Doretta Lau: Left and Leaving

In the winter of 1997, world leaders descended upon Vancouver to discuss important matters. Two kids in Victoria battered and drowned a girl they barely knew. The dead girl, Reena Virk, and I were the same age: fourteen. Dozens of women who lived in the Down- town Eastside had disappeared, but few people seemed concerned. I was preoccupied with my own troubles. My older sister, Lisa, could not stay sober to save us having to move from one foster home to another. Our mother continued to be missing. In my imagination, she was merely out of town.

“She’ll be home for Christmas,” I said one afternoon. Lisa and I were sitting in a wooded area behind the high school we were attending that month. She was smoking a joint. The wound over her right eyebrow, a gash acquired from falling down a flight of stairs during a fight at our last school, had closed with the help of five stitches. There was going to be a lasting scar, one so prominent that it altered her appearance. I wondered if her father—we had different fathers— would recognize her if they had a chance encounter on the street.

“Mom’s probably dead, you know,” Lisa said. She started laughing. I couldn’t tell whether it was the pot or if she was just callous.

“Shut up,” I said. I had many thoughts about our mother—some horrible—but I didn’t want to believe she was dead.

Lisa and I were living with foster parents, Edward and Judith Forsythe, because we had run out of family. I worried we would soon run out of fosters. People Lisa and I lived with either left or died. In the span of three years we’d passed through the care of our mother, my paternal grandmother, a great aunt and an uncle who was the younger brother of Lisa’s father.

Neither Lisa nor I recalled our fathers. Mine was half-Chinese, half-English. Hers was Haida or Coast Salish—we weren’t sure which. There was little family resemblance between us. I was short and had pale skin and black hair. Lisa was two years older and eight inches taller than me. This never stopped her from borrowing my clothes—everything in my wardrobe was slightly too big for me. Her skin was several shades darker, while her hair was several shades lighter. She resembled our mother more than I did, which had made me very jealous when we were still living with Mom. Lisa and I took turns being the beauty of the family; it wasn’t hard to share because there was only one other person to divide things with.

I liked living with Grandma best. We ate dinner together every night and she taught me how to bake cookies and cakes. The radio was always on if we were in the kitchen. I’d dance around with flour on my hands and ask to see pictures of my father when he was a boy.

Mom used to call Grandma’s from time to time, and when the phone rang I would run to get it. Every call was the same: I would ask if she was going to come back, and she would promise to see us soon. But it was all promises and never the real thing.

During one particularly cold winter, Grandma fell down the steps in front of her house and broke her hip. Her health declined. After she died, Lisa and I moved in with our great aunt Mary. Mom stopped calling. I liked to think it was because she detested Mary. Later, when we lived with Lisa’s uncle Will, Mom still didn’t call. Now that we were with the Forsythes—strangers—it seemed possible that our mother would never find us again.

We had been living with Edward and Judith for a few months. I figured either they were really nice, or they didn’t know any better. I could imagine living with them for a long time. Their house smelled like laundry and flowers. Mom’s apartment never smelled like that. It held an odour of whisky and beer and cigarette smoke. That was Lisa’s scent. I wondered if it was mine as well. For the longest time I had wished we were twins. We would have the same mom and dad, and maybe they would have stayed together.


The sun was disappearing into the water and the sky was pink in spots. It was growing darker, and colder.

“We should go back to the Forsythes,” I said. I didn’t want to be late for dinner and dessert. I was also hoping to rummage through their fridge and well-stocked cupboards.

“I’ve got plans,” said Lisa, looking past me.

“Oh,” I said, trying to make eye contact, hoping for an invitation. Lisa wouldn’t look at me. There was a silence that seemed to last an ice age. Lisa didn’t tell me where she was going and we parted at the SkyTrain. I returned to Edward and Judith’s alone.

The Forsythes lived a few blocks from Kits Beach. They had a twenty-year-old daughter named Jun who was at McGill studying anthropology. Edward and Judith adopted Jun from South Korea. Jun called them “Dad” and “Mom.”

When I got to the house no one was home. There was a free weekly paper sitting on the table next to the door, unread. I picked it up and went into the kitchen to grab a bag of chips and a big glass of water. Edward and Judith didn’t eat junk food, but kept chips and cookies and pop and candy on hand for us. Sometimes, if I was sitting in their kitchen or listening to the radio, I imagined myself back at Grandma’s.

I entered the living room and sank onto the couch. The coffee table was the perfect size and height for reading a newspaper. I turned the pages with my left hand and shoved chips into my mouth with my right hand.

The newspaper had only bad things to report. Photos of missing women accompanied the headlines. The stories were about women who hadn’t made it home in a long time. The missing women left a legacy of abandoned journals and uncashed checks. All of them lived in the Downtown Eastside and were poor. I wondered why the authorities were acting as if twenty women had just wandered off, and would reappear at any time.

