Joyland

New York |

The Art of French Cooking

by Kyle Lucia Wu

edited by Emily Schultz

My little sister is healthy all her life until she turns twenty-two, when she is diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and moves into my apartment. We have barely spoken since our mom died three years ago, but with both our parents long gone and an empty room in my home, where else would Ava go? She comes with two suitcases and goosebumps on her arms despite the August heat. It’s a lucky coincidence that my roommate has just left, but up until now that kind of luck has ruled Ava’s life.

The night she moves in, we decide to make dinner. “Let’s make Mexican, Maya,” she says, “how easy.” But we buy avocados that are green instead of brown and don’t realize until putting knife to peel that it’s wrong. We become scared of salmonella and overcook the chicken. I cut my finger slicing bell peppers and don’t have any bandages. So we open beers and clink the tops and eat tortilla chips from the bag. Well, we say. Mom would not be proud.

*

Our mother cooked constantly, urgently, at every occasion. With her sunflower apron around her neck, she sang off-key Ella Fitzgerald as she stirred sauces with a wooden spoon and tasted cake batter with an outstretched pinky. She was quick to tell stories and could talk to anyone, but in vulnerable moments she spoke with her spatula.

When Ava won the middle school election, there was peach cobbler with a filling so warm it burnt my tongue. When I failed chemistry, she silently let me lock myself in my room, but I came down for dinner to lasagna with short ribs that fell apart at the slightest nudge. Mom would only speak to us seriously once our mouths were full; with blueberry-banana pancakes the morning of the SATs, chicken-stuffed bell peppers after soccer games, and over spaghetti carbonara for high school heartaches. We came to interpret her innermost thoughts in meticulous meals culled from Julia Child and the Rombauers. It was like she needed something to distract us when she was fully there.

*

The night Ava finishes her first round of chemo, I think I should cook something for her. I am twenty-five now, a few years out of college and still subsisting on take-out. Ava is twenty-two, subsisting on who knows what. At the grocery store my head is soaked in visions of what Mom would do if she were here. She’d bring Tupperware to the hospital each day filled with food that is easy to share, banana bread or corn muffins, and she’d make Ava breakfast each morning, an omelette or a fruit-filled crepe. I think of how she would probably have flirted with Ava’s doctor and then brought him a homemade tart. “For your wife?” she would have said. Then I think, no, that’s something Ava would do, not Mom. As Ava matured they became so similar that their differences became hazy. They were both so good at performance, at making strangers comfortable. Ava would have come home to her favorite meal of Mom’s. She would have come home to all of her favorite things. Steamed artichokes with butter and mashed potato with potato skins still in them and charcoal-grilled salmon and roasted vegetables but with the asparagus left out.

I can’t do any of that, I think when an older woman bangs her shopping cart into mine. I am standing in the frozen food aisle, the small hairs on my arm the only part of my body alert. I look at the premade meals consumed by tiny white icicles, and keep walking in search of something less false.

I pick Ava up and she sleeps after chemo, and so I spend that time with fingers knuckle-deep in ground beef, rolling breadcrumbs into meatballs, and charring the edges extra black. Our mom would let the kitchen sit in a haze of smoke so they’d be burnt the way she liked. I tear off basil and slice balls of mozzarella in two, layer these on top of ripe red cherry tomatoes. I set out my favorite plates, aquamarine with specks of gold. The sauce fills the room with the heartiness of beef simmered in tomatoes and it makes me optimistic that I have succeeded. When she wakes and comes to the table, Ava stabs at a meatball with her fork, nibbles at the blackened crust. “Like Mom’s,” she says, brightly but sleepily. She puts it down afterward and eats nothing else. She’s still tired, she moves to the couch. I try the meatballs, and when I bite into them all I can taste is the one ingredient that must be missing though I don’t know what it is. I leave the table with the hard black coating on the back of my tongue.

