People Who Look Like People I Know

by

I am twenty-four years old and I have lived for less than fourteen days. I have never seen the woman I am about to meet but she knows me intimately. What am I?

Apparently he enjoyed these kinds of riddles, which is to say I enjoy them, or I should; and, thankfully, I do.

Doctor Sung shows me into the visitors’ room with his usual diminutive, white-starched efficiency. It is empty except for a woman sitting in an armchair by the window. She rises, and the shock and joy that seize her face make me want to look away, because I don’t deserve any of this.

“Mom,” I say.

She hugs me, arms so tight, one hand cradling the back of my head. She is soft and sturdy and flushingly warm. A memory slots into a projector and I am watching it, an evening when she was late returning from work and I was certain that she had gotten into a fatal car accident. I couldn’t have been older than eight. I rolled myself under my bed and breathed in the dusty darkness and thought of that warmth, its calm, powder-scented invincibility, and tried to accustom myself to the fact that I would never have it again.

+

On the flight home, through the white cavern of clouds, she keeps looking over at me, squeezing my arm, asking how I feel. During a pocket of turbulence with zero-gravity highlights she takes my hand. I can’t tell if she’s giving comfort or seeking it, so I keep my fingers firmly laced in hers until the seatbelt sign blinks off again.

She brought my Kindle for me. I find out that I was reading six novels at the same time, all in early stages of progress. I select one at random and pick up where I left off.

+

I have a list of people to get in touch with. My crew from college, the three fellow grad students in my department I don’t despise, my advisor. Maybe Amy, maybe not: on one hand she might want to know her boyfriend of five years is alive again, and just as hapless; on the other hand the last time we communicated (via email) was almost a year before my accident, and a few months after that Facebook informed me she was engaged.  

Instead I sit in his room—my room—and read up on how I was cloned.  Not the legal term, by the way, after a court case ruling that the use of the word, in this context, could reasonably be viewed as derogatory.  People like me are officially (if technically incorrectly) called restored, and the procedure is (similarly incorrectly) referred to as restoration.  Other names for us include art-twin, DG, Lazarus; the community itself has opted for dupe, or duplicate.

Since the passage of the Restoration Regulation Act, the procedure has been restricted to persons who are twenty-five years or younger at the time of the trigger event. The original proposed age limit was twenty-one, which seemed to accord more with the notion of this act being for children and parents; but then, while the Senate was haggling over the use of and versus or in the draft bill, a junior Bush descended in an ill-fated scuba dive on the morning of his twenty-fourth birthday. That guy is now the governor of Houston, at least until he was indicted last month for corruption charges, and it’s at once amusing and disquieting to know I owe him, quite literally, my life. I was six days away from turning twenty-five when my trigger event occurred.

The accident took place at the end of January. Black ice, bad luck, same old story. I remember nothing except the thrill of that endless skid and my world dissolving into the monstrous white glare of the other car. The process of restoration, from somatic-cell-transplant start to memory-mapping finish, takes between six to twelve weeks. I walked out of Daejeon Health Centre on the first of July, onto a chaotic grey avenue of Asian crowds and LED billboards, the ovals and rectangles on signs everywhere like some make-believe language, the heat smoggy and immense. Which, even allowing for a three-month restoration, leaves February and March unaccounted for.

+

I ask my mother about this the day before my father is scheduled to arrive, over breakfast. Time, the mystery of it. After she swallows she says, “It took us a while to figure things out. Which hospital to go to.”

“Two months?”

“Other things as well.”

Such as how they could afford it: Internet sources differ, but the lowest price I was able to find for a restoration clinic of Daejeon Health’s reputation was one million dollars. Looking at all those zeroes squeezed together left me breathless. (I am worthless as a leader; but when I follow a group, its strength increases tenfold. What am I?)

“How much did it cost?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’ll pay you back.”

My father would say You have never paid for anything in your life, or Do that first and then tell me about it; or he might not say anything at all, allow us to elide my lie that way.

But my mother, my beautiful, disenchanted mother, puts down her fork and says, “How can you even think we would want you to do that?”—as if she believes me, as if I am someone who makes promises I can keep.

