Sometimes I get a glimpse of what my aunt used to be. Like now, as she snores like a horse in the back of the car. She was once a sturdy woman. She would talk to me with a slippered foot hanging off the kitchen table. Walking home afterward, I saw my father’s mouth crease at a funny angle. Your aunt is truly something. Showing us her underwear! And it wasn’t that she was immodest. She was earthy and obtuse. She was all skin that I couldn’t avoid. When I was a child, I was scared of her painted eyebrows. They were darker than the rest of her face, arching to an ominous point. She would come into our house, blowing smoke in the air, and the smell would soak into my hair like perfume.
My mother was not like this. At four years old, I couldn’t describe the difference except by telling her one day in the kitchen that I thought she was prettier. Don’t tell Auntie, I said. But my mother betrayed me that very evening, speaking in Chinese because she thought I wouldn’t understand. All the grown-ups burst out laughing, and then my aunt turned to look at me. “So you think I’m not as pretty?” she said. My fingers trailed along the sofa as I moved away from her. “You think your mom is prettier than me, hey?” All at once, she lunged, squeezing me tight. When she suctioned my face with kisses, I could feel the hot steam of her emotion. She was a tyrant in that way, her passions swirled messily together, making me afraid. To love and to hate was the same, and even the dog was scared of her.
Now my aunt reminds me of a bird. Inside, a clock is ticking. There is a mass of corrupted tissue wedged into her spine. It is slowly eating at the bone. She reminds me of a bird because of her delicate legs and pointed shoes. She wears a light, filmy dress, and her hair is newly permed. I have never seen her look so elegant. She smiles, moving carefully. Her body has no weight, her bones filled with air. I hold her purse. I take her arm. I have crossed over the threshold into quiet rooms without a pulse. My aunt lets out a breath, lowering herself into a chair. She rolls up her sleeve without seeming to bend her fingers. When she presents her arm to the nurse, it is as if she is giving away her life. The nurse holds her wrist, and my aunt closes her eyes. Something is dripping into her veins. It is a long, leisurely infusion. The nurse touches her arm, and my aunt opens her eyes again. When she looks at me, it’s as if I’m not there. “This disease is playing tricks on me,” she says.
My mother and aunt have sharp tongues inherited from my grandmother. My mother is cool and sardonic, her method precise. Her words slice my heart into fine strips. Take an antidepressant, she says when I tell her I am lonely and want to come home. My aunt, on the other hand, knows nothing whatever about slipping needles under a person’s skin. Her violence is sudden and elemental and creates its own atmosphere. In their circle of friends, both sisters are known to keep their husbands in line.
There is nothing simple about the life that flourishes in my aunt’s house. Plants struggle into existence with broken spines. The pots are too small, and the sun staggers in through long vertical windows. My aunt will forget to water her plants for weeks at a time, and as they sit and burn in the sun, parts of themselves curl, darken, and fall off. Then my aunt will give them a little water to drink. Somehow the plants thrive, each year assuming more stubborn, fantastical shapes. I sense their breathing—all that complex, defective life.
My aunt calls me, and I go to her bedroom. She has a separate bedroom because my uncle can’t sleep with her snoring. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have sex,” she once told me. She lies on her side in bed in a cream negligee. Her skin is a rough brown, spotted with freckles. There is a faint, lasting smell of cigarette smoke, which seems to come from the carpet.
“For a second, I thought you were your mother,” my aunt says. “She’s gotten fatter, but she used to have a long, thin neck like yours. A chicken’s neck, we called it.”
I smile. I don’t tell her that whenever my mother looks in the mirror these days, she complains about how she looks more and more like my aunt. Her face is wider and heavier, age spots spreading along her cheeks. “She’s afraid of getting old and ugly like me?” my aunt would say.
