The Sinkhole

by

ONE

The sinkhole appeared without warning one night, opening up at the end of our driveway as if to swallow us whole.

Anderson and I bought the house—a run-down Victorian in upstate New York—in the hopes of restoring it ourselves, but the plain truth was that it was in even worse condition than before, and the sinkhole did nothing to improve matters. Whenever we wanted to leave, we had to back the car up carefully over the lawn; weeks later, the lawn now resembled a country parking lot.

Beyond erecting traffic barriers, the local government did little to rectify the situation. In the mail, we received an official notification that the cause of the sinkhole was being investigated, and that repairs would begin as soon as all underlying factors had been identified. “Unlikely,” Anderson scoffed; our street was pocked with myriad potholes, the ghosts of blizzards past. We did not mention the supermarket in the next town over that had exploded last summer, the result of an undetected gas leak, sending cans of soup and legs of ham spiraling into the air. The notice concluded with a stern warning: “The sinkhole is private county property. All trespassers will be prosecuted to the utmost extent of the law.”

While it puzzled us that the county could claim negative space as tangible property, it was hard to deny that the hole had a real presence in our lives. It disrupted the subterranean wires that snaked below our block, and now our Internet and cable, which had already been unreliable, were permanently disabled, and the utility companies could not fix them until the county concluded its investigation.

Without Internet access, Anderson went back to commuting to the city, leaving me alone on the days that my editor didn’t need me on set for a shoot, which was more often than not. Under these new circumstances, it was difficult to carry on with life as usual. After all, if one hole could appear, why not a second? I read everything I could.

The upside to the hole was that Anderson and I were talking again. We had not been on speaking terms when it appeared—our longest stretch of silence yet—but the enormity of the hole was such that even we could not ignore it.

I had been the one to notice it first. Anderson was already sequestered in his section of the house, a hybrid woodworking studio and home office where he logged in remotely to his job as an IT engineer, and he had somehow overlooked the gaping hole while he fixed his coffee and toast that morning. I went to his studio and knocked.

“There’s something you have to see,” I said. He didn’t answer me, so I opened the door. “Time out,” I insisted. I led Anderson outside and when he saw the hole, he sank to his knees.

“What did you do?” he cried. Then he burst into tears. It was the first time he had spoken to me in weeks, and I was grateful for it. I held his head in my lap while he sniffled, the two of us set upon our lawn like a summertime nativity scene while the neighbors drifted by and gawked.

“Don’t worry,” I assured Anderson. “We can fix it.”

It was a small start, but it was better than nothing. I talked to him constantly about the sinkhole; the sinkhole was safe ground. It drew a steady stream of television news crews, civil engineering students, and morbid obsessives, and I’d fill Anderson in on everything that had happened when he came home after his long commute.

“The Brussels sprouts are burning,” he said. I took them out of the oven and placed them on the stove.

“Andy, did you know that sinkholes were considered spiritual by Mayan civilizations?” I asked. He had just come home from work and was cracking peanuts into a bowl while I basted chicken breasts. “They were thought to be portals of communication to the afterlife.”

“And here we can’t even get decent Wi-Fi,” he mused.

“In the Yucatan peninsula, there’s evidence that sinkholes, called cenotes, were sites of mass burials.”

“Cordelia,” he said. “Was any part of your day not devoted to sinkholes?”

I continued, “Although there’s some debate over whether the bones belonged to victims of an epidemic, or of a ritual sacrifice. Isn’t that interesting?”

“You should give tours,” he said.

I transferred the chicken breasts onto a baking tray; they lay cut and open, tender and mute. I placed the tray in the oven, shut the door, and set a small kitchen timer. For a moment I listened to the spaces between the ticks, trying to gauge the quality of silence between us.

“I can’t stop thinking about it,” I said quietly.

“It’ll get fixed soon enough,” Anderson said.

“It’s not the fixing. It’s the fact of it. Like it was meant for me.”

“How do you know it wasn’t meant for me?”

“I’m serious.”

He sighed. “It’s a ten-foot hole, Cordelia. Not your own personal crisis.”

Ten-foot? That hole is bottomless.”

He laughed, and it was just the wrong thing to do. I had been biting my tongue for weeks, letting all of Anderson’s comments bounce off of me until I felt as soft and formless as a marshmallow. “I’ll prove it,” I snapped. I grabbed the timer, a small shiny thing in the shape of a heart, and marched out the front door.

