Kayla avoided the Korean-owned stores in her northeast D.C. neighborhood. This meant Park’s Hardware, H Street Wig, Lee Beauty & Barber Supply, Joo-Lee Cleaners, Mimi’s Convenience, Me & My Mini Mart, and Father–Son. On this dewy spring morning, she’d risen early, insomniac. Wanting to avoid Len reaching for her as he usually would in the sleepy mornings of their Mondays off together, she’d crept from the bed to sneak out for cigarettes. With the sun merely a suggestion on the horizon she started to walk the four blocks to the Amoco for cigarettes, but saw a welcoming trapezoid of light on the gum-speckled sidewalk in front of the Me & My.
The moment she stepped inside, she felt alien. More not-herself than usual. And for no other reason than the presence of the Asian young man behind the counter encased in a thick Plexiglas wall. She took her time pouring coffee, listening to the news blaring on his TV. Foul play was suspected in the disappearance of Richard Kim, a Georgetown Law student, missing now for five days. She sipped her large coffee and slid a Sara Lee cheese pastry on the barrel-sized lazy Susan cut into the Plexiglas wall. The guy said nothing, his eyes on her, his brush-stroke eyebrows raised. She saw his question there and said, “Korean,” a tad belligerent. She waited for the swell of blood-recognition in his eyes, and a wink, nod, or shrug of countryhood. And sure enough, there it came, but as a smile. Actually a nice smile of big straight teeth between smooth lips.
She couldn’t help it and smiled back. “Newport Lights,” she said. She dreaded the next question, felt it floating in the expelled air of the lazy Susan as it twirled to take her money.
“Mal haeyo? Do you speak Korean?” Sure, he had to ask. They all did. A natural inquiry, considering the factors: She Korean, he Korean, why shouldn’t he ask? And there on the news, a missing Korean—another reason to connect over being Korean.
“No.” She wanted to get out of there, dodge having to deliver the usual excuses that reinforced her Korean unworthiness.
“Special today, two for one,” he said, throwing three packs of cigarettes in the bag with the Sara Lee. He had plenty of accent and his hands seemed extra showy, nearly dancing.
“Hey thanks,” and then, to acknowledge the gifts, “I was born here. I understand a little, but don’t speak.”
“Free lighters today.” He threw two lighters in the bag.
“Hey.” Now both their smiles were wide. “Liar,” she said.
“No, no! Never a liar. Good man, never tell lie.”
“Good Samaritan then,” she said backing out the door, waving.
She smiled the block and a half back to her building. At her car parked out front, she stashed the extra cigarettes and lighter in with the spare tire—too much trouble to explain the freebies to Len. He wouldn’t approve of her walking H Street in the dark. When he’d moved in six years ago in 1992, she thought his protective instinct for her endearing. But over time she discerned his discomfort at being one of the few white guys in the building and on the block—he’d cross the street when more than one man approached, or he’d be overly friendly to Mrs. Bess and the numerous Perkins family members who sat on their stoops watching the world, or he refused to eat the grilled chicken and fixings generously offered on a greasy paper plate on the Fourth of July. To Kayla, who mostly felt other no matter where she was, the neighborhood was normal, friendlier even, than the Rockville suburbs where she’d grown up, or the New England town where she’d gone to college.
She carefully shut the heavy door of their third-floor apartment, which would slam in the jamb if you didn’t catch it. The rooms were dim, smelling faintly of the fryolator and stale beer staining their shoes and uniforms in the hamper. They both worked at La Tomate, where they had met all those years ago, crashing into each other in the narrow dining room—she a waiter, he the new bartender.
Leonard’s snores rattled from their bedroom. She could picture him on his back, his whiskered neck exposed from the pillow beneath it, his dark curls knotted from tossing all night. He had sleep apnea and it made him a crabby awake person, but neither of them could stand the sound of the CPAP machine his father-the-doctor had given him. She had never admitted out loud that its rhythmic pulsing (or rather, his rhythm of breathing amplified by the machine) gave her the sensation of drowning, a strikingly unoriginal metaphor for the decline of their relationship.