*

I tried learning to cook after moving out for college. I got impatient while waiting for water to boil, or I’d walk away while sautéing vegetables, and I’d come back to scorched edges and smoky pans. In my last year of school, I began waitressing at a tiny Italian restaurant in the West Village. Mom had just died, and I wanted to get rid of any free time I had.

I met Jason, the chef de cuisine, the day I interviewed. He was tall and skinny and tattooed everywhere. On his forearm was an illustration of a pig slicing up his own stomach, and on one side of his neck was a single piece of penne. Though our mother always tried to get us to taste everything, I had never liked duck until he made it for me, and always thought lamb to be too gamey until I had his. He chopped vegetables with a robotic ease so quick his hands blurred. In the kitchen he’d mix bone marrows with pig’s head and bake it with breadcrumbs, and soon I licked it off sliced baguettes greedily. I lost myself in the frenetic and filling schedules of working nights. I allowed myself to ignore anyone who didn’t see me each day, and used the excuse of working strange hours to ignore phone calls and texts, especially from Ava or my dad. Because we didn’t work until afternoon Jason and I became one of those couples that would stay out until the sunrise, sleep all morning, and forget to ever really speak to each other. Jason sometimes asked about my family but he drank so much he forgot to insist on an answer. We only really knew each other in the moonlight of endless last drinks and the mornings that pulsated with hangovers, and he really only knew the person I presented to him at that time. But I couldn’t really blame him for that.

We split up after a while and I changed jobs from the West Village to a fancy Midtown restaurant inside an upscale hotel. Even though I had a degree, I didn’t yearn to leave the restaurant industry. I loved how consuming it was, the atmosphere of working together in a place like that, how the entire staff sat down together before service and ate what was called family meal, how everyone went out afterward to the same bar. How our strange hours excluded us from the normal world so we ended up feeling like we were all part of something different.

After a couple years of waitressing, I was promoted to coordinating events and planning dinners, to working in the office in the day instead of in the dining room at night. Waitressing loses its luster quickly and I was happy to have some sort of higher job, even though it paid less than getting tipped each night did. I mapped out menus for engagement dinners and planned baby shower brunches. I only saw celebrations, and how wonderful and terrible they could turn out. How the right wine could either make the host leave a tip that could feed a family, or make the soon-to-be-bride’s father trip over the tablecloth. How couples about to be wed either had cheeks pink with love or mouths silent from obligation. How dinners for the newly graduated always seemed to have so many people in their family, a mother, a father, so many siblings, these dinners made me sick.

*

Ava was on summer break between junior and senior year of college when she found out she was sick. She called me one day while I was standing in line for a cappuccino, on break from work. “Maya, I thought I had the flu,” she said. “But it’s not that.”

“What is it?” I had said, wanting to get off the phone before I reached the cashier. Ava had a way of being dramatic about everything, and I was waiting for her to overemphasize something small when she said it in a small voice I could barely hear over the grinding espresso machine — “Leukemia.”

I had then reached the front of the line and I shook my head and walked out. Part of me had trouble believing it. She’d had a fever, no appetite, headaches upon waking up. They checked her blood count, then checked a lot more. And they found it. “It took weeks for them to be sure,” she said. And still, she explained it all but I felt like it was faraway, an idea I was looking at under a broken streetlamp through a smudged window.

We hadn’t talked much since our mom had died three years earlier. At first, we clung to each other while making after-death arrangements, but then we sunk into new lives and we never had anything to talk about. I worked at the restaurant and finished college in New York, and Ava took a year off before going back to Philadelphia to study journalism. When I resurfaced from my relationship with Jason, Ava was enrolled in school and I tried to reach out but she always seemed busy. We were only two hours away by car, but we morphed those hours in our mind to mean days, trips, endless amounts of time that we didn’t have.

She was my little sister, but I secretly always wanted to be her. Things came easy to her in a way they didn’t come easy to me. She was just lucky. Ava was charismatic and courageous in a way I could never be because of how self-conscious I was. I read all the time but could never put my thoughts into words. Ava didn’t pick up a book until college but ideas fell from her mouth like petals in the wind. When asked what she would do with her life, she always said she would do anything that let her go everywhere. I was sometimes annoyed by her grandiosity. “You can’t just go everywhere, Ava.”

