t was a good hiding spot. Too good. Mrs. Lee stood in her closet with her hands on her hips, squeezing her eyes shut, telling herself to “think, think.” She could almost see it, see herself folding tissue paper around her wedding rings, pushing them down into a blue velvet pouch that also held her wedding pearls and a white jade ring passed down from her mother. Yes, she could almost even feel herself pulling the yellow drawstring tightly closed and putting it all . . . where?
In a box? Under something? In something? Scornfully, she remembered congratulating herself for picking such a good hiding spot because no one would think to look there. She felt like a character in a folktale, an old fool, tripped up by her own cleverness.
It was only three months ago that she had hidden her jewelry, in the days before she and Mr. Lee went on a cruise to Alaska. They weren’t the vacationing type, but one day while Mr. Lee was reading the Chosun Ilbo online, he saw an ad for a cruise line offering incredible deals. “It’ll feel like we’re losing money if we don’t go,” he said. The only catch was that the cruise left in just a few days from Seattle. No problem. Isn’t this why they’d retired from their dry-cleaning business the year before? They certainly didn’t have to worry about anyone missing them. Not a single person would be affected if they left at a moment’s notice. So they flew from Atlanta to San Francisco to Seattle and spent a week in a tiny, closet-sized room with no windows, disembarking in the mornings to take other, smaller boats out to where they took pictures of melting glaciers and smelly, wild-looking sled dogs. Mr. Lee couldn’t sleep because of the nonstop humming of the ship which Mrs. Lee hardly noticed. While he spent hours lying in their tiny room watching Korean dramas and reading newspapers on his laptop, Mrs. Lee sat out on the top deck watching people brave the chilly air to swim in the pools or sit in the foamy waters of the hot tub, which Mr. Lee called “people soup.” The only good parts were the entertainment and the profligate amount of food on the ship, which Mrs. Lee found unnerving though it did not stop her nor Mr. Lee from stuffing themselves at all hours of the day and night.
When they returned home, Mrs. Lee didn’t look for her rings right away. But on the evening they were invited to a dol by the Chois, whose plump grandson was turning one, Mrs. Lee discovered she couldn’t remember where she’d hidden her rings. At first she didn’t worry. Her memory had just turned shy, refusing to reveal what she needed to know when she was too focused on it. This had happened to her her whole life. Thinking too much about one thing made it flee instead of getting it nailed down. She figured the pouch would turn up eventually when she was looking for something else.
But now there was an urgency. She needed to find her rings because Ken had showed up the night before, with a girl, no less. Ken, the son she hadn’t seen for two years.
Mrs. Lee moved quietly through the house because Ken and the girl were still sleeping. Mr. Lee was at the YMCA getting in his laps before the pool became crowded. Their new house was a lot smaller than their last; they had downsized a year back after taking a good long look at their finances. But the two of them were fine in a small bungalow with just the two bedrooms, the larger one for sleeping, the smaller one as Mrs. Lee’s craft room, where Ken and his girl were now sleeping. She kept a bookcase of yarn and a sewing machine on a desk in there, a comfortable chair where she knit hats and blankets, sewed baby-sized quilts for her church to donate. But there was also Ken’s old futon, which Mrs. Lee normally kept folded up like a couch and sometimes took a nap on, though not too often because naps felt like dying in a way that sleeping at night did not. As she passed she held her breath as she listened at the door and heard nothing, conscious of the cheap plywood doors in her new house. She continued into the kitchen and turned on the electric kettle. Ken looked like he had gained weight, which was a good thing because he had looked so thin and weak the last time when they drove him down to Florida to the treatment center. Mr. Lee was so disappointed in Ken he avoided looking him in the face, but Mrs. Lee couldn’t stop staring at him, looking for the young man who used to smile so readily it worried her. She thought it made him vulnerable to being taken advantage of and, in the end, hadn’t she been right about that?
Looking out the window above the sink, she saw her neighbor Alice walking slowly back and forth, pushing her mower. The woman was at least seventy-five but it was only a slight exaggeration to say that she was stronger than men half her age. Mrs. Lee thought she would probably die the way a man would, a sudden heart attack, an old tree falling down. That made her think of wood and then bookcases and now she had a vague memory of being on her knees, putting her head down to look into some dark space . . . under the bookshelf in the living room? Quickly, she walked from the kitchen to the small living room where their old furniture took up too much space. The bookshelf she was thinking of was wedged next to the fireplace and filled with her husband’s books on the Korean War.
