NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR
 


EXCERPT


Chapter 1

Amy

Monday, May 2


I am standing by the window of our small apartment in Queens, watching as Ma and Pa leave for their jobs. Half-hidden by the worn curtains Ma sewed herself, I see them walk side by side to the subway station down the street. At the entrance, they pause and look at each other for a moment. Here, I always hold my breath, waiting for Pa to touch Ma’s cheek, or for Ma to burst into tears, or for either of them to give some small sign of the truth of their relationship. Instead, Ma raises her hand in an awkward wave, the drape of her black shawl exposing her slender forearm, and Pa shuffles into the open mouth of the station as the morning traffic roars down our busy street. Then Ma ducks her head and continues her walk to the local dry cleaners where she works.

I sigh and step away from the window. I should be doing something more productive. Why am I still spying on my parents? Because I’m an adult living at home and have nothing better to do. If I don’t watch out, I’m going to turn into Ma. Timid, dutiful, toiling at a job that pays nothing. And yet, I’ve caught glimpses of another Ma and Pa over the years. The passion that flickers over her face as she reads Chinese romance novels in the night, the ones Pa scorns. The way Pa reaches for her elbow when he walks behind her, catches himself, and pulls back his hand. I pass by my closet of a bedroom, and the poster that hangs on the wall catches my eye—barely visible behind the teetering piles of papers and laundry. It’s a quote I’ve always loved from Willa Cather: “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” I’m not sure I believe the sentiment but her words never fail to unsettle me.

Our cramped apartment still smells faintly of the incense Ma burned this morning in front of her mother’s altar. Grandma died in Amsterdam a week ago. She lived there with the Tan family: Ma’s cousin Helena; Helena’s husband, Willem; and their son, Lukas, who is thirty-three years old, the same age as my older sister, Sylvie. I never met Grandma but Ma’s grief has poured over me like a waterfall until my own heart overflows as well. The skin around Ma’s eyes is rubbed red and raw. The past few evenings, while Pa hid in their bedroom, I held Ma’s hand as she huddled on the sofa, stifling her sobs, attempting to stem the endless stream of tears with an old, crumpled tissue. I wear black today too, for Ma’s sake, while Pa dresses in his normal clothing. It’s not that he doesn’t care. It’s that he can’t show us that he does.

Sylvie lived with Grandma and Helena’s family in the Netherlands for the first nine years of her life, and flew back there a month ago, as soon as she heard Grandma was ill. She’s handling a consultancy project for her firm there as well. Dazzling Sylvie, seven years older than me, yanked from her glamorous life in Europe back to our cabbage-scented apartment in Queens when I was only two years old. Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. And me, I am only a shadow, an afterthought, a faltering echo. If I didn’t love Sylvie so much, I’d hate her.

How did a brilliant creature like Sylvie arise from such mundane stock as our ma and pa? Any time I had a teacher in elementary or high school who’d taught Sylvie, they’d say, “Ah, you’re Sylvie Lee’s little sister,” rife with anticipation. I would then watch as their high hopes turned to bewilderment at my stuttering slowness. This was followed by their disappointment and, finally, their indifference. Sylvie went to Princeton undergrad, earned a master’s in chemical engineering from MIT, worked a few years, then went back to school for her MBA from Harvard. Now she’s a management consultant, which is a profession I’ll never understand no matter how many times she tries to explain it. Like me, Sylvie adores all sweets, but unlike me, she never gains an ounce. I have watched her eat one egg tart after another without any effect on her elegant hips, as if the sheer intensity of her will burns the calories, consuming everything she touches. She used to have a lazy eye when she was little and wore an eye patch for years. Now the only imperfection in her lovely face is that her right eye still shifts slightly outward when she’s tired. Most people don’t even notice, but I sometimes console myself with this tiny fault of Sylvie’s—See, she’s not so perfect after all.

