If I ever have a kid one day—and who knows, because I hated being a kid myself, it’s all terror and being at the mercy of others—but if I ever do, I won’t deny it anything. I won’t go crazy and give it whatever it wants—that’s just as bad—but I won’t say no to TV or no to candy or no to going out or no to friends. Because that’s how you make a weirdo. Tell it no all the time.
Of course, I’m thinking of someone in particular. A kid I used to babysit. Ruth. A plain, blocky sort of girl, always smiling. We lived next door to each other in identical houses, hers light blue, mine yellow. Her family were Bread of Lifers. They never tried to turn us, maybe they have a rule similar to the one dogs have: don’t shit where you eat.
Ruth was an only child, which surprised me because when they had gatherings—rarely, but memorable—the other families were enormous. At some point in the gathering, group singing would drift from their backyard. Their songs had no melodies, just weird humming sounds that gave no hints as to when it would end.
The women dressed modestly, in long, shapeless skirts and long-sleeved white blouses, even the girls, the ends of their braided hair curling in the heat. Only the girl babies were free to kick their naked legs in the air. The men wore black vested suits, without the suit coats, and hats. They looked like bad guys in a Western. The boys wore dark jeans and oversized white T-shirts. The women kissed each other on the cheeks without touching, the men shook hands gravely like they had finally decided who should hang. Ruth always stood to the side in her too-wide dark cotton skirt and white blouse, a big hopeful smile on her face.
It killed me to see that. She was always so stupidly vulnerable.
When I babysat her, I tried to teach her how to survive. “Most people will hate you,” I told her. “On sight. For no reason.”
Her little hopeful face always fell, without fail. When it hardened, I would know that my job was done.
“So, what’s the solution? Don’t give a shit. Turn off the caring about what other people think.” I turned an imaginary dial to “off.”
“I love you,” she said, and hugged herself.
“I know.” Ruth told me this about a thousand times every time I babysat.
“Now you say it,” she said.
But I wouldn’t. I won’t lie, ever. All grownups ever do is lie. I’d rather die.
“I sometimes like you,” is as far as I was willing to go. That always got her hopeful face going again.
She was nine years old but acted like she was seven. I believe it was because she wasn’t allowed to watch TV. She didn’t know what nine-year-olds were supposed to be like.
I was five years older than her by age and thirty years older by temperament. That’s because I am the oldest child of immigrants. I had to learn to talk to landlords, doctors, insurance agents, school officials, DMV workers, and hostesses at restaurants before I turned eight. We don’t get to be shy and naive to the ways of the world. Like the car salesman who tried to charge us 20 percent more for our Pinto than what the Kelley Blue Book said. He thought an eleven-year-old wouldn’t know what the Kelley Blue Book is? I told him we would pay 20 percent less, or we’d walk across the street to Dynomite Used Car Sales. Not Dynamite. Dynomite.
“Damn, girl,” he said. “Want a job?”
Ruth is going to have problems. She would already have them if her parents allowed her to go to school. The kids would be all over her wide-open face that would flinch confusedly when teased but not shut completely. They’d make fun of her clothes that were too big and shapeless, and her hair that looked like a plate of spaghetti had been dumped on her head.
Once I asked her mother why she didn’t have a long braid like the others. “She used to eat the ends of her braids,” she said. “And she won’t sit still when I cut her hair. That’s why she looks like that.” At least there was an explanation.
If she was going to school, I would take Ruth by the elbow and tell her she had better sit her ass down and get a decent cut. “The world’s so mean,” I told her. “You don’t need to make it so easy.”
The first time I babysat her, she said to me, “I’ve been watching you forever. I’ve been praying we would be friends. I love you so much.”
I was like, “Whoa, girl, hold your horses. You don’t even know me.”
And she was like, “I do, too. I know you embroider flowers on the bottoms of your jeans, and that you eat the peel off an apple before you eat the insides, and every night you kiss your poster of Prince before you go to sleep.”
It was true. Prince was sexy like a boy and a girl. I wanted to do my makeup like him and kiss his hairless chest.
“Who told you that? What are you, some kind of spy?”
“Your sister told me that.”
“I’ll kill her.”
I didn’t have any real friends at school. The only one I thought might understand me at St. Mary’s was a girl from Puerto Rico named Camila, but she was so shy she didn’t talk. She followed her older sister around and let her do all the talking. The older sister, Gloria, would even come in and tell the teacher why Camila didn’t finish her homework or why she couldn’t come on a field trip. But I heard Camila talking in Spanish to her sister once, the language as pretty as a flower, not like Korean, which sounds like a lot of shouting the way my father speaks it.
At the beginning of eighth grade, I sidled up to Camila, alone now that her sister had moved on to high school, and said something like, “White people, huh?” or “White people, huh!” I can’t remember which. But her eyes just grew wide with fright, and she ran away.
