Joyland

New York |

What It Is and What It Is Called

by Amy Gall

edited by Emily Schultz

“Are you attracted to your sister?” The Professor looks at me, her hands loosely clasped on the desk in front of her. She is calm, almost cheerful. It is as if she has just asked me what my favorite color is.

I have known the Professor since I started college. She taught my first class and has been on my committee since I was a sophomore. I like her. I trust her.

“What?” I say.

“Are you attracted to your sister?”

The Professor is white. I notice this as if for the first time. I am also white. I haven’t had to notice. My sister is adopted from Korea, and the moments where I have “seen” race have mostly been in relation to her, through large, obvious moments when people called her a chink, or a gook, or even — in the weeks after 9/11 — a towelhead. I am writing a thesis project about multi-racial families and transnational adoption that is based on interviews with women who were adopted from Korea into mostly white families. But when I try to identify the subtle ways race is or isn’t invoked in their families and my own, I feel like I am looking through a window smeared with Vaseline. I am frightened by my clumsiness, frightened that I can’t identify what I or someone else is doing and why they would do it.

My committee chair, who is mixed-race and has children who are adopted from Korea, isn’t in the room with us. She’s always in the room. The Professor and I have, in fact, never been alone. The blood rushes to my cheeks. I realize, very clearly, that I am alone.

The Professor continues to stare. We are supposed to be talking about my writing. She is supposed to tell me to rearrange paragraphs, remove superfluous commas. This moment is supposed to be light and benign and she has cut into it, inverted it into something dark and painful. Where has this question come from? We have read all the same handouts on the hyper-sexualization of Asian women, on homophobia, on the way female voices and narratives are undercut and automatically mistrusted. I thought she understood. But maybe it’s me. Maybe she’s seeing something in me that I’ve missed all these years, something terrible and perverted.

The Professor adjusts the snow globe on her desk. Inside it is a polar bear couple wearing ice skates and kissing. The tiny white flakes lap at the bears’ feet for a moment, before settling back into stillness. I fight the urge to smash the globe on the ground.

***

It was summertime and the mosquitoes had come for my sister, Sarah, leaving fat pink welts all over her honey-colored skin. As she charged down the empty Cambridge streets I walked behind her, my arms folded against my chest. I watched a particularly long trail that outlined the hard curve of Sarah’s thigh, disappeared under her jean shorts and reemerged on the sliver of back where her shirt rode up over her hips. Despite the heat, I kept my large, pasty body covered under layers of black clothes.

My mother said the mosquitoes went after Sarah because her blood was sweeter than ours. I longed to have that effect, to be pierced and drawn from, to be irresistible, even if it was just to bugs.

When we got to our bus stop I sat on a bench and Sarah leaned against a telephone pole.

“How do I look?” she said and glanced up and down the sidewalk as if she were asking this question to the world.

“Beautiful,” I said, fanning my face. “You always look beautiful.”

Sarah bent over and scratched the bites on her legs.

I heard the sharp snap of gum like it was right next to my ear. A group of white boys in matching baseball hats walked towards us. They butted against each other, pushed, pointed, fanned out. They stopped a few feet from my sister and stared at her upturned ass, held their fists to their mouths. The shortest boy edged forward.

“You want to suck on this dick, baby?” he said, grabbing the low-slung denim of his crotch. “You want this dick?” He shook his jeans back and forth with his pale, freckled hand. I watched my sister’s loose, soft body become rigid. She straightened up and without turning around moved over to where I was sitting. The rest of the boys smiled and blew bubbles that they pierced with their tongues.

Sarah lowered her head. I stood up and slung my arm around her.

“Fuck off,” I said.

The boy looked startled, as if he hadn’t realized I was there. He let go of his crotch and smiled. He looked like all the boys I was friends with at school.

“Dyke,” he said.

His lips formed into an “oh” and the gum he’d been chewing shot out of his mouth. The gum landed at my feet. I jumped.