And she would look at me, not angry but confused, and tell me, “Yeah. You can.”

Mom ran through Ava’s veins — she came alive again in Ava, the reincarnation of her charisma and charm and easy confidence. When they spoke, I looked like our father, who had left when we were young, and when Mom was most mad at me she would spit the words like venom into my face — you are just like your father. Even as a child, I knew this to be the ultimate insult, and I’d retreat to my room to search for traces of him in the mirror. Mom and Ava had light brown eyes flecked with honey, slim hips and long fingers. My eyes were green, my body had more curves, my hair was the same blonde as theirs but it wouldn’t curl. I had one dimple in my right cheek that only came out when I laughed. That, my mom said, was from my father. Once when I was nine and Ava was six, I tricked her into giving me all the dimes she had in her palm in exchange for my nickels — “it’s worth more if it’s bigger,” I’d told her solemnly — and I was laughing while Ava cried and my mom turned to me and said, “That, that, that is your father.” She explained it later as my dimple. But I didn’t know what she really meant.

Our dad left right after Ava was born. We never knew where to, and neither did our mom, and we would get information out of her in slips and spurts. He’d grown up with four women in his house; his dad had died at a young age. His mom and his sisters all loved to cook, and he grew spoiled with good meals, and he didn’t mean to learn how but he did. Mom’s dreams were spun from this vision of a family warm with steam from the kitchen, communing around the stove. Our mother’s dad had worked and her mother had socialized; she often ate alone. She formed the idea of her new family from his image, and even after he left she refused to give it up.

After our dad left, our mom had founded a tutoring center using the last of her inheritance. By the time we were teens she owned twelve in and around Philadelphia. She didn’t have to go to work much by that point, so she was always home, talking on the phone or cooking in the kitchen. She was fond of telling us how much her own mother had failed her — never sat at dinner with her, gave her an allowance and no affection — and it was clear in these retellings that our mom thought she had bested hers.

But even though we heard her tell the same stories over and over, we never tired of hearing her talk. Believing her wasn’t important — it was just to be around her.

Ava had this quality too. It wasn’t that they had the most interesting stories, but that they could tell them the best. Their external warmth hid their icy interiors and they fooled you into thinking they cared more than they did. They held attention high above their heads where no one could grab it, and made everyone wonder how nothing that funny had ever happened to them. The truth was, it had, but no one knew how to tell it the way they did. In this, and so much more, they were special. They should have been the ones to stay.

*

Ava is not due back at the doctor for a week after the first round. I have taken a leave from work, one of the luxuries of a dead parent, an inheritance received too early, spent too carelessly. We have planned the day outside, because Ava has not been to New York before this. We are going to see the brownstones in the West Village and have coffee in the sun. We are going to walk East until we reach the thrift shops and record stores. We are going to meet a friend of hers from high school for lunch in Bryant Park, and then we will walk through the ornate public library. We will go to Central Park with a blanket and spread our bodies out until our feet touch the grass. We begin to walk, but Ava gets tired easily. We are near Washington Square Park when we sit on the side of the fountain while Ava reaches her fingers down to touch the water. It is early September so it’s still sunny and warm, but feels like each hot day could be the last before fall. The last time to walk around without a jacket, to reach out and feel unfrozen water, to hear saxophone players in the park.

Down the block, I buy a slice of pizza and shake chili pepper flakes over the melted cheese. Ever since Ava came home, I have been making my food spicier and spicier. Ava looks at it and turns away. She takes a small bite of my slice and swallows hard. She takes a sip of bottled water and puts her sunglasses back on.

“Maya, I’m too tired,” she says.

We go back home and stay there for the rest of the day, and I don’t mind except she has made me make plans with three separate people that I have to cancel, and we have bought tickets to an outdoor play she asked me to buy, and she was the one who wanted to go out. Even though I know she is tired and she should not be pushed and everything should be about her — was there ever a time when everything was not about her?

