The day of the reading, he changed his mind. He’d go after all. It had been eight years since Tae had seen Christine Kim. That time, she’d been on tour, promoting her debut novel. She'd sent him a handwritten invitation. He’d shown up—well, almost. He loitered outside. Through the glass windows, behind tables and bookshelves, Christine stooped before a tiny stand, staring down at her notes. A finger was pushed against the bridge of her glasses, to keep it from falling. It was a small, narrow space. There were only a dozen seats, and only half were occupied. She looked like she wanted to disappear. An employee stuck his head out the door and asked if he was coming inside. He shook his head and walked away. At home he drafted a few apologetic texts he did not send. She never followed up, and they fell into mutual estrangement.

She'd come a long way. The dismal attendance at her reading eight years prior was an anomaly. The big publishing houses had ignored her at first, but after a glowing review in The New York Times, the book sold out of its first run, and reprinting rights were acquired by F.S.G. Her sales and publication record outstripped every other writer in their class. Her work—always about Koreans and Korea—made her a cultural commentator, and she was frequently invited to talk shows whenever Kim Jong Un threw a tantrum. She did not teach—not because she lacked the qualifications, but because she had no need to. He did not tell Ellie, his wife of four years, that he would see Christine. He'd never mentioned her. He did not want Ellie to draw unflattering comparisons, to tease him for being a tortured artist.

The reading was mercifully brief. The editor of a prominent literary magazine facilitated the Q & A. She asked obscure questions about point-of-view. Christine deflected with jokes, saying she looked to Tolstoy and her Magic 8-Ball for instructive advice. She read the San Francisco audience well. They wanted witticisms and mild provocations, not MFA shop-talk. There was something irrefutable about Christine’s appeal, he decided, that she'd amassed such a formidable crowd.

She possessed the beatific calm of a yoga instructor. She’d done away with the glasses; there were no notes. Slight hollows were visible below her cheekbones; she was toned and prettier than he remembered from school. She wore expensive earrings reminiscent of Alexander Calder mobiles. When a ponytailed woman asked Christine how she dealt with writer’s block, she responded with a radiant smile and clapped her hands together in a vaguely Asian manner. “Self-affirmations. You have to say them aloud: Minji, you can write one sentence! You will write one sentence.”

Minji. He knew this was her Korean name, but he was disgusted anew by the way she leaned into this constructed, writer-self. Was that uncharitable? Grad school Christine would’ve declaimed bestseller Minji for pandering.

After the Q & A, a pair of employees flanked either side of the podium, separating an ad-hoc V.I.P. area. He recognized, from social media, her husband. He was tall but slouchy, with a curly mop of red hair and trimmed mustache that did little to hide his youth. He leaned against a bookshelf, next to a clutch of Asian American women, including one who wrote essays declaiming filial piety. He considered leaving without saying anything. He wished he’d stopped somewhere for a drink. Finally, he willed himself toward her and her friends. A birdy girl with a clipboard rebuffed him. She pointed her pen toward the line doubling back through the aisles. “That’s the autograph line.” He apologized—why was he apologizing?—and joined the queue. Clipboard girl came back around again, and asked him for his first name. He said it unthinkingly, spelling it out, and before he could ask why, she stuck a post-it with Tae on the cover of the book. He ripped it off and crumpled it into his pocket. He considered all the acquaintances Christine would have to recall and he could feel the post-it throbbing in time to his heartbeat. It had been a long time, there could be a lapse, she could confuse him with another Asian guy. He imagined himself in her position, how helpful a sticky note might be to jog his memory. But he was not in her position. He would not unwrinkle the note, would not smooth it back one.

She was the famous one. Forgetting was her burden, not his.

