Authors: David Yoon
“Frankie. We protecting your future. You understand me, right?”
I do and don’t at the same time. It confounds me how they managed to hide all this. They’ve been faking it for weeks.
“Does anyone at the Gathering know?” I say.
“Oh no,” says Mom gravely. “If we say something, everybody so worry. Too much talking-talking, too much stress. We waiting first Daddy get better, then we telling everybody. I hope so. I hope so.”
Mom’s voice shrinks until it’s nothing. I just stare at her for a long while. She’s looking at something in my room. It’s my night-light, which I’ve had since I was little. It’s twin baby star angels snuggled up to sleep upon a cloud in the heavens. I always assumed they were me and Hanna. But now I think they could be Mom-n-Dad.
“Is he gonna be okay?” I say finally.
“Doctor say six month,” says Mom. She nods to herself absently in the dark. “Six, maybe twelve month, yeah. Six to twelve month.”
My mind goes blank.
I can see Mom’s teeth flash as she bares them. “Why he get cancer? He eating so good. No smoking, no drug. No too much drinking. Maybe he working too much. But he sleep good. Why he get cancer?”
Now it’s my turn to cry. Mom squeezes the tears out of my eyes with her thumbs and wipes them up on the shoulders of her sleeves.
“You praying God every day,” says Mom. “I praying every day.”
“Okay,” I say, even though I’m undecided on prayer. I just say
to say okay for Mom’s sake.
is my prayer.
Dad’s freak-out at the party now makes a kind of sense. There is no more room for any kind of crap from anyone anymore in Dad’s life. All the room has been taken up by the one big thing. There is no bigger thing anywhere.
I lie still in bed. I feel the air drift in to fill the space created
by her absence. I sink down. Something is pushing me from above. It’s panic.
There’s an end coming.
Once upon a time, Dad was born. A bunch of shit happened as he grew up and grew older. I know none of those details. He married Mom, moved here, started The Store. He worked every day without a single break.
And now there’s an end coming.
How much of my dad do I know? He never tells me about his childhood, or his adulthood for that matter. I know some basic facts: his date and place of birth, what kinds of foods he likes, his favorite English poets, and so on. But now I realize it’s not much. Then again, how much is there to really know about a person? Dad settled into his role as breadwinner, expected me to settle into my role as disciplined academic, and we both put our noses to the grindstone and never looked back up.
There is jeong, though: that time spent wordlessly bonding. So I begin to calculate our time spent together. A few minutes each evening. Sundays at The Store for the last couple summers. I do some rough numbers.
It adds up to about three hundred hours. A baker’s dozen of days.
Who is this man who was my dad?
Is, Frank. He’s not dead yet.
But he will be.
Panic seizes me again. I breathe faster and faster. I press into the pillow to muffle the sound of my cries, and wonder
at the cold mystery of it all: cold as a statue ruin in the moonlight whose meaning has long been lost. Dad—this man whose house I live in—contains clues about myself. There are things I do and say and like and excel at that might have their origins in him somewhere, but I’ll never know now.
I am panicking because I realize I’ve been desperate to know Dad my whole life. I learned a long time ago that such a hope was impossible with an impenetrable statue ruin like him. So I gave up. Moreover, I pretended
I didn’t care
if I never knew him. I pretended I was okay living as a Limbo, belonging nowhere, a son without even the most basic connection to the man who fathered him.
But it turns out I care very much. I cared this whole time.
And now that there’s an end coming, I now know that the eternal mystery of Dad will forever remain precisely that: an eternal mystery.
Should I have worked at The Store with him more?
Should I have learned Korean better?
Should I have tried harder?
Did I make Dad happy?
It takes me hours to sleep.
When I do, I have a vivid, insane dream.
I am in a vast pulsating forest of moist black trees. They are all strung up with red pinlights. It must be a new moon, because I can’t find any white disk in the sky, 0.22 inches in diameter or otherwise, sun or moon. The ground is spongy. It rises and falls slowly.
This forest is not contained by the finite boundaries of
Dad’s lungs. This forest is endless, and I wander for hours and days and weeks searching for an exit. I try my best to not touch the trees. They will stain me with their wet black. After hours and days and weeks of searching, I am marked here and there with dark lines of their muck, and still remain trapped as ever.
