After many days, I ask my brother to bring me with him to the grocery store, but he tells me outside is unsafe, that my foreign immune system has not yet adapted to this foreign environment. Only the strongest people are allowed out—my brother and some other men in the apartment block. They leave their homes in medical masks and scarves and swim goggles, wheeling empty suitcases out and returning with enough to feed everyone for two or three days. He tells me nobody takes the train anymore. Even the multilane roads are empty for buses and emergency vehicles. I remember when I came to visit for the Spring Festival, all those strangers around us, dancing and suffocating me with their sweltering bodies, and the subsequent fever that lasted into my final day.
My friends come one night to take me to the Buddhist temple and promise my brother they will protect me. When we get there, the temple is closed, so we coast along the off-brand designer stores and the flashing LED trees. Xiao Li has finally retired and was planning to travel to Australia to visit her son and husband. Xiao Yan still works at the university library and helps cook for my mother sometimes. Three old women eating watermelon and singing karaoke at an empty restaurant. We are the same university students from years ago, escaping to these American pop songs, which I am now able to translate to something half-recognizable.
The next day, my throat stings. I drink rice porridge to help keep down breakfast and decide to sleep in. My husband calls every night. He is much more afraid than our daughter, who says only a few words at a time. She knows better to focus on her education than on something she cannot control. Until I am able to leave, I will be forced to listen to my old mother cackle mindlessly to her television programs. Variety shows. Travel documentaries. Young women and their beautiful gossip. Loud enough that even the neighbors can hear. I put in my daughter’s earphones and listen to her collection of American pop songs. I sleep in my brother’s room. He sleeps in the living room. He can sleep anywhere. Sleep and eat and smile. Photo albums in the cabinet. My mother and father at Venice Beach, 2004, visiting. My mother and father and brother and me at our old apartment, black and white, 1980. These photographs deserve to stay in the dark. Home seems as far away now as it did when I kissed my daughter and husband goodbye.
My brother is six years old. I feel his arms around me as I ride my bicycle on the dirt path that is now a multilane road. To the Buddhist temple. On the dirt path that is now off-brand designer stores and flashing LED trees. The gate is closed for the monks inside to complete their mantras. As I begin to pray, my brother crawls to the ground and takes a nap. I pray for the world to be more pleasant, and if not, for the sun to swallow the earth whole. My daughter is less than a wisp of hair falling to the river. Tomorrow, I will gossip with my schoolmates. Tonight, my mother and father will be angry that I had taken my brother out of school. In the dark, they will suffocate me with their words.