Once they met, the rest was history.

An Excerpt from The Sun Is Also a Star

Prologue

Carl Sagan said that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. When he says from scratch, he means from nothing. He means from a time before the world even existed. If you want to make an apple pie from nothing at all, you have to start with the Big Bang and expanding universes, neutrons, ions, atoms, black holes, suns, moons, ocean tides, the Milky Way, Earth, evolution, dinosaurs, extinctionlevel events, platypuses, Homo erectus, Cro-Magnon man, etc. You have to start at the beginning. You must invent fire. You need water and fertile soil and seeds. You need cows and people to milk them and more people to churn that milk into butter. You need wheat and sugar cane and apple trees. You need chemistry and biology. For a really good apple pie, you need the arts. For an apple pie that can last for generations, you need the printing press and the Industrial Revolution and maybe even a poem.

To make a thing as simple as an apple pie, you have to create the whole wide world.

 

Daniel
Local Teen Accepts Destiny, Agrees to Become Doctor, Stereotype

It’s Charlie’s fault that my summer (and now fall) has been one absurd headline after another. Charles Jae Won Bae, aka Charlie, my older brother, firstborn son of a firstborn son, surprised my parents (and all their friends, and the entire gossiping Korean community of Flushing, New York) by getting kicked out of Harvard University (Best School, my mother said, when his acceptance letter arrived). Now he’s been kicked out of Best School, and all summer my mom frowns and doesn’t quite believe and doesn’t quite understand.

Why you grades so bad? They kick you out? Why they kick you out? Why not make you stay and study more?

My dad says, Not kick out. Require to withdraw. Not same as kick out.

Charlie grumbles: It’s just temporary, only for two semesters.

Under this unholy barrage of my parents’ confusion and shame and disappointment, even I almost feel bad for Charlie. Almost.

Natasha

My mom says it’s time for me to give up now, and that what I’m doing is futile. She’s upset, so her accent is thicker than usual, and every statement is a question.

“You no think is time for you to give up now, Tasha? You no think that what you doing is futile?”

She draws out the first syllable of futile for a second too long. My dad doesn’t say anything. He’s mute with anger or impotence. I’m never sure which. His frown is so deep and so complete that it’s hard to imagine his face with another expression. If this were even just a few months ago, I’d be sad to see him like this, but now I don’t really care. He’s the reason we’re all in this mess.

Peter, my nine-year-old brother, is the only one of us happy with this turn of events. Right now, he’s packing his suitcase and playing “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley. “Old-school packing music,” he called it.

Despite the fact that he was born here in America, Peter says he wants to live in Jamaica. He’s always been pretty shy and has a hard time making friends. I think he imagines that Jamaica will be a paradise and that, somehow, things will be better for him there.

The four of us are in the living room of our one-bedroom apartment. The living room doubles as a bedroom, and Peter and I share it. It has two small sofa beds that we pull out at night, and a bright blue curtain down the middle for privacy. Right now the curtain is pulled aside so you can see both our halves at once.

It’s pretty easy to guess which one of us wants to leave and which wants to stay. My side still looks lived-in. My books are on my small IKEA shelf. My favorite picture of me and my best friend, Bev, is still sitting on my desk. We’re wearing safety goggles and sexy-pouting at the camera in physics lab. The safety goggles were my idea. The sexy-pouting was hers. I haven’t removed a single item of clothing from my dresser. I haven’t even taken down my NASA star map poster. It’s huge—actually eight posters that I taped together—and shows all the major stars, constellations, and sections of the Milky Way visible in the Northern Hemisphere. It even has instructions on how to find Polaris and navigate by stars in case you get lost. The poster tubes I bought for packing it are leaning unopened against the wall.

On Peter’s side, virtually all the surfaces are bare, most of his possessions already packed away into boxes and suitcases.

My mom is right, of course—what I’m doing is futile. Still, I grab my headphones, my physics textbook, and some comics. If I have time to kill, maybe I can finish up my homework and read.

