On their second day in the new house a couple of things happened that, while noteworthy at the time, took on a special significance in hindsight. The first was the trio of apple cores placed in the mailbox to ooze apple juice onto the circulars.
“Maybe a squirrel put them there,” Kaitlin said. Yvonne raised an eyebrow. “Maybe it was an accident,” she tried again. One apple core might–might–get swooped up in the mail and deposited accidentally, but three? “Maybe some kids put it there. Maybe they’ve been using that mailbox as a convenient trash can for a long time. They might not know anyone lives here now.”
Yvonne didn’t say anything but kept her skeptical eyebrow arched as she carried the apples and mail to the kitchen. The mail was all junk anyway. The apples had more juice in them than any apples she’d ever seen before, though to be fair she was never really fond of apples. She was about to toss the cores into the trash when Kaitlin chirped, “Compost!” Yvonne carried out them back to the compost tumbler. Along the way she wondered if she could compost the mail, too. It was just paper, after all, though probably mixed in with some deadly-toxic chemical that saved the printers a few pennies per pound.
The other odd thing that happened occurred in the evening, when Yvonne and Kaitlin sat on the back porch, Yvonne with a beer and Kaitlin with some kind of herbal something. A distinct chirping, a singsong whistle not human but close enough to fool children and imaginative adults, caught Yvonne’s ear and without saying anything she stood and went to it. Kaitlin brought her mug to her lips and took a slow sip as she watched Yvonne go down the stairs to the grass and bent down. She set her beer on the lowest step and with cupped hands scooped up a little frog.
“What the hell?” she gasped, and then an involuntary laugh, brief and percussive, escaped her.
“Let me see!” Kaitlin called out, and Yvonne brought it over, careful to avoid her beer. “What a cute little frog!”
“It’s a coqui,” Yvonne said.
“Come again?” Kaitlin’s always-enormous eyes betrayed a feigned ignorance.
“Coqui, dummy, the Puerto Rican frog. I haven’t seen one of these since I was a little girl. We used to catch them in my abuelita’s yard.”
The little frog, not much bigger than a thumbnail, stood still on her hand, its throat throbbing quickly with breaths or heartbeats, and then let out its cry: “Coqui!”
“Aww, it knows its name,” Kaitlin said.
“What is it doing out here?” Yvonne wondered, bringing it up to get a closer look.
“You’re in the country, girl. Your neighbors are pretty animals now.”
“But this is a tropical frog. It can’t live this far north. I didn’t even think they live anywhere except Puerto Rico.”
Kaitlin took another sip. “Well, now you aren’t the only Rican in town, see?”
The frog took a flying leap out of her hands, over the railing and into the grass, and resumed calling its onomatopoeic name into the night.
“Loud little fucker, isn’t he?” Yvonne said, knowing that swears still made Kaitlin blush, and enjoying the reaction in her eyes.
The little frog chirped through the night. Yvonne wanted to complain that it was keeping her awake, but realistically she was going to stay awake anyway, and the sound was more comforting than annoying. The house was too still and too big for her, and at night it made all manner of creepy noises. If she heard the same sounds in the city she would have grabbed a baseball bat and gone around swinging. Here she just stayed in bed with her eyes wide open, waiting for sleep to sneak up on her like a mugger in an alleyway. The coqui, then, was a welcome visitor from a faraway land and uncomplicated time, and she let it lead her there until sleep led them both away.
In the morning Yvonne woke up first, as always, and headed downstairs to make coffee. She’d make enough for two, even though Kaitlin mostly drank tea. If she wanted coffee there would be some waiting for her, though, and if she didn’t, then Yvonne could have two cups.
It still didn’t really occur to her that she could just outside. If she went out to the backyard she could even go in her pajamas, secure in the knowledge that nobody could see her back there. The day before she’d sat on the couch reading a magazine until Kaitlin asked why she didn’t sit on the porch. Yvonne remembered this and went out, slipping on the plastic sandals she’d bought on a lark in Chinatown and now refused to give up.
The house was bigger than they needed, on a piece of property much larger than they had any use for. “We can throw big parties,” Kaitlin pleaded.
“Nobody’s going to drive all the way out here for a party.”
“They will if they can spend the night.”
Except for when the realtor showed them around, Yvonne still hadn’t gone out past the porch, and so today she went ahead. The grass was covered in silvery dew, and as she walked through it the water shook off and left bright green tracks behind her. Some of the water collected in her sandals. She wondered when she had last walked through grass barefoot, and her inner Kaitlin insisted that she surrender to the thought and take off the sandals. The dew was cold and the grass sharper than she’d expected, but she felt it between her toes and smiled. Yvonne took a perverse pride in being unsentimental, even maybe anti-sentimental, but this felt good. She drew in a deep breath, so deep it started to burn, and the burning reminded her that this was real. Her air, her house, her yard, her dewy grass between her toes.