They’d been inseparable in grad school. Their family backgrounds and aesthetic tastes synced like birds in formation. They were raised by Korean immigrants and professed an antipathy to writing autobiographically. Certainly not anything involving the Korean War, or tired narratives about immigration and assimilation. They stayed up late, drank copious cups of coffee, wrote right up until deadline. One evening, after they’d stayed up revising for workshop, she asked if he wanted to sleep over. The question caught him off-guard. Other friends had asked if they were dating and he always said she wasn’t interested, and switched the topic. Why hadn’t they dated? Maybe the rumor they were dating made it an anathema to him.

They weren’t like other Koreans. Other Koreans only dated and socialized with other Koreans. Other Koreans went to good colleges and better graduate schools, where they came out doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers.

He said her sofa wasn’t comfortable and she’d dropped into the fold of his arm, told him to shut up, and kissed him. He extricated himself with pitiful excuses he could not remember. What he remembered was standing outside in the cold, staring at her bedroom window until the light went off, unable to articulate why he resisted.

He pretended nothing had happened. When Christine broached the subject, he said he wanted to take it slow. When she suggested they spend Halloween weekend in Chicago, he said he was behind on a story for workshop, and she said it was no big deal, that she’d go and meet up with a friend from college who lived there. He stayed, goofed off, and attended a Halloween party organized by Molly Kidder, a second-year poet.

Molly cornered him by the pong table, twirled a finger in his hair, and asked where his girlfriend was. She was popular and they’d only ever exchanged hellos. She was dressed like a deranged nurse, with a convincing gash painted across one cheek. She reeked of Jim Beam and led him upstairs to her bedroom—to the disbelieving looks of other men—and toyed with him until the end of the semester, when she replaced him with a surfer who wrote utopian sci-fi and called women dudes.

He never stopped talking to Christine; she was always available to edit his stories or take him to Costco, to fill up the space when Molly stopped seeing him. After he recovered from being spurned, he grew grateful at Molly’s rejection, which let him have the moral high ground while extricating him from commitment. Christine, for her part, had read between the lines. She hadn’t tried to kiss him again, and as time passed the incident seemed more experimentation than a window into her true feelings.

He was near the head of the line and remained unrecognized. Christine radiated fizzy warmth. He looked for evidence of acting. A rotund woman deposited a thick stack of things for signing, not just books but also an obscure suite of defunct literary magazines she’d published stories in. There were no others to block her view of him, and his palms grew sweaty. The post-it in his pocket thumped. Still, Christine remained rapt, maintaining eye contact with the superfan. But when the woman departed with her unwieldy stack, Christine saw him and yelped, with genuine surprise, his name. She bounded up to him with a huge smile. He could smell the base notes of sandalwood of her eau de toilette comingling with the salinity of trace sweat. Pleasant, clean, familiar. She pulled back and looked at him. “It’s so good to see you.”

He looked away. “I was going to text you, but I didn’t have your number.”

She said he hadn’t changed. She took his book and signed in big cursive sweeps, as she talked. Could he stick around? She pointed to tall curly-haired guy he already knew was her husband. He often featured in her social media feed, being bossed around at home as subversion of white patriarchy. In the latest image, he’d donned a blond wig and a summer dress like a 1950’s housewife, holding forth a freshly-baked apple pie.

Noticing her, Oliver blew Christine a kiss. She faked a gag, and he in turn fake-pouted and wiped away a fake-tear.

Oliver greeted him enthusiastically; said Minji had told him so many stories about being at Iowa, and that Tae had been the only one he hadn’t met. Oliver introduced him to the groupies, who were talking about brunch. Tae listened while his eyes grazed the spines of self-help books on the aisle nearest him; Ellie had given him several and he’d never made it more than a quarter-way through.

“Do you have any work out in the world?”

He looked up. The woman asking wore purple lipstick the color of a bruised plum, which he interpreted as commentary on and against Asian female fragility. “I do,” he said, “but like Minji it’s under pseudonym.” She gave a puzzled smile and instead of elaborating, said he worked as a copywriter. “I don’t get bylines but the pay’s good.” He said he was working on a novel but wasn’t in a rush, that writing was about patience as much as it was about persistence. Blah, blah, the lies came out automatically, and they nauseated him. The woman nodded but her gaze was on Christine, buoyantly chatting, signing, hugging.

