Authors: David Yoon
You’re coming home?
I wait and wait, but Hanna doesn’t respond.
“Aw,” says Joy, and gives my cheek a squeeze.
The meaning of the words
I love you
could not be clearer in my mind. Much clearer than earlier tonight with Brit, and shaped differently. I say the words because I know—we both know—that one day Mom-n-Dad will be no more, and neither will House Li as the world knows it. It will become something else.
It’ll be just me and Hanna, piecing together our memories of our crazy parents to see how complete a picture we can manage. It will of course never be complete. It will of course be mostly inaccurate. We will of course screw the whole thing up.
And once we eventually grow old and go, that’ll be that.
I open my eyes.
All my joints feel frozen. My left foot is completely asleep. I feel someone touching my face, then realize it’s my own hand, which has also gone completely asleep. I look down to see my body curled like a pretzel into one of the hard seats in the waiting area.
Outside, dawn is breaking.
My mouth tastes like stale Nachitos. “What time is it?”
Q and Joy duck into my field of vision. Their mouths are quivering with barely contained laughter.
Finally they can no longer hold it. “Bahahahahahahahah,” they say.
I sit up and my body lights up with sharp tingles. “What?”
Now it’s the staff’s turn to laugh.
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” says the nurse from before. It looks like his shift is over. “Your dad’s being discharged now.”
I stand and almost immediately fall. “How long was I asleep?”
Joy and Q are still laughing. “Long enough.”
Then Joy aims a sheepish finger at a nearby mirror. When I go to look at it, I see my face has been covered in multicolored scribbles.
Not scribbles. Signatures.
“I had the whole ER staff sign your face,” said Joy. “You snored for four hours straight through the whole thing.”
“We love you, Frank,” says the reception woman behind the glass.
“Your dad’s gonna be just fine,” says someone else.
“It’s on, the story’s on,” says the reception woman. She tap-tap-taps a remote to increase the volume on a nearby TV.
Wake Up! LA
today with a night of terror last night in Hancock,” says the TV, “where police say a man in his midthirties went on a shooting rampage at four separate establishments, injuring five.”
“Huh,” I say. A shot of Fiesta Hoy Market briefly appears, then a photo of a white guy with eyes gone dead.
“The suspect is undergoing questioning by detectives as well as forensic psychologists,” says the TV.
“If that suspect had been black, he’d be too shot-dead to question,” says Q.
“Right?” I scoff, and shake my head.
“Typical,” spits Q.
“I’m gonna wash my face.”
“Wait,” cries Joy. “Let me take a picture of it first.”
As she does, I say, “Just please don’t—”
“I won’t,” she says, meaning
I won’t Snapstory this.
She tucks her phone into her back pocket for no one else to see.
When Mom appears pushing Dad in a wheelchair, I hurry to hug them both.
“Okay, okay, okay,” says Dad, as if warding off a slobbering puppy.
“Okay, okay, okay,” says Mom, same.
We don’t hug much in House Li. For Mom-n-Dad, hugging must feel like
When Animals Attack
“They writing whole your face,” says Mom, covering her laugh. “I signing for Daddy.”
“Joy start it,” says Mom. “She so funny. Especially for girl.”
“Oh, for a girl,” says Joy, laughing. She and I share an eyeroll—but a happy one.
“Girl normally should be smart and quiet and calm,” says Mom. “But Joy so crazy.”
That’s what makes her so badass,
I think. And fuck it, it’s true. So I say it:
“That’s what makes her so badass.”
Dad’s take-home bag drops to the floor, and Q swoops to retrieve it.
“Thanks, Q,” says Dad.
“But of course, Mr. Li.”
“Q is funny name,” says Dad. “Thank you, thank-q, thank-kew, ha.”
“Glad you’re enjoying it as much as I do, Mr. Li.”
We wheel Dad out into the early morning sun. Mom holds my hand like when I was a little kid. I can feel Joy next to me. Q’s got one hand on my shoulder.
Weirdly, I feel like today is one of the best days of my life. It’s a wonderful feeling. We survived something together, we five.
Then my pocket buzzes.
Where are you?
Is Q with you?
It’s Brit. It’s early Monday morning. Time for Calculus.
“Right,” I say. “Today is school.”
“And tomorrow’s SAT round two,” says Joy. “I’m taking the day off to catch up on sleep. You should, too. Sleep is just as important as study when it comes to taking tests.”
My score for SAT round one, by the way, wound up being 1310, which is good but not The-Harvard-good. Joy got a disappointing 1280. Freakin’ Q got 1590—ten points away from perfection, to Q’s endless irritation.
“You can’t just take the day off from school to study for the test,” says Q.
“Pretty sure I just did,” says Joy.
crazy,” says Q.
