Clara Shu wasn’t like any of the others. The first time I met her she had hugged me tight, squeezing my sides as if she had just found her long-lost sister. Then she showed me the opening in her mouth where a missing tooth once occupied. Back then her shoes still had plastic cutouts of princesses on them that would erupt into a constellation of tiny lights whenever she stomped her feet, and she wore a pink hairband to keep her bob-cut hair in place.
She could count to twelve and curl her tongue. Her favorite color, she would later tell me over a bowl of ice cream, was purple. She came from California all the way to the squat split level with dark blue shutters across the street. On the day they moved in, my mother made sticky rice cakes for them, the first time she had bothered to take up cooking in at least two weeks. “Be presentable! Don’t forget to address them as shu shu and ayi,” she whispered to me as we crossed the street.
Both of Clara’s parents opened the door for us. They had been born in the zodiac year of the dragon, just like my mother. Mrs. Shu was an accountant, and Mr. Shu an engineer; they had left Shanghai for San Francisco a few years ago because of a job opening that relocated, unexpectedly, here to New Jersey.
Most afternoons I visited Clara’s to play. She had a more spacious backyard than ours, which was knotted with tree roots and sloped towards the private neighborhood park below. The previous owner, who I had never spoken with, had also left behind a tire swing and small wooden playground set we often used. During the spring, we would heft clumps of fresh mud onto the base of the slide and sculpt them into little patties with our bare fingers. When the days grew warmer, we took turns pushing each other on the swings. “Higher!” Clara liked to yell. The next time she came down I always shoved her seat as hard as I could, until she nearly reached the top of the swing set.
“Watch this!” She would loosen her fingers on the chains and slide off the seat mid-swing, cutting through the air in an invisible parabolic arc. During this I held my breath and felt knots in my throat; for a moment it would seem as if she might hit the concrete patio or break a leg, but she always landed just a few feet short. She tumbled onto the ground and laughed while running back with a grin. Grass would be speckled all across her cheeks, her hair. “Let’s do it again! Even higher this time.”
Sometimes I came just to listen to her talk. Other days we played make-believe, games that I had seen the other kids do but had never been invited to join myself. We pretended to be Disney princesses and ran up slides, hiding ourselves from ogres while awaiting Prince Charming. “Today, I’m Sleeping Beauty. You be the beast,” she pointed at me and twirled her hair. I would pretend to growl while hiding behind the bushes and she’d squeal and laugh, running to the top of the playset. That was when I would see the shape of her perfectly trimmed hair against the clear blue sky, and it seemed obvious why any monster would have wanted her.
We stayed indoors when it rained. Unlike my room, Clara’s smelled like fresh hardwood and fruit-scented pens. Her pink curtains matched the paint on the walls and the plaid print of her blankets. She had a plastic play chandelier that hung off the center of her ceiling, casting miniature rainbows across the walls as we drove Barbie and Ken around her bed. “One day, I’ll buy a house as big as this,” she giggled, pointing to the plastic mansion that sat in the corner of her room. “You can live in it with me.”
On the first day the honeysuckles bloomed, we were in the backyard when Clara plucked off a flower and held it up for me. She leaned in close, her breath warm and sticky sweet. “Try this! It tastes good.”
I bit into the petals.
“No stupid! You gotta go like this.” She nipped off the bottom of the flower and tugged at its stamen, pulling out a bead of nectar.
My tongue stretched out to meet it. I remember how it tasted even better than honey, as if she had somehow sweetened it by simply holding it in her hands. We picked almost every honeysuckle left that afternoon, collecting them in a pail and sitting beneath the bush, holding the flowers up for each other to try. We stayed outside for so long that Mrs. Shu stepped out to look for us and had even laughed, seeing the pollen and nectar smeared across our lips.
At one point, we called the Shus our family. My parents began addressing Mr. and Mrs. Shu as “brother” and “sister”, which they had only used to refer to close friends and siblings. They let me walk across the street to visit Clara on my own, something they had never let me do before.
For as long as I could remember, we had been one of the only Asian families in the neighborhood. In China my parents had kept phone books of friends, with whom they visited in coffee parlors and noodle shops, but now they stayed quiet. They drove fifteen miles to the neighboring town for Asian groceries every week, bypassing the two local supermarkets in their insistence on fresh croakers and authentic tofu. I wondered why my mother never spoke with the other preschool parents down the street, though I often saw her casting glances in their direction when she stepped out of the car. My father rarely said anything and busied himself with the stack of Beethoven CDs he had collected from yard sales. Our house stayed quiet in its familiar, unspoken way.