It was Oliver who invited him to dinner. Tae thought he’d detected momentary distress on Christine’s face before it mutated into cheery enthusiasm, agreement that this was a fine idea. After they ordered their tweezer-finessed Korean food, at a place reminiscent of a Nordic spa, Oliver explained his courtship of Christine. They’d met at a book club. She’d written him off as a friend because he was only twenty-three and she was in her mid-thirties, but he’d persisted for three years, waiting out a succession of relationships with older, successful men. What had finally convinced her to give him a try was the grand gesture—driving up her favorite bagels from New York to Vermont, where she’d landed a semester-long gig as a writer-in-residence.

“I lucked out with Minjster,” Oliver said, pulling Christine in for a kiss on the lips, which she tried, unsuccessfully, to dodge.

“He’s embarrassing,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Was she always this mean?” Oliver said.

Tae recalled the time another classmate had called to ask her to dinner and she’d said, “This isn’t a date, right?” He explained the story, saying she was formidably direct in romantic affairs.

Christine gave him a funny smile. “We actually went on a few dates,” she said, “but then I was convinced to abandon course by Tae.”

“You’re the gatekeeper, huh?” Oliver said to Tae. “So what would you have said about me?”

“He hardly know you,” Christine said. To Tae, she added, “Don’t indulge him with an answer.” Oliver had a habit of feeling sorry for himself, for doubting his own talent. Graywolf, she explained, was publishing his first collection of poems, and he’d been awarded a two-year writing fellowship at Stanford. Tae was impressed. Publishing when you were famous or married to someone famous raised the question of merit, but the fellowship was a big deal—something not easily chalked to nepotism.

There was a momentary lull. They took bites of appetizers decorated with nasturtiums and rocks, which their server warned were inedible. Christine asked how Greece was, quickly explaining she’d seen him post about online. He was flattered she’d noticed; he didn’t remember her liking the post.

The trip was almost a year ago. Against his usual inclinations he’d uploaded the idyllic image: glowing whitewashed homes overlooking the sparkling Aegean Sea. The trip had been clouded months before they’d embarked on it, by a non-fight they’d been having; she’d wanted to go to Burning Man and he’d asked whether she hadn’t phased out of it, which he said because he couldn’t bear to address the fact of a crush she’d had in her camp the previous year, who’d wanted to sleep with her and which she claimed she’d resisted, limiting it, despite the ecstasy, to clothed cuddling. When they arrived on the Greek isles the sky was pregnant and dark, and the rain-pelted sea looked as gray as the water inside a mop bucket. Their second day, they both suffered a bout of food poisoning, which they passed in mostly uncomfortable silence. He, sometimes feigning sleep, watched Ellie scroll through her feed, her face bathed in sickly blue light and the tinny sounds of an all-night desert bacchanal. He brushed aside these uncomfortable truths and said it was great, the weather was beautiful, the food was amazing, all code, like how are you which was never a question.

His phone rang. An unknown, out-of-state number. He silenced it, and put it face down on the table. Oliver told him to feel free to take the call, and he responded that it wasn’t a number he recognized.

“I always pick up, even random ones, if I’m not with Minj—just in case anything happened to her phone,” Oliver said. “And we do this thing, it’s a little old fashioned, but we always talk on the phone.”

Christine lifted her wrists. “Carpal tunnel.”

“Ellie and I text almost exclusively,” Tae began before pausing. Christine lifted an inquiring eyebrow. “Ah, just gives you some time to filter what you want to say. And emojis help do some emotional lifting.”

“Are you fighting?” Christine asked.

He denied it, said they were trying to have a child, as though it were an explanation.

“I hope you’re not planning to rely on texts to communicate with your future child.”

Tae laughed too loudly. He was happy, he assured her, or as happy as a pessimist like him could be.