+

I hear them coming down the hallway, footsteps but not voices. My mother asked me to wait in the living room. She enters first, and then he does: broad, stiff-shouldered and soft-soled, a minor frown as if he is in a restaurant mentally calculating how much he should leave for the tip.

“Billy,” he says.

I was afraid—as with my mother—that I would not recognize him; or that even if I did he would remain flat to me, a picture with a caption, an illustration of a concept: This is (not) your father. But the neurons in my limbic system are sparking up, just like they are supposed to, dispatching a clusterfuck of emotions to sit and seethe uselessly in my chest.

He scans me, face to feet and then back up again, flicking a glance along the way at my hands by my sides, as if the restoration might have forgotten a finger or two. I must look quite different from the last time he saw me. Restoration protocol cautions against sharing any details regarding the fatal injury with the restored, to avoid de-identification with the restored body, and so all I know is that I died a few hours after I was admitted to the hospital (or, in restoration-speak, the origin vessel lost functionality).

The memories are slotting in again, odd details raised up from some Impressionist vagueness of a street scene on a winter night: the staticky fuzz of his charcoal scarf around his neck, the slashes of pink in his cheeks, that instant when the incredulous fury I had been baiting all evening finally bulged forth from his face. What he looked like the last time I saw him.

“How are you?” he says. “Feeling?”

“Pretty good,” I say. “Mom’s been feeding me a ton.”

My mother says, “He’s too thin.” She shifts her gaze to me. “You’re too thin.”

I don’t say anything. It’s not implausible that what happened to me changed something between them, brought them closer. Unless—those two lost months, all that frozen white space—it rifted them apart? I realize that I’m triangulating the way I always do when the three of us are together, measuring the implications of how far apart they are standing, the angles at which their bodies are turned towards (my mother) or away from (my father) each other. Everything seems the same—which is to say, courteous, controlled, and mysteriously uncomfortable.

My mother says, “Your father and I thought we could all have dinner tonight, at the Branford Grill—or if there’s any other place you’d like to go?”

“Branford Grill sounds great,” I say.

My mother looks at my father and he says to me, “And you and I can catch up a bit before then.”

+

We drive to the small egg-shaped lake a few miles out of town that locals like to schlep around, at varying speeds, in service (sometimes lip-service) of that modern-day virtue called exercise. On Google Maps it has a lake-appropriate name but I’ve never heard it called anything other than the Egg. The afternoon is the kind of sticky, yellow summer day that makes me feel like I’m a kid again, with everything to waste. It’s the first time I’ve left my mother’s house since I arrived. We fall in behind a pair of middle-aged women in colour-coordinated tights and baseball caps.

“When are you planning to go back to Yale?”

I smile at the grass waving us along, the wrinkled, greenish-brown surface of the water: of course, this is what my father is concerned with, all the other ways I will disappoint him.

“What?”

“Nothing. I don’t know.”

“You don’t know when you’re planning to go back or you don’t know why you grinned like an idiot when I asked you that question?”

“Both, I guess.”

He quickens his stride. I consider whether I would feel less of a compulsion to anger him if it wasn’t so easy to do so, or if he didn’t try so hard not to give in to it.

Three feet of trampled earth and loose gravel open up between us before he turns around, that mental-sum crease in his forehead again, and barricades his chest with his arms. When I stop next to him he says, “What are you going to do if you don’t go back?”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t going back.”

“So you are. Going back.”

Does he remember that the last time I saw him he told me he had finally figured out my reasons for, as he put it, starting a PhD program I was determined not to complete? “That’s great,” I said. “I’ve been wondering what my reasons are.” Fear, it turned out, compounded with denial (because I didn’t accept that I was sabotaging my own progress) and ineptitude (because even if I wanted to make it through I was in way over my head, not hardworking enough, not smart enough, destined for mediocrity). We were still at dinner then, in the sated-yet-residually-greedy interlude between main course and dessert; things were still cordial.

