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Double Luck

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On Wednesday afternoon I waited outside Pearl's school. There were crowds of children, and at first I was weirdly afraid I wouldn't recognise her or she wouldn't see me, but then her face came into focus, and my heart thumped hard against my ribs.

She was talking to two friends, laughing. One of them saw me and elbowed her. When Pearl looked at me, her face went blank. She touched her friend's arm to say goodbye, and then came over. I wanted desperately to hug her, but she made no move to touch me.

"What?"

"I'm sorry."

"Are you coming back?"

"No."

"Well." She watched the stream of children rushing past, a United Nations of adolescence.

"Why do seagulls fly over the sea?"

"I don't know." She looked at me reluctantly.

"Because if they flew over the bay, they'd be bagels."

She almost smiled. "Have you seen Winston?"

I nodded. "Yeah, he brought me a fern for my apartment, in a gorgeous dark red plant pot." Questions flickered across her face, but she didn't ask them. We're both like Dad, in our own ways. "Is Uncle Ah Hong still staying?"

"He left last week." She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "I wish he hadn't gone. He was fun, and he was the only one who talked to me for three days after."

I had a candy bar in my pocket, but I couldn't give it to her. "Come to dinner on Friday," I said instead. "I'll invite Winston, too."

She frowned. "What do I tell Mom?"

"I don't know. Tell them you're going to Claire's." I felt like a ghost, trying to talk to her. My words were weak. "I'm sorry."

She looked away again. The other children had mostly gone. The sun was shining. She wiped her eyes with her fingers. "Where?" she asked, and I gave her my address.

"It's not far, but I can pick you up here, if you like."

She didn't say if she'd come. I folded my arms to keep from hugging her.

"Please," I said. A ghost can't afford to be proud.

 

* * * * *

 

I cut myself free, set myself adrift. I was a small cloud in the vastness of the sky — I could evaporate any time or dissolve into rain, and no one would notice. The world doesn't care about individual clouds. It doesn't give them names.

Mom called every Saturday while Dad was gardening. She asked how I was and if I was "still seeing that gwai lo." She thought Mark was the reason I moved out, and there was no way to explain that it wasn't him. It was me.

I sat on my thrift-store couch and poked the fresh orange walls with my toes. I clutched the phone and tried to explain the world from the perspective of a cloud, but she couldn't hear me. She told me how Dad was, what they had for dinner, the latest gossip from Mrs. Mar, how my sister was doing at school.

On the third Saturday after I moved out, when we'd done talking, I hung up and cradled the phone in my lap, as if holding it would bring her closer to me. We used to talk across the kitchen, across the dinner table. Now our words were trying to bridge the gap from earth to sky, and nothing I said was weighty enough to make the journey. Most of what we said was snatched away by the wind.

I'd thought it would feel normal to move out and live in an apartment like everyone else. I thought I'd be carefree and independent, with ordinary preoccupations — rent and boys and work. And sometimes it was like that. I stood in my kitchen and looked at the stack of mismatched plates on the shelf and the three drinking glasses on the draining board, and Mark put his arms around me, and for a moment I forgot that I was in danger of evaporating or blowing away.

I didn't regret it. There was no point regretting it.

I couldn't forget it.

 

* * * * *

 

After I saw Pearl, I met Mark near the university campus and we went to his favourite bookstore. He wanted a new volume on literary criticism that he needed for his thesis, and I was looking for a birthday card for my father. I wanted something Dad would like and that also reflected my life now, but when I scanned the rack, there were only photos of dogs wearing party hats, a middle-aged white man blowing out candles on a cake, cartoons of golf clubs and cars and bottles of beer.

Mark came over with three books in his hand — the lit crit, a detective story and a French novel — and looked over my shoulder. His glasses made thick black lines around his eyes, keeping them apart. "So, Barney said if I don't finish my next chapter by the end of next week, he's going to lock me in my office till it's done."

I paused, a painted seascape in my hand. "Wasn't it due in two weeks ago?"

Mark grinned and winked at me. "I got distracted."

"Won't you—" get in trouble? I didn't say it. It was his world; he knew the rules. "I have an audition on Friday," I told him instead. "For a horror movie." I put my hands to my cheeks and widened my eyes like Munch's Scream.

"I'll drive you," he offered instantly, and I almost stepped away.

"You don't have to. What about your thesis?"

"I can write in the car while I'm waiting." He really seemed immune to his supervisor's threats. I guess supervisors are different from fathers.