My aunt gazes at me for a second. “You haven’t ever been kissed, have you?” I start, and she laughs at me. “You’re just like your mother, so conservative. I was worried that she would become an old maid, but then she met your father. I felt so sorry for your father, especially before they were married. Once, when they visited me, I noticed there were scratch marks on his arm. I asked where they came from, and he flushed, saying he had tried to kiss your mother in the car.” My aunt chuckles. “Your mother was a real prude! You should have seen those scratches!”
She sighs and asks me for the time. “Dr. Chang is coming. He’s going to make me some secret potion of his.”
I ask her what is in the potion.
“Who knows? Chinese medicine that tastes bad. I’ll ask him to sweeten it with rock sugar. He’s most likely a fake, but I have nothing to lose.”
I tell her about the acupuncturist that my friend’s mother sees every week. She’s supposed to be some kind of miracle worker, I say. She feels your pulse and knows what is ailing you.
“Give me her number,” my aunt says. She shifts in bed, resting her face in the palm of her hand. “Do you know what I miss most of all?”
What? I ask.
“The feeling of hope. Of having a future.”
Yes, I say.
“It’s no good living when you have a death sentence hanging over your head.”
But all of us are hoping, I say. If you only knew how much we are hoping.
“I know,” she says. Her face trembles and she begins to cry. “Sometimes, it becomes such a burden—other people’s hope.”
I hear the sound of my cousin’s motorized wheelchair as he steers himself along the hallway. He stops in front of the half-open door. The frame is too narrow for his wheelchair to pass easily through. For a moment, he stares at both of us crying, and then, without a word, continues along down the hallway.
“Why don’t you take Basil out with Philip?” my aunt says. “Yes, yes,” she urges. “I need to get ready for Dr. Chang.”
Outside, Philip asks me if I can adjust his glasses. They are slipping down his face. I set them higher up on his nose. How’s that? I say. Yes, thank you, he says. The dog barks, straining under her leash. Okay, Basil, I say, beginning to walk. Doña Basilia wishes to take a shit, Philip says.
We walk the beagle to the pond that borders the back of a neighbor’s yard. Even in summer, the pond is murky brown with insects trembling on the surface. My sister and I tried to fish here when we were younger. Philip would sit a little off to the side, watching. He couldn’t get too close to the water because his wheelchair would get stuck in the mud. I never caught any fish, though my sister once dragged a turtle to the edge.
I release Basil from her leash, and Philip and I watch her tear around the pond, her mouth stretched into a grin. She runs around me in circles, asking me to chase her, and when I reach for her coat, she nimbly dodges away. I look at my cousin as he stares at the pond with heavy eyelids. He is ten years older than I am, with a sensual face, unusually large and sagging. I have always wondered if his face would be the same if he could walk. The weight in his body is unevenly distributed, all in the face and stomach, while his legs grow thinner every year. Over time he has become immured within his skin. It is thick and dull, faintly tinged with blue, his blood circulating slowly in his veins. His arms and legs always feel cold, and if you pricked him with a needle, he would tell you that he felt pressure but no pain.
As a child, I was devoted to him. I cut up his food and lifted the fork to his mouth. He didn’t seem to mind when I dropped pieces into his lap, staining his pants. If he wanted to blow his nose, I would fetch a tissue. His feet would fall off the footrest, and I would grab his ankles, positioning them better. Like this? I’d say. Yes, he said, thank you.
Things are not so easy between us now. He is more silent and withdrawn, and I have somehow developed this personality. I am more selfish, I think. There isn’t the same pleasure in waiting on him as before. And he knows this.
I hook the leash onto Basil’s collar and we head back to my aunt’s house. Both of us laugh over the beagle’s impetuous crawl. The dog strains with her nose along the ground, and I hold her back to keep myself from flying along the asphalt. My aunt watches us from the doorstep. She wears a thin robe, her arms crossed over her chest. “That dog is going to live longer than me,” she says.
Philip’s face stiffens. He has heard this before and is sick of his mother’s talk.