In the dim streetlight, the hole yawned wide and dark, indifferent to our presence. It was about twenty feet in diameter, and although the edges were jagged, it had formed in more or less a perfect circle. The walls of the hole descended straight down, as if someone had driven a giant apple corer right into the street. There were no other cracks in the asphalt, and from where we stood, the bottom could not be seen.

“It’s just in shadow,” Anderson said.

I dropped the timer into the hole. We were silent for a minute, then two, waiting for a metallic ping to announce that it had hit the bottom; it never came. “See?” I said triumphantly. “It’s much deeper than ten feet.”

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner.” Anderson turned around and walked back to the house. The timer had been a wedding present from his young niece, but its sacrifice had done nothing to appease my anger. I heard the sound of the screen door slam shut behind him, and then, a shrill ring as the timer went off.

I was tingling with irritation. I could sense a fight brewing the way other people felt weather changes, and I decided I would retrieve the timer myself. Turning over onto my stomach, I lowered myself down, searching carefully for footholds among the mangled asphalt and bedrock. Within a few seconds, I was out of range of the weak streetlights, and within a few minutes, I could no longer tell where the night sky met the perimeter of the hole.

As I descended, the scent of the air changed from copper to electricity to dirt. For a hopeful moment I paused, listening for signs that Anderson had noticed I was gone, had come back to check on me. There were none, and I decided to keep climbing down. I had spent the energy of my anger quickly, and I wasn’t sure that I had the strength to hoist myself back up; after all, it was always easier to sink deeper into a hole than it was to claw your way out. I went quickly, trying to reach the bottom before my limbs gave out. Otherwise, would anybody notice my body from the surface? Anderson would tell everyone that the Mayans called them cenotes, and nobody would know that mine had been a quest of spite, not spirituality.

A fingernail broke. Mixed into the stale earth scent were now notes of blood, iron, and wetness. My fingers and toes cramped from holding up my body weight. “Hello?” I called out. “Anderson?” I was alarmed by how alarmed I sounded. Dimly, I realized that the timer had stopped ringing.

On my next step, I found a generous foothold and rested on it with relief. It was smooth and regular, and a few steps down, I found another one. I had not been in the hole long enough to forget what it was: It was a ladder. I climbed down shakily, toward what now seemed to be a faint glow of light at the bottom of the hole.

The ground was even and paved with gravel. I saw no sign of the timer. On one side, across from the ladder, a small opening in the wall of the sinkhole led to a tunnel, where the light was coming from. At the time, I didn’t question where the ladder led or for whom it was meant. I only got up and walked towards the light, thinking of sexy sewer workers. “Guess who finally met some real hole experts?” I’d tell Anderson later. All of my panic had evaporated, and in its place was only annoyance: Where had he been all this time?

And where was I? The tunnel walls were wide, tall, and smooth—a perfect upside-down U, like some ancient underground waterway. I wondered if I was heading toward the main street in our village, and whether the county had at least managed to check for ruptured gas pipes. There was a right turn ahead in the tunnel, where the light was emanating from. “Is anyone there?” I called. I was expecting maintenance workers, hard hats and bare light bulbs encased in metal frames. Then I turned the corner and saw the source of the light.

It was a house, a red brick house with black shutters and a small, tidy lawn, set along the right side of the tunnel. A walkway led to the front door, also painted black, with bronze numbers nailed neatly to the top. The windows glowed with light and a clump of decorative bamboo grew along the side of the house, concealing the attached garage.

I knew exactly where I was.

I was home.

 

TWO

I walked up the driveway, behind the garage, and peeked through the bamboo into a set of sliding glass doors. It was all as I remembered it: the wood paneling, the brown corduroy couch, and the pastel shades of peach and fern. My mother’s collection of houseplants, which grew prodigiously under her care. The abstract sculptures mixed with Chinese brush paintings. And there, perched on the couch and eating chocolates as if it were her job, was me: six-year old Cordy.

I watched Cordy going at it with a dedication to the task that precluded even pleasure. Cordy was small, dark, and skinny, with permanent and pronounced circles under her eyes. She was too serious to be cute, lacking any of the frivolity associated with little girls.

“I don’t like it,” my father was saying. “She’s going to be spoiled.” I could see him in the kitchen, which was separated from the living room by a waist-high partition. My mother was cooking dinner.

“It’s just this once. Let her have fun.”

