The best part about being a temp was what Judy Lee had decided to do an hour ago: leave for lunch and never come back. She counted the number of the daily Far Side calendar sheets pinned on the gray wall of her cubicle, twenty-five in all. She rose from her chair and plucked away her favorite, the one where the fat boy with glasses was pushing with all his might to open the door. The joke was that the kid trying to enter the building, Midvale School for the Gifted, wasn’t smart enough to follow the sign on the door that read pull. At some point in her life, she’d owned a shirt with the same cartoon, the silk screen in full color unlike this grayscale image. She’d bought it because she felt sorry for him. She’d done stupid things like that all her life, and she wasn’t even a genius, not even close.
At her job, she served this vast corporate machine by comparing the tiny rows of numbers printed on wide white and green computer paper, the kind with holes on the sides, to the even tinier rows of numbers on the Excel spreadsheet glowing on her computer screen. She had to match up the corresponding rows and input the third column on paper into the second column on screen, line after line, page after page. After doing this for a whole day, Judy was sure that her job would qualify as an effective method of torture. By three o’clock, the slight pain behind her eyeballs would swell into a full-blown migraine, as if a gremlin had climbed inside her skull and placed a chisel against her forehead, whacking away with his mallet.
The only thing that would save her at this point would be a cigarette, or at least that’s what her nicotine craving whispered to her. For the first week, she was able to stave off her need, but that was all the resistance she had in reserve. Granted, she’d gone cold turkey for only a month, but in a life of few tangible accomplishments, Judy had considered it a major victory.
Her phone rang, the display on the LCD panel flashing extension 3095, nakamura, r. Which was strange, because Roger had never called her before.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi. Just wondering if you’re going out for your noontime smoke.”
“Yeah . . . ?”
“I’ll meet you there.”
Judy slid back her chair too far and bumped into the wall of her cubicle. From the other side, she heard the falling of small plastic objects, the collection of Happy Meal toys that her neighbor Harry had carefully lined up on the edge of his shelf. Luckily, Harry was not at his desk, though she’d have to deal with his muttered curses when he returned. Screw him, she thought. Screw this whole place, I’m outta here.
The only spot where smoking was allowed was by the loading dock, which offered the lovely view of the back parking lot with its cracked asphalt and a row of Dumpsters against the rusting chain-link fence. It wasn’t exactly raining outside, but it was misty and cool, the kind of weather that spoke of summer’s end. It was already the first week in September, and as Judy leaned against the damp brick wall and lit up a cigarette, she tried to account for the last nine months of her life. So far, it had been a year of taming her vices—drinking only on the weekends, ramping down to three cigarettes a day, eating no processed sugars like chocolate or candy or anything that actually tasted good. Everyone else she knew was doing productive things like buying bigger houses, raising smart kids, getting promotions. And here she was, a temp at age thirty-eight, with no husband, no house, no job, nothing. She knew she should be concerned, and to some degree she was, but whenever she fully recognized her utter lack of everything, the sheer emptiness of her life filled her up, leaving no room in her heart to even feel scared.
A flock of Canada geese flew by, honking down to her as they crossed the sky. How did they know to get into that V formation? Every time she’d noticed this natural phenomenon she asked herself this very question, but not once had she actually taken the initiative to find the answer. Well, damn it, she would. Go to the library this weekend and look it up on Wikipedia. Here at the office, they didn’t allow Internet access to drones like her.
Start out small. That’s what her mother used to tell her years ago, when she was still around, when Judy was still young enough to believe in her words. Set up small goals, be patient, try again.
The door swung open and Roger walked out. “Couldn’t wait, huh?”
She watched Roger flick his lighter six times until she handed hers to him. He raised his lighter against the sky to see the level of the butane in the clear orange plastic. He tossed it into the trash can. “All gone.”
She’d lose a lighter way before that would ever happen. Like pens—she’d never once had to stop writing because the ink had run out. She thought about mentioning this to Roger, but she was tired of Roger. She was tired of his vague displays of attraction to her. He was one of these men content to admire from afar, and in the beginning that had been fine. She’d enjoyed the attention he paid her, however disguised or indirect—like complimenting a new haircut when nobody else noticed. But when she realized that Roger would never actually do anything, she felt robbed, like he was trying to get something for nothing.