“It’s terrible to think that everyone will still be here when I am gone,” my aunt says. “I’m afraid that all of you will go on living, you will all forget me—yes, you will forget me. Even now, all of you are living. I am the only one who is not living . . .” My cousin does not look at her as he steers himself up the ramp. When his mother makes the motions to assist him, he replies stonily that he does not need her help. But he comes to a dead stop when he gets to the door. My aunt stands in front of the door, gloating. “You don’t need any help, huh?” she says.
Well, you could open the door, Philip says.
“You need my help,” she replies, opening the door for him.
I sleep in the afternoon, my will folding in upon itself. When I wake up, I feel drained and without desire, wanting only sleep, as if it were some narcotic.
My mother calls me into the kitchen to eat, handing me a bowl full of noodles. She wonders if I have anemia, which she says is caused not only by poor diet but deficient kidneys. When I sit down at the table, she takes the bowl away.
It’s probably not salty enough for you, she says.
She opens the refrigerator and takes out the soy sauce. You know, she says, I just want to tell you that salt causes stomach cancer. She tilts the bottle carefully and lets a drop fall onto my noodles.
I snatch the bottle away from her. I don’t want to hear it, I say. I’ve always been vulnerable to what my mother says. No one has as much influence over me.
One day, I hope you will remember what I say, she tells me.
Please leave me alone, I tell her.
You’re stubborn, just like your auntie. All those years she smoked. Always eating spicy, salty food. A terrible diet! I told her a few years ago she should have a thorough checkup. She didn’t want to. Too lazy. If she had listened to me—My mother stops herself and looks at me sadly. Well, she says, I guess it’s all fate. Your aunt is an unlucky person. A fortune-teller looked at her hand and told her she would live a short life.
How could someone say something like that?
This fortune-teller was blunt. Your aunt was very upset, and I told her not to worry about it. I never said anything, not even when she moved to her new house and the front door was black. Then last year, she accepted a clock for her birthday. Song zhong. Do you know that? It means “giving a clock” but also “going to a funeral.” You don’t ever give a Chinese a clock, all right? I wouldn’t have taken it, but your aunt laughed. She said she wasn’t superstitious.
What are you trying to do, my mother says when she sees me pouring more soy sauce onto my noodles. Are you trying to kill yourself?
In the mornings, I drive my aunt to Baltimore. It takes over an hour each way, and my aunt usually sleeps in the back of the car. I remember once during a road trip playing cards with my sister over my aunt’s lap, how we smirked at each other whenever she snored. When my aunt woke up, she looked at us smiling at her. “I hope I wasn’t snoring. Did I snore?”
No, I said.
She looked relieved. “You never know when you’re asleep. It’s so embarrassing, all the noise you make, your mouth hanging open. People tell me I snore, but I can’t believe it. I don’t think I’m the type of person to snore.”
Yet my aunt could never hold anything in. Even buttons popped off her clothes. She would be pumping gas for her car, and her skirt would burst open at the waist and fall to the ground.
Today my aunt sits beside me because it is no use sleeping. She blinks at the sun’s glare, her face and hands bloated and pale, as if she were drowned. I drive in silence, without turning on the radio. The road stretches before us like a monotonous dream. The windshield vibrates with light, burning my eyes. I forget that I am turning the wheel, my hands following the shape of the road.
“Last night, I took thirteen sleeping pills,” my aunt says. Her voice quavers, rising from inhuman depths. I’m afraid to look at her. If I look at her, I will be pulled under, unable to breathe.
“The doctor told me to take one, and if I was still awake to take another in twenty minutes. But I kept taking them. I was so miserable. My hand kept reaching out for them, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I walked up and down the stairs, I sat on the floor making strange noises, I was like a monkey—a monkey!” She pauses. “It’s so sad to me.”
What is, Auntie? I say.
“I was thinking of your grandma. You know, she was addicted to sleeping pills. When she couldn’t go to sleep, she would hit her head against the wall and cry, asking for her mother. A forty-year-old woman still asking for her mother! She didn’t want any of us, even though we were living. When I was a child, I loved her more than anyone in the world. Just the thought of her dying would make me go crazy. Now I know how hopeless she felt. Every day trying to get better.”