Peter shakes his head at me. “Why are you bringing that?” he asks, meaning the textbook. “We’re leaving, Tasha. You don’t have to turn in homework.”

Peter has just discovered the power of sarcasm. He uses it every chance he gets.

I don’t bother responding to him, just put my headphones on and head for the door. “Back soon,” I say to my mom.

She kisses her teeth and turns away. I remind myself that she’s not upset with me. Tasha, is not you me upset with, you know? is something she says a lot these days. I’m going to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) building in downtown Manhattan to see if someone there can help me. We are undocumented immigrants, and we’re being deported tonight.

Today is my last chance to try to convince someone—or fate—to help me find a way to stay in America.

To be clear: I don’t believe in fate. But I’m desperate.

 

Daniel

Reasons I Think Charles Jae Won Bae, aka Charlie, Is an Asshole (In no Particular Order):

  1. Before this epic and spectacular (and wholly delightful) failure at Harvard, he has been unrelentingly good at everything. No one is supposed to be good at everything. Math and English and biology and chemistry and history and sports. It’s not decent to be good at everything. Three or four things at the most. Even that is pushing the bounds of good taste.
  2. He’s a man’s man, meaning he’s an asshole a lot of the time. Most of the time. All of the time.
  3. He is tall, with chiseled, sculpted, and every-romance-novel-ever adjective for cheekbones. The girls (all the girls, not just the Korean Bible study ones) say his lips are kissable.
  4. All this would be fine—an embarrassment of riches, to be sure; a tad too many treasures to be bestowed on a single human, certainly—if he were nice. But he is not. Charles Jae Won Bae is not kind. He is smug and, worst of all, he is a bully. He’s an asshole. An inveterate one.
  5. He doesn’t like me, and hasn’t liked me for years.

 

Natasha

I put my phone, headphones, and backpack into the gray bin before walking through the metal detector. The guard—her name tag says Irene—stops my bin from traveling onto the conveyor belt, as she’s done every day.

I look up at her and don’t smile.

She looks down into the bin, flips my phone over, and stares at the case, as she’s done every day. The case is the cover art for an album called Nevermind by the band Nirvana. Every day her fingers linger on the baby on the cover, and every day I don’t like her touching it. Nirvana’s lead singer was Kurt Cobain. His voice, the damage in it, the way it’s not at all perfect, the way you can feel everything he’s ever felt in it, the way his voice stretches out so thin that you think it’s going to break and then it doesn’t, is the only thing that’s kept me sane since this nightmare began. His misery is so much more abject than mine.

She’s taking a long time, and I can’t miss this appointment. I consider saying something, but I don’t want to make her angry. Probably she hates her job. I don’t want to give her a reason to delay me even further. She glances up at me again but shows no sign that she recognizes me, even though I’ve been here every day for the last week. To her I’m just another anonymous face, another applicant, another someone who wants something from America.

 

Irene: A History

Natasha is not at all correct about Irene. Irene loves her job. More than loves it—needs it. It’s almost the sole human contact she has. It’s the only thing keeping her total and desperate loneliness at bay.

Every interaction with these applicants saves her life just a little. At first they barely notice her. They dump their items into the bin and watch closely as they go through the machine. Most are suspicious that Irene will pocket loose change or a pen or keys or whatever. In the normal course of things, the applicant would never notice her, but she makes sure they do. It’s her only connection to the world.

So she waylays each bin with a single gloved hand. The delay is long enough that the applicant is forced to look up and meet her eyes. To actually see the person standing in front of them. Most mumble a reluctant good morning, and the words fill her up a little. Others ask how she’s doing and she expands a little more.

Irene never answers. She doesn’t know how. Instead, she looks back down at the bin and scrutinizes each object for clues, for some bit of information to store away and examine later.

More than anything, she wishes she could take her gloves off and touch the keys and the wallets and the loose change. She wishes she could slide her fingertips along the surfaces, memorizing textures and letting the artifacts of other people’s lives seep into her. But she can’t delay the line too long. Eventually she sends the bin and its owner away from her.

