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Be Good and Good Bye MAG
That summer, I had gone to JingZhou, a small-but-growing town with dust-strewn, cow pie-streaked roads and carts pulled by donkeys and cattle mingling with shiny black Buicks. Endless rice paddies (broken only by the narrow dirt paths and ponds where lotus flowers lingered, lazy and effortlessly beautiful) stretched out from the busy city center, which was, in a sense, an urban island in a sea of green. It was peaceful there, in the rice paddies, among the lotuses. Unlike the world, and unlike me, it never changed.
She didn't notice me when I arrived in the sleek black car, tinted windows hiding my face. I'd just come from the train station, which was a four-hour drive. The car stopped in front of her, and I jumped out, feeling the ruthlessly hot, dry air of southern China replacing the cool sensation of air conditioning.
My mouth dropped. She'd changed – gotten plumper, shorter (or so it seemed), and had a new hair cut. I pointed at her with a big, idiotic smile on my face. She grinned back. I hadn't seen my big sister for a whole year. (I call her my sister, but she's my cousin. I address cousins as “brother” or “sister,” which is the Chinese tradition.)
We didn't hug. We just looked each other up and down, grinning. My grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my “little brother,” and the rest of my family on my father's side started streaming out of the concrete house, skirting the rickety, handmade furniture. My grandma grabbed my hand, and I couldn't help but wince at the touch of her gravely skin, calloused from decades of farm work, eating tree bark when times were rough, and raising three children despite all the odds.
“You've grown taller, haven't you?” she was saying, and everybody was around me, smiling and laughing. But from outside the circle of people, I saw my sister beckoning, giving me a “we're going” kind of look, and I was off, flip flops flapping, kicking up dust. We had a lot to catch up on.
She probably wasn't the most responsible role model, but I loved her all the same. That summer and the few summers before that, we were always together, inseparable as Batman and Robin. We stayed up until two – a scandalous hour for a 12-year-old – braving the mosquitoes and stifling heat (the only air-conditioned room, installed especially for me, was downstairs, but the two of us stayed upstairs, rebels that we were).
She brought me with her when she went to Internet cafes to IM her friends and play video games. We were minors and were not supposed to be allowed in, but the people in charge didn't care enough to turn down our money (or rather, the money my aunt had gallantly stuffed into my hands). So we hung out in the musky, humid room full of mosquitoes, video game addicts, and perverts, I checking my e-mail for messages from friends back in the United States, she chatting with her friends.
But there were places I knew enough not to go with her. She would sneak out in the middle of the night and not come back until morning, creeping in through the gates before anyone was awake. She never told me where she went, and I never asked. There were also times when she would skip the art class we were taking and go out with a pair of boys, leaving me behind. But she would always come back to get me after class, and once she even brought me a bag of chicken-flavored onion rings. They were surprisingly good, and the boys were nice to me.
We spent our days and nights watching Korean soap operas, talking, giggling. I felt so proud whenever she called me her little sister, and even though it was embarrassing, I kind of liked it when she said, “Are you mental?” for laughing hysterically all by myself at something only I thought was funny.
But whenever my grandpa called her downstairs to do her schoolwork, she became a statue. She would get this ugly, deadpan expression, so different from her normal joking face, and stare at the floor, twiddling her pencil. My grandfather always got really angry. He would hit her, and she would stand there, taking it, reluctant tears making her eyes red-rimmed. Once, he even grabbed the broom, but my aunt ran to rescue her daughter. My grandfather turned on her instead, and she reacted exactly the same as my sister – silent, brooding, and pitifully in pain.
My aunt had some sort of mental illness that made her irresponsible and childish, and it was times like these that always made me want to hug her until it was all right. My grandfather cried when he understood that he hadn't been able to help his grandchild when she needed it most. That dear, dear old man didn't know how to deal with problems other than with violence.
It wasn't just my sister's arithmetic that made my grandfather angry. It was everything she did. She skipped classes, flunked school, did devious things with boys, got involved in gangs, stole money. Sometimes I was there during the discussions between my grandparents, my father, and my uncle (my aunt was not included in these talks about her daughter) and heard all of the bad things my sister had done. At first, I refused to believe that she had stolen the money my aunt had given me, or that she'd gotten me to unknowingly buy contraceptives for her, telling me that they were candy, or that she had probably been deceiving and using me for a long, long time. I guess I had to grow up some day.
The night before I left to go back to the United States, my sister snuck out again. She invited me to come, but I shook my head. So we split up; she went upstairs to her room to listen to the radio and wait for midnight so she could leave, and I stayed downstairs with the rest of the family for our last night together. She grinned and waved from the top of the stairs.
“I'll be back before you leave,” she assured me.
“See you later,” I replied, before I turned away.
That night, I lay on my bamboo mat on the floor and drifted to sleep long before I could hear the front gate clunk open, announcing the flight of my sister, an unlikely heroine for a little girl.
The next morning, I awoke to the sounds of birds and my grandma and aunt slaving away in the kitchen. I dressed and headed to the bathroom, sadly gathering my toothbrush and towel and stowing them in my suitcase. I asked my aunt if she had seen my sister. She said she hadn't, a bashful, toothless smile on her face as usual. I floated around listlessly, then ate a sad last breakfast with my grandparents.
The clock hands hurried us along, demanding our departure. We inched slowly toward the gate. My grandmother was crying, swiping at anyone who dared get close with her skinny arms.
“Aw, Ma, don't cry. We'll be back soon,” my father said, looking embarrassed to see his mother cry.
I too was fighting a war against tears myself as everybody patted my shoulder and told me to grow taller and become even more beautiful and come back soon and make them proud.
Suddenly, I was breaking away from the circle to rush upstairs to my sister's room, desperately needing to connect with her one last time before I left. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and tried to think of something to write, a loving note or a witty phrase. But in the end, I settled for, “Be good and good-bye.”
After I returned to the U.S., I heard that she'd run away from home and the police were looking for her. She went home once in a while to grab some food or whatever she needed, and left again without a word. She was like a plastic bag in the wind, floating away and then unexpectedly swooping back, time after time, making you numb with disappointment, insane from hope, and even crazier knowing you couldn't do anything.
It's been years since I last saw her. The last time I visited China, she was nowhere to be found. I only have pictures to remind me what she looks like.
Sometimes, when I'm tired of being me – an honor student, an artist, a girl now determined to be her own heroine – I think about the small-but-growing town in southern China and my family there. My grandma and grandpa, old and wrinkled but still perky. My aunt and uncle, who are getting on fine, despite being poor and dealing with a family crisis. My cousin, whom I don't think of as my sister anymore but still love dearly and pray for. And I think of that sea of green and untamed wilderness. The rice paddies and lotuses haven't changed – I don't think they ever will. They linger there as always, lazy and effortlessly beautiful.