“And you’re going along with it.” He smacked the counter with his open hand, rattling the dishes and glasses in the cupboards above. Cordy popped another chocolate into her mouth. She was halfway through a gigantic box of chocolate-covered caramels. I remembered that day. Those chocolates had been a gift from my Uncle Matty and Aunt Teresa, after finding out that I would skip a grade.

“This is just for you,” Uncle Matty had whispered. “You can do whatever you like with them.” He was my father’s second cousin and he and my aunt had seemed exotic to me back then, with their aboveground pool and summer barbeques and tasteful landscape lighting. They lived down the street from us, and I spent whatever free time I could at their house.

“He thinks he can come in and make the rules,” my father was shouting by now.

“He’s your family. He helped you.”

“And now he thinks he can do whatever he wants.” Having worked himself up, he picked up a plate from the drying rack on the counter and threw it on the ground. Cordy peeked over the edge of the couch. She saw my mother at the stove, resolutely braising fish among the shards of porcelain that lay glittering on the floor, and sat down again. She popped another chocolate into her mouth. “I won’t have it.” Another dish shattered.

“Are you done yet?” my mother said calmly. The pan sizzled with hot oil. “You better clean that up before Cordy cuts herself.” Still stewing, my father walked into the living room and down the stairs to the basement.

“Cordy,” my mother called. “Come set the table.” Cordy closed the box of chocolates and ran into the kitchen. Panicked at being left alone, I opened the sliding door to follow her.

Just then, my father reappeared with the broom and dustpan in his hands, and I froze. He looked at me for a long time. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me. He had never seen me as an adult, as he had died of cancer ten years ago, when I was 25.

“Cordy, watch your feet,” he said finally, looking away. He sounded as if he had lost his train of thought. “Let me sweep up before you go in there.”

Cordy shuffled obediently out of the kitchen and didn’t seem to see me either. I closed the door and joined my family in the kitchen, where they were setting up a small dinette table, half of which was taken over by bowls of fruit, stacks of mail, and Cordy’s homework, while the other half was spread with dishes.

I had expected the savory scent of my mother’s cooking when I came inside, but instead the house smelled of dirt, just like the tunnel outside. I grabbed a string bean from a plate in front of me but spat it out: it was ice cold and tasted like grass, despite the steam rising from the plate.

Dinner was quiet. My father’s temper usually spent itself quickly, but we were the ones exhausted afterwards, timid and wary of flare-ups. Sensing our withdrawal, he tried to coax us into good moods, placing bits of food into my mother and Cordy’s bowls—the best pieces of fish, the clumps of straw mushrooms that I loved to pull apart. He picked up pamphlets and magazines from the stack of mail and read out loud to us.

After dinner, my father insisted on washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen, singing with a forced cheer while my mother watched television. Cordy ran a bath upstairs, playing contentedly in the warm water. When finished, she changed into pajamas, brushed her teeth, and got into bed with a flashlight and a book. I looked around the room while she read under her blanket, touching all the toys and trinkets that I had forgotten.

There was a knock on the door and Cordy switched off her flashlight. “Cordy, are you asleep?” my father asked. She shook her head.

“Why do you pajamas say anger?” he asked.

“Angel,” she corrected him.

“Well, you’re the expert.” He stood in the doorframe silently for a moment; he had rarely been able to apologize. “Look at you! Your father can barely speak English and you’re already skipping a grade.” He was tucking Cordy in now, smoothing her hair. “One day you’ll be a doctor. Would you like that?”

“An astronaut,” she said.

“An astronaut. A little angel astronaut.” Cordy closed her eyes and he continued smoothing her hair, telling her desultory stories about his day, about my mother, until her breathing was deep and regular. Then he gently removed Cordy’s book and flashlight, tiptoed out of the room, and shut the door.

*

I sat for a moment, enjoying the warm quiet of a house in repose. It was a protective stillness, not a lonely one, punctuated by creaking wood, running pipes, and distant murmurs from faraway rooms. Eventually I got up to leave, placing my steps precisely to avoid disturbing the sleeping child, and opened the door—suddenly, I was in an apple orchard: there was a deafening hum of machinery, children yelling, the unexpected glare of sunlight. I turned to go back but the house had disappeared, along with all traces of the tunnel below the sinkhole. I was surrounded now, on all sides, by apple trees.

“Cordy,” my father called. “Up here.” He was perched at the top of a tree, picking the sun-ripened fruit that was out of reach from the ground. I heard a rustling next to me and Cordy appeared. She was even younger now, and clutching a brown paper sack to her chest.

