“It wasn’t strange?” she asks one night.
“What?” he says.
“Growing up there.”
“Of course it is now, but not then. It was just my childhood, and it was as happy as most, I think. Happier, probably.”
Her boyfriend is Algerian. She hasn’t told Wren much about him, and Wren hasn’t asked. One night she told him, “I’m drawn to people with backgrounds different from mine.”
Now she says, “But you have so many stories about how backward it is there.”
“It is and it isn’t,” he says, feeling the need to defend his hometown against the stereotypes about Kentucky. “My best friends’ parents were the sons of doctors and lawyers. Insurance salesmen. I don’t know anybody whose father worked in a coal mine, but plenty of them worked at the railroad. It was suburban more than anything else, I guess. I just got a cool accent in the breakdown too,” he tells her, but there’s more to it than that because he knows that while Fordyce is a town and not the country, it’s not by any stretch cosmopolitan or refined.
Hannah sighs through whatever wires or towers make calls possible anymore, frustrated, it seems, by his answer. He knows she’s in bed too, and he tries to imagine the room she’s in, her black skirt and silk blouse across the back of a chair, the indentation of her boyfriend’s head on the pillow beside her.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I think you and I are more different, culturally, than I am with him.” She never says his name, though Wren knows it’s Henri. On Facebook, Wren has seen the pictures of them in and around Paris and vacationing at St. Tropez. The two of them look happy with the city lights or the blue of the Mediterranean at their backs, and when he thinks about the possibility of a future with Hannah, he thinks he’ll never compare with the images on the computer screen. In a race between his love and France, France will win.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Yes, you do. You said it. You’ve been thinking of it.” His room is completely dark except for the red glow of numbers from the alarm clock he’s turned against the wall so he can’t count the minutes till she calls.
“It’s nothing,” she says. “Forget I said it.”
“How am I supposed to forget it?”
“It was just something stupid I said. I don’t even really know what I meant.” She has dropped the subject, and the only way for them to come back to it is if she brings it back up.
For a month, they’ve been going this way. They met at the beginning of Wren’s internship in DC last summer. Hannah was teaching in a summer college program and was the friend of a girl in the senator’s office where Wren worked. They met in a big group at a bar, and by the end of the night they were alone, everyone else having begged off for early mornings at their offices. Hannah turned on the bar stool, her crossed leg revealing itself under her summer dress. She edged closer to him, and he ran his fingers along her calf. “Is this okay?” he asked.
She smiled, giving a quiet nod. “And this boyfriend you mentioned earlier?”
The smile disappeared, and she narrowed her eyes. “He’s not here now.”
It was only a matter of time, and a week later when they found themselves in the same bar, cashing out, ready to head home, he felt her behind him. She reached up and laid her hands across his chest, putting her weight against his back, and she felt soft, like a thousand feathers pressed next to him. He finished signing the credit card slip and held it up to the bartender. “Thanks,” he called out and then turned, held her gaze, and took her hand to walk out. Hannah let him lead her through the crowd spilling out of the Adams Morgan bars, and when they were finally on a quiet part of Connecticut Avenue, before a block of row houses, he stopped and stood before her. His heart was beating fast, and sweat ran down his back. Light from a street lamp fell through the leaves of an oak tree, and shadows danced on her face. “It’ll be a mistake,” he said, but she was up on her toes and kissing him before the words were out of his mouth. They caught a cab back to his place, and later, while she slept and he was still awake, sobering up and holding her, he was already giving himself over.
He remembers being eight years old at Kmart and in the checkout line with his mother. It was a bright day, and the sun came through the big panes of glass at the front of the store and bounced off the cars in starburst reflections. He’d asked for a Snickers, but his mother ignored him. She was distracted, looking off toward the automatic doors at some man. She was so lost in her thoughts that the cashier had to call to her. “Ma’am,” she said. “The candy bar?”
“No,” she said and took it from Wren and put it back. She paid quickly and moved toward the man, walking right up to him. “Did you lose something in my face?” she said.
The man looked confused, as if he wasn’t sure she was talking to him. Then his mother started in again. “You were looking awfully hard for somebody that hasn’t lost something. Do I know you?”
“N-n-no,” the man stammered but then straightened up, regaining his confidence. But before he could say anything Wren’s mother was done with him.
“I didn’t think so,” she said and took her son’s hand.