Prickles of heat broke out on the back of my neck as the boys began to laugh. They laughed with their mouths and eyes open, their heads jutting towards us. They held the short boy’s shoulders and shook him and he looked from us to them and back. When they were done genuinely laughing they continued to make the sounds of laughter. They held their stomachs and lurched towards us, sighing and wheezing before falling back into each other. Eventually they wobbled away from us, pink cheeked and holding each other, like family. “Fucking dykes, right?”

Sarah waited until they were out of sight and then wiped her eyes with the back of her hands.

“I should have brought my knife,” she said, squirming away from me, “not my little sister.”

I scowled at the ground. The wad of gum by my feet was still wet but the men were gone and there was no one left to be angry at but myself.

Our bus pulled into view. All the windows were open and arms of various sizes and shapes hung out of it. As it stopped in front of us and the arms became animated, frantically fanning the air, trying to create a breeze that would never come. Sarah and I squeezed into a front seat. I would not look at my sister. I laid my head against the plastic frame of the window, and hot puffs of wind hit my face. Sarah sighed. She pressed her head against my shoulder. She rubbed her cheek against my neck. I kept my eyes on the passing buildings, but I slowly opened my hand and Sarah grabbed it with her bony fingers.

An older woman in a gray housedress stood across the aisle from Sarah and me. I could feel her watching us. I turned to look at the woman and she moved her eyes from our hands to my face. I tried to read the look, determine whether it was disgust or curiosity or concern or whether she was even looking at us at all. I could feel Sarah’s face contorting against my neck. I kept staring at the woman. I kissed the top of my sister’s head. The woman put a hand on her throat, held it there for a moment and turned away.

***

“What? No. Why would you say that?” I am swallowing hard, still sitting in my chair across from The Professor. I haven’t moved. I would never run away. I would never do something so uncontrolled.

“Well, I’m no doctor,” the Professor says, “But the last piece you wrote about your sister, it was very high-pitched, very emotional.”

I feel tears swimming in the back of my eyes.

The Professor lays her hand on the stack of papers covering her desk. My papers. Those papers are mine. They are the culmination of a year’s worth of research, a year’s worth of interviews with my sister and other women who were adopted from South Korea by white parents, a year’s worth of realizations about how little race is talked about in homes where there is only one person of color, how adopted children of color often have no language with which to explain or make sense of the humiliations and scrutiny they are subject to in all white spaces because their white adoptive parents have never experienced such things and don’t attempt to understand what it would mean to be a minority. These papers highlight the sense of betrayal and confusion these adopted children can sometimes feel, especially towards white siblings who get to see themselves reflected in their parents, friends, and community. I think about the deep sense of responsibility I have always felt towards my sister, like I’m making up for something, like I’m fixing something. How I worried so much about mislabeling or misreading or misunderstanding my sister, that I had no sense of who I was separate from her and that guilt. How guilt does nothing, doesn’t give my sister a voice, a sense of self. I think about when I agreed to work with the Professor and she told me I would have to be accountable to my audience, that the reader deserved to know.

The Professor eases her hand off the stack. “This is probably not the time and place to discuss this.”

“But you brought it up,” I think. “You said it.” But I don’t say that. I don’t say anything.

***

I was six and I was sucking sugar off of my sister’s fingers. This was part of what Sarah called “The Test.” I sat at the kitchen table, a blindfold wrapped around my head. Jars clanked and boxes shuffled, and underneath those noises was my sister’s laughter. I kept my eyes closed even though I was blindfolded. The darkness wasn’t something to be afraid of and I liked hearing Sarah’s presence instead of seeing it. The sounds of her movements were like touches, breezing over my head, then resting on the back of my neck, then disappearing. I kept my eyes closed because I wanted to play by the rules, because I wanted there to be rules.

I felt the cold press of metal against my lips. I opened my mouth and a lump of something rich and creamy slid down my throat.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You have to guess.”

I ran my tongue over the roof of my mouth, trying to taste what I had already swallowed. There was a slightly sour residue.

“Yogurt?” I asked.

More laughter, Sarah’s breath warm against my face, and another spoon pressed to my lips.