“I don’t know if I am.”—which I only realize is true as I’m saying it. “I’m thinking about it.”

He says, mocking me, “Thinking about it.”

I look at him. He is four inches shorter, one and a half times wider, and probably, notwithstanding his age, twice as strong. Sometimes it seems extraordinary that I share half of my genes with this stocky, powerful man; and at points throughout high school I did convince myself that we weren’t actually related, that I could someday be free of him. But in other ways we clearly resemble each other: we have the same eyes, wide-set and a changeable grey, the same cut of chin, the same dark dusting of hair across the backs of our hands. The same homing-pigeon instinct for the weakness of others, and the same readiness to avail ourselves of it.

“You need to get your act together. If nothing else—do your mother a favor.”

“Mom wants me here.”

My father performs his trademark sound of disgusted disbelief, part horse-snort and part consumptive hacking up something nasty. “What your mother wants is to make everyone around her happy. Even if—especially if—it involves making herself unhappy.”

“Like she did with you?”

“That’s not what we’re talking about.” He pauses. “Both of us were unhappy.”

“I feel like I have a lot of things to think about. Like the fact that I died five months ago.” This is the first time I have said it aloud. I feel light-headed, like I stood up too quickly. “And that the timeline doesn’t add up. What happened to February and March?”

My father opens his mouth. We have the same mouth as well, thin and slightly downturned at the edges.

I beat him to it. “Maybe it would have been better for you if I hadn’t been restored?”

I wait for him to refute me, for the next round to commence. By the time he does it’s too late. “You’re being absurd,” he mutters, and continues walking.

+

My father is a fourth dan judo black belt. He has practiced the martial art for almost forty years and it forms the core of his life, an unrelenting struggle for grace.

When I turned ten he started bringing me with him to his dojo, each Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. There was no kids’ class; I trained with the adults, fifteen or so white and Asian men and women—mostly men—who behaved on the mat like a rigorously polite team of Navy SEALs engaged in a life-or-death mission and off the mat like amiable, slightly awkward co-workers. Our teachers were a father-and-son pair, Japanese, with the same beaded eyes and flat cheekbones and, more uncannily, the same way of speaking, a gentle, severe gravity that infused everything they said with authority and wisdom. We called the father Ōsensei (Big Teacher) Ogawa, and the son Sukoshi Sensei (Little Teacher) Ogawa—of course, Ōsensei stood at a wispy, serene five-three whereas his son’s immense solidity always made me think of the Mount Fuji print that hung in the reception area.

I knew without my father ever having to say so that this dojo was the most renowned judo school in Connecticut, possibly in the Northeast; and that the Senseis Ogawa were big-name constellations in the judo universe—the equivalent of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, say. What such judo legends were doing in Shelton, one of those zombie industrial towns squatting in the shadows of the finance citadels of Greenwich and Stamford, in a narrow space between two boarded storefronts—I have no idea. At the time the strangeness of this did not even occur to me. The dojo, and the Ogawas, existed outside of context or reason; they simply were, and there was nothing more to it than that.

The commute from Stamford, where we lived then, took forty minutes. With traffic it could be up to an hour, and my father always anticipated traffic, which meant we generally arrived twenty minutes early. There was something acute and anxious about that drive for me, every time, how quickly that familiar landscape slid by, the rhythm of trees and strip malls and gas stations and fast food signs, punctuated by an occasional glimmer of water that always seemed startling and precious. On Wednesday evenings I could watch the lighted metal procession of cars ahead of us start and stop, start and stop, and clench the hope in my chest—which I could not admit to myself, because then it would not come true—that we might be late; my father would rather miss the class altogether than arrive after the teachers had stepped onto the mat. (Some who lack me should find me; others who have me should lose me. It can be foolish to hold on to me, or foolish to let me go. What am I?) On Sunday mornings the roads were black and empty, and I would count down with dread each landmark we sped past: the Walmart off Exit 13—still over half an hour to go; the third Super 8 Motel—twelve to fifteen minutes away; the distinctly shack-like Pancake Palace right after we turned off CT-8—four minutes more, max.