Half Kaitlin’s, true, but that was all one and the same now. Kaitlin was hers, too.
Kaitlin had done all the research. Yvonne wanted no part of it. “If this book sells more than a hundred copies–not counting however many your parents buy–then you can go looking. But I’m not gonna help. I like it here.”
The book sold way more than a hundred copies. More than a thousand times as many as that. It was successful enough that Yvonne started to worry about her status as breadwinner. Kaitlin had always lived on others’ largesse–first her parents, then Yvonne. Would a Kaitlin with money need her?
This is probably how misogyny starts, Yvonne thought to herself. Fear, possessiveness. The irony was noted.
Kaitlin narrowed down the region she wanted quite quickly, and over spring break they checked into a bed and breakfast in the area. “We’ll give it a test drive,” Kaitlin beamed, sitting up like a happy kitten. The town was charming, and the people much friendlier than Yvonne expected. The week was a hit, and Yvonne, who still considered Boston an insufferably small town, began to imagine a life out here.
Two weeks later Kaitlin came by with the listing. “It’s perfect, let’s take a look.” It wasn’t exactly in the same area they’d visited before, but Kaitlin promised it was close enough. As they drove out, the city dissolved into suburbs that melted into farmland. Yvonne pulled the car over.
“Am I gonna get lynched out here?”
Kaitlin’s eyes opened wide. “Not if you keep driving! Go!”
The house was not at all perfect. Huge, in need of repairs, and far from all the things that Kaitlin had originally advertised.
“There’s no granola in the grocery store,” Yvonne told her.
“You don’t like granola.”
“But you do.” Sarcastically: “I’m just thinking about you, and your needs.”
“You can get me more when you’re in the city.”
Unsentimental as she was, Yvonne could admit that Kaitlin was not really a beauty. Her skin was pale, except for the mess of freckles on her face and shoulders, and the patches of pink and red that appeared wherever she was irritated or overheated. Her hair was bland-brown and so limp she could little with it except put it in a ponytail. Her eyes were huge and sunk into her face so she looked a bit like a raccoon, and their color was an unremarkable brown. Her cheekbones were dignified and her chin was dainty and pretty, but the two were out of proportion to each other and anyway were drowned out by her bushbaby eyes and crooked teeth.
She wasn’t beautiful but she was very cute despite all that, and Yvonne hated calling anything cute.
“She was always a happy baby,” her father had explained the previous Thanksgiving. “I thought she’d outgrow it someday but here she is, ‘all growed up,’ and still a happy little baby.” It was the first time Yvonne had ever been invited to a “meet the parents” event, and she was surprised by how nervous she was about everything. She was conscious of being brown in what had to be the whitest household she had ever encountered first-hand; queer in a house that exuded austere Presbyterianism; old enough to feel ashamed of robbing the cradle.
The Drs. McCartney kept a wall of photos of Kaitlin, showing how she grew from a baby to a young woman without ever learning how to smile properly for the camera.
“This is my favorite one,” Kaitlin said, taking from the wall a picture of herself at age nine.
“Wow,” Yvonne said. “You were such a dork.”
Making a joke like that was a risk, and she cringed inside after she said it. Kaitlin only pretended to be offended, though. “I was not.”
Her mother drily answered, “Sweetie, you are still a dork.” After that, Yvonne could relax.
Upon closer inspection, not all of the framed pictures were photographs. Yvonne took one to look at it closer.
“One of her first real pieces,” the other Dr. McCartney, the father, said. It was a sketch done in charcoal of a girl on a swing, so detailed that from a distance it looked like a black and white picture. “She was eleven when she drew that. That summer that we came back to the States. She told you we lived in China until she was eleven, I assume?”
“She mentioned it.” Once or twice a day, she almost added, but that was unkind. Kaitlin didn’t actually mention it, but she did still speak Mandarin to whomever she could–delivery boys, ladies at the post office, professors and students at the university–and about the half the books on her shelf were in Chinese. But she rarely actually talked about it.
“It’s where she met her first love,” he continued, and Kaitlin blushed. “Wu Daozi.”
Yvonne looked on with mock surprise. “You never told me about…” Him? Her?
“Oh yes, Wu Daozi, all she ever talked about, every minute of every day for years.”
“Tell me more about this mystery love,” Yvonne teased as Kaitlin turned red.
“Nothing to tell, he’s dead,” she answered back, and Yvonne suddenly felt very uncomfortable. Everyone had a dark secret, she understood; joking with parents was not the way she wanted to discover Kaitlin’s.
“He died in the eighth century,” the lady Dr. McCartney offered.
