Five Storiesby Debora Kuan
The boy had come to the “greet” room, as it was called, seemingly by himself. He had a gift: a powder-pink stuffed octopus, whose tentacles were not very tentacular at all, but rather short and square—eight pillows that were sewn directly under its plush round head. Yuna recognized it—she’d seen this octopus on bento boxes and cellphone charms in plenty of malls—but if this creature had a name, she did not know it.
Still hot and flushed from her last exhibition skate, which had finished only twenty minutes earlier, Yuna dabbed at her face with a white towel, then waved the young fan over to her. Her coach, Dmitri, a squat, bullish Ukrainian man, standing behind her, uncapped a bottle of water and presented it to her with a fatherly nod of the chin.
Queen Yuna, as she was affectionately known in her country, did not mind signing autographs and taking pictures after a performance; in fact, she rather enjoyed it. She felt it only right that a star of her stature try to thank people in person, especially the children, if she could, rather than simply collect the bouquets and gifts they threw onto the ice. Her managerial team typically hand-picked people from the audience for her: little girls who had just begun to skate, or fans who had made an artful sign or drawn a particularly realistic likeness of her.
Yuna guessed that the boy was nine or ten, but she was bad with ages. In this case, part of what made it difficult to tell were the boy’s clothes, a long-sleeved Nike T-shirt and blue wind pants, which were too big for him—his limbs seemed to swim inside his sleeves and pant legs. Beneath his left eye, there was a faint birthmark like a rivulet of spilled dye. When he offered the octopus to Yuna with both hands, he spoke to the floor, saying, “This is for you.”
Ji, Yuna’s head manager, an animated, middle-aged woman whose nails were always painted a girlish shade of hot pink, chimed in. “His mother said his entire room is papered with Yuna posters and he watches you on TV every time you compete.” She checked her notes on her clipboard and went on. “This is his first time at your show.”
Yuna smiled at the boy and thanked him as she took the octopus. “What is your name?” she asked, reaching out her hand to shake his. He looked up now. His mouth was mean, like that of an old man.
He said something hastily, as though he were ashamed to have a name, but Yuna didn’t catch it. She had been distracted by his handshake—not because it was limp or half-hearted, though it was, but because she had felt in it a scaly, curtailed oddness. When Yuna finally let go of his hand, she saw that the boy had no fingers beyond the main knuckles, and what was left of his fingers were whitish, elephantine stubs that ended in pursed skin, as if someone had sewn them up.
Yuna recoiled. What could have happened? An accident with a knife, a machine? Had something fallen on his hands and crushed them? Or was it possible to have been born this way, to have lost one’s fingertips at birth due to some congenital disease? She did not know and could not guess, but now as the boy pulled his left hand out of his coat pocket, she saw that whatever had happened had happened to both of his hands.
Immediately Yuna dashed off a fervent little prayer in her head. She marveled at God, at his uneven justice.
But to the boy, Yuna acted as though she had not noticed anything. From a stack of glossy photos of herself, she pulled the top picture—she was in her sultry black and silver lamé costume from her James Bond routine, her fingers—nails painted black—formed into a gun and aimed at nothing. She began to sign it with a Sharpie. “Where is his mom?” Yuna asked Ji, as she signed.
“I don’t know. Outside?” Ji shrugged.
Yuna thanked the boy again, handing him the picture, and he snatched it greedily, as if he were afraid someone might steal what was rightfully his. His eyes were anxious.
“Thank you for coming to meet me!” Yuna said, trying to summon her sunny public voice. Normally it did not take much to slide into this mode; with just a tilt of her head and a squint as she smiled, she was the vision of what they came for—a nation’s pride, everyone’s obedient daughter or sister. But for some reason, this time when she fished for that sense of herself, nothing would catch.
Perhaps she was just tired. Inside her skating costume and warm-up jacket, cold sweat bristled on her skin. Her quads burned. She craned her neck to see how many fans were waiting, but there was no way to tell from where she was.
The boy was halfway to the door now, Ji guiding him by the small of his back. Yuna had nearly forgotten about him. But the boy had not forgotten about her. Suddenly, in a jumbled, split-second flurry, the boy had pulled away and bounded back. He lunged at Yuna, where she was still seated, and with one swift, decisive motion of the hand, he reached between her thighs, under her short flared skirt, and jabbed her, there, with two crude fingers.
Yuna cried out as she clapped her hands over herself. Her nerves were singing with pain, a keening, unwelcome excitement. “You—you—” she stuttered.
