June 22, 2011

I get to Flushing early, so head to Macy’s on Roosevelt to shop for shoes. Earlier that morning, somewhere off the Court Square stop on my way to meet a friend for breakfast, my left sandal breathed its last. I walked seven blocks with my left foot bare, scanning the ground for glass and anticipating making a doctor’s appointment for a tetanus shot. At last, at the end of the seven blocks, a pair of bright-green flip-flops came into my possession.


At Macy’s, the women’s shoe department is a disaster area. A sale had been going on all day. I browse the selection anyway. Just as I realize a half hour has passed, I find the perfect shoe. It’s in my size. But the salesgirl can’t locate the right half. I stand there amid the chaos holding the left, my flip-flops abandoned a few aisles away. Nobody will mistake them as part of the sale. The salesgirl walks this way and that, her arms always full. Then she takes down my name and phone number, and promises to call as soon as she finds the shoe. “I really want this pair,” I emphasize, ready to spend money I shouldn’t spend. Then from across the store, a reedy grandmother voice calls out: “Miss! Miss! Do you have this in navy?”


I call my sister to see if she’s reached Dad’s apartment. She has, but has been sitting in the lobby waiting for me. Dad isn’t answering the phone or the door. I’m the one with the key. We hope he’s just deep asleep. But no—he’s not even there. He’s left a note, however, dated the day before: “Dear children, I’ve gone to D.C. to attend a friend’s party. I will be back tomorrow night. I wish you happiness always. Love, Dad.”

Reading this, my sister laughs and her mood lifts. It had been my job to call him that morning to confirm he’d be free in the evening, but he hadn’t answered and I’d become distracted by the beautiful day, some beautiful photographs, and a heavy decision. By the time I heard my sister’s weary voice on the phone as I walked toward her from Macy’s empty-handed, I realized I’d never gotten that confirmation from Dad. But now we sit in his apartment talking about him. The talk is wrapped in love. He may not have paid much attention to us when we were kids, too busy as he was with work, but whenever he did see us, he was always ready with a theatrical greeting and affectionate nicknames. His only free day with us was Sunday. We would take the car to Roy Rogers or McDonald’s, or we’d watch movies in one of the grand Chinatown theaters.


My sister and I decide on dinner in the Golden Mall. I take her to the stall that I frequented during my time in Flushing. We order beef noodle soup and a plate of dumplings. Out of the blue I ask her about the time she’d been disowned for dating the Korean man who is now her husband. She corrects me: “It wasn’t that they’d objected to his being Korean, per se, but more that I’d laughed in their faces about following their orders. So after that we didn’t speak for a few months. Then some holiday came around, and I guess we got in touch to gather the family together.”


Frivolous. My family is frivolous. César Aira defines frivolity thus in Ghosts:

Frivolity is saying four is four. Seriousness is gradually deduced, fraction by tiny fraction, from such moderately useful statements as “two plus two is four,” until one arrives at “Columbus discovered America.” Frivolity is the tautological effect, produced by everything (because you can’t be selectively frivolous: it’s an all-or-nothing affair). It’s the condition of knowing it all in advance, because everything is repetition of itself, tautology, reflection. To be frivolous, then, is to go sliding over those repetitions, supported by nothing else.

Aira does not judge his character for her frivolity, and neither, I realize now and then with clarity, should I judge my family for ours.


After dinner, my sister and I take the 7 train home, her to Manhattan and me to Brooklyn, where I’ve been housesitting for a friend for the past week and a half. Woodside comes up. We’d lived there for two years when I was in first and second grade. The room I’d shared with my sister had a bunk bed and was curtained off from the rest of the apartment. I remember a black typewriter, how my sister had taught me to type on it, how I’d caught on to typing like I’d never caught on to anything else before it or since. With her help, I’d typed up a report about Malcolm X.

As I remind her about the typewriter, I know then that I love her. I mean that I am grateful for her. She is my sister, and she will smack me upside the head if I do wrong. She is my sister, whom I’d stubbornly refused to talk to for half a year because of a minor betrayal. She is my sister, and sometimes the bond doesn’t feel so delicate after all; I mean that the bond is strong, natural, or not a bond, even, but a pre-thought, a frivolity, a fact.


I tell her about my childhood classmate Steven, who’d lived in our building in Woodside. We were best friends. When he had to move to Korea, I cried at the farewell party. That day had been so tragic, which had made going up to his apartment, two floors above ours, suddenly a unique experience. I want to say it had to do with borders, but I’m not sure how so. I suppose a border had become a tangible thing to a frivolous child of seven or eight, whereas before the announcement there had been nothing to attend to.

Years later, in college, I found him again. I’d been scanning the freshmen directory for other Changs. His name came up. I e-mailed him. We met for coffee. He was in for engineering, I was in for writing.


Then my sister tells me a story. It is about two women, my sister and Rebecca, who had attended the same high school together, the same college for one year, and the same law school, and though their parallel paths pointed to their holding similar if not the exact same goals, they’d barely acknowledged each other throughout their acquaintance. The story is about shadowing, doubling, and pure frivolity, and lasts from Mets-Willets Point to Queensboro Plaza.


2 Responses to “十四”

  1. beth Says:

    All wonderful. And not entirely frivolous.

  2. foveamoon Says:

    I love the distinction Aira makes between serious and frivolous, also in “Nun”, I think, but maybe in “Ghosts” in a conversation with the mother, maybe a part of the passage you’ve quoted. I’d like to revisit it but my Aira’s have been stolen!

    I love the extension of the frivolous to the sister bond!

    If ever I came to NYC, it wouldn’t be long before I’d be barefoot.

    The poor shoe sales girl!

    Wonderful measure of conversation through place names!

    I needed this today!

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