Mira T. Lee reads three sections from her debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, forthcoming from Pamela Dorman Books in January.
Lucia said she was going to marry a one-armed Russian Jew. It came as a shock, this news, as I had met him only once before, briefly, when I was in town for a meeting with a pair of squat but handsome attorneys. His name was Yonah. He owned a health food store in the East Village, down the street from a tattoo parlor, across from City Video, next door to a Polish diner, beneath three floors of apartments that Lucia said he rented out to the yuppies who would soon take over the neighborhood. He had offered me tea, and I took peppermint green, and he scurried around, mashing Swiss chard and kale in a loud, industrial blender, barking orders to his nephews, or maybe they were second or third cousins (I never knew, there were so many), because they were sluggish in their work of unloading organic produce off the delivery trucks. He yelled often. I thought, This Yonah is quite a rough man.
He dusted the wine, mopped the floor, restocked packages of dried figs and goji berries and ginseng snacks on the shelves. He was industrious, I could see, intent on making his fortune as immigrants do. Lucia said he played chess. I’d never known my sister to play chess, though she was always excellent at puzzles as a child. Yonah didn’t seem to me the kind to play chess either, nor to drink sulfite-free organic wine or eat goji berries. But as they say, love is strange. And I wouldn’t begrudge my sister love, nor any stranger, not even one who smoked, and was the kind of man who looked disheveled even fresh after a shower, and would leave his camo briefs lying around on the bathroom floor. I admit I was disturbed, creeped out, by his prosthetic arm, which he wore sometimes, though more often I’d find it sitting by itself in a chair.
Lucia brought him to visit our mother, who was dying. Our mother was tilted back in a green suede recliner, wrapped in cotton blankets. She took a long look at this man—his workingman’s shoulders, his dark-stubbled jaw, his wide, flat nose. Her Yoni had the essence of a duck, Lucia said (endearingly), or maybe a platypus, though she’d never seen one up close. My sister liked to discern people’s animal and vegetable essences. In fact, she was usually right.
Our mother winced as her gaze settled upon his left arm, a pale, peachy shade that did not match the rest of him. “What happened to your arm?” she said.
“An accident, when I was twenty-one.” He said it quietly, but without any shame.
“You are divorced,” she said, and I tried to read his thoughts in the fluttering of his blue-gray eyes. I wondered if Lucia had warned him that our mother was like that. I wondered what had been shared, what omitted, when the two of them exchanged stories over chess, over wine. I wished to say to this man: Do you really think you now know our Lucia?
“Thirteen years,” he said. “I have been divorced for thirteen years.” Our mother winced again, though it could’ve been from the pain shooting through her bowels, or her bones, or her chest.
“Why are you divorced?” she asked.
“We were married too young,” he said. The skin of his face seemed to hang off his cheekbones. A basset hound, I later said to Lucia.
“This is life,” he said to our mother.
She did not seem quite satisfied with this answer, though she nodded, expelled a heavy sigh. “Take care of my daughter,” she said.
But she was not looking at him. She was looking at me.
She fell asleep. Two weeks later, she was gone.
They married quickly, in City Hall. Lucia wore a sparkly tank top with pink bicycle pants, silver hoop earrings. She beamed, like a bride. Yonah wore his best khakis, a wrinkled white shirt, a bright red tie. I thought, this is who my sister is marrying: a man the shade of gravy, with a missing limb and a spaghetti-sauce-colored tie. I’d never expected my sister to marry a more conventional man, or a Chinese man, or a highly edu- cated man with a spotless résumé. Lucia had dated a Greek boy in high school, chosen NYU over Cornell, rejected math and sciences for English, all to our mother’s dismay.
Still, I had not imagined this.
He welcomed me to their home. It was cramped: a two-room apartment adjacent to the kitchen of the health foods store. It smelled like cigarettes.
In the living room, a twin mattress was laid out on the floor. It served as a bed for Yonah’s visiting nieces and nephews or cousins or uncles, whoever was passing through. Lucia loved the bustle, the chaotic feel of the place. The Organic Kibbutz, she called it. And now it was her home, too.
“Do you believe in happily ever after?” she asked me that day, as we sipped peppermint tea from our paper cups. I recalled the stone- faced art professor I’d recently dated for six weeks, felt a slight, involuntary jerk of my brow. Slight, but noticed, because Lucia noticed these kinds of things.
“Oh, Jie.” She sighed. “You could at least try to believe.” She reached over to hug me, patted my head, like she used to as a child.
That night I lay on the twin mattress and listened to the sounds of the two of them panting and moaning, gooey and fucking like rabbits. My sister was officially a newlywed. A wife. It came to me suddenly, as a blunt ache inside—I’d never felt more alone.
Adapted from Everything Here Is Beautiful. Copyright © Mira T. Lee, 2018. Used by permission of Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.