Shortly after her husband dies, my stepmother buys me a clutch of pebbles from the gardening center. For herself, a brooch of sapphire in the shape of a lily. My stepmother, it should be said, is in mourning: for my father, of course, but also for herself—for her long-instated inertia, for the dogs running down a mown lawn in perpetual greeting, for a radio playing on through another room. All these moments I’ve never known. I hardly know her. She busies herself in the pantry, digging.
“A vase for the pebbles,” she calls from the pantry. “A tea box.”
I can’t be bothered by interactions not directly related to the humanities or to moony engagements that often result in drastic cross-country advances seized by apprehension. “I have pockets,” I tell her. “I keep some jars at home. I maintain collections well-suited for your gift.”
My stepmother unfolds herself from the pantry, turns toward the light funneling through the window above the sink. Her lily brooch catches the sun. Her blouse an impressive backdrop. We’ve eaten a light breakfast of cheese, fruit salad, almonds, coffee, leftover sheet cake. Also, coffee cake with curls of butter. She maintains a glacial eye. I make sure to eat everything, to clear the dishes, to cluck my tongue at my stepmother’s large bird, caged in the corner of the kitchen. I suppose I’d describe the bird as stolid and overfed.
“I knew you’d love these pebbles. You can use them for anything. I saw the pebbles at the store and thought of you because I can’t stop thinking of others,” she says.
“You seem very giving,” I say. With my fork tine, I pierce a grape—dark and oily—as evidence of my gratitude.
My stepmother hands me a napkin.
“You’re like a child to me,” she said at my father’s funeral. “As in—you’re almost my child.” Then began the 21-gun salute.
At the reception, a man said, “You’re the daughter from Asia,” which I appreciated because he was relaying facts. I called my mother from the parlor hallway.
She said, “Well, at least this won’t happen again.” Kind as they seemed, the other funeral-goers did not appear aware of my need for an excuse to leave.
My stepmother ran to me wielding a picture of my father on a tractor, and cried, “I want you to see the face of a man who loves you.”
One year later, I stand at the base of a sand dune, considering my rote emotions and my ability to conjure disinterest in most topics. I’ve slid down the dune in unfit shoes, now untroubled by my impending ascent, but also annoyed. I’m told that my Korean name means ‘vast peacefulness’ or ‘red bird,’ depending on factors outside the perimeters of my knowledge. It’s just that I’m trying to find a way to move beyond the need to articulate anything. Or to move past the indignity of looking one way and thinking something else entirely. For instance, some have said that I appear thoughtful while sleeping. I am neither meditative nor obedient. I kick the sand around. I take off my shoes. The heat here, like all great feats of the West, is unrelenting and featureless.
I had no idea. I didn’t know him, but I’ve heard he was either irate or reforming. I’m always hurrying into the next climate or season.
The most surprising thing about the death of a parent is the impossible want to recall a particular moment in infancy wherein one ceases suckling the corner of a blanket, looks into a parent’s eyes, and locates that parent’s hidden dictum only to forget it when one learns a first English word, which is, in my case: No.
My father said, “Can you say ‘dada’?”
I said, “No.”
I’m sorry, but I do nothing with the pebbles at the sand dune. I’m too desiccated to make performative gestures while alone. Anyway, the pebbles give off small resonances if one wills or wants them to. They grow warm if you palm them. I don’t have other needs beside my own. I could drive to Wyoming tomorrow had I any desire to do so. I could fill my refrigerator with pots of distilled water and drink none of it. What I’m saying is: sometime soon, I hope to find a woman swarmed by children or unwitting suitors, and I will hand her a small toy—a ring of bright keys, a felted swan, a crumpled paper like an iceberg—and the woman will know exactly what to do with it.
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