The beginning, of Paul and me, was as natural as anything. We met for the first time at one of Henry’s birthday bashes. He threw them every year, starting on his sixteenth. Neither Dr. Lee nor my father was crazy about it, but they preferred he held it at our house as opposed to somewhere else, where God knows what would happen, and agreed to go away overnight as long as I was there to monitor and keep it under control. I’m not sure why he was so set on it, why he looked forward to it; since every year, without fail, about midway into the festivities he’d get very depressed, because of who didn’t show, or who left early—either the girl he was chasing or the one he’d just broken up with—and then he got very, very drunk.
This time, he’d started to get out of hand early on. He was falling into that honest mode—the depressed drunk, telling his friends what he really thought of them, yelling over the music and making a scene. “Is there anyone here that even knows my real name?” he bellowed over Nina Simone singing “Feeling Good,” standing precariously on a folding chair, and waving a red plastic cup. “It’s Han-soo,” I said, and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him down off the chair. Paul had grabbed his other arm, and we escorted him upstairs to his bedroom. “It’s the second one on the right,” I said. Paul was leading Henry, he’d taken control. I opened the door for them so they’d have a clear path. “Take a load off, Henry,” he said. “It’s Han-soo,” Henry said. “My father calls me Han-soo.” “Okay, Han-soo,” Paul said. “Take a load off.” Paul pulled off Henry’s socks and shoes and laid him down on the bed. He even pulled the blanket over him.
I was impressed. He seemed so capable, like he’d know just what to do in any sticky situation. And it was nice to have some help with Henry, for once. I had grown so used to bearing the responsibility, I hadn’t even recognized the weight until some of it was lifted. Within moments, after mumbling a few unintelligible things, Henry was asleep.
“Nice work there, Barney,” Paul said, holding out his hand. I smiled, gave him mine, and he flipped it over, delivering a playful five.
“You know—as in Fife?”
“Riigghht.” I smiled at my feet and let out a breath, halfway between a laugh and a heavy sigh.
“They won’t miss him. A party’s a party.”
“I know. It’s like this every year. Have you been to one before?”
“A party? Once or twice.”
“Ha-ha. That’s cute. I mean a Henry birthday bash.”
“No, this would be my first. I only just met Henry last semester.”
“You’re in school with him?”
“I was his teacher.” I puzzled at him. “His T.A. Mechanical Systems 300. I’m old, but not that old.”
“Not as old as Andy Griffith?”
“Mayberry or Matlock?”
“Whatever. Never mind. In real life, I’m Jane. Who are you?”
“Big sister, I know. I’ve heard about you. I’m Paul.”
“How come I haven’t heard about you?”
“Because you don’t go drinking with Henry. You’d know all sorts of things about him if you did.” He seemed to be telling me something, even back then. He didn’t know either me or Henry well enough to get too personal, or to interfere, but he wanted me to know something. A slight expression of concern, friend to relative. I already had my suspicions, and appreciated his subtlety.
“I’m supposed to be minding this party, it’s the only reason my parents let him have it here. Shall we?” He motioned a charming “after you,” and we went back downstairs, going our separate ways—me stacking cups and straightening furniture, he socializing with some of the other engineers. I saw him lean over Liv, who was alone by then (Marco had gone back to Italy). I watched him the rest of the night; he seemed both easy with himself and a little out of place. There were moments when he had no one to talk to, and he’d just sit on the couch, drink his beer, flip through magazines. I liked him right away. He had a kind of dignity about him, something solid. And somehow, he felt . . . familiar.
We started spending time together as a threesome, then gradually Paul and I would go out alone. We never made any grand pronouncements. It just happened, and Henry seemed to understand from the beginning. It worked for all of us, that was the beauty of it. Henry had always taken up significant real estate in my worries; now I had someone with whom to share the burden—we were his caretakers, his ass kickers, his absolvers—and also the love. And Henry, I think, felt good about it, more safe and sound with the two of us working together.
