Plain China

Flash Flood

by Rucy Cui · Rice University · Fiction Prize Winner
How They Looked #5 (Mom), Alex Hovet · Bennington College

It starts with rain misting the silhouettes of the trees outside. Within half an hour, the downpour has begun, tearing the sky open like it’s something negligible, gusting to and fro until entire branches are swaying in the wind and lengthening to caress the street. The houses in our neighborhood are so dignified that I prepare myself for the utter loss of dignity, for uprooted flower gardens, splintered rafters, and rusty debris embedded in front lawns like wet newspaper into sidewalk cracks.

It is stiff and unhappy inside. I’m supposed to be watching Olivia, but she’s looking around with keen, glistening eyes. She has eaten a clementine orange. She darts a hand through her hair, once, twice. Droopily in her other hand, off a corner of the couch, she holds the peel in a perfect whorl of skin that reminds me of the way our mother used to lay apples bare with her paring knife. It smells fresh and sour, dampens my sinuses with its tanginess. She, however, smells like the inside of a psychiatric hospital. I know because I’ve been there. I imagine grabbing the peel and dragging it over her chest, under her armpits.

A year ago, after Olivia dropped out of Yale, we visited her for the first time. I was fifteen. We drove an hour out of Houston proper and found ourselves in suburban sprawl that still considered itself Houston by way of its mailing address, but would’ve been more appropriately called Ville of Stucco Houses and Overlarge Trucks. We toured the grounds of Enfield Trust and marveled at the sheer quantity of trees that, with no zoning laws in Houston whatsoever, seemed disingenuous, considering the strip mall across the street. My parents said being close to nature was transformative, and I think they meant for Olivia, but something in their tone made it sound like they were all transforming without me. I was too preoccupied with what we were leaving behind to join them. And while it was a point of pride to the staff that the trees outnumbered the patients, it always smelled like air freshener indoors. It never smelled like there were bacon cheeseburgers fifty feet away from the front entrance as well as the beginning of a forest, purposefully planted cypress and magnolia leading off into mimosa and pine, fifty feet away from the back exit.

Do you want anything else to eat? I ask. I feel odd because this is her house, too. She should be able to amble over to the fridge on her own or escort herself to the bathroom. But I also feel like I have to prompt her. It’s her second day back.

She shakes her head.

Anything to drink? Orange juice?

She shakes her head again. In the crook of the couch, Olivia is slight and pale. The rain makes her edgy. I remember when we were younger, when the four years between us were blurry with insignificance and the days spun outward like sunlight off a balcony, easy symmetry that was bucolic in its sweetness and simplicity. We used to play school, with me gathering our favorite stuffed animals into chairs and her reading entries out of a children’s dictionary. She was always the teacher because she was older.

You have to tell me what happened, she says finally, sitting up a little. She’s alert because she wants information, and I’m instantly resentful. I think about drowning her out with the TV.

What do you mean?

Mom and Dad are looking at halfway houses for me. Without me. Do you realize how nonsensical that is? And you’re here babysitting, in the morning, on a weekday. I don’t get it.

I point out the living room window. It’s a bona fide storm, I say. I’m not going anywhere. Briefly, though, I wonder who’s babysitting whom. Maybe I’m watching Olivia watching me. Maybe nothing is what it seems since I’ve been kicked out of school.

She dashes a hand back into her hair.

I roll off my end of the couch to turn on the TV. The screen fumbles for a signal, then the news comes on. From a closed-off room, a petite anchor wearing heavy chandelier earrings informs us, in our own closed-off room, that the rain is up to a foot. I can’t fathom it.

Olivia keeps touching her scalp. I need a haircut, she mutters. All of it. I think that would be good for me.

I don’t answer. She has lovely hair. Before we really noticed what was happening, we noticed her hair. It used to be long, thick, lustrous. Even now, when she has picked out and rinsed down most of it deep within the drainpipes of the house, it’s lovely. Just thinner. She struggles with other compulsions, all of which were amplified at Yale, but the bulk of them seem to revolve around her hair. Once, when we visited her, I asked about it, confused how doggedly she pursued the destruction of something beautiful. What for? Why?

She said, I don’t know.

On the news, the petite anchor issues a flash flood warning. Move to higher ground and stay clear of watery roads, she instructs, her earlobes sagging under the weight of her earrings. She starts citing flash flood statistics from last year, and how four people and a dog drowned trying to drive through the deluge, when the signal cuts out.

 

In the living room, there are family portraits that’ve been hanging undisturbed for years. The frames came from a fair trade retailer, made by Senegalese craftspeople. Olivia chose them, drawn to the flashiest designs and strangest patterns despite our perfect ordinariness. And in them, we smile outward as we would’ve when we were still a young family, instead of inward like we do now, hiding, reluctant to show pleasure too boisterous for our circumstances. My mother’s lips are full and unlined. My father’s eyebrows haven’t whitened yet. I am constantly laughing, but with my front teeth only half grown in. There are no current photos. My parents have been devoted to Olivia, devoted enough to preserve her memory on the walls like a ceremony every spring, when I would proffer forms for school portraits and they would say, These are getting too expensive. Let’s try and focus on the nice ones we already have.

