Notes on a coworker

Her name is R_SE.

She’s tall — wonderfully so.

She has quirky interests. She once brought in fragrant oils that affect one’s energy level. She also takes caffeine pills.

Her voice is a swath of cool cloth, a minty mouthwash. The way she addresses customers is honest, not obsequious.

She calls me a rock, a smiling rock: she has a way with words. She says she learns a lot from me. She’s ready with compliments for everyone — I want her humility. Her favorite saints are Saints Thérèse of Lisieux and Mary of the Desert. Good choices.

She’s an eclectic collection of ideas, dreams, and wonderings. She brings herself down a lot.

She came from Dunkin and would return if they offered her a position. She likes the fast pace, though the quality of food there is no better than the one here in our cafe.

She asks coworkers tidy random questions along our shifts.

She’s cool.

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Dedication to Teacher Cecilia Hwang

She looks the same, greets me the same. Instead today, she’s wearing a bright red turtleneck instead of the loose blue shirt that showed the frailty of her body the last time I saw her. I remember her, stooping over some containers laid on the kitchen tiles, hoping to scoop some banchan into tupperware for us to take home, as I tried to push down unhappiness welling up for a woman who was and always has been so strong and so fearless in my mind.

We sit at the lunch table. She will make us all udon noodles in fish broth that she has prepared the day before. Very strong broth. Then she talks, and as it always becomes, she slowly settles into the role of lecturer and we fall into the forms of followers, listeners. Her previous students, all of us are, of X, Y, and almost-Z Generations. Now gathered at one table in the present.

“This lung cancer is a blessing from God,” she says, breaking into her usual smile. “This black spot I have on my face? I looked at it in the mirror yesterday and I exclaimed, ‘God, you have blessed me with a star!'” And indeed, the dark spot had arms radiating outward–considered bad luck in Korean lore, but star-shaped nonetheless, and a blessing to one determined to see the good in everything.

And here, definitely, was a woman who looks for the good in all, always accompanying her accounts of hardships and struggles with a laugh. In my ignorance, I had thought that laughing in tandem was the correct response. But today, I see that there is a resignation in her eyes, so soft and quiet that it pricks my eyes.

“I told God,” she continues, “that I loved Him so much. But then I saw that I was saying this in front of the mirror, and I realized I was telling the reflection in the mirror how much I loved her!” She was realizing the need to love herself, to take a break from the all-nighters taken in preparation for teaching her religious classes.

“Mannam.” That had been her mantra. She had recounted days when everyone was a neighbor to each other. People eating by dusty, rustic roads would call out to the passerby to share drinks and words.

But today, she stresses another word. “Relationships. That’s what this life is about,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to tell you that time I wanted to meet up.” It is as if she wants to imprint that word into my mind.

She smiles. “Relationships.” She doesn’t hold a grudge against me for not giving a call to finalize the meeting. She had planned it out–to be at a nearby college campus equipped with a small, yet beautiful church. We would get coffee at the nearby cafe and walk while the weather was turning into green shades.

The rays of the sun slant through the windows set on either side of the corner room that she has lived in for twenty years. They cross the plastic thrown over the table and the bowls that are now broth devoid of noodles.

“Happy Birthday to you!” She sings in her melodious voice, so sweet, as if it were coming miles and years over a phonograph. She sings for us, and I suppose for herself, on this day that is her birthday. She crosses her thumb and index finger into the shape of a heart as the singing ends, and we all follow suit, pointing them to each other and the phone that is recording this moment.

NO TRUMP

“How much is water?”

“No.” He shakes his head, holding up a ten dollar bill stamped on the back with small red block letters: NO TRUMP

“Yes!” Establishing conspiratorial solidarity with strange man in kiosk at Grand Central.

“No!”

Leaning back. “Why, you voted for him?”

“No, but he’s my president.”

“Oh, really?” Backtracks mind. “Oh right, he is.”

“Yes, he’s our president. And we gotta support him. Help him. Or this country is going down.” His thumb makes a downward dive as he utters his prophecy of doom.

“How much is this?” Man in snapback holds up a Mars candy bar.

“One twenty-five. I’m sorry, what did you ask?”

“Oh. Just, how much is water?”

