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Smudges

As I looked at Chloe while she was concentrating on her drawing, a strand of her hairs fell off her beanie and covered a part of her face making her brown eyes so mysterious. It was early Wednesday morning; the sunbeam out the window exposed flying dust and shined on the other half of Chloe face.  It got me thinking how the world would look like under Chloe’s eyes, how would I look under her eyes? We were supposed to draw a portrait of one of our classmates and Chloe just conveniently happened to be my partner appointed by the seating chart. It was the third day of class, she was wearing skinny jeans, striped shirt and laced up boots, not the typical outfit I saw her wearing from the last two classes, which would be shorts and a tank top. Our two easels facing each other next to two stools where we would take turn modeling while the other drew. I looked at my flip-flops, up to my Tom & Jerry T-shirt and my drawing and realized how out of her league I was.

It’s tricky to draw Chloe’s cheek because I’m not very much experienced with blending. Using a chamois to soften, as the teacher said, didn’t help. The harder I tried, the smudgier it got and her face on my drawing became a bit sadder, as if it was crying for how bad I was at drawing. If it was a walking drawing instead of a human being would the clumsy smudges mess me up, if so, how, and where the is smudge, I wondered, because Chloe drew it too perfectly ; it’s sadistically realistic, a rectangular face with almost no emotion and a little self-contained smile, eyes with single eyelids, a typical spikey Korean hairstyle with the fringe diagonally combed touching the eyebrows, some grey hairs, and some light creases that looks like tiny finches’ feet in my mid-twenties. I have an older version of me that’s 35 year old, divorced, and “came home once every year at Thanksgiving for turkey.” That’s what my mom said when she sometimes mentioned about my brother out of nowhere. Last time we talked on the phone before the official court decision for his divorce, I was told he was trying to dye his chest and armpit hairs because he was trying to fight gray and that his wife was sleeping with a six pack white version of me but meaner. Whatever the fuck that means.

As I sat on the stool looking at Chloe’s face, in a distance, I could feel—or at last that’s something I was hoping to be able to feel— her skin and facial features under the tips of my fingers when I trace them down from her forehead to her eyes and down to her nose, her cheekbone and her mouth to study every inch of her face the way a blind person would when they read. It’s funny how a person sitting a few feet a way could feel so far yet so close, like I could feel her every breath and make it in sync with mine. I closed my eyes, visualized and tried to memorize her angular face, to feel what’s underneath her skin, to see her x-ray naked or to picture her zygomatic bone and the zygomatic arch that converges toward the start of her jawline that shapes, the most unique feature of Chloe’s face, her chin, a full slightly protruding V-chin.

“Tim are you high? Why are you closing your eyes?” Chloe said. In the attempt of fixing her first impression about me as a weirdo I said: “Sorry, I was trying to see how beautiful you are.”

“So you mean I’m ugly when you open your eyes?” she said.

“Oh no no! I didn’t mean that. I mean you’re beautiful and it gave me an eyegasm when I look at you. You know, like orgasm but with the eyes” I tried to joke. “Well, thanks? I think I’m having eargasm too,” she giggled. I must have looked so miserable and drifting on cloud nine thinking about Chloe that she somehow felt sorry and offered me some tips for blending. As she stooped and held my hands to fix my grip on my blending stump, the pineapple scent of Chloe’s hair dispersed around giving me a captivating yet terrifying moment of temporary cardiac arrest.