“He was a painter,” male Dr. McCartney continued. “Kaitlin learned to read Chinese with a children’s book about him. I think that reading about painting through pictures really fired something up inside of her. You can see the effect on her life. But back then, I mean, she really wanted to be him.”
Relieved, Yvonne looked back at the drawing. She knew next to nothing about art but recognized that this was a remarkable work for an eleven-year-old. “Is this supposed to be you?”
“No,” Kaitlin said, taking the picture back and putting it on the wall. “It was my imaginary friend.”
“Kaitlin was devastated when we came home,” her mother explained. “Though she didn’t let it get her down. She just found her happiness in her art.”
“It’s what Wu Daozi would have done,” her father smiled.
The old man in the store–he wasn’t that old, just a few years older than Yvonne–asked them straight up: “You ladies queer?”
They were getting beer and snacks on their way home, and Kaitlin had a case of the giggles. She was a bit loud. “And if a Puerto Rican says you’re loud, honey, you are loud,” Yvonne cautioned. They didn’t answer him. Yvonne took the beers and the receipt and Kaitlin giggled all the way back to the car.
He hadn’t made a face when he said it, and didn’t seem to mind that they hadn’t answered. Yvonne wondered if he meant “queer” the way that she used queer, in the modern and empowered way that encompassed all the flavors of human sexuality without presupposing any particular label; or was he really so old-fashioned that “queer”–unusual, not normal–was enough of a slur that he didn’t need to reach out for something more vulgar?
“You’re paranoid,” Kaitlin said.
“I’m the only black girl here.”
“You’re not really black.”
“They don’t know that. They know I’m not white.”
“I’m sure there are others.”
“I don’t see any gay people out here, either.”
“We were literally just at a gay bookstore.”
“Not in this town.”
“The next town over. Fifteen minutes away.”
“Newark is fifteen minutes from Manhattan–it ain’t the same.”
“Fifteen minutes if you’re Superman. Relax. This is the modern world. You can almost smell the city from here. Nobody cares about any of that anymore.”
“Easy for you to say, Pretty White Girl.”
“This is like when you were at my parents’ house and you were so sure they didn’t like you.”
Kaitlin said it all with her bright voice and her goofy smile. In photos her smile was always awkward, sometimes hilariously so, but in real life it was quite charming. All of her teeth were at least a little crooked, but they gave her a bit of character. One of the very few things she was self-conscious of were her very thin lips, but Yvonne loved how smooth and red they naturally were, as if the gods had applied some celestial lip gloss on her. The argument was already over and Kaitlin had won, thanks to that smile. Yvonne just continued in hopes of getting the last word in.
“They didn’t like me at first.”
“Because you’re so old,” Kaitlin deadpanned. “You’re almost as old as they are.”
“I– You– I am not. They’re, like, a lot older than me.”
“Cradle robber,” Kaitlin said mischievously.
“And what do you two do?” A group of women calling themselves the Unofficial Ladies’ Welcoming Committee came by the next day with cookies and salad–“All vegetarian-friendly, just in case.”
“Thank you,” Kaitlin said as she ushered them in. “Though Yvonne and I both eat meat.”
“Good, but you know, you never know these days, and you’d just hate to get off on the wrong foot offending someone.”
Yvonne answered the question. “I work at the university.”
“Oh, wonderful. What do you do there?”
“I’m chair of the women’s studies department.” Saying that suddenly made her feel supergay. To their credit, none of the women blinked, though Yvonne was sure that the women they shared that information would.
“Do you drive all the way into the city to teach?”
“Actually, I’m not teaching this year. I’m writing a book. I still have to go in for meetings and shit–“ shit she needed to watch her mouth– “but mostly I hope to spend my time here.” She pointed lamely at the laptop on the dining room table.
The ladies nodded their heads politely, then pointed at Kaitlin. “And you, dear? Do you teach, too? Is that how you met?”
“Oh, me, I, uh, no. I mean, we met at the school, but I wasn’t a student or anything. Not hers, at least. We met in the library, of all places. I don’t really have a job.”
“She illustrates children’s books,” Yvonne recovered the fumble.
“Well, I illustrated one.”
The ladies were more impressed by that. They asked the book’s name, and she told them, and they were wowed.
“It’s my son’s favorite book!” “We had to order extra copies at the library, the kids can’t stop picking it up.” “So wonderful, I love that book.”
“The pictures–marvelous! You can almost believe they’re real!”
Kaitlin turned deeper shades of splotchy pink, but Yvonne, happy to have the attention off of her, beamed with pride. “You should see the original paintings, before they got scanned and printed. I mean, when she showed me them I had to touch them to prove they weren’t really alive, right?”
Unfortunately the originals were still in the city, but Kaitlin promised that she would bring them into the library to show them. Everyone was satisfied.
