Authors: Anastasia Vitsky
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Erotica, #Romantic, #Romance, #Contemporary
I’m guessing it’s because the middle-school kids told him where to go.
“Take out your books!” he barks, and I slide my childish textbook out of my bag.
“Today we’re going to talk about birthdays,” he says, writing the word on the chalkboard. “Birthdays. Tasha, read the first paragraph.”
Next to a picture of a cake with flaming candles is the text that Tasha hesitantly reads out loud. Her accent is perfect in conversation, but most of her language learning was hearing her parents speak it. She struggles with the reading.
is the first birthday that a baby celebrates. Another important birthday is
, or a person’s sixtieth birthday. Although it is not a birthday, the one hundredth day of a baby’s life is often celebrated with
, sticky rice cakes.”
!” says Ah-ee. She is my roommate, temptation in a five-foot-three frame. Nearly every time she brings me to a party, the following day my schoolwork suffers. Her work, naturally, is at the top of the class.
Unfairness sucks, too.
“Shh!” says Lee Sonsengnim. Then he calls on her, his favorite tactic for discouraging talking out of turn. “You next, Ah-ee-ssi.”
A smother of giggles erupt. Ah-ee’s name sounds like the word for “child”, and during class our teachers use “ssi” after our names to be formal. Except if you put “ssi” after “Ah-ee” and say all of the syllables quickly, it sounds a bit like a swear word. Annoyed, I doodle in the margin of my textbook. The grammar of each lesson is easy and the reading comprehension easier, but the rapid-fire conversation is hard to follow. Most of the other students grew up at least hearing other languages in their home. I grew up with English only. Stupid Americans.
My head snaps back.
Something something something dream something mother something something born
I catch only the three words, but the short reading text has given me enough information to guess.
“I don’t know,” I answer.
“Why don’t you know? I asked you a question. Something something dream something something born.”
“I don’t know,” I repeat.
More titters around the class. He comes closer to me, head tilted downward and frown prominent.
“Why don’t you know?” he asks again. When I first started I asked to be promoted to the level three class, even though I tested into level two, because I wanted the challenge. I didn’t realize that reading skills weren’t enough and that I would be unable to explain myself during the lessons. English is off-limits during school hours.
“I don’t know,” I repeat through gritted teeth. My fingers ball into fists as I will myself not to make eye contact.
“I asked you a question, Mira. Please answer or be dismissed from class.”
I don’t dare get any reports sent to my tutor. She’s warned what will happen if I slack this term.
“I don’t know because I was adopted.”
The titters stop immediately. He freezes mid-stride, and for a moment not a breath or sound stirs in the room. One tear rolls down my cheek as I stare unseeingly at the book in front of me.
“Kumiko, tell me about the dreams your mother had.”
With a collective sigh, heads turn toward the tiny, bright-voiced girl who always has the right answer.
“My mom had a dream about a peach, and my grandfather said it meant I was going to be a girl, so…”
Another tear drips off the end of my nose, but I will not call further attention to myself by pulling out a tissue or raising my arm to wipe my face. I blink fast at first, hoping to clear my eyes, but they are so full of liquid that the closing only squeezes out more tears. Instead I hold them open for as long as I can, convincing myself that it is water from the not blinking rather than more tears.
At break, our class leader comes to squat in front of my desk. I still have not moved or turned over a page.
“Are you okay? Everyone’s worried about you.”
“Do you need anything?”
I start to shake my head, and then I stop.
“Can you tell him that I needed to go home?”
Pedro nods, tries to pat my arm, and withdraws it when I flinch.
“Let me know if you need anything?”
“Thanks,” I answer. “I’d just like to go home.”
