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An Hour or a Year

Jenie Pak

My lover believes in aliens. I don't. She believes in ghosts and demons, in heaven and hell, in mysterious psychic powers. She doesn't wear white in her hair. In Korean tradition, that's reserved only for a daughter whose mother has just died. She also doesn't sing or whistle, or clip her toenails at night.

"Lisa," I say, "But just look at your nails. They're growing to the size of mushrooms!" Sometimes, I replace mushrooms with eyebrows, depending on my mood "How do you expect me to deal with this?"

I tell my mother that Lisa goes too far with her beliefs. My mother asks, "Who is Lisa?" My lover, my girlfriend, my roommate, my shower partner.

"Oh, right," she says. "Are you still living with that lesbian?" I can hear my father coughing in the background. He's always chewing on dried cuttlefish. Little pieces get caught in his throat and they wound him like glass.

"In the year 2032, the world will sink into the ocean, and a new one will arise," Lisa tells me. "Did you know this apartment is haunted. A little child with a serious illness, maybe brain cancer, died while living here."

"Prove it to me," I say. "Have you actually seen the ghost? Did the Mother Ship land on our street one night when I was deep in sleep? Did aliens abduct you and inject you with their genes? If I hold up a spoon to your mouth, will it not be fogged over with your humanly breath?"

Don't get me wrong. We talk about other things as well. Take out the garbage, will you? But I always take out the garbage. If you loved me, you would take out the garbage.

Lisa works at the Asian Women's Shelter. She bonds with women and kids every day. They share stories and shed tears. They hug, laugh, and swap jokes. I swap e-mails with techies all day. Thanks for the latest chapters, I type to authors. The latest chapters are ready for review, I write to reviewers. Regards, best wishes, thank you very much and have a nice day. :) I sit in a cubicle and daydream about changing my life. Having a new career doing meaningful work, where I know how to laugh, how to hug, and cry! I imagine coming out to my father, "By the way, I'm a lesbian. I don't like guys. I like girls, get it? Do you want me to throw some more dried cuttlefish on the stove for you?"

I go to the beach by myself and stare at the water. There are fish in there, somewhere. And jellyfish, and crabs, and huge skirts of seaweed passing through them -- blessing them all for a moment with a sudden, lingering kiss. Sometimes, I dream of living underwater. I wake up one day and my lungs have transformed into gills. My arms grow spikes and I have no choice but to live in the ocean, since I pierce everything around me. Goodbye, I say to my girlfriend. I'm sorry about your toenails. She says, Say hello to the mermaids for me. My mother weeps, my father sheds a single, fishy tear. The techies e-mail their farewells. Goodbye Sandra, I guess this should be an interesting chapter. :)

My life is what it is, and I'm not sure if I like it. Maybe if I start believing in leprechauns and angels, my fairy godmother will appear before me, in a cloud of some aromatherapeutic substance, and dress me up in wisdom and insight. Fairy Godmother, please tell me what to do, how to live my life, whether I should go back to being a vegetarian or not.

What if a really sick child did once live in our apartment? What if she slept in the room I sleep in, ate her cereal in the kitchen and stared out the same window as I do each morning? Did she watch the kids across the street and wonder about their brains, those healthy, pulsing globs of peanut butter thoughts she wanted to squish in her palms? I sit here at the table, look out the window, and imagine her looking past the row of houses, looking instead at the hills that lay like memories in the distance. How long would it take a bird to reach those hills? An hour or a year?

My mother was afraid I would die in the incubator. My two brothers born before me both died in there, like some meal waiting to be served. But they were spoiled somehow, left raw or overcooked, and my father returned to my mother's bedside a week later and said both times, "Yuh-boh, you are going to have to be strong. We have a ghost for a son. Let us make another."

Instead, they got me, a big lesbo. While all of their friends' kids are getting married, I'm living in San Francisco with my "roommate," my "bestest friend." It's great how people can't bear to say the word: lesbian, dyke, gaygirl. My mother asks, "Did something bad happen to you in college?" I want to tell her it's a blessing -- this love for girls. It's like before there were hairy chests and eyes cutting through me like I was made of paper or vegetable, and now there is a street that only some have heard of, and now I know all the signs and gutters by heart.