Last night was a particularly bad night for Irene. The impossibly hungry mouth of her loneliness wanted to swallow her in a single piece. This morning she needs contact to save her life. She drags her eyes away from a retreating bin and up to the next applicant.

It’s the same girl who’s been coming every day this week. She can’t be more than seventeen. Like everyone else, the girl doesn’t look up from the bin. She keeps her eyes focused on it, like she can’t bear to be parted from the hot-pink headphones and her cell phone. Irene lays her gloved hand on the side of the bin to prevent its slide out of her life and onto the conveyor belt.

The girl looks up and Irene inflates. She looks as desperate as Irene feels. Irene almost smiles at her. In her head she does smile at her.

Welcome back. Nice to see you, Irene says, but only in her head.

In reality, she’s already looking down, studying the girl’s phone case. The picture on it is of a fat white baby boy completely submerged in clear blue water. The baby is spread-eagled and looks more like he’s flying than swimming. His mouth and eyes are open. In front of him a dollar bill dangles on a fishhook. The picture is not decent, and every time Irene looks at it she feels herself take an extra breath, as if she were the one underwater.

She wants to find a reason to confiscate the phone, but there is none.

 

Daniel

I know the precise moment that Charlie stopped liking me. It was the summer I turned six and he turned eight. He was riding his shiny new bike (red, ten-speed, awesome) with his shiny new friends (white, ten years old, awesome). Even though there were lots of hints all summer long, I hadn’t really figured out that I’d been demoted to Annoying Younger Brother.

That day he and his friends rode away without me. I chased him for blocks and blocks, calling out, “Charlie,” convinced that he just forgot to invite me. I pedaled so fast that I got tired (six-year-olds on bikes don’t get tired, so that’s saying something).

Why didn’t I just give up? Of course he could hear me calling.

Finally he stopped and hopped off his bike. He shoved it into the dirt, kickstand be damned, and stood there waiting for me to catch up. I could see that he was angry. He kicked dirt onto his bike to make sure everyone was clear on that fact.

Hyung,” I began, using the title younger brothers use for older brothers. I knew it was a big mistake as soon as I said it. His whole face turned red—cheeks, nose, the tips of his ears—the whole thing. He was practically aglow. His eyes darted sideways to where his new friends were watching us like we were on TV.

“What’d he just call you?” the shorter one asked.

“Is that some kind of secret Korean code?” the taller one chimed in.

Charlie ignored them both and got right in my face. “What are you doing here?” He was so pissed that his voice cracked a little.

I didn’t have an answer, but he really didn’t want one. What he wanted was to hit me. I saw it in the way he clenched and unclenched his fists. I saw him trying to figure out how much trouble he would get in if he did hit me right there in the park in front of boys he barely knew.

“Why don’t you get some friends of your own and stop following me around like a baby?” he said instead.

He should’ve just hit me.

He grabbed his bike out of the dirt and puffed himself up with so much angry air I thought he’d burst, and I’d have to tell Mom that her older and more perfect son exploded.

“My name is Charles,” he said to those boys, daring them to say another word. “Are you coming or what?” He didn’t wait for them, didn’t look back to see if they were coming. They followed him into the park and into summer and into high school, just like many other people would eventually follow him. Somehow I had made my brother into a king.

I’ve never called him hyung again.

 

Charles Jae Won Bae: A Future History

Daniel is right about Charles. He’s an asshole through and through. Some people grow out of their lesser natures, but Charles will not. He will settle into it, the skin that was always going to be his.

But before that, before he becomes a politician and marries well, before he changes his name to Charles Bay, before he betrays his good wife and constituents at every turn, before too much money and success and much too much of getting everything that he wants, he will do a good and selfless thing for his brother. It will be the last good and selfless thing that he ever does.

 

Family: A History of Naming

When Min Soo fell in love with Dae Hyun, she did not expect that love to take them from South Korea to America. But Dae Hyun had been poor all his life. He had a cousin in America who’d been doing well for himself in New York City. He promised to help.