But he had called her today, to make sure she would be here for their smoke break. Roger didn’t wear a wedding band, and the only picture on his desk was that of a cat, a Siamese, its little brown and tan face and bright blue eyes in a tiny round frame. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy, either, probably in his late thirties like Judy, jet-black hair with a touch of gray on his short sideburns. Not handsome, at least not in a pretty-boy kind of way, but there was something attractive about his lean frame, the way he stood up as straight as a lamppost. When he held his cigarette like a pencil and took a deep drag with his eyes squinted, he looked a bit like an Asian Clint Eastwood. She wondered if he’d practiced this pose, and it made her smile.
“So,” he said.
“So.” Judy knew he was about to say something, but she was feeling playful, wanting to torture him a little, so she spoke before he could continue. “Why do geese fly in a V?”
She happily repeated the question, but her joy at perplexing him was short-lived when she saw how she’d completely flummoxed him. It was a stupid move on her part; she wished she’d kept quiet, but of course she hadn’t. “Never mind.”
“Oh,” he said.
Because she’d started smoking before him, he was only halfway through his cigarette when she was done. Feeling naked without one between her fingers, she tapped the last one out of her box and lit up. “So I’m gone after today.”
“What do you mean, you know?”
He looked down at his feet. “I overheard you on the phone. Sorry.”
She’d called Beverly, her contact at the temp agency, in the morning, grateful that she could leave a message and avoid her bitching. Had she been talking loudly enough for it to be heard? It was possible, and now that she thought back to it, she did remember hearing Roger’s voice in the vicinity at the time of her call.
Judy tracked darker clouds rolling in from the east, obscuring the already overcast sky like a heavy curtain slowly being pulled. She took a super-big drag at the end of her cigarette to get right down to the filter. The back of her throat burned, but it was fine. This was good, cathartic pain, what she wanted right now. She held the hot smoke inside her lungs, then exhaled through her nostrils, smelling and tasting every last hint of the burnt tobacco. Judy pushed herself off the wall and poked the butt into the round ashtray of sand on top of the trash can, adding her lipstick-tinted cylinder to the vast arrangement of stumps that stuck up like tombstones. According to the information printed on the back of her empty pack, she’d just experienced the full richness of the finest Turkish tobacco, but what was left in her mouth tasted like old leather. She crushed the box and chucked it into the trash can.
She should’ve known that this was all Roger wanted, to share a final smoke, the most vague yet in his continuing repertoire of vagueness. The unexpected phone call had given her more hope than she’d thought. When was she going to learn?
“Well,” Judy said, “see ya.”
Roger flicked his spent cigarette onto the parking lot, the ember diffusing instantly as it struck the wet sheen on the ground. “It was great working with you.”
“We never worked together.”
Roger nodded, smiled, looked away. “You know what I mean. It was nice seeing you here.”
“No,” Judy said, “I don’t know what you mean.” And before he could say anything else, she walked back through the building.
Back in her cube, she closed up shop. There were only two personal items on her desk, a miniature cactus shaped like a doorknob and a framed photograph of her family when she was seven, her brother nine, and her mother in her early thirties, taken out on the deck of their old house. Her father was there, too, though Judy would liked to have cut him out of the picture altogether with one swift snap of a scissors, but he had placed his hands on the shoulders of his children. Even so, she liked that photo, the sky above them cloudless and forever, the trees in the background lush with blurred green leaves, everything and everyone so alive.
Her phone rang, but this one had no internal identifier.
All he’d uttered was her name, but she could tell there was something wrong with her brother, Kevin.
“Yeah. You okay?”
“I don’t know,” he said. His cell phone was cutting out too often for her to make sense of what he was saying.
“You’re breaking up,” she said. “Is it about Dad?”
“Yes. Kind of. You’re at work?”
“I was just leaving.”
A pause on the line. “I thought this was a six-month assignment. You’re not just quitting?”
Judy leaned into her chair and sighed. “Don’t change the subject, okay? Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
They agreed to meet at her place at half past one. It was almost a two-hour drive from his house in rural northwestern New Jersey, but he said he was on the road anyway and didn’t mind.