I go to the pockmarked cabinet where I have carefully wrapped and hidden a cluster of small orange loquat fruits. If I’d left them on the vinyl kitchen tabletop and Pa had caught sight of the vulnerable snail hidden among the pear-shaped fruit, he would have killed it. Pa works in a fish market in Chinatown. He’s been forced to become insensitive to death—all those fish gasping on the wooden chopping block until he ends them with his cleaver.

The tiny snail with its translucent shell is still perched on one of the loquats and seems fine. Anything strong enough to survive such an arduous journey from China deserves a chance to make a life for itself. I take a used plastic bag, gently lower the loquat and snail into it, and head for the door. I shrug into a light jacket and grab my wallet and cell phone. Before I step outside, I remove my thick purple glasses and shove them into my pocket. I don’t bother to put in my contacts. Vanity plus laziness add up to my living in a blurry world much of the time.

I trudge the few blocks to the small park near our home. It’s early enough that some of the shops are still gated and I shiver as a chilly breeze sweeps down the concrete sidewalk. A bitter stink arises from the wide impersonal asphalt of the road, lined by blank buildings that have always intimidated me. A mother dragging a small, grubby child behind her averts her eyes as she passes. No one makes eye contact in this densely populated, lonely, and dispiriting place—no one except for guys trying to hit on you. A group of them are hanging out now in front of a broken store window with a large sign that says something about fifty percent off. They are mere bruises in my peripheral vision as they yell after me, “Ni hao! Can I put my egg roll in your rice patty?” and then break into raucous laughter. Do they have to say the same dumb thing every day? As long as they maintain their distance, the vagueness of my vision is as comforting as a cocoon. When I’m practically blind, I can pretend I’m deaf too.

One day, I’m going to return to my program at CUNY and finish my teaching credential so I can get out of this place. I’ll move Ma and Pa too. It doesn’t matter that I dropped out last year. I can do it. I already have my master’s in English; I’m almost there. I can see myself standing in front of a class of kids: they are riveted, laughing at my jokes, eyes wide at the brilliance of the literature they are reading, and I don’t trip over a single word.

Wake up, Amy. All you are now is a savior of snails, which is not necessarily a bad development.

Sylvie and I were both raised Buddhist, and some ideas, like all life being precious, have stayed with us. When we were little, we’d race around the apartment with butterfly nets, catching flies and releasing them outdoors. However, as evidenced by Pa and the killing-fish-and-many-other-sea-creatures thing, religion only goes so far when confronted by the harsh grind of daily life.

The park is still recovering from the severe winter we had and I struggle to find a nice, leafy area. I am bending down with the snail held gingerly between forefinger and thumb when my cell phone rings. I jump and almost drop the snail. I set it down, manage to pull my phone out of my jacket, and squint to read the number. I am just about to answer when the caller hangs up. The number’s long, beginning with +31. I’ve seen this before on Sylvie’s phone. It’s someone from the Netherlands—probably my distant cousin Lukas, except he’s never called me before. He only speaks to Sylvie.

I consider the cost of calling Lukas in Amsterdam and wince. Hopefully he’ll try me again soon. Instead, I head for the local music shop. I love to linger in one of their listening stations but almost never buy anything. My stomach clenches at the thought of my staggering mountain of student loans, built up degree by degree. Years of flailing around, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life before deciding on teaching—and then, that old stutter of mine resurfacing as I stood in front of the group practicing my teaching assignments. I have outgrown it, most of the time anyway, but the fear of my stutter proved to be as powerful as the thing itself: all those blank faces, my panic suffocating me like a thick blanket. Sometimes I think I should have stayed an uneducated immigrant like Ma and Pa. Some fledglings leave the nest and soar, like Sylvie; others flutter, and flutter, then tumble to the ground. In the end, I couldn’t face my classmates and teachers anymore. And Sylvie, of course, was the one who bailed me out when my loans passed their grace period. She took over the payments without a word.