I would have guessed my lifelong envy of her would disappear on nights when Ava walked out without her headscarf on to get a glass of water from the tap, when I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear her dry-heaving in the bathroom, when I would walk in and find her curled on the couch with a body too shriveled to possibly be hers. On days when Ava can’t even walk fifteen blocks. And yet.

*

Ava has been put on medicinal marijuana to spike her appetite. She comes home from the doctor looking pleased, tells me she has never before smoked marijuana.

“What were you doing all those nights?”

Ava was always at parties, at concerts, in vans with older boys. She shrugs.

“I just drank beer.”

Of course Ava would not be the type to give into peer pressure. I think of all the times I had held smoke in my mouth, trying not to inhale, because I hated being high.

The doctor gave her small orange pills, five milligrams each, and told her to try taking two a day. She unscrews the cap and offers me the bottle. I shake my head, and she swallows one, then two. Nothing happens and she swallows a third. Finally, she begins to laugh.

“Oh my God,” she says, “I’m actually hungry.”

I am cross-legged on the floor and I unwind my legs to look in the fridge.

“We could make French toast?”

Ava nods eagerly.

I take out a loaf of challah bread in the cabinet and slice off braided brown squares. Ava stands up and cracks eggs into a bowl, stirs them into pale yellow liquid and picks out a piece of shell with her index finger. She pours in the white heavy cream from high above the bowl and watches it drizzle and mix into the color of a fading sun. She takes each piece of bread gingerly by one edge and lets it soak in the mixture, counting to fifteen each time before flipping it over. She points out how much liquid gets absorbed in the thick slices of bread. I place them in the pan and fry them, put the finished stack on my biggest plate. We sit back on the floor and we pour maple syrup onto the plate and eat with our hands. She clutches her stomach, unused to so much food.

“This is the best French toast I will ever have,” Ava says.

This sentence makes me tired. We leave the food on the plate, on the floor, and in the morning it has hardened and dried out. It thuds stiffly when I drop it into the garbage.

 *

Even sick, Ava is beautiful.  Her cheekbones are so angular now they seem as if they could draw blood. Even sick, Ava is alert, and though she lies on the couch for much of the day she makes sure to watch the news. She complains that she cannot read anymore, that her attention span has gone. So she lies on the couch and switches between romantic comedies and the fiery news, always one for contradictions. She talks about the suffering of other countries, the constant uptick of nameless bodies. Once Ava hears a fact, she’s always latched onto it and repeated it, a way for her to seem impressively intellectual.

“It’s terrible!” she says. “There are three hundred dead, and that’s just so far.”

I don’t say anything back as I stir honey into tea.

“Maya, did you hear me? This is important. Do you want to come watch—”

“Ava,” I say and I let the spoon drop with a clatter into the mug. “I can’t.”

I leave the tea on the counter and walk back into my room. She is staring after me, puzzled. I know she is wondering why I’m not more affected by these stories of terror and I am looking at her decaying body and thinking, I can’t hear any more about death. It’s sitting in front of me drinking coffee. It’s breathing next to me at night. I can’t feel anything for anyone else.

*

We go back to the doctor after two cycles of chemo. Ava gets dressed up, but nothing fits her after all the weight she’s lost. Still, she puts on a flowy black dress and sandals that have jewels on the straps and sunglasses that cover the highest point of her cheekbones. She stops to put on an orangey-red lipstick before we leave. I am wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt but I refuse to change even after seeing her outfit and together we look as if she is a star and I am her assistant. I catch a glimpse of us in a building window and think, could anything be truer?

The chemo is not working. Not responding. The chances are...

Ava blinks at him, her eyelashes fluttering. I have brought a notebook so I write down what he says. Someone told me to do this, though I can’t remember who. It turns out to be a good idea because as we leave the appointment I immediately forget everything he said. I reach into my purse to make sure the notebook is there when we leave and I think, later.

