Authors: David Yoon
I’m back at The Store. The three flies buzz above me. It’s not as hot today, so the chocolate can sit outside the walk-in cooler.
It’s quiet. I look around, examining things. There’s a security camera system, aimed right at the counter and cash register. Beneath the counter is a little white button—press it, and the cops show up in minutes, at least in theory. Beneath that is a drawer, and within that is a loaded .38 Special revolver Dad has fired only twice: once at the firing range, and once into the sky during New Year’s Eve.
I snap a pic of scrolls of lottery scratchers encased in Plexiglas and post it with the caption
My dad is mopping the floor when I see him stop, thump his aching arched back with a fist three times, and then resume.
“Dad,” I say. “Let me do that.”
“You know how to doing?”
He makes a point of showing me anyway. He holds the mop handle lightly, with just his fingers, and works it to one side like a gondolier would. He rinses the mop in a wheeled bucket, squeezes it in the vise, and continues on with an almost-easy stroll. It’s a weird way of mopping, to be sure, and when he finally lets me do it I can feel the strain in my back after just a few long sweeps.
Dad works the cash register from his tall stool. An antique alarm clock radio from 1982 plays Korean AM church music and preaching. I understand none of it.
It’s relaxing, this mopping.
Bing-bong. A crazy-haired white man enters, dressed all in black, with plastic bags attached to his every limb. Mom-n-Dad have mentioned him before: The Store’s one and only white customer. Without a single word Dad grabs two six-packs of beer—Porky, the cheapest brand—and bags them: plastic, then paper, then plastic again. He’s got everything ready by the time the man even reaches the counter.
“Hey, Frankie,” says the man. I’ve always wondered if he’s homeless. He looks—and smells—homeless.
My dad’s English name is Frank, too. Frank Sr.
“Charles,” says Dad.
Charles casts a wild eye at me and holds it.
“My son,” says Dad.
“I’ve seen you,” says this crazy Charles dude. “You going to college?”
“Gonna try,” I say as normally as I can, to offset the crazy.
“They teach you how to mop in college?”
“Uh,” I say.
Charles turns to Dad. “Only got a hundred, sorry.”
“No problem,” says Dad, and makes change.
Charles aims his blue-white eyes at me again. “I bet your folks keep you real clean,” he says, and makes to leave. But before he does, he gives me a tiny scroll of paper with icy hands.
“That’s for you, if you’re so smart,” says the man, and leaves, bing-bong.
Dad scoots me back behind the cash register. It’s like he’s worried I’ll fall prey to more Charleses if I’m exposed out among the aisles.
“He very unique person,” says Dad. “Million dollar, he having. He own house, too.”
“Wait, really?” I say. I want to examine the scroll, I want to hear more from Dad, but bing-bong, now here comes a young man with his wife, holding a small baby.
“Paco,” hollers the young man, and salutes Dad.
is short for
, which is Spanish for
“Luis,” says Dad. “You out today? When you afuera?”
“Yesterday, patron. I’m officially on probation.”
“Congratulation,” says Dad. “Beautiful baby, eh? Hey, consentida. ¿Qué es nombre?”
“Veronica,” says the wife.
“Anyway felicitaciones,” says Dad. He tickles the little baby, and the wife holds her higher for him.
The young man, Luis, slides beer and diapers across the counter. “Gimme a loosy too, holmes.”
“You got it,” I say. I tap a cigarette from an open box under the counter and slide it over all sneaky-style. Luis feigns an
itch and discreetly tucks it behind his ear. On his shoulder is a homemade tattoo: F People, the local gang.
“This your son?” says Luis.
“Frank, you saying hi,” says Dad.
“Hey,” I say. “Nice to meet you.”
“Your dad’s a crazy dude, but he family,” says Luis. The words are kind, but he says them flat. He’s examining me: the quality of my skin, my hair, the quality of my clothes, my watch. We come from different worlds. I feel it. His wife is clutching a damp wad of bills and food stamps. That money, I think. There are invisible trails of money everywhere. I can feel those too.
It’s not a good feeling.