Ignoring the stiffness she felt in her limbs, she bent down and put her ear to the hard wood floor but saw nothing in the darkness. Why didn’t she bring a flashlight? She extended an arm, sweeping her hand underneath, feeling sticky dust and nothing else. When she pulled her arm out, she saw the body of a large daddy longlegs sticking to the back of her hand and she carried it to the sink, sent it rushing down the pipes. At least you died of old age, she thought. That was a gift on its own. She washed her hands thoroughly.
She returned to making her instant coffee, revising her memory of a few minutes earlier. The image of it being under a bookshelf was still strong, the sensation of bending down still sharp (and not just because she’d just done it), the feeling of aha! nobody will ever look here! clear as a bell.
If not that bookshelf, another one? The one in her bedroom with the Korean novels her sister sent from Korea which she never read? The one in her craft room with her yarn and knitting books? Mrs. Lee’s heart started thumping and she put a hand over it as if to contain it, closing her eyes and taking big deep breaths just like the woman teaching yoga at the YMCA had shown her. “Picture your lungs as a balloon,” the woman had said. “Now fill the balloon slowly and deeply.” Then holding her thumb and forefinger together, she had pinched the end of her pretend balloon and said, “Now let the air out slowly, slowly, slowly, until the balloon is empty. Do it again. Keep doing it.”
Mrs. Lee tried to concentrate on imagining that her lungs were two pink balloons but she could not get the image of the blue velvet pouch out of her mind. It was a royal blue, not easily seen against the dark brown wood of the floor if anyone happened to look underneath. Most people wouldn’t. But drug addicts were not most people. Drug addicts were intuitive at ferreting out things of value. The last time they saw Ken was after they’d brought him home from the rehab center. Three days later he left with three thousand dollars they’d hidden in a Florsheim shoebox under stacks of old letters from her family in Korea, when they still wrote letters to each other instead of posting pictures on Facebook.
Before that happened it would never have occurred to the Lees to hide their money from Ken. He had always been such a responsible child. They could hardly believe it even when it did happen. Mr. Lee said he didn’t want to talk about Ken anymore. Mrs. Lee finally understood that their son was caught in a sickness, the worst kind, that pushed you to feed off the people you loved like leeches. Mr. Lee repeated to Mrs. Lee that they had no more son, and adjusted himself accordingly, erasing Ken from his mind. Having a son who stole from them was worse than being childless.
It was a tragedy. That’s what all the articles Mrs. Lee read on the internet and in the women’s magazines told her. It was heartening to know that she wasn’t the only mother suffering from this drug epidemic, but the stories scared her terribly. Such sad lives that ruined so many others. To be caught in a hunger like that. It almost seemed death was preferable.
Mrs. Lee decided to wake Ken and his girlfriend by making a loud breakfast. She pulled out her beaten-up pans and set them heavily on the stove. She padded back and forth from the pantry, which was in the cramped laundry room next to the kitchen, and began making pancakes and bacon. She believed this was what all Americans wanted to eat for breakfast. Korean people made no distinctions between their meals like Americans did. It was perfectly normal to eat whatever you ate for dinner the night before as breakfast the next morning. But she didn’t see Ken as Korean anymore. He was American now. An American addict.
“Morning,” Ken said, coming alone out of the room, closing the door softly behind him. Now Mrs. Lee had to admit he looked older, softer, like butter left out on the counter. Still, she was glad that he’d gained some weight back. But he was a man now, a stranger to them.
“Good morning,” Mrs. Lee said, more cheerfully than she felt. She was uncertain around him, moving around too much, waving him to a chair, setting a plate of pancakes and bacon before him, spilling orange juice as she poured it.
“Careful, careful,” he said. He looked at the plate before him, appreciating it, and smiled at his mother. “It looks good,” he said. “Thank you.”
“I make more. I have lots of batter.”
Ken knew she was feeling uncertain about him by the fact that she was speaking in English. He nodded. “Wait until Celeste wakes up. She’ll be hungry too.”