I walk with Ava to a seafood restaurant by the Hudson. She has not spoken but to say thank you, goodbye, and have a nice day to the doctor and then receptionist. She opens her mouth and orders a dozen oysters, then a dozen more. She slurps them down without sauce on top. We order martinis, two and then two more. Ava asks for fried calamari and gets red marinara sauce on her fingers and a drop of it on her dress. We split a lobster roll and the bread has been brushed with butter and the mayo is heavy. It’s rich and creamy and it makes me think of that one summer we went to Maine with our mother, cracking lobsters and putting too much mayonnaise in the potato salad. I wonder what it makes Ava think of. We order two more martinis and she bites the olives off the stick.

If we talked about anything, I can’t remember what it was. After the rush of eating Ava pushes back her chair and I imagine her knees against the cold tile of the bathroom, of course she couldn’t eat that much. She can barely eat at all.

“I haven’t finished college,” she says later, when we are inside the front door and taking off our shoes and dropping our bags to the floor. “I shouldn’t have deferred.”

“But you got to stay with your friend who was studying abroad — wasn’t it Prague? And somewhere — where else did you go?” The volume of my voice winds down as I realize I have no idea what Ava did that year, and so I busy myself with straightening up the pile of mail on the counter.

“Just Italy,” she says. “It was only a month.”

I thought she had been gone that entire year.

“I wish I had been in Prague. I should have gone to Prague. I haven’t gone any of the places I wanted to.”

It’s maybe the first time Ava is verbalizing this, and I’m frozen and unsure how to respond, because I think I still haven’t yet accepted that all the things she’s done are maybe all the only things she’ll ever do. I think I’m still hoping that Ava’s famous luck will come up, that it’s not all used up.

“Where have you been, Maya?” Ava asks, her face young.

“Nowhere, really,” I say softly, hearing a waver in my voice.

She nods, lips pursed, seriously.

“Kind of a waste, right?” Ava says, with a wan smile, and then quickly, “Can I have a glass of water?”

I take out ice cubes from the freezer and pour her water from the tap. She has probably drank too much, so after she finishes one glass I give her another.

“You know that Mom always liked you best, right?” Ava says suddenly. Her eyes are bright, and wild.

I take the glass from her and put it in the dishwasher, trying to hold back a laugh.

“Ava, you and Mom were best friends. You were so much alike. You were Mom. Of course she liked you more.” And then I think, this is a silly argument, so I add, “I mean, she loved both of us.”

“But you reminded her of Dad,” Ava says, a stubborn edge to her voice.

“She hated Dad.”

“No.” Ava is insistent. “No, Maya, she didn’t.”

After this, Ava goes to bed.

*

Why was I so jealous of Ava all my life? It wasn’t just that she was prettier or more popular or that she had more friends. Maybe it was because everyone loved her from the start and she never had to try. Because I was shy and scared of people and she was intoxicating to them. Because I’d work for the same things that would fall into her lap. Because it wasn’t my fault that I reminded Mom of the man who left her, but I did. She was wrong, because Mom held that against me. Mom and Ava were one team, and I was one-half of the enemy. Or at least, that’s what I’d been thinking all this time.

There was a part of me that wanted to be close with Ava but recognized that we weren’t ready for it. So I put the part of sister away in my head and thought I’d get back to it later, when Ava and I had both grown up. And it wasn’t just losing her, the only part of the family I had, that hurt, but the fact that so much of it was my fault — that I barely had a sister to lose. I didn’t know her at all.

*

Things change slowly after that appointment. Ava becomes wildly erratic in a less charming way than before. One morning she will not leave her room all day, asking me over and over for chicken noodle soup that she only slurps the broth of. The next day she asks me to take her to Coney Island so she can ride a roller coaster. She argues until I give in and then after I shower she is already telling me it will be too hot in Coney Island and she just wants to watch a movie instead. I often catch a glimpse of her face and am struck by how hollow it looks, how much it looks like a mask. How much I have no idea what’s in her head, and how scared I am to ask.