I am alone this time. There’s no Brit in a futuristic yellow dress. There’s no Joy peering at me through a hole far above. Just me.
Finally I realize something. This forest is the way it is because there is no love here. Who would accept such a revolting place? This lack of love is the key. I’m sure of it. As a test, I approach a tree, take a deep breath, and wrap my arms around the trunk.
The bark is lukewarm and slimy and acrid like medicine. I close my eyes and hug harder. I feel branches begin to move around me. From all sides they come, increasing their embrace as I tighten mine. Soon, I’m covered in black limbs. They smother me with their awful warmth.
All at once, the trees pull away. I can’t lift my feet. I’m rooted in the spongy ground. I am covered head to toe with tarry goo. My chest begins to glow with a point of red light. It’s my heart, and it’s the brightest red pinlight in this whole place. I am now a black tree in the exact center of the black forest.
I blink. Suddenly the muck has evaporated to leave the trees dry and gray and clean. I look down: I am now clean, too.
I blink again, and a sun has begun to rise.
Blink: The trees have color now and are laden with brilliant green leaves.
Blink: They’ve parted to form a tunnel of foliage leading to an exit. The forest is letting me go. I walk out onto a rolling meadow full of people and picnics and kids running games on warmed earth that beats with each spirited step.
Blink, and it’s morning in my bedroom.
I am awake.
I am awake.
The stupid sun is dancing its beams through the tree outside my bedroom window, all chipper and shit. It feels late. How long have I been sleeping? I check my alarm clock—a vintage analog folding compact model, no bedside fartphones for me—and see it’s almost eleven thirty.
I am a teenager. We are supposed to sleep the crap out of our beds. But eleven thirty seems excessive, even to me.
I get up. I shower until I’m red. I need a haircut. When I comb out my wet hair, it’s long enough to tie together with one of Hanna’s old hair bands. I leave it that way—why not—and change into my summer outfit: cargo shorts, Front 242 tank, wrist elastics, all in a rainbow of blacks of different hues.
Summer is almost here.
It’s 85 degrees, and this being Southern California it’ll stay that way until it’s time for school to start again. But when school starts again, I won’t be here anymore. None of us will. We’ll all be somewhere else, depending on the will of the admissions gods.
Just woke up,
What the hell happened?
Do our families suddenly hate each other or something?
It’s that, but it’s also not that.
I sit up.
I’ll tell you all about it in person.
They said they don’t want me to see you anymore,
I don’t understand what’s going on
They said the same thing to me,
We should talk.
Sorry one sec,
Shopping for dorm stuff right now
Dorm stuff. College.
Little early, don’t you think?
The only thing I hate more than shopping,
is long checkout lines
I wait for her to text back some more, but I guess she’s busy. I head downstairs to find a pink box and some money sitting on the counter. Open the box, and behold: donuts, and a note.
You don’t working at Store today OK Frankie don’t worry Daddy he will be fine. I helping him you relax maybe go to Q house and play game together OK? Don’t worry anything I love you.
I stare at the words
I love you.
“I love you too, Mom,” I say, mostly to see how saying those words would feel. It feels funny and a little embarrassing, like a phrase in a foreign language—
Je t’aime, Maman
—but I don’t care.
I can’t believe Dad still went to The Store knowing he has a terminal illness. But then again, he’s been going to The Store for weeks. He’s known for weeks. If it were me? If I had learned I had six to twelve months? I would drop everything and go skydiving, race cars, go to music festivals, do anything besides stand around at The Store.
But that’s because I don’t know anything about life, and am therefore an asshole.
Dad worked The Store with his two bare hands, right alongside Mom. He knows everyone who passes through its doors. Every day Mom-n-Dad work, and every night they stack up the bills on the coffee table and do the accounting.
To Dad, The Store must provide a kind of comfort I could never imagine.
Skydiving doesn’t provide comfort. Neither do race cars or music festivals or blablabla.
If I found out right now that I had six to twelve, where would I go for comfort?
I look at my phone again.
I want to see you,
I want to see you,
says Joy, at the same time.
I don’t care, to be honest,
Eh. Can’t deal with people today.
The beach? A hike?
How about this,
You just come over here.
After what happened last night? Isn’t your mom gonna be there?
She’s at The Store until 3 today.