I start to ring him up, but Dad stops me. He bags the stuff in a flurry and shoves it all into Luis’s arms.
“Congratulation,” says Dad.
“Thanks, Paco. You know I’m gonna pay you back.”
“Whatever you want,” says Dad with a smile.
They leave, bing-bong. And The Store is quiet again. I touch the phone in my pocket, like a reflex: Brit should be back from her trip by now. I want send her a quick
When can I see you tomorrow?
But where? Our budding relationship can’t just be a clandestine series of greenhouses and minivans.
“Luis get out yesterday, eleven months sentence,” says Dad.
Dad wipes his face with a rag. “Oh, he carjacking, involuntary manslaughter.”
“He pulling white lady from driver side, he throwing her away, car hit her. She die.”
“Luis used to be very cute little boy.”
“Oh yeah? Like when?”
“Maybe six, seven years old. His daddy run away, maybe Arizona, they speculating. Anyway, no daddy, no money. He going gang. Mexican boy, all they going gang.”
“Dad, not every Mexican kid joins a gang.”
But Dad is already dream-talking in his own world. “All they going. Gang.”
Talking to Dad can be like this. You wonder if you’re actually talking to someone or just sitting in on an inner monologue that happens to be spoken aloud. In these moments I do a mental shrug, stop talking, and just try to let the jeong do its thing.
Jeong is kinda hard to pin down. I mean, I’m not exactly expert on all things Korean, but I guess the closest meaning would be something like
. I mostly understand it as
shutting the hell up and just being together
Jeong is nowhere near as satisfying as all the hugs and kisses and
I love you
s other kids get from their parents, but hey, it’s what I got. So I’ll take what I can get.
We stare at the open doorway for a moment. Is the jeong building? I think so. Outside it’s getting to be dusk, and the world is just black silhouettes against a sky of fire.
I think about how Mom-n-Dad know the names of all their customers and their kids. They know who’s dating, who’s getting married, who’s pregnant. They know who’s been shot,
who’s been arrested, who’s gone to jail. They know all these things sometimes even before the families themselves.
They are the keepers of all the news and gossip and drama that passes over the tree-ringed counter, and that makes them the only oral historians for a tiny world that might otherwise go unremembered.
“You study hard, okay?” says Dad. He begins mopping again, even though the floor is already clean. I’ve never seen him truly idle at The Store. “You bringing book here, you reading. Right now it’s quiet time, everybody they eating dinner.”
I think about how determined Mom was to have me here at The Store on Sundays to hang out with Dad. I can’t bring a book and ignore the guy.
“I’m okay,” I say.
“You reading some poetry. You know John Donne? So-called metaphysics.”
We covered those guys in AP English. “Come live with me and be my love” and all that. Most of it sounds like dudes trying to get laid, to be honest.
“Yeah, I know,” I say. “We studied John Donne.”
I don’t know why I say this. Here’s a conversational opening, and all I want to do is cut it off:
yeah, been there, done that, nuff said.
I can see Dad’s face fall a millimeter. My ears get hot, like they always do when I realize I’m being stupid. Me and Dad bonding is like trying to spot-glue two jagged rocks together. There are only so many points of connection. Plus I had no idea Dad even read poetry.
So I say, “What about John Donne?” and Dad instantly brightens.
“He write poem, so-called ‘Flea.’ He say, ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is.’”
I like this poem, actually. It’s a weird one. The guy is trying to use a bloodsucking flea as a metaphor for getting some chick to have sex with him. He’s got game—a weird, sixteenth-century kind of game.
“‘It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,’” I say.
“‘And in this flea our two bloods mingled be,’” says Dad.
He repeats the last part to a phalanx of glass Guadalupe candles. “‘Two bloods mingled be.’”
Bing-bong. Another customer. But something’s wrong. I see Dad freeze up and stare.
A white girl has entered The Store.
It’s Brit Means.
“Hi,” says Brit, and scoots behind the counter—
behind the counter
—to give me a hug. All I can do is stand frozen and watch as Dad’s eyes go big, then shrink, and then harden.
“Heyyyyyyy,” I say.
“Aha,” says Brit. “There are those lottery tickets.”