Every day I looked at different newspapers to see if my mother was ever front-page news. Although she never appeared, I noticed that a lot of the women reported missing looked like her. I wondered if any of them were from the same nation. I didn’t know much about my mother’s ancestry; she never got around to teaching me about her parents or her grandparents. I didn’t know if they went whale hunting or lived in longhouses or wore cedar hats. I learned about traditions that may have belonged to my ancestors during social studies every year. Lisa told me that everyone, including the teacher, always asked her about potlatches and button blankets and the Haida artist Bill Reid, but she didn’t know. She didn’t have any answers for them.


I fell asleep on the couch and woke to the sounds of cooking: metal clinking against glass, the sizzling of water and oil, and Judith singing songs from The Sound of Music.

“Rough day at school?” asked Edward, who often said things that were unfunny, but he was so well meaning that it didn’t matter. I liked the predictability of his personality. He was dependable, constant down to the knot in his tie and the polish of his shoes.

“Yeah,” I said. “We’re playing football in PE.”

“I hated gym,” said Edward.

“I don’t like it very much, either.” I got up. “I should set the table.”

I gathered up my glass and the chip bag and entered the kitchen.

“Hello, Judith.”

“Hello, Annie. How was school today?”

“Good.” “Learn anything interesting?”

That morning my locker partner, Kelly, told me she was pregnant.

“Charles Dickens was paid by the word,” I offered. “We’re reading Great Expectations.” I didn’t add that I’d finished the book a week ago. I read during lunch because I had no friends at school.

“You should read Jane Eyre when you’re done.”

“I’ve read it before.” We chatted about orphans as I set the table for four, even though I wasn’t sure if Lisa was going to make it in time for dinner.

Judith was lifting the pot of green curry from the stove when Lisa came through the back door.

“Smells good,” Lisa said. “Anything I can do to help?” She reeked of pot, but neither Edward nor Judith said anything, though they gave each other looks that could only be interpreted as knowing. We sat down to dinner as if we were a family.


According to our mother, Lisa’s dad was a drinking man. Those were mom’s exact words. She said it as if he were an athletic man or a renaissance man.

“He was a good man when he wasn’t drinking,” Mom would insist and I would stare at her left leg, which was shorter because she had broken it three times. Three separate accidents.

“Too bad he was never sober,” Lisa would say, as if she remembered. But she’d never even met him. He was gone before I was born and became the excuse for everything that had went wrong in our lives.

“My father was a drunk,” Lisa would say whenever a teacher caught her drinking or if she hadn’t done her homework.

Once, when the lunch monitor caught me smoking on school grounds I said, “My sister’s father was a drunk.” At the time, I didn’t know enough about my own father to use him as an excuse.


The next day, I got to school well before the bell rang. My promptness had a lot to do with the fact I’d left the house without Lisa, who was still sleeping as I packed my school bag. I shook her, but she swatted at my hand and told me to leave her the fuck alone.

At lunch I went out onto the school’s front lawn. Lisa was on the sidewalk waiting for me.

“Let’s go,” she said.

I had PE and home ec. in the afternoon, so I agreed even though I had reservations about skipping classes two days in a row.

We got on a bus, and as we passed Chinatown Lisa pulled the ringer and insisted that we eat egg sandwiches at one of the Hong Kong cafés that Grandma used to frequent.

After we ate, we decided to walk to Gastown. When we got to the Woodward’s building, which had been empty for four years, there was a group of people standing on the sidewalk. Each person was holding up a piece of paper. At first, I thought they were advertising cheap pizza or drink specials at some nearby bar. But there was urgency, not boredom, in their eyes.

“Have you seen this woman?” a man asked, thrusting a piece of paper at me. It was a missing poster printed on thin stock. The woman pictured looked older than her twenty-two years.

“No,” I said.

A woman approached Lisa with a poster of a different woman.

“I know her,” Lisa said. The latest woman to disappear used to live in Uncle Will’s building. Her name was Diane. She used to stand on the street and scream then buzz our apartment because she’d lost her keys. Sometimes men would knock on our apartment door, thinking it was hers. I learned every sort of insult a man could shout at a woman from the things these men would say while kicking on our door.

A woman named Martha told us she was Diane’s sister, and held up a picture from the past. None of the images looked like Diane. The girl in the pictures didn’t have dark circles under her eyes. That girl was smiling. Even when Diane wasn’t crying, she didn’t smile. Still, I took a poster to put over the desk in the bedroom Lisa and I shared.

“They’ll never find her with that picture,” Lisa said to me as we walked to Edward and Judith’s.

“Maybe she’s not missing. Maybe they just don’t recognize her,” I said.

Lisa looked at me as if I were the stupidest person alive.


