My Not-Sister’s Engagement
In the morning of my first day of fifth grade I saw a girl. She looked like me.
I didn’t want to meet her of course. It was still that period of my life that girls (and people) were icky and weird. Which was usually through third grade for most boys. I’d always been slow to pick up on social cues.
Usually it’s not particularly weird to see someone who looks like you. But at this point I’d been the only East Asian person in my class. In my town there were few enough East Asian people that I could count all the ones I knew on a single hand and all the ones I didn’t know on my other. So I watched her from afar, staring at her the way someone in a zoo might regard a particularly interesting animal; wide-eyed, from a distance, and behind multiple layers of protection. In my case it was four desks and a chasm of grey carpet. I don’t think she noticed me as she diligently took notes.
That could have been the whole story. A mere passing interest. But fate had something different in store. After class, my teacher, Mrs. Miller, asked me to stay behind. A second later she asked the girl to stay behind as well. Panic set in. I was being asked to meet the animal up close. Would she bite? What would I say to her? I eyed the fabric-covered doorway. Maybe I could make a break for it. But I was rooted to the spot. After all, I reasoned, even if I made it out the door, it would have been easy to find me. Plus I’d have to answer some very uncomfortable questions. I braced myself as Mrs. Miller came back with the girl in tow.
“This is Chelsea,” the ever well-meaning Mrs. Miller said to me as I stared at the girl. I gazed at the girl before looking down at my feet. She had great big glasses, a pair of raven pigtails, and a sweater that was a size too big. On her back was a backpack bigger than her and she carried an armload of text books. She looked like a proper student I decided. Not at all like me. “And this is Felix,” she said to her. “Since you’re both new, I thought I’d introduce you.”
I always thought that statement was weird. I’d moved to the school district two years prior. At that point, I wasn’t really new. But anyway Mrs. Miller stared at me as though I had to talk.
“I’m Felix. Where are you from?”
“China. What about you?” The girl said.
“I was born in Michigan. My parents are from China.”
“Oh wonderful! Since you’re both Chinese, you two should say something to each other,” Mrs. Miller chirped. “In Chinese.”
Now my Chinese has often been praised for its American accent. Sorry, praised is the wrong word. Derided. But I was eager to please. So I took a deep breath and I said in my broken second language, “My name is Fei. My mother’s name is Feng. What’s your name?” It was really the only Chinese I was prepared to say on short notice. I hoped she wouldn’t notice how stilted and unnatural it was.
Thankfully she didn’t. “My name is Xiaotian, and my mother is Xiaobiao,” she said in Chinese much better than mine.
For a moment I felt light-headed. Excited. Suddenly I didn’t quite feel so alone. Someone my age, outside my family spoke my language. But before I could embarrass myself further, the bell rang and we hurried off to our next class. I didn’t see her for the rest of the day. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment.
I got home that day my mother asked me about my day. The first words that tumbled out of my mouth were, “I met a Chinese girl today.”
I don’t remember exactly how my mother reacted. I think it was a shrug and a smile. In retrospect, my mother had been surrounded by Chinese people her entire life. She probably didn’t realize what a relief it’d been to me.
The next day Chelsea came up to me as class was ending, this time unbidden. As if she wanted to talk to me more. How odd. This hadn’t really happened before.
“I think my mom knows your mom. She wants to talk to her.”
Intrigued, I told her my phone number.
That night, while I was busy doing homework, I heard my mom speaking loud, excited Chinese from another room. Interspersed with the conversation was joyful laughter. It was a human side of my mother I rarely saw. Finally she came back in beaming from ear to ear.
“She’s a high school friend,” she said to my father.
“Really?” My dad asked with a raised eyebrow. “From Beijing?”
“Well not really a friend. She was in a different class. But I’d heard of her. She’d heard of me too,” my mom said. “I think Qiuhua heard of her too.”
“Huh. What are the odds?”
To this day, I still ask myself the same question my dad asked all those years ago. Two immigrant families from the same high school in a different country moved across the world to the same small city without knowing about each other’s presence. Two women with intertwined histories who wouldn’t have met again had their children not been in the same class.
