I was seven years old when my parents told me we were moving to America. I ran away to the park and to the sycamore grove infested with worms that year. I squeezed the seed pods and released the larvae from their spiny confines. My friends were delighted and appalled by my bravery. Then they left, but I swiped at the merry-go-round and wiped my tears until my grandmother found me and took me home. That night, I threw away my homework and savored my defiance until my teacher asked for it the next morning. My desk mate announced that he had teased me and thrown it out of the bus window on the way to school. He winced when the teacher’s ruler struck his hand. When he sat down, I examined his profile while he stared ahead. It was the first time that a boy placed himself between me and a thing that I feared. At recess, I took out the snacks that my mother had packed and brought them to him. His friends whooped, but to my relief he accepted my offering.
I watched my grandmother and mother fold our apartment into boxes and polyester bags, which later spilled their contents onto the hardwood floors of a house in Los Angeles that my father rented. I went with my grandmother for a walk and wore a hat against the blistering sun. I ran my fingers over the prickly stucco walls of the house. The front yard was rimmed with a sidewalk dusted in sparkling mica and a hibiscus bush bearing vermilion blossoms, not the mauve and cerise palette that I knew. From the corner, palm trees angled toward a near union in the brilliant light.
At school, I did not understand when the teacher spoke, and when I spoke, my classmates refused to understand. Over my desk, they traded stickers and candy and ignored my presence. I cried during class and asked my mother whether we could move back home. I saw the defeat in her eyes and said no more.
My teacher assigned a classmate to help me. My helper, Nicholas, sprouted a small braid that he called a duck tail from the nape of his neck. He favored checkered sneakers and luminescent shirts and sliced rapid, hard serves on the asphalt handball courts. The first task he assigned was to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance, which I struggled to learn word by word. I had to ask him what “republic” and “indivisible” meant. To my surprise, he fumbled, but then he laughed, and we looked up the words together.
At lunch, Nicholas escorted me to the tables where the other girls sat but left me to my own devices. I lent one girl a pencil from my prized collection of stationery from Korea. At the end of the day, Maria returned it, but her longing was clear, so I hatched an offer.
“Keep it,” I said.
She refused twice before accepting. The next day, she waved Nicholas aside and brought me to eat at her lunch table.
Maria taught me to layer my socks, tie up my shirts, and tease my hair into an aerial wave. We played music on cassettes, learned robotic moves, and watched pay-per-view concerts with her relatives, who toasted and cheered without restraint.
My father unwound also at college reunions held in the arid suburbs. Upstairs, we children numbed ourselves with videos and games rendering frogs, invaders, and other projectiles in chromatic blocks. Downstairs, our mothers grilled meats and served fiery cabbages to kings, our fathers, who crooned songs on the karaoke machine and called out school chants from olden days. No child left food on his or her plate. We united under the same anthem of postwar deprivation, degradation, and descent. Our parents knew one other epic, in which they recounted the academic feats of their progeny.
I never fulfilled the entirety of my parents’ expectations. I wanted to attend the state university ten miles from home and secured a double room with Maria when we both got in. Orientation week was filled with outings and parties, but I looked after Maria and avoided getting drunk.
I thought of my parents working late, storing up earnings, calling manufacturers in Korea. I could not squander their labor.
One afternoon, I was approached by a girl from the Korean Christian group during a membership fair for student organizations.
“Do you believe we Christians should embark on missions to save the souls of others?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “thank you.” As I walked away, the girl aimed one parting existential question after me.
“Do you want to go to hell?” she triumphed.
The devil made me turn and reply to her, “Yes.” I felt someone take my arm, Yuri, a girl whom I knew from church.
“The Bible thumpers can be a bit much,” she said.
“My faith is quiet,” I said.
“What have you been doing, Arie?” she asked. I listed frat and house parties, bars along Sunset and Ocean Boulevards.
“Come out with my friends,” she said.
At night, I garbed in black, drew shadows around my eyes, drove east, and turned over my car to valets. Inside the bar, I adjusted to the flickering lights and made my way to where Yuri presided. Introductions went around the table. I recognized one other person from church.
Steve never smiled, and we seldom conversed. Now he poured rice spirits into a shot glass, which he immersed in a cupful of beer.
“Take it in portions,” he advised. I drank one quarter and cringed at the searing burn in my throat.
