My family was perfect. We ate out together almost every week, and my sister and I got whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. We jet-skied every summer and snowboarded on Mammoth Mountain every year without fail. I was covered head to toe in brand-new glittery Juicy Couture tracksuits, perhaps with a single missing button or mismatched leg lengths, but I didn’t mind. My favorite tracksuit was the pair neither my sister nor my mom had, so I held it as my most prized possession. Along with my starfish voice-automated diary of course. I had everything that all my classmates only dared to dream of. I was spoiled.
My parents were gone most of the day, but I was happy spending time with my grandma and my sister. I didn’t know much about my parents’ work. All I knew was that my mom was an owner of a video store, and my dad a fashion designer. My mom was busy selling, organizing, and naming thousands of CDs and videotapes seven days a week. Even if it stole her time from me, I loved our rundown video shop. It was called Minky’s. Our own dinky little castle. My dad, however, was a different story. My grandma told that he went to work, but I didn’t really know what that meant because he would be sleeping when I left for school, and back from work when I was sleeping. For years, I only stole glimpses of the back of his sleeping head while rushing to school. I wondered if he did the same to me when he came back from work.
Sometimes, he brought home buckets full of these bedazzled tracksuits home, dramatically flinging the trunk open just for my sister and me to stare at the glimmering clothes in absolute awe. We would dig through them for half an hour, trying to salvage what we can before either one of us takes the one with more sequins. It was our personal Black Friday. And my dad and my mom would silently recede into the kitchen––my mom holding a mysterious check, and my dad fuming. But I didn’t notice, for I was too busy trying to rip a velvet headband from my sister’s unrelenting grip.
I never asked about my dad because, in my mind, I already knew. When my dad went to work every morning and came back at midnight, I imagined him to be working on a ruby red velvet chair, doing nothing but drawing his heart out. He would be ordering his subordinates around, eating only the classiest of foods: buttered lobster tail, lamb salad, scallop sashimi, the expensive oysters that my mom loved. Besides, I was always at home, school, or in the basement of my mom’s video shop watching hours of cartoons whilst snacking on ice cream. I didn’t have the time nor the desire to know about him and his work. My definition of him was enough.
On Saturday nights, neighbors would stop by the cluttered counter to gossip with my mom. Saturday nights were always the busiest. My mom said that it was because the poor people needed to begin the week with something to do, or at least watch. Although the shop was in a deserted town somewhere near Anaheim, there was never a shortage of strange visitors. Grandmas with worn, freckled hands and too-black hair shrieked about having to go to the market every other day to feed their unmarried sons. Their mouths puckered with complaints, but faces boasting with sly glances and smirks. Of course, I never told this to my mom. She would think of it as rude.
“You need to respect your elders! Whether they’re right or wrong, you respect them,” she always said.
But it didn’t matter what I thought of them because I was always hiding behind in the dark room, watching the blue buzz of some cartoon. The best of them never knew of my existence. Sometimes, curious strangers would look into my little fortress and meet my screen-lit eyes. Scared, ashamed, sorry, or a combination of all three, they mumbled goodbye and walked away. After a lost customer, my mom always looked back at me: smiling her sad smile with her dark eyes and falling hair.
Due to the countless hours of waiting at the shop, I had memorized all the contents of the most popular cartoons, beginning to end. With this great feat came admiration from all my classmates, but the kindergarten teacher would look at me for a while and pat my back––arched to the sky with pride.
I liked to tell my classmates that my mom was a housewife. Why I lied, I don’t know, but I guess I was ashamed of my mom’s running makeup and small white hands in a shop where only strange neighbors visited. My mom was too pretty––too delicate––to work in a shop like Minky’s; it was like watching a diamond being used as drawing chalk. So when the girls in my class asked why my grandma always picked me up, I would lie that my mom was sick. After a while, they stopped asking.
Every day in the morning, my teacher offered to do my hair. Sometimes, we would even share a bowl of milkless Cheerios. I said yes because there was never anyone else around that early in the morning, and I liked having my hair brushed. Besides, all the other girls in my class came in with tight braids and pink bows in their permed hair.
My family never celebrated Christmas, for some unknown reason. Maybe it was because we were Korean. But the festive songs and cold weather present during the season were only taunts to remind me of all the fun I was missing out on. However, I had grown not to mind too much about it. But that year, I was determined to be a proud owner of a Christmas tree and had barely convinced my parents to rent one a few weeks before Christmas. Friday night, the night of Christmas, my sister and I climbed up on chairs and drowned, our tree in sparkling ornaments and tinsel that our mom had bought on sale in the 99 cents store. She pretended to call our efforts and excitement a waste of time, but my sister and I knew she was just as excited. It was her first Christmas tree in years too. A short hour later, the tree could no longer be called a tree. There was no green left to cover. Tonight would have been our first Christmas celebration, but of course, our dad was missing. Then, the phone rang. After a few moments of being unable to keep still while staring at my mom, she finally spoke:
“Your dad has something for you downstairs. Oh, and get your sister.”
I don’t think I’ve ever run that fast before in my eight years of living.
I yelled across the hallway, asking for my pen that I had lost. Our hallway walls were littered with baby pictures of me and my sister: both perched on a velvet couch like sad china dolls on shelves. Both with identical lace hats, poofy navy dresses, and glaring eyes.
“I don’t know where your pen is,” my mom mumbled at the other end of the hallway. “Follow your dad.” Without waiting for my response, she walked towards a bag bursting with my toys. We were doing a spring cleaning session; our jam-packed balcony the first to go.
“But I don’t want to go.”