In their early twenties, they’d lived in Montclair, five minutes away from each other, dropping by, dropping in. Those easy days were gone now. Everything required more distance, more time, more effort. God. Sometimes life just exhausted the hell out of her.
* * *
Kevin made the mistake of getting to Judy’s apartment on time. How could he forget that his sister, at her very best, ran half an hour late? Usually he was smarter than this, but he was a little out of it. The phone call from Dr. Elias had done a job on him.
“Kevin, I’m sorry,” he’d said, “but you’re not a match.”
The blood type couldn’t be the problem—Kevin knew he was the universal donor.
“Yes, you’re O negative, so that’s not the issue,” Dr. Elias said. “It’s the crossmatching that failed. Simply put, with the current set of drugs available, there’s no way we can fool your dad’s body into thinking that your kidney is his own. If we drop yours in there, it’ll likely fail in a short amount of time.”
The silence that followed led Kevin to think there was something else Dr. Elias wanted to mention. At the kidney transplant orientation a week ago, the doctor had told a story of how one potential donor, through the rigorous prescreening tests, was made aware of some deadly disease which would have surely killed him otherwise.
“I thought—I thought you said this was like a routine thing, right? That within family, the matching is guaranteed?”
“Well, usually, but I’m still wondering.”
Dr. Elias cleared his throat, and Kevin, who’d been on his feet while talking on the telephone, leaned against the edge of his desk for support. This back corner of the pro shop was the closest thing to an office at the tennis club, where he had a small wooden desk, a matching chair, and the upright racquet stringer. Kevin stared at the machine, its metallic knobs and quick-release clamps, the piano black finish of its star-shaped base.
“Do you remember when we talked about human leukocyte antigens? It was in the tissue-typing portion of the presentation.”
“Yes,” Kevin said, more out of fear than actual recollection. He flashed back to classrooms, teachers calling on him for answers he didn’t know.
Dr. Elias summarized the information for him anyway. Everyone has six unique antigens that are inherited from their parents: three from the father and three from the mother. So if a child is donating a kidney for his parent, there is a guarantee of at least three matches. The ideal donor matched all six, but even a half match wasn’t bad.
“So if I’m an O and I matched three with my dad, how come it won’t take?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Dr. Elias said. “You don’t match at all.”
“I don’t understand.”
Then Dr. Elias said the words that Kevin kept hearing in his head on his way over to Judy’s: “What it means is that your father is not your biological father.”
My father, not my biological, Kevin thought. I almost failed biology in high school. Maybe if I had done better, this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if. . . .
Dr. Elias asked if he was still on the line.
“I’m here. I’m just . . . okay. All right.”
“I’m terribly sorry to be the one to tell you this, Kevin, I really am. Information of this nature should’ve come from your parents, but I figured you deserved to know.”
He’d thanked Dr. Elias and hung up as fast as he could. He was grateful that a boy came in to have his racquet restrung, glad to perform a familiar physical act to bring himself into some sort of equilibrium. Babolat co-poly on the mains, the strings that ran vertically, forty-nine pounds per square inch; Wilson synthetic gut on the crosses at fifty-seven pounds. After he’d strung three more racquets from the backlog, he felt calm enough to dial Judy, and now here he was, waiting at his sister’s apartment in Asbury Park, still dazed.
Sitting on the stoop, he watched car after car on her street, tires cutting waves through the heavy rain. He could still remember when this part of Main Street was a simple neighborhood street, no double yellow lines down the middle, kids playing street hockey even around rush hour. It was a sport he’d played himself, though always as the goalie, the solitary sentry. Even in team sports, he always found a way to be alone. Was this a trait passed down to him from his unknown father? It felt as if his life so far had been someone else’s.
SUNG J. WOO’S short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, PEN/Guernica, and KoreAm Journal. His debut novel Everything Asian won the 2010 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Literature Award (Youth category). He lives in Washington, New Jersey.
Adapted from Love, Love, by Sung J. Woo, Copyright © 2015 by Sung J. Woo. With the permission of the publisher, Soft Skull/Counterpoint Press.