted to be touched. Just touched, that’s all.” She shrugged, wiping the tears decisively from her eyes.
As she stood up and wiped the inky mascara from her cheeks, I studied the straightness of her back. “Don’t worry, Sandra. This ain’t gonna be your problem. I’ve got a place to stay. A friend from the nursing home is coming over with a truck this afternoon.”
Later, when I was working on some homework in the living room, Maddy came out and asked me if I had any cardboard boxes. She was noisily packing her things when I started to talk to myself.
“What does she need a truck for?” I said out loud. “Back seat of a Volkswagen would do just fine. Girl don’t own anything but some pictures of dead actresses and a collection of faded jeans. And just where does she think she’s going to go — pregnant and living on a CNA salary? Who’s gonna take her in but flesh and blood?” I kept it up all the while she was packing, just spouting any mean thing I could think of, heaping mean upon mean until finally I wore myself out.
Right about then I noticed Maddy’s room had gone dead silent. I imagined her lying on her bed, shades down, her hands folded neatly on her belly, the way I had often napped when I was pregnant. I was a little bit offended that she could fall asleep in the middle of what she would call my grand soliloquy, but that’s Maddy for you. It was obvious that no one was coming for her.
Around six, I started supper just as I always did. Chicken and rice like our mother used to make. It was a dish I hadn’t made in years, but somehow I got the spices just right. And though I was still sputtering and fuming while I moved around the kitchen, I set Maddy’s place the same as always. Then I sat down at the empty table and imagined my sister’s baby joining us there. I had no doubt it would be a girl. It always was in our family. A hungry, howling girl with eyes so pure and true there was no way I could turn away from them.