Maybe the one thing people should know about me is that I hate my house. It sounds mean, doesn’t it, like I’m telling everyone that I secretly stick pins into a voodoo doll that looks like my brother, or that I overfed my pet Guinea pig when I was nine just so I could watch it die. The house hasn’t done anything to deserve all this ill will. In fact, it just sits there on this ordinary street in East Vancouver, its front covered with red bricks, the lawn lined with a row of rhododendrons. I suppose architects might hate how boxy it is, or how the textured stucco on the sides just collects dirt and bird shit. It’s squat and practical and you would never notice it if you were driving by. Really, it’s nothing more or less than a respectable house. But I hate it.
It’s mostly empty these days, empty air in the long hallway, circling in on itself. Sounds come from the basement, like whispers or sighs, as if the rooms are lonely and have started talking to each other, each word like a breath. I don’t go down there much, not since my brother moved out and took all his stuff with him, except for his desk, which still stands under that small, high window. It was only after he left that I found words scratched into the varnish on the top: “I am a mouse.”
My mother accumulates almost nothing to fill the rooms or hang on the bare walls. The only thing I remember her buying for the house in the last two years is a crocheted doll whose skirt hides the extra roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. When I came home from school that day, it was sitting proudly in the middle of the coffee table, its wide-brimmed, yellow hat flopping over one brown eye.
“You see,” my mother said to me in Chinese, “she looks like you. Same lips.”
She stands in the big living room window and thinks that no one can see her because of the floor-length sheers.
I turn the key in the lock like I do every morning, hear the satisfactory click that means everything is locked up inside. Sometimes, when the morning is dark and there’s a chill hush in the air, I imagine a stream of demons and shrieking lady ghosts following me like an otherworldly parade. I scare myself so much that I never look behind me when I hear a sound; what if I come face to face with a hungry spirit who looks just like me, except with a white face and long, tangled hair and fingers that could pierce my cheek with the slightest touch? I can hear it now, hissing at me, “You can run, Margaret, but I will always be faster than you.” I’ve been going to school for eleven years and I’ve never forgotten to lock the door once.
I know that my mother watches me walk down the street. She stands in the big living room window and thinks that no one can see her because of the floor-length sheers. Not too many curtains can hide her red cardigan. If it’s sunny, the light will reflect off her glasses and shoot two beams of light into the street through the window. I never look behind me, but I know she’s there because she always is, the sheers like a fog around her body. I wonder sometimes what she does all day alone in the house like that. By the time I come home, not much has changed; she hasn’t painted the kitchen or finished knitting a sweater for my brother or anything. Usually, she’s sitting on the couch watching Chinese television and smiles at me when I arrive.
“How was school?” She’ll say it like she doesn’t really care, like I could say that I sliced open Amanda Gruen’s head with a sharpened protractor because she spiked a volleyball into my face during gym, and the expression wouldn’t change.
“Are you hungry?”
“Well then, I’ll get you something to eat.” And she’ll walk off toward the kitchen and make something ridiculous like hand-cut french fries or a full breakfast with bacon and hash browns. I’ve been to other people’s houses, and their moms make snacks like peanut butter and banana sandwiches, or crackers and cheese, easy things like that. But not my mother. Yesterday, she had six Scotch eggs ready by the time I changed my clothes.
Other people worry about time. My mother fills as much of it as she can with meat and rice and the steam that billows up from an uncovered pot. Every dish is like a collision of salty and sweet, hot and sour, crunchy and gooey.
Before I was born, my parents owned a diner and my mom did all the cooking while my father took the orders, mostly because my mother doesn’t speak English. But that was a long time ago, before my father left us and moved in with his girlfriend, Amy, who’s from Australia. Have you ever heard a Chinese person speak with an Australian accent? It’s weird, but that’s not the only reason I hate her.
Leaving my house is the best part of going to school.
The clouds are dark grey and low in the sky today, so low that they seem to be converging on the roofs of the houses, curling around the chimneys, leaving fine drops of water that coat the eaves and shingles. The buds are just forming on the branches of the cherry trees that run down the left side of the sidewalk. I smell rain. It’s unmistakable, that smell, like ocean and ozone and springtime. I think of it as the smell of this city, the thing that makes Vancouver different from every other city in the world. Not that I would know, I’ve only ever been to Seattle, and that place smells exactly the same.
