Next Stop, Sarah

I’ve dreamt about my teeth falling out for five nights. It’s never the same. On Monday, I lose four incisors biting into a glossy apple. On Tuesday, I fall up the concrete stairs that lead to the locker room. I stand, blood dripping from my chin and spurting from my mouth as I babble, the whole baseball team suddenly surrounding me, shaking their heads in disapproval. On Wednesday, I fall down my apartment stairs alone, the blood from my gums puddling around large metal jugs of dried lavender and glass jars full of dehydrated chamomile. On Thursday, Hal-abeoji plucks my molars with chopsticks, laughing, something deep and carnivorous in his eyes. On Friday, I stand at the top of a staircase—something out of the old American movies that Eomeoni loves, like Gone with the Wind, with stringy chandeliers hanging limp from each archway, the staircase broad and spinning upwards from the parquet floor—a line of fishing wire tied around each tooth and tracing a spider-leg pathway around me to the doorknob of a ballroom or grand library.

The cherry blossoms are in full bloom this week. They frame the Cathedral of Learning, nesting around it daintily, unlike the air—too warm for spring—that packs itself into the Pittsburgh Transit Rail cars, leaving my uniform wet with the feel of summer sweat before it’s even touched my skin. I’ve begun to sleep on the train; in the mornings before class, and in the afternoons as I make my way to baseball practice. The rhythmic lurching of the cars, the backwards pull as I sit against the car’s movement, makes me fight to even keep my eyes closed without being sick. Dreaming would take a level of multitasking that I haven’t yet perfected.

On my way to practice, I pick a cherry blossom stem for Halmoni. She’s been complaining about her back again, walking with the deep, curved angle of a fishing hook not yet attached to the worm, and in that state, I am worried that she’ll miss the blossoms’ peak. I find a stem with three blossoms on a low-hanging branch that I am sure will go unnoticed, and twist, the young twig writhing and stripping down slowly to brown-green pulp before letting go.

After practice, I take it home to her in our studio apartment above a flower shop on Penn Avenue. My parents met as exchange students at the University of Pittsburgh. My Abeoji, Halmoni’s son, prided himself on waiting the whole year, until they were back in South Korea, to ask for permission to court my mother, my Eomeoni. The dormitories here, he says, leave too much opportunity, so when I received my baseball scholarship shortly after being accepted, making our decision firm, Halmoni came to make sure I stayed Abeoji’s honorable son and Eomeoni’s good Korean boy.

Halmoni has been gardening on our patio since the weather warmed up. I think that it’s to spite the shop below, as it focuses on flower drying and preserving.

“If you can look at a flower whenever you please, then it’s no longer beautiful. Those dried flowers are all dead; dead and crusted.” Halmoni mumbles things like this to no one in particular while she fills empty clam chowder cans with water to shuffle over to our patio.

Halmoni likes to act as though we are poor. She refuses to go to the chiropractor for her back. She doesn’t want just any old American man touching her and doesn’t listen when I say that there are female chiropractors, too. She reuses as many things as possible while buying sparingly. Her newest idea, now that the weather has improved, is to get a job. She’s applied for janitorial positions all over the city, laughing at the poor excuse for public transportation here in comparison to Seoul, and all too seriously considering taking up bicycling—again, to no one in particular—while she pours over the Penny Saver ads in the Tribune and Post-Gazette.  

When I come home from baseball practice that night, the apartment is empty, but Halmoni bustles in twenty minutes later, a bouquet of yellow plastic bags bursting upside down from her hand, inscribed with smiling faces and the slogan “Have a nice day.”

“Kyung-joon,” Halmoni shouts the moment she opens the door. I jump up from the folding table to help her with the bags, and when she is fully through the door and notices me, she sets them down on the floor around her and steps over them. She walks to the kitchen and waves her hand behind her to imply that I should handle them.

“I would open my own store up here, but Sambok has even my thoughts going out of business. ‘Have a nice day’ my ass,” she says, measuring two servings of white rice and slamming the rice cooker’s metal insert into the sink.