We laugh, but I stop short. Because I can picture Brit in class staring at my empty seat, without a clue about what kind of night I’ve just been through. Because of me. Because I didn’t let her in.
But really, isn’t it my parents who aren’t letting her in?
I look at the five of us again, walking free in the fresh
dewy air. We seem so happy and light and open to all the possibilities the world has to offer. How can it be, then, that Mom-n-Dad see Brit as white and nothing else? How can that possibly be, now that the world has just shown us we are all human, and mortal, and fragile?
They see Joy as some ideal girl, when in fact she isn’t. They see Q as a school buddy, when in fact he is my brother. How do they see me?
And who are Mom-n-Dad, really? What I see—the little I’m able to see—can’t be the whole picture. There are depths to them I can’t fathom yet. I probably never will.
I realize there’s only a tiny handful of people I really, really know who really, really know me back. Q is one. After tonight, Joy is officially another. I know Brit, but Brit doesn’t know the me of last night. And that’s my fault.
The morning suddenly turns and becomes dry and hot and blinding.
“I think I’m gonna go in to school,” I say. “Right after I drop Mom-n-Dad home.”
“No, we go to Store,” says Dad.
“Customer waiting,” says Mom. “And police coming today. They taking picture and testimony for report.”
“You could take one day off, you know,” I say. “Just a couple stupid days would be okay after freaking getting shot in the chest.”
Q puts a hand on my arm. “Hey. Just let them go be them. Let you go do you.”
“I say that,” cries Joy.
Joy gives Q a high five so robust he must nurse his palm afterward.
Mom drives Dad to The Store, to my unending flabbergast. Q drives Dad’s QL5, first dropping Joy off at her house and then taking us to Palomino High School, home of the Conquistadores.
It’s lunch when we get there. I’m not even hungry—I barely know what time it is—but I head to the cafeteria anyway.
“We should split up,” I say.
Q thinks about that for a moment, then says, “Good thinking,” because he gets it. He knows if Brit saw us together, she’d know something happened last night. And I don’t want her to find out that way. The reason I wanted to come to school was not to maintain my flawless attendance record, but to fill her in myself. Honorably. In person.
But it’s too late. Because there she is.
“Where were you guys?” says Brit.
“Uh,” I say.
“I think I should pee,” says Q, and vanishes like the world’s clumsiest ninja.
“You look like you barely slept,” says Brit, scanning my face. “Did you fix a car or something? Is that grease?”
I thought I’d washed all the writing off, but I guess a few stray marks remain around the edges. There’s no good way to explain my face. It’s all a you-had-to-be-there joke. So I just find myself laughing.
“Signatures,” says Brit. “On your face.”
“I had the craziest night. Let’s go to the greenhouse.”
“Okay,” says Brit, confused. “I guess we’ll just go to the greenhouse.”
As we walk, I squeeze her close so I can feel her hips move with mine with each stride. I smile. I yawn, then yawn again, then remember that yawning is something I do when I’m nervous. I can feel Brit’s eyes watching me.
“What happened?” she whispers.
“I’ll tell you in a sec.”
We turn a corner into a deserted hallway, head outside, and duck behind the greenhouse like usual. Brit slides a hand under my shirt and kisses me.
“Your breath smells terrible,” she says.
“I ate a bunch of chips,” I say. “Sorry.”
“No, I don’t care.” She kisses me again.
“Hi,” I say.
“Tell me what happened last night before I start to worry,” she says.
I wind up with a deep breath. “Okay. So. Dad got shot—no no no, listen, he’s okay. I spent all night at the hospital.”
Brit backs up an inch and simply looks at me with incredulity.
I plow ahead. “The staff were so great. They all signed my face while I was sleeping.” I leave out that the signatures were Joy’s idea. I leave out Q. I feel sick doing this.
Brit sits silently, letting this information trickle through her mind.
I swallow spit gone all sour. “I’m so, so sorry I didn’t call you. It was just such a crazy night. It was late. I was freaking out.”
She rotates one degree away from me on the rickety bench. My ears begin to throb. She doesn’t have to say anything. I can see it in her eyes, which become flat with a growing melancholy.
You didn’t call me.
“I love you,” she says to the tiny flowers before her. “Do you love me?”
I jump at this. “Of course I do.”
“Could you please say it, maybe?”
“I love you, Brit Means.”
As soon as the words leave my lips, she clutches my arm. “Help me understand. Me, I share everything with my parents. They share everything with me. My dad will text me during class about a new sandwich he’s discovered.”
She laughs at the memory.
“Maybe it’s just different with your family,” she says.
You’re goddamn right it’s different,
I want to say.
We barely speak the same language. Literally. You have any idea at all how lucky you are your whole family is fluent in the same freaking language?
