After my parents were divorced I fell in love with the ugliest girl in my white high school. This was what I believed—the love part, I mean; the ugly part was true.
Photo courtesy David Schmidt.
Edison High and Kwonsun Hakkyo
In a way, my parents met in high school. They were pen pals for three years. As a graduation gift, my American grandparents agreed to send my father to Korea; eleven months after that trip, he flew back to get my mother and me. Sometimes I think about that two-month difference. Did he hesitate? I wonder if the issue was my grandparents—they never loved me enough. I wonder what would have happened if the condom hadn’t broken. I bet my mother stuck a pin through it.
When I was four, my father graduated college a semester late, and we had my memory’s first conversation. His breath smelled like cigarettes, which he’d picked up in college and wouldn’t quit for a dozen years. I think I remember what he said because he acted so secretive, as if this were the knowledge he’d saved up his entire life to give. He knelt down, gripped my shoulders a little too hard, and in the middle of my grandparents’ kitchen, said, “Fall in love while you’re still young.” He was twenty-three.
Edwin Smith High
After my parents were divorced I fell in love with the ugliest girl in my white high school. This was what I believed—the love part, I mean; the ugly part was true. She was too tall and had these beautifully fleshy legs with which she engulfed my head. I thought I would marry this girl. There was another girl, Helen, one of the beautiful populars—I didn’t realize I really loved her. I didn’t realize, either, that she would have loved me if I’d asked her. She dated this prick who’d called me a chink (a word I had to look up since my parents were too busy divorcing to tell me truthfully) whom I determined to fight because I’d never been in a fight before. I was full of these kinds of ideas then.
We were in chemistry together, the four of us, and I was partnered with Helen, as she’d asked me at the beginning of the year before my parents had split. Her boyfriend constantly bothered our experiments, which I became serious about because of him. My frustration made me break things, like test tubes, the shards of which I imagined shivving into his side. The teacher thought I was clumsy.
One afternoon, I found him drawing a picture of me with my pen—I knew it was me because it was a square head with a flat face, only a nose angling off—and I decided his time had come. “Don’t touch my pen,” I said.
“Lay off me, chink,” he said. “Go back to China.”
“Lay off me, chink,” he said. “Go back to China.”
“That’s my pen,” I said. I tried to wrest it away from him. He held on. Helen tugged his arm. My girlfriend came over and told Helen to call off her dog. She stomped on Helen’s foot.
“Stay out of it,” I said.
“Yeah, you bitch,” my girlfriend said, though I’d meant her.
I heard the teacher behind us telling us to stop or we’d be in trouble. “Let go of my pen,” I said.
Finally, he said, “Fine,” and relaxed his hold. But before he dropped his hands, I twisted his arm around and surprised him. I threw him to the ground. Unfortunately, as I twisted, I shoulder-checked Helen to the ground as well. The other kids made sounds as if they were at an aquarium and had seen a penguin suddenly take flight, something they hadn’t been expecting but kind of had been. I stepped on the prick’s chest.
“I’m not fucking Chinese,” I said and started to cry. The teacher dragged me away to the principal’s office. As she pulled me out the door, I saw Helen bleeding on the floor—she’d fallen on a pile of glass I’d swept under a piece of paper, another broken test tube.
The principal agreed not to suspend me on the condition that I meet daily with the school counselor, who said I acted up because I had weak relationships at home. He said I should be thankful for my relationships elsewhere—terrible advice, I would realize later, once it was my turn to advise kids. In shop class, I made the pen from my fight into a ring and gave it to my girlfriend. Helen was in the hospital; her parents were suing the school.
“Okay,” I said, “pretend we’re married.”
“Okay, honey,” my girlfriend said, laughing. “Let’s skip school today.”
Her parents had given her a car, and we drove out to the town church. We stood at the altar holding hands.
“I do,” she said.
“Let’s have a kid,” I said. “Let’s have sex right now and have a kid.”
“Let’s name him Jeremy,” she said. “Okay, now Jeremy’s grown up. Let’s home-school him.”
“I bought us a house,” I said. “But it’s too small for Jeremy.”
“I’m getting a job in a company and I’m going to be CEO.”
“Impossible,” I said.
“Why?” she asked. “You don’t think I could be CEO?”
I said, “You’re a sneaky Korean whore and you tricked me into marrying you.”
She refused to drive me home. I had to walk the whole three miles. Soon I had no relationships and my parents let me take the suspension.
You might think I was playing out my parents’ marriage then, but actually it was my father who had the affair and my mother who couldn’t put up with it. My father had never loved her, and she knew it and grew tired of fighting for him. Everyone grew tired. Long after I married, my mother would come to the high school where I worked and watch the kids in their exploding panda T-shirts and say we’d both lost out on our youths. I would kind of resent that for a while before realizing she blamed herself.