Henry. Baby brother. My father liked to tell the story—he is prone to repeating stories over and over—about the time when Henry was turning one, at his dohl, his first birthday party, and someone put a candlelit cupcake in front of him to blow out. Of course he didn’t know that he was supposed to blow it out, nor was he capable of it; but he was at the stage of grabbing and swiping at things, and so when he saw the bright hot light in front of him, he went for it. My father saw the whole thing, captured it with his Super-8. Dr. Lee, busy talking to a guest sitting next to her, had Henry in her lap; I was sitting in a booster seat on her other side. Henry batted with his right hand, and the cupcake-with-candle fell over, lighting the paper napkins on fire. I have no primary recollection of any of this, but I’ve seen it on film: Henry giggles with delight, leans in toward the fire, then feels the heat and begins to cry. At this point, Dr. Lee sees what’s happened, but I’m already pushing hard on Henry’s face with both hands, knocking him off her lap into the guest’s lap, and knocking myself over into Dr. Lee’s lap. Everybody is up out of their chairs by now, the guest has Henry, Dr. Lee has me, someone is throwing fruit punch onto the fire, disaster efficiently averted. Dr. Lee is furious, holding me under her arm like a rolled-up rug, and scolding the cameraman for continuing to film.
She hated it when my father told this story, mostly because the repetition grew tiresome to her. But my father would tell it, again and again—about how Janey saved Henry, how Henry is always the baby, with poor judgment. How his big sister always knows what to do and takes care of him. Which, I suppose, is
But I remember a different story.
We were older, old enough to be left alone. Both Dr. Lee and my father were working all the time that summer. My mother had an office in the house, where she met with patients, but we were not to disturb her. This was the last summer before my parents discovered “summer activities”—tennis lessons, art classes, Korean school—and so we were pretty much on our own, Henry and me. Left to our own devices, we alternated between dreaming up fantastic fun together and hating each other. And there was one particular day when the former took a nearly irreversible turn toward the latter.
We’d been running off into the woods in the afternoon, through a path at the end of our street. There was a creek, and we made a hot-summer idyll of it. Henry threw stones, I squatted down to watch for fish and other swimmy things, we splashed around mildly when we got hot. That spot calmed us, and we liked that, but it was far in, through dark and dense areas off the path, easier somehow to get there than to get back. The first time we went, we got lost coming back and barely got home before dark. Henry was scared, and so was I, but I pretended to know the way all along. “It’s just a little farther this way,” I kept saying, even when I had no idea where we were. The next time, we had the idea to tie pieces of string to tree trunks along the way so we could find our way back more easily. It would have worked, except that we didn’t bring enough string, and so we still got lost, looking for the next tree trunk. Luckily, it had rained a few days before and the ground was damp, so we tracked our footprints back to the path. By the third time we went, the way had become familiar to me. I could see in my head the shapes of the trees and the contour of the hill, and I knew I could trace the way. But Henry was at my mercy. He’d followed my lead and didn’t memorize the way for himself.
I can’t say for sure what made me do it. What is it in a child’s soul that tempts her to torment the weaker? Or is it just a predeveloped morality—no context for compassion, no sense of responsibility? I did not hate Henry, not really, but I was curious about things. And there he was, an unsuspecting object in my path. I wanted to see what would happen. I wanted, perhaps, to make something happen.
“We’re lost again,” I said to Henry, lying. It was late afternoon, the sun was dark orange, almost brown, and sagging low, barely visible through the trees. It was hot and muggy, even in the shade, the sour smell of our dirty little bodies settling in and thickening. Swarms of gnats and mosquitoes feasted on our sweet blood. “Wait here. I think it’s this way, but I’m not sure. Let me check first.” Henry was tired out from the heat, happy to let me do the exploring. He sat down cross-legged, leaned up against a tree. He had some action figures and a windup flipper bath toy in his pockets, with which he proceeded to occupy himself. His hands and his clothes were filthy. I can see him now, absorbed in his play, sweaty and flushed, foggy-headed from the heat. I can feel the distance between us, then and now, how he ceased to be Henry to me, my brother. How I saw him as a thing—an experiment, an idea. I snapped his image with my eyes, I saw the him beneath his basic identity. And I left him. I climbed the hill through the forest I’d come to know, and guided myself home.
