The smell of burnt fish overcooked in oil crashed into Loo’s nostrils at nearly the same she saw her father. He looked like he had less sleep than her. Instinctively she brought her arm up as she stepped in the front door. What was that? she wanted to ask. Had Angela been trying to cook? Angela could never prepare fish, which was the simplest explanation for not wanting her as a stepmother to begin with. Wasn’t one of those Travel Channel sort of wives addicted to gourmet cooking what so many men wanted? What was wrong with her father? Yi Min could cook fish. All kinds. Mostly in soups. The mouthwatering kind that filled Loo with love and energy as she scooted out the door to school. And her father loved it. Shouldn’t he have wanted to at least duplicate his dead wife’s culinary abilities? Angela’s cooking was devoid of warmth. As cold as charred fish left in the sink. It was as if her father had purposely searched for the opposite to torment them both. Someone as cold as a television commercial. Loo’s own arm smelled like Albert to her. Not food, but good, like his body pressed against hers. Like his warm bed. At least that’s what she wanted it to smell like. At least it didn’t smell like the foyer she was standing in, which was feeling less and less like home. Suddenly she realized James’ mouth was moving.
“You haven’t been home for two days?” he asked.
Why had he framed those words as a question? Was she supposed to answer? Was she supposed to keep standing with her arm over her face?
“I know my name, Dad.”
“You’re wearing the same clothes I saw you in the day before yesterday.”
What was the day before yesterday? She hadn’t even gone to class the last two days. It was all about Joanne. Everything. Even the sex had somehow been about Joanne. Albert’s thrusts had become harder, like he was trying to save something or someone rather than his usual weak pulse. It was as if Joanne was in her and he was trying to break down the barrier between them.
“Are you just going to stand there?” James fumed.
“I’m going to my room. I need to change.”
“You’re disgusting. You smell like old smoke.”
How could he smell anything over that fish odor from the kitchen? “It’s just the dress. I was at a few bars.”
Where was Angela? Loo tried to peek around James to see into the kitchen. There was no sign of her stepmother. “Where is she?” Loo made a couple of inches headway to peek around him.
“Why do you care?”
“I smell something.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean I smell something burnt. Were you cooking or was she?”
“What’s your problem? Why are you hating on her? Ever since we got married you’ve been this way.”
“I’m not hating on anyone. You don’t know what I think. I smell something and I can’t stand it. Can I go to my room or do you just want to stand there smelling me?”
James scooted to the side.
Loo darted down the hallway into her room and shut the door, wishing she had a lock. No father. No ghost. Nothing. She didn’t want to be bothered. She wanted to be separated by walls and wished she’d stayed at Albert’s third-story apartment. He acted like he sort of wanted her around. Right away she pulled her dress straight over her head and tossed it onto the floor. She went to her closet and took out another, a bright white knee-length, long-sleeved with purple orchids covering it like stars. She slipped into it then lay on her bed, grabbing a pink journal off the nightstand. The book was half filled with sketches of Albert. Why had she sketched so many of him sitting at coffeehouses and bars, thinking, talking, planning? She felt she could draw him in her sleep. Deep cheekbones. The curls of his lips. His slender fingers on a glass of beer. His hair was longer than hers and almost as dark. As she was flipping through, James opened the door. Right away Loo went on the defensive.
“I was changing,” she said.
“You look dressed to me.”
“You need to knock. I barely got my dress on.”
James rapped his knuckles against the doorframe.
This wasn’t like him to be humorous, Loo thought. He was usually quiet, non-confrontational. She’d disappeared for days before. Was it because he knew she was with Albert instead of Steph or Chris? Was it because he was jealous she was moving on from her life of worrying about Mom? Seemed everything he did, even marrying Angela, was somehow coordinated (or conspired) with the ghost of Yi Min in mind. Could he even see her ghost? Loo never told him she could see Yi Min, dead blue in the doorway, lecturing about life and men.
James leaned in the doorframe. “Angela left for a few days.”
Here it comes. Loo knew. She always knew. His sadness was like tides. She held her breath.
“I think she left us.”
Loo wondered how long she could stop breathing. How long could she hold her breath before her mother suddenly appeared and began scolding her for not finishing life, for being more stubborn than all the Yi Mins of the world—all those mothers who die too young, who leave behind stubborn girls who are more than willing to take themselves to the brink of hopelessness too, just to spite their dead ancestors.
“Did you hear me?” James said.
“You said she left you.”
“I didn’t quite put it like that.”
“You and her, dad. That’s not us. That’s you. She left you.”
James’ eyes were a sad green, like the ocean opened a deep hole beneath otherwise thin waves.
“We fought over dinner,” he said.
Loo watched behind her father for a sign of Yi Min glowering, snickering.
He touched a bookshelf within reach. Was he trying to ground himself? Nothing in Loo’s room could be less real. She knew that. She’d been a ghost herself for nine years. Her realities were the images in her journals. Fuzzy sketches. Interpretations to other people. Real worlds to her. She wondered if she could see dragon fire rumbling in her father. Not even a flicker.
“We fought over you,” he said.
“Me?” I didn’t do anything. Loo felt stupid lying there on the bed. She imagined herself jumping up and shaking her index finger in her father’s face. She didn’t move.
“Because you’re not here.”
“I’m not here a lot. Suddenly it’s a bad thing.”
“She wanted, wants, to be a family.”
“I’m not stopping you. Go be a family.”
“Why are you so emotionally unavailable?”
“The world is emotionally unavailable.” Loo didn’t have to think hard about Albert’s lack of feeling, Angela’s lack of depth, the lack of feeling the world had for itself, for supposedly missing intellectuals, or half-Chinese-American artists who’d felt alone for nine years. Emotional unavailability was like the immense disks of dust and planetary debris that surrounds stars. She felt her hands squeezing the comforter like some kind of skin. She’d grown the claws of something hateful, something that grows on the sides of bays, next to the ocean, where mold and algae spreads into a green and brown and slick and drips from sharp teeth.
James walked out of the room and didn’t bother to close the door. Loo, needing to do some drawings for school, opened to a blank sheet in her journal. She felt the whiteness of the page like an opaque, shimmering scale, already cooked and dead. Somewhere in the room was the giant eye of the fish. There was no dragon here. Not right now. Only the scent of the dead.