“Nice girl?” she asked. She set a cup of instant coffee in front of Ken. Sat down with her half-drunk cup.
Mrs. Lee thought back to when they’d picked Ken up at the expensive rehabilitation facility they’d paid for. To her eyes, he hadn’t looked like an addict. As he sat in the front seat next to his father, both of them silent, she thought he looked more like a grad student in the freshly ironed button-down shirt she had brought him. Much like her husband had looked when he was at Yonsei University all those long years ago.
Ken smiled looking down at the tan coffee, heavily sugared and creamered. “Very nice,” he said. “And smart. She used to go to Emory.”
“She’s back in school, but not at Emory. She’s studying to be a nurse now.”
“That’s good,” Mrs. Lee said. But the truth was she wished Ken had shown up alone.
“What about you? We never hear from you.” She had switched to Korean.
Ken grimaced. “I’m sorry about that,” he answered in English. He cut up his pancakes without eating.
“We don’t even know where you live.”
“I live in Austin,” he said. “With Celeste. I’m okay now. I’m a manager at a movie theater.”
Mrs. Lee nodded without saying anything. She pictured Ken scooping popcorn into buckets, smiling and saying thank you to customers. He had never wanted to work in the dry cleaners after school. He’d been too shy to wait on customers. She used to want him to be a doctor or businessman, but her expectations for him were low now. If he could support himself working at a movie theater, why not?
“It’s a small theater,” Ken said, shrugging, “but I like it. It’s tough finding a job with a record, I’m lucky to have found this. I like it.”
“You watch movies,” Mrs. Lee said.
“Yeah, I do.”
“That’s good,” Mrs. Lee said.
They sat in an awkward silence, not knowing anymore how to talk to each other. Twenty times Mrs. Lee was about to ask if Ken needed money but didn’t.
“Where’s Dad?” Ken asked.
“At the YMCA. He goes swimming there.”
“Really?” Ken said with wonder. “I didn’t even know he could swim.”
“Yah, lots of things you don’t know about us.” It came out sounding more accusatory than Mrs. Lee intended. She’d meant to say that they didn’t know enough about each other. The truth was she felt badly about the way her husband had ignored Ken when he arrived the night before. She would have preferred for him to get angry and lash out at Ken, but he wasn’t that kind of man. Not anymore. Long days and nights working at the dry cleaners, dealing with customers who were angry or dismissive, had eaten away at him, whittled him down to someone who only wanted life to be agreeable. The only things he cared about now were reading historical books, watching war documentaries and films, going swimming every day at the Y, and hanging out with a few old war buddies Sunday mornings at the Dunkin’ Donuts. He had stopped going to church over the past year, saying he didn’t want to waste his life with stuff like that anymore. “What kind of stuff?” Mrs. Lee had asked. “With wanting. Trying. Feeling badly about things I can’t change.” Mrs. Lee had to think hard to remember the man she married. Was this the man whose face used to turn dark red when he drank, who once beat Ken when he came home high and laughing at them, kicking him as he lay curled up on the living room rug until Ken threw up?
At the same time, Mrs. Lee and Ken heard a door open and close, then soft padding on the carpeted hallway. The girl appeared in the doorway to the kitchen wearing an oversized men’s T-shirt as a nightgown, pulling her long, reddish hair into a ponytail. “Good morning, Mrs. Lee,” she said.
Mrs. Lee’s heart sank looking at this girl. She had no experience with young white girls, couldn’t guess at what they thought or cared about. At least this one was going to be a nurse, someone who wanted to heal and not hurt. But wouldn’t she be around a lot of drugs?
Ken’s face lit up when he saw the girl. It filled Mrs. Lee with dread.
“Morning, beautiful,” Ken said. “Come meet my mom.”
All Mrs. Lee could think about was checking under the bookcase in her craft room. She hurriedly set a plate piled high with pancakes and bacon in front of the girl (“Whoa,” said the girl), and then excused herself to go to the bathroom.
She walked into the hallway, waited until she could hear their voices in conversation, and then opened the door to the craft room as quietly as possible. The bed was still unmade, a suitcase opened in one corner of the room, spilling clothes and what looked like a pile of women’s lacy underwear. How long did they plan on staying? Mrs. Lee smelled the scent of unfamiliar shampoo and something else. Were they smoking in the room?