“They seemed nice,” Kaitlin said after they were gone.
“Small-town ladies. I’ve read about them. They scare me.”
“You are the worst feminist ever.”
“Tell me about this mystery lover of yours, this Fu Manchu.”
“That’s racist. You’re the worst liberal ever.”
This was at Thanksgiving, at her parents house. They were in Kaitlin’s bedroom, which looked like it hadn’t been redecorated since she was about twelve. Yvonne felt like she should be on the floor in a sleeping bag instead of in the bed naked.
“What was so special about him?”
“He was probably the greatest painter of the Tang Dynasty. Mostly he painted murals, and a lot’s happened in China since then, so all those walls he painted on have been knocked down. We still have a few of his works, though. They’re magnificent. I had a poster of Bāshíqī shénxiān tú.”
“The Eighty-Seven Immortals. I used to trace it, then started doing it freehand. I was obsessed, you know how kids get. Just constantly drawing it again and again. I could do it from memory eventually. I bet I still can.”
“What about it impressed you so much?”
“It was just lines, but they came to life. Not like in regular paintings where the brush-strokes blur together to make an illusion. He just drew extremely simple lines, so simple a child could follow along, but with such precision and complexity that these forms took on real weight and life. They say that sometimes his paintings would actually come to life, like he would paint a butterfly and it would fly away. And when he was old, instead of dying, he painted a masterpiece, and then walked into it and joined it. He walked in and asked to emperor to join him, but the emperor hesitated, and Wu Daozi entered the painting alone.”
“Did any of your works ever come to life?”
She didn’t answer. She turned on her side and rested her head on Yvonne’s chest, and after a few soft breaths fell asleep.
The mailbox was knocked over one morning, after they’d been living there for a few weeks. There was nothing inside this time, but as much as Kaitlin tried to convince her that it was probably a car that accidentally hit it and knocked it over, Yvonne was sure that it looked like it had been deliberately knocked down.
“I don’t think that the apple cores were an accident, either.”
“Don’t get yourself all worked up,” she said.
At night she stayed awake, listening the sounds of the house creaking and Kaitlin softly breathing. The coqui hadn’t come back, and she missed it now. It had probably frozen to death out there.
Kaitlin slept like a child, deeply and contentedly. She had every reason to, Yvonne thought uncharitably. Yvonne had attributed Kaitlin’s behavior in bed to innocence, as if Kaitlin were actually a child and not a grown woman fast approaching thirty. Lately, though, Yvonne felt that she was just selfish. Kaitlin loved the attention she received, and she knew that Yvonne loved giving that attention. The idea of giving something back never seemed to cross the younger woman’s mind. Giving and taking were one and the same to her.
Yvonne would forgive her eventually, but tonight, listening to the frightening sounds of a house she didn’t want in a town she didn’t like, she quietly hated her quiet breathing.
In the morning Yvonne went out on the porch to drink coffee, and a big deer crossed the yard and came over. She gasped. These animals were supposed to be beautiful, and up close they didn’t disappoint. Her big eyes, Yvonne realized, were the same shade as Kaitlin’s. The deer came up to the porch and allowed her nose to be patted before turned and bounding away. After she had crossed the yard another deer appeared and bounded after her, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, an entire flock of them, bouncing up and down in rhythm, barely disturbing the morning dew. It was breathtaking.
“Herd,” Kaitlin corrected when Yvonne told her the story.
“A herd of deer, not a flock. How many were there?”
“At least twenty, maybe more. They were so beautiful.”
“Aren’t you glad we moved out here?”
Yvonne had to admit it. She’d lived in urban grit her whole life. The closest thing to wildlife she’d ever seen was squirrels and pigeons. She took Kaitlin’s hand, and Kaitlin allowed herself to be led back upstairs.
“Should we have a baby?”
Yvonne’s first reaction was to dismiss it with a joke, but she let that pass. Then she thought about calmly enumerating all the arguments against babies, but let that go, too. At this moment, curled up beside Kaitlin on the porch, drink coffee and tea and putting off getting to work, she didn’t want to say anything negative.
“Sure,” she said. Kaitlin grinned and had a sip.
The air was heavy. Had she just committed to something very big, or was this just Kaitlin thinking out loud? Yvonne tried to dispel the tension.
“Can we adopt an Asian one? Just to get the whole racial set?”
Kaitlin laughed. “No, I want one that looks like us.”
Arched eyebrow again. “You do know how biology works, right? You and me can’t actually have a child.”
Slyly: “There are ways.”
The conversation was stopped by a crashing sound from the front. They both went inside, Yvonne slightly in the front, paternalistically protective. From the living room they looked out and saw what had made the noise: someone had thrown a metal trash can onto their car. Yvonne ran out to the street. The road they lived on curved away and she only just saw two figures disappear around the bend. She chased them until she was sure she wouldn’t be able to catch up, and then worried that Kaitlin was left behind alone. She ran back.