I hated everything about judo. The smell of the dojo, years of sweat and exertion steeped into the ripped vinyl surface of the mats and the peeling walls in a way that the chemical tang of Windex (for the students wiped down the mats after every class) not only couldn’t offset but somehow enhanced. The quilted heaviness of the judogi which guaranteed copious perspiration even in winter and near-asphyxiation in the summer. Its mantra of repetition, because that was how you had to reach for perfection: you grabbed and twisted through every throw and choke and hold a hundred times, and then a hundred times more, until what you reached was a drenched, trembling fatigue, when your body was no longer your body but some distant object to be compelled into obedience. The slam of impact, over and over, just as surprising and brutal every time. All that bowing. And above all—facing my father, in paired drills, or during the sparring session that always concluded the class.

For my fourteenth birthday I asked to stop the lessons. I told my mother, who must have relayed this to my father, because he came to my room that evening and asked me why. I had never said anything to him about disliking judo. On the drive there we rode in silence, listening to post-1965 Beatles; on the drive back he analysed my sparring performance, the shortcomings of my strategy (mainly that I didn’t have any), the errors in my technique.

“I don’t want to,” I said.

“That’s not an answer,” he said. “I know that because you have said you want to stop learning judo. What I want to know is why you don’t want to.”

I shrugged, helpless: what else was there to say? Four years of suffering was enough? I had no interest, no aptitude, other things I wanted to do with my time? “I just don’t like it.”

He shook his head. “Give me a substantive answer. If you’re going to be a quitter, at least have a reason.”

I said, “You make it unbearable.” Immediately after I wondered if I had simply imagined saying that, as I had so many times before—but my father was staring at me, with a faint leathered surprise that I didn’t think I had ever quite seen before.

“Alright then,” he said, and left the room. I only realized a few days later that my three sets of gi, my bundled belts, had been removed from their shelf space in my closet and substituted with an equally neat pile of my t-shirts, as if they had never been there in the first place.

+

At the Branford Grill, I wait for the appetizer plates to be cleared away before making my first sally. “I’ve been thinking—I should probably move out soon,” I say to my mother.

Until now the conversation has been cordoned to speculation on what type of pasta strozzapreti is, whether sea bass is an endangered fish, and when the U.S. will intervene directly against ISIS—the first two questions resolved eventually by resort to the iPhone, while my parents agree, with suspicious restraint, to disagree on the third.

My mother looks at me as if she doesn’t understand what I just said. “It’s been less than a month. What’s the big hurry?”

I smile at her. “I don’t want to cramp your style.”

“Don’t be silly. You’re not cramping anything. What else am I going to do with the extra bedroom?”

I look at my father, who is gazing down at his lap, his angled forehead and nose lit by the screen of his phone. He says, his mildness a trap, “How would you afford it if you moved out?”

“I can get a job.”

Now they are both looking at me. “What kind of job?” he says.

I am rescued by the pair of servers who have magicked themselves into crisp, solicitous existence around our table. They place white plates before us, at the centre of each a petite work of art curlicued with flourishes of sauce. The server who earlier answered all my mother’s questions so adroitly now explains our dishes to us, how each component of what we see before us correlates to an ingredient listed on the menu in an innovative, surprising way. He wishes us bon appétit and vanishes.

“This is excellent,” says my mother. “Do you want to try some?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I say.

My father says again, “What kind of job?”

“I’ll find something.”

“In other words—you have no idea.”

“I’ll find something.”

“But what about Yale?” says my mother.

“What about it?”

“Aren’t you going back?”

“It’s only July. The semester starts in September. Getting a job now doesn’t preclude anything I might or might not do about Yale.”

“You’re not answering your mother’s question.”

“How is everything?”

We all swivel up to stare at the server, who is smiling anxiously at us as if our enjoyment of the meal determines whether he makes it past the elimination round of a reality TV show. He looks like he could be my age. “Great,” we say, an overlapping chorus.

When he has moved to the next table I say, “I might not even be enrolled anymore. They probably unregistered me—reallocated my funding.”