She didn’t have time to consider that. Instead she knelt down before the bookcase and ran a hand underneath it, feeling empty space. She leaned her head down for a closer look. She saw a dark shape far in the corner.
“Ma?” Ken asked at the door. “What are you doing?”
“Me?” Mrs. Lee sat up, trying to pretend everything was normal. “I . . . I dropped a needle here yesterday . . . before you come here. I didn’t want you or the girl to step on it.”
“We’ll be careful,” Ken said. “I’ll keep an eye out for it.” He leaned against the door frame, and said, “I was thinking about taking Celeste out for a drive. Show her the old house, where I went to school and all that.”
“Great idea!” Mrs. Lee said, overly enthusiastic. “Then you come back here?”
“Sure,” Ken said. “I’ll bring back some dinner. What do you feel like?”
“Anything,” Mrs. Lee said.
“Your father loves Chinese.”
“Chinese it is then,” Ken said, nodding.
Mrs. Lee got up from the floor, dusted off her knees, feeling foolish.
“We’ll keep an eye out for that needle,” Ken said.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Mrs. Lee said. “Not important. Watch where you’re stepping.”
Ken moved aside to let his mother pass. In the hallway, he touched her shoulder gently. “Ma,” Ken said, “just a minute.” He shook his head, and his face turned red. “I just want to say how sorry I am. I . . . haven’t been a good son. But I want you to know that things are different now.” He opened and closed his mouth as if he wanted to say more but didn’t.
Trembling, Mrs. Lee patted Ken’s arm. “It’s okay, Ken. You were sick. Me and Daddy know that. We love you. We glad you okay. All we want is for you to be happy. Okay? You’re our son.”
They both heard a stifled cough. Celeste was standing at the end of the hall, grinning at them. “That’s beautiful,” she said. “I want you to know, Mrs. Lee, what a good man Ken is. I’m so lucky to have met him. And I want you to know that I’ll take good care of him, just like you did.” Much taller than Mrs. Lee, she came over and folded herself over Mrs. Lee in a hug that wedged Mrs. Lee’s face into her armpit.
Mrs. Lee submitted to the hug and patted the girl’s back. The girl really didn’t seem so bad and Mrs. Lee was glad that Ken wasn’t alone. At least he spent every day with someone he loved. It was a lot more than most people had. But as she turned to go into her bedroom, she heard the girl whisper, “Did you tell her yet?” and all her misgivings about Ken and the girl came rushing back.
When the surprise of Ken and the girl showing up at their door had been absorbed, and after Mrs. Lee had turned the futon into a bed for them and got them settled, she found Mr. Lee already in bed with the lights out.
“Are you sleeping?” she asked.
Mrs. Lee undressed in the dark.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “But Ken won’t steal from us. He’s our son.”
“He was our son the last time he stole from us.”
“But he seems different now.”
“People don’t change.”
Didn’t they? Mrs. Lee remembered how her husband used to spin her around to Frank Sinatra and how he used to laugh at The Three Stooges.
“Maybe we should never have moved to America.”
Mr. Lee gave a big sigh. “I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I can’t give Ken another chance.”
“Must be nice,” she said.
As soon as Ken and his girl left the house, Mrs. Lee went into the craft room and retrieved the blue pouch from the darkness under the bookcase. She smudged the dust off the velvet and shook out the contents. The pearls slid out in a lump, but she had to pull on the tissue paper to get it out of the pouch. She unwrapped her rings and weighed them in her palm but didn’t put them on. She shook the blue pouch; nothing else came out. The white jade ring wasn’t there. Mrs. Lee wondered if she had even put it in there but knew with certainty that she had. Did Ken take it or did the girl? Mrs. Lee’s heart felt like it was being smothered from the inside. Her knees hurt from the wood floor so she got up slowly. She felt ancient, as exhausted as if she had worked a fourteen-hour day like she used to. What had been the purpose of such work? Such a life? She and her husband meant it all for their son. Maybe Mr. Lee was right. He was a rotten apple and proximity to him would infect them with his rottenness too. Maybe he wasn’t the one who needed to change, she was. On the other hand, who cared about a ring compared to a child? So what if he stole from her? If only he knew that she would give him everything if he asked.
