Mess of Color
Tuesday night, Ronnie’s braless in a white tee like always. She sits with the covers over her bloated pink legs, blown-glass pipe in hand and unlit cigarette between soft, gray teeth. The lights are dimmed and the TV’s going real low. I say a friend needs something for cramps. They’re real bad since this girl got a cyst removed the size of a grapefruit. We burn some green while I stumble over how much I’m picking up.
There is no friend with cramps. Or at least, she’s not who they’re for. Ronnie traces one of the deep lines above her brow with a jerky finger, staring down the TV screen like it’s a hole to put things in. She doesn’t need all the bullshit. That’s just for my own sake.
She limps off to the bathroom with the fifty I hand over. I ask if her knee’s bothering her and she says for the last twenty years. When she limps back, I watch her slide the cellophane off her pack of Marlboro Reds, practice-smooth, like her hundredth time undressing a man. She drops Vicodin in the cellophane wrapper and folds the top over as I chew on my thumbnail. I ask if she’s got Valium instead. Not to be a pain. I ask because maybe muscle relaxers are better for muscle cramps. I ask because I like Valium better. She picks up her lighter and singes the cellophane sealed without looking at it or me.
“Hun. Lemme tell you something,” she says. She lights her long Marlboro and fills the room with it. “There’s no such fucking thing as a painkiller. You ever take Vicodin after busting your shit? Pain doesn’t go away.”
I remember falling down the stairs last month.
“Valium. Xanax. Vicodin. Hell, booze and weed. All they do is make it easy not to give a fuck. Just takes your mind somewhere else. Somewhere better.”
She hands me the little baggie. I take it without question.
“There’s no cure for pain,” she says.
Before pulling all the way out of Ronnie’s driveway, I tear the cellophane apart with my teeth. I drive around waiting for the warmth to find me. My room at home is four walls around a Pollock of neglect—disruptions of ash and sticky resin stains on Berber carpet, polyester fibers melted and cratered where a bowl was cashed before cooling. I’m not ready to go home to that. I duck in and out of strangers’ cul-de-sacs, watching for something interesting in their windows, watching for movement, signs of life, telling myself there’s something to find and I’m not just out here waiting for my chest to loosen farther than my breaths can fill. I’m ready to go home at the moment when it stops bothering me why I haven’t yet, driving with nowhere else to go. When I’ve got something to blame for my stumbling besides the clutter—orange bursts of rattling pill bottles, labeled and unlabeled here and there, things knocked around from tripping over them the night before.
The TV’s always on and on mute; the light’s always changing. Televangelists, paternity tests, infomercials for a set of twelve knives. I watch their mouths flap soundless until the teeth break into pixels. I’ll sleep scrunched to one corner of the bed, papers and books and empty snack wrappers, stacks of unread mail, bag of weed, bag of pills within reach. I won’t sleep so much as doze off, too scared to go to sleep on purpose, and the scrunching will help the bed feel safer, somehow. The crinkling of debris a comfort, somehow. It’s the only way I know how to sleep.
I’m about to turn twenty. I don’t want to die, but I’ve got nothing to live for. I’ve got nothing useful to say.
There’s always a mess I’m too tired to clean up. I’m always too tired to do something.
I wash a bottle of Xanax down with milk.
There’s always something.
There’s going to be jazz in a ruined room. There’s going to be a drunk boyfriend yelling racial slurs at the TV. He will be white-hot with rage; he will seem unreal, his anger stuck in a different time like a folktale giant. He will say I smell clean for an immigrant. He will say spices stain his napkins and flare up his acne, he will say I’m good to look at for the fathers I have come from. He’ll say I could be better, do better, he’ll say I’m pretty when I’m not talking all that politic, he will break my habit of calling white boys who watch too many war movies but that will come later. White boys will keep calling. White boys will keep asking for dirty nothings in my first language. White boys will ask me to read their poetry, ask me to talk dharma, talk sushi, talk Stanley Kubrick, talk so horny, white boys will say they never made it with one of me and there’s going to be jazz in a ruined room. The drugs will stop. The drugs will stop. The drugs caress my nerves in sweeping, tender breaths across the skin to teach me the feeling of body again. I’ll wake into a movement of sax so sad I’ll forget I’m by myself. I’ll forget the missed calls. I’ll forget white boys crying for help, crying for spice, crying for rescue from their moms’ buttered noodles and dinner-table grace. There’re going to be frosted-glass jars of plum wine and my father talking Miles Davis because no white man play this kind of sad, he’ll say, there’s going to be good ginseng, stained dark and bitter from the mountain earth in my grandmother’s broth and the salt of my tears like the Yellow Sea splitting open under Truman’s jets.