But after the Shus had moved in, we invited them over for potluck dinners almost every weekend. Mr. Shu would rap on our door, three quick bursts as if he was sending us a Morse code of his own. “Xiong di,” he called out to my father from the living room, “what’s for dinner?” He ruffled my hair. Slightly taller than my father, he sprawled across our gray fabric couch and let his arms dangle off the sides, laughing hard enough to be heard from outside. He followed the Cowboys every weekend on our TV, though he had no connections to Dallas or Texas at all.
Mrs. Shu would arrive with Clara a few minutes after, neatly dressed and showered, carrying their steamed dumplings in patterned porcelain bowls. Clara would hug me as though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, and we sat together on a dining table just long enough to accommodate everyone.
It pleased my parents. In Mr. and Mrs. Shu they discovered a shared passion for politics, music, and art. They had watched the same Italian films and spent evenings analyzing their cinematographic meanings, pouring each other extra rounds of Pilsner beer so that the conversation could go on for a little longer. They reminisced about old streets—it would turn out that my mother had lived just a block away from Mrs. Shu—and sang lines from old pop songs. They argued over Chinese policy, sometimes raising their voices enough that Clara and I could hear them from my room.
I guess we helped each other the way relatives do. My mother drove Clara and I to ballet class every Tuesday evening, and when Mr. Shu’s car battery died in a parking lot 20 miles away at 10:00 pm, my father simply hauled the jump-starter cables into the trunk without asking any questions. When their water pipes had burst, my parents lay down sleeping bags in the living room to let them stay for the weekend.
Around middle school, Clara underwent a total room makeover. On the afternoons I happened to visit, I helped her throw away her chandelier, sort through the donation boxes that she filled with her old dolls, and repaint her room in a softer pink. Over that summer she had also replaced her old plastic purple backpack with a neutral canvas one. But I remember those days most of all by the way her hair grew out into long, curling braids that wandered below her collarbone.
By the end of the summer, she had started painting her nails. “Thought about getting your ears pierced yet?” she asked. We were sitting on her new dressing table, the one that had tiny lights in its drawers, sorting her hair ties by color while she dabbed nail polish and blew at her fingers.
“Not really.” I knew my mother wouldn’t allow it until I was at least in college.
“Well, why not?” she said, and I almost felt embarrassed not to have wanted the same. She glanced up from her nails and into the mirror, pinching her ear lobes. “I’m getting it next year.” She turned to me, eyes lit up, “maybe we can do it together! Just ask your mom.”
I didn’t tell her about the pointlessness of the request; already I could sense my mother’s growing disapproval of her. In the past months she would dart glances at me when she saw Clara slouching at the table or drumming her pink fingernails on our porcelain plates. At night she groused to my father, hushed but just loud enough to be heard from outside the bedroom door. “How can they let Clara forget these manners? What are they doing?”
Her complaints seemed to grow every day. “Aiya! Why don’t they help with the dishes? They used to do that!” she said one Saturday after Mrs. Shu left without placing her plate in the sink. When Mr. Shu flashed his Rolex before sipping wine, she would later complain to my father about his spending habits. “They haven’t even paid off their mortgage yet. He’s ruining his health too,” she said about his smoking. The day Clara rolled up her jeans to show her smooth, newly shaved leg, my mother pulled me to the bathroom and shut the door behind her. “You don’t do these things. Okay?” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you just don’t do that,” she shook me by my shoulder and led me back out to eat.
But I wanted. Deep down, I hungered. I longed more than ever to be with Clara, trading jokes, makeup, and gossip with each other like Poker cards. Inspired by her, I peeled off the stickers that I had kept on the wall beside my bed and threw my stuffed animals into a box that I hid in the back of my closet. At night, before falling asleep, I tuned my father’s old FM radio to pop songs about broken hearts and sex, the kind of music that my parents would have scoffed at. I wanted to memorize the lines by heart, know them like the lines on my palm so that I could sing them with her whenever she suddenly burst out into song. Clara was an island, and I was a shipwrecked survivor swimming to meet her.
I eventually asked for ear piercings. My mother wouldn’t listen, even after I pleaded with her every day and offered to pay for it myself. It was only after a year of begging that she finally purchased tubes of clear lip gloss that I applied in three layers every day.
I still visited Clara after school, though now I did so secretly, only while my mother was away at work. She had forbidden me from seeing her too often. “She doesn’t want you,” she said, dropping her stainless-steel pan into the sink. “Just watch, she will leave you for some other friend. These kinds of people, they don’t stay long.”