“Stand over there,” he said, pointing to a spot below him. He closed one eye and dropped an apple, aiming for the sack that Cordy held. It missed and hit her on the mouth, her wails bringing my mother over immediately.

“What happened?” she asked. She was dressed in a loose t-shirt and denim shorts, and I realized how much younger she was than I am now.

“Relax,” he said. “I was just trying to get the apple into the bag.” He was climbing down the tree with one hand while still holding several apples to his chest. “Can you take these?”

My mother grabbed an apple from the sack and threw it at him as hard as she could. “Cordy,” she said. Cordy, still crying, reached into her sack and threw one too. It hit him on the foot, and they kept throwing until there were no more apples left. The families around us stopped to watch curiously. I had forgotten about this day, but remembered it now as the only time my mother had ever allowed herself to so openly push back against my father. “You are a piece of shit,” my mother said, before leading Cordy away.

When she had washed the blood off Cordy’s busted lip, they found that the apple had knocked a tooth loose, the first of her baby teeth. Cordy couldn’t stop playing with it. “Keep your fingers out of your mouth,” my mother said. Cordy pushed against it with her tongue instead.

My mother went to pay for the apples, and Cordy followed my father through the faux country general store, somewhere in south Jersey. Outside, a train whistle sounded faintly.

“Hey,” my father whispered. They were looking at a display case of homemade confectionaries: slabs of fudge, hand-dipped strawberries, mounds of chocolate truffles. He dropped down to one knee, holding a white paper bag. “I want to talk to you.”

Cordy turned to him.

“In life, you can be one of two things: You can be someone who makes things happen, or you can be someone to whom things happen. Your mother doesn’t know how to do anything but turn over like a pancake. I want more for you. Take that tooth of yours. You can wait for it to fall out, or you can do something about it yourself.”

Cordy nudged it with her tongue again, felt its exquisite wibble-wobble. The train whistle sounded again, louder.

“I know you’re only five, but this is important.” He paused. “Have you heard of the tooth fairy?” Cordy nodded. He reached into the paper bag and pulled out a candy-coated apple. “Here,” he said.

Cordy bit into the apple and, for the second time that day, tasted blood. She took the apple out of her mouth and looked at it. Lodged neatly into the dark red candy crust was her first baby tooth.

*

The train whistle sounded as if it were right outside now. Leaving the general store, I found that the sunbaked parking lot had been replaced by a set of train tracks that ran behind a row of houses. Ahead of me was Cordy, walking home from school. She was older now, taller.

My childhood house was in a modest neighborhood of a wealthy New Jersey town. It was close to the railroad tracks that bisected the town, and every morning I woke up to the sounds of commuter trains on the way to New York. My house was near a section of the tracks that ran through a tunnel, and to warn anyone who might have been loitering, the trains emitted a distinctive two-note whistle as it neared the tunnel.

A handful of gravel hit Cordy in the back of the head. She didn’t turn around. She was balancing on one of the rails with her arms stretched out, whistling along with the train.

“Hey, Ching Chong,” Ralphie called out. Ralphie was my neighbor. He had been my closest friend during childhood, but in middle school he joined the lacrosse team and became intolerable.

“Ching Chong, I’m talking to you.” He caught up with Cordy and made a bucktoothed face at her.

The train whistle grew louder. Cordy turned around. “Ralphie,” she said. “Let’s see who can stand on the train tracks longer.”

Ralphie used to wake up crying during sleepovers, and my father would have to bring him home in the middle of the night, the two of them walking down the street in their pajamas.

“That’s a stupid idea,” Ralphie said.

“Lets just see.” Cordy took off her backpack and placed it away from the tracks. She stood on one rail and motioned toward the other one. “If you get scared, I can walk you home.”

Ralphie swallowed and stood on the track across from her. They stood, face-to-face, and Cordy looked him contemptuously in the eye. The train had come out of the tunnel now and I could feel the displaced air funneling furiously around my body. When the train was still fifty feet away, Ralphie lunged backwards from the track and kicked himself away. There was just enough time for Cordy to smirk at him before she stepped off the track. The train’s horn sounded and the conductor leaned out of the window, glaring at Cordy and I, his screams swallowed up by the roar of the engine.

It was a long train. When it finally passed, Ralphie was lying on the ground, curled into a fetal position, breathing hard. Cordy picked up her backpack and crossed over to where he lay.

“You’re weak, Ralphie. You’re not good enough to be my friend.”

She kicked him, hard, in base of the spine. He kept his face hidden in the gravel.