With some difficulty, Mrs. Lee wedged her wedding ring on. The skin around it bulged unpleasantly and reminded her why she had stopped wearing it in the first place. It was only a replacement ring anyway, even if it was far more valuable than the original. The first one had been sold, along with most of their other valuables, to fund their move to America. It had taken fifteen years of working long days, of buying the laundromat first and then the dry cleaners, to save up for another ring. Mrs. Lee had scoffed every time her husband mentioned it over the years, saying she didn’t need a fancy ring, what long-married person wanted to advertise that they were married anyway? But every so often when they were at the mall, Mr. Lee pulled his wife into a Zales asking to see this one and that one, did she prefer emerald cut or princess?, and she understood that the ring was more about the man than the woman. That it was just another way of asserting his manhood.
She stood in front of the window and let the sunlight fall on the almost-full–carat diamond, turning her hand this way and that to throw rainbow glimmers on the walls. She wondered if Ken was thinking of marrying Celeste, what it would feel like to have a white American daughter, what their half-Korean kids would look like, and then the next generation if they also married non-Koreans, until soon nobody looked Korean at all. It made her sad and then angry at herself. What did it really matter? Human beings were human beings. That’s all that was important.
Mr. Lee came home for his usual lunch of soup, rice, and whatever banchan Mrs. Lee found in the refrigerator. Ever since Mr. Lee retired, he kept to a strict schedule. Every weekday, he swam at the Y then crossed the street to Starbucks where he sat by the window with a newspaper and a small black coffee.
He grunted when Mrs. Lee told him that Ken and his girlfriend had gone sightseeing around town. “What’s there to see here?” gesturing with his soup spoon to take in the whole of the Atlanta suburb they lived in.
“He wants to show her where he grew up,” Mrs. Lee said. “Young people are like that when they’re in love. They want to know everything about each other.”
Mr. Lee grunted again, spilling soup as he ate quickly, a reflex left over from growing up during wartime.
“Slow down,” Mrs. Lee said, pouring him a glass of barley water. She was on a diet, eating only a small breakfast midmorning, toast or an egg, and then nothing until dinner. She hated the thickening of her waist, the way it made her coming mortality more real.
“He’s getting old to be falling in love. He’s almost forty!”
“He’s thirty-five. How would you like it if I added five years to your age?”
“You’re always defending him. That’s why he’s still not an adult.”
“You’re the one who wanted to have him!”
His spoon froze midair. “So, you think it’s my fault.”
The thing she’d been trying so hard not to say had slipped out. That’s the way it was. When you tried to push things away you gave them the strength to push back.
“It’s not your fault! It’s not anybody’s fault! Ken’s a good person!”
“Ha! Would a good person steal from his parents?”
“Who cares? It’s only money! You care more about money than people! What kind of human being are you?” Mrs. Lee felt an urgent need to move. “I’m going for a walk!” she said and headed for the door. She had just enough sense to exchange her house slippers for her sneakers and grab her hat before she hurried out.
The October day was bright and still very warm, though some of the trees had started to change color. She walked without a sense of wanting to go anywhere, turning in random directions whenever she got to a corner.
She remembered the panic she’d felt when she’d found out she was pregnant with Ken. They were new immigrants then who had just used all the money they had to cover the down payment on a barely functioning laundromat. But it wasn’t just that. Only when she was pregnant did she realize with certainty that she did not want to have children. She had always assumed the desire would kick in at some point, like the process of puberty or adult teeth coming in, like menopause. It was just part of the natural cycle of life. But none of it felt natural to her. Motherhood almost always felt like a chore, a job to her, one she tried to be a success at, partly because of the guilt she felt. What of this had Ken felt? Had he turned to drugs to fill a lack he felt in his life, a lack he couldn’t even name because he’d never known what he was missing?
