"So your dad isn't really your dad?"
"I have no evidence either way. Therefore, it is unwise to make a conclusion." I frown at the tip of my pencil. "How do you spell your name?"
"X-U-A-N." He glances at what I am writing. "Are you
making a list?"
"I don't know why you make it sound so insensible, but yes." I write Xuan next to a neat round bullet point and make another point.
Do I have another point? I hadn't even gotten to finish my toffee before the man who was not my father approached me.
Well, that means it is still in my lunchbox, and I can have two toffees for lunch tomorrow. I write that down.
Can I ask why you're making a list?" Will Xuan ever speak to me in a normal tone of voice? Not that I am a good judge of what is and is not normal. But he hesitates before just about everything he says.
I bite my lip. I want to avoid answering the question, but that isn't rational because the question is impersonal, and I had told himeverything. All of it. Like my brain and mind had briefly disconnected, allowing me to speak of this as though it made sense.
But it isn't rational. "It's a list of everything about this day that isn't worth throwing away. I met you, and I have an extra toffee for tomorrow. That is my list."
"I suppose I should be glad I'm counted as a good thing. More than I can say concerning most of the times I've met people." He rubs his jaw. "
I have cookies in my backpack. Do you want one?"
I shake my head. "I don't eat sweets. Except the toffee I have with lunch."
"Damn. That's just
a really shitty list. I'm sorry."
"Why are you apologizing? It's not your fault."
"Yeah, but" He makes a face. "Fine. I'm not sorry. But it's still a shitty list."
I cannot disagree, so I say nothing.
We sit in silence. He toys with his iPod; I stare at the third bullet point on my list, trying to find an item to pair it with. Then he brightens. "Hey, what are you doing for dinner?"
I raise my eyebrows at him. I am not usually aware of how people perceive me; my mind does not work that way. But I have been told on an occasion or twoor more than thatthat I have an excellent, frightening glare.
He blanches and covers his mouth with one hand. "Ohshitthat" He blushes and turns away. "That was not what I meant to say. Or, at least, I didn't want to say it like that. Shit." He runs a hand over the thin layer of fuzz on his head. It is not long enough to be called hair. "Let me try again? It's platonic, I promise."
I relax the glare, if only because he listened to me. "
Only if you promise."
He smiles, briefly. I had not noticed he was handsome. "Okay. Here's what I meant to say. I'm a good cook. My house is, like, two blocks from here, and I work in two hours, so it's not like I can make you stay around or something." He pauses. "And my little brother's coming over, and my roommate said she was making cupcakes today. It's gonna be good."
"I don't eat sweets," I repeat, but in my mind I am already licking frosting off my fingers. Cupcakes are a weakness.
He shrugs. "So eat pho instead. It's good. I promise. Look, if you go down the main street by the back parking lot, my house is right on the second corner. Big string of apartments. You can't miss it. I'm in number three. I've got to go back and check on my brothI told my roommate to keep an eye on it, but she can be kind of a space case. If you want to come
it'll be done in, like, an hour." He gets to his feet, one hand wrapped loosely around the strap of his backpack.
I do not return his wave. I look down at the third bullet point, because I do not like leaving tasks unfinished.
Tried pho for the first time.
When Xuan walks in his front door, a scream of laughter greets him. Not his brother and not his roommate, but their laughter soon joins it. He rubs his forehead. Has he already used up his patience for today? It's barely five.
Still, he takes a long time unlacing his shitkicker boots because it lets him take a few slow breaths. There. Now he could smile.
He walks into the kitchen, because he thinks they're in the living roombut no. Sukhon, his brother, and Done of Sukhon's friendsare all around the kitchen table. A plate of cupcakes sits in the center. Trai frosts one, his tongue between his teeth as he concentrates. Both D and Sukhon have frosting on their noses, and they are still giggling.
Instead of greeting them, Xuan checks on his pho. A heavy scum of fat and god-knew-what-else has built up; he skims it off and dumps it in the garbage. The motions are repetitious and require no thought; they should be soothing. No dice.
He presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose against a growing headache. Shit.
"Nah, nah, kid, it's way easier if you do it like this," D says. "Here, lemme show you."
Xuan turns and leans against the counter. "You didn't tell me D was coming over."
Sukhon lifts her head. "Well, I was texting her, and I was like, 'I'm gonna make cupcakes!' Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point!" She holds up her hands like she grips a phone. "And then D was like, 'Not that shit from a box.' So she came over to show me how to make cupcakes not from a box. And then Trai showed up."
Xuan glances at his brother. "I told you I wasn't going to be home until five."
Trai shrugs. "I didn't feel like going home." He picks at the single piercing in the upper cartilage of his right ear. "Than's being a dick."