I miss work and my restaurant and my friends there, so Ava and I go in to eat there one night. It is a beautiful restaurant in a horrible area and we have to wade through Times Square tourists to reach the luxury hotel that my restaurant sits inside of. The lobby has red leather couches and art deco clocks and gilded edges everywhere. It is glamorous, but it makes me feel so comfortable. Ava has taken one pill to help with her appetite, she tells me, and stores another in her bag.

None of my coworkers have met Ava before, so they all crowd out to my table. We are sitting in a red tufted banquette and drinking cocktails of whiskey and honey. The honey coats my throat in sugar and the rye whiskey warms my temples, with nothing to remind me of anything so I order another. Ava is wearing a slim black dress with thin straps that rub against her protruding clavicle. I am wearing a dress too, the same green as my eyes, and have put on lipstick, and yet, there is Ava.

You are to die for, one of the chattier bartenders says as he stops by our table to meet the golden sister. There is a slight pause as we assess and then ignore what he has said. He picks up our empty glasses and goes to make us another. The chef, Eric, comes out and kisses Ava on the hand. He takes our menus from the table before we have gotten a chance to look and says, “No need, I will send out something special.” He sends course after course out on gleaming white plates.

He stops by after the third and I say, “Eric, it’s too much,” because all the courses have been small and I know them to be appetizers, and I worry about how many entrees he will send. Already we have eaten yellowtail tuna tartare and squares of toast with chicken liver mousse. There is a plate of Italian burrata with snow peas and olive oil sitting on the table. I am worried Ava won’t be able to eat and it will upset her. But Eric is very handsome and this perks Ava up. She tilts her head and flips her hair in front of one shoulder. Everything is so delicious, she purrs.

“What has been your favorite so far?” he asks.

I cut into the plate and begin scooping up the burrata with my fork. When he leaves, Ava pouts.

“You didn’t leave me any!”

“You were talking,” I say, my mouth full with silky mozzarella.

I know Ava isn’t hungry, just mad that I didn’t let her taste it, but immediately I feel guilty. I don’t even like Eric that much, especially not romantically.

As the courses keep coming out, I start to feel embarrassed that this is what I do day in and day out, think up elaborate ways to feed people who aren’t hungry. The kind of women who populate our restaurant wear dresses too tight to finish their plates, leave whole claws of lobster on their plates. They are as skinny as Ava, but it’s by choice. Ava can barely get down a smoothie most days, but when I go back to work I’ll be thinking up inventive ways to fit truffle oil into the menu for a mostly untouched bachelorette dinner. I’m relieved that Ava hasn’t noticed the emptiness of my life, that she thinks it’s fun that I work here and that people are sending us free food, making us cocktails off the menu. She leans in and asks what celebrities I’ve met, and so I close off my mind and indulge her with gossip that I’m not even sure is true.

“Eric is so cute,” Ava says on the subway ride home.

I nod. Eric is very cute.

“He’s terrible to girls,” I tell her.

“Are all guys like that?”

“All chefs are like that,” I correct her.

“Have you dated one?” she says.

I am surprised she doesn’t know, but I guess, why would she? I wasn’t calling her that year, I thought her to be in Prague, when apparently she was in Philadelphia and I was too self-involved to notice.

“Yes,” I tell her. She puts her head on my shoulder, but looks up at me first, nodding. She wants to hear. So I tell her.

I tell her about how Jason was from a small town in Indiana and began working as a dishwasher at fifteen when his dad lost his job. How he moved to New York to cook and his first job was at a Whole Foods. How his dad lost his memory and it drove his mom insane, and Jason never got over leaving her there. How he moved from line cook to pasta cook to head chef in just a year. How he was only whole inside his kitchen; after work he would go straight to the bar, straight to his dealer, and so many nights he wouldn’t even sleep. But once he entered he would write up his menu, chicken scratch that the restaurant had to learn to read, and during service, even the worst ones, his contentment was clear. He was hardworking and yet lazy; he was dedicated and yet irreverent. He was appealing for all the wrong reasons, all the ones that attracted girls who’d never had a father, but I don’t tell Ava this last part, because she is one too.