Sylvie’s rich, at least compared to me, but she’s not so wealthy that she can shoulder that burden without feeling it. She and her husband, Jim, are even more weighed down with student debt than I am, and Jim doesn’t make much money as a guidance counselor at a public school in Brooklyn. Even though he’s from old money, Jim’s parents believe their kids should make it on their own, so he won’t see a cent of his wealth until they pass on. That is, except for the ridiculous present they gave him when he married Sylvie. As for me, instead of helping Ma and Pa, who have already spent so many years working their fingers to the bone, I’m living in their apartment and eating their food. I temp here and there but despite my ability to type really fast, the only true skill I have, work has been scarce. It’s the economy, I tell everyone, but of course I know better. It’s me. Sylvie tells me I’m not fulfilling my potential and I tell her to shut up and leave me alone.

Inside the shop, I head for the classical section and begin to relax as soon as I hear the lustrous and velvety voice of Anna Netrebko floating from the loudspeakers. She’s singing Verdi. Neat racks of CDs sit beside rows of musical scores and bin after bin of vinyl records. Old guitars and violins line the walls. I love the way it smells of paper, lacquer, and lemon detergent. Zach, the cute guy, is working again. At least, I believe he’s attractive. It’s hard to be sure without my glasses, which I wouldn’t be caught dead in around him. To me, the lines of his face and body are appealing, and I love his voice—warm, rich, and clear. He always sounds like he’s smiling at me.

“Hey, Amy. What would you like to listen to this week?”

I try to express friendliness with my face but think I’ve wound up contorting my features into something extremely awkward. “D-do you have any suggestions?”

He’s only supposed to allow paying customers to sample the music but never seems to mind my lingering visits. “Well, how about some Joseph Szigeti?”

In my enthusiasm, I forget to be shy. “I just read an article about his version of the Prokofiev Concerto no. 1 in D.”

“It’s phenomenal,” he says, pulling out a CD. “He’s proof that technical perfection isn’t everything.”

But as we walk over to the listening station together, my phone rings.

“I’m so sorry,” I mumble. “I have to take this call.” I duck my head and leave the store. I manage to answer my cell in time and the moment I hear Lukas’s voice, I know something is wrong.

The line is full of static, probably due to the transatlantic call. I cover my other ear with my hand to try to hear him more clearly.

“Amy, I must speak to Sylvie right away,” Lukas says. His voice is strained with urgency and his Dutch accent is heavier than I’d expected.

I wrinkle my brow. “But she’s in the Netherlands right now, with you.”

He breathes in so sharply I can hear it over the phone. “What? No, she is not. She flew back on Saturday. She should have arrived by now. Have you not heard from her?”

“W-we didn’t even know she was coming home. I just spoke with her after Grandma’s funeral. When was that? Thursday, right? I thought she’d stay awhile longer. She also mentioned her project there wasn’t finished yet.”

“Sylvie is not answering her phone. I want very to speak with her.”

Precise, responsible Sylvie would have let us know right away if she were back. She would have come to see Ma and tell her about Grandma. My heart starts to throb like a wound underneath my skin.

There must be some simple explanation. I try to sound reassuring. “Don’t worry, I’ll find out what’s going on.”

“Yes, please see what the situation is. When you find her, ask her to call me, okay? Immediately.” There is a painful pause. “I hope she is all right.”

I quickly put on my glasses and hurry to the dry cleaners where Ma works. The faint smell of steam and chemicals engulfs me as I push open the door. I find Ma standing behind the long counter, talking in her broken English to a well-dressed woman with sleek, honey-blond hair.

“We were quite horrified to find one of the buttons loose after we picked this up,” the customer says, pushing a man’s pin-striped shirt toward Ma.

“So sorry.” Ma’s small face looks wan and pale against her black clothing, her eyes puffy from crying. “I fix.”

The woman taps a manicured nail against the countertop. Her tone is both irritated and condescending, as if she’s speaking to a child who has misbehaved. “It’s not really the quality we expect, especially after your prices went up.”

“So sorry,” Ma repeats.