Cordy resumed her two-note whistle as she walked into the tunnel and I followed the sound. I had forgotten what Cordy was like. She was feral and frightening, arson without angst. “You shouldn’t have kicked him,” I reprimanded her. “Ralphie turned out okay.” Nevertheless, I stayed close to her, not to protect but to be protected.

*

Cordy’s whistle echoed and stretched, bounced and faded inside the dark tunnel. As hard as I tried to stay close, she sounded further and further away, until eventually the whistle flattened and became mechanical. Ahead, the sunlight grew brighter at the mouth of the tunnel.

I realized that the gravel underneath my feet had disappeared and now I could hear the tap of my shoes against linoleum. I was in a hospital. The whistle turned into an electronic beeping, monotone and regular, and I followed it into the first room on the left.

“Hello, Delia,” my father said from the bed. Delia had arrived just ahead of me and was taking off her coat. “You look good. I bet you can’t say the same for me.” He was emaciated, sitting up only because of the massive mound of pillows underneath him. A world of machinery surrounded him, keeping guard.

“I can’t and I won’t,” she said. She pulled a chair up to the edge of the bed. She was wearing a black pleated leather skirt with a short-sleeved gray sweater and a string of irregularly shaped pearls the size of gumballs: a career girl, even on her day off. “How are you?”

“You don’t know what I had to do to get this many pillows,” he said. “How was your flight?” Delia had flown out to San Francisco as soon as my mother called to tell her that he had taken a turn for the worse. We had not spoken in several years by then, my father and I—he had never forgiven me for siding with my mother in the divorce—but Anderson had already booked our flights and rented a car by the time I got home that night.

“You should have told us sooner,” Delia said.

“Well. We were both busy. How’s the job?” I was an assistant stylist at a commercial photo agency in New York then, working sixty-hour weeks.

“It’s fine.”

“And the boyfriend?”

“He’s fine too.”

“Fine, then,” he said. “We’re all fine here.” He coughed deeply, as if trying to expel his organs. “I don’t know why your mother told you. She was always too sentimental.”

“Do you ever stop?” Delia said. I had been relieved, actually, when he finally decided to divorce my mother. The years of living with him had changed her. She became spurious in her reasoning, tenuous in her desires. She had stopped speaking in anything louder than a mumble, afraid her voice might drive him away. Sometimes he would disappear for weeks without an explanation.

“I will soon,” he chuckled.

“Are you sorry? About anything?”

“Delia, children do not talk to their parents that way. Your mother was wrong to involve you.”

“I am not a child.” Those years had changed me, too. One day, I realized that I didn’t have to talk to him, that I, too, could disappear without a word. The divorce had been long and drawn-out, combative and challenging. I managed most of it on behalf of my mother, fighting my father over every cent and every injunction, and yet, the end had been anticlimactic. Once the courts and the banks had settled, the length of time since we last spoke simply stretched longer and longer, until the day I received the phone call from my mother.

But he was tuning Delia out now. He would not be forced into a conversation he did not want to have. He hummed to himself, looked around the room cheerfully.

“Hey, let me ask you something,” he said, as if he had just noticed she was in the room.

“Would you rather be a smart cookie, or a tough one?”

“A tough one.”

“American girls,” he said. “They always want to be tough. Let me ask you something else. Do you cook for Anderson? Or are you modern?”

“Daddy,” Delia sighed. “Let me tell you something. I got on a plane as soon as I finished work last night. After visiting hours are over today, I’m going to do a little sightseeing with Anderson. We’re going to see the Golden Gate Bridge, pick out a nice restaurant, maybe walk along the wharf. Because we’ve never been here before. Then tomorrow, we’re flying back to New York. Do you understand?”

My father was silent for a long time. When the divorce was finally settled, he had no kindness left, and whatever humor he had was mean. And soon it would no longer matter who he was. Soon he would just be gone.

“I always liked when you read to me.”

Delia picked up the newspaper at the foot of his bed and read at random. It was the last time I would see him. My mother had recovered by then, had started a new career and life, and she was gracious enough to spend the last few weeks out in California with him. His girlfriend, Crystal, was younger than I was and had only been with him for six months; she gladly handed over all of the caretaking responsibilities to my mother.

When he died, my mother oversaw the arrangements. Delia and Anderson flew out once again for the funeral. “You missed the end,” my mother said. I had understood it to be a warning, but already I knew that I had crossed a point of no return; I had not regretted it then, and back at his deathbed a second time, I did not regret it now.