"Surprise, surprise," Xuan mutters. "Don't pick at that. It'll get infected."
Trai just sticks out his tongue. Sukhon wipes the frosting off D's nose. "Come on. Project Runway's on in, like, five minutes." She grabs an unfrosted cupcake and walks away without waiting for D. D finishes frosting her cupcake and pops it in her mouth whole before following.
"So what were you up to, anyway? I thought you don't work 'til seven." Trai licks frosting off his fingers.
"I do. But I wanted to go water my plants."
Trai tilts his head. "Don't you just do that when you go to work anyway?"
Xuan flexes his fingers. Then he goes to the fridge and takes out a slab of flank steak. Really, if he wants to slice it well, it should spend a few minutes in the freezer, but he needs something to do with his hands. "Yeah, but"
Trai's head goes further to the side. "...Did something bad happen today?"
Xuan puts the meat on a cutting board but doesn't reach for his knife. "Somebody clocked me."
Xuan can almost watch his brother trying to translate; his eyes twitch to the side, and he frowns. Xuan had given Trai a course in Trans 101, but Trai is a horrible student, and this is no different. "So they"
"Yeah." Xuan can't let him say it. "So I went up to the roof a little early. It was supposed to calm me down."
"Didn't it?" There is honest concern in Trai's voice.
Guilt twists Xuan's stomach. He shouldn't be a dick. "No, it" He hadn't wanted to tell Trai anything about Annie before she showed up, since she wouldn't be here long before Xuan had to leave, and hopefully he could think of an explanation that didn't sound stupid at work.
But he can't get out of it. "No." He picks up his knife, sets it down. "I went up there to justhave a couple minutes to myself, you know? Tell myself that it doesn't matter if anybody knows and shit. Get past all that crap. Butthere was this girl up there."
Trai's eyes widen. "A girl?"
Yep. There it is. Xuan picks up his knife and slices thin, thin strips off the flank steak. He can't concentrate, but it's better than standing here like an idiot. "Yes, Trai. Someone with a vagina who actually wants it. I wouldn't even have talked to her, but she was sitting on the freaking railing."
Trai looks horrified, like Xuan knew he would. Trai doesn't do things by halves. "The library's six stories tall! What if she fell?"
"People've jumped off that roof before." Trai's hands go to his mouth; Xuan feels guilty for stirring up his brother's feelings. "And"
He sets down the knife again, biting the inside of his cheekbut the words come out of his mouth, even though they make him feel petty. "I just wanted to water my freaking plants and tell myself that I'm still a boy, even though some stupid bitch made fun of me for going in the boy's bathroom. And there's this freaking girl up there! And she's got the jumper face and everything!"
He stops and presses his hand against his forehead. The headache throbs again, somewhere behind his temples.
"That sucks, dude," says Trai, crossing his arms. He still looks spooked; Xuan is sure he's picturing jumping off the library roof. Trai has more imagination than is good for him. "So what happened?"
Xuan pauses. "Well, I got her to come down. It was pretty weird, I guess, but I was just glad she wasn't anywhere dangerous anymore."
He clears his throat, deliberately, and takes the knife once more. "She's coming over for dinner. I wanted to make sure she wasn't going to go back up there when I left." He tries to imitate his father's tone of voice: the perfect surety and command, like a gavel striking a judge's podium.
It doesn't work, of course. Xuan should know better than trying one of their father's tricks on Trai. Trai's ignored his father since the day he was born. "That's cool!" Trai cocks his head again. "Is it, like, a date?"
Xuan closes his eyes. There is patience in him somewhere. This is not near the most irritating conversation he'd ever had with his brother, and all of the irritating comes from a place of love. Or so Trai kept reminding him. "No, dumbass. I am not going anywhere near that minefield."
I almost do not go. Now that I am off the roof, remembering other things I have to do with my time is easier. I have dozens of petty tasks and several large ones, any of which can distract me from the idea of going home.
But I said I would, and it is already on my list, and I don't have anything to eat, so I go to Xuan's house.
It is a two-level apartment house; I am glad it is on the first floor because if I had to climb stairs, I probably would say no right now. The strangest things were capable of defeating my resolve at the moment. A picture of my mother. The imagined taste of cupcakes. Four or five steps.
I knock without giving myself time to think about it because I always have trouble knocking.. A pair of women answer the door, leaning against each other like they had been fighting to see who would open it. The first is tall and slender, with pink hair. The second is shorter and softer, the kind of woman that wakes me up in the night. Both of them stare at me like I am a bacteria that has wandered onto their specimen slide.
"You... are not Kyo," says the pink-haired one after a moment. The curvier girl is still blinking.