She looks at me. “I feel closest now to your mother. It’s because we share the same blood, the blood of our parents mixed together. Our blood is closer to each other’s than anyone else’s.”
I remember visiting my aunt when we first learned about her cancer, how she came down the stairs to greet us, looking only at my mother and smiling. My mother smiled as well. When they stood in front of each other, my mother took my aunt’s arms, clutching her by the elbows. They stood like that for a while, holding each other by the elbows. Then my aunt rubbed my mother’s back gently, and said, “With you here, I feel secure.” I had brought roses for my aunt, and she seemed genuinely pleased by the sight of them. After learning her news, I had rushed out to the backyard, where our rosebushes stood, and in the dark I had cut every red, yellow, and pink bloom I could find. The roses were overblown, already dropping petals, but my aunt smiled as she gazed at them, lifting the bouquet to her nose.
But don’t you feel closer to your children? I ask her.
“Not as strong,” she says. “They have only half my blood. Even though they came out of my body.” My aunt sighs. “I know now what my life is. My daughter is a doctor but would rather treat her patients than her sick mother. My son has no emotions and shuts himself up in his room all day and ignores me. I would have been at their side to comfort and take care of them, but they don’t do that for me. I am sure they love me, but not that much. Even though they have only one mother. Only one.”
At the hospital, my aunt hesitates, wandering down the wrong hallway. She walks slowly, bumping into people, an open door, the water fountain.
Mrs. Yu, the nurse says. It’s this way.
My aunt ignores her, studying the physicians’ names listed on the directory.
When she hears a doctor talking on the phone, she moves toward him and waits expectantly. The doctor glances up at her.
Mrs. Yu, the nurse repeats as she takes my aunt’s arm.
“My son is a quadriplegic,” my aunt says. “The doctors said he couldn’t live when he was seven, but now he’s twenty-eight. We won a lawsuit a few years ago, so now he’s rich, and I’m going to find a wife who he can have sex with. Isn’t that wonderful?”
The nurse tells her how happy she is for him. She squeezes my aunt’s hand. Now you sit right there, Mrs. Yu.
I sit beside my aunt, pretending to read a book. My aunt sighs loudly, stirring in her chair. She is waiting for me to look up. I stare mercilessly at the page, the words tunneling into my mind, then dropping away. My aunt is silent, but I feel her presence burning, insisting, without touching my skin. Her personality is submerged, or maybe it is magnified, I can’t tell which. Somehow, though, she has become inseparable from her disease. She reminds me of an insect scurrying along a slippery edge, trying to keep abreast of water. I can’t bear to see her frantic motions.
My aunt stands up and slowly paces to the other side of the room, her arms pressed against her stomach. She moves toward an older woman sitting quietly with folded hands. My aunt smiles at her. “What are you here for?”
Oh, the woman says, gazing at her for the first time. She did not notice my aunt creeping toward her with such fateful intention. It’s not me, it’s my husband.
My aunt looks at her blankly.
He’s getting his radiation now, the woman says. It’s near his throat.
“Me, colon cancer.”
Oh, the woman murmurs.
“Yes. They took a large piece of my colon out two years ago.” My aunt nods as if she is trying to understand all this herself. “They stapled me together and said I was completely cured. No need to worry, they said.” My aunt nods again. “Now it’s come back, growing in my spine. The size of a grapefruit. But this time, it’s inoperable, they say.”
Oh, I am so sorry, the woman says.
“Yes. They don’t seem to understand this is the only life you have.”
No, they don’t.
“That is my niece over there. She just finished her first year of college.” The woman looks over at me and we both exchange a weak flutter of smiles. “She’s always reading books.”
“She’s so good, driving me here each day.”
That is nice of her, the woman says.
I wrote my aunt a few times after I returned to my university in the fall. In one letter, I told her I had always imagined we would have lunch together some day when I was older and could pick up the check. She wrote back that she liked that idea and wondered what I would be like when I was older. I remember the person I was in college. I was naïve and had a keen sense of my own importance. When I wrote her that letter, I couldn’t quite believe our conversation would ever come to an end.