If Chloe’s face is a masterpiece from one of Rembrandt’s famous work of art being hung on a museum wall, where anyone could stop by and gaze with veneration, I’d surely go there every day, but I’m the one who’s creating this piece of art, so I sprayed on some fixatives, rolled up the paper, went home and hung it on my bedroom wall. Just once, I became greedy and wanted her to be mine and mine only. My mom, Jeong-ja, a 60 year old Korean widow whose hobbies are yoga, Korean dramas, making kimchi on weekends, apparently have no self-awareness, apparently very talkative, apparently doesn’t care about how her beloved sons and husband want to be loved and apparently had some other opinions about the artwork. “That’s a very nice abstract drawing you did there, dinner’s ready by the way,” she teased, which is only her way of saying “I hate that piece of shit you’re hanging above your bed. How could you sleep with that?” I sleep better when I think of Chloe actually, no more screaming at nights where I saw my dad telling me the rainy weather is making him cold under his grave and could I bring him a raincoat. The memories of me about him are blurry and inconsistent. He was 55 when I was six. I remembered him as a very busy businessman. He was either out drinking with friends, playing tennis, on business trips, watching news or playing solitaire on his desktop, thus he was never home so often and never mentally home. Then, one day I caught myself tiptoeing into adulthood when I stood in a chaotic crowd watching the police handcuffing my dad away. The police car drove away in the distance until it was just a small dot on the blurry horizon under my watery eyes.  Just like that, he went away for the major part of my life and got out of prison just to be a totally different person. It would be cool if he had to fight overseas to protect our country and thus didn’t have time for us, but no, he was right there on that sofa where my mom’s having her foot massage and laughing as she watched the 300th episode of some Korean drama that I don’t even remember the name of. There’s nothing funny when something has been going on for that long but my mom managed to laugh. I didn’t. She kept assuring it’d end soon but it’s been almost three years and the drama’s still showing— everyday now. Why did the drama of my life never get showed on TV? I’m sure it’s going to be one heck of a show too!

“Whatever mom, I’m not hungry,” I said, but I came downstairs and had dinner with her anyway. “ So how was your first week being an artist, honey?” she asked. “Not much.” I said. Not much is something I’d tell her when there are things I think she shouldn’t know, like Chloe.

“Could you stop saying that?” she said

“You made kimchi, come on,” I said. Realizing my mom hadn’t touched her chopsticks yet, I kept putting my chopsticks down and picking them up again and pretended I was serving the imaginary food to my bowl. But really I couldn’t start my meal without her using the chopsticks first. Over the years, this cliché etiquette’s gotten less formal. When I wanted to eat before her, I’d just ask and she’d say something like “let’s eat!” and that’s when I know I can eat when she was still busy doing something in the kitchen. Otherwise, it’d feel weird starting the meal before her. I’ve never thought one could starve oneself to death by waiting for permission to eat. As soon as I saw her starting to pick her chopsticks up, I stuffed as much food with my chopsticks as I can to my mouth so that I didn’t have to answer her investigative questions.

It’s been a year since I first met Chloe. We got in a relationship. How did that happen? I honestly don’t understand. It’s definitely not my drawing that caught her attention, since it’s just as out of shape as I am. Definitely not my socially awkward personality and weird sense of humor. At this point, I’m pretty sure Chloe’s a little crazy too for sticking with my that long. Or probably that was just my Tom & Jerry T-shirt I wore the first week of class that she liked but I’m sure there must be something else other than that because that was the last time I let her see me in that T-shirt.