People in Fordyce had always watched her when she came into a store. They’d see her olive skin, her soft almond eyes, the long dark hair, and they’d wonder where she was from, who she was. She’d told Wren stories from before he was born about managers following her up and down the aisles of the Dollar General Store while she shopped and grocers at the Pic-Pac who spoke to her in slow, overenunciated ways when she paid.
Frightened, Wren asked what the man did.
“He wouldn’t stop staring at me,” she said. “Nobody can look at me that way.” Her hands were shaking, and she needed a moment before starting the car.
It is Wren’s first memory of fear. In the car, he looked at her, his own pulse quickened, worried that if the man had struck his mother what he, being a boy, could have done to defend her. He hadn’t told his parents about the taunts at school. He was constantly being called Japanese or Chinese. Nobody ever guessed Korean. And later, in middle school and high school, he was called gook and chink. One boy called him ching-chong over and over, singing a song about it, but no one ever called him a slope, something Wren learned in graduate school was the correct slur for Koreans, but he had no idea why one slur was more logical, or appropriate, than another. In Fordyce they were all the same.
Out in the world, away from his hometown, his slanted eyes and dark hair haven’t seemed out of place. In New York or DC, he’s more marked by his Kentucky accent and the country sayings he picked up around his cousins and uncles. People sometimes ask him to repeat what he says, as if he’s a form of entertainment and his speech has the quaint air of someone who is simple.
The last night Wren and Hannah spent together he booked a hotel room in Georgetown. He didn’t love her then, but that was coming. He had a sense that once they were away from each other it would be easy for her to forget him, but he pushed that from his mind. They spent the day walking in and out of the shops along M Street, and despite the stickiness of the day, she held his hand and every so often, when waiting for the light to change to cross the street, she leaned her head on his shoulder and kissed his cheek. They followed the towpath along the Potomac, hoping to catch a breeze, but the air was still. Overheated, they started back for the hotel, and then Hannah stopped at a fountain, hiked up her green dress, and stepped over the lip and into the cool water. Wren watched her. She piled all that dark hair of hers on top of her head, giving the fair skin of her neck to the light, and she laughed and smiled at him, splashing him once.
“Are you ready?” he asked, but he wanted her to stay in the water just a little longer so he could watch her playfulness. She had the hem of her dress balled into one hand and traces of light, reflected from the water, shimmered on her legs.
Back in the room they passed the afternoon in each other’s arms, making love with the curtains wide open and then watching bad television and movies, including one set in Paris.
“What’re the odds?” Wren said. Outside the sky began to purple, and the sounds of the students out on the quad died out. Hannah was laughing at the movie, telling him how they had spliced the film so all the famous landmarks appeared to be near one another. A little Peugeot zipped past the Louvre and crossed under the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower was almost always in the background. He imagined her in the city, walking its streets, and he thought about his lone visit there, that old European architecture, walls the color of sand, turned dingy with soot and grime and centuries of history lying in their cracks. In a week’s time they’d be half a world apart, and he wouldn’t know her the way he did now, lying next to her, listening to her laugh. The images of Paris reflected off her eyes. The sun had completely disappeared from the sky, and when she saw he wasn’t paying attention, she turned to him and smiled, crinkling her nose. Then she switched off the TV, and the room was filled with early beams of moonlight.
“What happened?” his mother says.
“Nothing. I got in a fight.”
They’re at the airport in Lexington, and other travelers are looking at him with his bulging black eye, and the bruise on his right cheek.
“With who?” his mother asks, examining the swollen skin and small cut along his nose.
“Nobody. Some punk at the gym.”
“You’re too old to get in fights.”
“Well, I guess not.”
She reaches up to his face, and he pushes her hand down. “It’s fine, Mom.”
“It doesn’t look fine,” she says. “You need to watch your temper. I worry about you all the time and how angry you get.”
“You’re one to talk,” he says, but it comes out nastier than intended.
“Hey,” she says, stopping their walk to baggage claim.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Let’s get my bag and get out of here.”
On the ride home his head pulses with pain. He knows he’s too old to get in fights. And if Hannah hadn’t called him that day, he probably would have been able to let the kid’s comment at the gym pass. The pickup game was already too physical, and when the kid said to Wren on the foul, “You got me with that samurai chop,” Wren went after him. He put his hands on the kid’s throat, got him down on the ground, choking him, and watched the kid’s eyes bug out. He thought he could kill the kid right then—that he was capable. Then it was Wren who had fear running through him, and he opened his fingers wide, releasing his grip as if he had grabbed hold of a fire that was searing his palms.