“Two dollars, two dollars, three dollars.” Hand starts from Poland Spring and ends on Ethos.

“Ahh. Anything less than 2?”

“Sure, one twenty-five, small bottle. No need for twenty-five if you don’t have.”

“Thank you.”

“But listen to me. LE-sten.” Holds the syllable. Eyes burn brightly in his brown face, backed by three dozen other pairs of eyes, men and women staring from glossy white magazine covers that surround him.

“Here’s one twenty-five.” Another snapback, this time for a packet of sunflower seeds. There are two in his hands: he insists he has gotten the first pack upstairs, and the brown man does not argue. Clearly, he has just been robbed. “Do you agree with me?”

“Yeah, okay.” There may be a providential hand behind this encounter after all.

“Listen. Listen.” Pointing to the stacks of gum haphazardly lining the entire front of his stand. Like a precarious rampart to a fort. Or like a border. “If someone wanted to mess these up, you would stop him before he messes these up. Brother, don’t touch.” Finger wags. Hints of an Indian accent. “My wife voted for Hilary. I voted for Hilary. But if someone has already messed these up, then there is no use saying, don’t mess it up. You tell him how to behave, what is right and what is wrong. You guide him.”

Comparing our president and his blunders to a child or hooligan knocking over a column of gum packs has a sort of poetic justice to it. I agree.

Perhaps it was Trump’s angel come in the guise of this brown-skinned man to get some prayers for his ward. If so, I will pray.

My Privilege

My privilege.

I am an Asian-American, one of the minority.

But I live in a middle-class suburban area. I went to an elite college. Full scholarship. Well, maybe a few thousand spread over the course of four years. An all-expenses-paid trip to study abroad, with some left over afterward to fund a personal pilgrimage. My pictures on Facebook show curated scenes of happiness and success, milestones and achievements.

I can afford to go into myself and revolve my world around my self-hatred. To say that the worst thing that has happened to me this entire month is an awkward conversation. And to obsess over every word and word unsaid.

I have not suffered. I have not worked. I have not contributed. I have not helped this world.

Varnish

She applied the varnish on her brush and brought the stiff bristles in contact with the wooden panels, but not before a tear slipped out of her eye and made its hasty descent to the floor. She saw it dive to its end where it lay splayed out, an oblong and flattened puddle that glanced at and away from her.

A brush moved into sight, sweeping the puddle along a smooth line.

The girl was meticulous with her work. Though sticky lines of varnish streaked her roughly-cropped ebony hair and pale cheekbone and lacerated her slim, calloused fingers, the wooden canvas that lay before her showed no signs of recoating, no isolated mounds rearing up from its smooth surface, no stray lines diverting from parallel paths.

There were spots along the way where the pure resin she had extracted in the late hours from the workshop downstairs mixed with the saline solution deposited from a source whose exact location she could never position. But any eyes catching sight of the floor would find the signs of those watery droplets inexistent, indistinguishable from the golden finish that had through calculated strokes steamrolled them into long ribbons.

The window stretching across the wall admitted long rays slipping past thin, rod-like muntins that threw shadows slanting across the capacious loft towards the right wall, uprighting in increments, stretching then over to the left. They crisscrossed a back clad in a mustard-colored shirt — a fabric rough both from personal choice and hard wear over the years — during the course of its rectangular loops around the room.

The girl was on her last run. She planned to end at the door that led to a stairway that connected to a tiny room on the second floor and her workshop below. The light had dimmed and now the girl was squinting as she applied her strokes.

The door opened behind her and a voice cried out, “Mercy!”

Suspended dust motes were startled into spinning.

The door thudded into Mercy’s back and the tip of her pinky dipped into the still-sticky varnish. Swirls, tightly and endlessly looping. That was her finger’s signature. She would have to re-do the entire floor tomorrow. Right now her entire body ached.

Her shoulder was grasped. “Mercy!” the voice cried out again. She turned around to see the intruder.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

Her eyes parted the particles of air lying between her and him to reveal a face craggy like the exposed mountaintops the wind hurtled into back home. Eyes settled into her own and shifted onto the newly-coated panels now emitting a noxious smell.