Ever since dating, we decided that the flea market is somewhere we would love to hang out when we go on a date. This happened after Chloe bought a very bad book at the Dollar Tree while visiting her parents in Florida. “Trust me you don’t want to buy a book at Dollar Tree. It kills your soul and you’ll never think about literature the same way again” was her opinion after reading that book. Chloe’s not only a good drawer, she is an amazing writer too and a big fan of classical music.  She loves vinyl records, books, and addressing classical musicians in the 18th century by their first names and pretending they’re her real friends. Her purse is full off receipts where she would write her very random thoughts, story ideas or plot points and some nice dialogues she just came up with at the back, “because flashcards are too mainstream and such a waste.” Although I’m clueless about classical music, I tried to listen to all the songs that she introduced because “that’s what good boyfriends do, they care!”—The last sentence of her conclusion for our every fight for the last three months. “So how do you like Mr. Ludwig’s Piano Sonnata No.4 in E-Flat, Timmy?” The one thing that’s scarier than having fights with Chloe about being the boyfriend who cares is having to remember her confusing song’s chords like E-Flat, G minor, A major, etc… I’d like to memorize them just as the relationship destroyer because that seems to be where all of our fight start. But of course, I’m the knowledgeable boyfriend who cares, so I told Chloe: “ I’m not sure. His tempo and rhythm is a little too much for me. I think I’m more of a Bach guy.” Seriously that song with its extreme tempo nearly gave me a heart attack when I first listened but I didn’t want to upset’s Mr. Ludwig van Beethoven’s best friend. “Oh I see, you love John, huh! John’s my best friend too!” Chloe said with her eyes lighting up. “That’s it! I’m going to call you John from now on” she added. Well, thank you very much Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived sometime in the 1700s, I have a new name now. I also saw the best boyfriend of the year in the reflected light of Chloe’s eyes when she decided to make some small changes to my birth certificate.

Unlike Chloe who has many talents and hobbies, I love vintage cameras— and Chloe—and just as a way of keeping scores in our fights, I made Chloe remember all the terms in photography that I’m obsessed with like Rembrandt lighting, SLR, ISO and when she didn’t remember, we would stop fighting and make out instead. Totally her idea. It both feels like winning a lottery for us to find a good cheap book or camera. How are books and camera related? They aren’t, just like the language we speak. She’s American, I’m Korean and we speak English. We’re very different in many ways and I know it. But is different a negative adjective?

As much as I enjoy my time with Chloe, I had to be home by 6:30 to have dinner with my mom. That’s what I’ve spiritually been doing with her ever since Dad decided that he would drop dead in a heart attack two years after he got out of prison because he could no longer live to watch my sister-in-law fuck up my brother’s life by divorcing his ass and took the entire villa my parent gave him and full custody of their eight year old son.

“So how was the flea market, did you spot anything nice there?” she asked, while sitting by the dinning table, peeling mangos for dessert, with one of her legs folded and her foot on the seat.

“Not much, just some old cameras you know”, I said.

“Well, did you buy any?”

“No, mom, I didn’t buy any, I’m having trouble finding a job, remember?”

“Well why don’t you take your mother to the flea market next time, I might be able to get you one with cheaper price. You never bargained and it’s good to have a companion at the market don’t you think?” she said, as if the entire market would go into economic expansion when she came. It always amazes me how people never change. My mom doesn’t need to bargain; she could buy whatever she wants. She’s living in a mansion for God’s sake. But that’s just one of her habits from the early days when Dad and her had to work hard to provide for us. Often times the things we have to ask the price for is the thing we know we can never have.

“Why do you always say not much when all I want to do is care for you? I don’t want to find out six months later that you’re married or divorced, just like what your brother did,” she added. I didn’t say anything but I thought of Chloe. Is that the future waiting for us? Are we the uneven chopsticks? “You know, you can’t just shut me and everyone out of your life like this forever” she said. “I didn’t drop out of college and raise a kid for some twenty years to hear not much or the silent treatment that you’re giving me. You were a very loud baby, what happened?” she continued. Jeong-ja unquestionably sacrificed all her youth for our family. But her love and dedication is so big it sucks the air out of everyone she loves and makes them almost suffocated. Sometimes it made me believe that I don’t need food to live, just her love and fresh air would suffice.

“I don’t deserve this,” she said.

“If you keep staying silent like this every time, then I think we’d both be better off if you find your own place to live. I’m good on my own. I don’t need some stranger to come eat my dinner in complete silence and distress,” she added, as if we’ve been living in a normal happy family so far. Silent treatment. “Let’s eat.” Finally!

As Chloe and I took a walk in Central Park, I just couldn’t help myself but think about what my mom said earlier. I don’t want to move out. I haven’t found a job yet. It’s not that I can’t move out, I might just move in with Chloe but that’s going to suck living at her place without a job. I’d rather be living in my own poop, than ask Chloe that.