Two guys on his team pulled him up by the arms, and the kid unloaded two quick shots with his left and opened up Wren’s eye and bloodied his nose before anybody wrapped the kid up. It was Wren’s only real fight since high school, when he had come up from the lunchroom to grab his books for chemistry and found that someone had written Gook, Go Home on his locker.
His size—six feet, two hundred pounds—had prevented a lot of fights back then. He played three sports, and people admired his ability to catch touchdown passes, hit jump shots, and throw strikes. His friends were other athletes, the cheerleaders and girls on the dance team, but he never felt part of the clique they formed, and those words on his locker confirmed his feeling of being an outsider.
The writing on his locker continued for a week, and none of his friends told him who was doing it, but Wren figured it out and confronted a boy from the football team. Wren had never taken a punch and wasn’t sure if he could. He’d always been afraid of being suspended or of ruining his reputation as a good kid, but he understood that if he ate shit then he’d be eating it for the rest of his life. The first punch came easy, right at the boy’s chin. His red hair was in bangs that hung down over his eyes, and it flew back with the impact of Wren’s fist. The boy threw Wren into the lockers, the metal lock digging into his back. Then a teacher came running. “What’s going on here?” he asked. He had been a colonel in the army, but to Wren he didn’t look like an army man. He was soft in the middle and taught Romance languages. He kept the two boys apart with a firmer grip than Wren expected.
Wren told his side of the story, above the other boy’s denials, and then the colonel sent them off to class instead of the principal’s office. After that, Wren never doubted he could stand up for himself, and the next year, when Gentry Harrison called him a Japanese motherfucker as they were headed out for the layup line, Wren cornered him against a wall and put a hand to his throat, and it was the look in Wren’s eyes more than anything else that forced Gentry’s apology.
They are on the interstate, headed home, and Wren is thinking about his mother’s confrontations in Fordyce, her own slights, and how it has always been a bigoted place. He’s not lived there in more than ten years, but when he thinks about being a boy there he finds it harder and harder to remember what was good and easy for them there.
“One of these days you could really get hurt,” his mother says.
“Maybe,” Wren says, thinking about Hannah’s call. Her crying. “He knows everything,” she said. Over the phone, he heard French police sirens wailing.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“At a pay phone down the street,” she said. “He got the phone bill yesterday and saw all my calls to you, and then he hacked my email account and found our messages.”
Wren was sitting up in bed by then, his heart beating fast. “You weren’t paying for the phone bill? He hacked your account?”
“I know,” she said.
“You wanted to get caught,” he said. “Look at how you’ve handled this. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What about our plans for you to come home this fall?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“We can make this work,” he said. “I know you’re scared, but if you get back here and we see each other again, it will be all right.”
“You’re always so sure about that,” she said.
“You’re the one who said you wanted to come back home to me,” he told her.
She was breathing heavily into the phone. “My phone card is running out of time. I need to go to the store and get a new one. I can call you back.”
“What did he say?”
“He said he wants to talk tonight when he gets home from work.”
Wren knew her boyfriend was going to ask her to work it out, and when he did she would stay. “Call me tomorrow,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, barely audible.
“I want you to come home,” he said. “You know that.”
“I do know it.”
He closed the phone and stood up in the dark of his apartment and went to the window and looked out over the barren street below him. He tapped a fingernail to the glass and listened to the hollow clink, thinking that in eight hours they were going to have a conversation that would decide his future. He went to his desk and opened his laptop, and there was an email from Henri to Hannah, blind-copied to Wren. Do you love me? Henri asked her. He wrote in English for Wren’s benefit. Or do you think about Wren when you are fucking me? Wren shut his laptop and leaned back in his desk chair. They’d both been so caught up, and once they had started down this path they couldn’t stop themselves, even though they saw the danger ahead. Now his and Hannah’s long exchanges, their secrets and desires, had been pored over by someone else.
“What’s wrong?” his mother asks. “What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” he says.
“You’ve barely said anything. Aren’t you happy to see your mother?” she teases.
“I’m okay. Tired, is all.”
“You can’t lie to me, son. Are you depressed? Did something happen? You haven’t called us as much as you usually do.”
He relents, wanting to tell somebody what’s happened, how he feels. “Things went bad with this girl I was seeing.”