Mhiean, she called out. He kneeled down. Her pale hands pushed aside frozen atoms to reach out to him, but she snatched them back. “Mercy.” The voice called again, soft. Her eyes looked up from her neatly-folded hands resting on her lap and set upon his hair.

“You’re not happy to see me.”

I am happy, she said to the dark, unruly strands. Their color had since faded from when they had first met.

Sonamu

A pine tree is an old lady in loose trousers

bent over her neighbor’s garbage bag. She digs

for food to feed her grandson whose mind

roams like a child’s, whose right eye

is clouded over by a film of the world’s indifference, whose

gratitude abounds for the kimchi that his grandmother made

from which white spores had been scraped away.

 

A pine tree is a woman, whose perm resembles

an iron scouring pad framing tucks around eyes that curve

upward while she soaps the limp body of her husband

at dawn. Her hips hurt. Her heart wrings while she washes away

suds from a man who has another child and wife elsewhere, somewhere

where her mind goes before it shuts down.

 

A pine tree is a man whose hands reach, upward

in supplication for a spark amongst the multitude of

neurons that have stopped for decades responding,

and so his hands remain at his side

while his mind wanders off and off somewhere, maybe – on some days –

to his former daughter and wife.

 

Sonamu: the literal characters meaning

cow-tree, translated:

Pine treewhose needles stay green and attached

to their branches, year round. A brother, soon to be

cloistered brother, sits straight-backed at a wooden desk

organized into compartments of booklets and icons.

Heavy rosary beads chain his waist. Not a word escapes

of the pain in his back.

 

Cow trees:

clang cacophony, cauliflowers, kalinkas, colore — but

Soh-

                                            nhah-

                                                                              mooh-

breathes out,

like a sighing amongst needles,

suited to the people they metaphorically represent.

Soh-

                                            nhah-

                                                                              mooh-

breathes into concave creases that remain hidden from sight.

 

Their fragrance reaches to the heavens, unburdened by worldly recognition,

and become a sweet perfume for my Lord, who sees all.

Let us choose the word

It is a known fact that our forefathers praised the quill as being mightier than the sword.

Nowadays, quills, if at use at all, have their origins from the ordinary pigeon and the porcupine. The colonists on the other hand snapped their feathers from the heads of bald eagles. They had noticed how effective these feathers were against the blade, against the reaches of death itself.

The Founders knew old Ben had floundered in his judgment when he suggested the turkey as the national bird – turkeys only fed the first pilgrims; they did not win wars. They had not sacrificed their plumage to states of baldness. How could Thanksgiving compare to Independence? Without the turkey, the country might not have started; but if the country had been lacking in its bald eagles, it would better not have started at all. Did not even the Teacher say that man does not live on bread alone, but on the Word? So let Ivan choose his bread. May we choose the Word.

Quill

Homage:

Ms. Savage writes a sentence on the whiteboard and turns around to explain.

Her strawberry-blonde hair is pulled back into her usual pony tail. She stands at a compact five feet in height, and pulls off pencil skirts and stiletto heels with ease. She looks all around savage: a bulldozer blasting away all grammatical pitfalls and wolves in lambs’ skins. Her explanations are manicured, sandpapered raw, and sharpened on several whetstones before they are presented on the table. Staring back at 30 pairs of eyes — some drooping with boredom, some directed at windows or at each other, some glazed over like the skins of munchkins — she looks imperturbable.

You have remained in my mind for these past years. Here’s my homage to you.

Savage

Substitute “Confidence”

“I wish you had more pluck in yourself,” her friend texts.

She imagines herself as a plump chicken with feathers begging to be plucked. The other day, she had been gutting out her computer of unnecessary files and had come across a diary entry: “I have grown more plucky after my harrowing 10-minute presentation in class.” Dated seven years ago.

Had she not been accumulating more pluck since that budding repertoire? Or had this pluck been slipping out through some unmonitored leak while she had been sleeping?

Harrowing: maybe her life hasn’t been harrowing enough. Swapping horror happenings around the globe with her friends (…refugees denied havens, mothers fed their own children, children’s stomachs bloated with hunger…), she has questioned life that has yet to hoist hardships upon her. How was she supposed to prove her pluck if there had been no tests thrown her way?

“I like you as you are though,” another text chimes. “Pluck or no pluck.”

Pluck