I’m about to turn twenty. My favorite movie must be Bresson’s Pickpocket. Or maybe Herzog’s Stroszek. No, Gummo. Kids. Any bleak art-house vision of existential futility and transgressive shiftlessness. Movies that makes me feel something about not feeling anything, the titles just obscure enough to make me feel cultured and cool. I listen to a lot of Throbbing Gristle and Captain Beefheart. I read a lot of Bukowski and Carver. I want to write like them. I want to sound like them, live like them, I want to be read and understood like them. I want my life’s work to paint just as universally desolate an emotional landscape as the works of these men.
I want to write terrible suns. Milk bottles like chilled lilies. I want to write about things falling. Gestures that try and fail, gestures that convey the unintended. I set the scenes of white men in their homes, being ethnically invisible and namelessly brimming with human torment. I detail the minutia of their lives through the images I understand as most quintessential to their experiences—I write cigarettes and therapy and marriage. I write this way because depression belongs to the liquor-grated voices of working-class white men, paranoid anxiety and dependent neuroses to their white wives according to The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Cannes and Sundance winners; according to semester after semester of studying contemporary classics.
I write flannel and rain on cracked sidewalks. I write beaten-down Ford trucks. I write the flush of whiskey into a listless philanderer’s cheeks as he thinks about a gun in his den. I feel I’m not allowed to materialize wholly as myself on the page so much as in colorless tatters rammed through a sieve.
My mother will pull right up to the curb in front of a Ben & Jerry’s on the way home. She will put the car in park and never turn to face me, and I will never find out what she sees out there, past the windshield, on that starless night. We won’t leave the car until we’ve driven back home. The engine will purr idly as I watch through a pane of glass, and through another pane of glass, a cluster of freckled white kids in canvas shoes trying a sample of every flavor. My mother will say, “You ruined our family.” The Pakistani franchise owner will grin and scoop and grin and scoop, tossing plastic spoons and grabbing new ones as the kids point out flavors with tentative gestures, hands held close to the chest, no intention to buy, and I will wonder how much money he makes, what health benefits, how many hours a week and what’s he pay out of pocket for supplies around the shop. My mother will say it again. “You ruined our family.” There will be another debt collector on the line in the morning to remind the both of us. I will say I know. She will say, “But I ruin your life.”
She will sit there and ask, “Why you do like this?” She will ask, “Why you do this drug?” She will ask, “Why you always?” She will recall for the both of us. The heat of her hands across my face, the threats she spat at me in anger, the quiet house with no adults. She will say “That’s Korean way,” and neither of us will buy the excuse, but we will both swallow its grave necessity. She will recall the day she wrenched me from the neighbor’s house and her silence when asked what it was he had done to me, or why four years old was suddenly too young for unattended playdates. She will recall the day she knew I had answered for myself, watching me unravel the why of rape, watching me condemn my body as liability, cuts growing across my forearms, knowing it was only one of all the reasons for my mess, blaming me when I blamed her, blaming herself when I could no longer, and she will say, “You must forgive me,” though I won’t know who she means. She will drop the English to tell me I must go back to church and meet her God.
I will have nothing useful to say. I will say I know. I know. The radio will buzz white noise. I will never know a scene more American.
I’m about to turn twenty, introducing myself with an Anglican name like it’ll save me from the bold mispronunciation and scrutiny of well-meaning white folks. I cling to narrators and characters named Alice, Jerry, Carol, and Peter in my writing like it’ll cast a wider net. I glow when a teacher tells me I do a great job writing men. It never occurs to me there might be something wrong with feeling like I have to write men. Or that the men I’m writing are undeniably, invisibly, insidiously white.
I have no clue how to write about the people I know, love, and am. I have no clue how to make the words look right—even the word Korean, the word monolid, the word epicanthic, the fermentation, chili flakes, rock salt, rice, even my birth name: they look ugly on paper. They won’t fit. The syllables like a rough chop, the terse layout of our names and places, they look ugly mashed flat through a Latin alphabet. They won’t let my readers vanish into the feelings. The same restless feelings we all know to varying degrees of acting upon, the isolation, the destitution of particularly interesting—and therefore troubled—comings-of-age. I can’t write a serious story about Soo-Bin and Ki-Hong cracking open their first beer or drifting apart over a pregnancy scare. I can’t write a story about them without mentioning where they come from, what their names mean, and without being asked for more of that.
I can’t call myself 성애 without being asked.
Someone’s always going to be asking. It will be more bearable than the assumptions. A boy in my class will roll Baoding in his hands and confidently call them Ben Wa. A straw-haired New Englander on TV will dump soy sauce in her kimchi fried rice. Some white tourist will write about 기분 with mystic imposition as if how are you means something deeply Confucian when asked in Korean. Or write about Eastern humility versus Western individualism. Eastern apology versus Western shame.