He was a good boy all through school, never giving them any reason to be concerned. He had even received an almost full package to Stanford. She looked back at the way she and her husband used to congratulate themselves on a job well done, how they had insincerely waved away their church friends’ envy, and she saw two fools standing on quicksand thinking it was concrete. Was it the pressure of being in a school full of geniuses, surrounded by the ultra-privileged, or being in California after growing up in the South, or a genetic predisposition to addiction that got turned on like a light switch, or, or . . . ? They didn’t even know Ken’s addictions started in college until much later, when he could no longer hide it from them, when the calls had started to come late at night for small loans though they’d assumed he made a decent living as a programmer. But he said living in California was expensive, that he was unlucky with the expenses that kept popping up—rent increases, car repairs, expensive nights out with co-workers and superiors. Don’t they pay for that? Mr. Lee had asked, thinking of the way things were done in Korea. The company dinners, sure, Ken had said, but not for the drinks they had afterwards, when the important relationships were cemented, when future promotions were decided. And Mr. Lee had thought to himself, Ah, well, things aren’t so different after all.
Mrs. Lee found herself at a busy intersection. She had been so lost in thought, she hadn’t realized that she’d walked out of her neighborhood. That meant she’d walked a couple of miles already and now she felt tired and thirsty. She saw a small café across the street next to a nail parlor. She pressed the WALK button and waited, watching the faces of the drivers passing, most of them blank and unreadable, but one car passed with a young girl clearly singing loudly, her mouth wide open, though Mrs. Lee couldn’t hear her voice. She smiled, briefly wondering what it would have been like to have had a daughter. Would she have felt closer to her?
Ken was a good son but he had never shared much of himself with her or her husband. And then she remembered a moment when he was perhaps five that filled her with shame. Ken cried easily when he was young, or at least that’s the way it had seemed to her, but maybe he only did the normal amount of crying. After all, she really didn’t have anyone to compare him to. She couldn’t even remember why he was crying that time, maybe he had tripped and hurt his knee, no, it was his hand, she suddenly saw in her mind five-year-old Ken holding one hand protectively with the other. He was looking at her, his eyes big with tears, his mouth open with ragged cries, and she’d watched him impassively without going to him, without putting a look of sympathy, never mind empathy, on her face. Just watched him from a distance like he was a kid on TV, a kid she had no relation to, no responsibility for, while knowing that he was waiting for her to come to him, to hug and comfort him, and she had held back purposefully, until finally he’d had to close the space between them himself and threw himself into her arms. Even then she’d hesitated for the briefest of moments before folding him to her, smoothing back his hair, opening up his hand to look at the cut, to kiss and blow on it, before taking him inside to clean and bandage it. She’d thought he wouldn’t remember anything from that moment, but was that the beginning of his pulling away, into himself, asking less of her? That wasn’t the only moment like that, of course. There were many other times when she hesitated a moment too long, when she remained herself rather than Ken’s mother. It was wrong, she could see that now, but it was also something she couldn’t help.
When the WALK signal finally came on and she started moving, she felt a sudden urge to keep walking, past the coffee shop, past the strip mall where she got her nails done, past the gas station she and her husband had once considered buying, walking walking walking out of this life and into another. But she was tired and thirsty and pushed away such thinking, ridiculous and exciting as it was, and entered the coffee shop, bells jangling cheerily with the opening of the door.
Mrs. Lee was not an ambitious woman, that is, she had never felt herself called to do anything in particular, something that would count as leaving her stamp on the world. In fact, if pressed, she would say she wanted the opposite; once she left this world she wanted to leave nothing of herself behind. She had often chafed under the roles assigned to her—wife, mother—and life seemed to be no more than a series of tasks that took up time until one’s body failed. She remembered seeing her grandmother bed-bound after a lifetime of work that had twisted her body in ugly ways—hump-backed, gnarled like a tree that had always had to fight for sunlight.
But even more difficult than that had been how living with others made her feel pressed in, like being on an elevator with too many people. She was conscious of holding herself in, the presence of others a corset that kept her from breathing freely. Early afternoon at the dry cleaners had always been her favorite time of day. Mr. Lee, who had opened up at six in the morning, would go home to take a nap, Ken was safely at school, and customers were busy doing other things. She would sit slowly eating her lunch at the counter, watching the street through the window, people walking their dogs, getting in and out of their cars, always eating, drinking, talking on the phone, and she loved the separation she felt from the world then, letting herself get lost in her own thoughts, not even of anything important, just idle thoughts that made her feel alive and present, that made her feel just like the bird she saw making an arc at the top of the window pane. It was peace she felt then, not being anything for anybody, not even herself. That was freedom. That was what she supposed Ken was chasing through drugs and alcohol.
