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Auntie Cheeks

My Auntie Cheeks moved in with us when I was around the age memories start to stick. She brought with her no belongings and made no requests except one:

“Put me there,” she said, pointing the yellow nail of her forefinger to underneath the kitchen sink.

Fortunately for her, the sink was relatively large for such a small apartment. Auntie Cheeks tucked herself neatly into the cabinet, bent knees on either side of the drainpipe, neck crooked below the crackled porcelain undercarriage of the basin. She was flexible and petite, her skeleton thin as pins, and every joint seemed to rotate one hundred eighty degrees.

“It’s perfect,” she smiled. She had caves in her grin, and the teeth she managed to hang onto were more marrow than bone. Within weeks, the dankness turned her brown leathery skin into gray sheets of parchment, but she didn’t seem to mind. “Best room in the house,” she’d say, laughing with her cloudy black eyes.

Back then, any woman with white hair was an auntie, but no one could tell me how we were related. My dad said she came from my mom’s side, and my mom said she came from my dad’s. My parents rarely agreed about anything.

But Auntie Cheeks didn’t look like anyone in my family. I asked her once if we were really related. She snapped, “Of course we are. I looked exactly like you when I was your age.” I didn’t believe her. No one that old was ever my age.

I spent many afternoons bare-stomached on the dirty linoleum playing with Auntie Cheeks. I’d scratch on the cabinet door like a cat. She would immediately push it open and say something like, “Did you bring me any marshmallows?”

I always tried to have something sweet for her, even if it was just two cubes of sugar or a packet of ketchup from the fast food restaurant down the street. Auntie Cheeks made me taste everything before giving it to her. “To prove you’re not poisoning me,” she’d say. But my offerings were so small, and I ended up eating the whole thing myself. Even when I managed to procure a bigger treat, say a Twinkie or a popsicle, Auntie Cheeks still never seemed to get her share.

I asked Auntie Cheeks what she did while I was at school. She said she spent the day massaging her face, that’s how she stayed looking so young. I asked her to massage my face, just to see how it felt. She twisted forward and threaded one arm through the U-shaped drainpipe like elbows entwined in a lovers’ toast. She put her cold hands on the sides of my face. Her fingers, like the rest of her, were short and narrow. Intense pinpoints of pain bored into my temples, piercing the middle of my eyebrows, and pinching underneath my jaw.

“See? It keeps you young,” she said tearing at my flesh with satisfaction and humming a happy tune.

Auntie Cheeks liked to sing, especially when my parents were fighting in the other room. Whenever my parents started to scream at each other, my Auntie Cheeks would pick up my feet and sing as she cracked the knuckles on my toes to her own special rhythm. Sometimes I joined in, but never loud enough for my parents to hear over the sound of their own shouting.

I only eavesdropped when they argued about Auntie Cheeks. Once, I heard my mother say something about wanting to be able to keep the Clorox under the sink like normal people. And my dad often complained that he was sick of living with three crazy women.

One day after school, I brought Auntie Cheeks a piece of chocolate I found in a heart-shaped tin on the floor of my dad’s station wagon. It was more bitter than the chocolate I pocketed from the bins at the supermarket. My mother found the tin on the kitchen counter and asked me where it came from. When I told her, my mother’s eyes pinched. She said, “Why are you bringing garbage into the house?”

I told her it was because Auntie Cheeks was hungry. My mother said, “Auntie Cheeks can starve for all I care.”

The cabinet was closed, but I knew my Auntie Cheeks heard her. I stood in front of the sink. My mother grabbed the tin, ran to my parents’ bedroom, and slammed the door. I heard my mom yelling into the phone. Auntie Cheeks popped open the cupboard door and said, “How about a song?”

After that day, every night when I went to bed my mother would say that Auntie Cheeks might not be there in the morning. I’d cry myself to sleep, trying to figure out where Auntie Cheeks and I would go if my parents kicked her out. But Auntie Cheeks was always there the next day, asking for a squirt of syrup, or an orange soda, or a spoonful of pistachio ice cream.

My Auntie Cheeks was still under the sink when my dad finally left. When I told her that my mother and I had to go live with my grandparents, I promised to take her with me.

“Can I live under their sink?” she asked.

The cabinets in my grandparents’ house were filled with pills, herbs, and slimy jars with labels I couldn’t read. I said Auntie Cheeks could probably stay under the pullout bed my mom and I would share in the living room.

“No, I like it here,” she said. “I think I’ll stay.”

My eyes and nose started to leak. My Auntie Cheeks wiped my face with her strong hands. “Go and give your grandma a good face massage. It will keep her young.”

The morning we left our apartment, I scratched at the cupboard like I always did. Auntie Cheeks didn’t push the door open. I put two heart-shaped candies on the linoleum. One said, “U R Sweet” and the other one said, “Dream On.”

Renée Jessica Tan

Renée Jessica Tan has been published in two short story compilations. Most recently, her short story Baghead was read at the Selected Shorts live show at Symphony Space in New York City.  Renée lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband, an illustrator and frequent collaborator, and two cats who are plotting their demise.

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