She saw my photo, duh. And my exact location.
She touches a small ice-cream fridge and raises an eyebrow. “And you have Chocolate Bobaccinos.”
Normally, this would be cause for celebration. A cry for attention on social media, answered in person with a hug by a beautiful girl.
Brit finally notices Dad leaning against his mop handle,
and I can see her take a moment to code switch. She stands a bit more erect. She clasps her hands together.
“Hello,” she says. “I’m Brit.”
Dad looks at her, then at me. “You friend?”
Your turn to speak, Frank. “Yeah, well, we’re in Calculus, we had, um, have, an assignment together, so.”
“You same classmate?”
“Yes,” says Brit Means slowly. “We’re in class together. It’s the same class. It’s Calculus.”
My feet leave the ground. Just an inch. My soles can’t find any purchase.
Brit is talking like you do with an exchange student, or someone hard of hearing.
I try to stomp my feet back to earth, because this code switching shouldn’t bother me. Everyone talks different with parents. Even if it’s the same language.
It’s a tiny shameful wish that keeps me suspended in the air, a white-noise whisper:
I wish Dad could speak English right.
Dad seems satisfied with Brit’s credentials. “Nice meet you,” he says.
“It is very nice to meet you too, Mr. Li,” says Brit.
I give Brit a little helpless look, and she clues in. Brit’s not stupid. She can tell I haven’t told my parents about her yet. She can tell Dad’s not as open about all this boyfriend-girlfriend stuff as, say, her druidic dad is.
So Brit plays along. She seems to recognize that hugs don’t happen around here. So she crosses her feet and hugs herself tight instead.
Dad finally lowers his gaze and pretends to mop the floor. He turns his back. He busies himself away.
Brit leans in an inch. “Hey,” she says.
“He understands English fine, you know, he just sucks at speaking it,” I say quietly. “You don’t have to talk slow or anything.”
Brit looks slightly horrified. “Did I? Oh god, I didn’t even notice.”
“You’re good,” I say.
“I’m that person.”
“You’re good, really,” I say. Out of the corner of my eye I see Dad mop his way farther toward the back of the store. I find her eyes, smile into them. “Hey, I’m really happy to see you.”
She brightens. I’m itching to touch her. I can tell she’s itching to touch me, too. It’s ridiculous. “Can you take a break or something?” she says. “We could go for a walk.”
I shake my head, probably a nanosecond too quickly. “I don’t know if we should. I mean, not around this neighborhood.”
Does that sound terrible? Fuck, it sounds terrible.
But it’s true. One lap around the block for her would be a fool’s parade. Same for me, too, but everyone knows I’m Frank Sr.’s kid, even if I don’t remember who they all are, because I’m here so infrequently, which somehow makes me feel kind of like a dick.
“Oh,” says Brit Means with quiet surprise, as if remembering the existence of a world outside Playa Mesa.
“Hey,” I say.
“It’s okay,” she says. “You’re busy, and I’m keeping them waiting anyway.”
She glances outside. Them? She means her parents. Waiting, in a car parked just outside. They must have stopped by on their way back from their trip. Of course. Why else would they be out here, an hour away from Playa Mesa?
. Dad’s vanished into the walk-in cooler. I sneak a kiss on Brit’s cheek.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at school, okay?” I say. “Okay?”
“Okay,” says Brit, and trails those fingertips of hers along the back of my pinky before leaving.
Bing-bong, and she’s gone. My floating feet touch ground again.
There are too many worlds in my head—Palomino High School, The Store, the Gathering—all with their own confusing laws of nature, gravitational strengths, and speeds of light, and really all I want to do is reach escape velocity, bust out into space, and form my own planet tweaked just how I want it.
Planet Frank. Invitation only.
I take out my phone.
Miss you already.
Brit begins to write something back. She takes a long, long time. But in the end, all she says is:
A week goes by, and it’s time for another monthly Gathering. Dad drives, as a kind of up-front compensation for the likely fact that Mom will have to drive his drunk ass home from the Gathering tonight. In the back seat I feel something in my front pocket: the tiny paper scroll, the one crazy-man Charles handed me at The Store on Sunday.