Ken and Celeste arrived home just after dark. Ken’s face was still flushed from the whiskey sours they’d had at the Elephant Room, the dive bar a couple of blocks away from his parents’ dry cleaners that he’d never been to before today. In the morning they’d gone to see Ken’s childhood home, a brick colonial with black shutters that looked exactly the way Ken remembered. The only difference was that there was a Ford pickup in the driveway with an American flag sticker on the back window. It was the same and yet he couldn’t fathom having grown up there, treading the wall-to-wall carpet from his bedroom to the kitchen. Even though it didn’t make sense, he blamed the ring in his front pocket, the jade ring he’d taken out of the pouch underneath the bookcase. That morning as he bent down for the jeans he’d thrown on the floor the night before, something yellow caught his eye. It was a bit of yellow string holding a pouch closed. He wasn’t surprised to open the pouch and see his mother’s rings. She had hidden things all his life; besides cash and jewelry, he’d found a collection of keys, a small box with his baby teeth, a notebook with Korean writing, little hotel-sized shampoos and soaps wrapped up in a silk handkerchief, and old black-and-white photos of a Korean man he’d never seen before. If he really thought about it, she did that with herself too, keeping parts of herself hidden from him and his father.
He had no intention of keeping the ring, or selling it. He didn’t know why he’d even put the ring in his pocket. A flash of resentment. It weighed on him all day and now he couldn’t wait to return it, to be rid of it. The anxiety it caused him made him want to escape himself. That was a dangerous feeling. He forced himself to sit still until the feeling passed. They sat outside his old house until Ken thought he saw someone look out the window. Afterward, he’d driven Celeste around his high school, the Friendly’s where he went after school with his friends, the cemetery and the golf course where kids drank on the weekends when he was in high school and probably still did, aware the whole time of the ring in his pocket giving off heat. After driving past his parents’ dry cleaners, he was grateful when Celeste suggested stopping for a drink.
Now he felt his mother taking in his reddened eyes with her clear ones.
“Where’s Chinese food?” Mrs. Lee asked, speaking in English as a polite gesture toward Celeste.
Ken smacked his forehead. “I forgot, Ma. I’ll go right now. What’s your favorite place?”
Mr. Lee came in from the living room where he’d been watching the evening news, his glasses perched low on his nose.
“Hi, Dad,” Ken said.
“No food?” Mr. Lee said.
“I told Ma I’d go get it now. What’s your favorite place?”
“It’s late, Ken,” Mr. Lee said. He turned to his wife and spoke in Korean, telling her to heat up some leftovers.
“No, no, Dad. I said I’d get it. Here.” He whipped out his phone and started going through Yelp. “There’s a place about a mile away that gets four stars. That’s good for a Chinese restaurant.”
When he said the name, Mrs. Lee shook her head and said, “That place is no good. No taste in their dishes. We like Wall of China.”
“Wall of China, Wall of China,” Ken said under his breath as he scrolled through the listings on his phone. “It only gets three stars.”
“What is this star business?” Ken’s father asked.
“It’s a rating system,” Celeste said. She’d taken off her shoes and was holding them in her hands. “Five is the best.”
“Only three stars?” Mrs. Lee said. “Food there is so good.”
“That settles it,” Ken said. He turned to Celeste. “Why don’t you stay here and take a shower and I’ll go out to get it.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. She leaned over and kissed Ken on the mouth. His parents looked away.
Mrs. Lee said, “I write down for you what we want. Your father love the Ma Po Tofu.”
Mr. Lee shrugged and wandered back to his chair in the living room.
Ken stood in the small entrance to the house with his shoes still on, waiting for his mother to return with a list. He felt like a teenager again, caught in a lie, and he felt an overwhelming urge to try to make everything right, try to make everyone feel good, especially his parents. And then he wanted to swallow, smoke, or shoot something inside him that would make all feelings go away. Anxiety was making his extremities tingle. He remembered his therapist telling him to picture something calming, whatever was soothing to him. The first thing that came to mind was an orange, a large, round, juicy-looking orange promising refreshment. He thought of it now, perfectly dimpled all over, glinting with a slight wet sheen.
When Mrs. Lee returned with her list, Ken said, “I’m sorry I forgot, Ma. You must be hungry.”