Aloud, I ask, Do you think Mom and Dad missed the storm? They left so long ago—they must’ve missed it. But what if they don’t know better than to drive straight back?

Olivia scours another spot on her scalp. I imagine breaking each of her fingers, the cuticles of which are short and jagged after years of abuse. I am filled with bitterness that unfurls from my chest into my extremities, but I can’t tell where it’s directed, whether I want to launch myself across the couch at her or through a window. Sometimes it feels like my fault. I remember the flurry of helping her move into the psychiatric hospital last year, and how my parents, surgeons at the Texas Medical Center, promised afterward to finally teach me how to drive. It was a rare weekend that they were both free. I woke up, groggy, uncertain, on the tail end of a dream about surging lakes and swarms of fireflies, to the smell of frying onions downstairs, and lay there listening to them bang around the kitchen. It was the onions that did it, instantly rousing me like sunlight through window blinds. I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d said something. But I lay there, just lay there instead, resentment stiffening my limbs, listening to my parents cook for Olivia because they wanted to run an hour and a half out of their way to deliver an omelet to her. When they were gone, I thought to myself, I should’ve said something. When I went downstairs later, I saw they had left no omelet behind for me.

Olivia doesn’t answer my question. The rain raps against our unyielding roof. I tell her to stay put, that I’m popping over to Mrs. Markham’s house for a radio. I graze the walls with my shoulder as I exit, knocking a portrait slightly askew.

 

Our neighbor has been vacationing so regularly that I’ve started spying on her at the beginning of every month, bidding her goodbye in my own way as she climbs into taxi after taxi and speeds off. Sometimes at night, when I can’t sleep because I miss things that don’t exist anymore, I pretend I’m getting ready to fly with Mrs. Markham to Turkey or Guatemala or Denmark in the morning. She packs three large suitcases for three weeks, then hides her key on the ledge above the front door. Today is the middle of the first week, and I feel lightheaded with the possibility of it all, the promise. It has been awhile since I’ve let myself into her house.

I can’t quite reach the ledge without a stool, so I sneak into our garage and choose a wooden one that was recently discarded from the kitchen. Olivia is supposed to be watching me, and I’m supposed to be watching her. But I don’t think of her at all, to be honest. I am tired of thinking of her. The rain makes her uncomfortable, so I move fast.

When I go outside, the wind urges me into a swoon. I stay upright, but barely, and begin moving against it in the direction of Mrs. Markham’s driveway. The fountain in her front garden is of an angel holding a pot, a stream normally trickling out so that the noise lulls me to sleep from across the street. She doesn’t turn it off when she leaves. Now it gushes pathetically in the deluge, trying to keep pace and transform water into something peaceful again. I scrabble against the slippery pavement. At the door, my clothes weigh me down to the point that I have trouble lifting myself onto the stool.

It’s a simple thing, the thrill. And unlike other things in life, it never disappoints me. I use a single burst of energy to snatch at the key on the ledge, hop back down, and fit it in the lock. The sky releases its first flash of lightning, followed by a peal of thunder. I push open the door.

I can’t breathe for a moment, or move. Always, no matter how careful I intend to be, I pause in the middle of the foyer and take in the stillness. It’s probably when I’m the most vulnerable, standing there, vibrating under the weight of what I’ve done. It’s certainly what got me in trouble at school, the lights screeching on, snapping on, and me with my head bent in absorption over a principal’s desk. Mr. Faraday has four daughters, and his blonde wife is pregnant with their fifth child, who he hopes is a boy.

Sometimes I keep a token—an earring without its sister or an old grocery list off the fridge. Sometimes I keep glass perfume tops because they’re nice to look at on my dresser, but always after spritzing the nozzle into my neck first. Sometimes I keep the entire perfume, like I did with Tanya’s mother when I was at her house working on a science project. More than the heft, though, the solidness of what’s precious and private in my palm, I appreciate the story. It’s infinitely interesting to me that Tanya’s mother wears Amouage Dia, that she’s seeing a dermatologist for a mole on her leg, and that she’s considering going back to school next year to finish her degree in anthropology.

Mrs. Markham stashes the radio in her office, in a drawer with miscellaneous objects like paper clips and printer cartridges. I know enough about her life to say that it’s the most innocuous drawer of all—in her bathroom drawer, she keeps birth control pills, makeup, and a slick plastic case filled with razorblades. In her bedroom drawer, she keeps sex toys and a leather-bound diary. There are more than fifty entries chronicling the single week out of the month that she spends at home. She must carry another diary with her when she travels.