For most immigrants, moving to the new country is an act of faith. Even if you’ve heard stories of safety, opportunity, and prosperity, it’s still a leap to remove yourself from your own language, people, and country. Your own history. What if the stories weren’t true? What if you couldn’t adapt? What if you weren’t wanted in the new country?

In the end, only some of the stories were true. Like all immigrants, Min Soo and Dae Hyun adapted as much as they were able. They avoided the people and places that didn’t want them. Dae Hyun’s cousin did help, and they prospered, faith rewarded.

A few years later, when Min Soo learned that she was pregnant, her first thought was of what to name her child. She had this feeling that in America names didn’t mean anything, not like they did in Korea. In Korea, the family name came first and told the entire history of your ancestry. In America, the family name is called the last name. Dae Hyun said it showed that Americans think the individual is more important than the family.

Min Soo agonized over the choice of the personal name, what Americans called the first name. Should her son have an American name, something easy for his teachers and classmates to pronounce? Should they stick to tradition and select two Chinese characters to form a two-syllable personal name?

Names are powerful things. They act as an identity marker and a kind of map, locating you in time and geography. More than that, they can be a compass. In the end, Min Soo compromised. She gave her son an American name followed by a Korean personal name followed by the family name. She named him Charles Jae Won Bae. She named her second son Daniel Jae Ho Bae.

In the end, she chose both. Korean and American. American and Korean.

So they would know where they were from.

So they would know where they were going.

 

Natasha

I’m late. I enter the waiting room and head over to the receptionist. She shakes her head at me like she’s seen this before. Everyone here has seen everything before, and they don’t really care that it’s all new to you.

“You’ll have to call the main USCIS line and make a new appointment.”

“I don’t have time for that,” I say. I explain about the guard, Irene, and her strangeness. I say it quietly and reasonably. She shrugs and looks down. I am dismissed. On any other day, I would be compliant.

“Please call her. Call Karen Whitney. She told me to come back.”

“Your appointment was for 8 a.m. It is now 8:05 a.m. She’s seeing another applicant.”

“Please. It’s not my fault I’m late. She told me—”

Her face hardens. No matter what I say, she will not be moved. “Ms. Whitney is already with another applicant.” She says it like English is not my first language.

“Call her,” I demand. My voice is loud and I sound hysterical. All the other applicants, even the ones who don’t speak English, are staring at me. Desperation translates into every language.

The receptionist nods at a security guard standing by the door. Before he can reach me, the door that leads to the meeting rooms opens up. A very tall and thin man with dark brown skin beckons me. He nods to the receptionist. “It’s all right, Mary. I’ll take her.”

I walk through the door quickly before he changes his mind. He doesn’t look at me, just turns and starts down a series of hallways. I follow silently until he stops in front of Karen Whitney’s office.

“Wait here,” he says to me. He’s only gone for a few seconds, but when he returns he’s holding a red folder—my file.

We walk down another hallway until we finally come to his office. “My name is Lester Barnes,” he says. “Have a seat.”

“I’ve been—”

He holds up a hand to silence me.

“Everything I need to know is in this file.” He pinches the corner of the folder and shakes it at me. “Do yourself a favor and stay quiet while I read it.”

His desk is so neat you can tell he prides himself on it. He’s got a matching set of silver-colored desk accessories—a pen holder, trays for incoming and outgoing mail, and even a business card holder with lrb engraved on it. Who even uses business cards anymore? I reach forward, take one, and slip it into my pocket.

The tall cabinet behind him is a landscape of color-coded stacks of files. Each file holds someone’s life. Are the colors of the files as obvious as I think they are? My file is Rejection Red.

After a few minutes he looks up at me. “Why are you here?”

“Karen—Ms. Whitney—told me to come back. She’s been kind to me. She said maybe there was something.”

“Karen’s new.” He says it like he’s explaining something to me, but I don’t know what it is.