“How’s your first year going?” he asked.
“I’m enjoying it,” I said.
“And studying?” he said.
“I think I’m going to major in English,” I said.
“Practical,” he observed.
I flushed. “I could teach,” I said, “maybe high school.”
I suppressed the impulse to defend myself further. One of Yuri’s friends threw me a vulpine glare and diverted the conversation toward herself.
The bar filled with tobacco smoke and a bacchic odor. People grew raucous and tawdry, but I floated in a mild yet conscious haze. Someone ordered a steaming potage, and Steve ladled out a bowl. I identified canned meat and ramen swimming in a broth of chili paste, garlic, onion, and pickled cabbage.
I was confounded. “What is this?” I asked.
“Army base stew,” he said. “Your parents must have had sheltered lives,” he remarked. “Koreans invented this with supplies from American army bases.”
I recalled my father’s stories of Wrigley gum and Hershey bars, which he had begged from American GIs but hidden from his parents. The scorching red broth carried an earthy essence.
My portion was comforting. I finished every drop before excusing myself. In the parking lot, I inhaled the purer air.
In the final quarter, I registered for a critical reading course but was late on the first day and slipped into an aisle seat in the back. To my left, a black girl sat listening to the professor and taking notes. When I sat down, she smiled and pushed her copy of the syllabus towards me. After class, I confessed to her, “I’m not sure about this major.”
“I am. When I read, I can almost see the themes and conflicts.” Dionne’s gaze went far away. We fell into a habit of sitting together and sharing notes. One day, we meandered onto the lawns surrounding the halls and watched other students spill onto the walkways. Dionne ran to catch a lecture, and I went to the student union to purchase a baseball cap to wear in the sun.
In the lounge, students gathered around a television. The news anchors had announced a verdict in the Rodney King trial. Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, the caption said. I read the words, but they would not sink in. Last year, the video had aired on continuing rotation, one minute of instant and shaming violation. The guilty verdict had seemed foregone.
In our dorm room, Maria and I stayed glued to the television. When the news showed a truck driver being beaten near the corner of Florence and Normandie, I called my parents at their store nearby, but the line was busy. The attackers thudded into the trucker’s inert form with a hammer and then a cement block. I flinched with each strike. The truck driver staggered up and dragged himself into the cab. I re-dialed and got through.
“We are fine,” my father’s voice came over the phone. “We are leaving the swap meet. The workers went home. Don’t worry.”
Maria insisted on going with me when I left campus and headed home. Driving down Wilshire Boulevard, we saw the fires and smoke lighting the sky, a seething tide coursing onward, gathering velocity with each store it devoured.
On local Korean radio, the announcers ordered business owners to organize and defend their properties. My father wept as he watched the destruction. I wanted to wail but thought all would be lost if I authenticated his disintegration. I slept that night on blankets laid on the floor of my grandmother’s room. Above me, I heard her utter a psalm.
The next morning began in relative silence. I followed my father to the car and watched him load a revolver. I had not known that he owned a gun but knew not to speak of it. When my father was finished, he turned and brushed away the hair on my forehead.
“Don’t leave the house, and do as your mother says,” he said. Then he left. I watched him drive around the corner.
The call came around 9 p.m. I tried to gather information from the attendant before conveying what little I absorbed to my mother. I told myself that I was strong for her, but it was she who pushed me from the room when I unraveled at seeing my father supine and feverish on the hospital bed. He had been shot in a parking lot exposed to the crowd. The other store owners had protected the swap meet, but no one went back to work now.
I had to finish the quarter and returned to campus when the curfews lifted and the guards began to leave the city. At the dorms, I found notes from Dionne for the lectures I had missed.
In the course of justice, none see salvation, we do pray for mercy, the first sheet read. I folded the paper away.
I went outside and walked to the union. I paused by a television airing footage of the riots. The men hunched on their roofs, shot into the air, and fired to stave off the looters. One anguished youth wore a white T-shirt and jeans, with straight black hair falling into his eyes.
Someone tapped my shoulder, and I turned. The stranger said, “Remember me?”
He waited while I mapped his features onto those of the boys I had known, and then my astonishment caused me to shout, “Nicholas!”
He saw what I watched on the television, clasped my shoulder, and asked, “Are you okay?”
I shook my head. Then I started to cry.