"Okay." I glanced at the card in my hand. The sea was littered with yachts. "None of these are right," I told Mark. "I need one that says I'm an independent adult and I'm not sorry that I left but I still love you. Not that he'll open it."

Mark took the card and studied it. "So why send it?"

I plucked it from his hands and put it back on the card rack. "Because I have to."

 

* * * * *

 

The audition was in a warehouse by the railway yard. There was a dirty makeshift room where fourteen girls, including me, waited to be called. Eleven of them were white. A couple of them were reading magazines, three had books and one was turning a packet of cigarettes over and over in her hands. The rest of us fidgeted with our purses and our clothes, and we all looked up every time the casting assistant walked through.

I sneezed and a girl with dark red hair offered me a tissue.

"Thanks."

"It's freezing in here."

"Yeah."

The assistant came back, looking harassed, and said, "Hi," to get our attention. "The director's running late and it looks like we won't be getting started till about three-thirty. Sorry for the inconvenience. There's a phone you can use by the door if you need to make any arrangements, but please don't leave. Our timetable isn't set in stone."

Shit! I grabbed my purse and went over to her as she was leaving the room. "I'll be back in a minute."

"Don't go too far," she warned. "We're looking for three girls, and the director's specifically asked for some ethnic diversity."

"No, I won't. I'll just be a second." I ran outside, down the rusty iron staircase and over to Mark's car. He was leaning back in the driver's seat with his eyes closed. The new lit crit book lay open in his lap. I got into the passenger seat and closed the door.

He opened his eyes. "How'd it go?"

"There's been a hold up."

"Your money or your life." He held his hand like a gun.

"Either," I said. "Both. Listen, my sister's going to be waiting for me outside her school in an hour, and the auditions haven't even started yet, and there's fourteen of us."

"I'll go get her."

"Are you sure? Just take her to my place. I can get a cab."

"I'll get her," he repeated.

I leaned across and kissed him. It wasn't enough, but it was all I had right then. "Thanks."

 

* * * * *

 

"Jade Li?" The casting director was a tall thin black man with dreadlocks and a serious expression. He flicked through a pile of papers on his table, extracted my photo and put it on top.

"Yes. Hi." I sat down and set my purse on the floor against the leg of the chair. I smiled.

"I'm Graham. What we're looking for, for this part, is an innocent quality. An ingénue. You wake up in the middle of the night and go into your kitchen to get a drink, and you're surprised by a vampire at the window. You scream and he attacks. Can you scream?"

"Uh, yeah." Are there people who can't scream? But then, I'd been sitting in the room next door for over an hour, and only about half the girls had screamed loud enough for me to hear.

I stood up and schooled myself to look naïve. A video camera watched me with its one impassive eye.

"I'll read the description," said Graham's assistant, and she immediately began to recite the script without any nuance.

Graham gestured for me to act in response, and I thought of the brutal strength of violent men and monsters. My scream was as loud and long and terrified as I could make it.

Graham narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "That's good. Try it again — this time, you're cornered in your bedroom, and a vampire is coming towards you, its wizened creaking hands grasping—"

I screamed before he could finish.

He laughed, and it completely changed his demeanour. Now he looked friendly. I relaxed.

"Okay, good." He pushed his dreadlocks out of his eyes. "Very nice. Now try this—"

 

* * * * *

 

By the time I stumbled outside, the sky was growing dark and my throat was raw. I was on the street and walking away from the building, full of the delight of an audition gone well, before I realised I'd forgotten to call a cab. I stopped, then turned to go back inside and use the phone.

Behind me a car horn beeped. "Jade!"

Mark waved to me and I ran over. "Where's Pearl?" I asked hoarsely, and then saw that she was in the passenger seat beside him. She looked okay. She looked happy.

She said, "What does a termite say when it walks into a barroom?"

"Uh, is the bar tender here?" said Mark.

I groaned dramatically and bundled myself into the back.

"How was it?" asked Mark.

"It was eighty percent screaming. If they're assigning parts based on how sore our throats are, I'm playing the lead," I whispered. "They said they'd call tonight."

"You got it," said Pearl, positively. "You've got the best scream out of anyone I know."

"You haven't heard mine," Mark told her. "Why do they put bells on cows?"

"I don't know," said Pearl. "Why do they put bells on cows?"

In the gloom of the car, I could hardly see their faces. We might as well have all been ghosts or clouds. The car could have spun out into space and no one would know.

"Their horns don't work," said Mark.

I laughed, despite myself. We all laughed. I reached forward and wrapped my arms around Pearl's shoulders and hugged her.

 

END