“Your family’s last appeal was rejected. The deportation stands, Ms. Kingsley. You and your family will have to leave tonight at ten p.m.”

He closes the file and pushes a box of tissues toward me in anticipation of my tears. But I’m not a cryer.

I didn’t cry when my father first told us about the deportation orders, or when any of the appeals were rejected.

I didn’t cry last winter when I found out my ex-boyfriend Rob was cheating on me.

I didn’t even cry yesterday when Bev and I said our official goodbye. We’d both known for months that this was coming. I didn’t cry, but still—it wasn’t easy. She would’ve come with me today, but she’s in California with her family, touring Berkeley and a couple of other state schools.

“Maybe you’ll still be here when I get back,” she insisted after our seventeenth hug. “Maybe everything will work out.”

Bev’s always been relentlessly optimistic, even in the face of dire odds. She’s the kind of girl who buys lottery tickets. I’m the kind of girl who makes fun of people who buy lottery tickets.

So. I’m definitely not going to start crying now. I stand up and gather my things and head toward the door. It takes all my energy to continue not being a cryer. In my head I hear my mother’s voice.

Don’t let you pride get the better of you, Tasha.

I turn around. “So there’s really nothing you can do to help me? I’m really going to have to leave?” I say it in such a small voice that I barely hear myself. Mr. Barnes doesn’t have any trouble hearing. Listening to quiet, miserable voices is in his job description.

He taps the closed file with his fingers. “Your dad’s DUI—”

“Is his problem. Why do I have to pay for his mistake?”

My father. His one night of fame led to a DUI led to us being discovered led to me losing the only place I call home.

“You’re still here illegally,” he says, but his voice is not as hard as it was before.

I nod but don’t say anything, because now I really will cry. I put my headphones on and head for the door again.

“I’ve been to your country. I’ve been to Jamaica,” he says. He’s smiling at the memory of his trip. “I had a nice time. Everything is irie there, man. You’ll be all right.”

Psychiatrists tell you not to bottle up your feelings because they’ll eventually explode. They’re not wrong. I’ve been angry for months. It feels like I’ve been angry since the beginning of time. Angry at my father. Angry at Rob, who told me just last week that we should be able to be friends despite “everything,” i.e. the fact that he cheated on me.

Not even Bev has escaped my anger. All fall she’s been worrying about where to apply to college based on where her boyfriend—Derrick—is applying. She regularly checks the time difference between different college locations. Do long-distance relationships work? she asks every few days. The last time she asked I told her maybe she shouldn’t base her entire future on her current high school boyfriend. She did not take it well. Bev thinks they’ll last forever. I think they’ll last through graduation. Maybe into the summer. It took me doing her physics homework for weeks to make it up to her.

And now a man who has probably spent no more than a week in Jamaica is telling me that everything will be irie.

I take my headphones off. “Where did you go?” I ask.

“Negril,” he says. “Very nice place.”

“Did you leave the hotel grounds?”

“I wanted to, but my—”

“But your wife didn’t want to because she was scared, right? The guidebook said it was best to stay on the resort grounds.” I sit down again.

He rests his chin on the back of his clasped hands. For the first time since this conversation began, he’s not in charge of it.

“Was she concerned about her safety?” I put air quotes around safety, as if it weren’t really a thing to be concerned about. “Or maybe she just didn’t want to ruin her vacation mood by seeing how poor everyone really is.” The anger I’ve suppressed rises from my belly and into my throat.

“You listened to Bob Marley, and a bartender got you some pot, and someone told you what irie means, and you think you know something. You saw a tiki bar and a beach and your hotel room. That is not a country. That is a resort.”

He holds up his hands like he’s defending himself, like he’s trying to push the words in the air back into me.

Yes, I’m being awful.

No, I don’t care.