Kaitlin was surveying the damage to the car. The trash can had dented the trunk and cracked the rear windshield, but worse was that it was filled with fish and fish guts which had spilled all over everywhere and even in the crisp morning air already stank to high heaven.
“Motherfuckers!” Yvonne shouted, not caring about Kaitlin’s damned sensibilities. She paced around the car, snapping pictures with her phone, noting every detail. Kaitlin stood by quietly, and when Yvonne calmed down Kaitlin slipped her hand in hers and led her inside. Yvonne was surprised to find she was shaking a little.
They called the police, and in twenty minutes a man knocked on the door and introduced himself as Deputy Denkmal. Together they looked at the car.
“Has anything like this happened before?” he asked.
“No,” Kaitlin said quickly.
“Yes, actually. Our mailbox was knocked over, two weeks ago.” He wrote that down. “And when we first moved in,” she remembered, “someone stuffed apples into the mailbox.”
“That could have been anything,” Kaitlin protested, but the deputy stopped writing and let out a “Huh.”
He finished with his notes and asked them to call if they thought of anything else.
Yvonne spent the rest of the morning cleaning the car and the fish guts off the driveway. Kaitlin helped for a bit, but the smell made her gag so she went inside. When she was finally done, Yvonne went in and found that Kaitlin had made lunch.
“I’ll reschedule my meetings for tomorrow so I don’t have to go in,” Yvonne said
“No, don’t do that.”
“I don’t want to leave you here.”
“I’ll be fine. That was probably just some kids looking for trouble, picking on the new people. Nothing to worry about.” Yvonne was unmoved, so Kaitlin let her eyes fall into full wide-open pleading. “We’re going to be happy here, but that can’t happen if you don’t let it. And if you don’t go to work you won’t be happy.” Big smile, big eyes. “Tell me about the deer again.”
Yvonne didn’t really want to but she did anyway.
She spent three days at the university, and when she came back saw that Kaitlin had been busy. The boxes were unpacked, and she’d finally set up her art studio. More striking, though, was a gleaming silver samovar that she’d set on the dining room table.
“Where did you get this?” Yvonne said.
“At the antiques market. I had to polish it but it works and everything.”
“It must have cost a fortune.” The samovar was gorgeous. It didn’t have any markings to indicate how old it was, no factory stamp or engraving anywhere that she could see, but it was clearly very old.
“No, I don’t think the seller even knew what it was. I should have taken pictures of it before I polished it, it looked like junk. But I saw it and I had to get it.”
Yvonne traced her fingers over the details, the intricate designs that evoked leaves and trees and flowing water. It wasn’t exactly like she remembered but close enough, certainly in spirit.
When she was little her neighbor was an elderly Russian woman–not really Russian, some sort of Soviet ethnic. Magdalena was her name. Her English was terrible and her manners were worse, but she was very fond of Yvonne, the only child in the building. Magdalena had no family, and Yvonne, always a lonely child, developed a friendship. In the afternoons, after school, Yvonne went to Magdalena’s house for cookies and instant coffee. Maybe in Soviet Russia it was normal to give coffee to small children, but for Yvonne it was a great secret, a half hour of being a grown-up.
Magdalena scooped to spoons of Nescafe into coffee mugs and then filled them with hot water from a samovar, a glorious relic that was the only thing she had carried with her when she emigrated. She once, with great care, lifted it so Yvonne could read the engraving underneath. It was written in Cyrillic so she couldn’t read the letters, but the numbers were clear: 1856.
“When I die I want you to have it,” she said to Yvonne, but when Magdalena died Yvonne was visiting family back in Puerto Rico, and when she returned everything, samovar included, was gone.
It was one of the few memories of childhood that stayed with her. Kaitlin would go on and on about her childhood as if she still lived in those moments, but over the years Yvonne had reduced her own early years to a half-dozen thoughts and sensations: her mother’s cooking, her father’s tobacco smell, the coquis that sang in her grandmother’s garden, and the gorgeous old samovar that she lamented not having been able to keep.
“You’re too good to me,” Yvonne said. She felt the slightest twinge of a tear and fought it. Kaitlin was the sentimental one, not her.
“Oh, one more thing!” Kaitlin suddenly said, and took Yvonne by the hand and led her to the yard.
“Oh hell no.”
A golden retriever puppy bounded up to them, his tongue flopping happily.
“A practice baby,” Kaitlin beamed.
“Motherfu–” She stopped herself.
The days passed cheerfully. Yvonne wrote her book at the dinner table, and Kaitlin did whatever it was that she did in her art studio. One evening a flock of wild turkeys gobbled their way across the yard and Dexter, as they named the dog, gave spirited if ineffective chase.