I hang out with the misfits. Lucy with the crossed eyes, Ann Marie who eats half a peanut butter sandwich and two slices of white chicken breast every day since kindergarten, Marjorie who had a baseball-sized tangle on the back of her head for a straight month.
“You should use some conditioner,” I advised her. “Then comb your hair out while it’s all slick.”
“My hair’s just so fine,” she sighed. “You’re lucky yours is so coarse.”
I know. I can use it to floss my teeth, and I have.
“It’s looking pretty rough, though,” I told her. “Your mom might need to cut it off.”
Marjorie gingerly touched the back of her head. “It’s kind of like having a bun.”
Finally, our teacher called her mother and told her something had to be done. It was a sanitary issue. Marjorie came to school on Monday with a bob cut that made me notice how big her front teeth were. I learned something important then. You could distract one kerfuffle with another.
We lost Ann Marie when she started dating McMooney, who we called Monkeyface because he looked like a chimpanzee. Hairy as fuck, too. They held their sweaty hands together the whole bus ride to the water treatment plant. That was the type of field trip we went on. They showed us where the shit went after you flushed it, how they cleaned it and then used it as fertilizer. The popular girls turned green, and one of them even threw up her Froot Loops. They have such sensitive stomachs.
If not for the smell, it would’ve easily been in the top three best field trips of all time. It was better than visiting the old people at the nursing home (talk about smells!) or the Greyhound bus depot where we learned all about the bus system and how bus stations were where homeless people called home.
Everywhere we went, we had to gather in a group and pray. We prayed to God to keep the water treatment plant running properly, and for the men and women who worked there to stay healthy and continue to live without their sense of smell. I opened my eyes when Sister Gertrude said that; she was smiling. She had fire. She would probably have become a comedian if she hadn’t been called to be a bride of Christ.
It was so creepy how Jesus had so many brides, but that’s another story.
The Bread of Life was a “no” religion. Those were religions that didn’t allow you to do things: drink liquor or coffee, smoke cigarettes, read sexy books, wear contemporary clothing, use technology, go out with your hair uncovered, talk to people of the opposite sex, etc., etc. The Bread of Lifers didn’t believe in celebrations, either: no birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or retirements. What did they have against cake?
I felt bad for Ruth. “Do you even know when your birthday is?” I asked her.
“February 29,” she said.
“What? That means you’re like what . . . two, three?”
“I’m special,” she said.
I went around her house looking for a calendar, but there weren’t any. I guess they also had something against the passage of time. I had to wait to get home where we had calendars up even in the bathroom. We got them for free from the Korean grocery store at New Year’s. Every month showed the same woman in a different hanbok holding up a different product you could buy in the store—rice, soy sauce, sake.
This was a leap year! It was only a couple of weeks away. I ran over to tell Ruth, but then I smelled something coming from their backyard. I dragged my sister’s bicycle with the training wheels to the fence and stood on it. Ruth’s mom was in the far corner under the Japanese maple, making big O’s with her mouth and blowing smoke rings. We eyed each other without looking away. Inside I was like, Oh, shit, lady, you’re going to whatever hell your people think of as hell. Which for all I knew was an endless round of birthday parties, Halloweens, Thanksgivings, sweet sixteens, baby showers, and promotions where people ate cake, drank beer, smoked cigarettes, and sang songs you could recognize as songs.
Ruth’s mom smoked her cigarette down to the nub, staring at me the whole time, and then bent down to bury it under the tree. Then she wiped her hands on her brown skirt, touched the back of her bun to make sure it was still tight, and gave a little wave with her fingers before she went back in the house.
Had to admit, she looked pretty cool smoking, like the hot Amish woman who fell in love with Harrison Ford in Witness.
The next time I babysat Ruth, I said, “It’s another beautiful day in California. Let’s hang out in the backyard.” Normally Ruth didn’t want to go outside because she was deathly afraid of insects, but I bribed her with a book of paper dolls I’d found at the Salvation Army store. The dolls were from colonial times and their clothes reminded me of what the Bread of Lifers wore, so I figured it would be okay if she played with them. I found a pair of dull scissors and set her to work cutting out the different outfits.
While she was busy, I pretended to stroll around the backyard, although I really wanted to make a beeline for the maple tree in the corner. When I got there, I leaned casually against the tree and poked around the ground with my sneaker. I didn’t have to make much effort before I saw there was a graveyard of little white cigarette butts. I got excited seeing them poke out like tiny tombstones. Ruth’s mom was way more interesting than I’d imagined, way more interesting than my own mother, who was just a big liar.
Ruth said, “What are you doing over there?”
“Watching some fire ants carry a dead grasshopper,” I said.
Ruth shuddered. “I want to go inside,” she whined, putting down her scissors.