It’s three blocks to the bus stop, the same three blocks I’ve been walking since I started going to high school. We’ve lived in this neighbourhood on the East Side in the same house since before I was born. Everyone knows us here. Mrs. Bianchi lives on the corner and every summer gives us romaine lettuce and green peppers from her garden. The Millbanks are the people in the old character house with the huge horse chestnut tree. And Mr. and Mrs. Wong, we’ve known them the longest. Mrs. Wong asked my mom to go on an Alaskan cruise with her last year, but my mother said she couldn’t because I was still too young to be left alone. But really, I think it’s because we don’t have a lot of money. My father sends us cheques every month and the house is paid for, but there’s never anything left over for extras, like real haircuts or the jeans that everyone else is buying at school. When he left, no one asked us any questions, but I saw Mrs. Bianchi bringing in our empty trash cans on garbage collection day and Mr. Wong fixed the leaking gutter without even being asked. When you live with the same people for years and years, things don’t need to be explained. You start to understand the pulse of the other families, and you know when something’s wrong, when silence envelops a house so tightly not a sound escapes and no new sounds can ever leak in.
I walk past the small rental house with the blue paint peeling off the siding. The front door is open and I can see into the hall. It looks dark inside, as if the walls were once white but have slowly absorbed years of dirt and smog and cigarette smoke. Even the windows are covered in a thin layer of brown film, dense in some spots, transparent in others. A black cat with a white stripe down its face crouches on the front step, its head tensed and eyes pale in this grey morning light. Cats give me the creeps, especially in the spring, when every animal seems crazier than usual. I shudder a little and zip my jacket up past my chin.
I’m still staring at the cat when a tall figure steps through the hall and out the front door. He wears a red jacket and a pair of baggy jeans and he jingles a ring of keys in his hand. I must look stupid, mouth half-hidden in my collar, head turned to gape at his unnerving, unblinking cat. I trip on a tree root that has started to crack open the sidewalk, which is the most ridiculous thing to do, because that tree root has been there for as long as I can remember and I’ve never, not even once, stumbled on it. I’m arms out like a kid playing airplane, one leg up, and I take five awkward, could-be-drunk steps until I come to a jerky full stop on the grass. I want to die.
(The last time I saw him, sometime in the fall, I was walking home after going out for a birthday dinner with Anna Bianchi and some other friends from the neighbourhood. He was sitting on a blanket spread on the damp lawn with his roommates, drinking beer and playing music on a portable stereo. He didn’t see me then, because it was dark out and I kept to the other side of the street, but I was looking at him. He sat in the grass like he had been doing it his whole life, like he was born in a meadow in this same precise hour just after twilight, like this one moment with his friends was all he was thinking about, and not yesterday or the next week or about how he was going to finish all the things that he was supposed to. All that existed for him was this cold night, this nodding of his blond head at his bearded roommate who was talking about cognitive science and his new lady professor who was so flawlessly beautiful he barely remembered anything that came out of her perfect mouth. I could talk to them, I thought.)
I hope he doesn’t see me. Maybe if I stand perfectly still, I’ll look like a tree trunk or a lamp post. He looks up, and I close my eyes against that sharp jaw that means he’s not a boy like all the boys I know, but a boy who just became a man who no longer remembers what high school was even like.
I can’t stand here forever with my eyes closed like this. But I can’t decide if this not moving thing is more stupid or if walking toward the bus stop like nothing happened is worse.
I open my eyes.
He stands on the concrete walk to his house and looks at me with his head cocked. I notice for the first time that his eyes are brown, which somehow surprises me. He’s seeing me—there’s no question—but his gaze is like a tickle, a barely there touch that grazes the tips of my ears and the line of my jaw. Not invasive at all. Maybe even just short of genius. I sniff. The rain is getting closer.
“Stopping to smell the roses?” he asks me. How is it possible that he’s speaking to me, that his voice is running down the back of my neck like melted chocolate? I shift my knapsack and take a step backward.
“Yeah. Sure. The roses.” I’ve only repeated what he just said even though there are no roses, only daffodils that haven’t bloomed yet. He’ll think I have a disability. I should definitely start walking to the bus stop. I look like a stalker, standing here on this guy’s front lawn. But he isn’t yelling at me to go away, so maybe he doesn’t mind.