“And Seoul Market? They have ‘Oriental Market’ written on the window. Bright yellow letters, like they’re proud. The shelves in there are a mess of countries. I know the real Seoul.”

I am behind her now, in the kitchen. I touch her shoulder and take over cleaning the rice, motioning for her to sit. She lowers herself onto one of the mismatching pillows—this one from the flower shop below, covered in an orange-orchid pattern—her back and hips popping and bursting.

There’s something about baseball, about the pull of the muscle, the tension of the sinew of the forearm against the bone. The motion of the bat through the air and the pop of the ball against the grain.

Before a scrimmage begins, the whole team spreads out in pairs across the field, dotting the grass in twos, baseballs weaving back and forth between each couple like an unevenly laced shoe. I’m often partnered with Darren for this warm-up, and today is one of those days. The coach keeps a chart of the pairs in his office, and Darren must have seen it, because this morning on the train I sit in my usual seat and find junbidwaess-eum? scrawled on the seat in front of me in Darren’s sloppy pencil-writing, followed by a colon-and-parenthesis smile. I imagine him looking it up, most likely on his phone, in a rush before his stop. I imagine him thumbing through an English-to-Korean dictionary the night before, making a note of it for the morning, the pages dog-eared. “Are you ready?” he wrote. I whisper it back to myself, smiling at the flashes of city in the window.

I’m not shy so much as quiet, and, though at practice and in classes I’m easily liked and have no trouble fitting in, I usually speak only when I have something I truly think I should say. This behavior is unlike many of my male classmates, who talk and boast at any opportunity of silence or in the presence of a weak-willed and quiet victim. Darren understands what my other American classmates take as my quiet nature, and I have opened up to him more than anyone else here in this country.

“Is your grandma still planning the demise of Seoul Market?” Darren asks, laughing, his mitt spread and held high, awaiting the baseball that has just left my palm.

“Yes, and now Sambok, too. But, because of them, she bought gochugaru and is making kimchi tomorrow. I think that sometimes, even she is confused by her antics.”

“Will you go home to help her right after practice?” he asks, rolling the now-caught ball back and forth over his mitt with his hand, fingers outstretched and taut.

“She’ll have started without me by then. I think I’m probably safe to spend my day as I please as long as I clean up for her later,” I say, mitt readying to catch.

“I have some student tickets for the Pirate’s game. Nosebleed seats, but it’d be better if I wasn’t alone,” his inflection at the end of the sentence makes it seem as though it’s a question: not whether or not I want to go, but whether or not he would be better off alone.

“Of course.” I wait until I catch the ball to reply, letting the reality of the invitation sink in, grinning.

After practice, I drop my bags and lower myself onto the field, pull a handful of strawberries from a plastic bin in my bag, and close my eyes. In the moments after practice, sitting on the curb paralleling a stony line between field and road, I feel as though I could sleep for hours, my mind empty and my body raw. Darren nudges me with the tip of his bat and I look up at him, at his Jackson Pollock freckles and curved tongues of brown hair curling up from under his cap.

“Are you going to hit the showers or dream all day?” he asks.

We are the last two left in the locker room save for a freshman by the sinks—invisible from the showers—who desperately shaves, checking his watch every time he holds his razor under the tap. The men’s locker room is closed for renovation, and so we have rented the women’s for the half-hour periods before and after our practices. The shower is a glossy, pink-tiled Rubik’s Cube of a room, the square archway a missing block in the center. The row of showers drip out of sync, and Darren moves past me, stripping away his shirt and turning the silver knob of a shower near the back.

There is something about baseball, about the glinting muscles of the upper back, seasoned; the shoulders bugling, ready for another swing. That night I dream of the women’s shower room. The door is gone and only our two shower heads remain. Darren is showering already in front of me—his grey eyes reflecting the vastness of the unending pink room—and then he is gone. He is behind me as quickly as he disappeared, hands tracing down my side, removing my towel—a pale goldenrod yellow. Suddenly, I am on the floor, holding myself up above the shower drain with both hands, crying out. Darren pulls at my shoulder, flips me onto my back. He traces my trachea upwards with his thumb, slides two fingers into my mouth. Two crimson spurts splatter on his face as he wrenches out a molar. I fight for breath as the blood drips down his fingers, onto my chest, and encircles the drain.

