Home and Away

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My brother and I lived at the Irvine apartment for a year while our house was gutted and refurbished. Travertine replacing yellowed marble, wood floors replacing faded carpet. Tiled countertops became granite; chipped and peeling windows became large one-paned pieces that widened each vista. Our bathrooms became brighter, marbled, chromed.

I suggested we paint the dining room red – an appetite inducing hue – and my parents, leaving behind their Chinese-in-America penchant for beige, obliged. We left the floor plan as is, the only major change being the fireplace, which we moved from the family room to the living room, so that at least one childish dream could be fulfilled: to have the Christmas tree next to the fire. Our rooms were the exact same size, as were the closets, but when all was said and done, the finished product looked magnificent.

I was proud of my father. While nothing on his person indicated he was a man of high taste (his shirts are from Wal-Mart; his shoes, from JC Penney), he had the good sense to consult reputable home design magazines and point out to the contractors the kitchens and bathrooms he liked. I was given free reign to decorate my room however I wished, a luxury I’d not even had with my dorm rooms in college, as dorm furniture was half the battle. With thoughts of my old room long behind me, I chose a soft pink for my walls (though to others it’s “Whoa, really pink.”) and blue and white toile drapes for the windows.

My furniture likely gave hernias to several of the movers who helped bring in my massive off-white desk and wrought iron bed, pieces I selected in a heartbeat because they played some chord upon my shabby-chic heartstrings. The shelves of my desk, a monument to writing and thinking (or simply daydreaming), were filled with unread classics and well-thumbed fashion magazines. An attached bulletin board became a wonderful way to display magazine cutouts, comic strips, and post cards from friends. My dresser top displayed art books I’d purchased when thoughts of art history danced in my unsuspecting head and I spent days searching for the perfect bedspread (a variation of toile), and another week for a suitable desk chair that would enhance the desk rather than cower before it.

By the time the house was ready, my brother and I had bonded only slightly with our beige apartment one city away, anxious and eager to move into our new and improved home. It was as though our father had planned the renovation accordingly, timed to coincide with the age most children opt to move out, hoping to lure us in with the house’s upgrades (in my case, anyway. My brother, five years older, has always marched or rather strolled to his own drum). In the mornings I would walk out to the kitchen and look out the window, over the newly tiled pool and glass railing with the bamboo behind it swaying softly in the wind – the hills of some other city rolling beneath the grey blue clouds tinged with sunlight – and my father, also an early riser, would appear at my side.

“It’s a nice view, isn’t it?”

“I would nod and reply, “It’s a nice house. You did a great job, Bah.”

He would smile contently and after a moment, say, “You and your brother may stay here for as long as you want.”

I didn’t think so at the time, because thinking so seemed mildly impossible for a young woman on the cusp of emotional independence, but then I confused want with needs. At that time, I loved the house but needed to leave for college. And who knew what would happen after that? I could only nod and agree.

“Me too Dad, me too. I hope we stay for a while.”

After my brother moved to Shanghai, I moved all my coats to his closet. For a girl who’s lived in California most of her life, I have a lot of coats; too many to fit in my closet in a plausible way – plausible being easily accessible. Each time the weather turned cold (a rarity here, except for these past few years with global warming paradoxically elongating winters and falls, though to people from other states, this is like complaining about there being no icing on cake) I would blindly push and pull from the crowded racks of my small closet, hoping the sleeve or collar I grabbed would belong to a coat that would match my outfit. Heaven help me if I grabbed the wrong coat because putting it back would be a nightmare. Thus with my brother’s departure, I seized the opportunity to move out, in a sense, most of my coats to his tiny walk-in closet – the perfect size for a man’s complete wardrobe, the perfect size for a California girl’s coat collection.

Before he left my brother warned against actions like this.

“Don’t be taking over my room,” he said, “I’ll come back for the holidays and stuff, you know, so I don’t want to come in and see all my books and clothes gone and replaced by your stuff.”

He was probably referring to something he felt was in my genes, as my mother already had her foot halfway in his door, having called dibs on my brother’s desktop upon which she stored various Chinese school documents. The area around the printer was strewn with her homework assignments and the scanner, which normally sat outside, had found a new home at the bottom of my brother’s closet.

“I won’t,” I said, though I wondered how attached he felt to his room. He and I had both been gone for the past two years, I away at college in Berkeley and he at graduate school in Podunk Pennsylvania. I rented bright rooms in old houses that sprawled skyward, enjoying my time in each one though I knew I could never feel completely settled up there. I missed my room at home terribly, partly because all my things were there and partly because, well, it was home.

My brother on the other hand quickly settled into Podunk life despite the cold winters and quiet town. He met a girl and during his second year, rented a spacious one bedroom apartment furnished in the student style with mismatched furniture and kitchenware. Attending his graduation, we saw that while the apartment was nowhere near as cozy or clean as our home, he had lovingly, willingly called it home. It was more than adaptation; it was a conscious effort to settle in somewhere, however temporary the time may be, because he was there with someone he loved. I spied his girlfriend’s slippers in the corner, her jacket hanging from a chair, leftovers from a shared meal in the refrigerator. My mother walked around the living room, peering at her son’s new life before sitting down at the kitchen table, her son’s kitchen table, wondering if this feeling in the pit of her stomach would continue to magnify.

No and yes. That feeling’s growth would be postponed for a few months.

My brother graduated on time while I took another semester, this time in a bright green room in a house filled with rooms, each painted a different, vibrant color. I dreamed in green, wrote in green, dressed myself with a green tinge in the mirror. All the while, my brother moved back home into his childhood room to commence the longest job search of his life. For months he mailed out resume after resume, took call after call and occasionally, flew to other states to meet the faces of otherwise faceless companies.

More strident than any career, an entity named Distance called to him, as positions that showed the most promise were located in other states: Washington, Nevada, Texas. My parents, my father especially, were torn between wanting him close by and hoping he would land a job in China, where it seemed all the best opportunities were. And distance, it seemed, wanted the same for him. She suffered no qualms. By the holidays and my impending graduation (the worst time to be unemployed), my brother had been rejected left and right, up and down, and felt in his gut that he might be destined, for the coming year at least, to live in his childhood room. And yet a few days before Thanksgiving Distance came riding in with her long, strong arms and pulled him via phone, fax and email across the Pacific Ocean to Shanghai, where he would begin life anew.

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