Some time later that evening my mother came to my bedroom. I was doing a word puzzle in a Highlights magazine. “Where is Henry?” I did not look up at her. A few moments passed; I felt her towering, lingering. “Ah-jin ah? Where is your brother?” Slowly, I raised my eyes to meet hers. “I lost him,” I said calmly, holding her gaze. “I lost him in the woods.”
I believe that my mother—the scholar of human psychology—understood something about me then. Something that no one else knew, something I did not understand myself. Her eyes widened, but she said nothing. She turned from me and rushed away. I heard rummaging in the closet—presumably a search for
a flashlight—then the slamming of the front door. Some time later, she returned with Henry and my father, who’d driven up just as they were walking up the driveway. Henry was bawling, but he was safe.
I learned later that he’d stayed put the whole time. As it got dark, he started to yell and cry. When no one came, he curled up and cried himself to sleep. On top of fear, it was hunger that really did him in. My mother went looking for him in the woods, yelled his name into the blackness. He awoke, heard her, and answered. They kept yelling until they found each other. In total, he probably sat there for about two hours. My parents did not say anything to me about the incident. To this day, I don’t know what they discussed. I went into Henry’s room later that evening, after he’d had dinner and a bath and was in bed. I crawled into the bed and wrapped my arms around him. “I got lost,” I said. “I got to the street somehow and then didn’t know how to find you again.” He made a noise, like a small animal in distress; and then he started to snore. I slept with him that night. My mother found us there together in the morning and woke us for breakfast. We read each other jokes from our cereal boxes and kicked each other under the table. “Ah-jin,” my father said. “Take care of your brother.” And that was it. I’ve tried my best—and failed, no doubt—to heed him since.
I told that story to Paul, late one night, lying in bed. It was the first time I’d told it to anyone, the first time it occurred to me to tell it. It began with a confessional impulse (There’s something you should know . . .), but as I spoke, both of us lying on our backs, naked and hot in the dark (it was July, the thick of summer), my body still buzzing from the pleasure of our lovemaking but my mind already elsewhere, I found myself shifting tone, changing perspective. As if the part of the narrator were now being played by another actor, with a new interpretation. The whole thing seemed distinctly funny to me. And the revelation of cruelty and wickedness I’d been gearing up for, the whack of ugliness displayed by the villainous older sister, somehow dissipated in the telling. It was a good story, not a bad one. It was, in fact, one of my happiest family memories.
“After they brought Henry back, the house was so peaceful,” I said to Paul, to the darkness. “Everything was fine. Everything could have been awful, but everything was fine.”
“You got away with something.”
“We were all okay.”
“Were you worried?”
“I was not worried about Henry. Come to think of it, it may have been one of the few times I was not worried about Henry.”
“About what, then?”
“About nothing. I wasn’t worried. That peacefulness was a respite from the worry. It was unusual. It was nice.”
“You won. You conquered your mother.”
“She saw me. That’s all. Not through me, not past me. And . . .”
“And . . . she found him.”
“Come here.” In the hot, in the dark, we made love again. It was strange, though. Paul held me, he moved over me, gently and soberly, as if to console. But at that moment I wanted something different. Something had opened up, something was lifted. It was a good story, not a bad story. I wanted to jump for joy.
When I look back on that time, on Paul and me, it feels like another life and continent and planet. It feels small, like high school when you return for a visit, or like your childhood bedroom. I find it puzzling that things always feel like the whole world at the moment in which you live them; and then the world, what you thought was the whole world, telescopes as you move away from experience. One minute you are the image in the telescope, you are so close that you are inside—like when I first met Eloise. The next minute you are the viewer, you are standing at a remove, zooming in, drawing the image as close as possible, and yet knowing that what you see, what you long to see in detail and immediacy, is ever and always far, far
How can you live or experience a moment in its full present, knowing that it will only diminish as soon as it has passed? It’s like the new car that loses value the minute you drive it off the lot. What’s strange is that I can’t even say for sure whether I was all there even at the time, or if I was already telescoping into
the future, or maybe the past, or perhaps even an alternative present.
When I think about Paul now, he eludes me. He has faded into a ghostlike sensation. Much like the child we made and lost.
Copyright © 2010 Sonya Chung. Simon & Schuster
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