“You’ll have to bring her out next time,” Oliver said.

“Excuse me, are you Minji Kim?” a woman’s voice asked. Tae turned and saw a woman clutching Christine’s debut novel, dog-eared and worn. “Could I bother you for your signature?” Christine complimented the woman on her outfit—a peasant shift—and she blushed.

“Did you know her real name is Christine?” Tae said.

The woman blinked at him. “Sorry?”

Oliver said, “Minji is actually her name—legally speaking.”

Christine smoothly overrode their comments by complimenting the woman’s earrings, asking where she’d bought them. After the woman departed with her book, Tae asked if he had to call her Minji or if he was grandfathered in.

“Grandfathered in,” Christine said, laughing quietly. “Why don’t you deeply imagine my point of view and go from there.” It was a non-answer; she smiled a smile that provided nothing of interpretable value.

Deeply imagine was something their teacher, Jasper Gold liked to say. Back in school they’d complained about him endlessly: his auto mechaniclike Xeroxed 10-point checklist, appended to every critique letter, which distilled key failings in a workshopped story; his predilection for praising exotic settings and cuisines, which he called “news from another world”; his uniform of fishing vest, cargo shorts, and stocking-length white socks. In multiple interviews, however, she cited him as a teacher of invaluable wisdom; he’d invited her, meanwhile, year-after-year, to a cultural festival he helped organize in Aspen.

“So you’re close with Jasper now?” Tae asked.

“Great guy,” Oliver said. “Always takes me fly fishing.”

“I wasn’t exactly his favorite person in workshop. Either was your wife, back in the day.”

“I was always on good terms with him,” Christine said. “I used to teach piano lessons to his daughter.”

“Back at Iowa?”

She nodded. “He heard me playing the piano and I needed the money.” It did not rise to the level of betrayal, but it was a betrayal nonetheless.

Oliver put a forkful of uneaten beef back on his plate. “Hey do you guys want to try the shaved ice for dessert?” When neither of them replied, he said it was cool, he’d had a lot of sugar already, and that Minji always blamed him for getting cavities though, for the record, two separate dentists had told him that he had “deep grooves.”

Christine patted him on the back and yawned. She steered the conversation toward more palatable ground: the agreeable San Francisco weather. Work. Tae told them that he was the two-hundredth employee at Filter, and she asked him what that meant. “It means equity.”

“I’m sorry I’m not versed in Silicon Valley speak.”

He flushed. “I mean assuming it goes public I’ll get a small fraction of the company, which could be equivalent to a big advance.”

“But are you writing?”

“I’ve got a few ideas I’m working on.” He had the sensation, as he bullshitted plans to do an artist residency, that he was watching another person talking himself up. Unconvincingly so.

Oliver excused himself for the bathroom. Christine scanned the restaurant while fiddling with an earring. The music, the sounds, were uncomfortably hushed. “What made you come today, after all this time?”

“I was curious if you still remembered me,” he said lamely.

She snorted at this loudly. “Oliver will go through everything I write like a forensics expert, trying to find if something of you is in them, if I’m trying to communicate through them to you. The thing is, you were like dust—you were everywhere.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you?” her voice was pitched. “It’s not a compliment.” She said she was disappointed when he did not show up to her reading, all that time ago, in New York. “I turned down other plans.”

“I had to work. I didn’t have an advance.”

She pulled at her shiny black hair. “Remember when we had that plan to go to Chicago for the weekend? And how I’d set up everything: the car rental, the hotel, our plan to see that play at the Steppenwolf—the play you wanted to see?”

He protested. He didn’t recall that it had been his idea. “Besides, I was having trouble writing—I was up for workshop. And then you said you had a friend from college, in Chicago?”

She said she’d invented the friend, had made the plan to go alone and made it as far as the Illinois border before turning back. She parked her car a mile away. “I even bought candles and used them at night. All because I was paranoid that if you walked by you would know that I was home, that I hadn’t gone anywhere at all.”