“I didn’t even know you were seeing anyone.”
“Well, I’m not really. I met her over the summer at my internship. She lives in Paris.”
Her head snaps back. “Kentucky?”
“No, Mom. The real Paris. It didn’t work out between us.” He doesn’t tell her more, though. She worries about him too much already.
“Because she lives across the ocean, for one.”
“It worked for your dad and me,” she says.
He never asked his parents how they met or fell in love. He knows his father asked her to wait for him when he went to Germany to finish out his army service. Six months they spent apart, held together only by his letters to her.
“I guess that’s right,” he says, and he smiles at her, feeling the pain in his cheek.
On Wren and Hannah’s last night together they left the hotel room and went back to the bar where they met. It was late, and the kitchen was going to close in ten minutes. Their bodies were spent, and they sat across from each other with weak legs and glossy eyes.
“Would it matter if I told you I don’t want you to get on that plane?”
“No,” she said, “but it’s nice to hear.”
“I want you to stay,” he said, and knowing it wouldn’t come true somehow made it easier to say.
“And what would we do if I stayed?”
“We’d figure this out,” he said.
“And what would we find?”
“That you’re trouble, for one,” he said.
“And you’re not?”
“I didn’t say that.”
He reached for her hand and thought about what other people might see in them. Did they look like they were in love? He ran the backs of his fingers over her hand. “We needed more time,” he said. “But that wouldn’t change anything, would it?”
“It might have,” she said.
They made small talk then, avoiding what they were feeling and, Wren believed, trying to convince themselves the entire summer hadn’t been some big mistake and that when he got on the train tomorrow they would leave each other and not think about what could have been. And later, back in the room, with daylight drawing close, tangled in the sheets, he said to her, “Do you love him?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Then why are you here?”
They had almost had this conversation once before, but they had both been drunk and she started to cry, saying he must never ask about him, that he could never question her about her relationship.
“I wanted to be,” she said.
He was holding her from behind, and he kissed her shoulder, then her neck. “If you love him then I want you to go over there and give it your best shot,” he said. Fear rose in him and dried his mouth, and it was hard for him to keep speaking, but he went on anyway. “If you really love him, you owe him that much. Don’t tell him about us. Go over there and give your heart to him.”
She pushed herself up from the bed, out of his embrace, almost frantic, he thought later, and said, “How can you say that?”
He turned from her, onto his back, and looked at the ceiling. His stomach was completely hollow, and his tongue felt like something foreign. He licked his lips and tried to measure his words, steady his voice. Her visa expired in May, and either way she was coming back to the States. “What else can I say? I want you to go over there, and when spring comes and you’re back home, I’ll still be here. I’ll be waiting without waiting.”
He knew she was angry with him. She propped herself up on an elbow and looked down on him.
“You know how I feel about you,” he said. “Don’t act like you don’t.”
“You really want me to go back to him?”
“No, but there’s nothing I can say that’s going to change your mind about leaving, is there? You’ve said as much. If there is something, tell me.”
“No,” she said, quietly, retreating.
“Then don’t get angry with me for telling you that.”
They lay apart for a long time, and when she was finally asleep he listened to her breathing and the soft talking noises of her dreams, and he remembered that within their first week together he had woken up one morning to find their foreheads were pressed right next to each other’s, their breath passing back and forth like two slow-moving trains. He wasn’t sure how long they had slept like that, but he closed his eyes and soon he was asleep with her again. That was the moment when it stopped being a fling for him and he began to feel closer to her than he ever had to anyone else. The room was ripening with sunlight, and he finally understood what it meant to fall for someone. His feelings for Hannah, for what was going to happen to them, were the same as if he had stepped off a cliff and, tumbling through the air, grasped at the firm ground above him that grew more distant with increasing speed. Beside him Hannah let out a sigh and he rolled to her, running a finger along the curve of her hip, and then he put his arm around her and she took his hand and clutched it, bringing it near her heart.
“Your dad’s mad at me.”
“Why?” Wren asks. They’ve just pulled into Fordyce. New fast-food joints along the roadside stand out against the sheared gray mountainsides.
“One of his cousins died a few weeks ago and was so poor his wife didn’t have enough money to pay for a funeral. So Dad called your Aunt Janice and said we wanted to help pay for it, but she told him that his cousin didn’t want anybody’s money.”
“Your dad thinks she didn’t want to feel like she owed anybody.”