“What’re you thinking?” she asked

“Not much.” I said

“I’m serious. What’s going on? You’ve been looking very upset this whole time.” Why does she always have to know what I’m thinking when we’re together, I thought. Why can’t we just sit in silence and hold hands in the most PG-13 way as possible as if that’s her way of saying: “ Hey, I’m here, I don’t know how your day’s been but it’s ok because I’m with you now.” And why are my hands so cold and hers’ so warm every time we hold each other’s hand? Damnit! I felt like she’s my boyfriend sometimes and I’m the insecure girlfriend who’s always worried one day she will fuck me over. So I put my father’s last-days-of-his-life lesson into good use: “Just compliment her. I never understood your mother neither but it just works,” and said to Chloe: “I’m thinking it’d suck if I lose you.” But really, “it’d suck if you know I live with my mom and dump me,” is what I meant.

“Awww, that’s sweet. I can’t imagine my life without you neither!”

I’d take that as a “yes, you can move in with me” then. I wondered how long did it take my father to realize this about women. That must be one of the Eureka moments for him.

The next day I came home after getting turned down for three jobs and had had a few shots of vodka. I seriously couldn’t sit at the dining table that night without a few shots of vodka.

“So how were your interviews?” she asked. I don’t want to talk about this. Just not right now. Silent treatment.

“I’m talking to you, Timmy,” she said.

“I have a girlfriend,” I said.

“Wait, what? Well, that’s great! We’re actually talking right now but please tell me she’s not a white girl.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You’re racist!” I said.

“You just never learned a lesson from your brother, did you?” she secretively lowered her voice, look at me like she just committed a murder and now I’m her partner in crime.

“That bitch has nothing to do with the girl I’m dating. You’re just paranoid now,” I said.

“I thought you’d be much less naïve by this age, Timmy, just find a Korean girl who is just like us, someone we have something in common with, okay,” she said. Here’s the definition of something in common:  Know Korean, Kimchi, K-drama. Where in the hell in New York City am I supposed to find a Korean girl who I like and have things in common for both of us? I’d literally have to fly to Korea and live there the rest of my life to hopefully find one and even that’s not guaranteed. Why can’t I just do it here with someone in my zip code, like Chloe? The last time I went to K-Town was when I took Chloe out to dinner and karaoke and there weren’t that many Koreans in K-Town.

“Chloe and I have a lot in common, we go to the flea market together,” I said.

“Right, and you guys both love vintage cameras and spent the entire time there, I suppose,” she said. Silent treatment.

“Oh, did I hit the silent switch, tell me I’m wrong,” she said. “You know what, I don’t even want to know, stay silent however you want. I just thought that you were the responsible one, but it turned out you’re just as immature and insensitive as your brother.” Here we go, the comparison speech. “Tell me when you’re ready to move out and remember to stop by for turkey at Thanksgiving,” she added. At 12, I could have been the kid who tattooed his high school girlfriend’s face on his back or something like “Chloe luva of mah lyf” or “luva 4 lyf” or a juvenile delinquent of some sort. It could have been way worse but that’s not good enough for her. As if her last words was the final drop in a cup that’d already been so full. I decided to just let the vodka do the talking.

“Well have you ever consider there’s something wrong in your parenting part? Why we could never sit and talk to you as a friend?”

“No, why?” she said, as if she really meant it.

Silent treatment.

“Yeah that’s what I thought, be silent, be silent like a pile of shit, Timmy,” she said.

“Oh I’m sorry for being quiet because I’ve been dealing with things that require the maturity level of a 30 years old ever since I was 13, Mom. You want to know why I never talk much when I come home? What do you expect me to do? Lay down and cry because no one gave a shit about me, just like every other kid my age would? I was the one who had to stand strong for you, and you were the one who passed out crying when Dad went to jail, Mom, remember? I should be the crying kid, not you. And now you’re telling me my silence is insensitive and immature?” I picked up my chopsticks and ate before her, stuffing my mouth full of rice, chewing and swallowing what felt more like all the anger I’ve repressed for the past 15 years down my throat. It didn’t feel weird at all or I just forgot how to feel because I was choking.