I end up taking the radio, a pack of candles, and a quarter that I notice on an open ironing board upstairs. After a beat of hesitation, I take the case of razorblades, too. Then I let myself out.

 

Can I confess something? Olivia asks, when I stumble back into the living room. She’s still cradled in the crook of the couch, its embrace fitting her narrow frame like a draped arm.

I nod. I swathe myself in a fluffy white towel. The carpet squelches under my toes as I sit back down. While I was gone, the electricity cut out, too. My stolen candles are drying on the coffee table. Until then, we wait in dimness.

I wish this hadn’t happened to us, she says. I wish this hadn’t happened to you.

Don’t try and sound responsible for me.

am responsible. Maybe not for you, but for everything else.

You’re right. So much grief because you’re fucking crazy.

Olivia barks out a laugh. Yeah, she says. I want to reclaim who I used to be. But I don’t know how.

I think she’s lucky not to have moments like before, when she was boiling water in the middle of the night and almost dumped the pot over herself. I walked in on her. Or when she almost vaulted out of the car on the highway, outrunning the unhappiness that was more like helplessness. Or when she almost inhaled at the bottom of the pool because she wanted to feel chlorine behind her eyelids, between her ears, under her tongue.

Well, I say. Listen, that’s perfect, I say. I pull the case of razor blades out of my pocket. I rest it on the coffee table, where it reflects sharp edges in the half-light.

Come with me, Olivia says.

 

 Hair is nothing special. It splinters around her face, catching in her eyelashes as she blinks. She starts crying, an angry noise for every swooping motion of the razorblade. I don’t remember seeing my sister cry since she broke her collarbone in middle school. She focuses drowning eyes on me as I sit in the bathtub, waiting. I was going to dash to my room and grab some scissors, but the way she holds the razor blade is comfortable, practiced. Her hair is so thin that it slices as cleanly as putty.

The thought of the broken collarbone takes me back. I almost feel like I’m in elementary school again, right before Olivia started picking her scalp. I used to sit in the bathtub then, too, and watch her inexpertly rub makeup into her eyelids, cheeks, and lips, as she got ready for dates with pimply pubescents. Sometimes I would paint her toenails, or sometimes I would just offer input—not that I knew much about grooming practices when I was little—adoring her, falling over from wanting to be helpful, rooting around for roly-poly bugs with the same bare hand I ate my lunch with. I was a real tomboy. Olivia was the prettier sister by far. When we were younger, we had fun. My parents were still parenting, and my grandparents were still alive. It’s strange, to remember.

Afterward, when the bathroom is a mess, I find a battery-operated shaver under the sink. I handle Olivia very carefully, like a relic, pressing my fingers into her neck just so. Then I run the shaver over her head, cutting off the misshapen fringe that’s left. I see bald spots and fresh scabs. She’s exhausted, but her gaze is alert, calm. We throw open the bathroom window and watch rain patter on the linoleum floor as wind sweeps bits of hair outside.

We go back to the living room, tripping through the house like unexpectedly happy, drunken children who’ve snuck their way into alcohol at a funeral. We push all the furniture into a corner, light the candles as best we can, and admire their flickering, since they aren’t quite dry. Olivia laughs and laughs and laughs, the sound like an air conditioner finally turning on after months of winter.

The radio crackles, and a man announces that the rain level has dwindled back down to eight inches, but to keep avoiding watery roads. In our area, west of the mountains, the flash flood warning is reduced to a flash flood watch. I take a deep breath and change the channel to a hard rock station that strains the speakers with each crash of the cymbal. We dance until we forget we’re human. Olivia playacts at headbanging, but since she’s newly bald, she just looks like she’s having a seizure.

I have an idea, she shouts over the music.

We clatter through the doors of the house. I swing my arm and release the empty case of razorblades in the general direction of Mrs. Markham’s driveway. Olivia darts into the middle of the street, her thermal sweater instantly soaking so that I can see the edges of her plain black bra. She tilts her head up, shaking it as if in answer to the sudden flash of lightning that illuminates her, briefly. And I take in the bald spots and fresh scabs, the raindrops running down the intimate curve of her ear. She will forever be the prettier sister, but that’s okay.

Olivia, I say. Olive, I say, remembering her childhood nickname. It’s funny because there’s a world of difference between an Olivia and an Olive. Which one am I waiting for?

We stand in the street, under the deluge that eases to a drizzle, until our parents come home.

About the Author

Rucy Cui · Rice University

Recent graduate Rucy Cui studied French and English literature at Rice. “Flash Food” was born on a night of torrential downpour in Houston, without a doubt the wettest place she’s ever lived. It was first published in R2: Rice Review.

About the Artist

Alex Hovet · Bennington College

Alex Hovet is a photo/video artist with current exhibitions in Chicago and New York City. Her work explores the relationship of image and memory, and the degradation of both. She teaches video at The Arts Center of the Capitol Region in Troy, New York. Her work can be seen here.