A steady, chugging rumble fills the air, turning it slightly warmer and murkier. The Greyhound bus from Vacaville has arrived in the San Francisco terminal, and we are there to greet it, my parents and I. It pulls into its slanted, oversized parking spot as it does every other Friday evening when we come to greet my sisters.
The loud, honking gasp of the air brakes startles me, as always—you’d think I’d know better. Whatever fear I might feel is almost immediately pushed aside, though, by a new flavor of adrenaline—anticipation. We watch for them: two smiling girls, one blonde, slender, and tall; the other brunette, younger, with round apple cheeks, and rabbity teeth marked by a front-tooth gap I envy. Kathy and Sarah. Both have blue eyes like our dad’s and their mom’s. My own mother, my father’s second wife, and I have brown eyes and black hair. These are the only obvious outward signs of my Chinese ancestry.
I pay little attention to the other travelers who make their way down the steps of the bus, just as soon as the driver pulls the lever, opening the door. I only have eyes for my sisters, ten and seven years older than I, and so amazing, so full of love and fun. I’m pretty sure they possess a magic that makes the world more beautiful and full. Whenever they’re around, colors shine brighter, scents are sweeter, and food tastes more delicious.
Most of the time, I’m the sole occupant of one of the two bedrooms in our North Beach apartment. I slumber in my own unglamorous, non-canopied twin bed covered in a thin white-and-blue comforter (not my favorite colors; I prefer pink). I play alone with my collection of toys and board games. I read my books to myself or coerce one of my parents to read to me. Occasionally, my mother arranges for a friend to join me for what these days is labeled a “playdate,” but in the 1970s and ’80s is simply called “coming over to play.”
Ostensibly, I’m an only child. Yet across the room, in the opposite corner, stands a set of bunk beds, the mattresses covered in matching brown- and yellow-striped chenille bedspreads. I sometimes pretend the bottom bunk is the interior of I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle, plumping it up with pillows and stuffed animals.
For two nights every other week, my sisters dive under the bunks’ covers, Kathy on top, Sarah on the bottom. They whisper and sing and giggle in the dark, and I get to join in. We all fall asleep without my usual nightlight. Instead of fearing the gloom, I thrill in it, emboldened by their presence. They protect me from the Wild Things that haunt my bedroom windows when I dream. Their invisible shield covers every part of my being. I grow warm with a dizzying joy.
They are here!
My sisters tumble off the bus, launching themselves toward us. They love to hug and kiss. Touchy-feely. They embrace our father and my mother. Finally, it’s my turn to get caught up in their arms and laughter. They carry small, soft-sided suitcases that zip up and have large flower patterns—blue and green on one, orange and yellow on the other. They talk and talk and talk—over each other, to my dad or mom or me, to strangers, to each other, finishing each other’s sentences, breaking off now and then to argue some crucial point, whether it’s what they ate for lunch or where they went the day before last, it doesn’t matter. Their voices are music filling up the usual silences.
We walk through the Greyhound bus station, past the no-frills plastic seats in the terminal waiting areas and the large, molded contraptions bolted to the concrete floor that mimic living-room armchairs. Small black-and-white TV sets grow out of the arms, playing off-air snow. If you insert coins, you can watch a channel. We girls find these fascinating and sometimes—on Sunday afternoons when we do all of this in reverse—we sit in these chairs and watch the snow.
Sundays are always a small heartache, a rupture as my parents and I wave goodbye to my sisters, watching as they board the bus back to Vacaville and their mother. The two of them crowd together by a window seat and wave, blow kisses, stick their thumbs in their ears and waggle their hands while crossing their eyes, enthusiastically mashing their noses into pig snouts against the glass.
But before then, the whole delicious weekend awaits us. Picnics on the grass at Aquatic Park followed by sticky-sweet sundaes at Ghirardelli Square. Romping at Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park with perhaps a ride on the grand old carousel. Dinners at diners like Copper Penny, the Hippopotamus, or Zim’s. Maybe we’ll get dim sum in Chinatown, my mother ordering all of the dishes in fluent Cantonese or Mandarin, depending on the restaurant.
Definitely, we’ll watch Saturday morning cartoons (and when we’re older, stay up late for Benny Hill and Saturday Night Live). We’ll play tag and hide-and-go-seek in the apartment, tearing through the small space, shrieking with delight, and our father will roar at us to cut it out, goddammit! He’ll send each of us to stand in a corner of the living room for five minutes as punishment. Instead of being cowed and anxious, as I am when this happens while I’m disciplined on my own, I’ll feel a part of something, a good something that is innocuous, secure, and safe.
Other times, I’ll watch in fascination, like a spectator at a prizefight, whenever my sisters argue, calling each other liar! Occasionally they’ll accuse me of being a spoiled brat, a stinging accusation that I mostly believe. But their anger is always short-lived, and soon I am once again cuddled up in their arms, a living doll.
We’ll sing along to my parents’ few “cool” records—The Beatles and Peter, Paul, and Mary. We’ll pretend we are the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music. I, of course, get to be adorable little Gretl, while Kathy and Sarah quarrel over who is most fit to play sexy sixteen-going-on-seventeen Liesl. If I’m very lucky and they’re feeling indulgent, they’ll humor me for a while with my “babyish” games of dress-up and Barbies.
We are half-sisters, but I claim them as whole. Every day of my young life, I look forward to those trips to the Greyhound bus station, seeing beyond its utilitarian blandness, its grime, its coldness. It is a place that delivers joy, happiness, and love. It provides the people who alleviate the loneliness I sometimes feel as an only child. It casts in shadow, at least temporarily, the uncertainty of my parents’ slowly disintegrating marriage.
Eventually, my sisters stop riding the bus, first Kathy, then Sarah. They move away from Vacaville, go off to college. They start careers, have families of their own. We get in our cars to visit them, or they drive to us. Still, I think of those Friday evenings at the Greyhound station, the humble, under-appreciated portal that, every other weekend of my childhood, gives me the gift of my sisters.
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