Seriously. Try to imagine it. You’re a little girl, and someone pushes you down on the asphalt at recess, and you’ve got a skinned knee and your pants are torn, and you’re crying and wishing your mother was there and not wishing your mother was there and wanting to speak Korean and not wanting to speak it. And nobody else knows what the difference is between you and Connie Choy in the seventh grade, nobody knows what a Korean is, or cares, aren’t those places just all the same anyway? What matters is you’re here. Nobody gives a shit about the Japanese invasion or President Rhee or two thousand years of this dynasty and that dynasty. You learn to hate your own inconvenient self. And then before you know it you’re in high school and you’ve forgotten all about it, you’re just a good girl, a straight-A girl, you have your own little slot, and you ace the APs and the only boys you talk to are the Jewish boys you debate in history and kick the shit out of in calculus. And then one of them asks you to the prom, and you don’t say no, you sneak out of the house through the basement window, and that’s it, a quick sweaty fuck in the back of a rented limo. After that you’re an American teenager for sure. Crying in the bathroom when your period’s late.
Everyone in this story feels like a fish out of water, no matter what ocean they’re in. Kevin’s a half-Jamaican, half-Irish nurse, formerly a medic in the first Gulf war. He’s taking care of Mrs. Kang, an 88-pound Korean mother and grandmother with Alzheimer’s and a stroke. There’s chemistry between him and Mrs. Kang’s daughter Hyunjee, divorced from her Jewish husband. Kevin’s got some baggage of his own: he picked up the kitchen extension, thinking Renee was talking to her mom, only to hear her trading obscene flirtations with some bozo:
He dropped the receiver into its cradle as if it was white smoking iron and stared straight ahead. A head of cabbage, an ice tray left out on the counter to melt. His own keys left casually in the bowl next to the door. The simplest objects had a way of betraying you: all the unpredictable meanings they took on.
That’s what it’s like, reading this story. The simplest things have unpredictable meanings. Dropping the telephone receiver becomes a trope. Removing one peg with another peg, replacing one pain with another.
Hyunjee wonders if all this multiculturalism is really, truly, good for us. Doesn’t it just get a little exhausting after a while, explaining why Korean-Jewish daughter can’t hold her Bat Mitzvah party in a Korean rib joint since no one’s Kosher anyway? And the above quote, Hyunjee summing up her life. Scary stuff, this story. Beautiful, but scary.
I’m not sure I get the title. It’s from the poem “Elizabeth Childress” from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, and it seems to be a woman mourning the child who died stillborn, but assuring her she’s better off than if she’d been born live.
It’s the Contributor’s Notes that really knock me out. This is one of seven stories from Row’s collection Nobody Ever Gets Lost, a collection of stories reacting to 9/11. Not specifically about 9/11, but some of the issues around it, such as, in the case of the Pushcart-winning selection “Sheep May Safely Graze” (which I’ve already admired), how grief mutates into vengeful violence, and here, multiculturalism. He talks about the story being an effort to capture “the multilayered quality, the simultaneity, of every day experience… how New Yorkers returned to daily life after September 11 – to the ordinary enervating flux and unhappiness of getting through the day, as a kind of escape from the cataclysmic grief that followed the event itself.” He quotes Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race, how “the ideal of ethnic diversity…is a kind of ‘pathological euphoria.'” And Kevin and Hyunjee and the rest of us in the post-9/11 world are in the post-euphoric stage, getting back to the ordinary everyday:
Superficially, we might say this experience of being “at odds” applies only to members of minority groups, but in the twenty-first century, who is not, to some context, a member of a minority? Who, in the twenty-first century, has not experienced some sense of dispossession, homelessness, alienation, self-estrangement? That’s the common bond that unites Kevin and Hyunjee, I think, and in a different world – a better world – could unite all the rest of us.
I’m not nearly done with this story – I want to check out the collection, in which the original, longer version appears, so this is a work in progress. It’s possibly the most intellectually gripping (and intimidating) story I’ve encountered in a while. And I’m wondering why Jess Row, a profoundly intelligent writer with a keen emotional ear, isn’t more widely known. Or maybe I’m the one who hasn’t been paying attention.