"I met you because of a dream," Lisa says. "A week before I met you, I dreamt a piano fell out of the tenth floor of a building I was walking under. In the dream, the piano fell on me and crushed my organs. My bones had scattered down the block, and a woman came and gathered them all and made me whole again. Sure, I was just bones, a science lab skeleton walking through downtown, but the next week, I saw you gnawing on a drumstick in the student center and all my bones sort of collapsed into the ground. I knew I had to introduce myself to get them in order again."

"That's sort of romantic," I say. "I can almost buy it." Then, I add, "Hey, can't a person eat some fried chicken in peace these days?" I don't like what comes out of my mouth sometimes. The words just make themselves up into these snappy, sarcastic faces and stick their tongues out. This is how I treat the people I love. Later, I retreat to a private place, such as the toilet, and rearrange the words in my head. That's romantic. Want some fried chicken? Or, I'm chicken, but you're romantic. Can I buy you some fried potatoes?

At work, an author e-mails me and says, "I'm quitting. I won't be getting any more chapters to you. Forget the book, I'll return the advance, tell your boss I'm quitting the world." This author frightens me; I send him a message back, and try to find out more details. "Are you sure? Are you going on vacation? Did you win the lottery, or join a start-up and cash in on stock options?" When I get no response, I rock back and forth in my ergonomically-constructed chair and fall over backwards. I bang my head on the file cabinet and spill my coffee, ruining three new signed contracts and the photo of Lisa and me posing in front of the paint pots at Yellowstone National Park. The sulphuric smell was really too much for us to bear, but in the photo you couldn't tell. We smiled, put our arms around each other, squeezed each other towards the center of the frame. You should see the one we took right after that one. We're facing each other, pinching each other's noses, down on the ground as if we're suffocating from noxious fumes. When the author finally e-mails back, two days later, the message reads, "I have decided not to quit the world. But, I have still decided to quit the book. Microsoft is evil. I am not. Thank you for your concern."

Lisa complains, "You're turning into a zombie. You're depressed. You don't even say mean things to me anymore. Sandra, where are you? Do you hear me, where are you?"

"Stop shouting," I say. "Maybe I've been snatched up by your friends from Saturn and I'm just waiting for the opportunity to impregnate you with little Saturn babies. They'll have eyes of licorice and their tongues will grow to the length of waterslides. They'll rip through your belly and crawl out, one by one, and pull your hair out while you dream of planting turnips."

My conversations with my mother aren't any better. "Why don't you meet a nice boy," my mom begs. "You're a young lady now -- wear some dresses and grow your hair out."

"The mother is talking to herself," I reply. " She is making jokes and enjoying herself, and the daughter is silently crying inside."

My father used to sing operas -- slow, sad ones with just enough dramatic high notes mixed in. "Do you want to learn them?" he would ask every now and then, and I always shook my head, mouthing the words silently instead. It's not that I was timid or believed I couldn't reach those high notes as well as the low. I just couldn't imagine being so serious, so heartbroken -- especially over a story that wasn't mine. Plus, I secretly believed my father didn't know all the words -- suspected he mixed in many random Korean words in with the Italian. I also learned what the songs were saying, why they had to be sung. The heroine poisoning herself over a lover's betrayal, the sick artist on his deathbed watching the leaves falling off the maple tree, one by one.

"Your father can hardly speak," my mother says. "We barely talk anymore. He keeps a spiral memo pad around his neck with some string."

"What's wrong with him?" I ask. "What do the doctors say?"

"They can't figure it out. Just something about the vocal chords being misshapen...they need to take more x-rays."

I tell Lisa about my father. "He used to sing beautifully," I say. "Even if he didn't know all the words, somehow he made it alright." I lean my head on Lisa's shoulder, wait for her to put her arm around me.

"The body is a mysterious thing," says Lisa. "It has its own plans for us, and your father is meant to be silent for now."

I remember my father shouting for most of my childhood. He was an extreme man, either throwing furniture across the room and threatening to burn the house down, or sitting by the window writing his poems in a steno pad he had had for years. I remember his eyes, all his pain shooting through them in a moment of fury. I remember his body, hunched over his desk in the half-light, scribbling and erasing his lines.

