It has become a ritual: after we make love, Vikrum sings to me. He has an easy, supple voice, deep with a dusting of gravel to it. His sense of pitch is flawed at best, but that does not bother him nor, it seems, those of us who are his listeners. He takes requests--lately, with me, it has been Beatles songs. Does he sing lullabies to his children and odes to his wife? I love to hear him at all times, but especially when he sings only for me.
As a child, my stepsister, Rei, used to sing as Vikrum does: without care for who might be listening, and with scant regard for the exact words or tune. Perhaps, today, I will find out if she still does.
His rendition of "Yesterday" over, Vikrum rolls over onto his back and watches me as I hunt for my clothes. "Where are you going, why the rush? Stay awhile," he says, coaxing. "Take a minute, or thirty, to let your lover tell you how much he adores you. We can even debate the benefits of a twentieth-century human being born with a tail, if you like. Because there are some, you know."
"Tempting," I say. "But not today. I have to go meet Rei."
"Who? Oh, of course, your long-lost stepsister." Vikrum whistles softly. "So the big reunion is set for this afternoon."
The dress I was wearing is a little wrinkled, but it will have to do.
"So let me see if I'm getting this story straight. She calls you out of the blue, after an absence of who knows how many--"
"--years, and you're going to abandon your lover, who wants nothing more than to hold you and lavish you with compliments and sweet nothings, and to stimulate your mind with intellectual arguments of far-ranging scientific consequences, to go have coffee with her?"
I tilt my head, considering. "In a word, yes."
"Fair enough. But given that she made you wait seventeen years for this coffee date, couldn't you make her wait a paltry seventeen minutes while we come up with a reason for another song?"
"No," I say, turning to face him with a smile. "After all this time, seventeen extra seconds would be too long for me to wait to see her."
"In that case," he says, conceding defeat with grace, "I hope I also get to meet her someday soon." He smiles back at me, which is to say that his whole face brightens and grows soft, and his eyes--large and deep-set, darker even than Rei's, and framed by long lashes--crinkle up at the corners. At the age of thirty-two, Vikrum has deep creases around his eyes. Even though Rei is probably already on her way to meet me, I cannot resist: I lean forward and kiss his eyes, first his left and then his right. Then I kiss him down the length of his nose, three times. For a grand total of five, just as I always do. For a moment we gaze at each other, nose to nose, and then I pull away.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I would suddenly find that I was tilting toward Vikrum. If we were walking, I would be tipped over sideways at a thirty-degree angle, head inclined and one shoulder way higher than the other; if we were sitting across from each other in a restaurant, I would be leaning forward so far that my bangs were in danger of trailing in the food. My posture is better these days, but only because I am mindful of the years still ahead of me and the need I will have of my back.
I turn away and recommence getting dressed. "Could this actually be," I ask, amused, "the first time that I'm leaving you in bed rather than the other way around?"
It's the wrong thing to say.
Vikrum is quiet for so long that, busy with my hairbrush, I have almost forgotten what I said by the time he responds. "The scary thing is that that actually might be right." A strained quality in his voice makes me turn. He lies on my bed with an arm covering his eyes. "I'm spoiled, aren't I?" he says. "I should be spoiling you the same way. You deserve it, no one more."
What does it mean to have a married lover? A question that Hana, my former stepmother, could now throw at me if she were spiteful. Since she never was that, she could pose that question instead, perhaps with a sigh and a quarter-smile and a thoughtful shake of the head--the conversation starter to end all conversation starters, guaranteed to break the ice so thoroughly it would usher in a whole new era, the age of the hairless dinosaur and the end of the woolly mammoth's. Hana and I never did have much of substance to say to each other.
Having a married lover means: major holidays spent alone. Not getting to meet most of his friends or any of his relatives. Not being able to call him whenever I want to. Having the extraordinarily sweet but also sweetly ordinary experience of waking up next to your beloved turn into a privilege rather than a prerogative, enjoyed but one night out of a hundred. Knowing that no matter how fervently and how often he assures me that his marriage is a sham, the rest of the world views him as one half of a couple that is not me and him. Being haunted by the thought of his wife and his--their, a pronoun rendered vicious--children. But of course, I would cry out to Hana (and, guessing what I am about to say, she would raise an amused eyebrow in anticipatory agreement), there are compensations.
Not least, the knowledge that I truly love Vikrum and that he perhaps even more truly loves me. Because why else, really, would we continue to suffer in this hellhole of a situation?
Taking his arm away from his eyes, Vikrum looks at me. Then he beckons me close with a finger. "You buttoned your dress wrong," he says gently. "Come here, I'll do it up for you."
I look down. I might as well be one of the children in my class, my dress hangs so obviously askew.
"I must be tired. I couldn't even sleep last night," I confess, lifting up my chin as he redoes my buttons. "That's how much I've been looking forward to seeing Rei again."
The dress fixed, he draws me close, and for a few moments I allow myself to sink into the yielding warmth of his torso. Vikrum likes to play baseball and basketball; sometimes he goes for long runs. His limbs are muscled, and he is tall and well built and anything but fat. Yet the first time I slept with him I was surprised to find that I had beneath me (and over and behind and across me--our first time together was gymnastic, or what would perhaps more accurately be described as acrobatic, the sense of soaring through the air to a partner who was always there to catch me) a man whose belly was deeply soft. A few heady weeks later, I could assert with confidence what I had only guessed at then: Vikrum is that rare person, at peace both with himself and with the world. For proof, I thought, I need only point to his slack stomach. Witness here a man who not only has never done a sit-up in his life, but who has probably never tensed up his stomach muscles with dread or with fear.