“He’s going to work,” she yelled behind her shoulder as she picked up the bag.
Without missing a beat, I ran to the door.
After strapping in all the boxes, my dad sat in silence for a moment in the relentless summer sun. With my feet sweating in my Ugg boots and my True Religion overalls clinging to my legs, I was sweating puddles by the time he was done.
“I want ice cream.”
My dad was a man of few words. He was stocky and strong, showing neither joy nor sadness. He never cried. He never said no. Because of this, I grew up interpreting him through my imagination. In my head, he was Superman.
The car ride to his factory was a slow one.
Seven: The World
We drove through the crowded streets of L.A as I sat watching the world through the window of our Audi––spying on the people on the sidewalks on either side of me. My right cheek was numb from leaning on the cold glass of the window for so long. One cheeky lady was wearing a purple vest and forcing ripe mangoes into busy hands. I watched her as she scrambled back and forth on the streets, looking as if she were dancing in the silence of our car. Her purple vest was slowly turning navy in her sweat.
The buzz and glamour of L.A faded as my dad drove on and on. Buildings that dared to poke at the clouds were reduced to squat grey factories that lined the edges of the freeway. They stretched out and changed colors as the car flew by. There were a few other cars around and funny-looking abandoned shops. At last, we stopped in front of a dingy factory––cracking and about ready to fall apart. We were at his workplace.
There was no front door. Shaking the key around the half-broken doorknob, my dad led me in. The fantasy of cotton-candy couches disappeared as a roach ran over my foot. There were warning signs everywhere I turned: warnings of toxic materials related to cancer and warnings of chemical burns and dangerous machines. The biggest, as well as the most obnoxious, red sign seemed to laugh at me as soon as I walked in. It warned that there was no guarantee of safety. That all injuries were not to be taken into the responsibility of the company. I thought of the many times my dad came home with a big bandage on his arm. He told us that it was from fighting monsters to protect our house. To think that I laughed along.
“Dad, where’s your desk?” The factory was an open space about the size of two football fields. Rusting buckets heavy with dark ink were gaping holes in the earth. Scared but too curious to resist looking into one, I peeked inside the open mouth. A fly was floating atop the ink, along with my disbelieving face.
“Snapple?” To my far left, my dad leaned back on a torn swivel chair. Looking at his computer, he searched his pockets and pulled out two quarters. He then reached over a dented metal desk and pushed them into the slot of an old vending machine. Its button pad no longer had letters and numbers on them, but my dad pushed them with familiarity. I took the Snapple and turned my back with a burning face to check the expiration date. It had expired three months ago. I drank it with a frozen smile while my dad rummaged through a cabinet. At least it was cold.
I had never realized what a small man my dad was. I guess I never took a good look at him. At eleven years old, the top of my head reached his eyebrows. By next year, I would be taller than him. Why, I saw him as a tall, young man with shining shoes and a blinding smile, I don’t know. Rather, he was quite the opposite. The bottoms of his pants were frayed and beginning to rip. His legs were short, but strong, due to many years of labor, as were his hands. Once in awhile, after he has had a few too many drinks, he would turn to me with a goofy smile and show me his hands. Running my fingers over his smooth, callused hands, he always told me the same story. The story of how the police could never catch him because he has no fingerprint. Then I always asked him the same question. “How come you have no fingerprint?” He would then answer “From buying you pretty clothes.”
White scars colored his dark legs. I already knew the story behind the one running down from his thigh to the bottom of his knee. He liked to tell me and my sister of when he fell off his motorcycle on the freeway and had almost lost a leg. We nodded along with rounded eyes and sweaty palms every time; uncaring that we had heard it a hundred times over. We only knew the story was nearing its end once he began whispering that he had seven nails holding his knee together. My sister and I always screamed in feigned disgust and ran to our rooms laughing. “Nothing will kill me! Not the speed, not the world,” he would scream after our flying hair.
We took a lift to the second floor of the factory. Teeth seemed to have replaced its doors, and the red buttons were staring eyes. The second floor was worse than the first. Both floors were cold and dirty, but where the first floor forgave the absence of people with the presence of machinery, the second floor emphasized the missing workers. It was eerie. Rolls of fabric and prints were strewn across the cracking floor, and the lights overhead were gray. However, the worst thing about the second floor was its vastness. Rows and rows of sewing machines on top of wooden tables stretched to the far back of the area. Clothing wires hung above every table, and the wooden chairs were worn to a smooth white. My dad led me into a small room with a naked lightbulb that flickered on and off. It smelled of the wet cement of the aftermath of a water festival. Inside were our snowboards, my old desk, boxes of wires and plastic bags––labeled “Samples”––of Juicy Couture tracksuits. My dad grabbed a few wires and led me back to our car. The door swung close with a loud bang; laughing at my ignorance. I was silent the entire trip back, the rustling echo of the plastic bags of sparkling tracksuits just like my own sitting in the wet room making me mute. The sky was a pretty Californian orange.
Now, my mom had retreated to her room to sleep after setting my dad’s dinner, but I was not willing to give up on my eleventh birthday. The day had passed, but I waited. The cake was already back in the refrigerator, and King of the Hill was still playing in the background. Finally, the door clicked open, and my dad carefully stepped in. His face was dark and his lips were black; he smelled of cigarettes and sweat. Smiling, he handed me a bag. But I was close to tears. Snatching the bag, I stomped into my own room but stopped at the door to look through the hallway one last time. Only to see my dad’s slumped figure in the slight backlight of the living room. He dragged himself to our dining table and turned on the T.V for company while he ate. I fell asleep on my wet pillow–– listening to a soft conversation between two mysterious men.