Last summer, Lisa and I took a road trip. Lisa wanted to see the world, and since we couldn't afford that, we settled for the States. I wanted to see if we could make it out alive -- the two of us in her blue Buick, highway stretch after highway stretch, like swimmers in the ocean reaching for land. Sometimes, it was just us on the road, especially at night. It was like the body of the world was sleeping and we were two rebellious cells, refusing to belong to anything but ourselves. We talked about a hundred different things. We talked about our dreams, our parents, where we wanted to be in five years. Lisa said she wanted to build a straw bale house and grow all her vegetables and herbs. She also wanted to form a band and write songs that interwove social consciousness with her beliefs in the supernatural, the afterlife, the intangible.

"Oh, great," I said. "You can name it The Ghostly Homos." I tried to think of where I wanted to be in five years, but couldn't come up with anything. I didn't care where I lived or what material I lived in. I didn't know where I wanted to work or what I wanted to do when I wasn't working. Except the beach -- I wanted to be close to the water every chance I got. I wanted to watch the waves coming for me, then change their minds at the last possible second.

"Sandra, last night I dreamt we had an earthquake, and we sat crouched under the doorway and watched our plates and bowls fly by. The bookshelf tumbled over, and you said to me, This is not an earthquake, this is your imagination. You stood up to pick up the books, and I grabbed you by the waist, and you said, Darling, this ain't no dance. "

We are watching a Korean miniseries in the dark. The boy has just lost his arm in a mill accident, and his younger sister is blaming herself. They are weeping together in the hospital room, the boy saying that he has forgiven her. Our bodies are close, but not touching. The blue light from the television set makes us colors, characters of our own.

"That's a stupid dream," I say. Just last night, I saw Lisa dancing with a woman at the club. At least, I thought I did. It was for ten seconds, or thirty, or for a minute. I saw her put her hands around her waist, and slide her thigh between the woman's. I was mad, a little drunk, and started dancing with the woman closest to me. She had a crewcut, and I ran my hands through her hair and saw all the jagged edges of my life appear before me like some sort of holograph. "Lisa," I shouted, but she didn't hear me. She was gone, and the woman I was dancing with picked me up and took me to the bathroom. She had sharp teeth and a sharper smile. "Lisa," I murmured into the cold floor. I saw her face then -- how it had looked when we had first danced together, radiant with sweat and nerves, excitement and tenderness.

"Your father can speak a little again," my mother tells me. She is giddy with pleasure, and though we're speaking on the phone, I can see her smiling big, showing off her large front teeth. I have inherited those teeth, people have commented on it. My, what large teeth you have, they say. "All the better to chew lettuce with," I reply. Sometimes, I substitute chew lettuce with chip wood. Then, of course, I remark on their unusually large ears did your mom perform at a circus? or comment on their nosehair Sharper Image sells some really great nosehair clippers. I hear my father coughing in the background, then I hear him attempting to say my name over and over again like some inconsistent mantra.

"How is Lisa," my mother asks. "Why don't you two come and visit us?"

"Lisa is busy right now with work," I say. "Thank you for asking."

Lisa is gone. She's moved to Seattle to crash at a friend's and work on her singing career. "You should have believed in me," she said. "I will love the girl who bathed me in milk and honey (I actually filled a whole bathtub with gallons of milk and jarfuls of honey, scrubbed her down with oatmeal, and rinsed her off with champagne,) the girl who wanted to tell me so many things I would wake in the middle of the night and she would still be whispering, half-asleep. But now, she asks me to guess, and I can't."

Believe the girl loved you. Believe you wanted so many things. You should have loved the girl who believed.

I take to climbing hills and standing at the top, pretending the world is my kingdom and this the Eighth Day of Creation, and if I will it, all the computers will shut off and so will all the printers and television sets and espresso machines brewing their delicate, sinful foam. My father's voice will be smooth as lanolin, the hills I stare at each morning will burn a bright orange, and the runaway kids on the street will reach into their pockets and find a thousand bucks. Lisa will wake up to angels grooming their pink wings upon her shoulders and knees, and I will be next to her, and I will believe it, I will believe all of it.

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