“What’re you doing, you little perv?” Dmitri shouted in English. He had rushed forward and grabbed the boy by his thin shoulders and was shaking him for an answer, spewing a slew of angry Russian epithets. “What do you think you’re doing?”
But the boy was nimble. He writhed himself loose and barreled, like a heifer sprung out of a pen, through the heavy door. Dmitri and his assistant gave chase.
“What do you fuckin’ think? I got the Queen’s pussy!” the boy taunted, as he ran past the dense, chattering throng of fans. Yuna could hear the swish-swish-swish of his scissoring pant legs and the soles of his shoes slapping the cold linoleum, as they echoed her humiliation all the way down the hall.
THE MAN I LOVE
“Ground beef and rice again?” Mitch harrumphed from the dining room.
Natalie was in the kitchen. She could picture her husband’s face as he said this, scowling at the grease-slicked meat clusters pooled in a crater of white rice. She had been holding a wooden spoon at the time, and now, annoyed and out of view, she gesticulated with it in the air, as if smacking him upside the head. As she did this, she pictured him as a kind of cartoon, a bug-eyed, slit-mouthed character whose oversized yellow capsule head and stick limbs comprised his person. The wooden spoon would smack straight into the bald back of his cartoon noggin, and he would go flying, astounded, face-first, in a perfect parabolic arc, into the mound of glistening beef.
Granted, it was a pathetic dinner, a meal arguably cooked only by a mother with the lowest of standards. But she was exhausted, and there were hardly any groceries in the house. Moreover, she refused to order takeout as a matter of principle, as this was her husband’s usual remedy to her complaint that he never, ever cooked, never even lent a hand in the kitchen or looked up a recipe.
“I can get burritos from that burrito place, or we can order Chinese…” And then to her disapproving frown, he’d add, “You can’t accuse me of never making dinner when I’m perfectly willing to buy dinner.”
In 2010, a husband, a father, who never cooked his wife and child a single meal? Didn’t he find this shameful, what kind of liberal was he? It wasn’t rocket science, all he had to do was make the tiniest bit of effort, crack open a can of soup even, toast some bread. Washing the dishes after they ate did not count. Especially as he felt it necessary only to wash the insides of pots, leaving her to deal with the charred, nose-burning vestiges on the outsides when she cooked the next meal.
Natalie returned to the table and set down a glass of apple juice by her daughter’s plate. It struck the wood harder than she’d meant it to and liquid splashed over the lip. She sucked the spilled juice from the pocket of skin between her thumb and index finger, and said, “Emily likes it.”
Emily looked up. She was holding her spoon wrong as usual, clutched in her fist. She echoed her mother, “I like it. Why don’t you like beef rice, Daddy?”
Mitch didn’t say anything. He picked at his food.
The couple fell into a furrow of great silence. After a while, their daughter slithered beneath the table, pretending it was a tent or house. She had lost interest in her dinner.
“I’m a little kitty cat in my little kitty-cat house,” she said. She began to mew.
Mitch caught Natalie’s gaze and then pointedly glanced at Emily’s plate, which was, for all intents and purposes, untouched. He stuck out his pursed lips to underscore his victory. Natalie looked away.
“Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow,” Emily said, rubbing her head against her mother’s shin.
Natalie refused to speak. Instead, she took a sip from her tumbler of Cabernet, then poured herself another two inches of wine. This time she took an even longer sip and regarded her husband’s face for a reaction. As she did so, she noticed one stray hair in his right eyebrow, not yet gray, which was curled upward, as if in defiance, and splayed against his temple.
The sight of it woke a memory in her. One spring, before they’d had Emily and when they were still living in their cramped, lightless Upper East Side one-bedroom, she had been sitting on Mitch’s lap on a bench in Carl Schurz park, when, without warning, it had begun to shower. She remembered the two of them deciding without a word and for no particular reason to stay seated where they were, even as all the couples and families around them scrambled for awnings, shelter, cabs. She had been smoothing his thick, ample eyebrows, waterlogged with rain, across his temple, and laughing at her handiwork—a quizzical, clownish expression. He looked like a cousin of Groucho Marx, without the mustache. “What’s so funny?” Mitch had asked. “What do I look like?” Natalie could have made any kind of joke, but she had decided not to. Instead she had leaned in and kissed his ear and whispered, “Like the man I love.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Mitch said, jolting her from her reverie. Their daughter was now rubbing her cheek against his knee, shaking his chair for attention.
After a moment’s consideration, Natalie said, “You need to trim your eyebrows,” then resumed eating her dinner.