That night we went to a party in an abandoned house. Lisa got really drunk. The party ended when some kid overdosed and his friend called the paramedics, who were accompanied by two cops. Lisa and I ran for a few blocks to a bus stop. After waiting for twenty minutes, we decided to walk home because it seemed the buses had stopped running for the night.

A few blocks from the Forsythes’ place, she stopped and threw up into her hands.

“Why didn’t you just throw up on the ground?” I asked as she wiped her hands on her jeans, which she had borrowed from me.

“ Whatever.”

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m fine.”

“Then hurry up. It’s almost 2:30.”

Ten minutes later we walked into the Forsythes’ living room to find Judith asleep on the couch and Edward watching an infomercial about a muscle-stimulating machine.

“You should have been home two hours ago,” Edward said. His tone was calm. In our three months in the Forsythe household neither he nor Judith had raised their voices. The quiet reminded me of living with Grandma.

“Sorry,” I said. “Lisa’s not feeling well.”

“I’m feeling just fine,” Lisa said. She lay down on the floor. “I’m just fine. I can take care of myself.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. Edward nodded and helped carry Lisa up to the room she and I shared.

“I love you,” Lisa said to me, and closed her eyes. She started snoring.

“How was the party?” Edward asked as we tucked Lisa into her bed.

“It was boring,” I said.

“Sounds like the party Judith and I went to tonight,” he said.

“I doubt it.”

“You still want to go the movies on Sunday?” Edward asked.


He closed the door softly, as if he was afraid he’d wake Lisa up. It had only been three months, after all. He probably hadn’t noticed that Lisa could sleep through anything: thunder, earthquakes, neighbours screaming at each other.


Edward made good on his promise and took us to the movies. Judith, who was a nurse, got called into work so we went without her.

“I want to go downtown,” said Lisa.

“Can we go to the Woodward’s building first?” I asked. Edward said yes to our requests, though he probably thought mine was strange.

We were excited about the movies, but Lisa and I wanted to see if Martha and the other people we’d seen holding the missing women posters were still around.

When we got downtown, we discovered that Martha wasn’t in front of the Woodward’s building. There were other people holding flyers for their missing sisters, daughters and friends.

“Would you stand out here for me?” Lisa asked me as I collected posters to take home.

“I’m here with you now,” I said.


A few days later, I waited for Lisa at her locker after my last class. Thirty minutes went by. Finally, the vice-principal walked past and stopped when she saw me.

“Annie, Lisa was sent home early today. She’s been suspended.”

I didn’t ask why.

Lisa was already at Edward and Judith’s by the time I got there. I stared at her black eyes and fat lower lip. She was drinking iced tea through a straw while watching a talk show. Two young women were running at each other, screaming. The television audience cheered.

“I broke a boy’s nose,” she said when she saw that I was looking at her.


“He was talking shit.” She didn’t elaborate further.

At our last school, Lisa lasted only six weeks before getting expelled. She accomplished that by getting into three fights. I had been hopeful that she had stopped fighting at our new school.

I went upstairs to pack my suitcase, anticipating that we’d be asked to leave.


Edward and Judith carried on as if Lisa hadn’t been suspended. Lisa didn’t get into any more fights, but she still stumbled home drunk from time to time. And she had taken to smoking pot on the back steps of the house. “Don’t shit where you eat,” I said to her, but she didn’t listen to me.

After a while I thought about unpacking. Lisa hadn’t sparked any new violent incidents at school and I was tired of wearing the same clothes over and over again. After dinner one night, Edward and Judith asked me to sit with them in the living room.

Judith wouldn’t look at me, so Edward did all the talking.

“We want to adopt you,” Edward said.

This was rather unexpected. They were really the nicest and most patient people I had ever met. “Lisa will be so happy,” I said, because they were waiting for me to say something.

Judith still wouldn’t look at me.

“Annie, we want to adopt you,” Edward repeated.

“Oh,” I said. “Oh. No.”

I ran upstairs. Lisa was lying in bed, drunk and crying.

“I’m not going to leave you,” I said, hugging her. She continued to sob, and I didn’t know what to do. I started to laugh, and then the laughter became tears. Finally, we both fell asleep.


In the morning the window in our bedroom was wide open. Lisa’s clothes were still hanging in the closet and heaped on the floor, but mine were gone.

There was a note pinned under Diane’s “Missing” poster: “Sorry I took your clothes.”



Reprinted with permission of Nightwood Editions.

Doretta Lau Web ImageDoretta Lau is a journalist who covers arts and culture for Artforum InternationalSouth China Morning Post,The Wall Street Journal Asia, and LEAP. She completed an MFA in Writing at Columbia University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Day One, EventGrain MagazinePrairie FirePRISM InternationalRicepaper,sub-TERRAIN, and Zen Monster. She splits her time between Vancouver and Hong Kong, where she is at work on a novel and a screenplay. In 2013, she was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions, 2014) is her debut short story collection.


2323total visits,5visits today