I glare at the woman’s bony back. I want to tell her that the owner hiked up the prices. Ma had nothing to do with it. She’s never even gotten a raise in the long years she’s worked here—standing on her feet all day, lifting heavy bundles of clothing, steaming, ironing, and mending. But I keep my mouth shut. I wait until the customer finishes berating Ma and leaves.

A smile lights up Ma’s face, despite her grief, when she sees me. Even though I can understand some Chinese, I never learned to speak it well, so Ma always talks to me in English. “Amy, why you here?”

I had resolved not to worry her but find myself grabbing her wrist, crumpling her thin polyester blouse. “Cousin Lukas just called. He says Sylvie flew home this past weekend, but she’s not picking up her phone.”

“Ay yah.” Ma covers her mouth with her other hand. Her large dark eyes show too much white. “She not tell us she coming home. She must be okay. Just a mistake. You call ah-Jim?”

“I tried all the way here but he’s not answering. There haven’t been any plane crashes or anything, right?”

“Of course not! What you saying!” Ma brushes her forehead three times with her delicate left hand to ward off the evil of the words I just uttered. She stares at me until I lean in so she can do the same to me. We’re almost exactly the same height and when I catch sight of our reflections in the store mirror, I’m reminded of how much we look alike—except that I wear thick glasses and can’t compare to the photos of Ma in her youth. She had been the loveliest girl in our village in Guangdong. Now in her fifties, her skin is still fine with only a light etching of lines, a silky cream that sets off her warm eyes, and there’s something gentle yet wild in her gaze, like a deer in the woods. “You go to their place. See what happening. Use the key, in dry ginger jar at home.”

“I have my own key. Sylvie gave it to me before she left. But are you sure, Ma?” I cringe at the thought of entering Sylvie’s house without permission. My mind races: What if Jim’s there? What’s happening to us? What could have happened to Sylvie?

“Sure, sure,” she says. “You go now. Quick.”

 

Chapter 2

Ma

Monday, May 2



I was as ignorant as the frog at the bottom of the well when I let Sylvie return to Holland. How many times must I surrender my daughter to that land of wind and fog and loss? She already spent the first nine years of her life there—and then, one moon ago, when she heard my ma, her grandma, was facing death, she rushed to book her ticket for Amsterdam. Sylvie was but a leaf, withering from homesickness, fluttering downward to return to the roots of its own tree.

I was so busy with Mrs. Hawkins, whose fair skin hid ugly features, that I did not notice when Amy entered the dry cleaners. My poor younger girl, her face stunned with fear, chewing on her chapped lips without realizing. I did not want to reveal my soul-burdens to her, especially since she was wearing her eye lenses for once. Her heart knows enough as it is.

I sat down to sew tighter the button Mrs. Hawkins complained about. I had shown it to Mr. Hawkins when he picked up the shirt and he had said it was not a problem. But he must be more than sixty years old and Mrs. Hawkins closer to forty. He is an old cow eating young grass, and so he must pay the price for his pleasure. As I worked, my mind wandered back to the blackest time in my life. It was more than thirty years ago, when I gave my six-moon-old Sylvie to Grandma to be raised in Holland. The worst thing about it was that I knew what I was doing. I had no excuse.

Pa and I had just moved to the Beautiful Country, and on all sides were the songs of Chu—we were isolated and without help. I already had the big stomach with Sylvie. There was no way to mend the pen after the goats were lost. Neither of us could speak a word of the Brave Language, English. Pa hunched over his bowl of bare rice with no meat or vegetables, only soy sauce, hiding his eyes with his roughened hand as he ate. He still loved me then with the innocence of his green years, and the hollows of his young face filled with guilt rather than accusation when he gazed at me.