Plum sauce, cloves of raw garlic, grape jelly, uncooked pasta, I rolled each taste around and around. Some foods melted on my tongue, soft and sweet, others were unyielding and left a bitter taste that made the next round of food harder to identify. Failure was not an option. When I named something my sister’s giggling grew louder and I giggled too, dizzy with relief.

The game picked up speed. The spoon was shoved into my mouth so quickly that I choked. Then Sarah’s laughter was a roar, blotting out my coughs and the clang of the spoon as it fell to floor. And just as quickly the game would slow to a standstill. I would wait, anticipating the taste of something and nothing would come and I couldn’t hear my sister and I’d shout, “Are you there?” and there would be no answer. And then suddenly the spoon would appear again, butting against my lips as I gratefully opened my mouth.

At some point, I passed “The Test.”

“Okay.” Sarah said, her voice suddenly very serious.

My sister had slim, hard little fingers. They felt like the bones from the Korean-style chicken wings my mother made when we were trying to embrace Sarah’s heritage. When they lay on my tongue, I forgot that they were delicate things. I had worked hard and these fingers were my prize and so I sucked on them as fiercely as I could. I sucked long after the sugar was gone, because the sweetness wasn’t the point, it was the having, it was the possession that really mattered. I sucked until I bit and then my sister wrenched her hand away.

“Stop!” she yelled.

I laughed the way children do when they aren’t sorry. And then I heard the soft crunching sound of my sister’s fingers rolling around in the sugar bowl for a second time. I sucked again, my eyes shut tight.

Once, I failed “The Test.”

“Okay,” my sister said, and I opened my mouth. Instead of the familiar sweetness, there was an immediate and penetrating burn. My tongue pulled back, but the feeling spread across my taste buds. It spread across the inside of my cheeks and pinched the back of my throat. I spit out Sarah’s fingers, and yanked the blindfold off my face. A bottle of Tabasco sauce sat on the table, red liquid dripping from its open top. Sarah doubled over on the chair next to me, her bare feet kicking the air as she laughed.

“You cheated!” I squealed and slapped the blindfold against my leg. Sarah grinned, her new, nine-year-old teeth shiny and sharp.

“There aren’t any rules, stupid.” She flicked her fingers in the air, “Clean this up.”

There were dozens of half empty cups, an overturned bag of flour, the table a Jackson Pollock painting of food. I cried. My sister left the room.

***

“But that scene is the whole point of the paper. That man saw my sister and I and he thought we were a couple. If we looked similar, if we were both white or both South Korean or if I wasn’t a lesbian, people wouldn’t make those assumptions about us. It’s the whole point of everything.” I am sweating now. I’m not even sure if what I’m saying is true. If there were a mirror in this room I would see my face, and mistake it for a plump, red tomato.

The Professor glides her fingers up and down the lapels of her blazer. “Maybe,” she says, “But he was probably responding to what he saw.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well,” she sucks air through her teeth. “You two do have a very flirtatious relationship.”

***

The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was fire. A flame burned inches from my face. I heard the mechanical wheeze of a camera lens zooming in and then there was a bright flash that made everything disappear.

“What?” I said, recoiling in my bed, my hands covering my face.

Another flash of the camera.

“What’s going on?!” I peeked out from behind my fingers. There was a quick, huffing sound and the fire was extinguished. Little gray trails of smoke wafted up into the darkness. It was just a match, and behind it was my sister’s face.

“Shhh!” Sarah whispered, putting the blackened tip of the match to her lips. She walked backwards a few steps until I couldn’t see her any more.

“What are you doing?” I shouted.

She switched on the overhead light.

I scrunched my eyes closed and pulled the sheets over my head. “Leave me alone!”

Sarah yanked off the sheets and there was the camera again. It obscured the top half of my sister’s face, the bottom half was twisted into a frown of concentration. Flash.

“Since you’re awake,” the camera landed on my stomach with a hard thump, “take my picture.”

I squinted up at Sarah. Her brown face was completely white. She was glowing, hidden by a paint so thick that it was as if the bones and muscles of her face had been erased. There were the black circles of her eyes and nose, a tiny smear of purple lipstick that indicated her mouth, and then nothing.