I looked through her old photographs not so long ago. My uncle allowed me into his library and invited me to sit down in his chair. There was an unusual softening in him. He had little patience for people of my generation and often said we were spoiled and didn’t appreciate everything our parents had given us.
There was one photograph of my aunt and uncle sitting on a bench in Washington Square in New York City. My aunt’s face is as round as an apple, and she is bundled up in a soft brown coat with a fur-lined collar, her shoulder resting against my uncle’s. My uncle wears a dark winter coat and tie, and they look like a happy, elegant couple, sitting close beside each other, with their hands in their laps, and smiling.
You both look so young, I told my uncle.
We took a lot of pictures then, he said. Not so much later. He picked up the photograph and gazed at it for a moment before he shook his head and put it down again. When you’re young, you have the energy to take pictures, he said.
I wake up, and it is four in the morning, the windows still dark. I have just met my aunt for the first time in several years, and my mind is still tingling from her presence. I had felt such hope seeing her again.
In my dream, I am walking along a sloping field toward a group of strangers, and I see my aunt talking and laughing with a glass in her hand. She is wearing the beautiful rose dress that we buried her in. The grass glows unnaturally against the darkening sky, and I walk toward my aunt with an expanding sense of unreality, my lungs filling with cold, fragrant air. When I look down, there is the pink shimmer of her dress, which I am now wearing, her pearl necklace looped around my wrists.
The last time I spoke to my aunt, it was near Christmas. It was snowing, and the whiteness outside seemed symbolic. Everyone said that if there was a miracle, it would be today. But you don’t believe in God, Philip said to me. So there can be no miracles.
My aunt was asleep from the morphine, and when she woke up she was surprised to see all of us standing around her bed. “All of you are here because I am going to die,” she said. She told us that she had been dreaming of Grandpa. “We were playing mahjong together, and I was two tiles away from winning.” All of us looked at my grandfather, who seemed bewildered. He didn’t understand what she was saying. “I was dreaming, and I felt no pain,” my aunt said to him in Chinese. “No pain. It’s nice to dream like that.” She closed her eyes to go back to sleep. “I don’t mind dying,” she said, “if death is like a dream.”
If death is like a dream. I’m afraid it’s a more absolute disconnection. The closest knowledge I get is when I wake up at three or four o’clock in the morning. Or maybe that time I was unconscious and they pulled out my wisdom teeth. It was a snipping of the wires, no images at all, no sensation of time passing. One moment, they were covering my mouth with a mask and I felt my body growing heavy. The next moment, a nurse was touching my arm and I realized that my mouth was full of cotton. No memory of the space in between.
But four o’clock passes. The sky begins to lighten, and I feel my blood rushing inside me.
On July Fourth, my aunt hosted a celebration on her deck. She wore a silk green Japanese robe embroidered with gold-red chrysanthemums. There was something ceremonial about her presence as she sat quietly in her chair. Her face seemed to radiate the peculiar glow of the dying. People circled and brushed clumsily against her like huge, errant moths. She smiled at them, yet remained calm and untouched. During the fireworks, everyone’s gaze wandered toward her. I lit a fuse, dodged quickly away. The deck brightened, a lurid fluorescence, and I looked at all the illuminated faces. An agony of wonder. What secret things passed in the dark between us? Streaming colors, the crackle and hiss, and then darkness as everyone stared at the spent fuse. In all the pictures we took of that day, my aunt is the focal point. Her presence quietly overwhelms the others. She gazes at the camera with clear, shining eyes as if she is staring into her future.
Frances Hwang lives in Berkeley, California. Her work has appeared in Best New American Voices, Glimmer Train, AGNI, The Madison Review, Tin House, and Subtropics. Transparency, her first collection of stories, will be published by Little, Brown in April 2007. (updated 1/2007)