There was a long, awkward pause.

She continued, “You only liked me when someone else did. Like with Franklin. After we went to dinner you happened to buy me flowers at the farmers’ market. And you happened to suggest we go to Chicago. Why didn’t you want to date me?”

“It was just, I don’t know, too easy?” He stuttered this out, clarified that he didn’t mean she was easy. Only that their being together was obvious. “Just like it was obvious if we wrote the way Jasper wanted us to write: about the Korean War, immigration, and emotionally abusive Korean dads.” Did she know what he meant?

“‘Do you know what I mean’ is a refrain you liked to say a lot.”

“I guess it bothered me that everyone assumed we were together.”

“And Molly wasn’t obvious.”

He knew what she was implying, that he’d dated her because she was white. That was a gross oversimplification. He’d dated her because nothing about it had felt real.

“I’m surprised you ended up with a white guy,” he said. “Seems off-brand.”

Her face crinkled.

“I mean because you’re always writing about Korean people.”

“Use your words, Tae.” That was something she used to say to him, as playful diss, when he was vague, unspecific. “Have you read anything I’ve written? I mean, besides what you had to in grad school?”

He considered how to answer, whether he should lie. In his hesitation, she had her answer. She explained that she’d turned a story he’d liked, the historical piece involving confederate orphans in post-Civil War South, into a novel, and had her agent send it out. “No one wanted it.” Maybe it was because I wasn’t white. But she also knew that maybe it wasn’t good. That she’d been trying to write it to prove something.

Oliver returned, sliding a gangly arm over Christine, oblivious to the moment. “God, I hate places that don’t have paper towels. Sure, if you have a nice kind of air dryer that you slot your hands into, that’s one thing—” He looked at Christine, and then Tae. He laughed nervously.

“I don’t need to prove anything,” Christine said. “I write books and people buy them. I support my parents and us.” There was a defiant expression on her face. Tae could feel himself shrinking, withering. “Jasper told us to write for our friends. ‘Try to make them care,’ he said. I disagree. I wrote that novel with no Asian people”—she looked at Tae—“for you, because I thought you would be impressed.”

“My opinion doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Your opinion certainly doesn’t pay.” She said this with a small, compressed laugh. Oliver was now saying something about poetry, its irrelevance. Welcome, inconsequential scrim. Christine flagged down a server and handed him her credit card. She waved off Tae’s attempt to split the bill. They all looked at their cell phones for a long time. Agreed it was getting late.

Outside, under the glare of traffic and the street lamp, Oliver ordered a car, and Tae stood at a slight remove from them, aware of his limbs, the uselessness of them. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and simmered silently, as Oliver whistled mindlessly. He should have departed first, but now he’d been waiting it seemed odd to decide, abruptly, to leave. From her handbag, Christine retrieved a cigarette and a lighter. Oliver’s face made it clear he disapproved, but that he also knew his place, which was to say nothing. Did Tae feel sorry for him? Tae had never known her to smoke and the way she held it, inhaled, proved she was a practiced user. But like teaching piano, perhaps this had been another one of the secrets she’d kept from him all along. He didn’t know her now; he thought he did so back then.

When their car arrived, he shook Oliver’s hand, then Christine’s. Goodbye,” she said. She did not say, “Hope to see you soon.”

As their driver took them back to their hotel, Minji could feel a humming agitation vibrating her entire body, like she were the hollow space inside a plucked instrument, and this simile itself bothered her because what she pictured was the gayageum, the zitherlike 12-stringed instrument she’d been researching for her next novel. Now floated Tae’s heckling visage, casting aspersions at the simile, at the deployment of the instrument as M.S.G. for her white readership, the kind who craved “news from another world.” Of course he never had the luxury to be challenged on authenticity. He’d never produced anything that anyone other than his classmates had ever read. It was absurd, the way he insisted writing white characters—Nazi sympathizers and retired pornstars and foot fetishists.