“Are you doing Kabuki or something?” I said.

Sarah picked up the camera and dropped it on my stomach again. “Come on.”

She draped herself across the plush red carpet that covered my bedroom floor. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Her body obscured the boxes of old doll clothes, my plastic cowboys and Indians, all toys I kept below the shelves of my more grownup things. There was my pile of Berenstain Bear books and there was my sister’s sharp hipbone peeking out from her underwear.

“Okay,” I said. “But only a few.”

“Get some side shots.” Sarah turned and pursed her lips, running one hand up the length of her long, brown neck. Her head bloomed from the claw of her hand like some strange flower. I stared at her through the frame of the camera lens and clicked the button. She rolled her eyes up towards the ceiling like she was praying.

“Now from the front,” Sarah said. She sat up and turned toward the camera, tucking her chin into her chest. Her eyes were heavily outlined in black and flared up at the edges. They consumed the picture.

I looked past my sister towards the cut-outs that covered my wall: Marlene Dietrich, cigarette smoke framing her hollow cheeks; Madonna, her wine-colored nipples poking out of a see-through bra; dozens of other white women who the magazines didn’t even bother to name, their eyes half shut, their fingers and hair curling around their wet mouths. They were all looking at me, dragging me towards them with their gaze, filling up the empty spaces in my body with hot, swampy air. How did they know how to do that? Who taught them how to do that? Could I ever hope to be that?

I held the camera against my chest and stared.

“Keep going,” Sarah said.

***

“The interview you did with your sister. When she came to visit you here at college,” The Professor’s smile is unflinching. Her face is a mannequin’s face, bright and rigid. “You two were very flirtatious with one another. Always pushing and teasing. And the way you respond to her: she asks you to jump and you say, ‘How high?’” She laughs here, at a joke I seem to have missed. Her eyes look watery through her thick-rimmed glasses.

Is that what sexual attraction is? I want to ask. Or is that what being a sibling is? Is that what we all do when we are afraid we won’t be seen? We flatter, we acquiesce, we shrink ourselves down in order that we might fit into the small space people leave for us.

I can’t bring myself to laugh with The Professor. But I do smile, and it is the most painful thing.

***

“I got my pussy waxed today,” Brittany said. She lay on the couch in my attic and stroked the crotch of her jeans with her French tipped nails. “Wanna see it?”

“Yeah, yes,” I stammered. I would have crucified Jesus to see Brittany’s pussy.

She stood up like she was emerging from a pool of water, her head tilted back and her breasts thrust forward. I sat on the floor and dug my fingers into the carpet. She pulled her pants down just below her thighs. Most of her underwear was white, the gauzy material showing the bald skin beneath, but thick black rose petals obscured the view of her pussy lips.

“Do you like these?” She put her hands on her hips and wiggled back and forth.

I nodded. I was fifteen. I liked anything that wiggled.

Brittany reached into the seam of her underwear and began rubbing herself. I tilted my head. I could almost see something, pink, wet flash.

“I’m thinking,” Brittany said drumming her teeth with the nails of her other hand, “I’m thinking of getting my clit pierced.”

I squeezed my thighs together. “Sounds good.”

Brittany lay down on the carpet. She took her hand out of her underwear and stretched her arms above her head, her ribs separating and expanding. “Where’s your vibrator?”

“In my bedroom,” I said.

“Can I try it?”

I ran out of the room and down the stairs, my pounding feet keeping time with my desire.

When I came back Brittany’s pants were buttoned up. I panicked. She’d changed her mind, she was going to leave, I hadn’t gotten her what she wanted fast enough.

“It’s right here,” I said, loudly and shook it. The battery inside made an obscene clacking noise. I handed her the vibrator and sat down on the couch, rubbing my legs. She held the smooth white shaft up to the light, turning it and examining it as if it were a fine bottle of wine.

“Who do you think is hot?”

“I don’t know.” I smiled, my face flushing. “Some people.”

She looked at me. “I think your sister’s pretty hot.”