I take three steps forward and I can hear him unlocking his car door behind me. Good, this whole incident is over and I can get on with my life, maybe finally catch a bus and go to school, like I’m supposed to, like every other day when absolutely nothing happens. But then, he speaks.
“What’s your name?”
I turn around and he’s smiling at me, leaning with his elbow on the roof of his car. If I ran toward him and threw my arms around his neck, would that be too much? I picture us holding hands and walking down the beach, with his cat on a leash beside us. Waves drift in gently around our feet. I shake my head. Focus. I have to focus.
“Margaret,” I say, too loudly and too quickly to be anything but an idiot.
“I’m Grant. It’s nice to meet you.” And he winks at me before he ducks into the car.
The rest of the walk is like looking through a smudge of grease on glass. I see the trees and houses, but they’re blurry, like dream trees and dream houses. All I hear is a loud pounding between my temples that sounds like “he saw me—he loves me—he saw me—he loves me.” My steps fall into the same rhythm and I’m half-convinced that our love is real. If I could, I would hug myself.
When I’m finally on the bus, I’m not even sure how I got here, whether I showed the driver my pass or if I just lurched up the stairs and found a seat. My head feels gummy and heavy and I need some quiet time to breathe it all out. It’s a good thing, for today anyway, that the ride is so long and that my brother forced me to go to a school across the city near the university. At the time, when I was getting ready to go into grade eight, he told me that I needed to meet new people for networking purposes. I guess networking with Anna Bianchi at the local East Side high school wasn’t what he had in mind.
The bus is foggy this morning. The damp breath of all these people has collected on the windows and water runs down the glass. I always feel itchy on the bus, as if bugs are crawling off other people’s bodies and are making their way toward me. I can smell that someone in the back has been drinking all night and has probably peed on himself at least once. I look out the window at Broadway, at the shops that change slowly as we inch west. At first, it’s ninety-nine cent pizza shops and lowrise apartment buildings with blackout curtains in the windows. Then, the neon sign of a DVD store flashes blue and red and green, one colour after another, and we pass a laundry where the clothes must be dirtier coming out than going in. Today, there’s only one prostitute still leaning against the exterior wall of the corner store that sells fried chicken. She turns her head slowly as the bus rolls past and she blinks, as if this is the first time she’s considered that it might be morning already.
Main Street sneaks up on me; it just appears out of nothing. All of a sudden, I’m no longer passing Vietnamese diners and an orange-brick strip mall. All of a sudden, this is Main Street, all designer shops and urban grime. A couple sips coffee at an outdoor table, the woman wearing a tight jacket and the man in vintage glasses. They both look ironic and skinny and I think that they must be trying so hard to make it seem as if being ironic and skinny are not things they aspire to, but things they just are. Maybe I could do that someday, sit at a Main Street hipster café with someone (with Grant maybe, except I’m trying to forget him so I don’t obsess and obsess about him saying eight words to me that mean nothing, but could mean everything), except, eventually, everyone would figure out that my irony and skinniness are an outside layer, and that, inside, I’m just Margaret Tan, naturally knock-kneed and still scared of ghosts. Not interesting at all. Less than boring. Someone you would never even notice.
It was only last night that I stayed up late watching Mystic Pizza on TV and by the end of the movie, after Cat has totally figured out that the man she babysits for was never in love with her, I thought I felt something soft brush the back of my neck, like the end of a scarf or strands of fine, little girl hair. Maybe it’s normal to feel touches you can’t explain, by people or creatures you can never see. I don’t care because it sure didn’t feel normal to me. The word ghost echoed in my head, bouncing and multiplying until that was all I could think of. That’s when I closed my eyes and ran to my bedroom and stuffed a quilt in the crack under the door. I lay awake for hours and hours, but never opened my eyes once. I only fell asleep when I heard my mother tiptoe to the washroom and I drifted off to the sound of her pee hitting the water in the toilet.
I’m halfway to school. Still twenty more minutes to go before I step through those double doors, painted a dull green, like mould on cheese. No rain yet, just that flat blanket of dark clouds.
They don’t carry the marks of their neighbourhoods on them.