“Don’t tell me I’ll be all right. I don’t know that place. I’ve been here since I was eight years old. I don’t know anyone in Jamaica. I don’t have an accent. I don’t know my family there, not the way you’re supposed to know family. It’s my senior year. What about prom and graduation and my friends?” I want to be worrying about the same dumb things they’re worrying about. I even just started getting my application together for Brooklyn College. My mom saved for two years so she could travel to Florida and buy me a “good” social security card. A “good” card is one with actual stolen numbers printed on it instead of fake ones. The man who sold it to her said that the less expensive ones with bogus numbers wouldn’t get past background checks and college applications. With the card, I can apply for financial aid. If I can get a scholarship along with the aid, I might even be able to afford SUNY Binghamton and other in-state schools.

“What about college?” I ask, crying now. My tears are unstoppable. They’ve been waiting for a long time to come out.

Mr. Barnes slides the tissue box even closer to me. I take six or seven and use them and then take six or seven more. I gather my things again. “Do you have any idea what it’s like not to fit in anywhere?” Again I say it too quietly to be heard, and again he hears me.

I’m all the way to the door, my hand on the knob, when he says, “Ms. Kingsley. Wait.”

 

Irie: An Etymological History

Maybe you’ve heard the word irie before. Maybe you’ve traveled to Jamaica and know that it has some roots in the Jamaican dialect, patois. Or maybe you know that it has other roots in the Rastafari religion. The famous reggae singer Bob Marley was himself a Rastafarian and helped spread the word beyond the Jamaican shores. So maybe when you hear the word you get a sense of the history of the religion.

Maybe you know that Rastafari is a small offshoot of the three main Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. You know that Abrahamic religions are monotheistic and center on differing incarnations of Abraham. Maybe in the word you hear echoes of Jamaica in the 1930s, when Rastafari was invented. Or maybe you hear echoes of its spiritual leader, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.

And so when you hear the word, you hear the original spiritual meaning. Everything is all right between you and your god, and therefore between you and the world. To be irie is to be in a high and content spiritual place. In the word, you hear the invention of religion itself.

Or maybe you don’t know the history.

You know nothing of God or spirit or language. You know the present-day colloquial dictionary definition. To be irie is simply to be all right.

Sometimes if you look a word up in the dictionary, you’ll see definitions marked as obsolete. Natasha often wonders about this, how language can be slippery. A word can start off meaning one thing and end up meaning another. Is it from overuse and oversimplification, like the way irie is taught to tourists at Jamaican resorts? Is it from misuse, like the way Natasha’s father has been using it lately?

Before the deportation notice, he refused to speak with a Jamaican accent or use Jamaican slang. Now that they are being forced to go back, he’s been using new vocabulary, like a tourist studying foreign phrases for a trip abroad. Everything irie, man, he says to cashiers in grocery stores who ask the standard retail How are you? He says irie to the postman dropping off mail who asks the same thing. His smile is too big. He pushes his hands into his pockets and throws his shoulders back and acts like the world has showered him with more gifts than he can reasonably accept. His whole act is so obviously fake that Natasha’s sure everyone will see through him, but then they don’t. He makes them feel good momentarily, like some of his obvious good fortune will rub off on them.

Words, Natasha thinks, should behave more like units of measure. A meter is a meter is a meter. Words shouldn’t be allowed to change meanings. Who decides that the meaning has changed, and when? Is there an in-between time when the word means both things? Or a time when the word doesn’t mean anything at all?

Natasha knows that if she has to leave America, all her friendships, even with Bev, will fade. Sure, they’ll try to stay in touch at the beginning, but it won’t be the same as seeing each other every day. They won’t double-date to prom. No celebrating acceptance letters or crying over rejection ones. No silly graduation pictures. Instead, time will pass and the distance will seem farther every day. Bev will be in America doing American things. Natasha will be in Jamaica feeling like a stranger in the country of her birth.

How long before her friends forget about her? How long before she picks up a Jamaican accent? How long before she forgets that she was ever in America?

One day in the future, the meaning of irie will move on, and it will become just another word with a long list of archaic or obsolete definitions. Is everything irie? someone will ask you in a perfect American accent. Everything’s irie, you will respond, meaning everything’s just okay, but you really don’t feel like talking about it. Neither of you will know about Abraham or the Rastafari religion or the Jamaican dialect. The word will be devoid of any history at all.