In the days after Alistair’s death, Evelyn felt as though mercury had somehow seeped into her bloodstream. Sleep escaped her. Rest escaped her. But her body was confined to her bed by the sheer fact of weight. Of mass. Her head was a bowling ball that dictated what the rest of her would do: lie there, pinned, helpless, as if God had wrestled her down on a gym mat.
She resigned herself to her weakness. She studied the white cotton-candy wisp of spider web on the far corner of her bedroom ceiling. She listened to the steady, metronomic tick of her clock. And then her mind drifted to the hamper, of all places. The warm, black cave of the hamper.
Just three days ago, the day she had returned from the vet after putting Alistair down, she had gathered up all of his pill-y, chewed-up stuffed animals—years of saliva and rough, gnawing love having matted and discolored their threads and synthetic furs—and tossed them all in there. Why the hamper, she was not sure. Did some part of her think she was going to wash them later? Not really. All she knew was that she needed them out of sight, and throwing them away was not an option. One finality was already too much. But now as she lay in bed, she thought of them—the gray rabbit whose ears had all but been chewed off, the fat bumblebee, the improbably pink dinosaur—piled up in the dark, festering in a doggy musk with all of her dirty underwear.
There were things to deal with, she supposed. Laundry, the pile of crusty dishes in the sink, voice messages on her phone. And work. Yes, work. How many sick days could she plausibly milk out of her loss? Three was already pushing it, she guessed.
She was 48 years old. It was October, of another infinite year. A year, like a dune, she thought. A white, wind-shifted dune. She could not remember the last time she had held a warm body against her own that was not Alistair’s.
No, this was not quite true. She could recall, she just didn’t remember. Remembering involved what it felt like, and she didn’t have that knowledge anymore. The last body was, of course, Taro’s. In Osaka, where they had both been English teachers. That was nearly nine years ago, and now he was married and living in Canada. He had twins. Two chubby little boys. She knew this because he had sent her a picture, whose fine details after its millions of private viewings were now irrevocably branded on Evelyn’s brain: the family in a woodsy clearing, Taro bent over a camp stove, cooking yakisoba, his wife seated on a folding stadium chair beside him. She was nothing extraordinary: she had hooded, deep-set eyes and thick, brown hair that hung to her pendulous breasts. Like Evelyn, this woman, this Carolyn woman, was plain and big-boned. Sturdy, like a good coffee table.
Evelyn rolled over on her side and threw an arm over her eyes to block out the light of day. She remembered getting that letter almost five years ago. She remembered what it felt like, snapping on Alistair’s leash and heading out in the sharp, wintry evening, trudging past the streets of condos in her development, and climbing a snow-patched hill toward the main road. There was nowhere to go in the suburbs, nowhere to lose oneself—only a black, landscaped hill to stand on as indifferent cars swept past, their hoods gleaming in the streetlamps, the wind pricking her wet face. There was only the dark ragged outline of evergreens in the distance to see, the incandescent totem of store signs at the neighboring strip mall to curse. Finally, Alistair had barked his urgency and nudged his nose against the back of her chapped, gloveless hand and tugged her all the way home.
And now he too was gone, her best friend. The thought was almost too much. Dogs die, you idiot, she chided herself. It’s not like you didn’t know that.
Oh, but if reason had a face, how she would fling sand into its clear blue eyes.
With a gasp and a heave, Evelyn lumbered out of bed and down the hall. She picked up the plastic hamper, sticking her fingers through the rhomboid cut-outs on either side, and poured all its contents onto the carpet. Then she got down on her knees and crawled into the moist heap, nuzzling her nose against the fusty folds. She wailed—like a dying animal, guttural and ugly, as if fur was lodged in her throat. She wailed just to hear the sound of her own voice, to feel—as they escaped her throat—the rough shapes of her ordinary grief.
Patrick Yang officially renounced his life as a writer on page 187 of his first attempted novel, hitting, as in athletic parlance, the wall. He felt he had not one more paragraph nor sentence in him, not even another word. He had limned the outer arc of whatever raw talent and inner resolve his parents’ genes had bestowed upon him, and there he was to stop. He was done, at 36. Two published stories in ten years, a personal essay in a men’s glossy about the unease he felt when his mother joined Facebook, and a blog he maintained mostly to complain about how hard it was to write a novel. To top things off in a gesture of absolute resignation, he proposed to his girlfriend, Lura Hook, who, utterly unsuspecting of the life change that was transpiring at the other end of the room, was curled up in her Turkmen-style bathrobe on their couch. At the tail end of a three-week-long supervirus, she was nursing a large mug of split pea soup while watching “Law & Order,” her hair still wet, draped as limp and black as shored seaweed on her shoulders. When she looked up, glasses still partly fogged up from steam, Patrick was on one knee, his plaid-shirt-clad torso eclipsing the television, his eyes dewy—with equal parts love and failure.