It has always seemed mysterious to me that a man with such a soft belly could have worry lines around his eyes and on his forehead.
"Do you know," he says, in my ear, "it gets harder to say good-bye to you every time. I wish--you know what I wish."
Enfolded in his arms, I can hear his heartbeat. As if to belie what seems to be the excitability of his temperament (the waves of enthusiasm he is given to, powerful enough to lift me and, I imagine, everyone else who comes into contact with him--his wife? of course his children and his audiences--onto a high tide of comparable exuberance), his is the steadiest, slowest pulse I have ever heard, and it is rapidly becoming the rhythm by which I measure my life. Even with the knowledge that I am going to see Rei within the hour--within minutes! I could count them, or even sing them out loud and I never sing--it takes real effort to remove myself from the circle of his arms.
While I have been listening to his heart beat, he has been listening to mine. "Your pulse is racing," he says, sitting up. "You really are looking forward to seeing her again, aren't you?"
"Well, she is the only sister I've ever had."
"Is that why you're so happy she's here? Because she's family?"
He is laughing, but his incredulity is only half-feigned. If enough pressure is applied, Vikrum will admit a fondness for his sprawling, taxonomical challenge of a family: parents, grandparents, sisters, aunts and uncles (great-, great-great-, and garden-variety), and cousins of various stripes (first all the way up to fourth, as well as too-many-times-to-be-counted removed). But it takes no pressure at all to make him proclaim with glee that, glory be, they almost all live far away, many of them still back in India. And, once this proclamation has been made, it is only with pressure that he can be stopped from going on at great albeit amusing length about the burdens of having to buy and send wedding presents to people he barely knows, of needing to send money to bail his younger sisters and cousins out of scrapes, and of having to fend off yet another phone call from one of his well-meaning but overly curious grandmothers.
I have tried to explain to him what it is like, having a family that consists of me and two parents. He listens, nods sympathetically, worries with me about my father's health, and echoes my oft-stated wish that he and my mother did not live quite so far away. But there are limits to the power of the imagination. He cannot really know what it is like to worry about having to spend Christmas alone someday, any more than I can imagine what it is like to have the luxury, or is that the burden, of having so many cousins that you despair of ever remembering all of their names.
"Family's a good thing, of course," I say. "But with Rei . . ." I shrug. "It's more than that."
Since we are meeting at the cafe around the corner from my apartment, I need to leave a scant ten minutes before the designated hour of four. There is still half an hour to go, but I open the closet and begin rummaging for my favorite shoes; they are nowhere in sight. Are Rei's feet also still too large for her height? Could she and I still share shoes; have the size of our feet as well as our taste in clothes kept pace throughout the years?
I glance in the mirror--clothed, hair brushed, old pair of shoes in hand--then I go and sit on the edge of the bed. Vikrum places an arm around my hip, wedging me in.
"When I met her," I say, "we were both nine."
Where was Rei's sister, Kei, when she and I first met? Where was her mother--an already vivid presence in my life, sweet-scented and as pale and lovely as the moon? All I can remember is scuffing my toe (encased in my best patent leather) in the dirt, my head bent studiously down. Then my father's whisper--"Say hi to your new stepsister"--and the feel of his broad hand between my shoulder blades, nudging me forward.
For years to come Rei and I would talk of this first meeting. It was like looking in a mirror. Did either of us even notice the difference in our skin color and the shape of our eyes? Same age, same height, same length hair; stomachs thrust forward at an identical angle, legs equally skinny and scabbed, two pairs of pigeon-toed, unusually large feet. Later, when we took to wearing the exact same outrageous outfits, shirts in bold stripes of orange and black or dresses with large matching purple flowers, it would seem a minor miracle that people could tell us apart.
"And?" Vikrum says, prompting me.
I look down at him, this man my lover, lying naked on my bed. I sometimes think I fell in love with Vikrum for the way that he watches me. Has anyone ever looked at me so intently before?
I turn away. "Rei and I looked alike," I say. "It sounds silly, but we did. I thought of her as an actual sister. As my twin, even."
"You looked alike," he repeats, suppressed laughter in his voice. "Even though she's Japanese and you're blond and Jewish-Catholic?"
He squints at me and holds up his hands to frame a shot around my face. "Of course," he says, deadpan. "How could I have missed it before? I can see it now: the East Asian girl in you."
Then, propping himself up to reach me, he kisses me on my forehead, my earlobe, and the shivery part of my neck. Vikrum has magic in his lips.
"I've got to go," I manage to say. It is never easy to part with him, but it is, at least, less excruciating than usual this afternoon. "It's time to go see her. You can just pull the door shut behind you."
I leave to the accompaniment of him singing Verdi in the shower. I have never been a fast walker, but as I walk down the block to the cafe where Rei awaits, it feels like I am flying.Chapter Two
Is that Claudia in the matching skirt and jacket, her hair, now russet rather than dark gold, combed flat to shiny perfection? Or is that my stepsister with the nose ring and sleek leather pants, a well-preserved thirty-four-year-old indeed? Why would that gray-haired, rather overweight woman wearing glasses on the end of her nose be casting so many glances in my direction, unless it's to verify that I'm the one she's here to meet?
It's not until I find myself searching for traces of Claudia in every white woman aged twenty to fifty who walks into the cafe that it even occurs to me that I might not recognize her. From there, it's a small step to the far more disquieting thought that I might just have erred in my assumption (the assumption, worse luck, that I had to gamble on in asking her here today, after so many years apart) that people don't ever really change. Physically, sure, but not deep down.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Once Removed by Mako Yoshikawa. Copyright © 2003 by Mako Yoshikawa. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.