I don’t hate school. I’m in advanced classes for most things (except math and chemistry—whoever said that Chinese people are good at numbers has obviously never met me) and I like that feeling of being consumed by what you’re reading or listening to, like all the brain cells in your head are working at full capacity. You don’t know if you can handle it, but then you always do. Each classroom is a square of isolation, where nothing outside matters inside.
The hallways are the worst part, having to walk through crowds of kids who might be looking at me or might not, whose clothes are more expensive than mine. Even though I know there’s nothing I can do about it, the rest of them just think that I dress this way because I’m too stupid to know any better. I wear my brother’s old jeans and shrunken patterned thrift-shop sweaters that old men probably used to wear, you know, the kind with checks and diagonal stripes and triangles. I like hats. I have a whole plastic tub of different kinds of hats that I find at yard sales and in my friends’ basements. Today, I’m wearing a blue cloche that Anna’s grandmother gave me when I visited last weekend.
All those eyes. I’ve been at this school for three years and the eyes still seem so unreal to me, the way they float over things, not pausing any longer to consider me or the banner hanging from the ceiling advertising the Spring Fling Dance. When I came here, I thought that there would be more kids like me, the ones who bus across the city far away from what their parents are so scared of (namely, bunches of teenagers roaming the streets at night with nothing to do but break into cars, sniff glue and get pregnant). But, as it turns out, in my grade, there are only five or six of us from the East Side and they’re all invisible. They don’t carry the marks of their neighbourhoods on them. Things like home-cut hair, dresses for special occasions that don’t quite fit because they’re someone else’s, drugstore eye shadow that creases on the lids.
It’s easy to see me once and think you know my story. Chinese girl who’s good at school, whose parents never let her do anything but study, who doesn’t even care about how she looks. Partly true, but also not true at all.
Mostly, I just wish you couldn’t see me at all.
Unless you’re Grant (who is in my head again, although I’m making a promise to myself that this is the very last time).
At Granville Street, everything changes again. There’s that big bookstore on the corner, all glass, and a row of art galleries running north, the kind that are only good to look at through the windows. It’s early still and people aren’t shopping yet, only hurrying through the crosswalks, streaming in and out of the bank, their shiny leather shoes hitting the pavement as if they’re beating it into submission. A car signals left—a dark, sleek, low car that looks like it might purr instead of growl. Everyone on the bus turns to look at it, at how perfect and shiny it is, at the shadowy driver behind the tinted glass who may not be as perfect as the car but whom we all imagine to be anyway.
Up the street, just fifteen blocks or so south, is where all the big, old houses are. The last time I went trick-or-treating, my brother took me there, saying, “They’ll have better candy, Mags, and we’ll get to see inside.” He was more excited than I was.
What I remember most was the light. The windows glowed when I looked at them from the outside, and it wasn’t just one or two windows, but all of them, the ones on the upper floors, even the ones on the sides. I thought about home, where we turned off every light when we left a room, about how my father used to scream at us if we forgot. “Electricity isn’t free, for crying out loud,” he’d shout from wherever he was without even looking to see if it was me or my brother.
And those big houses were warm too. I could feel the puffs of heated air on my cheeks as I waited for the candy. At one house, a little girl about my age stood behind her father as he blithered about the creativity of my costume (that year, I went as a Christmas tree, which meant my brother and I made a poncho of green felt and taped ornaments and tinsel all over it and I wore a hat with a tin foil star standing crookedly on the top of my head) and I could see that she was only wearing a hula girl costume with a tank top and grass skirt. That night, the mist was sharp, burrowing its way into the neck of my costume and up my sleeves, biting my skin whenever it made contact. All that October, I had been wearing two layers minimum in the house because my father refused to turn on the heat until the middle of November on principle and, even then, the tip of my nose was cold to the touch and I had to pull my sleeves over my hands. The girl just stood there in the marble-tiled hall in her bare feet and stared at me. It was hard to turn around and walk back into the chilly night with my brother, who muttered about property values and municipal taxes. “That house will be mine one day,” he said to the windshield. “I’m not sweating over this MBA for nothing.” At least he didn’t expect me to listen.
We’re at MacDonald now and an old woman is getting on, her arms shaking as she pushes her walker forward, her glasses sliding down her nose millimetre by millimetre. I stand up and offer her my seat and she nods before collapsing into a small pile of herringbone tweed. I wonder if she’s made up of only bones and fabric and hair, the flesh—after years of moving and scratching and maybe even babies—thin and stretched and flaking away every time she moves.
