Back in my apartment, I duck into my room before the messy roommate can tell me about his off-the-hook night. I dump an armful of lopsided cranes on top of the bookcase to clear a space on my desk. The book by my elbow lies open to butterflies, but I decide to fold boats instead. Boats, I know I can do. As I fold over the bottom right corner of a new sheet, I remember how Lucy used to do it. I line up the edges with care, mold the folds into a basin, pinch the bow into a perfect point. Then I fold another and another. When I have 12 paper boats, one in each color, I decide to fold 12 more.
The morning after the cremation, my parents and Eric and I went to the casket company to retrieve the ashes. An employee led us to a small, windowless room and brought in a white plastic bag on a tray. The air was thick and warm. We stared at the bag. Nobody moved. My mother made a strange choking noise and my father took her in his arms. I turned to Eric, but he was gazing intently at a spot on the table. Finally, I stepped forward and opened the bag. My mother‘s breath came out in giant gasps and my father pulled her out of the room. Eric watched as I picked out the larger pieces of bone and arranged them on the tray like a puzzle. I transferred the ash into the urn, little by little, with a small metal spoon, and then placed the white pieces on top of the ash. Right before I closed the urn, Eric reached out. Ever so gently, he ran his index finger across a piece of bone as if he were stroking her cheek.
By the time I decide to call Lucy, boats have spilled off my desk and onto the floor.
“You know, Lulu, I don’t think I ever apologized for telling you not to marry Eric. I’m sorry I didn’t give him a chance. He really is a good guy.”
For the rest of the week, I fill my shelves and windowsill and floor space with lopsided paper butterflies, talk to Lucy, go back and forth from work, and put off planning the trip to Taipei.
When I run out of paper, I return to the bookstore in Russian Hill, and the elderly lady behind the cash register peers at me through her glasses and says, “Back again?”
I call Lucy about a dream I have. I can’t stop folding origami. I keep going until boats and cranes and flowers and butterflies fill my room. The paper figures reach my ankles and whirl around me like a multi-hued sea. Then my cell phone rings, again and again, and I slide around, scattering books and papers and piles of clothes. When I finally unearth my phone, Lucy’s name flashes and the screen goes black. Too late. On my voicemail, all I hear is static. And although I listen with all my strength, I cannot make out her voice.
After I hang up, I want to tell Eric about it too. But as I think of all the questions he would ask, all the answers I do not have, he picks up and says, “I need to talk to you,” as if he were the one who called me. “Are you at home? Can I come over?” He’s almost yelling. Music and laughter fill the background.
“Is everything all right?” I ask. “Where are you?”
Beneath his steady tone, a hint of frenzy shimmers like an oil slick. “Everything’s fine. I just need to see you. I’m at the bar around the corner—Pigalle? I’ll be right over.”
I put on a clean T-shirt and comb my hair into a ponytail in front of the bathroom mirror. Then I gather my roommate’s books and magazines and dirty dishes, sending him hateful thoughts. I pile the dishes in the sink and tape a sheet of paper to a bowl that says, “wash me!” in big, black letters. I pull a bottle from the top cupboard, fill a glass with ice, and mix vodka and tonic water with a chopstick.
By the time Eric walks through the door, I’m on my second drink. His mussed-up hair makes him look younger, more vulnerable, and his button-down shirt is so wrinkled he could have slept in it the night before. He trips on the edge of the rug and I smell beer on his breath.
“How much have you had?” I ask, shaking my head and smiling.
He shrugs, and when he’s made himself a drink, we sit together on the couch, clutching our glasses.
“I spoke to your mother,” he says. “She’s looking forward to seeing us.”
“I guess we should buy our tickets,” I say.
“Maybe I should get my laptop.”
As I stand, I ask if he’s dreading this trip as much as I am, and then he grabs my wrist, fingers clamping down like he’s holding onto a subway railing.
“I cheated on her,” he says.
“Only once. I feel terrible about it.”
I take a long, slow sip from my glass. Questions fill my head but I can’t convert them into speech. I tip my glass up higher, until ice cubes clink against my front teeth.
“I feel terrible about it,” he says again. “Please, you have to believe me. Do you believe me?”
I ask if she knew. He says he never told her. It happened during their last year of law school when a bunch of them went down to Vegas. Lucy had stayed behind to work on Law Review. The girl was a mutual friend.
The blood pounds in my ears. I wish it were loud enough to drown out his voice, but he says, “It was the middle of the night and everyone else was asleep. I’m positive no one knows.”
Now I see two hazy figures, giggling and shushing each other as they fumble around a dark hotel bathroom. He lays out his long limbs as best he can in the narrow tub and then she climbs on top of him.
“Was she Asian?” I ask.
“No. Why does it matter? No.”
And then the rage moves up my chest, constricting my throat so that I choke when I ask why he’s telling me this.
“I don’t know,” he says. He looks genuinely perplexed. “I needed to tell someone who knew Lucy like I did. I couldn’t go to her grave with this horrible secret.”
“What do you expect from me? ” My voice rises higher and higher. “You want me to forgive you? Well I won’t. You are cruel. And selfish. And Lulu would hate you for this.” I’m shaking so hard that when I stand I fear my legs will give way. “Get out,” I say. “Leave.”
He rises from the couch. “I love her as much as you do,” he says. His eyes redden. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” He has more to say, but his voice comes out in a croak. He goes to the door and stops with his hand on the doorknob. “Please,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
My entire body softens and I am sorry too. “Don’t apologize to me,” I say so quietly it takes me a second to realize I’ve spoken out loud.
“What?” He takes a step towards me.
“Don’t apologize to me,” I say more loudly. I reach for my cell phone on the coffee table. “Tell her yourself.”
“What?” he repeats.
I hit the speed dial button and hand him the phone. Still confused, he holds it up to his ear.
One, two, three, four, five, six. “Hi, you’ve reached Lucy Yang.”
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