My father says, “Isn’t that something you should have found out by now?”

And of course he is right, because he is always right. So many things I should have done by now—twenty-five years in, twenty-five days in, however you want to look at it.

“But they didn’t,” says my mother, as if I’m positing an impossible—and therefore pointless—hypothetical. “They’re expecting you back.”

We look at each other, equally puzzled. She says, “Your father talked to the department. And your adviser—Professor Jacobs. He explained what we were doing—the restoration—and your professor said it would be fine for you to pick up where you left off in the fall, if you were ready for it then. They would just treat it like you took a semester off.” She slants a glance at my father.

“I just reminded him of all my alumni donations over the years.” He is still chewing as he speaks. “You know, it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch the way these universities claim to be so generous in terms of funding. We’re still paying for him. You could probably draw a straight line from our bank account to his.”

My father was a history major at Yale. He considered staying on for a PhD, but instead started working at an investment bank and then transitioned to private equity, where he is still. Was that why I chose Yale when I was considering PhD programs? No—I chose Yale because it has the top American history department in the country, and because I knew my mother wanted me to be close.

“You shouldn’t have bothered,” I say.

My mother says, more sharply than I would have expected—she does not tend to defend my father in my skirmishes with him, sometimes I even think she relishes them—“What do you mean?”

She is gazing at me, and so is my father—and something about the cloudy, frozen quality of both their faces makes me think that I might have said it out loud: that, after all, they didn’t want me back.

But they are still waiting for my response, so I couldn’t have. I reach for my water glass. It has been refilled without my noticing. “Nothing,” I say. “Just that I don’t know if I’m going back.”

+

That night I Google judo shelton ct and get only Five-Star Karate, Ronin Martial Arts and Fitness, Box Till You Drop. I add ogawa to my keyword string. This time the first page of hits yields a brief article from the archives of the Shelton Herald about the closure of the Ogawa Judo Institute, “a deceptively modest space that is heralded by practitioners as one of the most eminent judo schools in America”, a year after the death of its founder Takeshi Ogawa. The younger Ogawa—whose first name, it turns out, is Michael—is quoted about his decision to shut down the school: the economy, commercial rental prices, too tough for small businesses; deeply difficult, of course, memory of his father; at least he knows the Ogawa legacy will live on in his father’s students.

The article includes a posed group picture of the two senseis and their students in the dojo in blurry, happier days. A wall of white striped across with a broken black line that ends in orange, free-floating heads and hands. I click on the image to magnify it. Eighteen adults, the senseis in the centre; and one kid off to the side. His uniform is at once too large (the bagginess) and too small (the length of sleeve and pant leg) for him. His hair and his gaze are askew, his expression intent, his cheeks scattershot with acne. I have no idea at all what he could be thinking. I look for my father—there he is, on Sukoshi Sensei’s right, safely distanced from me.

Then I go back to Google, because I don’t buy it. The Ogawas’ students, disciplined and devoted, would have kept the dojo going if money had really been the issue. (My father on his own could have bankrolled the school for at least another decade—it would still have been cheaper than my restoration; and, to him, probably more worthwhile.) I Google Michael Ogawa and find out that he’s now the owner and chef of a trendy Japanese restaurant in Hamden. The timing backs my theory: the Ogawa Institute closed five years ago, according to the article, and The Sushi Sensei (really, Michael?) opened less than six months later.

Google Maps estimates a twenty-six minute drive from my mother’s house to Michael Ogawa’s restaurant—but that route takes I-91, sluicing me through New Haven before I can escape onto CT-40. I drag the bright blue line around, seeking a way to avoid I-91 without traversing half of Connecticut, confounding Google’s base assumption that people want to get from one place to another in the most efficient manner. I think of that Edward Albee line that swung a meathook right at my heart when I heard it in whichever play of his it is: Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly. When it comes to driving, however, barring any traffic snarls, the shortest distance is generally the smartest distance.