I frowned. This was not new. Everyone said this at some point. “Sarah,” they would sigh, not even bothering to finish the sentence. After my sister left a room they couldn’t wait, they licked their lips, made animal noises, told me, in great detail the things they would do to her body had I not been there. But Brittany was supposed to be mine, separate. Be enough, I thought, you have to make yourself enough for her.

“I would totally fuck your sister. I love Asian chicks.”

“Okay, Brittany, gross.”

“Since you’re not, like, related to your sister,” Brittany laughed, a coy giggle that exploded into a cackle.

“Stop!”

“I’m just saying.” She sat down on the floor in between my legs and switched on the vibrator. It buzzed to life and she put it down her pants.

“Do you ever think about it?” Her voice was different. Deeper. She shivered and rested her head on my thigh.

“No!” I was scrambling, trying to close the door on the image of my sister before it mixed with the warm press of Brittany’s cheek. Her rolled her eyes up, the whites an offering.

“Do you ever think of me?” Her lips touched the seam of my jeans.

I leaned forward. “Yes.”

***

The Professor looks at her watch. “I can see this is bothering you. Maybe you can think about this and we’ll meet on it later.” This is my time to do something, to tell her how wrong she is, to storm out righteously and never come back.

“I’m fine,” I say and stand up to go. “Would you like the door closed?”

“You can leave it open.”

I exit the building. There is a dirt path leading through a field of spring lettuce and cornstalks that are just beginning to grow. I follow it down until it reaches the woods and sputters out into trees and rocks and mud. I walk until I am sure that I will never be seen or heard by another human and then I start to cry. I cry like a baby cries, no tears just screaming honking sounds.

I call my girlfriend.

“She thinks I want my sister,” I scream into the receiver. “She thinks I’m sick. She doesn’t get it at all.” I repeat myself. “It’s my sister, like what the fuck?”

My girlfriend’s voice is calm, “Baby, it’s not true though. It doesn’t matter, ’cause it’s not true.” Her laughter is soft. “Obviously you don’t want your sister.”

I rub my hand across my face. “But that’s not the point.” The sky is unyieldingly sunny. The branches on the trees are tipped red and the soapy smell of lilacs makes the air smell freshly scrubbed. “When is this going to stop?”

***

On the car ride to our grandmother’s funeral my sister and I sat in the back. At twenty I had been in college for three years already and at twenty-three, my sister had finally moved out of our parents’ house. We hadn’t been in a small space together in a long time. Sarah held up her oversized leather purse and shook it at me.

“Let me do your makeup.”

She blotted some foundation onto the back of her wrist and swirled it around with her finger. Against her brown skin, the liquid looked like milk, like she was preparing a bottle and wanted to make sure it was the right temperature. Did she always carry make up for white people in her bag, or was this just for me?

“You have beautiful coloring you know.” She smiled. “This will only take a second.” The pads of Sarah’s fingers were soft as she spread the warm liquid across my forehead. I stared at her smooth, unmarked skin. I couldn’t remember the last time she had a pimple.

Sarah took a brush out of her bag and dipped it into a jar of sparkling powder.

“Apple cheeks.” She smiled. “You barely need to cover that blush at all.” Her face didn’t blush, not when she was embarrassed, or cold, or drunk. It remained flawless and unreadable.

She uncapped a tube of lipstick. “I’m just going to highlight them, so everyone can see how perfect they are.” I felt the oily roll of the gloss. I watched my sister’s lips part slightly. “Blot,” she said, the little nub of flesh on her top lip poked out at me.

She cupped her hand under my chin. “Look up,” she said. She held open a small round mirror. There wasn’t much of a difference, but there was something smoother, something masked. Sarah kept her hand underneath my chin, holding me in position. I looked at myself and I also saw her watching me. Her eyes scanned every inch of my face, as if she were reading a book. I studied her face too. The freckles across her cheeks, the sharp edge of her jaw and chin, the sloping ridge of skin beneath her eyes. I looked back at my reflection, expecting to see her and seeing something completely different. She smoothed my bangs, and smiled. I smiled. Sarah squeezed the back of my head in between her fingers, gently so as not to mess up my hair.

“You’re so pretty,” she said and snapped the mirror shut.