You sure, yubs?
Just come over.
I put the phone in my pocket, and the house falls silent but for the white waves of freeway traffic coming over the high backyard wall. I realize I’ve never recorded that sound before. I should. But I can’t bother right now.
I head upstairs into Hanna’s room.
The place looks like she left without much thought. Everything’s the same—movie posters on the walls, shelves spilling with old compact discs and vinyl and books, all waiting for her to return and tidy things up. I wonder if Mom-n-Dad
are hoping she will return someday, somehow. Maybe that’s why they left her room untouched.
I lie on her bed. I can feel the weight of my phone in my pocket.
Does she already somehow know about Dad?
I can imagine Hanna learning about Dad via one of Mom’s crazy mom-emails, and the mixture of terror and frustration and anger such a message would produce. I wonder if Hanna’s supposed to learn something like this through an email from Mom—they don’t talk on the phone anymore—or if I should tell her.
I call Hanna.
Hey, it’s Hanna, leave a message.
I kill the call.
I like Hanna’s room. Hanna’s room feels cool. I don’t care if she’s probably long over it and everything it contains.
I miss my big sister.
I’m in your room looking through all your crap,
Hanna doesn’t text back.
I wander to the guest room, which we call the storage room since we almost never have guests. In the far back of the crawl-in closet—there, in the far, far back—is an old black spy suitcase made by Legionite, some defunct company from the 1970s.
I spin the brass combo lock wheels with my thumbs: 7-7-7 for the left latch, 9-9-9 for the right.
Inside the suitcase are artifacts from another time. Among them:
A name tag from an extinct restaurant named Cup-N-Saucer etched with the gaily dancing eponymous cartoon characters and the word
. Diane is Mom’s English name, D+I+A+N+E+L+I making seven letters.
A still-new ten-pack of ballpoint pens printed with the address of
EAT MY KR
, one of the first businesses Mom-n-Dad tried out. The pens are so old the phone numbers on them don’t even have area codes.
A little wooden abacus
A flaking book in Korean about Victorian literature filled with underlined passages. The inside cover has
ERTY OF FRANK LI
in Dad’s panicked handwriting. Frank is Dad’s English name. It is also mine.
A tough old yearbook from Mom’s high school. I open it to her picture—I’ve dog-eared the page—and see her at my age. She’s pretty. She’s in a uniform. All the kids are in uniform. Everything’s in Korean. There are no autographs, because I guess back then in the Korean countryside no one did stuff like that to such an expensive item.
Three marble signature stamps and a lacquered black compact that unscrews to reveal a vermillion-red ink pad
Everything about this spy suitcase makes me want to cry, and I know why. Because it’s such a small, light case—
luggage was smaller back then—and yet it contains all there is.
Dad will be gone soon.
One day Mom will be gone, too.
Maybe I’ll have kids one day. They’ll ask me all about my life. It’ll be easy to give them answers. We will speak the same English. We will be able to look up all my shit on the Internet, if we’re still calling it the Internet. We’ll talk about my hopes and dreams and fears and how they compare with their hopes and dreams and fears. Then we’ll openly say
I love you
and hug, because Americans are huggers, dammit.
Then they’ll ask me about all the stuff in this suitcase, and I won’t be able to explain half of it. Not even close. This small, light suitcase will be to them what it is to me.
I parked down the street,
I wipe my eyes and stand.
I’ll be at the front door,
When I open it, there stands Joy in the outside heat in all her summer dress glory.
“Hi,” I say.
Joy grabs my head and kisses it, and for a moment it’s the only sound in the whole house.
“What’s wrong?” she says, because Joy can tell when she’s kissing a statue.
I want to tell her. But not here. I will for-sure cry. I will become dizzy with tears and fall, and my head will strike the nearby bronze figurine of a bronco bucking an astonished infant cowboy and inflict a debilitating concussion. So I say,
“Wanna see some cool old stuff?” and lead her to the spy suitcase.
“Are you okay?” says Joy.
“Yes,” I say, walking. “No.”
“Last night was a shit show.”
I sit her down on the soft, nonconcussive carpet before the suitcase.
“Huh,” says Joy. “Is this all your mom-n-dad’s old stuff?”
I nod. One small suitcase. My eyes sting with tears, so I lie down and let them pool as if I were catching raindrops.