 

 Daniel
Local Teen Trapped in Parental Vortex of Expectation and Disappointment, Doesn’t Expect to Be Rescued

The nice thing about having an overachieving asshole for an older brother is that it takes the pressure off. Charlie has always been good enough for two sons. Now that he’s not so perfect after all, the pressure’s on me.

Here’s a conversation I’ve had 1.3 billion (give or take) times since he’s been home:

Mom: Your grades still okay?

Me: Yup.

Mom: Biology?

Me: Yup.

Mom: What about math? You don’t like math.

Me: I know I don’t like math.

Mom: But grades still okay?

Me: Still a B.

Mom: Why no A yet? Aigo. It’s time you get serious now. You not little boy anymore.

Today I have a college admission interview with a Yale alum. Yale is Second-Best School, but for once, I put my foot down and refused to apply to Best School (Harvard). The idea of being Charlie’s younger brother at another school is a bridge entirely too far. Besides, who knows if Harvard would even take me now that Charlie’s been suspended.

My mom and I are in the kitchen. Because of my interview, she’s steaming frozen mandu (dumplings) for me as a treat. I’m having a pre-mandu appetizer of Cap’n Crunch (the best cereal known to mankind) and writing in my Moleskine notebook. I’m working on a poem about heartbreak that I’ve been working on forever (give or take). The problem is that I’ve never had my heart broken, so I’m having a hard time.

Writing at the kitchen table feels like a luxury. I wouldn’t be able to do it if my dad were here. He doesn’t disapprove of my poem-writing tendencies out loud, but disapprove he definitely does.

My mom interrupts my eating and writing for a variation on our usual conversation. I’m cruising through it, adding my “yup’s” through mouthfuls of cereal, when she changes up the script. Instead of the usual “You not little boy anymore,” she says:

“Don’t be like your brother.”

She says it in Korean. For emphasis. And because of God or Fate or Sheer Rotten Luck, Charlie walks into the kitchen just in time to hear her say it. I stop chewing.

Anyone looking in at us from the outside would think things are copacetic. A mother making breakfast for her two sons. One son at the table eating cereal (no milk). Another son entering the scene from stage left. He’s about to have breakfast as well.

But that’s not what’s really happening. Mom is so ashamed about Charlie hearing her that she blushes. It’s faint, but it’s there. She offers him some mandu, even though he hates Korean food and has refused to eat it since junior high.

And Charlie? He just pretends. He pretends he doesn’t understand Korean. He pretends he didn’t hear her offer of dumplings. He pretends I don’t exist.

He almost fools me until I look at his hands. They curl into fists and give away the truth. He heard and he understood. She could’ve called him an epic douche bag, an animatronic dick complete with ball sac, and it would’ve been better than telling me not to be like him. My whole life it’s been the opposite. Why can’t you be more like your brother? This Reversal of Fortune is not good for either of us.

Charlie takes a glass from the cupboard and fills it with tap water. Drinking water from the tap is just to piss Mom off. She opens her mouth to say the usual “No. Drink filter,” but she closes it again. Charlie gulps the water down in three quick swallows and puts the glass back into the cupboard unwashed. He leaves the cupboard open.

Umma, give him a break,” I tell her after he’s gone. I’m pissed at him and I’m pissed for him. My parents have been relentless with the criticism. I can only imagine how ass it is for him working at the store all day with my dad. I bet my dad berates him in between smiling at customers and answering questions about extensions and tea tree oils and treating chemically damaged hair (my parents own a beauty supply shop that sells black hair care products. It’s called Black Hair Care).

She opens the steamer basket to check on the mandu. The steam fogs up her glasses. When I was a little kid that used to make me laugh, and she would ham it up by letting them get as steamy as possible and then pretending she couldn’t see me. Now she just pulls them from her face and wipes them with a dishcloth.

