My older brother, Taro, steps into the kitchen. He's wearing a gray and red shirt with a University of Nebraska logo printed on the front and oversized glasses, even though the lenses aren't prescription. There's half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wedged in his left hand.
"Mom, there's nothing to eat in this house." His voice is gruff because he doesn't know any other way to speak.
Mom wipes a blond curl away with the back of her hand, her eyes narrowed with amusement. "There's a grocery store around the corner. You know how to drive."
Taro makes a noise like a disgruntled cow, and then he looks at me. "Where have you been?"
Mom turns away. I feel like it's on purpose.
"My art show," I say, loud enough for Mom to hear. I could lie. I could tell her I won first place—I could make my award sound a lot better than it is. Maybe she'd pay attention. Maybe she'd listen. "I won something."
Taro looks at Mom, then at me, then back at Mom. He looks as awkward as I feel. "That's cool," he mumbles, chewing his sandwich and moving toward the refrigerator.
I think of my ribbon, buried at the bottom of my bag. She'd never see it. She'd never even ask to see it. Why not just tell her it's blue and gold?
I sigh. I can't lie to her, even if I desperately want her to care. It wouldn't work anyway. Mom doesn't look at me the way Susan Chang's parents look at her—she looks at me like I don't belong. Sometimes I wonder if it's because I look nothing like her. I have dark hair and a wide jaw and stumpy legs; Mom has loose blond curls, a narrow chin, and legs like a supermodel. We're just different, like we exist on different spectrums. If I lived on an iceberg, Mom would live inside a volcano. That kind of thing.
But most of the time she looks at me like she doesn't want me to belong.
Maybe it's because of what happened with Dad. I think I'll always feel guilty about that part, even if Mom should've listened to me.
Why, after seventeen years, do I still crave her approval so much? I have no idea. It's stupid, but I can't help it. Whoever programmed my personality made me overly accommodating. Whoever programmed Mom made her—well, I haven't figured that part out yet.
And then, because Taro can't help himself, he says from over his shoulder, "Mom, did you see Kiko's teapot?" Sometimes I don't know if he thinks confrontation is hilarious, or if he thinks he's helping in his own pushy way.
He's not helping. Mom hates being called out.
She looks up and flashes her peroxide-infused teeth. "Well, what did you win?" She didn't forget about my art show, but she's also not going to acknowledge that she didn't want to go. She's going to pretend like it isn't a big deal, even though to me it's a huge deal.
Heat radiates across my face. "Just a ribbon," I say.
A crack appears in her glass smile. "What, like a participation ribbon? You know that's not a real award, right?" She doesn't ask to see it; she laughs like it's a harmless joke—like I'm supposed to be 'in' on the joke. Except Mom doesn't laugh like a normal person. She laughs like she's secretly mocking the entire world. That's her "tell." It's how I know she means everything she's saying.
I tighten my mouth. Maybe I should've listened to Mr. Miller and entered one of my paintings in the art show. Maybe then I'd have won first place instead of Susan Chang.
I swallow the lump in my throat. I could never enter a painting into a school competition for everyone to see. They're too precious to me. I consider them actual, physical pieces of my soul.
Taro closes the refrigerator door and groans. "Seriously, is anyone going to make anything for dinner? I'm starving."
"You're graduating from college next year; why don't you cook a meal for a change?" she points out, twisting the cap back onto her bottle of nail polish. "It would be nice if someone would cook for me once in a while."
WHAT I WANT TO SAY:
"I've literally been cooking dinner at least twice a week every week for the last year. How can that possibly go unnoticed?"
WHAT I ACTUALLY SAY:
"I just made spaghetti a few days ago."
She laughs. "I hardly call boiling some noodles in a pot cooking.?" She makes a face at Taro as if to ask if he agrees with her.
Uninterested in Mom, me, and the teapot he's all but forgotten about, Taro stuffs the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, swallows the lump of bread, and says, "Forget it. I'm not hungry."
"You guys are so lazy." Mom rolls her eyes. Mine feel like someone has thrown salt in them.