Instead, I say: “I’m sorry. I should’ve called you.”
Brit doesn’t seem to hear me. “When you love someone, you want to share everything with them.”
Brit is fluent in the language of Openness, and I realize now that I am not.
I should explain this to her, but it’s all so tiresome and
complicated, and my brain feels staticky with fatigue. So I say “I love you” again and again as a kind of stopgap, because it’s so much simpler just to be in love with Brit behind the greenhouse where no one in the world can see us.
“If you bake cookies in either square, triangle, or circle shapes, and have six different colors of icing, how many different combinations of shape and—”
“Eighteen,” says Q.
“Jesus, at least let me finish the question.”
It’s after school. We’re in his room.
Q yawns. “I think we’re fine for tomorrow.” He means our second official try at the SAT. There is no school the rest of the day. So we’ll either celebrate, or hide in our beds dreading the two weeks it takes to receive our scores.
“Hey, Internet, dim the lights,” says Q to the room.
“Dimming the lights,” says Q’s smart speaker. The ceiling lights soften.
Q picks up a game controller. He yawns again and again.
“I can’t even muster the energy to play anything,” he moans, and drops the controller to lie back with an arm over his eyes.
“Life is pain,” I say.
He ignores my ribbing. “So how did your talk with Brit go?”
“Good,” I say.
“There is no
“There’s always a big
I sigh—that’s a timeworn joke of ours—and lie back with an arm over my eyes, too. There we lie, both with our arms over our eyes. “She was definitely hurt, and I definitely apologized and promised her I would be more open with things.”
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”
“By making her Korean?”
“That feels racist. Are you being racist?”
“Your parents are the ones who are racist. They’re not gonna change anytime soon.”
I already know all this. There’s nothing to say, so I just let my arm press into my eyes until the green-and-black checkerboards begin to swirl.
“Listen,” says Q, softer now. “Don’t get mad. But you need to prepare yourself for the imminent possibility of telling Brit the whole awful truth of what you’ve wrought.”
“Thanks for having my back.”
“I have your back. Your back I have.”
“Doesn’t feel like it right now.”
“Listen—” Q tries to lift my arm up but I hold it firm, and when he releases it I just wind up hitting myself in the face. He does it again and again.
“Why do you like hitting yourself?” he says.
“Gyahguahghghah,” I say, finally bolting up to slap-fight the air. “Why can’t I just date Brit and have fun like a normal teenager? Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?”
Q carves out a perfect cube of air with his hands. “Because, listen: the longer you date Brit, the more you will eventually hurt her. You are amassing a debt of emotional pain that you will eventually have to pay for. You need to tell her sooner than later.”
I grip my knees. He is right. Fuck you, Q, for being so damn right. I don’t know how to tell Brit she’s on a collision course with the hard wall that is Mom-n-Dad. The thought terrifies me. The thought of what could happen afterward terrifies me.
“But I like her,” I say.
“Then you have to decide how hard you want to fight your parents for her.”
“But I’m scared to fight.”
Q opens his hands.
There is the conundrum.
I don’t have to mention Hanna. Q already knows.
“Do your parents want you to date only black girls?” I say.
“Ha, to keep me pure black?”
I laugh. We’ve laughed before about the notion of a pure black. There are so many kinds of black. Nerd black, artistic black, old-skool black, super-black (see also: super-Koreans).
can mean a million things. “It’s funny to hear you call yourself black.”
“But I am,” says Q plainly. “I’m black.”
“I thought you hated all that black-versus-white crap.”
“It’s a false dichotomy. White is an artificial construct.”
“Amen,” I say.
“Black is an artificial construct.”
“But the fact is, as long as white motherfuckers keep being the way they’re being, we’re stuck with these words. They’re gonna call me
. And they’re gonna call you
. And to them it means we’re all the same. But we know the truth.”
We’re entering strange, sensitive territory. Q and I have talked about race a million times, but mostly to make fun of it as an abstract, intellectual concept. We’ve never really gotten that personal about it, until now.
hate having to call yourself black,” I say carefully.
“I’m proud to be black. Black can be whatever you want it to be. That’s what my parents always said from when I was little.”
I imagine Q having heartfelt conversations about race with his parents as a kid. Conversations I never have with Mom-n-Dad.
“So I’m guessing they don’t care who you date, then.”
“You mean like your racist-ass parents?”
“Yes, like my racist-ass parents.”
“So it’s not Amelie.”
“Nice try,” says Q.
“I’ve already told you,” says Q, not bothering to open his eyes. “She’s in love with someone else. The whole thing is moot.”
“But I could help Cyrano de Bergerac you one fling before summer.”
Q lifts his arm and peers at me. “I think we should focus on solving your problem first before we move on to mine.”
