Blood Sister

— Ariel Chu

When I pull into the Diamond Bistro lot, Jacob’s already waiting at the door. He raises his hand at me when I walk up, and we exchange perfunctory greetings. No hug. No fake emotional display. We don’t pretend to be anything other than who we are: grown siblings who haven’t seen each other in months.

“Feels weird to be here without a big group,” I say. We walk into a dining room with huge round tables, most of them thronged by kicking toddlers, raucous uncles, sedate grannies. I remember being the toddler, then the teenager scowling at her phone. Now the hostess is seating us at the smallest table in the restaurant, next to the tanks of fish.

“Damn,” I say, rifling through the menu. “I forgot they don’t have English.”

“Look at the pictures,” he responds in his one-upping-Michelle voice. He has his phone out, isn’t even reading the menu. “Anyways, I still remember what Mom and Dad used to order.”

“Then you talk to the waiter,” I say, snapping the plastic booklet shut. He rolls his eyes, pockets his phone.

“Fine. And sorry, Amalie’s been crazy about wedding stuff. She keeps asking me about what flowers I want, what cake I want.”

“Don’t call your fiancée crazy, dude.”

“Whatever.”

The waitress comes by. She doesn’t even bother talking to us in Mandarin. Feeling mildly blasphemous, I order off the menu using a combination of English and pointing. Then Jacob takes over, listing all the Chinese dishes whose names I’d never retained.

“We got way too much food,” he mutters when the waitress leaves. “There’s only two people here.”

“Whatever,” I mimic him, and he rolls his eyes. We’re both teenagers again. Only this time, we’re not united against a backdrop of gossiping relatives, shooting each other pained looks during interrogations.

“You haven’t talked to Mom and Dad lately, have you?” I ask. Our parents had moved back to Taichung earlier this year. Their absence had felt like a relief at first. But months had gone by, and I still hadn’t heard anything from them.

“I called Mom maybe a few days ago? She and Dad are fine. I just told her some stuff about vet school and Amalie.”

Of course he’d reach out to them. Irrational resentment swells in me. “When I was in college, she called me every day.”

“Sounds like her,” he says.

The first dish arrives much faster than expected: fresh fish in a ceramic tureen, steamed and served whole. Jacob picks up the giant metal serving spoon. I watch him as he halves the fish, then cleanly subdivides the meat. He was always much better than me at this sort of thing.

He had always been the one helping Dad clean our koi pond, too. Both of them shirtless in sweltering weather, draining the stinky water, stepping barefoot into the algae-infested pit. “Thanks, but I’ll do it,” I say, taking the spoon from him. He sighs, watching me stab at the bones.

“Look, you don’t have to be polite about these things, okay? We’re not our parents. Also, if you start fighting me for the bill, I’m just gonna let you pay it.”

“I’m not gonna do that. We’ll go Dutch, okay?” I mimic my mother. He doesn’t laugh.

Maybe only I had found that phrase funny as a kid.

The rice comes too, so we eat in half-silence—occasionally asking each other about our jobs, our cousins, our love lives. We’ve made a quiet pact not to be fake like our relatives, feigning excitement for everything. It makes me grateful in some ways, sad in others. Always, in the background, is the restaurant’s dull roar: loud talk, clinking glasses, chairs scraping.

The fish is staring at me. I poke its gutted body with my chopsticks. When we were kids, Jacob and I would eat the eyes. We’d race each other, gnawing past the briny cartilage, the slimy band of muscle, trying to get to the foggy pearl at the center. Usually Jacob’s pearl would come out marble-smooth, while mine would be teethed-up and patchy with meat. One time, both our pearls came out perfectly, and we took them home in napkins, forgetting them in our back pockets.

I wonder if Jacob remembers. I don’t know if he feels any of the same guilt, the kind that’s been growing in me ever since our parents left. He looks like Dad with his head bent, hair falling messily over his glasses. I leave the eyes alone.

The second dish arrives: chopped bamboo and pork, fragrant steam rising. Jacob and I dive in with our chopsticks. The dish is so savory, it almost brings tears to my eyes.

“How did you remember what this is called?” I say.

“Good thing one of us paid attention,” he mutters, but I can tell that he’s glowing. Finally feeling like a decent sister, I eat with gusto.