He fell asleep, and Delia folded the paper over neatly and watched him until a nurse told her that visiting hours were ending. He woke up as she was gathering her things, bubbled up briefly into consciousness in time to catch her before she left.

“You will always be my angel,” he said. “A tough little angel.”

*

I followed Delia to the lobby of the hospital. She had told Anderson to keep the car running, to be ready to evacuate her at a moment’s notice, and he was in front of the hospital by the time she arrived downstairs, clearing the debris from a trip to a fast-food drive-through. “Have you been stress eating?” she asked. Not wanting to be left behind, I snuck into the backseat, pushing aside burger wrappers and ketchup packets.

“How’d it go?” he asked. He patted her thigh, stroked her face.

“It was fine. Can we go back to the hotel for a nap?”

“Of course, sweetheart.” The visit had been hard on Anderson too. He had been adopted from China as a baby, and he had always been nervous around my parents, never fully understanding the threads that tied me to them, both sound and fraught.

“Want to talk about it?” he asked.

“No.”

They drove silently through San Francisco, trying to navigate the unfamiliar city. Delia turned the radio on. It was already 8PM in New York, and she knew that at this point, her headache would last for the rest of the day.

We passed through a long tunnel. The radio lost signal, became a loud hiss of static that neither of them bothered to turn down. And when it came back on air, the radio was broadcasting a local station from New Jersey, and we were driving through the suburbs of my hometown.

*

It was something I knew instinctively, the way you wake up in the backseat as a child just in time to see the car slowing down in front of your house. Your body remembers it, the subtle shift in hydraulics, the angle at which the car swings to pull into the driveway.
Anderson had just pulled in and turned off the car.

“You look great,” Delia said.

“Of course you’d say that,” he said. He was wearing a t-shirt she had designed, featuring a kitten peering playfully out of a toaster. “Should I call her Mrs. Chen? Or Madeline?”

“Hmm.” Delia absent-mindedly smacked the dashboard with the bouquet of flowers Anderson had bought.

He was the only boyfriend I had ever brought home. Things had changed rapidly that year. I had never thought my parents would be so American as to get a divorce. It had been, in a perverse way, so absolutely normal, the way they both called me while I was at school, explaining their decision and urging me not to worry.

My father had moved out two months before. Since then, my mother seemed to have been regaining a decisiveness that I had not seen for years. She called regularly to chat, curious about Anderson, and she sounded less peeved, less harassed, with a calmness that approached contentment.

So I had not been prepared for what I saw when she opened the door that day. It appeared as if my father had taken everything he wanted from the house and left behind everything he didn’t. My mother had made no effort to replace or rearrange the furniture, or to clean up after his move. Piles of books, houseplants, and extension cords lay tangled in heaps. Fragile antiques and curios, silverware and glassware, lay on the floor where the china cabinet had been. A thick layer of dust coated everything, and the patches of newly exposed hardwood floor were darker than the rest. The house smelled as if the trash had not been taken out in weeks, and in the kitchen, there was a mound of dishes in the sink.

Delia stared until Anderson placed a hand on the small of her back. My mother smiled, cheerful and confused, in the sunlight.

“Hello, Madeline Chen,” Anderson said in an abnormally high voice. “I’m Anderson, Delia’s boyfriend.” He presented the flowers.

My mother ushered them inside. Delia sat on the couch, looking wildly around her childhood home. Anderson and my mother were talking about his family, about growing up in the Hudson Valley.

By the time I was in high school, my parents’ business had taken off. My father was regularly taking trips to China to appraise and purchase antiques while my mother managed the retail side of the business. They talked often of buying a bigger house in the nicer part of town, but as my father’s trips overseas grew longer and longer, it became apparent that there was more than just business to his travels.

“Have you heard from your father lately?” Delia shook her head. “He’s away again. Did you know, I checked his passport. He’s been going to Macau.”

Delia shook her head again. While my mother talked, she felt her carefully curated sense of normalcy come crashing down—the screen-printing collective she started at school, the weekly Bollywood movie nights with her roommate, the home games where she cheered Anderson on with the other rugby girlfriends.

“I think he has a mistress there,” my mother whispered. “The women there practice all kinds of witchcraft. They must be keeping your father under a spell.” She walked into the kitchen and returned. “I’m glad you’re here. I need your help to break the spell.” Delia watched in a dull, detached horror as she brandished a small fruit knife. “Give me your hand.”