“You think I fucked up your’s and your brother’s life, don’t you? she asked.

“I don’t know, do you?” I asked

“Oh please! Tell me! I’d love to hear your perspectives on how everyone’s failures in this house had something to do with me?”

“Remember that one time when you told me that I can’t talk to my friends because Dad’s under investigation and the police might be recording us?” I asked.

“Yes, so what?”

“Guess what, I’ve no fucking friends now, and even if I did talk to my friends I wouldn’t had known what the fuck’s going with dad to tell them anyway because you never told me shit, but I still had to endure it, because that’s just what I do, putting up with all the precious secretive shit people in this house do without a need of explanation.” I said, with a shaky voice. “If you were to drop dead and join his party and I had to go to jail for some reason. I would have no one to bail me out.” I added.

“Oh don’t worry honey. We won’t let you sit in there long, just enough to heat the sit so the next guy could feel how warm a person you are” she said. Then Jeong-ja laughed hysterically for a whole three minutes. I’ve never seen anyone laugh for three entire minutes. Her upper body bent towards with her face down the couch, her legs still folded like the lotus pose she meditates in every morning. Her short curly hairs covered her face merging the color of her head to the black couch. My heart raced faster and faster as she kept laughing with her hand tapping the couch harder and harder every time. As the second minute ended, the laugh slowly distorted to a whimper. The terrifyingly smooth transition felt like she’d gone insane for a moment, felt like her pain from the heart was spreading in the air and gradually found its way to mine and I cried too. All of the childhood memories and pictures of my dad flooded me in details like a rewinding VHS. Everything about him became clearer and clearer as the image of my mom faded with tears coming out and rolling down along my nose. Never since my mom fainted on my shoulder had I allowed myself to drop another tear until now. I heard the bitterness from her sob and saltiness as tears bled to the corners and cracks of my lips. Not sure if it was her silent treatment that came back and bit me right in the ass, or was it just an eternal pause as she just sat there and watched me eat and drink water as I choked. It did feel weird eating before her. For a moment, I thought I was teleported to the time when I was a 12 year old kid standing in the doorway with my brother watching my mom cried when the police came and searched every single corner of the house. My mom reached out with her one arms attempting to hold my dad’s hand for one last time, the other arm grabbing on to me. I remember when my shoulder felt so hot and wet when it was soaked with my mom’s tears. I remember the feeling when her hot tears slowly bled on to my T-shirt, when she leaned on it as she fainted after seeing the officers picking up every single piece of underwear to see if there was anything hidden. My stomach shrinked, my chest felt tense like my lungs just had a pneumothorax and collapsed, like a balloon being poked with an invisible knife of bitterness and resentment. Perhaps that was too much of a white-collar crime my dad committed. It felt more like an insult…