“I miss real Chinese food. I never get to eat family-style.”

“Amalie and I eat with our friends sometimes. And we cook this stuff at home, so.”

“Right.” I realize that this whole experience—this nostalgic little get-together—is just a day in the life for him. “It’s just impossible to make this stuff at home.”

“It’s really easy. You just go to an Asian supermarket and buy the right sauce. Chop vegetables and meat. Mix everything together.”

I’ve been eating sandwiches and leftover takeout for the past few days. And I have tried to replicate my mother’s stir-fries, but there’s always something off about mine. Should I have bought some MSG at the Asian supermarket, picked fresher produce? I should’ve helped my mother in the kitchen. I should’ve written her recipes down.

“Did you ever do anything to disappoint Mom and Dad?” I say. “Like, something you still think about?”

Jacob scoffs. “Other than getting shitty grades?”

“I mean emotionally. Or the sense you failed them on like, a fundamental level.”

“It’s not like they’re dead,” he says. “Don’t you still talk to them?”

The third dish arrives. Even Jacob quirks his eyebrow at it. Dark, gelatinous slabs floating in an oily broth. Leafy intestines curling around chunks of strange meat.

Jacob asks the waitress to clarify. “Soup with pig blood,” she says in English. We’ve eaten pig blood before, but only under coercion. Something in my gut wilts.

“Did you order this?” he mouths at me when the waitress turns her back.

“I don’t think so?” I would never have done it knowingly. This was the part of our culture I’d considered inaccessible, embarrassing—my mother serving chicken claw soup at my thirteenth birthday party, my father blasting lewd Taiwanese folk songs in the car.

The blood cubes simmer between us. They smell unsettlingly nondescript. I remember making a big scene about eating pig blood once, whining so loudly that my parents had to take me out of the restaurant. It had been a delight to disturb my parents, their parents, the whole throng of fake relatives.

The thought of it makes me feel even sicker. I reach for the giant serving spoon.

“Don’t eat it,” Jacob snaps. “Let’s just call the waitress back and swap this out.”

I shoot him a look, ladle a cube of blood onto my plate. It lands with a wet wobble. The chunk is the size of my fist. I imagine little veins inside, pulsing, pumping blood through blood through blood.

“Come on,” Jacob’s saying now, louder. He always sounds angry when he’s concerned. “Let’s order something else.”

I spoon the blood into my mouth and chew. It breaks open—metallic bile, the aftertaste of vomit. Pig blood isn’t supposed to taste like this. It’s not how I remember it.

“No one’s gonna care if you don’t eat this,” Jacob’s saying. “You hate it, I hate it, you don’t have to pretend.”

I shovel one bite into my mouth, and then another. Then another. I have to keep it all inside me, churn it up, hold it. When I’m done with this slab, I move on to another, ignoring how my gut is beginning to tighten. I’ll throw up if you give me more, I’d screamed at my mother in English—four years old, sitting in a stupid high chair, trying to kick her hands away.

“Michelle!” Jacob is getting angrier. He shoots his arm up, flagging a random waiter. “Excuse me, can you take this away? We didn’t order this!”

“No, no.” I block the waiter with an outstretched arm, my mouth half-full. I mean to say I’ll finish it, but instead I start heaving, clutching my hand to my face.

“Shit,” Jacob says. The waiter dashes off for reinforcements. Between one heave and the next, I muster up enough strength to sprint for the bathroom. I claw my way past the claustrophobic tables, the chairs lined side-by-side-by-side, the grannies squinting up with blind distaste. I make it to the women’s sink and vomit everything up, splattering the porcelain with dark blood, bamboo bits, fishy chum.

I vomit until I’m hunched over the sink, tears streaming down my face, but they’re not real tears. It angers me that I can’t even cry without feeling guilty. I think of Jacob, alone and shocked, trying to figure out what just happened. I feel distantly bad about it. Even now, nobody had bothered to explain the situation to him.

He hadn’t been there the last time I’d seen my parents. A week before their flight, my mother had guilted me into helping her pack. I’d finally been offered a job interview, but I’d had to cancel it to clean rooms and fold clothes. Resentment had swelled in me, but how could I have refused her?