"My name is Annie," I say, dropping my eyes. "I'm here to see Xuan."
The curvier girl presses one hand to her mouth. And then she starts to giggle. I glare at the floor. Attractive or not, I dislike women who giggle. "Hey, Xuan! Did you invite a girl over?"
"Why do I live with six-year-olds? Jesus Christ!"
I almost walk away. Xuan told me that his roommate and his brother would be there. I can handle gatherings of small groups, but apparently I have underestimated the effect of my shock today.
"Go. Move. Get out of my way. If you are going to cackle like hens, do it somewhere else." Xuan shoves them aside. "Jesus. Why can you only act like a normal person when I'm not here?"
The curvy girl winks at him. "Because you're funny when you're mad, roomie. It cheers me up."
"I thought you were my friend."
"I am your friend. And that means my job is to make you miserable." She pats Xuan on the head and turns to the taller girl. "Come on, D. Let's give them some privacy." Over her shoulder, she winks at me. I do not appreciate it.
Xuan pinches the bridge of his nose. "Sukhon's not like that. But apparently they put rum in the cupcakes and didn't tell me, so... Yeah. She's kinda drunk right now."
My mouth twists to the side. I cannot abide the taste of alcohol, and the only thing I hate more than spending time in the company of other people is spending time in the company of drunk people.
Xuan's eyes moved over my face. "...Hey, come on. They're watching Project Runway, so they're not gonna be in the kitchen. Why don't you come in and hang out?" He pauses. "I mean, my dumbass little brother is here"
"I heard that!" comes a shout from the kitchen.
Xuan ignores it. "But he's not bad, really." He rubs his head again, like he isn't used to it. "Will you come in?"
I step over the threshold because I am hungry.
Annie's stance reminds him of the way animals on campus stand: they are used enough to humans that they don't run away when a person approaches, but they stiffen, every muscle ready to run. Helping her out is going to be basically impossible.
But he leads her into the kitchen anyway, pulling out one of the chairs as he passes. Annie sits; it does nothing to relax her. She looks at the plate of cupcakes on the table. "...You said these have rum in them?"
Trai chimes in. "Nah, only the chocolate ones. D and Sukhon took all of those. The ones on the table are just vanilla."
Annie takes a cupcake and sets it in front of herself, although she does not open it. She is impossible to read, so Xuan gives up trying and checks on his pho. Boiling again. Good. "So... you want some pho?" Annie nods, as sedately as a lady at a function of state. Unnerving. "How much?"
She lifts one hand and pinches her thumb and forefinger together.
"Only a little. Got it." Trai is watching him, his head tilted to the side again; Xuan ignores him and takes a bowl from the cabinet over the stove. A few rice noodles, a little shredded beef, a slice or two of the flank steak. Then the broth. "Wait, like, two minutes before you eat it. Unless you like raw meat."
He brings the bowl over to her. Annie immediately sets the cupcake off to the side, leaving space for invisible silverware. Xuan walks back to the silverware drawer and paused. "Chopsticks or spoon?"
"I can use chopsticks." Her voice is faint, and her eyes are fixed on the table.
Xuan hands her the nice pair. Slowly, Annie moves them to the right position between her fingers and stirs the soup with them.
Sweat is breaking out on the back of Xuan's neck; it isn't from the pho steam. He clears his throat. It does nothing to alleviate the heavy silence in the room. "...Oh, uh, this is my brother, Trai. Trai, this is Annie."
She lifts her eyes from the bowl of pho and nods at his brother. Trai waves nervously. At least he clams up around pretty girls.
The boys eat standing up and start some awkward conversation; I hardly hear them. In the back of my mind, I hear my father's voicewell, the voice of the only one that matterstelling me that I am a guest here and that I need to be more polite. I am bad at that. Instead, I eat my pho. It is rich and meaty; the first bit of beef awakens a yawning chasm in my stomach, even though I'd finished most of my lunch.
I unwrap the cupcake, but I feel ambivalent about actually eating it. Cupcakes are my birthday food. Eating them now feels unnatural. But everything now is unnatural. Shouldn't I embrace it?
"Oh, shit, I've got to get back to work!" Xuan says, breaking across my thoughts. I meet his eyes; he freezes. "Um. You can stick around if you want. Or not. Whatever. I've got to go."
I nod and get to my feet, still holding the cupcake in one hand. I slide the wrapper back around it. "I should leave, too. My" My voice catches; I touch my throat. I did not expected that. My emotions rarely spill into my expression or my voice. "My father will be wondering where I am."
Xuan shrugs. "Fair enough." Cautiously, he smiles at me. "So... see you at that meeting tomorrow?"
"It's mandatory, isn't it?"