“Did you love him?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe the wrong kind of love.”

Ava looks at the dirty floor of the train. “What does that mean?”

I shrug my shoulders slightly, because I really don’t know.

*

Now that Ava is under palliative care, things are different, but not really. I’d imagined someone swooping into my apartment to outfit her bed in silk, an angel to rub the soles of her feet before sleep. But palliative care for leukemia looks a lot like the other kind of care. Ava’s belongings are everywhere, blankets and pillows on every sitting surface, her clothes strewn about, half-filled water bottles all around. Ava has to get a blood transfusion, to relieve fatigue. There is talk of radiation, to lessen bone pain. She undergoes one more round of chemo, to shrink a tumor that is blocking her bowels.

The morning after we eat at my restaurant, I walk toward the bathroom to brush my teeth, but the door is already shut. I don’t see the light on inside so I turn the knob and there is Ava, wearing a white tank top that is bunched around the sides but I know it to be a size extra-small, wearing underwear that sags and how can even underwear sag around a body so small? She has both hands up around her mouth and she is stretching out her lips and examining her gums, and she jumps when I enter the room.

“Why are the lights off?”

“I wanted to see, but I didn’t want to see that much,” she says in a voice that sounds half-asleep and scratchy. Her gums are red and swollen. The doctor explained that this could happen when leukemic cells infiltrate the gum tissue, which seemed unhelpful when we asked. It is sometimes worse after she has eaten certain foods. I realize last night we probably ate all of them.

She is no longer looking at the mirror, but touches her right hand to her cheek gingerly, as if just to check. She winces in pain, and walks out. I brush my teeth but my hands are shaking. Ava is sitting on the couch when I emerge.

“Can I get you some water?” I ask.

She shakes her head.

“I’m really thirsty,” she says. “But it hurts too much to drink.”

There is something about this image, Ava with her shrunken body, Ava with her swollen gums, Ava my only family, physically altered by the night I made her spend with the people I spent the last three years with instead of her. And I don’t know how, but it’s just then that I realize her death will be sooner than I’ll be prepared for.

*

It is two weeks after the last time she had chemo when I come home to hear music blasting. She is wearing skinny high-waisted jeans that appear to be painted onto her small frame and I am nothing short of terrified by how small she is, how much she is physically wasting away, and where did she even find jeans that could be tight on her now? She has not yet put a top on and is wearing a purple satin bra, but she must have bumped into something earlier because she has a matching purple bruise the size of a fist on her ribcage. She bruises so easily now, the slightest touch and a violent blue will snake across her skin like the tributaries of some stagnant river. She is standing on arched feet, leaning over the sink to look into the mirror, applying make-up in even strokes and smudges. Ava has taken over the bathroom just like she has taken over every room, I have chucked my lotion to make room for her expensive coconut milk moisturizer, I have thrown out my drugstore toothpaste for the organic one she wants. At this point, I don’t know why organic products matter. She is going, with chemicals in her lotion or without. But of course I concede.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“I want to go out,” she says.

“But you don’t know anyone here.”

“Yes, but you do. Can’t we go out, Maya? I want to do something fun.”

I want to tell her it’s not a good idea, I want to tell her that when I left my apartment that morning she had looked so weak and pale lying in her room that I had actually held my head close to her chest just to make sure she was breathing, I want to tell her that she had eaten only three bites of dinner last night and the same the night before, I want to tell her that she is not ready for this and maybe she won’t ever be. But I don’t. I put on tight jeans of my own and I let her smear eye shadow over my eyelids and paint over my brows.

“You look so pretty,” she says when my eyes are closed. I open them and she is sitting in front of me, her face enraptured and honest. I wonder if the animosity was all mine, always, all the time. Was I so bitter that I missed the fact that it was not reciprocated? I let her take us out to the club downtown where they play the music she likes and she spins in the middle of the dance floor and reaches her arms toward the ceiling and when she suddenly feels faint, only thirty minutes later, I don’t tell her I told her so, I just hail a cab and I take us home and in the morning I don’t mention what a bad idea it was. In the morning, I just make some coffee and wait.

