Sweet Girls, Pretty Girls


When I started to menstruate, my mother handed me a pad and told me to do nothing stupid.  When my sister started to menstruate, I handed her a tampon and told her to only put thatinside of her, nothing else.  I wondered if my mother would have been happy if she had heard that.

Every other weekend, the three of us would drive up to Northern New Jersey to visit my grandparents.  My mother told us to look nice for those visits.  I’d wear my nice white dress that I saved for picture days, and my sister wore her black slacks, the one she saved for cello recitals.  When we got there, the five of us--my grandmother, grandfather, sister, mother, and I--sat staggered at an eight person table.  While we were hunched and eating, my grandmother, who sat between my sister and me, would run her hands up and down our backs.  She rubbed and rubbed.  She was slowly ironing us out, bit by bit, taking out all the bends and kinks, until our spines stood nice and straight.  She’d smile and say, Guai nǚ nǚ, sweet girls, pretty girls.  

My grandmother loved to cook for us.  In her green silk pajamas and matching slippers, she’d waddle around the kitchen using a pair of waxy wooden chopsticks to stir everything.  In an afternoon she’d make six bowls of scallion pancakes and chicken feet and shrimp.  She didn’t let us use plates, wanting to feed us the food by hand instead.  She tapped our chins with her chopsticks, and we opened our mouths.  She watched us swallow and smiled.  

One day after lunch, when my sister and I were getting up to wash our hands, we heard my grandmother let out an annoyed aiya.  I looked down and saw my sister’s white chair stained red with blood, a circle the size of a quarter on the seat of her chair.  Our grandmother handed the two of us sponges reeking of hydrogen peroxide.  We got on our knees and scrubbed and scrubbed.  We watched the red sink into the white of the chair, spread across the seat in a watery pink.  We looked down at our hands and saw that they were stained too. My sister pulled a bright purple tampon out of her pocket and started to walk to the bathroom.

“Hide that thing, nǚ nǚ.  Your grandfather’s sitting right there.”

My sister put the purple plastic nervously back into the pocket of her jeans.  It crackled as she stuffed it into the denim.  My grandfather looked down at his plate and pretended he couldn’t hear the noise.  

“You’ve got to lead by example.  She’ll follow what you do.” Grandma whispered.

While I waited for my sister to come back, I scrubbed the bits of her out of the chair, trying to make it white again.  My grandmother took the other sponge, and started scrubbing in small circles.

Then she put it down, patted my head and rubbed her hand up and down my spine, softly filing my flesh.  “Straight back, nǚ nǚ.  Stay pretty, and you can pick any boy you want,” she said softly.  She smiled at the word boy.

I nodded and stared at the chair.

When my sister started high school, she began doing stupid things.  Her best friend was a girl who was known for kissing teachers’ kids.  She went to boarding school and got them to steal their parents’ master keys.  She put them on a silver wire and wore it like a bracelet around the dorm.  

My sister let the boys pick her instead of choosing them.  She let them climb inside her mouth, open her up. We still visited our grandparents on some weekends, but when my grandmother tapped my sister’s chin and watched her open her mouth, she knew something had changed.  Maybe her lips had gotten fuller, her tongue softer, the corners of her mouth dryer.  My little sister couldn’t trick her.  She couldn’t zip herself closed again. Sometimes I wondered what would have happened if I opened myself.  If it would be so bad and wrong to let the boys choose me--to let them use my pretty to make them shine.  But when they smiled at my sister and she smiled back, I thought of scrubbing stains and all the stupid things I was scared to do.  

It was a Sunday in winter when the two of us went up to visit.  We hadn’t seen her in a year.  When the two of us got into high school, we started telling our mother we needed to stay home to do homework.  She believed us.  I was happy to see my grandmother.  She still waddled around in green silk pajamas.  She was losing her hair but forced the short patches into bright pink rollers.  She said that the curls gave her height, made her take up more space.  She still made scallion pancakes and chicken feet for the two of us.  She tapped my chin, and with her chopsticks, placed the food on my tongue.  When my grandmother walked over to my sister, she served her food on disposable paper plates she had bought in bulk at Costco.  She rubbed my spine, her old, rough hands still trying to iron me out.  She had stopped rubbing my sister’s back, though.  She no longer believed that she could be straightened.  

My sister sat two seats away from us, staring at her food, using chopsticks to place the bits of pancake and shrimp in her own mouth.  My grandmother only looked at my mouth as she placed each bite, one after the other, on my tongue.  When it was getting hard for me to swallow, I touched her arm and said, “Grandma, it’s too much.  I’m full.”

She didn’t look up at me once.  She only gazed at my mouth, making sure that every inch of it was filled with food.

“Guai nǚ nǚ, Guai nǚ nǚ.  Just a little bit more.  Grandma made this just for you.”

I stared at my sister, but she wouldn’t look up.  

I kept chewing and chewing, but the food didn’t stop.  My mouth was too full.  I threw up.  I tried my best to hold it in, to wait until I reached the bathroom, but I couldn’t.  Bits of red chili peppers and pink shrimp were on my plate and the seat of grandma’s white chair.  My grandmother looked down in surprise.

“Guai nǚ nǚ, guai nǚ nǚ.  It’s okay, Grandma will fix this.  Clean this up for her guai nǚ nǚ.”

Grandma ran to the sink and grabbed the sponge.  She ran so fast that her left slipper fell off and slid across the tile floor.  She scrubbed and scrubbed even after the vomit was all gone.  My sister and I watched from behind, watched as my grandmother’s arms shook up and down, filing away at the seat of the chair.  I took my sister’s hand and held it in mine as we watched.  I whispered to her, Guai nǚ nǚ, sweet girl, pretty girl.