I wake to the rhythmic sound of Halmoni beating our kitchen rug with an orange plastic broom on the patio. I splash my face with water and when I pull up and look into the mirror, my eyes are puffy and red from lack of sleep.

“I'll be late after practice,” I call to Halmoni, and she leans past the rug to look into the house.

“A date? What is her name?” she asks.

I laugh and leave without answering, Halmoni cycling between calling out to me from the patio and mumbling to herself as I walk through the shop and out onto Penn Ave.

On the train, there's a piece of scrap paper taped to the seat in front of me. It's lined and pale yellow, with a Pamela's Diner logo at the top in blue stripes and pink, bubbling letters. Darren must have worked the late shift after practice. It reads, “Let's head over straight from practice. Go Bucs! P.S. I've got a new record for you to check out.” I place my thumb over a grease stain near the bottom of the note, run my finger along the serrated edge of the ticket in my pocket, close my eyes, and lean against the window.

The familiar recording of the female announcer pulls me back from sleep: “Next stop, Sarah.”

I jump up from my seat, clutching the yellow note in my fist. I've never slept through my stop before, and I've never been this far out on the Blue Line. I rush off of the train at Sarah, finding the only surroundings to be a small cement platform and rails for miles in both directions. In the distance, dogs bark, and small suburban houses with stacks of cut wood under tarps litter the view for miles.

When I finally get to the field, the women's shower room is empty, our scrimmage over. I check my locker, but there is no note.

My leg bounces nervously the whole way to the park, and I sprint to the field, jogging in place at the traffic-coned intersections. When the entranceway is in sight, I call Darren, but his phone is off. I dart around ten-year-olds with nachos and yellow hats until I see our seats, and he is there. He looks bothered. He tousles his hair and adjusts his cap, leg bouncing, and checks his watch. When he sees me, he breaks into a smile.

“I thought I scared you off,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

He shrugs, but a meaningful look is in his eyes. “I don't know,” he laughs, nudging me and pointing to the player stats that have taken over the screen.

***

 

As the crowd pools out from the game, we walk along the Roberto Clemente Bridge—the saxophone playing, the leftover fireworks budding and blooming in the distance all pink and blue —and I reach out for Darren’s hand, mine shaking. I touch him lightly with my pinky, and he folds his hand into mine. He stops, the two of us still holding hands, and looks at me, something probing in his eyes behind the sparks of fireworks, reflecting.

He pulls me to him by the hand he is holding and kisses me, the two of us a blockade in the middle of the black-and-yellow-clad crowd.

“I'm so sorry,” he says when pulling back for air, cupping my cheek, “I just wasn't sure.”

“It's okay,” I say.

I let myself back into the apartment around nine. Halmoni crouches, hunched in a bundle inside the kiddie pool over her cabbage. The pool is decorated with cartoon rubber ducks and bubbles, the colors bright and jarring in the dim evening light. Halmoni is wearing orange rubber dish-gloves that come up to her elbows and a bandana tied snug behind her ears. During the summers in Seoul, our whole family makes kimchi together, an assembly line of plastic tarps and cabbage on the living room floor. Halmoni, alone, her operation the size of a two-year-old’s summer afternoon, makes my guilt even stronger.

“I thought you might have helped me with the kimchi today,” she says, not stopping to look up.

I kick off my tennis shoes and step around the cabbage into the blue-plastic pool across from her.

“Halmoni, I think I’m gay.”

She keeps silent and averts her eyes, pulling at the muscly string of the cabbage, spreading gochugaru paste of each leaf.

 

'Next Stop, Sarah' is a piece of fiction that I wrote in 2018. It was published in Oyster River Pages Issue Two, which you can view online.