This shuts me up. I realize what I’m doing. I just want to be carefree, like in those teen movies where all the kids (meaning all the white kids) get to play their guessing games and act out their love dramas and lie tête-à-tête on moonlit lawns to gaze up at the stars. To wonder about all those higher things: the universe, fate, other philosophica. Not mucky-muck bullshit like the racism of their parents.
“I wish Korean could be whatever I wanted it to be,” I say. “Korean’s like the opposite. Korean’s just the one thing, and nothing else.”
“Super-Korean,” says Q.
“Bingo,” I say. “You know there are these Koreans out there who actually believe Korean is its own separate race, with its own single origin? Forget rich versus poor or strong versus weak; for these fools it’s like Koreans versus Earthlings.”
Q settles in to the end of the sofa opposite me and wiggles his toes into my armpit. “Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, old bean. Sorry that was the hand you were dealt.”
“I could start my own successful billion-dollar music service, but to these fools I’d still be just some Korean guy.”
“A man can be president of the United States, but to similar fools he’d just be some black stereotype. Everything else is trumped for these fools.”
“Kinda wishing I could be white right now. Without the actually being white part.”
“White can be anything it wants and be white last, not first.”
“Although, eh, too many war crimes.”
“True,” says Q.
“I just know I’ll never be able to do Korean right. You know what I mean?”
“Me and my family,” mumbles Q, “we get shit all the time just for the crime of being ourselves. None of our DC relatives think we’re black enough. We got shit when we moved from black Baldwin Hills to white Playa Mesa for Dad’s job. At the last gathering, my uncle made fun of my
accent and said he’d have to
take away my black card
.” Q lifts his arms to make air quotes each time, but with just his middle fingers facing out. He calls them his
Q has Gatherings of his own? And they’re just as annoying as mine?
“We West Coast Lees have always been the black sheep of the family,” says Q. “The black black sheep. So yes, I know what you mean.”
“Hey, Internet, what are black people?” I call to the room.
“Ha ha,” says Q.
I feel something squeeze my toes, one by one.
“Are you squeezing my toes?” I say.
“Mhm,” says Q.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
With that accomplished, Q speaks. “You’re a Korean black
sheep. So are your mom-n-dad. They left Korea for here, after all. We’re all Limbos to some degree.”
“Probably,” I say. “Except Kyung Hee.”
“Who’s Kyung Hee?”
“Ella Chang’s sister. She’s getting married this weekend.”
“Wait,” says Q. “Your dad isn’t gonna try to go to a wedding in his condition, is he?”
I sigh. “He is, even though he really shouldn’t. It’s this whole stupid pride thing.”
“That sounds super Korean.”
“You want super Korean, you should see the groom-to-be. He’s this Korean dude, like Korean-Korean. Kyung Hee’s basically Korean-Korean too. She’s fluent, lives in K-town. She doesn’t even use her English name anymore.”
Q gives a sleepy gasp. “So she chose the tribe.”
“Yup, she chose the tribe.”
“Good for Kyung Hee. Hey, Internet, what are Korean people?”
“It must be so simple for her. She’s chosen to be Korean. None of this hyphenated bullshit. Oh hey, Kyung Hee, where you from?
I’m Korean, Frank.
Full stop. I understand that. I just am unable to make that choice for some reason. You know?”
Q just breathes up into the room.
“Did you just fall asleep on me?”
“No,” says Q, but it’s a sleepy cry, like he’s dreaming of being leg-humped by sewer pipe monsters.
“Don’t you fall asleep on me, William Lee,” I say.
Q does not respond. His breathing fills the room like a
white noise machine. Pretty soon, my eyes close too. So little rest last night at the hospital. We sleep like two boys in a canoe set adrift.
I have a vivid, insane dream where I am walking in a pulsating forest of moist black trees all strung up with red pinlights. Brit walks with me. She’s in a futuristic yellow glow-in-the-dark dress I’m afraid will get stained from the trees. I know the trees are the insides of Dad’s lungs; I know the spongy ground we walk upon is the slowly rising tissue of his diaphragm.
The whole thing could be creepy. But it’s beautiful in a gross way. Brit is just as wonderstruck as me. Her hand in mine can read my mind well enough to hear me think,
Get a load of that up there,
and we both marvel at the light of the full lemon-lit moon. It’s not really the moon. It’s a round perforation 0.22 inches in diameter letting in sunlight from the outside world.
When the moon blots out, I know it is because a great eye has moved in to peer at us through the hole. I let go of Brit and wave at it with both arms amid the constellation of blood-red stars adorning every dark limb. The eye belongs to Joy—I know this—and I bet she can see me way down here.
I wave and wave and yell and yell.