We were eating together less often, our weekend get-togethers now interrupted for one reason or another. One Saturday Mr. Shu said he had a business trip, the week after that Clara performed in a ballet competition, and a month later Mrs. Shu flew back to California to visit friends. But my mother continued to cook for six. She poured three cups of rice into the cooker and wrapped spring rolls. At about four in the afternoon she set twelve chopsticks onto the table and took the other six back only after we finished eating, half-expecting that they might still come at any moment.
We had seen them spend the 4th of July with the O’Connors instead. From my bedroom window I watched Mr. Shu tend to the charcoal grill, noticing the way the face of his watch reflected the sun. Mrs. Shu briefly brushed Mr. O’Connor’s shoulder as she accepted the extra bottle of Miller Lite from his hands. I could see Clara running barefoot around the lawn with Molly and her blonde-haired brother, circling the sprinklers until their dresses got soaked. Sweating and giddy with laughter, they reached for glasses of iced lemonade.
But whenever I knocked on Clara’s door, I was with her again. Her house was fresh with worldly secrets and gossip; it was everything mine was not. In her bedroom, I didn’t have to take off my shoes—she had stopped doing that months ago. I sat on her hardwood floors and listened to her share rumors about the latest break-ups, ones that involved kids she knew but whom I was never popular enough to approach. We accompanied each other on make-up expeditions in Mrs. Shu’s bedroom, dissolving into laughter before the bathroom mirror as we inexpertly applied lipstick onto each other’s faces. I traced layers of wobbly green eyeliner onto her eyelids, remembering how my mother never wore make-up.
“Your face looks so plain. Let me think,” she furrowed her brows and scrunched her nose in a look of mock disgust. “Ah! I know just the trick,” she pulled out a bottle of foundation, dabbing it onto my cheeks. “There—that’s better.”
I looked at myself in the mirror. My face was glowing: the acne that bothered me had been erased, and the contours of my cheeks were sharpened. My heart felt light, almost airy. “Cool!” I laughed, and she laughed, and then suddenly we were rolling together on the floor for no reason at all.
Clara smelled like ripe fruit and fresh laundry that I wanted to gather up in my arms. She knew how to write her name out in large, curling loops that unfurled across the page like the design plans for a roller coaster. I liked it when she pulled me close and whispered into my ear about the texts this eighth-grade boy was sending her.
We were only thirteen but it was enough to tell she would be beautiful. Unlike me, her teeth had come in naturally straight, so she had no need for braces. Her set of eyes, at first narrow like mine, had somehow grown doe-like, turning a slight hazel I had never remembered seeing. She had smooth skin that showed the contours of her cheekbones. Unsurprisingly, the boys took interest in her. They sat with her during lunch, wolf-whistling in the halls and buying Coke from the vending machines for her. Clara was beginning to widen, her hips gradually taking on smooth, shapely curves. Her shirt collar fell to reveal gentle swells in her chest whenever we lay on the floor doodling. I dreamed that one day I would be able to toss my hair or scribble over my homework like her.
That year, the Shus visited us again during Chinese New Year. Mr. Shu still tousled my hair. “Brother, you’ve grown fatter!” he said to my father, and we all tried to laugh. He spoke only in English now. When she sat down to eat, Mrs. Shu asked to “please pass the soy sauce”, speaking with the kind of politeness that my mother had always disdained.
During dinner, they talked about stocks and HOA meetings. “Jim is great,” Mrs. Shu said, referring to Mr. O’Connor and placing extra emphasis on the way she rolled the “-r”. “He’s been thinking about new colors for our front doors.” She took a sip of the soup. “Maybe baby blue, or navy? Oh right—he also wants you to tidy up your curb appearance. Do something with the flowerbeds, you know?”
Mr. Shu nodded and then shared stories about his trips to the golf course with the other men down the street. “Jim is damn good,” he said. “Hit a par-80 once, I mean that’s something!” My parents nodded absently along.
After that my mother stopped cooking for six and fell into a routine of wrapping wontons alone each Saturday instead. She pinched the edges of the flour wrap together, and sometimes I could hear her humming to herself while my father listened to Chopin in the living room.
I stopped seeing Clara once we reached high school, mostly because she started inviting other kids over to her house every day. Many of them were on her JV lacrosse team who could already drive and wore scrunchies on their wrists, who cursed and laughed while standing on her driveway. Rumors swirled that she had started dating a junior. I wanted to see her but feared that I might embarrass myself before the others.
One afternoon I walked up their driveway and knocked. The door opened. “Hey,” she said, “what do you want?” She was dressed in ripped jeans and a crop top that showed her belly button. She had dyed her hair light blond.
“Just wanted to see you,” I shrugged, trying to seem uninterested. She looked at me hard, then waved me in.
