Stingy, Three Ways
Tina S. Zhu
Our mother used to say my brother and I were the stingy ones and that my sister had the right idea. Because too much is always better than too little. Three kids are better than two kids are better than one. Three kids married off and with their own children would be best. Only my sister was married, and now none of us are.
It’s because all three of you are too stingy, she says. None of you have ever been willing to spend on anything important.
When me and my brother visited my big sister’s house for Christmas for the final time, we saw she had bags and bags of clothes, brand new, unworn, in the closet. They weren’t gifts, she said. She wasn’t practicing to be Santa.
When I move into my new apartment the first week of January, I ask my brother for help instead of my sister. My brother lives in a studio apartment with only a barstool for the kitchen counter, a coffee table, and a mattress on a cart, no frame. No other furniture, not even a desk. He works in coffee shops and libraries instead. A girl broke up with him once, and he bought a single Kleenex box for his tears. He is a sworn minimalist when it comes to everything except toilet paper, which he buys in bulk from Costco because you never know when the world will end.
When I was a teenager, I watched an episode of Hoarders on TLC and wondered whether anyone could store that much stuff in one house. Then my big sister divorced and wanted to sell the house in the spring. She had lived there for seven years, marking each year with a family photo to hang above the stairs. She ordered us not to take them down.
When each of us moved out of our parents’ house, our mother gave each of us a gift. My sister received a jade necklace to ward off evil spirits. My brother, a laundry hamper. Me, forty dollars so I couldn’t complain my gift was bad.
Before my move, I packed up everything into boxes, only to discover there was more that I had forgotten to pack after I was already out of boxes. Then I used up all my garbage bags.
Things I packed:
Tarot cards, headphones, free earbuds, oyster sauce, the fancy rice cooker from my cousin I had never used, the postcards from every tourist trap I had ever visited, my gel pen collection, Clorox wipes.
Things I gave away or sold:
The panini press I used once, the Brita water filter, the ukulele that had been in my family since I was seven that never stayed in tune and couldn’t fit in my luggage.
Things I recycled or threw out:
Unused notebooks with pretty covers, the llama farm postcard from the ex-girlfriend, fading free T-shirts from high school, a half-used container of baking powder.
What we found in my sister’s closet while sorting: a ten-pack of toothbrushes from Costco, an earthquake emergency kit, ten winter coats for an East Coast winter that would never come to California, ten pairs of jeans, all the wrong size, as she gained and lost weight because of her diets and before and after giving birth, three backup trench coats, divorce papers, a Xeroxed copy of the divorce papers, photo albums of her children, manilla folders of her children’s toddler scribbles, all the notebooks from college, all the photos of the grandparents we had never met she didn’t want to throw out or give back to our parents, all the things she would buy when trying out a new hobby and promptly forget about when she decided they weren’t for her after a few months, defective mousetraps.
My friend tells me the panini press I gave her is broken.
I gave my brother a new pair of headphones as an early Christmas-slash-birthday present, and he asked me if I wanted his old ones since he couldn’t have two pairs at once.
I already own two headphones and three pairs of free earbuds from career fairs and work, I told him. And what’s wrong with having extra?
So he gave the old pair to our nephew, finding wrapping paper in our sister’s closet and placing it under the Christmas tree.
When our sister was too busy with the kids to notice, my brother replaced the defective mousetraps with working ones fresh from Home Depot while I took down the photos above the stairs. She told me to stop. I relented, instead cutting out the ex-husband from the photos, leaving a man-shaped gap where he once was, and putting the frames back up as she watched me.
My brother and I return to our sister’s at the end of February. The photos I defaced welcome us from their perch above the stairs. What we don’t find in my sister’s closet: photos of her without the kids, the origami paper her kids have been asking for because it disappeared a month ago, her son’s first-grade report card, photos of her ex-husband, her wedding ring, or any of her ex-husband’s clothes.
Tina S. Zhu writes from NYC. Her work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Pidgeonholes, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other places. She can be found at tinaszhu.com.