Another night they watched an unexpected meteor shower. Kaitlin found a few more lovely antiques to decorate the house with. “Be careful, though,” Yvonne warned, “too many antiques and we start turning into cat ladies.”
And then one day they came home to find their yard destroyed. Somebody had driven over the grass and torn it up; the garbage cans were emptied out onto the front porch; and, worst of all, the front door–actually the whole front wall–had been spray-painted with crude pictures of genitals and racist, sexist, homophobic obscenities.
Deputy Denkmal took his notes and then drove off. Yvonne had to do all the talking; Kaitlin sat on the couch stroking Dexter. Her big eyes were red, and her skin was mottled pink. Yvonne was surprised to find herself angry at Kaitlin. Had she seriously never experienced something like this before? It must be nice, she thought to herself, to be so sheltered for so long. Or not nice at all. Only the strong survive, after all.
Yvonne woke in the night to small sounds downstairs, and resolved that if she was going to live in the country she was going to do like the locals and buy herself a gun, even though she understood that statistically she was more likely to shoot Kaitlin than any intruder. Until she got one, though, she would have to use her fists, and she was ready for that.
She crept down the stairs, hoping it was just the dog. It wasn’t though: the useless dog was snoring on the couch. Yvonne grabbed the poker from the fireplace–it was ornamental but heavy enough–and followed the noises to Kaitlin’s studio. She let herself in.
Kaitlin whipped around and hid something behind her back. “What are you doing up?” she asked.
“I was about to ask you the same.”
Yvonne never went into Kaitlin’s studio. She was never invited, and there was no need. Whenever Kaitlin did something she was proud she would bring it out and show it off like a little girl. Otherwise most of the time the door was locked. “It gives me piece of mind,” Kaitlin explained.
The walls were already covered in sketches. One entire wall of Chinese gardens. Yvonne didn’t recognize the style but it reminded her of Kaitlin’s descriptions of the famous Chinese painter.
Another wall was covered in more realistic sketches: butterflies, birds, flowers. A flock of turkeys. Herd of deer. A lone little frog.
“What’s all this?”
Kaitlin looked embarrassed. “I was going to show you, when I was ready.” Yvonne looked around. It occurred to her that when she got up just a minute ago she hadn’t checked if Kaitlin was in bed–she hadn’t checked because she didn’t need to, she could feel her warmth and hear her breathing.
A little bird took off from behind Yvonne, fluttered overhead daintily, and then disappeared behind Kaitlin’s back.
“This feels really weird. Are you okay?”
Kaitlin hesitated, then walked across the room and closed the door, locking her and Yvonne in.
“I have to show you something.”
She led Yvonne to a painting of an old Chinese man. “This is Wu Daozi. Do you remember him?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“He, uh… This is hard to explain.” She looked around. “Look over here.” She led Yvonne to a another picture. “This was our courtyard in Beijing. I used to play under this tree every day.” It was another simple sketch, though in this one it was easier for Yvonne to appreciate Kaitlin’s description of simple lines taking on life. “When we left I was beginning to figure out his techniques, and I didn’t want to go until I’d mastered them. So I drew this sketch and took it with me, and even after we got back to the States I could go back. You see?”
Yvonne walked past her to look at some of the other pieces. The drawings were incredibly lifelike, even those rendered in charcoal sketch. She could almost reach out and touch them.
She remembered whatever it was that Kaitlin was hiding. She didn’t have to press hard: she just looked behind Kaitlin’s back and Kaitlin produced it. It was a quick sketch of herself in bed. Yvonne recognized it. This was exactly the way that Kaitlin slept at night.
“I come down here in the night, mostly, to work alone. When we were in the city I’d go into the kitchen. I, um, I leave this so you don’t think I’m up.”
Yvonne couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it. “Wait, what?”
“But when I throw the paper away it goes away, then I get back and nobody knows. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid and nobody’s found out.”
“Are you telling me that you’re upstairs right now in bed sleeping?”
“Sort of.” She crumpled the sketch and dropped it on the floor. “Not anymore.”
Yvonne found another sketch on the table, this one of a bird. This was the bird that had flown overhead and disappeared. As she looked at it the bird’s wings fluttered and it cocked its head to one side, looking back at her.
“I’m just practicing that one. But it’s no good. It doesn’t fly right.”
“You’re saying you make these drawings come to life?”
“He taught me how, Wu Daozi. I study with him, at night. It sounds crazy but…”
“‘But’ nothing, it’s crazy.” She looked around. “The coqui. That was you.”
“I thought it would make you feel better.”
“And the deer?” She nodded. “The samovar.” She nodded again. “Dexter?”
“No, I bought him at a store.”
Kaitlin made a face. “Some parts of it.”