It will almost be a relief when someone asks—what’s the difference between K-Pop and J-Pop? Is everybody Buddhist there? How do you tell between Korean, Chinese, Japanese? Even though I have no conclusive answers.
There will be times when the questions fish deep into history. It will be like a long-forgotten splinter pushing through the skin. There will be the odd history buff here and there, white boys, Kerouac fans, long-time students of Daoism who will ask me about comfort women and Japan, ask about communism in the North, ask about Seoul’s embrace of western commerce, ask why old women at the Korean grocery never say hello, please, or thank you. They will reduce intrusion to intervention, trauma to trivia, heritage to history, vigilance to hostility in their asking.
There will be white girls eating 반찬 without rice out of my mother’s covered jars who say I always smell like fish. There will be white boys pulling from my mouth to say my accent’s not too obvious as a compliment.
I will have so much to say, but nothing for them.
I’m about to turn twenty. It’s a mellow spring; the trees are bursting plum and yellow, the sky a garish blue. I’m sticking my arm out the passenger side window to let it ride the wind. A friend is driving me to the hospital. She’s crying.
She says, “Don’t do this to me.” I won’t understand what or how for years. I’m still riding out the benzos.
My body is a busted bellows. I take long breaths that seem to keep filling and filling and hitting nothing. I’m here and I’m not. I’m laughing and I’m not. My friend turns up the radio. She drowns out her own crying, or my laughing. I don’t know. I’m not going to remember what song.
I pass out in the waiting room while filling out intake forms.
I blink awake in cardiac, a butterfly needle in my hand and electrodes on my chest. Here I am. Wearing my heart on a monitor. I’m still stoned. My friend is sitting by my bed. She shakes her head and says again, “Don’t do this to me.”
I’ve got nothing useful to say.
The girl in the next bed over is crying openly and without noise. The nurse stationed by our door suggests we pick something to watch on TV, nudging the remote our way. The girl asks if her mom has called. The answer is no.
I feel compelled to do something right for a change. There’s always something to do. I say to the girl, to make sure she knows, because I need to know that she knows, because it must be of profound comfort to hear in the starched womb of a hospital bed as she waits for someone to love her by showing up, “You are, like, so pretty.”
I’ve got nothing useful to say.
There will be slanted glances across reading lists and mastheads. There will be drafts where my name is Claire. My name is Joan. Where I don’t miss the taste of jujubes and their red leather skins while the nurse asks questions. I will weigh themes and motifs, aspects of persona on the page by a rule of threes, wonder if Sung the Immigrant can frame Sung the Mess or Sung the Writer without eclipsing them. Like too much fish sauce. Too much chili paste. Too much ferment.
There will be more than this—there will be anticonvulsants, dystonic reactions, excruciating loneliness and sleep as heavy as the moon. I will watch a woman twitch with seizures on a plastic sheet, begging me to close the door on her shame in long, winding moans. There will be wilted patients shuffling in for lunch with cups of applesauce, rocking in and out of sleep after sessions of electroshock. There will be a Turkish boy on Seroquel who’s lost his grip on body and I will ask does he feel that draft, that scratchy carpet, that grainy powdered egg at every breakfast, does he like it, as he says hello, thank you, please and white Midwestern nurses chalk broken thoughts up to broken English.
There will be disgust. There will be despondence. Over here, gulping cold oatmeal without chewing as a tow-haired meth-head says you speaky Chinee? Over there, I’ll wake to the creaking of a door hinge when a nurse’s eyes meet mine and she will count my breaths against the second hand of her wristwatch and though this is not the story, her eyes are green and mine are black as coal, the shadow of her profile will stand tall and jagged like a mountain range and I will vanish like a sunset, round and blunt and dimming.
This is not the story. There will be more. There will be more. There will be phone calls from my sister sniffling over static to promise kelp and taro upon my discharge. My brother’s hugs cracking down to marrow as he calls me 누나. This is not the story but it is. There will be car rides with my mother full of heavy knowing-one-another, things unsaid, the tub of skin bleach that’s left her pockmarked, tattoo ink greening beneath sparse eyebrows, tiny scalpel scars merging into crow’s feet, things behind us, the story but not, things that sting to say face-to-yellow-face but must be written.
Sung Yim is a South Korean immigrant, essayist, and undergraduate student of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. Their work has been featured previously in Bird’s Thumb as well as Hooligan Magazine, where they’re currently a blogger. Selected by Elissa Washuta.
Image © merec0 via Flickr Creative Commons.