“So what’d they do?”
“The funeral was last week, and Janice and Tom went out there and helped her dig the grave at the cemetery.”
“They dug the grave themselves?”
“I reckon,” she says, marking just how long she’s lived in Fordyce. “That’s what Janice said. She called to see if we wanted to go help, but your dad said to let them do it by themselves.”
“It’s 2009, and they dug a grave using shovels?”
“I think so,” she says.
“The county didn’t take a Bobcat out there or anything?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s what your aunt told me.”
“Damn,” he says. “So why is Dad mad at you?” They make the turn by the post office, where the high school football field is—the centerpiece of town—and cut through the underpass and make their way to Main Street.
“Well, he said we needed to start thinking about where we were going to be buried and what kind of funeral we wanted, and I told him I didn’t care. I said, ‘I don’t have a country anymore. You can just spread my ashes in the ocean.’ And he got real mad at me. He started cussing and saying, ‘This is your country. What makes you say things like that?’ I tell you, he gets sensitive about those kinds of things. He doesn’t understand.”
“No, I don’t guess he does.”
They pass the ball fields where he used to practice Little League football, and for a moment he imagines the figures and shapes of his past, the coaches who were so young then standing in shorts with baseball caps on backward, getting down in three-point stances and yelling instructions. He sees the ill-fitting shoulder pads and the helmets on him and his friends and remembers the sting of the first blow he ever took, the sensation of it running from the top of his neck, through his spine, and into his toes. Not all his memories of home are bad, he thinks. “Where do you want to be buried?” he says. “In Masan?”
“I want to be cremated,” she says. “Masan isn’t my home anymore, but neither is here.”
He aches with sadness for her. She gave up everything for his father, for this place where they have raised him.
“Are you going to see this girl again?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I doubt it. I wasn’t very smart about things.”
She’s not one to pry, but they’ve always talked. They’re friends as much as they’re mother and son. As he’s grown older, he’s become aware how important his happiness is to her. He tries to shield her from his disappointments and pains.
“It’d be nice for you to have somebody,” she says.
He thinks about the early years of his parents’ marriage, of how much trouble his mother had adjusting to Kentucky. Wren doesn’t understand how she dealt with her misery, but his parents made a life together—a life for him—and the only explanation is that they loved each other.
“Sometimes I think you like being lonely,” she says, pulling into the driveway.
“Why is that?”
“The things you get yourself into,” she says. Then, feeling bad, she corrects herself. “I shouldn’t say that. You’ll find someone.”
“I’m not worried about it, Mom. You shouldn’t be either.”
He gets out of the car and grabs his bag and walks his mother around the house to the back deck. Cold air rocks through the trees, and the wind chimes hanging from the eave go sideways and clang.
“Are you coming in?” his mother asks.
“In a minute,” he tells her.
But she comes beside him. He feels her looking up at his eye. “You should put some ice on that,” she says.
“I will,” he says, still staring ahead.
“You know,” she says, and he turns toward her but then she shakes her head. “Never mind.”
“What? What was it?” he asks. He feels guilty for not telling her more about Hannah. All she’s ever done or wanted to do is help him. She wants to take his pain and make it her own.
“It’s nothing,” she says. “I’ll go make you a cold pack.” And she turns to go in before Wren can stop her.
One night, after he and Hannah made love, he rested his cheek on her stomach, and she asked to tell him a story in French. It was so dark in the room he barely saw her face, and when she began speaking he didn’t hear her but felt the vibrations of her talk through her skin. He had no idea what the story was about, but it was filled with feeling, with pauses and contemplation. He listened to the emotion of her voice, and at times she was so moved she had a hard time continuing, but she’d gather herself, and when she was finished, when the beautiful rhythm of the language and sentences was complete, they lay in the dark for a long time, not wanting to ruin the silence.
“I don’t know why I did that,” she said, at last.
“It was nice.” He pushed himself up so that his face was beside hers.
“Did you understand any of it?”
“No, but that wasn’t important,” he said, sure, somehow, that might be the most of herself she would ever give him, the most she would ever let him in.
He puts his hands in his pockets, bracing himself against the weather. He looks up at the thin poplar trees swaying in the stiff breeze and the autumn leaves swirling and twisting as they fall. The mountains surround them, and he wonders if he’ll one day look at any other place the same way again, with the same feelings of comfort rising in his chest, when his parents are gone and there is no reason for him to return here