Yvonne stood still for a moment. She noticed that the sketches of trees were swaying slightly. Wu Daozi had moved his arms a little. The animals were shifting position, too, looking around.
“You know what, Kaitlin, I’m going to go to bed, and you are too. Come, let’s go.”
In the morning Deputy Denkmal knocked on their door. “I just want to let you know that we got two suspects, they’ve confessed and would like to pay you back for the damage.”
“Who was it?” Yvonne asked.
“Some kids from down the street, just looking for kicks.”
“Kids, huh? So that’s it, they pay for the damages? No charges?”
“No, ma’am, or at least I’d advise against it. You know how it is, small town, a new family moves in, kids are bored, looking for trouble. They’re sorry and won’t do it again.”
Yvonne didn’t like the way he said it. There was a hesitation before “new family,” like it wasn’t his first choice of words.
“Do I at least get to know who it was? Why they did it?”
“I don’t see any reason to…”
“Officer, our house was violated. You know what that means. I worry about my safety, my family’s safety. I deserve to know why we were targeted, and to judge for myself if this is something I need to worry about. Because kids or not, this was a hate crime.”
“It was a little paint and some trash.” The deputy sighed and shifted his weight. “Listen, this isn’t the big city. We got no problems with anybody here, but this is a small community, people here have roots going back generations, they have certain values that they try to maintain. Of course you have the right to feel safe in your home, but you gotta understand that some kind of a reaction is only natural. The best thing to do is to move on.”
“You know what, officer, I will not move on. I demand to meet with my attackers or I will press charges, minors or not.”
The deputy sighed. “Your type never makes this easy.”
He came back an hour later with two young men and their parents. “Kids, my ass,” Yvonne said to Kaitlin as they watched them coming up the walk. “These assholes are full-grown adults. Look at that one, I bet he’s as old as you.”
The “kids” were twenty-two and twenty-three years old. They didn’t do any speaking. The parents offered to paint the house themselves and the kids grumbled something about not doing it again. Yvonne, livid, flew into the kind of speech that she normally saved for her lectures, a tirade against bigotry and an affirmation of her rights as a person and a citizen. She could tell it was falling on deaf ears, and when she stopped one of the men shot back.
“I don’t care if it isn’t politically correct to say this, but I’ve had enough of that PC crap. You two come out here into our town and rub our noses in your lifestyle–“
“Rub your noses? We barely come out into the front yard!”
“I don’t care what you do up there, but there’s kids on this street and they don’t need to know what sorts of disgusting things you’re doing in there.”
“The only disgusting thing is the filth that you people drew on my walls!”
“And we have promised to clean it up. Are you going to promise to clean yourselves up? I didn’t think so.”
The deputy, for his part, said nothing, and when the families turned to leave he followed them, shaking his head.
Kaitlin was back inside, crying into Dexter’s fur. Yvonne stomped past her into the kitchen to get a beer and her phone. Now was not the time for crying.
The former Unofficial Ladies’ Welcoming Committee came by a few days later. No salad this time, or cookies. They exchanged pleasantries briefly. Kaitlin let them know that she had all her drawings back and would be happy to present at the library.
“Actually,” they began, “we wanted to talk about that. Or something like that. We don’t know that it’s appropriate.” The room had been tense already. At least now it was coming out in the open. “You know, we’re all friends here. This is a nice town. Those boys down the street, they spent the night in jail, and their parents had to put up a lot for bail. I know they made a mistake, but you know, it’s gotten so you can’t even say the wrong word in public without people thinking you’re some murderer or something. They’ve said they were sorry, I don’t see any reason to ruin their lives over this. They’re just kids.”
Yvonne did not take it well. She had learned over the past few days who the boys were: ne’er-do-wells, to use Kaitlin’s word, but popular ones, the town’s own Dukes of Hazzard. Mostly Yvonne became aware that the community was more invested in protecting them than enforcing the law or welcoming “a new family.”
The former Unofficial Ladies’ Welcoming Committee left, but not before choice words were exchanged and Kaitlin broke down in tears.
“We can rent in the city until we sell this place,” Kaitlin offered.
“Like hell, those old bitches aren’t making me move. I have the right to live here and I will. This is my house. Our house. Our turkeys, our deer, our dog. And we’re going to fill it with babies and our neighbors can fuck themselves because there are more of us coming every day and we will not back down.”
Kaitlin didn’t care for rousing defiance any more than she did foul language and retreated to her studio, taking Dexter along.
The next day an officer from Immigration knocked on the door. He got an earful: Yvonne was born in New Jersey, and her parents were born in New York, and anyway Puerto Rico is an American territory and Puerto Ricans have been citizens since 1898, and she and her Puerto Rican lawyers would not put up with this harassment.