+

I wondered if I would suffer some variation of a post-traumatic stress reaction to driving, the part of my brain that traffics in fear and panic and similar fun emotions now wired to implode upon any number of rote actions, like twisting the key in the ignition or easing down on the accelerator or checking my mirrors as I pulled into the road. Fifteen minutes in and I feel fine, although I’m taking the precaution of tortoising it along in the slow lane together with the geriatrics and the student drivers.

My mother’s car key was hanging from the hook by the door. When I palmed it I noticed for the first time that it was anchored by a miniature Eiffel Tower, an etched silver flatness, acceptably tacky as far as souvenir keychains go. My family went to France the summer before I left for college: Paris, Saint-Malo, Bordeaux. I remember those three weeks as being, possibly, the happiest of my life. They were filled with effortless beauty—Van Gogh’s colours in the Musée d’Orsay swirling into the lush, tended green and gold of vineyards and cornfields that we drove past in Bordeaux; all the monochromatic, chain-smoking Parisian girls, with their husky voices and expressive faces, perfect for the stern, soaring lines of their cathedrals and citadels—and I could enjoy everything completely, without wishing for more, because I knew this was only the trailer for what the rest of my life would be, commencing in less than two months’ time. My parents argued, it would have been unreal if they hadn’t; but there was tenderness as well, of the food-sharing, hand-holding, exchanging-laughing-looks variety that I found embarrassing then and has haunted me since. Our last vacation as a family. Did either of them know, or suspect?

Now, as one little old lady and then another guns it past me on the highway, the Eiffel Tower jiggles in the periphery of my vision as it might in a cartoon of an earthquake and I’m asking myself just like I used to how much of that trip was a performance, by whom and for whom; and why my mother would want to remind herself, and in this banal, incessant fashion, of any of it.

I am past the site of my crash before I realize it. When I glance into the rearview mirror I see an anonymous black stretch of road, wavy in the afternoon heat. During the day, in the glare of summer, it belongs in another world, one in which nothing bad would ever happen.

+

Michael Ogawa swings out through the kitchen doors looking remarkably chefly in his double-breasted white jacket and apron, hat sitting like a white popover on his head. It’s a tiny electrical jolt to see him again—and so much like I remember him, which feels right but also wrong, as if time has collapsed and I am stuck in its rubble. (Goofy hat aside, the two uniforms aren’t that dissimilar.)

My head and shoulders dip forward of their own accord, and I start to say that I’m Lionel Timbers’s son; but then a smile stretches his cheeks wide and his eyes squinty. Lines gossamer his face and I see that he has aged after all.

“Billy,” he says. His voice is different as well, still authoritative but jovial in a way I never had occasion to hear. “Holy crap. When Julie said one of my former students was passing through and wanted to say hi, I didn’t expect you.”

I shrug, shy fourteen-year-old again.

He sits me down at a table and we engage in a back-and-forth of him insisting I have a drink, a bite to eat, and me not wanting to put him through any trouble. I let him win and a few minutes later we are sharing a bristling tepee of shrimp tempura and a pot of roasted green tea. I explain that I live in New Haven now, and saw a write-up about his restaurant that mentioned his name. At first I thought it was a coincidence, but then I Googled the dojo out of curiosity and found out that it had closed.

“The article in the Shelton Herald said there were financial difficulties. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Michael Ogawa leans back in his chair and folds his arms across his chest and levels me a look that lets me know he knows I know that’s bullshit. “That was just something to say. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I mean, I never wanted to do it, but—”

I interrupt, because that is inconceivable: “Never?”

“The training’s fine.” He tells me he’s still training—at a dojo in New Haven, in fact. But he always knew judo was a part of his life, not all of it, and he wouldn’t be running his father’s school once his father was gone.

“Did he know—Ōsensei?” The word sits familiar and clumsy on my tongue before I push it out.

“I hope not.”

I picture my father entering the dojo at the beginning of each class, his pale feet, the stern, silent gratitude of his bow; and then I’m hearing myself say, “Your father’s death freed you.”

Michael Ogawa’s eyes flutter as you might expect when someone says something shockingly inappropriate, but all he says is, “That’s one way of putting it.”