I unscroll it. It is a photocopy of many handwritten words, all traveling in a spiral toward a central drawing of a naked man, woman, and fetus inscribed in a triangle, circle, square, and finally a pentagon. It feels vaguely astrological. Vaguely satanic. The words don’t help, either:
The Sept of Man inscribes the Septs of Wo-Man and Child in a tri-planar Möbius tetramid resting upon the Present plane. The fourth plane is Fear, the fifth plane is Hope, the sixth plane is Absolute
Solitude. The seventh plane encompasses all planes and is therefor Known as the Infinite Realm of the Vaginal Ouroboros.
And on and on.
My mind is blown, but not in any kind of good way.
“Mom,” I say. “Have you ever read these things?”
Mom glances up from her phone. “I never read. Charles, he crazy.”
“You keeping paper,” says Dad. “Maybe true things he writing.”
“Sure,” I say.
Then Mom-n-Dad fall silent again, thinking their thoughts.
I want to take a picture of the scroll and send it to Brit, but then I’d have to use the flash, and then there would be questions, and then I just kinda give up on the whole idea.
I roll the scroll back up and pocket it. I make a mental note to show it to Brit later.
If this were a movie, now is when I would say my piece, tell them about me and Brit, and there would be arguing and bickering but then the whole thing would end in group hugs and tears, and Mom-n-Dad would realize the melting pot that is the American dream.
This is why I prefer horror movies. There are no group hugs in horror movies.
We get to the Songs’ house: a sleek bunker straight out of
, overlooking a quiet cove by the sea. Not one, but two gleaming QL7s are parked on the hexagonal
concrete driveway. Joy’s dad has done well for himself since coming here. Better than my dad, even though they all started off equal. At least I assume they did.
We enter, take off shoes, bow, all that. Mom-n-Dad force me to say hi in Korean, and when I do everyone makes a big deal out of it. Then Mrs. Song, a watchful osprey of a woman, makes Joy do it.
“Insa jyeom hyae,” she says, and prods Joy’s shoulder blade.
“Annyong haseyo,” says Joy, barely audible.
Everyone makes a big deal out of it.
“Okay, you have fun,” says Mom finally, smiling all stupid.
Everyone—Dad, Mr. Song, Mrs. Song—is smiling at us, all stupid.
“Eyyyy,” I say with jazz hands.
The parents finally vanish to admire the spread—it looks like Mrs. Song has been experimenting with French roasts and sauces—and Joy and I now stand alone.
“Hey,” I say.
“Where’s all the other Limbos?”
“There are no other Limbos.”
I stare at her. “Are you serious?”
“Dude,” says Joy. “We never have Gatherings on weeknights. That didn’t raise a red flag for you?”
“Huh,” I say.
“They sent my little brother to a slumber party. A slumber party, Frank. This whole thing is a setup,” she says.
Joy looks up at me with a mock-serious face, like we’re in a sci-fi epic. “They’re mating us like a couple of goddamn zoo pandas, Frank.”
I do a spit take, but dry. That was funny. This whole thing is funny, if funny suddenly became exasperating. I know they’ve always thought the idea of me and Joy falling in love was cute. But now they’ve gotten serious about it. They’re executing some kind of thought-out plan. And now I realize why.
Because Brit came to The Store.
Because Dad told Mom, and Mom told the families.
This is some kind of roundabout, twisty-turny, circuitous intervention.
If only Brit were aware of the drama she inadvertently caused. If only she knew tonight’s Gathering was, in a way, all about her.
“I guess we should go upstairs and consummate,” I say.
Joy Song literally slaps my head.
“Fuck,” I say.
But it’s a good slap. Strong and dry like three rigid fingers on a batá drum.
“Ugh, let’s just play video games or something,” says Joy, and begins climbing the stairs. “Your parents are stupid.”
parents are stupid.”
parents are stupid.”
We laugh because it’s funny but then stop because the funny doesn’t last.
We climb the rest of the stairs, and I notice she has a tiny tattoo on her ankle. I never knew she had a tattoo.