“No, no,” Mrs. Lee waved his apology away. “Don’t worry.” She wondered if drugs had ruined his brain, made him forgetful. Without thinking she said, “You’re a good son, a good boy.” She used to say this to him often when he brought home Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day cards from school, made with yarn and stickers and thick white glue. She threw them away when he wasn’t looking. Later he gave her cheap drugstore perfume for Christmas, and later, translations of popular American books in Korean. He was always thoughtful.
Ken looked guiltily at his mother’s veined hands, her ringless fingers. “I’d better go,” he said. “Dad must be starving.”
“I go with you,” his mother said suddenly, grabbing her jacket from the coat rack near the door, pushing her feet into her battered black shoes, the backs permanently broken down.
When Ken stood there and didn’t say anything, she said, “C’mon. What you waiting for? Let’s go.” She called loudly to her husband in the living room and he grunted in reply.
“Ma, it’s not necessary,” Ken said.
“I know,” she said. “I don’t care what necessary.”
“Tell me about Celeste,” Mrs. Lee said in the car. “You gonna marry her?”
“Yes,” Ken said without thinking.
“She pregnant?” his mother asked.
Ken stared at her. “How did you know?”
“Watch the road!” Mrs. Lee said. “Oh, boy, poor girl.”
Ken didn’t ask what she meant by that.
“You better grow up, Ken.”
“I know. I am.”
“You really quit drugs?”
“I’m glad you quit.” She directed him to the highway and told him which exit to get off at. “It was hard?”
“Nah, it was easy,” Ken looked over at her and smiled. She smiled back. What would be the point of telling her what he had gone through, getting fired from one job after another, selling off his things one at a time, living on friends’ couches until he was too embarrassed to face them again, leaving thank you notes on top of neatly folded sheets on the couch.
Mrs. Lee knew he was joking, knew he didn’t want to talk about it. “You think this time it work?”
“I think so,” Ken said. “But I have to make the decision again every day.”
Mrs. Lee nodded. “Make sense.” She thought of how she used to buy scratch tickets every day until she realized how much she was spending and how she was hiding it from her husband. It was hard to quit buying them, hard to quit the hope that her life could be changed all at once with a huge influx of money. Finally, she’d had to figure out a new route to the dry cleaners so that she wouldn’t drive by the Circle K anymore. Of course there were other Circle Ks but that one had been hers.
Mrs. Lee reminded Ken of the exit and told him which strip mall to turn into. They pulled into a space facing the restaurant and stared at the bright red neon of the lights spelling out the restaurant’s name. The first letter was unlit so the sign said all of China.
Ken turned off the car but neither got out.
“Ken, you take Halmani’s ring?” Mrs. Lee asked without looking at him.
He hesitated only for the briefest of moments. “Yes,” he said. “I wasn’t stealing it. I just put it in my pocket by accident. I wasn’t going to keep it,” he said, knowing how lame he sounded. He took it out of his pocket and put it in her open palm.
Mrs. Lee fingered the smooth roundness. She thought about how this was one more thing she could never tell her husband.
“This ring important to me.” She tried to push down the anger she felt; instead she began to shake.
“I know, Ma. I’m so sorry.” Ken looked down at his hands on the steering wheel. When she didn’t answer, he turned to look at her. “Ma, are you okay? Are you sick?”
She looked hard at Ken in the reddened light from the restaurant’s sign, but she could only see half of his face. He looked so open, so guilty. She felt a moment of despair, recognizing how alike they felt. She should be the one apologizing to him. She thought of how he’d hidden himself away from them, not wanting to burden them with his addictions, until he needed money for rehab. Despite how American he seemed, he was still Korean in that way. She felt for the first time how difficult it must have been to grow up in two cultures that often seemed so opposed to each other. She wanted to tell Ken that she wished she could do it all over again. Instead she said, “Yah, I’m okay. I’m okay, Ken. You take the ring. You keep. You going to be fine. You fine already. You going to be a wonderful father. We be here. You need anything, you let me and Daddy know.”
She took his right hand off the steering wheel, opened it, and placed the jade ring on his palm. “You take it, Ken. It belong to you now. Give to Celeste or somebody else. Don’t worry, someday I like her a lot.” She smiled at him until, just like when he was child, he smiled back. ■