“I feel guilty I’m not more Chinese,” she said as we got drunker than the others but not as dancey. “But is this the way all Asians are? Insular like this?” I hadn’t met more than five Asians in my life, so I didn’t know what to tell her.
An Intermission: College
I met Eleanor at an Asian party our freshman year at Virginia. I had gone out of curiosity and a type of guilt, and she had, too. She was the one who admitted this. “I feel guilty I’m not more Chinese,” she said as we got drunker than the others but not as dancey. “But is this the way all Asians are? Insular like this?” I hadn’t met more than five Asians in my life, so I didn’t know what to tell her.
After that party, I noticed her in my Carl Jung class. I hadn’t yet learned to pick out the people who looked like me first, either as rivals or connections, though I would before the year was over. I waved to her and she sat beside me and wrote in my notebook that she had a crush on our professor, which stupidly made me let my guard down. Our professor’s name was Sigmund Anders: of course everyone called him Freud. He had a thick beard and a voice like a grizzly, and I often caught him staring at her. She was that elusive type of Asian: big boobed but still slender.
She lived in the next dorm over and I soon began visiting and helping her plan her seductions. I’d told her my mother had simply stuck a pin through a condom and I didn’t know anything about romance, but she said I knew everything then, first you trapped them, then you taught them to love their trap. I didn’t yet know girls could think like this. I told her she should unbutton her shirt down to the wings of her bra, as girls did to attract boys on television. I didn’t tell her she should wrap her skinny legs around his head—that part of my past I kept secret. She might ask how many girls I’d slept with and I would say I wasn’t the type to kiss and tell, though I suspected if it were more than one, my one ugly love, I would be the type after all.
One day she showed me her lingerie, lifting it out of the drawer, so intimately that I thought she believed I was gay. “Don’t you have any shame?” I asked.
“You don’t like my underwear?” she asked.
“I’m not gay.”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean yes, I like your underwear.”
“Do you think this would work on him?”
“Showing him your underwear?” I said.
“You’re a weird kid,” she said. That made us both feel weird.
“You’re a weird Asian,” I said. “I don’t know anything about Asians but I know you don’t fit the mold.”
Once, after a class on the psychological impact of hegemony, she’d told me she had her own Asian theory of psychology, how we all felt guilty we weren’t more Asian than we were, and either tried to make up for it our whole lives or tried to push our Asianness away. I thought about my mother in our house in Pennsylvania, surrounded by labels in Korean she’d taped around the house so I would learn. I never did. After a while, the notes had seemed more for her, as she forgot certain words from disuse.
Eleanor said we were both bananas, or twinkies, yellow white blah blah, though maybe I was something else since I was half white outside anyway, like a frosted twinkie. I let her tell me who I was because I didn’t know. I was open to suggestions.
The last day of the semester we all went to Freud’s house for a barbecue. She had her shirt unbuttoned at the top and I thought of all the obvious father jokes I never made. We ate hotdogs and hamburgers and she sucked off a hotdog as he watched her. “Go get him,” I said.
She said she’d wait for him to come to her.
He congratulated us all on a great semester and said insincerely that we were the best class he’d ever had. He was looking at her again. He alone was drinking because we were technically underage. After two hours he’d had four drinks—I was counting. He came over to us and asked to speak to her in private, and I made to leave. She clutched my arm. I didn’t know what to do.
He said, “I gave you an A on your final, El. I think you’re extremely talented.” He was a very dirty old man. “Jeremy,” he said, and I tried again to step away.
“You’re scaring me, Professor,” she said. She indeed seemed afraid. I pushed her forward a little because this was what she’d said she wanted, and I felt strangely offended that she might have lost courage or lied.
“Maybe I could offer you a little tutoring,” Freud said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Oh come on, El.” But I was still there, and we all knew she was the one making me stay. “Jeremy,” he said, “maybe you can tell I’m just drunk.”
He avoided us for the rest of the party. We snuck into his house to steal beer, and she kept laughing with all this nervous energy, as if she’d just sky-dived, or jumped a pit of death in a motorcycle, risked everything and come away intact. When she kissed me in his kitchen, I asked her what she was doing. We’d spent the whole semester only her and me and I hadn’t realized whom she was pursuing. After four years of bumbling through a relationship like this, we graduated and she gave me an ultimatum: either marry her or be alone. I didn’t realize I could sleep with anyone else until after we married.