My mother doesn’t look much different. Empty of weight. Putting in time until time is up.
The old woman smiles at me as the bus swerves around an illegally parked car outside a two-storey clothing store. When she speaks her voice is loud, nothing like the dry whisper I was expecting.
“Thank you,” she says. “It’s very nice of you.”
I don’t really like old people—it’s that smell of medicinal creams that treat growths and rashes I’d rather not know about, and their fragility, as if a hearty laugh could rip them in half and leave nothing behind but traces of dust and maybe their bifocals. But she seems like a nice lady and the bus is too crowded now for me to move to the back or ignore her completely.
“You’re welcome,” I say and I smile back.
The bus swerves again into the right lane and the old lady’s lavender crochet bag falls to the floor. Pill bottles and makeup and loose change and books of stamps spill out and begin rolling around and under the feet of the other passengers.
“Oh no,” she gasps as she waves her hands in the air.
I stoop down and pick up her things, muttering “excuse me” to the legs around me. I even manage to stop a roll of blackcurrant jellies from falling through a crack in the rear door. As I hand it all back to her (she’s smiling sheepishly and the tips of her ears are red), I see that I’ve scooped up a crumpled brochure and am still holding it in my left hand.
The way she’s lived her life, you dried-up piece of lady jerky, has nothing at all to do with choices, so what satisfaction can there be in that?
On the front, there’s only one line in capital letters: THE TIME IS NEAR. Behind the words, a swirling cloud that is equal parts black and grey and red and orange seems to come at me, as if determined to explode off this piece of paper and into the real-world air. A giant alarm clock floats in the middle, its hands at five to twelve; noon or midnight, there’s no way to tell and, for some reason, this freaks me out more. What’s worse? A daytime Armageddon that envelops a blue sky with clouds like these? Or one that violently pushes you from sleep to waking and there’s no time to change? What if I couldn’t check on my mother? What if my father didn’t bother to check on me?
The old woman leans forward and touches my arm with her fingertips. I shiver. “You can keep that, my dear, as a thank you.” She stuffs a small plastic bag of cotton balls into the bottom of her purse. “Since we’re here together, let me ask you a question. If the end came now, would you be satisfied with the way you’ve lived your life?”
If I were a different sort of person, I would say to her, What kind of question is that to ask a sixteen-year-old girl? A girl who fell in love with her neighbour just thirty-five minutes ago? Whose mother hasn’t looked her in the eye for four years? The way she’s lived her life, you dried-up piece of lady jerky, has nothing at all to do with choices, so what satisfaction can there be in that? Being satisfied has nothing to do with it. Only survival and even that isn’t so much of a choice. She breathes because that’s what humans do, one set of inhale and exhale after another. You can stuff your brochure, you witch-eyed fanatic, and leave me alone.
It takes me only seven seconds to think all this. Meanwhile, she stares at me with eyes that eat up two thirds of her face and blinks, dispersing the pools of water that collect in the bottom lids. She’s leaking fluid constantly. No wonder she’s so small.
But I have to say something, so I pull my arm away from her touch and mutter, “I suppose.”
“That’s not good enough. You can’t just suppose when the Lord is asking you about your sins.” She straightens up and shakes her head. “There’s no more certainty these days when it comes to good and bad. People spend too much time thinking about their own material problems and not enough about their souls and the souls of others. Navel gazing, as my son would say.”
She doesn’t read minds. That’s not possible. But I feel as guilty as if she had.
“But we really don’t have to worry about anything except how we conduct ourselves and choosing the right thing to do over the wrong thing. My rule,” she says, pressing a hand to her chest, “is to hurt no one’s feelings and to tell the truth as kindly as you can.”
“But the truth isn’t always kind,” I blurt, before I even have time to think. I should know better than to engage in conversation with a woman who gives out Armageddon brochures instead of thank you cards.
She squints at me as if she’s seeing me in a new way. Then again, maybe she just needs stronger glasses. “You’re right. The truth can be terrible. But without truth, we’re just living in a fog, don’t you think?”