Anderson jumped up. “Uh, Madeline, I believe that is a rather old-fashioned way of doing things. I think it’s purely symbolic.” He plucked a stray hair from Delia’s cardigan and handed it to her. “A hair should do.”

“Do you think so?” She took it from him gingerly.

“I know so,” he said with authority. He slipped the knife gently out of her hand.

“Madeline, have you eaten yet? Delia and I left so early this morning, we are starving.”

And even though he was a broke college student, even though he was expecting to be taken out to lunch, he drove to the grocery store and returned with bags full of ground beef, pasta, and ragu sauce. He spent the rest of the afternoon cooking giant batches of spaghetti bolognaise, one of the three dishes he knew. Delia continued sitting on the couch while he cooked, watching my mother as she continued to talk.

After they ate, Delia cleaned up as best as she could around the house. Then she dug up the phone number for Uncle Matty and Aunt Teresa, who had retired and moved down the shore. They agreed to drive up that night and stay with my mother. Anderson cleaned the kitchen and froze several containers of spaghetti, and when they were finally sure that Madeline was in no immediate danger, they said their goodbyes and walked out to the driveway.

They sat in silence, making no move to start the car.

“Do you think she liked me?” Anderson said finally.

Delia burst into tears, unbuckled her seatbelt, and tried to climb into his lap.

“Hey,” he said. He opened the door and came around to her side, pulling her out of the car. Delia tried to bury herself in him; he smelled of garlic and sautéed beef, and he held her tightly.

“We’ll be better than them,” he promised. “We’ll be better than they ever were.”

 

THREE

When I awoke, I was home again—asleep in my own bed. I shook my head several times, trying to clear it; I felt as if I had been cut out of time. 
 Anderson was not in bed with me, but he often slept on a cot in his workshop if he had been working late. I breathed deeply for a few minutes, appreciating the solidness of the furniture, the softness of the sheets, the shadows of the large elm tree that roved across the foot of the bed. My own house. My own life. I pushed myself to remember, to see if I could dredge up any memories of being pulled from the hole. What had happened?

I threw the covers off and went to find Anderson. For the first time in a long time, I remembered how it felt to be bound by intimacy, not proximity. Surely there was still time.

A crash sounded from the workshop, and I ran downstairs. I was about to open the door when I heard him talking to someone. A woman. I pressed my ear against the door and when I realized who it was, my heart sank.

“You’re making a huge deal out of nothing,” he was saying.

“You made me quit my job, move up here, and now you shut yourself away.” Another crash sounded.

“Cordelia. Please.”

“You’re a loser. A loser with no friends.” Anderson was a country boy and this was his dream house. He had hated living in in the city and had always planned to move back. It was easy for him to work from home, and exhausted from the years of long workweeks, I let myself be talked into the move, having built up enough of a reputation to work freelance, only going down to the city for select shoots.

That first winter had been brutal though. We were snowed in several times, cut off from all access to the outside world, and then Anderson started shutting himself up in his workshop for hours, leaving me bored and terrified of being alone. It was like we were constantly trying to outrun a mountain lion while trapped in an 18-room house—just me, him, and our growing unhappiness.

I opened the door. Cordelia was taking tools down from where they had been tidily hung up on the wall and tossing them across the room. Anderson sighed and watched as she picked up a t-ruler and flung it. Then she picked up a hammer and threw that too. It flew across the room and hit a woodpile covered with a blue tarp, landing with a sharp, splintering sound.

At that, Anderson grabbed Cordelia by the shoulders and shook her. “Enough!” he hissed. “Get out. You are not allowed in here anymore.”

Cordelia stared in shock before storming out. We listened to the sound of her footsteps as she walked down the stairs: a door slammed, the car started. We were both too disgusted to go after her.

Anderson picked up the tools from the floor, wiped them off, and carefully hung them up again. He did not have a lot of tools yet; this was during our first year in the house, right when he had started to teach himself through online tutorials. Then he went to the woodpile and pulled the tarp off.

It was not a woodpile but a miniature model of our house, built to scale, and it was almost completed. He had painted the exterior, but not the molding or the shingles. Inside, the house was filed with dollhouse furniture, clumsy but endearing, and he had decorated the rooms with brightly colored squares of wallpaper samples, with small wooden figures for him and me. The whole thing was set on a board layered with AstroTurf. Where the hammer had landed, at the end of the driveway, there was now a hole.