Montgomery High Part II
Later, after El stopped talking to me, I mean really talking to me, I realized who I was not. I wasn’t a good husband. I wasn’t really Korean. I wasn’t a father and still wasn’t ready to be one. I wasn’t kind, though I wasn’t that mean. I was hardly ever as good as I could be, but I was never as bad as I could be. I wasn’t my father, at least, but I wasn’t my mother either. I wasn’t distinctive, fat or thin, ugly or especially handsome. I wasn’t very smart, like El, or charismatic, so things were never easy for me. I wasn’t lucky or loyal or confident. I wasn’t malicious, or ever intent on hurting someone, or full of schadenfreude. I wasn’t optimistic.
Once, I asked El what was wrong with her, and she said, “What?” and I said, “I mean really, deep down, like what’s wrong with you—what is your deepest darkest pain, what is always there to thwart your best self?” and she said she still didn’t know what I meant but I knew she did. I decided to let her keep her secret until she wished to tell me. She never did.
After we graduated, she got our dream job as a psychiatrist to immigrants, the step between their foreign homes and America, and I couldn’t get a job anywhere. I kept sabotaging my interviews. At one interview, asked how I fit in with the group aesthetic, I said, “I never want to be like you.” Around the office hung those posters of athletic white people that read, “Teamwork!” or, “Success!” but should read, “Annihilation!” I tried to recoup, to talk about the importance of differences, but everyone saw through me.
The only place that would take me was a high school. They said I might be able to relate to angst. I was too old for angst. Still, El made me take the job.
Montgomery High Part II and Edwin Smith High Part III
The high school was an inner-city affair filled with disinterested children, which inspired the better people and caused the rest of us sad people to stop caring. The job was tiresome. Few teenagers voluntarily talked about their problems, which was probably true everywhere but was worse when they threatened you and you believed them.
I counseled this one kid who said he’d pawned his mother’s jewelry for a samurai sword and was going to run me through with it. That kind of threat was usually run of the mill, but when he stood up and demonstrated he knew what he was doing, that scared me: the determination he had to have to find someone in the city, on zero budget, to teach him ancient Japanese swordplay.
I began taking long lunches and lying about traffic, but soon I realized everyone was taking long lunches, the sad people, I mean, so I didn’t have to lie. I liked to eat at a hole-in-the-wall Italian spot that reminded me of my greasy father. It was there that I ran into my ugly fake first love, ten years removed.
She came over to my table and said, “Jeremy?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The name sounded familiar, but I’d somehow forgotten it.
“Your ugly Asian whore,” she said. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.” She sat down beside me. I couldn’t believe this was really her—she was beautiful. She’d grown out of the stage her body had been stuck in in high school. Now she was long and thin and sharp-cheeked, powerfully dressed. “It’s really you,” she said.
“It’s really you,” I said.
“I was in love with you once. But you loved that other girl, Helen.”
That was when I realized this was true.
“I’m a CEO now.”
“Of course you are,” I said. “You’re the type of girl I’d never have a chance with.”
She said, “If you didn’t know me,” and gave me her business card.
As soon as I threw it in the trash, I dug it back up.
After our first night together, Baltimore had never looked so gorgeous. It was as if, since she’d realized her dreams and I’d slept with her before and after her sea change, I, too, could prove I was better than I’d been.
Montgomery High Part III and Edwin Smith High Part IV
But maybe I was worse than I thought.
I remember I started neglecting students, like the samurai kid who tried to rob a sushi house and was shot, and El was left to cover for me. She told my principal I was stressed out and having personal problems—I hadn’t told her anything—and that I was good at what I did and he would see, given time. At home, she cooked my favorite foods and installed UV light bulbs, as if it might be just the winter.
I even quickly hurt Georgette. She found a picture in my wallet. We’d acquired that sort of intimacy that was either the beginning or the end of things. I’d thought it was the beginning. She’d gone into my wallet because I’d said she could, to get the money I owed her, which I think was purely stupidity and not a desire to be caught.
She held the photo of El and me in her hand, and I thought there, in her hand, in print, was my Asian side, and there, in front of me, in flesh, my white side. I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten into that fight in high school, if I would have married Georgette with the same blindness with which I’d married El.
“I have to get back to school,” I said. “That wallet is not my life.”
“You didn’t tell me you were married,” she said.
“Of course I did,” I said, though I realized then that I hadn’t. I realized I’d avoided it at every turn.
“You’re such an asshole,” she said. “This is just like before.”
Later, as I tried to pay attention to a kid who said her mother never paid attention to her, I couldn’t figure out what my motivation was not to tell Georgette. I didn’t know whether it was a desire to give us a blank slate, or to deny a slate existed, or to smash the slate against the ground of a better, stronger life than mine. Yet my life would go on now and she would be alone again.