I quick-walked back to where she sat on the white towel I’d laid out for her on the deck so she’d see right away if there were any bugs approaching. She’d done a raggedy job cutting out the full blouses and long skirts, and even forgot to cut around the white tabs that folded over the dolls and kept the clothes on.
“Oh, Ruth,” I said, feeling sad for her. What happened to girls like her, dim and not very pretty?
“Did I do a good job?” she asked like a puppy.
“No,” I said. “Not even close.”
Her eyes immediately magnified with tears.
“But you know what?” I said, pulling her up to standing. “There’s this little miracle called scotch tape that the Lord made for just this kind of situation.”
Lucy had a sleepover for her fourteenth birthday. It was so much fun. I brought my makeup kit with me and did everyone’s faces. I’m the best at it, though I don’t wear any myself. I don’t think Asians look good with makeup. But I did practice on myself at home with the magazines my mother brought home from her job at the computer chip factory. I also watched Style with Elsa Klensch religiously on CNN. I longed to be one of those girls on the runway with their stony faces and miles-long legs. They got to wear dream confections from designers with beautiful French names: Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Cardin, Lacroix.
I lined Lucy’s deepset eyes with dark kohl that lifted up toward her eyebrows. It helped distract from her crossed eyes. I accented Ann Marie’s brown eyes with a teal blue that softened toward a light gray, and drew slightly outside her lips in order to make them fuller. Marjorie had pretty blue eyes that needed only a light dusting of pink eyeshadow and heavy mascara. If Camila had been there I would’ve done nothing. She was so gorgeous already with her tanned skin and long, wavy hair.
Afterward we danced to Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, jumping and shaking and kicking our legs in unison like Rockettes. I made them play Purple Rain, even though the others thought it was a downer and didn’t find Prince sexy at all.
“He’s so skinny,” Ann Marie said. “And small like a girl.”
“Plus, is he black or Hispanic? What is he?” said Marjorie.
Only Lucy agreed with me that he was a musical genius. She and I sang Purple Rain to each other dramatically with pretend microphones.
We weren’t misfits when we weren’t at school. I didn’t see us the way others saw them, and me. We just laughed and were ourselves. We even tried not to be too grossed out when Ann Marie told us how McMooney had stuck his tongue in her mouth and their faces had gotten so wet, they’d had to stop and wipe their chins.
I had a dream that night with Jesus in it. He was floating in a halo of light, his robes flowing around him as though a summer breeze were lifting him up, his long toes pointed down. He held out a hand to me. That’s when I noticed I was kneeling in a white nightgown in a black vacuum. His hand said, “Come, be my bride.”
I shook my head, no, but my hands were clasped in prayer.
“Come,” he said without his lips moving, his voice deep in my mind. “I choose you to be my bride.”
“But you have so many,” I said. “Don’t you think that’s selfish?”
I expected a clap of thunder, but he smiled. “Don’t you want to be my bride?”
In my dream I was confused. He was God so he knew everything, including what was in my heart. But I guess I still had to say it aloud. “I want to marry Prince,” I said. I started to sing Baby, I’m a Star.
Surprisingly, Jesus didn’t get mad. That’s why I preferred him to God, the first angry white guy. He looked sad, and blood started to spill down from the crown of thorns on his head. “I get it,” he said. “You can’t dance to my songs.”
And that almost made me want to marry him, but I don’t like to share.
When we first moved to town, my sister and I went to a public school where the kids made fun of us, pulling down their eyes, or shouting “Ai-ya!” and air-karate-kicking us. We didn’t speak any English, but the message was pretty clear. The school didn’t know what to do with us, so they put us in with the slow kids because in their minds not knowing English was the same as being stupid. When I came home with a sticker on my forehead, my sister crying with humiliation, my parents marched us down to the superintendent’s office, shouted at him in half-Korean/half-English, and when the superintendent was like, Learn English faster, my parents enrolled us at St. Mary’s.
The nuns didn’t go in for bullying unless they were the ones doing it, so nobody made fun of us to our faces. Besides, everyone started going crazy over my sister when she began to win all the spelling bees. There hadn’t been a champion at the school for at least two decades.
Only one boy asked me every day for a month, “Where are you from?” until finally I said, “Where are you from?”
“Here,” he said.
So, I told him. Because damn, he must really have wanted to know.
I told Ruth these stories so she’d be prepared. For the bullies, the too-curious, the couldn’t-mind-their-own-beeswax kids who had to know everything.
First: ignore them.
If that doesn’t work:
Second: repeat back what they’re saying to you.
If that doesn’t work:
Third: just tell them what the Bread of Life is. Bore them until they go away. Or make up crazy shit. Scary shit. Whatever it takes to get them to go away.