We reach Joy’s room, and it’s not at all what I expected. Actually, I had no idea what to expect. But it definitely wasn’t this technological garage lab. An entire wall is pegboard, holding coils of cable and solder and wire and tools. Six computer monitors dominate a vast desk made from what looks like a door resting on heavy-duty pipe parts. There is a 3D printer steadily extruding something into existence. There are bins of robotics parts and mini computer breadboards.
This isn’t Apey-level. This is something else.
“Damn,” I say.
“You’ve seen my room before, right?” Joy searches her memory. “I guess it’s been a while, huh.”
There’s a lot of hard science stuff here, but also a
NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED
poster done in luscious calligraphic swashes. The rug is bright orange and canary and lime, all clean and fluffy and fresh. The scent of sandalwood fills the air.
There’s a crystal chandelier, and below it a bed full of childhood stuffed animals, plus a single stray bra that I just kinda stare at.
Joy shoves the bra under a pillow.
I sit on the floor, and Joy’s eyes go big. “Frank Li, have you started smoking?”
“Huh?” I see where she’s looking: the little paper scroll, about the length and diameter of a cigarette, has fallen out of my pocket.
“Oh,” I say. I unscroll the paper. “This dude gave it to me at The Store.”
In a flash Joy is on the floor sitting close to me, looking at the paper with eager eyes.
“Go ahead, check it out,” I say helplessly. So much for showing this to Brit first.
“Oh my god,” says Joy, reading. “Vaginal Ouroboros? And look at the guy’s little pee-pee.”
“There’s a teeny-weeny vajayjay, too.”
“It’s like an insane version of that NASA Pioneer 10 plaque drawing.”
“Ha, it kinda is.”
“You need to frame this. No, wait—you should totally etch this into metal and sneak it into space like a message from humanity.”
“Like, troll the aliens.”
We laugh and wiggle our be-socked toes.
“Did you show this to Hanna?” says Joy. “She’d crack the hell up.”
“Not yet.” Joy has always liked Hanna. I suspect she wants to be like her, not with patent law but industrial design. I know
want to be like her.
“How is Hanna?”
“She’s good, still in Boston, stacking it up. Still with Miles.” My voice cuts in half. There’s an anger in my heart the color of dark red ready to paint the walls with curse words, but there’s no point in getting into all that. I could rage to the sky, but Mom-n-Dad would stay as silent and unmoving as those big stone heads on Easter Island. Joy knows all this without me having to explain it.
So I just say, “You know she married Miles?”
Joy gets quiet. She looks at me with big eyes.
“They went to city hall,” I say. “Took ten minutes and cost twenty-five bucks.”
Now we both get quiet.
“So,” I say.
“So,” says Joy. “Tell me more about Brit.”
“Welp,” I say, hooking my thumbs in my armpits like some kind of proud corn farmer, “she’s super great. You and Wu doing good?”
“You didn’t get all excited and tell your parents about her, did you?”
“You’re funny. You and Wu doing good?”
Joy flops up onto the bed. All the animals bounce. “Eh, we fought again.”
I find a tiny stray bolt in the sherbet-colored carpet. There are tiny nuts, too. I start trying to find one that fits. “What did you fight about this time?”
“The same shit. He wants to take things to the next level, but he doesn’t understand.”
“So, like, anal?”
Joy laughs. A stuffed animal hits me hard in the temple.
“I mean he doesn’t understand how I can’t just keep coming up with infinity number of excuses for my parents as fast as he wants. He wants to meet up almost every single night. It’s impossible. I can’t keep up with that kind of demand.”
“I feel you,” I say. “I’m in the same boat now.”
“Hop aboard,” says Joy to the ceiling.
I try another nut, and another. No match yet. There are more, hidden deep in the carpet’s pile. Something wells up in me, and I jam my fingers into the carpet and grip hard.
“The whole thing is just so absurd,” I say.
Joy goes “Mmm” in agreement.
I pull up the carpet and release it. “Think about what they’re trying to do with us.”
“Mate us like a couple of goddamn zoo pandas.”
“I mean beyond that. Once upon a time they left Korea. They came here. They had kids.”