It’s a quick walk back to the dormitory, but instead I wander to the park nearly in our backyard. Or front yard, technically. The best part about living in the heart of the city is being close to the action. Even though it is a weekday morning the park is full of young children not yet in school. One little girl in a red hat screams as she whizzes down a tall slide, and a chubby boy too young to walk terrifies a pigeon by throwing bread at its head. I half-wish I could careen down the slide, too, but instead I sit on the brick circle around one of the gingko trees. We live next to a famous art school, and there is always at least one art student set up with an easel and sketch pad. Today, it’s a twenty-something boy earnestly applying charcoal to the page. When I creep close enough to peek, I see that it’s an enlarged drawing of the brick paving. My surprise must show on my face because he answers me with a rush of words I can’t understand, pointing to the paving. I smile instead and shrug my shoulders in apology. Finally, I settle for a thumbs-up.
“Okay,” I say. It’s the universal language, complete with the gesture.
“Okay,” he repeats, holding his thumb up to me in return.
I shift uncomfortably in my seat. It’s not often that she visits campus because she is adjunct rather than full-time, and her high school teaching takes priority. Usually.
“Please explain why you missed class yesterday afternoon.”
Instead of the crowded office that many of the teachers share, she’s taken me into an empty classroom. The empty teacher’s desk stands solid and grey against the green background of chalkboard. I sit in a student desk and rub my finger against the small swing-out platform we use for writing.
“Pedro said he would tell Lee Sonsengnim…”
“Please answer the question, Mira.”
In school, it’s Mira-ssi. With her, it’s Mira.
“I don’t like conversation class?”
It’s taking a risk, but a calculated one. And it works.
“You promised me that you’d bring up your grades this term. It took a lot of negotiating to take out your records from the last one.”
Some things are more important.
“Mira, you know what we agreed last term. Can you please tell me why it shouldn’t happen?”
“Can” is not the same as “will”. I shake my head, and at her sigh I push my chair back to stand up.
“Wait please,” she says, and I stand in front of her desk while she leaves the room.
Without thinking, I put a hand on my bottom. Wince. Wonder if I am making the right decision. As she returns empty-handed and quizzical, I quickly stand at attention.
I place my hands on her desk and start to bend over the way she showed me long ago, but her fingers reach around my elbow to pull me upright. I draw my mouth muscles in and squint at her. Does she want me to hold out my hand? How will I write afterward?
“I met Lee Sonsengnim in the hallway.”
“He says to apologize to you.”
No. This is not happening.
“I’m going to ask you this again. Will you please tell me what’s going on?”
I say the only thing that comes to mind. “I’m an irresponsible student who skips class.”
This time, though, the distraction is unsuccessful. She nods toward the student desk for me to sit down, and she draws up the big wooden teacher chair next to me.
“I asked you a question, Mira-ssi.”
“Yes, Sonsengnim.” The response is automatic, as is the shift in posture. Eyes cast down, back straight, and shoulders ever so slightly shifted forward.
“I, um, couldn’t answer Lee Sonsengnim’s question.”
“I haven’t been studying hard enough, and I didn’t understand the lesson. I was wrong. I’m sorry. I’ll work harder.”
It is the correct formula.
I was wrong. I’m sorry. I will work harder
It’s a way to address children, the “ya” after the name. Teachers don’t use it to address their students. Usually.
“Mira-ya, Lee Sonsengnim says that you were crying.”
I don’t answer.
“He thought you didn’t understand the question because the level three class is hard for you. He didn’t realize it was an awkward question.”
I throw my head back. “I didn’t understand. I told you already, I was a bad student.”
She adjusts her glint-gold glasses. “I won’t tell anyone about your family situation. But please don’t leave class because you’re upset. You’ve already lost your chance for this month’s scholarship.”
Every month, the top-rated students in each class who have perfect attendance are eligible for a partial tuition scholarship. Even being late once, however, is enough to become ineligible. No more dance club visits until next month, I guess.
“And I have to put you on probation.”
“No…” It slips out before I can stop myself. I did agree to this, at least last term when we negotiated the conditions of repeating the coursework.
“I’m sorry, Mira, but Director Choi insisted. So I will need you to bring progress reports to me every Wednesday. Ask Assistant Lee for the paperwork, please.”