A fog. Like the fog my mother walks and sits and sleeps in. For the first time, I wonder if she even believes my father has left us, if she really understands that there actually is a woman named Amy who now claims him as hers. Or if she thinks he’s still her husband and he’s going to come home tonight, even though he hasn’t visited us in three years. If that fog that breathes with her is necessary because, otherwise, she would see what our life really is, which is the two of us together, thin and mostly silent.
And that house, unchanged for as long as I can remember, except for those times when my father and then my brother moved out. They left behind old versions of themselves that cling to the cobwebs in the corners like sloughed-off skin, transparent and thin, ghostly even. Maybe, eventually, I won’t be able to tell my mother from the ghosts or from my own reflection in the mirror.
The old lady shakes her head as the bus bounces through a pothole. The curls on the top of her head shake too. “The only real ghost is the Holy Ghost, my dear.”
I stare at her, at the grey-blue eyes that might once have been a deeper colour, at the skin on her neck that pulls and bags at the same time. I don’t know what to say to her. The lights in the bus flicker and I think that she will disappear in the brief dim and I will never see her again, but when the lights come back on, she’s still sitting there, looking at me, waiting for me to say something.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I say, because I can’t think of anything else.
She pulls out a pair of pink leather gloves from her coat pocket and slides her hands into them. “In my experience, ghosts are nothing more than the things we haven’t let go of yet. When my husband died, I thought I could smell the smoke from his cigars every time I stepped out on to the porch and I started to believe he was still alive. But he wasn’t, you know, I just didn’t want to face it. Then, one day, the smoke was gone.”
She grabs the support pole and begins to haul herself up. I take her elbow and steady her against the shake and tilt of the speeding bus. As she stands, she turns her face to the open window and sniffs. “It smells like rain, don’t you think?” And she totters off, pushing the walker ahead of her.
I stand there, staring at car after car after car. I feel buried underneath the mess in my head. I’m not really confused, only terribly tired, as if my throat is full of rocks and my body is struggling to breathe and move the blood from vein to heart and out again. I turn to the window and blink hard, but I’m still on Broadway, still inside this bus with an ad for a herpes clinic above my head. A man in a red track suit bumps into me and it’s like an electric shock, the feel of someone else’s warm body, the pressure of his flesh. I can’t remember the last time my mother hugged me so hard I could feel her hot breath on my ear and the squeeze of her arms around my shoulders. Or the last time I heard my father’s voice, which is somehow always tinny and broken, as if the line we’re talking on is going to die any minute and there will soon be nothing, just me saying, “Hello? Hello,” over and over again, throwing that one word into a sea of crackling silence.
Maybe Grant will want to hold me, the air between us like compressed heat, no ghostly voices in the room, only our own—real-life, lung-powered, so tangible we can practically see them without ever taking our eyes off each other.
The street widens to the grassy boulevard that marks the campus of the university and my high school. I pick up my backpack and step off the bus. As soon as I cross the street, the noise changes. It’s as if the trees swallow the sounds of traffic and all I can hear are my footsteps and the shifting of books inside my bag. This is the best part of going to school here, I think, being cocooned by green and the sensation that I’m all alone in this damp, soft place, the kind of place that doesn’t exist in the neighbourhood we live in.
There’s no such thing as quiet there, only parks dotted with empty concrete wading pools and bordered on all sides by busy streets and the heavy smell of cooking oil that floats out of kitchen windows at dinnertime. I realize that the peace here might be a fancy illusion; after all, every family, west side or not, has its problems, right? I look up at a house perched on a hill, a house with floor to ceiling windows and a flat roof. I can see everything: the sleek, white chairs, the pale wood coffee table, even through the patio door and into the back garden. Maybe the people who live there are so happy, it doesn’t matter if their neighbours can see everything. Or maybe they live like everyone else—crying and screaming and ignoring each other when they’ve run out of words—but don’t care what the outside world thinks because the outside world is just that. Outside.
It would just be you and your family, seeing each other all the time because there are no walls, just open space and glass, and light in all corners to illuminate the solidity of your cheeks and elbows and hair. It would be impossible to hate a house like that.
I stand at the doors to the school, green like always, scarred with use and overuse. Inside, the same girls in the same clothes are probably already huddled in groups by their lockers, with the boys leaning against the walls like they don’t even care that the girls look at them and titter. It’ll be a day like yesterday, but maybe not quite.
I reach out to open the door and a cool wind breathes into the back of my neck. Finally, it’s starting to rain.