Chelsea and her parents came over for dinner that weekend. Then the weekend after that. Then nearly every weekend for the next seven years. Then every spring break, Thanksgiving, and Christmas while we were in college. Then, as we all became adults, we kept in contact over social media and messaging as we planned vacations and camping trips. Over eighteen years later and I can still talk to Chelsea like I did when we saw each other every day in the hallways and classrooms. Chelsea and her parents became a part of our extended not-family, one that included my mom’s best friend, husband, and their child; and another family of four who we also met through school.
Chelsea’s always been a brilliant and independent woman. She got straight As in school, a high SAT score, a near full ride to the school of her choice. She played piano, tennis, and a mean game of Mario Kart 64*. She belted out terrible renditions of Britney with our other non-sister, complained she’d eaten too much at Thanksgiving after a single slice of turkey, nearly died of of laughter at least six times every not-family gathering, and believed near everything my actual sister told her.
And she always seemed to have her shit together, all while claiming she had no clue what she was doing. Her career is an example of this. She always wanted to be a doctor. She got the grades in high school, continued to get the grades in college even when it would have been so easy not to, produced a great MCAT score, and then got into one of the best med schools in the country. Years later she’s on the verge of becoming a doctor. All this despite telling me year after year, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Yet in all our eighteen years, she’d never once shown interest in anyone, and she was absolutely convinced that no one had interest in her. Whenever we talked about it, she always told me the same thing with a hint of fatalism, “I’m going to be single forever. But it’s OK. I don’t even want a boyfriend.”
Later when we were in college, she appended a caveat. “Except on move-in day and move-out day.”
That was the thing about Chelsea that I’d always looked up to. Her ability to just be in the world. She didn’t need other people, especially if they didn’t add to her life. She could handle herself. It was a core part of her identity.
But in my heart, I always knew it wasn’t a matter of whether she’d meet someone. It was just a question of when. I looked forward to the day, because that was the day I was going to give her so much shit.
That day was just a few years later. She had started med school. I had started working. She broke the news to me during winter break before our annual dinner. It was casual. As if she were trying to slip it by in a way I wouldn’t notice. “My boyfriend and I…”
The slip by never works if it’s something I’ve been waiting for. “Woah, woah, woah. Hold up. Boyfriend?” My ears perked and my mouth parted into an ear to ear grin. They were words that I knew had been inevitable, but that I’d nevertheless been waiting to hear for years.
She turned beet red. “It’s not a big deal. It’s not really that serious.”
I asked her how long it’d been.
My grin was eating so much shit that it could have qualified for a green tax write-off. She smacked my arm in protest.
As the years passed and we continued to talk, the way she used to say “I” became “we.” “We went on vacation.” “We went out to dinner.” “We celebrated by drinking way too much beer.” Her identity had become enmeshed in another. Even if she hadn’t realized how serious the relationship had become, it was serious enough that she’d been willing to give up the thing that had been most integral to her identity.
Then on Friday, 2016–08–19, after nearly five years together, she broke the news to her extended not-family. “I’m engaged!” I could hear her excitement over text. When pressed for details she mentioned it’d happened a steakhouse but she’d been tricked. He’d said they were going to Red Robin. She’d been so distracted by the prospect of endless fries that she hadn’t expected to end up at the steakhouse. After that she’d been on her back foot the entire time; and before she knew it he’d proposed and she’d tearfully accepted.
“Endless fries are amazing though,” my sister said.
“For real,” my younger brother from another mother said.
“Focus guys,” Chelsea said.
“So what excuse did he give,” my sister asked.
“He said it was for my birthday. Even though we went out for my birthday yesterday…”
“You bought that?” I asked.
“I was distracted by endless fries ok?”
“But you went to a steakhouse…”
“Not the point!”
The story had been so purely, classic Chelsea. But then this whole saga has been.
So here’s to you Chelly, my sister from another mister of eighteen years. I’m glad that being alone forever didn’t work out for you. You met a wonderful person (and not even on moving day) and I hope he makes you very happy. I think he will, given the ring on your finger.
Moreover, I’m glad we met against odds we could never imagine. I only hope I can one day find a fraction of the happiness you’ve found.
*Ok I lied. She’s terrible at Mario Kart. Shots fired!