She stands up. I rise to my feet immediately. I half-expect and half-fear her hug, but instead she puts a hand on my shoulder.
I stand still. It is rude not to respond, but I don’t know what to say.
“Please don’t ever lie to me again. I know that lesson wasn’t too difficult for you.”
Before I can think of a response, she is gone.
That night, I laboriously write out an answer to Lee Sonsengnim’s questions in the journal we are required to keep daily.
Before I was born, my mother dreamed about a tiger. My grandfather thought I would be a boy. My father said no. He wanted a girl. He fed my mother grapes and peaches and pears. They were very expensive. When I was born, my grandfather was surprised. My grandmother was surprised, too. My mother let me taste pear juice when I was a baby. Now my favorite fruit is a pear.
The next day, Lee Sonsengnim returns my journal with tiny, precise lettering in the bottom margin.
You did well.
“Come on!” Ah-ee drags me by the hand onto the dance floor. There is hardly enough room to stand up, let alone dance. She throws her arms into the air and gyrates wildly, uncaring which bodies she bumps into. The beat is heavy and the volume high. The stink of cheap beer and hot bodies mixes with the taste of salted peanuts in my mouth. I feel faint.
Even though I can’t hear her, I can see Ah-ee’s lips moving. Normally I can out-dance her even on an off-day, but tonight I crawl through the tunnel of bodies back to the bar.
“Soju?” the server asks, holding up a bottle. I shake my head.
“Water, please,” I say instead. “Cold.”
I forget to specify
water, though, and instead he brings me the cold barley tea that is substituted for plain water. I make a face at the scented water that never goes down quite right, but I hold the iced grainy liquid in my mouth before letting it slide down my throat, cooling as it descends. I cup an ice cube in my hand and dab its wet coldness against my forehead, chin, and back of my neck. It may be cold outside, but it’s hot inside.
The half-melted ice cube slips out of my fingers, and I turn indignantly to stare at a boy who looks vaguely familiar. Where have I seen him before?
“Okay!” he exclaims, holding up his thumb, and it hits me. Of course! In the park.
“Okay!” I answer back, holding up my own thumb. So artists like to dance, do they? Or at least to drink. I take his hand and tug for him to follow me back to the dance floor. His look of surprise escapes my notice as I shake myself to the music.
“Dance!” I shout toward him, and even if he can’t hear me he surely can gather my meaning from body language. He raises his own arms, and for a moment I freeze to watch his emphatic, sharp-angled twists and turns. He keeps time to his own music, knocking elbows on one side while bumping into the backside of another. I raise my own arms to imitate him, and his grin grows wider.
“Okay!” he calls out to me, and I grin back.
When Ah-ee comes to tell me that it’s half past eleven and we need to leave now in order to make our dormitory’s midnight curfew, I throw my arms around the artist dancer.
“Thank you!” I exclaim soggily even as Ah-ee drags me away. “Enjoy your pavement!”
As I sing snatches of the latest television commercials on the walk to the subway, Ah-ee shakes her head.
“You’d think you hadn’t been out clubbing for a month or something,” she teases.
“I am,” I announce thickly, “hot.”
“Very hot,” I add. For some reason, that seems important.
“Come on,” she says again, pushing me onto the platform when the subway arrives at our stop. “I’m not letting you stay at the bar without me next time. How much did you have?”
“One glass of barley tea,” I inform her with great dignity. “And I do not need the elevator.”
She’s already brought me to the elevator carrel, however, and we whoosh up to ground level. Exit only to ignore the glares of passersby who watch two young, able-bodied girls using the handicapped transportation.
“Ah-ee-ssi,” I say being careful to keep the syllables from smooshing together, “I love you.”
“No more barley tea for you,” she says as we rush to the front door of our dormitory just before midnight. The security guard lets us in, and Ah-ee’s sigh of relief is even louder than mine.