“What happen to your brother? Why he fail? He never fail.”

Without her glasses she looks younger, prettier. Is it weird to think your mom is pretty? Probably. I’m sure that thought never occurs to Charlie. All his girlfriends (all six of them) have been very cute, slightly chubby white girls with blond hair and blue eyes.

No, I’m lying. There was one girl, Agatha. She was his last high school girlfriend before college.

She had green eyes.

Mom puts her glasses back on and waits, like I’m going to have an answer for her. She hates not knowing what happens next. Uncertainty is her enemy. I think it’s because she grew up poor in South Korea.

“He never fail. Something happen.”

And now I’m even more pissed. Maybe nothing happened to Charles. Maybe he failed out because he simply didn’t like his classes. Maybe he doesn’t want to be a doctor. Maybe he doesn’t know what he wants. Maybe he just changed.

But we’re not allowed to change in my household. We’re on a track to be doctors, and there’s no getting off.

“You boys have it too easy here. America make you soft.” If I had a brain cell for every time I heard this, I’d be a goddamn genius.

“We were born here, Mom. We were always soft.”

She scoffs. “What about interview? You ready?” She looks me over and finds me lacking. “You cut hair before interview.” For months she’s been after me to get rid of my short ponytail. I make a noise that could be either agreement or disagreement. She puts a plate of mandu in front of me and I eat it in silence.

Because of the big interview, my parents let me have the day off from school. It’s still only eight a.m., but no way am I staying in the house and having any more of these conversations. Before I can escape, she hands me a money pouch with deposit slips to take to my dad at the store.

Appa forgot. You bring to him.” I’m sure she meant to give it to Charlie before he left for the store but forgot because of their little incident in the kitchen.

I take the pouch, grab my notebook, and drag myself upstairs to get dressed. My bedroom is at the end of a long hallway. I pass by Charlie’s room (door closed as always) and my parents’ room. My mom’s got a couple of unopened blank canvases leaning against their doorframe. Today’s her day off from the store, and I bet she’s looking forward to spending the day alone painting. Lately she’s been working on roaches, flies, and beetles. I’ve been teasing her, saying that she’s in her Gross Insect Period, but I like it even more than her Abstract Orchid Period from a few months ago.

I take a quick detour into the empty bedroom that she uses as her studio to see if she’s painted anything new. Sure enough, there’s one of an enormous beetle. The canvas is not especially large, but the beetle takes up the entire space. My mom’s paintings have always been brightly colored and beautiful, but something about applying all that color to her intricate, almost anatomical drawings of insects makes them something more than beautiful. This one’s painted in darkly pearlescent greens, blues, and blacks. Its carapace shimmers like spilled oil on water.

Three years ago for her birthday, my dad surprised her by hiring part-time help for the store so she wouldn’t have to go in every day. He also bought a starter set of oil paints and some canvases. I’d never seen her cry over a present before. She’s been painting ever since.

Back in my room I wonder for the ten thousandth time (give or take) what her life would be like if she never left Korea. What if she never met my dad? What if she never had Charlie and me? Would she be an artist now?

I get dressed in my new custom-tailored gray suit and red tie. “Too bright,” my mom said about the tie when we were shopping. Evidently, only paintings are allowed to be colorful. I convinced her by saying that red would make me look confident. Checking myself in the mirror now, I have to say that the suit does make me look confident and debonair (yes, debonair). Too bad I’m only wearing it for this interview and not for something that actually matters to me. I check the weather on my phone and decide I don’t need a coat. The high will be sixty-seven degrees—a perfect fall day.

Despite my irritation with the way she treated Charlie, I kiss my mom and promise to get my hair cut, and then I get out of the house. Later this afternoon my life will hop on a train headed for Doctor Daniel Jae Ho Bae station, but until then the day is mine. I’m going to do whatever the world tells me to. I’m going to act like I’m in a goddamn Bob Dylan song and blow in the direction of the wind. I’m going to pretend my future’s wide open, and that anything can happen.

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