There was no ring, only a question. But it was the only question that Lura—who, at 35, official “advanced maternal age,” was champing at the bit to start a family—had wanted to pass through Patrick’s lips in the past year. So when the moment finally arrived, he didn’t even need to finish his sentence. Lura lept up, euphoric, spilling her hot soup in an exclamatory, pea-green ray across the floor. She cupped his cheeks. She said yes.
After the wedding, the former writer and his beloved got to the business of the infernal clock straight away. As happy fate would have it, Lura was with child by the time they’d found a couple to take over their lease. They were not going to raise a child in the city, in their 5th-floor walk-up, with the closest laundromat four blocks away. No. They needed an affordable, not-too-suburban town a convenient train ride away from the city.
Thus, Patrick’s new life began not too differently from how his old life had ended. But now, instead of flipping open his laptop in the middle of the night to write, impatiently waiting out the reverberating, synthetic fermata as the machine loaded, he researched public schools. He made lists, which he and Lura consulted over dinner. They debated, eliminated, duked it out with rock-paper-scissors. Soon, with their few possessions swathed in bubblewrap, their houseplants adopted by well-wishing friends, they were flying, sweaty and breathless, down the turnpike in their rented moving truck, the newest residents of Avonlea Meadows in Cranwell, NJ, a development of identical white and grey townhouses which melded each to the next from shoulder-to-hip like Siamese siblings.
But every so often Patrick would catch himself and grow despondent. The old writer’s habit of translating things seen, uncanny or not, into language, kept rearing its homely head. “A sentence of clouds,” he mused about an extended spindle of precipitation lining the horizon. “The dust bunny in the corner, quietly achieving size,” he said about the tumbleweed of hair and lint behind the fridge. And when the seasons changed: “Winter has descended furiously, like an enraged nun upon an unruly Catholic classroom.”
Now there was no use for these little gems, no place to lay them down for posterity.
He was like a middle-weight boxer who had hung up his gloves, muscle memory still practicing his right hook in his sleep. What was he going to do with all those years of sculpting words and metaphors, of translating vaporous characters into full-blooded flesh, of crystallizing images into language? So much meticulous curation over the years, which now could be useful for nothing.
“The key,” Lura said, “is to throw yourself into something else. With equal fervor.” She held out to him a book: “Job Hunting for Dummies: Second Edition.” His freelance medical editing days were over, she seemed to say.
“Ah, bof,” Patrick said, blowing out his cheeks like a Frenchman. He took the book, but did not read it. Instead, he surfed the Web. He tweeted bad jokes. He found “Twin Peaks” on Netflix and rewatched the whole thing, starting with the pilot. He played World of Warcraft until his eyes felt as dry and stiff as burlap sacks left out in the sun.
And then, utterly fed up with himself, he decided to get a tattoo.
At the parlor, the tattoo artist—a biracial dude with a spray of brown freckles across his nose, and piercings in both cheeks—asked a few times to make sure he’d heard Patrick’s request clearly. “A sentence of clouds, is that what you said?”
“Yeah, that’s right, you heard it right.”
“OK, write it down, then pick a font,” he said, slapping a binder of options in plastic sleeves down before him.
Patrick flipped through a few pages and then decided, for absolutely no good reason, on a Medieval German script.
“So is that your band or something?” the guy behind the counter—in a ski hat and eating shawarma—asked.
“No, it’s just something I wrote,” Patrick explained.
“Oh,” the guy said, stifling a snicker. “Rad.”
The tattoo artist took a look at the font and gave it a chin nod. “All right, and where are we putting this?”
“Around my wrist,” he said.
The guy did a good job. The letters wrapped evenly around his right arm. Patrick loved it. He felt like he’d been injected with an extra dose of vigor, vitamin B, testosterone, whatever. He didn’t even care that Lura disapproved, or that she shrieked, “What were you thinking?!” when he unpeeled the gauze and revealed simultaneously the tattoo and its mirror blood image.
Now Patrick finally felt that he could begin his job search in earnest. He emailed resumes. He bought a good suit, rehearsed his answers, made up a five-year plan. He interviewed over the phone, and then in small cubicles, and then in slate-gray conference rooms with geometrically-shaded glass walls. He shook hands with an assured, firm grip. He looked everyone in the eye.