Raising a child is undoubtedly one of the hardest jobs a person could do because he or she doesn’t get to do it so many times. It’s not like you messed up a doodle so you decide to rip off the page and hope to do a better job with a new one. That’s like telling your son on a sunny Sunday if he doesn’t behave you’d send him to India to learn how to swim and shower in a river full of floating poops before taking him to Chase bank where he asks one of the Indian bank tellers if he used to shower in rivers of floating poops and he had to swim fast because the poops would catch up. So you decide you don’t know that Korean kid, and went home to raise the other one instead. Although, that was exactly what my mom did. By raising me as a way to make up for mistakes she had with brother, she created more wounds on both of us. Raising a kid, in reality, would involve erasers since you can’t just rip them off and pretend that that’s not your kids and move on, so you erase and fix the mistakes you make as a parent, which often times creates smudges and mess them up even more. But at least my mom got to cry her eyes out; my refraining tears just refused to drop. Now I know where my smudge really is. It’s the tear ducts that never got blended well. I waited for my mom to calm down before I told her I was sorry and that it was the vodka that upset her, not me. Then I left the house without knowing where I wanted to go. I wandered the streets to figure out the thing that Chloe and I and my mom have in common and how I might explain about the chopsticks thing I do with my mom to her. Would she ever understand? Or would she think we’re a bunch of uptight backward people that speak ching chang chong? I hopped on a bus and let it take me to wherever it would as I let myself immerse in I Feel Love (Every Million Miles) by The Dead Weather on my phone, listening to the sound of the vocalist’s angry scream, loud drum, high notes of lead guitars, low and firm notes of the bass all vibrating off of each other. I stopped at 711 on the way home to buy a pack of cigarettes. Then in a fraction of a second everything became so clear when I saw some KitKat bars at the counter where the cashier was standing. I called Chloe and asked her to meet me at the bench, where we always sit in Central Park. She showed up an hour later. “So what’s the emergency, Mr. John?” she asked teasefully but giving me warmth of affection through her eyes that says, “I really do care, what happened?”  I didn’t say a word but pulled her close to me, kissed her, gave her a KitKat and asked: “Do you know what Kit Kat means?”

“Wow…no…no, no. Do you? Tell me!” she said as if still haven’t figured out what’s going on with the rush and big kiss. “Well KitKat in Japanese is short for Kitto Katsu which means sure to win,” I said. She busted out laughing. “That’s it? That’s the whole reason why you ask me to come here so you can explain to me what KitKat means?” It was 6 pm at Central Park South; the sun was setting behind her. But I’m sure what makes her smile so sparkling wasn’t the sun; it was just the smile and her beautiful silhouette. “I love you,” I said. How funny it was I’d spent my whole life trying to convince myself to say the same thing when looking in the mirror but told a girl I only dated for a year how much I love her. “Do you love me too?” I continued, while running out of breath waiting and hoping that she’d feel the same. “What took you so long, Johnny,” she said. My heart was still running like a horse inside but I knew I was so sure to win her heart. “I love you too, I do. It’s on my receipts and you know it!” she added with a smile and I felt like she’s the sunshine in the very dull days of my heart, a sunbeam found its way through all the grey clouds on NYC’s sky on one of the last days of November. My mom, Chloe and I are all chocolate lovers, so we do have something in common. This would seem to be a weak argument if I was just to tell Jeong-Ja that Chloe also loves chocolate, so she’s nothing like my brother’s ex-wife. But the Eureka moment of realization was if I try hard enough to make things work, it’ll all work out ok. Just like the smudge on Chloe’s face when I first started learning how to draw. Her face would never look pretty if I stopped trying. But I did try very hard, and after the 30th drawing of Chloe, it turned out to be just as real and beautiful as she is. I still kept the first drawing because I knew I’d accept every part of her, every drawing I made of her even though they are shitty; I knew the next drawing of Chloe could only look better and even though the smudges in our family drawing wouldn’t be easily soften, I found a magical blending stump that does the job just right. It’s called time. Tomorrow could only be better. These smudges are what make the drawings beautiful, it’s the struggle that each of us is fighting to become something better and more complete, just as the drawing itself striving to become real and believable on a surface of something flat and empty. Time will heal and reconnect everything. Time will connect my mom and Chloe, and it will heal the pain in our family, the pain my brother’s going through with his divorce and fix my tear duct and my mother’s messy and sloppy doodle of parenting.

After Chloe went home, I called my mom.

“So guess what mom, you, Chloe and I, we all like KitKats.”

“What does it even mean?”

“Kitto Katsu mom, Kitto Katsu, I’ll be home for dinner in 15.”

 

Tam Le

10.14.15

 

 

Categories: Fiction

tammle's blog

Tam Le is a writer, traveler, freelancer, translator, and photographer.

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