On the balcony Kayla perched on a metal stool next to its companion stool holding a clean ashtray. At least she was fastidious about her filthy habit, as they both rightly called it. She never smoked around Len the asthmatic. She washed the ashtray and her hands frequently and dumped the foul-smelling butts in a lidded tin flour canister lined with a plastic bag. An orange glow slid through the tender new maple leaves in front of the balcony, and the mist on the asphalt lifted in the damp. She buttoned her denim jacket closed, riffled her spiky short hair and wrapped one leg twice around the other. She sipped coffee and picked at the pastry, then shoved it back in its sleeve for Len. Recalling the brief exchange she’d had at the Me & My made her smile. It’d been a long time since she’d flirted with anyone (or anyone had flirted with her), including the customers at La Tomate, and it made her buzz in a way that proved she was still alive, still young, that the world was still full of possibility. Even though the guy was Asian. Even though he was Korean.
Long ago she’d made a rule never to date Asian men, especially Korean men, though now she couldn’t remember why or how that rule originated. What she did remember was laughing with Len soon after they’d slept together—that dating a Korean would be like kissing her brother. With no siblings, she’d made that up to be funny, but also believed it could be true. The cigarette smoke shifted in nebulous shapes in the moist breeze, and she envisioned the lively hands of the Korean man behind the Me & My counter, behind that bullet-proof Plexiglas.
She smoked and sipped coffee, yawned and watched the neighborhood lighten. Monday day-offs were always hopeful—no need to dress in black shirt and black pants, to bus and train it to Dupont Circle. With the new owners the food had become average and overpriced, but the prominent triangular building with two of its sides framed in old-fashioned glass bays continued to attract customers, especially the tourists and conventioneers from the Hilton up the street.
Kayla stubbed out her cigarette and made a mental list for today’s picnic at the Arboretum for just the two of them. Last Christmas Leonard’s mother had given them a traditional picnic basket, wicker with plasticware and stemmed glasses, red-and-white checkered napkins and matching tablecloth, leather and Velcro straps under the top and inside to secure the whatnot. They used it once and discovered that despite its romantic image, the picnic basket was clumsy and impractical. Another terrible metaphor for us, she thought.
Had she fallen out of love with Len? Had she ever really been in love? Or was that first heady attraction something else, some dredged-up need from her past that he had exhibited the potential to fulfill? And then she stayed with him because she cared about him and didn’t want to wound him. He made her laugh (the most common reason couples fall in love, she’d read in Cosmo), they both loved art and movies and rollerblading, had fun together—and it was easier to stay the course than not. Also sex with Len was still great, except those few occasions when she couldn’t bear the sight of his hairy chest pressed against her breasts. The first time she felt that revulsion, it seemed so contrary to the other pleasures her body was reveling in that she considered it a leftover sensation from a past life which was now her responsibility to work through. She had laid her cheek on Len’s chest, his curly hairs tickling the side of her mouth, and said, “Maybe this is why we’re meant to be together.”
“My god, you’re the best ever,” he’d said, obviously thinking she meant their sex.
The sun touched the edge of the steel balcony and a stroke of gold refracted onto her wrist. Balanced on the stool, Kayla hugged her knees and decided the metaphors were exaggerations. Like everyone said, he was the best thing that had ever happened to her. She would overcome her doubts and affirm her love, at least as much as she had the capacity to love.
He knocked on the sliding glass door, rubbing his eyes like a child, and she hurried inside to give him a fat hug. Covering her mouth with her fingers, she said, “Don’t kiss me, I just had a smoke.”
“And I haven’t brushed my teeth, so let’s go for it,” he said, licking her fingers and nudging her lips with his tongue. She snaked a leg around his in a fake move to topple him and they wrestled, laughing, until she grabbed his bare ass with her chilled fingers. He hollered, claimed her the winner, and said he’d take his punishment in bed.
A sliver of ice unexpectedly hit her heart. “Get your clothes on and let’s skate,” she said. “I’ll make coffee for the loser instead.”
After breakfast—guilt pushed her to cook omelets—they rollerbladed to Lincoln Park, then wove between the parked cars and the marble paving surrounding the Capitol. Len raced her on East Capitol and down 10th to Pennsylvania, and they stopped in at Mangialardo’s for Italian subs to go. Seeing the gentle spring-greening of the city energized Kayla, and the plethora of tight buds promising lush blossoming trees made her feel joyous. Len, too, seemed buoyed by the day.