Oliver’s hand tunneled itself between her back and the seat rested, clumsily, on her shoulder. He intended it as a comfort, and it repelled her. She was repelled by the thought of being repelled. Tae’s parting gift. It was such a long time ago. It was raining faintly. In the reflection of the glass she¬ could see Oliver behind him, regarding her. He was kind and good, except in his obsession to dredge up the past. She would need to draw a hard boundary around that. He was biting his lip now, a tell for when he wanted to say something.

She preempted him. “Why did you invite him to dinner?”

“We always have dinner with your friends.” He made what he referred to as his dumb pufferfish face. “Don’t be mad at me, please.”

“I’m not mad at you.” She wished she could to zap him back to the hotel—no, to Austin, so she could stew alone with her thoughts, allow time to pulverize the feelings that were threatening to run down her face. It was chilly but the cold was an emotional astringent. She did not want to cry.

When they arrived at their hotel room, he trailed behind her, maintaining a hesitant distance. She put her phone and her things on the table and began undressing. Oliver stood, watching. She sighed and looked at him. He wanted so much to be helpful.

Oliver said, “I get it. He’s kind of an asshole.”

“Why do you always have to get everything?” she said. “Or not get, but try and fail.”

In bed, she recalled a night, back in Iowa, when she and Tae were walking to a party. They were in the noisier part of town, where undergrads tended to live. Fronting a crumbling house, with overgrown grass lit up by floodlights, a handful of shirtless boys milled about with glinting beers. A few were playing cornhole. A chubby guy with the build of a linebacker sat on a deck chair with his legs splayed out, silhouetted by the lights behind him. He pulled up something to his face. There was static, then the sound of heavy breathing, and she realized it was a speakerphone. “Konichiwa,” he crowed.

She kept walking, faster, looking out to the street, but Tae had stopped.

“We’re Korean not Japs, dick brain,” he said.

“How do you say hello in Korean?” one of the cornholers said. His voice was drunk and slurred.

“How do you say, I’m a racist piece of shit?”

Several laughed. “Good one,” somebody jeered.

They walked off. Someone must have looked up the word for hello. “Anyong, anyong, anyongggg,” the words followed them through the speakerphone. Each time, she could see Tae stiffen. Jap was a bad retort. Being racially targeted didn’t give him the right to use a slur himself. But she could not bring it up—he was clearly agitated, his body vibrating. And then he began ranting—that he deeply hated himself, hated being born a gook, hated that it was something he could not change. She remained silent.

Before they reached the party, he recomposed himself, had asked, as a favor, that she not say anything about what happened. “I’ll take anything other than pity,” he said.

When he returned to his apartment, Tae removed his fleece and wrapped the book around it. He did not want Ellie to see and inquire about it before he shelved it with the books of other classmates and friends, books he rarely opted to read. Perhaps he was being paranoid. Ellie was not Oliver. She was not interested in his writing past, or his writing future. Once, while she was on the phone with a friend, she referred to it as a hobby. He’d winced, but it was true. He was not that kind of writer anymore. Christine excepted, he lived lavishly compared to these classmates, who taught at no-name colleges or toiled as editors and communications staff at nonprofits. Publishing advances, even good ones, were pitiable. Less than his typical annual bonus.

He remembered, then, that he hadn’t looked at the inscription on Christine’s book. He unraveled the fleece and paused to look at the cover: iridescent blue, with a dark-haired woman, back turned, walking down a path framed by willows. He wondered if her fame gave her the final say, or if the marketing department had forced her to accept this one. Maybe she liked it. He opened the book to its title page. So, so, wonderful to see you! With all my love, Minji.

She must have signed a hundred books that day. He wondered what her words signified, how they compared against those she wrote strangers. Did she also receive her love?

He closed the book, began re-wrapping it with his fleece. The speculation was pointless, it was over, whatever they had between them. Meeting her had proven that.  

Copyright © 1999 – 2024 Juked