“Are you really alright with us leaving?” she’d asked me in Mandarin.

She’d wanted me to say “no,” but I’d feigned ignorance. “You need to go,” I’d replied. “You’ve been homesick for so long.”

“You won’t miss us?”

No, the voice in me had squirmed. I’d been hungry to feel grown-up, untethered from obligation. “Jacob and I need to be our own people,” I’d told her.

“Aren’t we your own people?”

The next room over, my father was shouting into the phone in choppy Taiwanese. My skin was beginning to itch. “I just want to know that you’ll be okay on your own,” I’d said, stuffing a shirt into a suitcase. “I can’t keep doing things for you.”

“What do you mean? What about everything we’ve done for you?”

“I didn’t ask you to do any of it,” I’d said, and it was true.

Her face had clouded over, and we’d finished packing in silence. I’d left their house feeling proud of myself, then corrosively guilty. Then, the day of their departure, I’d called Jacob and asked him to take them to the airport. I have the stomach flu, I’d lied. Pass on my goodbyes. I couldn’t face the weight of their expectation, their disappointment.

I brace myself against the sink, feeling nausea swell in me again. Then the bathroom door swings open. It’s the scowling teenager I’d noticed earlier. She sees me, scrunches her face, and backs out. All my sympathy for her dissolves.

Selfish bitch, I think as I swipe my face with paper towels, try to rinse the vomit out of the sink. You’ll know how it feels when there’s nobody left to bother you.

And it strikes me that I do miss my parents—in a dull, fundamental way, one that I’m supposed to have outgrown. I’ve wanted to set myself apart from them for so long. Now I stare at the mirror, trying to find themselves in me. My eyes start to water, and I decide to leave.

When I walk out, I see Jacob at the table, our food bagged up to-go. He’s eating from a dish of complimentary mango pudding. When I sit, the waitress comes by and hands Jacob the receipt. It both irritates and warms me; of course we weren’t going to go Dutch.

“Are we done already?” I attempt.

He sends me a look. “I think we should talk.”

“It’s fine. I just feel sick.” I dig my spoon into my own complimentary pudding, though I don’t take a bite. Just swirl the food around, breaking it into bits.

He doesn’t respond, and I can tell he understands me. Where our parents loved by pressing, prodding, the two of us always gave each other the brief dignity of space.

When I finally look up, Jacob has his phone turned to front camera mode. “I want to send a photo to Mom and Dad,” he says, motioning me into the frame. “So they know we’re together, you know?”

My gut twists again. I consider telling Jacob to leave me alone. But when I look at the camera, I’m struck by how small our faces are, how large the space around us is. It’s just him and me now. These days, we’re beholden only to each other.

I think of Jacob’s reasons for taking the photo, how much he must miss our parents. I lean into the frame and force a smile—it’s the least I can do for him.

On the way to his car, we hug goodbye: my head only reaching up to his shoulder, his nose buried in my face.

“Let’s do this again,” I say, and try my best to mean it. The way we’re standing there, awkwardly, reminds me of how our family members used to linger in the parking lot. Jacob and I would mill around with our cousins as our parents clumped in front of their cars, talking. Then our household would regroup and watch our extended relatives pile inside their vans.

We’d stand to the side of a backed-out car, repeating goodbyes. Waving, still waving, until the car had disappeared down the street.

Jacob nods and gets in his car. I stand in place. He looks at me, like what are you still doing here? Then he starts the car, and we say:

“Goodbye, take care, I love you.”

“Goodbye! Be safe. It was so good to see you again.”

“Take care of yourself, alright? Call me if you need anything.”

“You too. Say hi to Amalie for me. Good luck at vet school, okay?”

“You too with the job search.” He’s backing out, looking both ways. I check for him too, the way he used to do for our dad. “I’ll tell you if I have any leads.”

“Okay. Take care, I love you, be safe, Jacob.”

“Love you too.” He waves, and I wave back. Then he drives to the parking lot exit. It’s just me now, waving into his rear-view mirror, waving until his car turns onto the main road. I watch him go for as long as I can. Then I walk to my car alone, the lot almost empty. Jacob had given me the bag of leftovers, and it swings heavy in my hand, the heat still rising.


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