We ate bitterness and tried a thousand ways, a hundred plans, but when the tiger ventures from the mountains to the plains, it is bullied by dogs. No one would help us or give us work until, finally, Pa found a job at the fish market in Chinatown. That was but one strand of cow hair among nine cows. How could it be enough? And things would only get worse after I delivered my baby. Many other couples like us sent their little ones back to China to be raised by family. That was their plan before they ever came to the Beautiful Country. But I swore I would never let go of my lovely swallow-girl.

Then Ma’s letter arrived. She had moved to Holland with my possessing-money cousin Helena and Helena’s husband, Willem, and they had just birthed a baby boy named Lukas. Grandma spoke of the cool air conditions, the ample broadness of their house, how Helena burdened her heart that Lukas would grow large as the only child of the Central Kingdom in their neighborhood. There were too few Chinese in Holland, as Helena herself knew well. That was the reason she’d returned to our village in the Central Kingdom to snatch up the good-to-look-at Willem as her own.

I scanned the letter, jealous that Helena had stolen my ma to care for her son. I would have given anything to have Grandma with me here in this strange and hostile Beautiful Country. But when I looked around the tiny space Pa and I were crammed into, I brought my heart in accord with both emotions and reason. Helena’s family possessed money and they could provide for both Grandma and their baby. I made myself eat my discontent. Helena’s own parents were too busy with their multipatterned lives to help Helena and Willem with their child. I should be grateful they had offered Grandma a better health situation than she had had in China.

I read on and realized Helena was putting forward more than that. My heart stem, Grandma wrote, if you were to entrust your most precious fruit to me, perhaps it might alleviate some of your burden. It is at the asking of your cousin Helena that I write this. She and Willem would care for your child like their own cub until you are able to care for her yourself. Or come to Holland simply to see your old ma and accept the gifts only a mother can pass on to her child.

I puffed air. Helena’s flowery words and cunning language did not deceive me. She did not like me very much. From one fact, I could infer three. Her offer was to her own advantage, of course. She did not need to worry about my taking Grandma away, her babysitter and serving woman, and she would gain a play companion for her son. To be fair, Helena was asking for another mouth to feed, a body to clothe, and for that I was grateful. She would even pay for my flying machine ticket. But I would only bring my child to her as a last resort.

Then Sylvie was born. Sally, I named her in English. That is still what is written on her birth certificate. But in the language of the Central Kingdom, she has always been my Snow Jasmine, Sul-Li. It was the Holland people who did not recognize the name Sally, the Holland people who renamed her. She left me as Sally and returned as Sylvie.

She was so dainty, a small people-loving bird, clutching my finger as if it were a branch, Pa’s great hands caressing her cheek, which was as flushed and tender as a peach. We had exhausted our meager savings by then. Earlier, no one wanted to hire a big-stomached woman who did not speak the Brave Language, and now, no one would allow me to come to work with a baby. What path would the fates have chosen for us, my Snow Jasmine, if only I had kept you here with me?

In that blistering New York summer, Sylvie wept sobs, and the little wind stirrer in that narrow room, stuffed with me, Pa, and her, offered no relief. I did odd jobs—bits of sewing, stringing fake pearls into bracelets—to earn more money. I washed her pee cloths in the bathing vat. Pa started a second job, standing tables at a meal hall until deep into the night. It ground us down until, in the eighth moon, the white ghost took my purse bundle.

I had gone into Chinatown with the hope of finding a job in a bread-baking shop. They had taken one look at Sylvie strapped to my back with a piece of cloth and sent me out the door again. With low breath and no strength, I was the last off the underground train at our stop in Queens. I was half running, trying to catch up to the other passengers, when the white ghost cut them from my view. He had eyes as blue and flinty as the blind old beggar of our village in the Central Kingdom. With one hand he grabbed my purse strap and with the other he shoved my shoulder so hard I stumbled and fell to the ground.

Desperate, I twisted to avoid landing on Sylvie. A flash of agony burned its way up my arm, footsteps running away. The white ghost wailed over his shoulder, “Fokkin’ Chinee!” That much of the Brave Language I already knew. I lay there, stunned, with my cheek bleeding against the concrete, glad to hear Sylvie weeping on my back, glad she had survived to cry. What if he had grabbed the straps of the baby carrier cloth along with my purse? What if I had landed on top of her? What if we had fallen onto the train tracks?