“Hey,” says Joy. She leans over me and caresses my cheek. “Hey, hey, hey.”
I sniff. I have the crazy urge to lay into her dad, right here in front of Joy, for talking shit about me. But I keep it cool. “What did your mom-n-dad say about last night?”
Joy jets her hair again. “Something about your dad not having a sense of humor. Dad implied it’s because your mom-n-dad are from the sticks. Are they?”
I blink away the raindrops. “Apparently they are.”
“From the sticks.”
“And apparently, your mom-n-dad have been making fun of my mom-n-dad basically for their entire friendship.”
Joy recoils at this news. “So my mom-n-dad are king dicks?”
is an old joke of ours, because
in Korean and
in Casual English Vulgar, and you could therefore say it
if you wanted to. Even now, even in the state I’m in, I just have to laugh a tiny laugh.
That’s Joy for you.
“Either that,” I say, “or my dad’s a psycho with an inferiority complex.”
“What the fuck,” says Joy.
“Or both,” I say.
“These are our parents?” says Joy.
“Apparently,” I say, and latch the spy suitcase shut. I push it away into the crawl-in and close the closet.
Joy stares at the flattened rectangle of carpet where the case had lain. “I hate them right now.”
“Someone once told me you have to hate your parents in order to leave them,” I say.
“That makes absolutely no sense,” says Joy. “I’m just saying I hate them right at this moment, not forever, because hopefully they’ll figure it out and quit being dicks.”
She has on this defiant look. She can do this because she doesn’t know the whole story. I wish I could be defiant, too. It would be simpler.
“My dad, he’s . . . ” I begin, and the tears creep back.
Joy holds me still. “Hey. Their relationship is their relationship, and it has nothing to do with ours. Okay?”
She’s right, but this is not the problem really, not really at all, but she doesn’t know that, and I don’t want to talk right now. I can’t bear the thought of talking right now.
So I kiss her. The kiss astonishes us both so much that we must kiss again to make sure we both felt the same thing, and then again and again. Each kiss washes warm water over my racing mind. Calming it.
I let her lay me down. I let things happen, as slow as they need to. There is no rush. There is no expectation. I let myself drift from sensation to sensation.
And afterward, as we both lie in a parallelogram of dusty light, I cling to her because it turns out this is what I need right now: to be naked and vulnerable but safe in her arms at the same time. We take long breaths. Before me I see the bright corona of her eyes, the wispy baby hairs at her temple, a little mole on her chest. The air in the room seems to attenuate to the rising and falling of our chests.
“So listen,” I say finally. “My dad has cancer.”
“The doctor said six to twelve months.”
“. . .”
“Oh no,” says Joy again and again. “Oh no, oh no.”
She asks what kind it is, when he found out, all that. I tell her. She says she gets it now—she gets why Dad would freak out at the party like he did. Anyone under that kind of stress would be ready to snap. She understands this quickly, because she is Joy.
“I have to tell Mom-n-Dad,” says Joy.
“Don’t do that,” I say.
“But then they’d understand why your dad got so mad.”
“My mom doesn’t want anyone to know. She says it’ll cause all kinds of stress.”
“But—if I had cancer, the first thing I’d do is tell my close friends.”
“She’s afraid of burdening people with heavy news,” I say.
“She says she wants to wait till Dad gets better to tell everyone.”
Joy’s face unfolds. “But yubs . . .”
“Your dad isn’t gonna get better.”
“I know,” I cry, and bury my face in her neck.
“Shh,” is all Joy will say, because what else is there to say? She holds my head and rocks it for a long time. For a long moment I feel like I’ll fall asleep. Joy says “Shh” and “Shh,” again and again, and I never want her to stop.
Joy takes a breath as she realizes something. “I guess we should lie low for a while, huh.”
Joy is right. Because imagine Dad coming home to find his ex–best friend’s daughter here. He wouldn’t yell, or kick Joy out, or accuse me of betrayal. Nothing as dramatic as that.
Instead, he would just get really sad. And cancer feasts upon sad. Cancer is uniquely evil in that way.
“Yeah, we should,” I say.
“Just when we were done with the fake dating,” says Joy.
“Hi, irony,” I say.
“Should we fire up the shared calendar again?”