*

The next few weeks, Ava has been annoying me and I have been annoying her. I was supposed to go back to work a month earlier, but I can see Ava getting weaker and I can think of nothing worse than to be tasting truffles when she goes, to be orchestrating a celebration for someone’s promotion at a bank. I think I resent her a little for this, and I think she resents me treating her like an invalid — but she is, these days. One morning Ava is dizzy, and then faint, and then fine, and then when her eyes look glassy I call for an ambulance. We are fighting about something so stupid, how she told me to meet her for coffee and never showed up because she’d fallen asleep, and she grabbed onto the edge of the counter without faltering in her defense.

When she’s admitted to the hospital, she falls unconscious soon after. I sleep there the first night. The second, she doesn’t wake up but her vitals seem to be getting better. The hospital is not far from my restaurant, and when I finally get an appetite on the third day I go in to sit at the bar. The bartender is new and I don’t know him, and the coworker I see has plans already, and the girls next to me are saying, “I’m so into Moscow mules right now, but only with a certain kind of ginger beer,” and I wonder why the hell I am here right now, so I pay for my cocktail and I go back to the hospital, and when I get there Ava has slipped away. I had been there for three days straight, and I left for just one hour.

When I finally go back to my apartment, it’s forty-one hours after I left. They make me fill out paperwork at the hospital — paperwork, I stared in disbelief at the nurse who insisted I fill out a form declaring that Ava was dead — and I walk all the way to the bottom of Manhattan, to the last possible subway stop I can catch to take me to Brooklyn. I walk in circles around my neighborhood, thinking there might be something I need to buy. I can’t think of anything, and finally I walk up the two flights of stairs and unlock my door. It smells of food and slightly of perfume. Ava was one of those girls who couldn’t do with just one pump of perfume, she liked to have the scent rush into the room with her, so there was a spray at her neck, at her wrists, in her hair. I smile thinking of Ava remembering to do this at the most unbelievable times — before opening the door for the pizza delivery guy, before walking to the pharmacy, in the midst of an argument when realizing she didn’t smell as floral as she would have liked. We had left plates of food on the counter before we’d left for the hospital. When I open the fridge I hope that it is empty but it isn’t. The other day Ava had printed out so many recipes she wanted to make, the ones that were her favorites of Mom’s, we’d already successfully made one and set off the smoke alarm with another. We had gone on a large, wine-fueled shopping trip to buy all the ingredients for three fancy French dishes. They sit stuffed in my narrow fridge, spilling out of every crevice. Everything that we’d never learn how to cook, everything we’d never make together and eat together and burn together. I can’t think of throwing it out and I close the fridge and walk right back out of the door. The thought of lifting up all that unused food makes my arms tremble.

I think of the last good night we had, and think how maybe I will eventually revise to be just the last night. It is a night when we make chicken fricassee ourselves, our mother’s favorite Julia Child recipe. We go to the store together with a print-out of the recipe and buy all of the ingredients: the onions, the mushrooms, the dry white wine, the butter. We lay everything out and prepare them in small mounds on the kitchen table. Ava peels and chops the white onions, and I wash and quarter the mushrooms. She squeezes out fresh lemon juice and I tie parsley and thyme into cheesecloth. She dices carrots and celery and I measure out flour. We move around each other easily, she braises onions and I set the chicken to simmer, and we murmur to each other, the smell has reminded us of a specific night when we had friends over for dinner and Mom had been telling the same stories over and over and we had been so annoyed with her and now, we laugh about it. When it’s finished, we can’t believe how wonderful it is — how much it tastes like hers. We eat the entire thing, though it is overwhelmingly too much. We smile, we laugh, like a fuzzy-edged family photo. I try to let that memory swell so big that it covers all the rest of them. That’s what I need to remember of Ava.