Later in the dogwood grove of the Arboretum, they spread a blanket midway down the broad grassy slope that led to a small pond backed by a stand of trees. Young and old dogwoods unfurled their new leaves in the temperate afternoon, and Len and Kayla picnicked on the Italian subs and a lovely chardonnay. They lolled on the blanket talking about when they should quit the restaurant and (with Len’s father’s help) start the catering and special-event company they had often planned. She relaxed into this familiar conversation about a future together, her head in his lap, him fingering her tufted hair. She breathed in the perfect freshness of the full afternoon and soon saw Len’s eyes close to the soothing complacency of the wine.
“You nap,” she said, pushing him flat on the blanket, “I’ll go down the hill and have a smoke.”
She lit up when she was 40 paces from him and headed to the pond, which, as she neared, was far bigger than it had appeared from their blanket. The rich odor of decomposition rose from the pond, littered with leaves from last fall, black with rot. The water itself appeared black with a strange unknowable depth, and between floating debris the surface cast a glaring reflection of the blue sky. Her eye caught on something pale in the water and she went closer.
She saw toes, a white foot. Her insides turned over and she ran off a few yards, a scream caught in her throat. She inhaled on the cigarette, smashed it beneath her shoe and breathed the scent of new grass. She’d been mistaken. She’d go back and really look to prove that she hadn’t glimpsed the foot of the missing law student Richard Kim. Oh, his poor parents! she thought.
She looked toward the blanket and Len, prone and probably snoring. She steeled herself and stepped purposefully to the far side of the pond. Yes, there was that paleness, two long stripes as wide as limbs. Closer. Unmistakably feet. Ten toes. Two feet and legs, hairy feet and legs, the dark hairs wavering in high contrast to the pale flesh against the black depth of the water. Her blood pounding, she willed herself to look further up those legs, but they ended in blackness. She ran to the blanket and shook Len awake.
“There’s a body, I think there’s a body—”
“Go see, in the pond!”
He sped down the hill and she followed him halfway, watched him study the pond, circling, then how he drew back when he reached the far side. He gave her a look, then went closer. “Call 911,” he shouted.
Kayla ran to the blanket and retrieved his cell phone. She went to the top of the hill by the road to get reception, and, her voice weak, told the operator about the body and their whereabouts. Len joined her by the road. Within five minutes they heard sirens and waved down the two fire trucks and ambulance. Men in dark blue shirts, steel helmets, and floppy boots spilled out of the vehicles, some carrying a board or a kind of stretcher, a long pole with a broad hook, rope, gloves, other items whose purpose Kayla didn’t want to think about. “I’ll stay up here,” she said, hugging jittery arms.
Len led the men to the pond and stood aside while they looked hard into the water. One of them got a stick from the stand of trees and poked the pond. Laughter ensued. They said something to Len, and he said something back. More laughter.
Kayla knew there was no body, and though she hadn’t prayed since she was a little girl, she said a little prayer for Richard Kim, still missing. She said a prayer for his parents too. The emergency workers strolled back up the hill, casual and bantering. When she passed them, she waved and said thanks. At the pond, Len showed her how someone had stepped into the pond and disturbed the black algae that coated its pale bottom. The legs she’d seen were slide marks from when the person slid to the edge and stepped out, leaving the two perfect footprints. The hair was still there—the live cilia of algae at work to coat the exposed pond bottom again with black. The blackness of the algae and rotting leaves, the water itself had given the footprints a deceiving dimensionality. Len took her hand. “They asked me why I didn’t poke it with a stick.”
“I heard them laughing. What did you say?”
“I accused them of seeing it as a body, too. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t,’ I said. We were all smiling I think with relief, and I said, ‘You weren’t sure yourselves until you poked at it,’ and that’s what made them laugh.”
“It’s crazy,” said Kayla, swishing the water with the fireman’s stick. “I thought it was that missing law student.” But she understood that it never could’ve been Richard Kim—Koreans didn’t have body hair like that. She flashed on the young man’s hands behind the counter at Me & My, elegant, hairless.
Len put his arm around her shoulder and they walked up the slope to gather their picnic things. She put her arm around his waist, but saw with the edge of her eye how the back of Len’s hands were as hairy as that phantom in the pond.
Eugenia Kim is the author of The Calligrapher’s Daughter, winner of the Borders Original Voices Award, and a Washington Post Best Historical Novel of 2009. She teaches at Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA creative writing program, and occasionally at The Writer’s Center.