“Who’s there?” a voice came from upstairs. Loud music pulsed in the background.
“Just my neighbor.” She led me into the living room. I sat down onto the couch, watching the sports replays that flashed across their plasma TV screen. The house smelled like cigarettes. “Want anything?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Hey! You coming up?” the voice upstairs yelled. “Karey wants to know when you’ll be there.”
“Hold on,” she turned to me. “I’ll be back.”
She mounted the stairs. The bedroom door closed, muffling the voices inside. Clara said something, and then I heard a group of girls laughing. Then her voice broke through again. “Shut up. She’ll hear us.”
She returned with a cigarette in her mouth. “Wanna cig?”
I had never smoked before, but I nodded. “Don’t tell your parents that you came, okay?” She wedged a Marlboro between my teeth and lighted it in a single, fluid motion. “You good?”
I tried responding but coughed instead, sputtering smoke as I gasped for air. Clara was trying not to laugh, but she collected herself again. Her face became smooth like plastic film with a small smudge of lipstick on her chin.
We sat there, silent. It dawned on me that I had spent days preparing myself to knock on her door but hadn’t thought at all about what I would say. The air was heavy with the sour smell of nicotine, and every time I tried opening my mouth, nothing came out. “So I have to leave for practice soon, but it was nice seeing you,” she said. She uncrossed her legs and made up to leave. I had the sense that there was a chasm I would never be able to cross if I failed to do so now, if I walked out the front door and across the street and back into my room without saying anything. I wrapped a hand across her knees, holding my breath as my fingers reached out to stroke her hair.
“Hey!” she slapped my wrist. “Quit it, will you?” her eyes narrowed into a look of scorn. I could see her thinking, piecing her suspicions together, before she scooted away. “Look—we’re not kids anymore. It was cute and all back then, but now it’s just weird, okay?”
My mother nearly screamed when she returned from work and smelled the smoke in my shirt. I had run back from across the street as fast as my legs would carry me. My eyes felt like they were burning, and I no longer cared that I had been caught.
“Who smoked with you? Who gave you the cigarettes?” Her voice quivered, slicing through the living room as though I had killed someone.
“Clara.” This time I said her name without even hesitating.
Mr. Shu came over to apologize later that night. It was the first time he had set foot in our yard in at least a year, and he suddenly looked small on our front steps. I saw the white streaks of hair that flecked his head when he leaned in and promised to my mother the incident would never happen again. They would talk to Clara once she came back from the movies.
From then on, my mother waited at home for me after school. She boiled herbal tea, which was supposed to help my throat, and set freshly printed math worksheets on my desk every afternoon without fail. I brought my homework downstairs to the kitchen table so that way she could keep an eye on me while she cooked. She stopped visiting the Chinese grocery store so she could devote her time to keeping close watch over my studies, often setting down her cleaver mid-swing to look behind shoulder. Years later she still spoke sparingly to me, holding her cold silence as though I had irrevocably betrayed her that afternoon.
Sometimes, at night, I could still see Mr. Shu’s old sedan—now Clara’s—pull out of the driveway. Usually her car wasn’t there, though I never mentioned her again at the kitchen table, where the Shus had ceased to be subjects of friendship or speculation. Dinner was quiet as always.
In college I failed my first final. I attended weekend parties and always got drunk sooner or later, vomiting into toilet bowls after my roommates carried me back to the dorms. My head throbbed for days after. I fell in love with a boy in my physics class and visited him each night for a month, and I thought only once in a while of Clara when I knotted myself in the blankets beside him.
In the end, my mother was right. During my senior year I returned home for Thanksgiving break to find a For Sale sign staked in the lawn across the street. Less than a month later, the house was sold to a young, dog-owning family of five who went camping at least once a month.
The Shus had left without notice. Mrs. O’Connor told us they were headed back to California. Others said that Mr. and Mrs. Shu had somehow divorced, and a few believed that something had happened to Clara. But I think they moved to a bigger house, one with a more expansive front yard and an airy foyer above which a chandelier lazily sparkled.
“I wonder where they are now.” It was my father who had brought it up as we huddled over the kitchen table one Saturday evening, holding our soup bowls as Beethoven’s 6th Symphony floated in. It was at least two years after they had left.
“Aiya, doesn’t matter,” my mother said, “I don’t care.” We continued eating; though for a moment I know we must have all wondered if the Shus—like all the others who flitted in and out of our lives—had been just another dream.
Hanwen Zhang is a student at Yale University. In his spare time you can find him reading, identifying trees, or hiking.
© 2022, Hanwen Zhang