But the problem was that no one, in turn, looked him in the eye. They looked instead at his wrist.
Patrick received no employment offers; however, with all the extra time he had on his hands, he soon began—slowly, cautiously, without judgment or expectation—to write again.
Lucy was aware of how bad it all looked: an unmarried woman, eight months’ pregnant, arriving at her own baby shower nearly an hour late, alone. On top of this, she was dressed to mourn. Black to the hilt. An oversized black straw hat, diameter verging on caricature, which was purposefully chosen to cast a shadow over her pregnancy acne; a black cotton dress; and black flip-flops, because they were the only shoes into which her swollen, blotchy feet could now fit.
She walked up to the driveway of the periwinkle split-level and saw a child already at the front door, suspended between main door and screen. When the boy caught sight of Lucy, he turned around, hollered something incomprehensible, and then disappeared. A few seconds later, Sophie Marsh arrived in his place, her ample mushroom bob forming a robust silhouette in the doorway.
“Sophie! God, I’m so sorry I’m late.” Hastily, Lucy added, “Theodore isn’t going to be coming. Bit of a stomach thing. Food poisoning, we think.”
It was a slapdash narrative formulated somewhere between slamming shut her front door and climbing into her car, and it reeked of white lie. But that was fine. She needed only to be convincing enough to deter questions and no more. Official opinion on the sixty-something retired voice actor accidentally turned new father could not have been favorable by any stretch of the imagination. That he wasn’t going to attend her baby shower just because he wasn’t feeling social only dovetailed nicely with the schema of his known behavior.
The brutal truth was that Theodore had turned seventy just a few weeks ago. He didn’t look it, he was in great shape, fantastic shape, Lucy always maintained, but the facts were the facts. She was Oona O’Neill having a child with Charlie Chaplin.
“Oh, well, I hope he’s not too sick. Something going around, I suspect,” Sophie said.
It was good of her. Playing along with the charade like a gracious hostess.
“He’ll live,” Lucy heard herself say. Then she changed the subject. “Oh, Sophie. Everything looks so beautiful. Thank you.”
The house had been decorated gaily, with yellow and white balloons and strings of triangle banners everywhere, and Sophie’s children had crafted a sign in large, magic marker kid-scrawl with wads of balled-up tissue paper glued here and there. In the dining room, a variety of colorful summer salads and overly decorated cupcakes adorned the table.
Sophie handed her a glass of lemonade. “Everyone’s on the deck,” she said, placing a gentle hand on Lucy’s back.
Outside, more of Lucy’s acquaintances and their spouses were seated around a patio table visibly hot and squinting, their foreheads glistening with sweat, because, given the hour, the large green umbrella above them was shading not its intended sojourners, but the hydrangea bushes along the edge of the deck. Only Priya, an acquaintance of Lucy’s from their book club, sat apart from the other adults, on a lounge chair in the shade of the house, a few feet away from the table too much in the sun. All offspring were at the far end of the lawn on an elaborate wooden swingset.
Lucy said hello to her guests—Sophie’s husband; a former neighbor and her boyfriend; and another friend, Jeanne, from the reading group—the woman who had started it all, and so cheekily, with the flyer she’d tacked up at a local coffeehouse: Ceci n’est pas un Book Club, it had read, over a hand-drawn picture of a book smoking a pipe.
None of the guests knew one another very well, so the talk at the table was laborious and stilted, punctuated by leaden silences. In these protracted voids, the children’s yelps and shrieks of play from the other end of the lawn rushed in like white noise, like the meaningless drone of a summer fan, the chatter of a battery-operated toy. Eyes averted eyes, and restless hands picked at crumbs on the tablecloth or idly poked couscous and black beans with plastic forks. An insistent wasp, buzzing from cup to cup, was the loudest guest among them.
Suddenly the doorbell rang.
Lucy tried to think of who, of the small list of invitees, had not yet shown up. She glanced quickly around the table. But then it came, the deep, unmistakable bass notes of his septuagenarian voice, brash and full-bodied and broadcaster-contrived—Anybody home? Anyone?—as if nothing had ever happened.
Debora Kuan is the author of two poetry collections, XING and Lunch Portraits, which is forthcoming from Brooklyn Arts Press this fall. She recently completed a Macdowell residency for fiction, and has also written art criticism for Artforum, Art in America, Modern Painters, and Paper Monument. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.