When I get up he gets up with me, and walks me to the door. As he pulls it open he says, “I heard—from a couple of my ex-students—you were in an accident.”

The diffident way he says that, and his gaze tilted down at the door handle, loosens a knot in my mind I didn’t know was there. For a moment I wonder. Black ice; bad luck. What the person Michael Ogawa knew might have hoped would happen.

“I’m glad you’ve recovered,” says Michael Ogawa.

“So am I,” I say, and I mean it.

+

I am getting out of the car when my father grabs me. I stagger onto the pavement, taken hostage by my own momentum and his. One hand bunches the fabric of my T-shirt across my chest, the other rests secure around my forearm. I remember this grip.

“Where have you been,” he says.

I hear myself say, “What the fuck.”

My father lets me go and takes a step back. He says again, a statement phrased as a question, “Where have you been.”

I shut the car door and turn back again. “I went for a drive.”

“Where?”

“Just around.”

“You took your mother’s car. You didn’t tell anyone.”

“I didn’t think I’d be long.”

And then my mother is here as well, staring at me in the same wild-eyed way. Her face is blotched and tender from recent crying.

I look at my father. “What happened?” I say, and I mean: What did you do? I remember how they told me they were separating, at breakfast the morning after I got back from Brown for Thanksgiving freshman year, the slender bar of sunlight striping the table and how it widened as they spoke, my father and then my mother, my mother and then my father, until by the time they were done all three of us sat layered in light. My mother cried throughout, a quiet steadiness like the fine grey rain that tapers down a storm and then prevails for days. I thought then, and I still do, that what she was crying for was how this marriage, this life, had become something she no longer wanted, the sadness of the truth that she was glad to be leaving it. But this seems different.

“Billy,” says my mother, as if reminding herself of my name. “Where did you go?”

“I just went for a drive.” I pinch out the Eiffel Tower from my pocket and hand it back to her, with its sole, dangling key. “I wanted to get out of the house for a bit. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

The light is dimming precipitously around us the way it does once the sun curves below a certain depth, like it has decided to give up and now just wants the whole thing to be over with as soon as possible. (The more you have me the less you see; shine a torch at me and I flee. What am I?) Darkness begins to soak into my parents’ faces, turning them into people who look like people I know.

“I decided,” I say. “I’m withdrawing from Yale.”

My father says, “You’re quitting.”

I want to tell him that if anything it’s the opposite. Time has opened up like a plain in front of me, and the last thing I want is to be walking backward into it, studying the past for my future. But my father would simply see that as another excuse. “Whatever you say,” I say.

I start to turn around and everything slides up and around like the world is a box that has been tipped onto its side. The heavy shadow of my father’s face displaces the purple sky. He has just twisted me down onto the mat. The crowbar of his forearm or his shin crushes my throat and all I can focus on is my right hand, desperate and distant, seeking to signal surrender. It flutters on the mat, again and again, and lights like camera flashes are exploding across my vision and my father is whispering, You’re not trying. Try to get out. We’re going to stay here until you try.

The pain is tingling in now, as if filtered up through the pavement and into the stiff length of my back. My palms sting—I spread my arms to hit the floor on my way down, as you’re supposed to, to break the fall. I lie still, pinioned by my father’s weight. Above me his mouth that is my mouth is moving, but it seems like too much trouble to listen to what he is saying so I make him go away by closing my eyes. There was never any need to try to get out.

I feel the moist heat of his exhalation against my ear, and then his voice, each careful sound vibrating through the darkness of my skull. “Tell us you wanted to come back. Can you tell us?” For a moment his breathing is a dim, measured ocean that I can match my own to. “I’m sorry,” says my father. “I’m sorry.”

 

 

 


Jane Pek holds a BA from Yale University, where she was a recipient of the Meeker Freshman Prize for Poetry, and an MFA (Fiction) from Brooklyn College, where she was a recipient of the Carole and Irwin Lainoff Prize and the Himan Brown Award for Creative Writing.  She was also the recipient of a Singapore National Arts Council Creation Grant for 2015–16.  Like everyone else, she is currently working on a novel.