I wrote to Helena to say I would bring my baby girl in the tenth moon. I still should not have done it. But I was twenty-three years old, newly married, newly emigrated, and struggling not to drown in this vast ocean called the Beautiful Country. I told myself it was only for a year, and then we would bring her back. I did not know it would be nine years until I saw her again.

I held my girl close to me that endless time in the flying machine until we landed in Holland on a black day of excessive water. Then I understood: I had brought my daughter to a landscape of tears.

 

Chapter 3

Amy

Monday, May 2


Sylvie’s fine, of course she is. I hang on to my seat as the subway car rattles its way to Brooklyn Heights and try to think. Aside from all of her other qualities, Sylvie’s like a female James Bond. Overachiever doesn’t even begin to describe her. If our faucet leaks, Sylvie fixes it. She’s enhanced my old laptop with so many extra drives and so much memory that I nicknamed it Frankenstein. Even if her plane crashed, Sylvie would be the one to parachute to safety, after saving all of her fellow passengers. I’ve never been on an airplane, but she’s told me a million times to always count the number of rows to the nearest exit door, so that in case of an emergency, I could crawl there in the dark. She even learned how to shoot a gun at a shooting range. You never know, she said.

One of the few things Sylvie can’t do is swim. When we were born, Ma and Pa had our prophecies written by the monks at the temple and Sylvie’s forbade her to go near water. When I’d heard this, I’d said, “Isn’t that kind of self-fulfilling? If she doesn’t learn to swim, she’ll definitely drown if she falls into the water, right?” But Sylvie didn’t want to take swimming lessons anyway and everyone ignored me as usual. Our parents didn’t share anything more about our prophecies. When I pressed Ma years ago, she said, “Must not open book too far. But your bone weight is heavy. Good fortune will come to you.”

“And Sylvie?” I asked, proud to have a substantial bone weight, whatever that meant.

Ma’s lids lowered, shuttering her thoughts. “Mountains of gold everywhere, but thirst too.”

I get off the subway at Brooklyn Heights and try to call Jim again. It goes straight to voicemail. How can a guidance counselor be so hard to reach? If I were a suicidal student, wouldn’t I be dead by now? I leave another message and try Sylvie’s number too. Again, it goes straight to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s me,” I say. “People are getting worried about you so please get back to me, okay? I’m going to use that key you gave us for emergencies and break into your house. I hope you’re okay with that and that Jim isn’t there, showering or something. All right, bye.”

Not that I’d mind seeing Jim nude. He’s pretty hot, if you’re into the blond scruffy type. But ever since Sylvie brought him home from Princeton, I’ve always been slightly irritated by the way he leans in too close to everyone, his hand casually resting on their arm or shoulder. We Chinese are pretty much the opposite of touchy-feely, although Sylvie drinks up his warmth like a thirsty plant—and I’m happy for her. Sylvie needs to be in control and hides her affection most of the time, but I’ve caught her watching him, the look in her eyes so tender and open. I’d give anything to experience that kind of love. At first, Ma and Pa didn’t like that Jim wasn’t Chinese, but since he was Sylvie’s boyfriend, they accepted him. Sylvie always could get away with anything.

I exit the subway station and step out into the kinder, gentler world that money can buy. I brush past a nanny pushing a pram along the shady, tree-lined cobblestone sidewalk and hurry to reach the waterfront, where Jim and Sylvie live. Along one side of their street, sloping walkways lead to the Promenade. As I hurry past, I glance down at the long esplanade and see a model surrounded by reflective screens posing against the spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. In the distance, I hear little kids whooping as they chase each other around the large playground at the end of their block. What Sylvie and I would have given for a place like that when we were small, filled with tire swings and a huge jungle gym.