He left in a hurry.
At the grocery store somebody stuffed chewing gum into the car’s keyholes.
Their phones rang so often enough that they turned them off.
“Tell me about the baby,” Yvonne said.
“I don’t think we should have them anymore. I want to leave.”
“Have you seriously never been harassed before? How easy has your life been? Have you not listened to any of my lectures?”
“That’s different. I always thought that the world was getting better, but it isn’t. People were just pretending, and now suddenly they don’t feel like they have to anymore. I don’t want to raise kids here. I don’t want to be here myself. This is terrible.”
She cried and cried, and Yvonne alternated between wanting to comfort her and being disgusted by her weakness.
Sounds in the night again, and Yvonne reached out to make sure Kaitlin was there. She was, but did that mean anything?
“Kaitlin,” she nudged her and Kaitlin woke. It was the real her. Of course it was. Anything else was crazy.
If Kaitlin was here, then the noises downstairs were real. Yvonne went to the bedroom door and opened it. She heard the sound of glass breaking, then a yelp, and finally a horrible commotion. She closed the door and pulled the dresser against it to brace it.
They held each other on the bed as they heard the sounds of destruction downstairs. It went on for what felt like hours but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. With war whoops out of a deranged cartoon, the mob ran from the house, leaping into cars that they hadn’t turned off, and sped away. It was a while before Yvonne felt safe enough to go to the window. She saw shadows dancing on the lawn and knew that she needed to spring into action, ignoring Kaitlin, who held her knees close to her chest and cried.
The ground floor was destroyed, and the people–Yvonne guessed that there had been more than five, fewer than a dozen–had set small fires. Yvonne put them out with a fire extinguisher.
Somebody had taken a shit on the couch.
The samovar had been banged up with a hammer.
The dog had been gutted and left to bleed to death.
“Don’t come downstairs,” Yvonne called up. She may as well have said, “You have to come see this.” Talking to Kaitlin was like talking to a child, Yvonne thought to herself, and realized how often she had compared her to a child, less charmed by it each time.
Kaitlin got halfway down the stairs and started screaming. Yvonne forced herself to swallow her resentment and take her back to the room.
Yvonne began sitting on the front porch to drink her coffee. Defiance would be her credo. The dog was buried, insurance paid for the damage, and the county arrested nine people. Privately, prosecutors told her they were opening an investigation on Deputy Denkmal, and considering charges for at least another ten people.
Friends from the city came out to visit, stay and sleep in the guest room. They had a small party to raise a pride flag from the porch.
Every night was the same, though. Kaitlin had nightmares and consoled herself in her studio. Yvonne, worried, would quietly join her and watch as she stared into the pictures of her Chinese courtyard. It had comforted her once before and could do so again, but Yvonne watched for signs that she was cracking up. She wanted to give her a lecture on resilience and resistance, but somehow she knew that it wouldn’t be helpful. Instead she deflected Kaitlin’s polite requests to return to the city, and before long Kaitlin stopped asking.
She began a new artwork, a painting on a large canvas. Her hands moved quickly. Yvonne almost never got to watch her work and was impressed by the speed with which details accumulated. Short, simple strokes, just like the master. She didn’t say a word, just worked until she was tired. Yvonne could tell that behind her furrowed brow was a mind furiously at work.
The work was a fantasia of Kaitlin. Her Chinese courtyard, of course, with Wu Daozi sitting calmly on a bench. The country house, idealized. Their first apartment together, an impression of what a house in Puerto Rico might look like. A stretch of beach, a golden retriever, a cinnamon-colored toddler collecting shells.
“I can’t stay here,” she said. “Come with me.”
Yvonne sighed and took her hand. She looked into Kaitlin’s eyes. Sadness became her. She had never looked so beautiful than she did now, with her world irredeemably poisoned. Yvonne tried not to think about what that said about her.
“Please come,” she said, and Yvonne let her thumb slide over the back of Kaitlin’s hand, leaving faint pink trails on the white skin.
“If we go away they win.”
“I don’t care who wins.”
And so they stayed, both of them wanting the other to change her mind, neither one sure of how to do that. Finally Kaitlin took a deep breath and stood up.
“I have to go,” she said, and let her hand slip free of Yvonne’s. She walked towards her painting and clapped twice. The door to the courtyard, depicted with eight clean brush strokes, swung open, and looking through it Yvonne saw a magnificent garden of wonder, distinct from but the same as the flat images on the canvas. Kaitlin didn’t turn. She took another step and dissolved. Yvonne watched as Kaitlin took a seat beside Wu Daozi in the courtyard, and the dog and child came running from the beach.
She watched, dumbfounded, as the gates to the courtyard swung shut, and when they closed at last, that entire world froze in place, leaving her alone in this one, for better or worse.