For the past 10 months, I’ve been paying my dead sister’s cell phone bill, 44 dollars that I don’t have. Her phone rings six times before clicking over to voicemail: “Hi, you’ve reached Lucy Yang. If you would be so kind as to leave me a message, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
I made fun of her the first time I heard it. She picked up a copy of Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers at a garage sale the year she turned 14 and really took those lessons to heart.
Lately, I’ve been leaving her messages: “Lulu, I was thinking, what happens to old cell phone numbers whose owners have abandoned them? How long do phone companies wait before giving the numbers away? Until then, do the numbers go into some kind of cell phone purgatory?”
Nobody knows I make these calls. I’ve come close to telling my mother, but I’m not sure how she’d react. Lucy was driving back from her Palo Alto office to San Francisco when she fell asleep at the wheel. She died almost instantly.
Once a week, my mother calls from Taipei to check on me. Our conversations generally take one of two routes. The first has to do with my career: “Have you found new job? So much money going to college and now all day fold T-shirt. I tell you, why not study law like Lulu? You so good at argue. Everyday argue! American girl already speaking perfect English, what more need English major?” The second has to do with my relationship status: “Do you have boyfriend? Why not move out of dirty apartment? Why you still live with that messy boy? So skinny, hair so long, always mumble. No wonder no boyfriend.”
Today she says she has something important to discuss: she and my father want me to come to Taipei for Qing Ming Jie. Tomb Sweeping Day, the festival during which the Chinese honor the dead, falls, coincidentally, days after what will be the first anniversary of Lucy’s death. The festival is less than two months away; I’ve been waiting for my mother to bring it up. My last visit to Taipei was during Qing Ming Jie. We ate my grandfather’s favorite foods and visited his grave at the public ossuary. This time we will polish the jade green urn that my parents carried on the plane back to Taipei—an urn I chose because it reminded me of Lucy’s favorite vase at the Asian Art Museum.
“Kiki? Ting dao le mei?” My mother asks. “Kiki” is short for Lucky. Lucy and Lucky Yang. My mother repeats that she and my father want my sister’s former fiancé to come to Taipei as well. I haven’t spoken to Eric since my parents’ going-away dinner, seven months ago. I want to tell her to call him herself, but for some reason, I hear myself agree to get in touch with him.
Eric and Lucy met in law school, and until he came along, my parents never liked any of the white boyfriends my sister and I brought home. Through most of college I dated a boy named Paul Whittaker, and while my mother was always pleasant to him, she regularly reminded me not to let my grandmother find out that I was dating an “American.” Eric was different. He majored in East Asian Studies at Yale, and spent a year in Beijing. He spoke better Mandarin than either Lucy or I, and loved to demonstrate. Once, early in their relationship, as Lucy was ticking off his achievements, I muttered under my breath, “Asian fetish alert,” and she picked up the paper crane she’d just folded and threw it at me. But to my parents, Eric’s interests meant they could show him off to their friends: “Eric, you order food. Tell waitress we need more tea. You and Lulu should speak Chinese. She need practice. ABC kids only Chinese on outside.”
Instead of calling Eric, I open The Ancient Art of Origami, which I saved when we were cleaning out Lucy’s apartment. She once placed third in the Pacific Coast Origami Competition’s junior division, her winning entry a paper menagerie of elephants, lions, and at the very center, a pair of turquoise and emerald peacocks with their tails unfurled. Although my artistic skills have always been lacking, I’ve learned over the last month or so to make boats, cranes and basic flowers, which I imagine puts me at the level of the average Japanese second grader, and have just graduated to butterflies. Now, I reach for my last remaining sheet. I fold and refold, creasing the bright yellow paper like the gills of an accordion. Once—I must have been about 4 and Lucy, 8 or 9—I grew so tired of being ignored that when she got up to get a drink of water, I climbed onto her chair, scooped up an armful of paper carnations and dumped them in the toilet.
I speed dial Lucy’s number.
“Lulu, I’ve moved on to butterflies. Can you believe I’m still at it? Ma and Ba want Eric to come to Taipei. I can’t believe I agreed to call him. I never know what to say to him when you aren’t around.”
Eric answers after the first ring. “Hello?” he says. He hasn’t recognized my number.
After I tell him who it is, we talk about the weather and our jobs and last night’s Warriors’ game. If he’s surprised to hear from me, it doesn’t show.
Finally, I say I have a message from my mother.
“How is Ah-yi?” he asks, elongating each syllable and exaggerating the tones.
I roll my eyes. Lucy would have giggled and smacked the side of my head.
“She’s good,” I say. “She wants us to go to Taipei. For Qing Ming Jie.”
I think of the day Lucy was cremated: the sun-drenched calm of the crematorium; the heady, almost sticky fragrance of the tuberoses she loved; the soft, velvet thump of cover against casket; its slow, deafening roll into the cremation oven. I don’t hear anything for a while and I wonder if he is remembering too.
“Hello?” I say. “Are you there?”
“I’m here,” he says. “Are you doing anything this afternoon? Do you maybe want to grab a cup of coffee?”
I’m scheduled to close at the Gap, but I say I will call in sick. My manger won’t mind. For the past 10 months, I’ve worked both Saturdays and Sundays and this upcoming trip to Taipei will be my first vacation all year.
The last time I saw Eric was at my parents’ retirement/going-away dinner, a relatively extravagant affair at Great Eastern Seafood Palace with 30 or so of their California friends, about a week after Lucy’s death. Eric and I were seated side by side at the young-persons’ table. He was uncharacteristically quiet, and I felt sorry for him, even though we’ve never really gotten along. He’s always treated me like a child, Lucy’s baby sister “Why not be a paralegal?” he’d say in front of my parents. “My firm is hiring.” “Because then I’d have to work with people like you,” I’d answer sweetly. Lucy would tell us to quit it and then make him leave me alone. Sometimes I wondered how she could stand being with Eric. My only real, adult fight with her was after she told me he’d proposed. I asked if she’d said yes, and she threw her hands in the air and yelled that she was sick and tired of our bickering.
But that night at my parents’ dinner, Eric and I didn’t argue once, and when it came time to leave, we even hugged goodbye. My parents made us promise to keep in touch, and Eric assured them he’d check up on me after they left. He never did. And I never called him, either.