“They cherry-picked what they wanted from American culture, but for the most part they built this little Korean bubble to live in. They watch nothing but Korean shows, do business with nothing but Korean people, hang out with nothing but Korean friends.”
“Build Korea Towns.”
“And that’s fine. I get that. If I moved to, like, Nepal, you bet I’d go crazy without my American movies and Double-Double cheeseburgers and English-speaking friends.”
“I think there’s an In-N-Out in Nepal.”
I laugh. “But you know what they’re doing right now? With us? They want us to stay inside their bubble.”
Joy sits up and looks at me with her head tilted.
“Their little dream,” I say, “is that we get married and have kids, and that those kids will marry nothing but Koreans and have more kids, and that their bubble will stay intact after they’re gone. They want us to take care of it forever.”
Joy closes her eyes tight. She looks like how I feel: stuck. We’re both stuck. But we’re also both tired of being stuck. She keeps her voice even. “As if we had this huge blind spot for the ninety-eight percent of our school that’s
Korean. That’s like trying to fool ourselves that we’re not really here in America. That’s impossible.”
Joy sighs. “Is it wrong that I sometimes wonder if Wu’s even worth the hassle?”
“Damn,” I say. “Poor Wu.”
“No, shit, I take it back. I love Wu. I really do.”
“Tell me what you love about him.”
“Well, first, he’s totally hot.”
“Blah, blah, blah,” I say.
“But also, he’s really kind, and he loves his family, like, you should see him with his mom and dad and sister and other sister who’s a bitch but whatever. He’s so sweet.”
“That’s actually really cool.”
“Right? And he’s secretly smart about business. Not what
of business to run, but
to run it. You know?”
“You think corporate operational management is boring.”
“No, not at all.”
“No way, no,” I say. “I just don’t really know what it entails. Or care. Because it’s so totally and completely boring.”
“Dick!” But she says it in a kindhearted way.
“Okay, your turn: what’s so great about Brit Means?”
I find a nut, screw it onto the bolt. Perfect fit.
This means something. Brit Means something.
I sigh with contentment and begin. “First of all, she’s totally hot.”
“Blah, blah, blah,” says Joy.
“And she’s smart, and passionate about the environment and biology and stuff. But at a deeper level?”
I snort, then recover. “She just really likes me. And I just really like her. I’m sounding basic, huh.”
“But you can’t tell your parents about her.”
“Doosh, way to bring shit down.”
“Sorry. I’m just so sick of what they want versus what I want.”
“Eh, it’s okay.”
Joy sits up to look at me. “Really, I’m sorry.”
We look at each other, she with her Chinese boy problem, me with my new white girl problem.
I think about Hanna. Was Miles worth it? Does she cry every night in his arms over Mom-n-Dad’s stonewalling? Maybe she’s hardened her heart to it. Maybe she left the bubble, and then burst it with a sharp kick before walking away.
I fast-forward into Hanna’s future. When she buys her first home, do Mom-n-Dad visit? When she has her first child, do they come to the hospital? And Miles, the poor guy—what will he feel like as the years pile on?
There are no good answers for Hanna. Not ever. Just living in between worlds forever, in a limbo much deeper than I yet
know. I find tears swelling my eyes with their warmth. I blink and blink and blink. I want to float off the ground, so I clutch the carpet again to anchor me.
What kind of answers could Hanna possibly have about Mom-n-Dad, who love her—and whom she can’t help but love back—but also never want to see her again? They made a choice, and ultimately they chose the amber bubble over all else.
Oh my god, Hanna, did you make the right choice?
And am I destined to eventually face the same choice?
The mere existence of such a choice makes me want to punch the world flat.
It’s just me and Hanna. The Book of Li ends with us two.
I take a breath. Joy hasn’t noticed my wet eyes. When she is looking elsewhere, I squeegee them dry with my thumbs.
It occurs to me that the brainlock is not with us Limbos. It’s with
Our parents are fooling themselves that they’re not really in this world, here in America.
And I get an idea.
“Huh,” is all I can say. “Huh.”
“Listen.” I take a breath. “I just thought of a big what-if.”