Montgomery High Part IV
Later in life, I nearly had an affair with a student, a senior who’d turned eighteen and come on to me.
She was a Korean girl whose parents constantly pressured her, loved her too intensely. She couldn’t take the expectations. I headed up a group then for the few Asian students. I called it, The First Step of the Rest of Your Divided Life, though it had a less telling official title as well. El and I cooked the kids dinner once a year.
That year, there were three of them, two boys and the girl, Jen. El cooked black bean noodles, and I let them have one drink at the start of the night, so it would wear off later and so we could all think of ourselves as adults. I thought it a rare night for them and one I wished I’d experienced when I was their age, though I knew they drank all the time and also that maybe they thought it was a little hokey.
For some reason, there was a disconnect between how I thought of them and how I knew they were.
That night, Jen stayed after the boys had gone home, and didn’t make a move to call her parents. We sat on the couch together, her in the middle, watching a Korean show with subtitles, something I’d rented from a shop where I often saw her parents.
“Don’t you think they’re worrying about you?” El asked.
“I know they are,” Jen said. Her black eyes sparkled insouciantly, and her skin had that young sheen.
“When I was your age,” I said, trying to get through to her again.
“I know,” she said. “Your parents didn’t blah blah and mine do blah blah.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“It’s different how you care about me, Mr. S.”
El leaned forward. I saw that old feverish look I hadn’t seen in years, which she used to get before exams. “And how’s that?” she asked.
“Oh, you know,” Jen said, leaning her leg into mine. “A woman knows.”
El scoffed. I could see the situation getting out of hand.
“I’ll drive you home,” I said.
“You’re not a woman yet,” El said. “And I think I should drive her home, Mr. S.”
I never knew what they talked about in the car, but when El returned, she was still in tears, mascara smeared on her cheeks, crusted in the wrinkles that had recently grown by her eyes. “I put up with that white woman,” she said, “but I’m not putting up with a child. You should know better.” She looked at me as if I’d violated her daughter. I guessed she was thinking back to that college experience, with Freud, old enough to be her father. We had never had kids of our own.
Edwin Smith High Part V
My last time in Pennsylvania, until my mother’s funeral, El and I attended my thirtieth high school reunion. We lunched with my mother, who looked us over as if realizing suddenly that we were too old to give her grandchildren, though we’d been too old for years. I didn’t like how fragile she’d become, like she might pass away at any second, though she no longer seemed so much further along than us. She asked about my father, as usual, and as usual, I had little to say. I never told her he was a grandparent with his other family in Ohio.
At the reunion, I felt embarrassed that my wife, unaffiliated with the school, was more successful than I, and ashamed of my embarrassment—I remembered her Asian theory of psychology and I wondered about its applications to grander minorities, like marginalized lives. People said polite hellos and asked how I’d been, how big a family I had, what I’d accomplished. El was quiet and didn’t bother to make me seem better than I was. I wondered if she had given up on prettying her idea of me, something that had seemed to save our relationship. It was her filter that kept us clean. We walked around and ate shitty hors d’oeuvres and talked to the people who looked more broken-down by life than we were. I didn’t know why I had wanted to come, and to bring El with me.
It wasn’t until, after about an hour, when Helen finally arrived with her three beautiful kids and her handsome husband, everything one would have expected for her, that I realized some things continued to hurt no matter how old you got. A scar from that old accident still shone on her collarbone. I waved her over, but she ignored me. I waved again as El frowned, and I wondered if, with such a beautiful life, Helen could really still resent me. There were hours left before the reunion would be over. Finally I told El it was time to leave.
We said goodbye to the couples we had been talking to, who turned immediately back to their drinks. As we walked toward the door, Helen rushed over, at last. She took my arm. I saw her husband turn her children toward the buffet. I looked into her brown eyes and thought about how my life could have gone differently, if I hadn’t kept holding a part of me separate.
“Helen,” I said.
“Fucking chink,” she said, and tossed her champagne in my face. As I wiped it off, my fingers stuck slightly to my cheek. El led me out, dabbing with a napkin she’d saved. She kept dabbing on the ride home. In bed that night, I asked her if we could make love like we used to, if we could outlove our guilt.
How reckless we get, when we think we might make ourselves whole.
Matthew Salesses was born in Korea and adopted at age two. He is the author of a novella, The Last Repatriate (Nouvella Books, 2011). His stories have or will appear in Glimmer Train, Witness, American Short Fiction, The Literary Review, West Branch, and others. He is a columnist and the Fiction Editor at the Good Men Project and is on the web at http://matthewsalesses.com and @salesses.