Next to the hole was a wood-burnt plaque, inscribed with the date of our anniversary that year. I had never seen the house though, never even knew that Anderson was capable of doing this kind of thing. For that year’s anniversary, he had given me a watch, and I, in a conciliatory gesture, had given him more tools for his workshop.

He hoisted the board onto his worktable now and put on a pair of safety goggles. He turned on the circular saw and carefully fed the house through it. Within minutes, the entire house was reduced to shards. He pushed the pieces into a trash bag and swept the sawdust off the floor. Then he sat down against the wall, took off his goggles, and cried.

Poor Anderson. His love for me was like a savings account: a buffer against the world, something that grew with every passing day. Whereas my love for him was like a scab, something that had dried up as I healed and withered away when I wasn’t paying attention.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. I sat down next to him and rubbed his neck. “I love you.” I pulled him to me; he laid his head gently against my chest.

We sat like that until the smell of something burning drifted into the workshop. Anderson lifted his head and sniffed. I got up and opened the door, and when I turned around again, Anderson had disappeared.

It was coming from the kitchen. I walked downstairs to investigate, and as I passed the living room, I saw the sinkhole through the picture window. We were getting closer to home now, Anderson and I.

Anderson was already in the kitchen when I walked in. “The Brussels sprouts are burning,” he said. He was cracking peanuts and tossing the shells into a bowl, not bothering to pick up the ones that had missed. Cordelia took the sprouts out of the oven and stirred them, scraping at the leaves that were burnt onto the side of the glass dish. She was wearing the same clothes that I had on now, but it felt as if we were separated by a lifetime.

“Andy, did you know that sinkholes were considered spiritual by Mayan civilizations?

They were thought to be portals of communication to the afterlife,” she said.

“And here we can’t even get decent Wi-Fi,” he said. His tone was casual and disinterested. I had forgotten that it didn’t use to be that way.

Cordelia swept up the peanut shells with a damp sponge and threw them into the trash. After a moment’s hesitation, she tried again.

“In the Yucatan peninsula, there’s evidence that sinkholes, called cenotes, were sites of mass burial,” she said, then smiled her best smile at him. In the weeks before the sinkhole appeared, I had missed Anderson terribly. I missed him all over the house: in the kitchen, while he mowed the lawn, even while he slept beside me. One night, watching his back rise and fall with each breath, I braved the expanse of the bed to slip an arm over his hip. In his sleep, he shook free of the sheets and placed his arm over mine.

“Cordelia,” Anderson said. “Was any part of your day not devoted to sinkholes?”

“Although there’s some debate over whether the bones belonged to victims of an epidemic, or a ritual sacrifice. Isn’t that interesting?” Cordelia asked.

“You should give tours,” he said.

We had stopped talking over some trivial hurt—it no longer mattered what, just that it was another one in an inconsequential but consecutive parade of many. In this way, our love had calcified into a defensive exoskeleton that we were both too scared to shed, even while it strangled us: Who had we become? And what if underneath, nothing remained?

“I can’t stop thinking about it,” Cordelia said.

Now, after all those weeks, I finally understood why the sinkhole had appeared. It wasn’t possible to sustain a want so forceful. Something had to give way.

“It’ll get fixed soon enough.” But I had a feeling that this would be the last time I saw either of them again.

“I’m serious.”

“It’s a ten-foot hole, Cordelia. Not your own personal crisis.”

I could see Cordelia’s temper flare. My love had never been gentle, and like flint meeting steel, our interactions could either nourish or destroy. Cordelia grabbed the timer off the counter and I followed her outside.

She threw the timer in and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Anderson, both peering expectantly into the dark hole, waiting, as children do, for the adjudication of right and wrong, of first and last, of who hurt more and who deserved it. Anderson was the first to give up. “Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” he said. He walked to the house and did not look back.

I sat down at the edge of the hole, my feet dangling in, while Cordelia watched him go. Then she sat down next to me, turned over, and lowered herself down. She started climbing, our eyes meeting briefly as she paused and looked up. She was still hopeful then.

When she was out of sight, I laid down on the dusty asphalt and stared up at the night sky. I did not go in after her; I was not so brave.

 

Joyce Li has been awarded scholarships, prizes, and residencies from Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, Tin House Summer Workshop, the Norton Island Residency Program, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and Brooklyn College, where she earned her MFA. Originally from New Jersey, she now lives in New York City and works for a non-profit organization for immigrants in the arts and sciences. She is currently working her first novel, set in the Kowloon Walled City.