“So Jim and I will be moving again,” Sylvie had told me a few years ago, right before they married. I was meeting her for lunch at Rockefeller Center, where she had just started a new job as a management consultant. She was rubbing her short, roughly bitten fingernails against the gleaming tabletop. They had moved back to NYC a couple of months earlier, after Sylvie finished her MBA at Harvard. They were renting a studio apartment in the East Village.

They wouldn’t leave New York so soon, would they? I’d just gotten my sister back. “Where are you going?” I’d asked, taking a big bite of my burger to cover my alarm.

“His parents have given us an apartment in Brooklyn Heights as a wedding present.” Her voice was determinedly casual, as if gifting someone a place worth more than a million dollars happened every day. She didn’t meet my eyes and toyed with her salad with her fork.

I stopped chewing. I’d heard Jim’s family was rich but it had always been theoretical, with his battered car and wrinkled T-shirts. I’d even wondered if Sylvie had invented that part of his background to appease Ma and Pa for her marrying a white guy.

Sylvie looked up and saw my face, her eyes bright. Her dimple appeared in her left cheek. “Close your mouth, Amy. You’re going to choke.”

I finally managed to swallow. “Now I feel bad. I’m getting you guys a blender.”

We both giggled.

I exhaled. Sylvie was staying. That was the important thing. “How do you feel about it?” I asked.

“Fine, of course. It’s a lovely present,” she said, but I heard the undercurrent of shame in her voice. Sylvie loves to show off her nice things, but she’s also proud. In high school, she once had a math teacher who was infamous for saying girls didn’t belong in his classroom. I still remember her intense, rigid back as she bent over her math books night after night until she’d beaten everyone in that class.

When I arrive at the tall, sleek brownstone where their garden apartment is located, I open the gate next to the outside staircase and pass by the large glazed dragon pot Ma and Pa gave Sylvie. It’s filled with some indestructible shrub she never remembers to water. I go down three steps and reach their blue front door.

I ring the doorbell a few times. Come on, Sylvie, open up. You’re inside sleeping off the jet lag. Your phone broke, that’s all. My breath quickens as I wait. Finally, I pull their key from my pocket. But when I unlock the heavy door and try to push it open, it jams.

A large pile of newspapers and mail blocks the entryway. What the hell? Sylvie’s been away for about a month, but where on earth is Jim? The air in the hallway is still and musty. I step inside and look around.

The apartment has been beautifully renovated, with tasteful recessed lighting, large bay windows, and a sleek modern kitchen, but Sylvie and Jim still live in it like two college students. There are piles of books everywhere and stacks of magazines on their upright piano. Sylvie has never cared about anything remotely domestic. She’s a terrible cook, blackening every slice of toast and attempted pot roast. A couple of months ago, I accompanied her and her colleagues to a Broadway show when their company had free tickets. The conversation was stiff and none of her coworkers asked me anything about myself. After a while, I felt like I was interviewing them. How did Sylvie survive among such uptight people? At one point, I mentioned what a disastrous cook Sylvie was in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere and she glared at me, later chewing me out for my unprofessionalism. I wanted to say, Sylvie, if people know you’re human, they’ll like you more, but I remained silent, as usual.

I peek in a few kitchen cupboards and find the pots and pans pristine, of course. Neither of them ever cooks. They live on takeout sweet-and-sour pork and tikka masala. Despite Sylvie’s chronic messiness, I’m unprepared for the chaos I find when I open their bedroom door. A pair of slacks has been tossed across the turquoise footboard of their large bed. Wrinkled shirts are strewn all over the floor and small piles of scarves and earrings lie scattered on the mattress, as if Sylvie packed in a hurry. Then I notice that every item I see is Sylvie’s. Where are Jim’s belongings? I open their closet door. It’s a violation of their privacy, but I need to know—and, indeed, only Sylvie’s pressed suits are hanging there. The other half of the closet is bare.

My chest constricts. It’s clear no one has been here for a long time.