I remembered Ruth’s birthday when I saw my mother standing in front of the calendar. She said, “You know, the Olympics are going to be in Korea this year.” But I was mad at her, so I said, “If Korea is so great, why did we leave?” She gave me the old spiel about opportunities, blah, blah, blah, the same old lies, but I tuned her out and went to see if we had any cake mix.
It was a year past the expiration date, but my parents had lived through a war and had taught me that little things like expiration dates meant nothing. You had to use your common sense when it came to judging whether food was bad or not. Funny smells, fuzzy green growth, those were real signs, not some stamped date. The cake was so easy to make: some water, some oil, a couple of eggs, beating the whole mixture frantically for fifteen minutes. Then into the oven, which made the whole house smell good and inviting. My sister came out of her room with a book in her hand and said, “What smells so good?” And I said, “Ruth’s birthday cake that she’s not allowed to have.”
“Right,” she said. “They’re not allowed anything fun. Can I eat it?”
“Didn’t you hear me? I said it’s for Ruth!” I shouted at her. She shrugged, used to me yelling at her, and went back into her room where she was always reading or studying so that she could take advantage of opportunities, blah, blah, blah.
I admit it. I forgot about the cake because I was watching videos on MTV, trying to figure out how the stories matched the songs. So, it was a little burnt on the bottom. But there’s a reason for that saying: beggars can’t be choosers.
I didn’t have any frosting, so I spread strawberry jam on top. Then I went next door to see if Ruth could come over.
Ruth’s mother opened the door in a bath towel. “Ruth’s not at home,” she said.
But Ruth was always at home. “Where did she go?” I asked.
“Her father took her to a meeting at our church,” her mother said, adding, “if you really need to know.”
Before I could think not to say it, I said, “Oh, for her birthday?”
Ruth’s mother stared at me. I thought she might close the door on my face. Instead, she walked away and said, “Come inside.”
She walked toward the kitchen in the back of the house and dropped her towel on a chair. Then she reached for a pack of Virginia Slims on the counter by the sink and shook one out.
I could not stop staring at her even though I knew it was rude.
She shrugged. “When no one’s home, I walk around naked.”
“Oh,” I said.
“How rude of me,” she said. She held the pack of cigarettes out to me. “Want one? They’re menthol.”
I was still speechless.
“I know your father smokes. I thought maybe you people started young.”
I shook my head. “I’m never going to smoke,” I said, thinking about how much I hated the way my father smelled. But about that, as about so many other things, I was wrong.
She stretched her arms to the ceiling, and I could see the outline of her ribs. She was tall and thin with small upright breasts and a thick brown bush. “My parents used to be hippies,” she said. “I don’t think I even owned a pair of shoes until I had to go to school. I used to run around naked all the time.” She turned and went out the sliding glass doors to the backyard, where she lit her cigarette. She sat down on the steps of the deck and motioned me to sit next to her. “Good god!” she said. “You never think of the effort it takes to sit with your legs closed tight.” She sighed as she let her legs swing wide.
“It’s not easy being the weird one, is it?” she said, blowing out a long stream of smoke. “You get somewhere, and they all look different from you or are dressed differently from you and know all different kinds of things, and you have to watch everyone carefully so you can figure out what the right things to say and do are.”
“That’s what attracted me to the Bread of Life in the first place,” she said. “They tell you exactly how to dress and how to act and what to think and what to like and not like. If you do all that, then you belong. And once you’re a part of them, you’re a part of them forever.” Ruth’s mom told me about a Bread of Lifer who robbed a store and how they had all lied and said he was with them at a meeting when the robbery occurred. “That got me thinking,” she said. “But when they collected money to help Brother Tom, who’s a pedophile, get out of town, they started to lose me. Now, now I don’t know what I am.” She looked down at her body, pinched her belly, slapped her thigh, and sighed. “I used to just want to be normal,” she said. “I used to want Ruth to be normal.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Normal is good.”
“No,” Ruth’s mom said. “Normal is idiotic.” She gave me a long, appraising look. “Lucky you, in this town, you’ll never be normal.”
Ruth came over the next day, saying her mother had told her to. Unfortunately, my family had already eaten half her cake. But when I brought out a big piece with a candle light fluttering on top, her eyes filled with tears again.
My sister came out when I started singing Happy Birthday and joined me. I have to admit, we sounded pretty good together. We clapped and hooted when Ruth blew out the candle.
“I’m three years old, guys!” she said, laughing. “I’m only three years old!”
“You’ll only be four and a half when you marry!” I said.
My sister gave me a look. “You’ll only be four and half when you go to college,” she said.
“You’ll be a mother before you’re ten! A grandmother in your teens!”
We laughed and laughed at how ridiculous and wonderful it was that she would die before she turned twenty-five, while she ate big spoonfuls of cake with strawberry jam. “I’m probably never going to grow up, guys!”
“Nope,” we said. “You’re right. You’re special,” we told her.