“Hey,” he said. He led me to a chair and crouched in front of me. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.
I found myself directing him to the San Diego to the east San Bernardino and north along Vermont Avenue. We came upon row after row of torched strip malls. Their walls had burned away, leaving the amputated limbs of building frames mired in ash. Yellow hazard tape and dull chain fences bordered the debris.
“Holy shit,” Nicholas said. The businesses had been cremated. The glimmering stores were nothing now but figments hovering over the ruins.
In response to Nicholas’s outburst, I said nothing. I spoke only when he reached the western edge of Koreatown and said, “I have never been east of La Brea Avenue.”
“But you’ve lived here all your life,” I said.
He shrugged. “My parents gravitated toward the beach. Now they live in San Diego.” He paused and said, “I guess it’s not like here.”
We reached the middle of Wilshire. I pointed to the La Brea Tar Pits. “I used to walk here with my grandmother and roll down the lawns.”
He laughed. “Why did you like it so much?”
“It’s ancient,” I said. “It reminds me that all these animals walked the earth and could have destroyed any human in an instant.”
“Didn’t you always like that stuff?” he said. “Like that archaeology project in sixth grade.”
I was surprised that he remembered. “I did. The research and the detail, assembling the shards. I wish I could do that for life.”
“Why can’t you?” he said, looking over.
I shook my head. “It’s too different.”
“That’s why you should do it.” His answer was sure.
“Don’t stay here. See the world.”
I wondered at his assumption that destiny was forged with such ease. I was used to preserving the parameters of my life.
When we arrived at the dorms, I stepped out of the car and turned to Nicholas. “Thank you for driving,” I said.
“No problem. I’ll look you up, Arie,” he said and reached out.
When I saw Dionne, I told her I thought of a different major. She pushed me toward the anthropology hall. The department adviser’s office was governed by a single, spare, industrial desk.
When I got back to the dorm, I looked up Nicholas’s number in the campus directory. I left a message on his machine when he did not pick up.
As the quarter wound down, I waited for Nicholas to return my call or to find me, as he said he would, but then he never did. On the last day of classes, when reading period began, I wandered through the union, looking for him one last time.
That weekend, I went to church with my mother and grandmother. I stayed with them in the adult service but struggled to understand the sermon. I realized that I was losing my native fluency and paged through the program in shock. After the service, the elders prayed over us, then lingered to talk. I drifted away and watched my friends enter the lunch hall.
Steve noticed me and came over. “Are you not hungry?” he asked.
“I’m waiting for my family.”
His parents had lost their automotive shop. Now I asked him, “How have you been?”
“I’m leaving school next year,” he said.
“Oh,” I exhaled, but his face was impassive.
“It’s practical,” he continued and changed the subject.
“How’s your major?”
“I’m not majoring in English,” I said. “I’m going to study anthropology and maybe archaeology.”
His expression did not change, but he said, “Why?”
I considered my words. “Human nature is always the same, but the things people have tell us who they are.”
He absorbed what I said. “And what about now,” he said. “Now that people have lost their things. What does that tell us about human nature?”
I didn’t have an answer. In my mind, I saw the spaces where people had earned a living, the scene I had viewed last with Nicholas.
“I’m making you upset,” he said.
“Not you,” I said. “I was remembering. After the riots, I drove there.” My voice wavered. “Not me, my friend, he drove.”
“Sounds like a good friend,” he observed.
I shook my head. “It was his first time there.” I sketched out the memory. “He never even saw what it was.”
He made a sharp gesture, slicing the air in a line parallel to his waist. “It could take years.”
His anger burned and shimmered between us. He turned away while I looked into the distance.
At length he said, “I don’t think soup and rice will cut it today. What do you feel like eating?”
“Cold noodles,” I ventured, turning back, trying to recover from his rupture.
“The bar on Western and Ninth is open,” he said. He gauged my reaction.
I looked at him. “Do you ever want to get away?” I asked.
Steve was not tall, but his frame was sturdy. His face was dark and lined–the face of a worker, my father had once said.
“Aria,” he said. He riffed the informal turn on my name.
“Let’s eat. You don’t have to look outside,” he said.
I gave in and went along with his intent that day. We drove eastward to the center of the city. I lifted my face into the sun, closing my eyes, absorbing the radiation, blinding myself to the sight of the streets.
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