Dad calls milestones page-turners. Once in a while, when a brilliant touchdown play is executed during Monday Night Football, Dad clinks his German beer can with an imaginary friend and bellows, “Jack! Suzy! That’s a page-turner! Did you see that? A page-turner!” I wonder who he believes he’s talking to. In the evenings, Mom usually has her head over a pot of braised meat while blasting classic rock, and I do homework in my room down the hall. But his boisterous roar of page-turner reverberates through the creaky walls of our mustard yellow, one-story house, through the leaky toilet pipes and the delicately maintained lawn and the unopened cereal box that’s been waiting in our overcrowded pantry for a year now.
I am not a page-turner guy. I have Mom’s wet dirt eyes, button nose and paper-thin pink lips. I’m tall, 6 foot 3, but I’m scrawny. My pediatrician proudly told my mother once that I have a high metabolism. That doesn’t mean anything except that I’ll probably get fat when I’m 40 when my metabolism drastically decreases, and that I’ll never have muscles like Thor.
Dad has a lot of weird habits and mannerisms other than his appreciation for page-turners. He aggressively terminates whole apples in four bites or less. He hates crowds except for the farmer’s market, usually frequented by young techie families and college students. Whenever our family goes, every week from April to October, he protrudes in his worn-out Old Navy plaid shirts and jeans. Despite the fact that he’s an atheist who hates God and church, which, for the record, I don’t believe is possible (you can’t hate something while denying its existence), Dad is a big fan of rituals. He watches football every Monday night, he shaves every morning promptly at 7:30, even on weekends, and every two weeks, he drives me to Annie’s Burgers, a retro mom-and-pop diner, for a “man-to-man” dinner. I rarely say anything. He usually complains about the deteriorating state of the world, reiterates the man’s role in the family and society, praises my grandfather and his humble past in the military and occasionally talks about my mother.
Sometimes I believe that Dad’s grand gestures and rituals are a desperate effort to maintain the world as he knows it — the world where apples aren’t manufactured by Monsanto’s GMOs, marriage is sacred and Yuval Noah Harari didn’t write Homo Deus, his chilling apocalyptic analysis predicting the fall of humanity to sovereign artificial intelligence.
I never ask Dad if this is the truth.
Today, Dad and I drive toward Annie’s Burgers for our bimonthly dinner. Dad drives recklessly, blasting Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust, nodding vigorously to the beat, while I sit silently, appreciating Queen’s catchy ecclesiastical lament about how everything in this world is destined for the spindly hands of death. I imagine death’s grip to look like Gollum’s pale hands clutching the Ring. At the first stoplight, I fiddle with my feet underneath the seat, feeling the friction of a small piece of delicate cloth. I put both of my feet over the cloth — perhaps a used napkin — and inch it forward to see what it is. It is not a napkin. It is a woman’s burgundy lace thong, bloodshed on the car floor. Mom doesn’t wear thongs. She wears packaged old-lady briefs from the Korean market. I goggle at Dad and at the thong. I forget how to swallow my saliva, and it dribbles onto my school sweatshirt. My father is having an affair, I realize, incredulous.
No, it’s not a thong. While Dad keeps his eyes on the road, I glance at it again to make sure, moving it with my rubber sneaker soles and feeling the friction of satin against the linty car floor. It’s not an affair, then. I want to inconspicuously slap myself in the face. Why else would Dad have a woman’s thong in the shotgun car seat? Did she sit here too? The seat suddenly feels vile and tainted, and the fabric envelops my buttocks, traces of sin creeping up my torso like an invasive vine.
“How was school today?” Dad asks, turning the music down.
“Good,” I respond tersely.
Dad prefers simple answers. From my experience, he usually doesn’t comprehend answers that go past five words. Besides, I cannot speak. My mouth is glued shut by pure, unadulterated shock. Our eyes unexpectedly meet. I try to find any sign of guilt, but Dad’s cornflower eyes are fish placid. I wonder if Mom knows about the affair. When was the last time I saw Mom? She dropped me off at school this morning and told me to eat the podo grapes she had packed in my lunch. Her eyes were distant, drugged glass. Her body probably itched to return to the comforting embrace of the bubbly Korean reality television she watches daily from an illegal VPN on her 10-year-old laptop.
Contemplating my mother, I sigh in the car. I never told Mom that I actually disliked podo grapes. Their blue-violet plump circumferences haunt my dreams. Eating shouldn’t be a game or a puzzle, but eating seeded grapes requires technique to separate the grape seeds and to spit them out with the tongue. When I was a kid, I worried that if I swallowed a seed, grapevines would sprout from my stomach, crawl through my esophagus and shoot from my mouth. But Mom probably assumes that I like podo grapes. Would her feelings be hurt if I told her the truth? Regardless, the burgundy thong is not my mother’s. I am certain. I help Mom fold the family’s laundry, and I know the blob-like shape of her withered cotton granny panties, the fraying thread of their scalloped edges. Mom would never buy anything so silky, new, American.
Outside, I observe orderly sedans and minivans stopping for gas at the crusty gas station and people dashing to the supermarket, perhaps to buy baking powder for a new batch of blueberry muffins. Our family never bakes. It isn’t Dad’s favorite thing to do, and Mom doesn’t know how. She learned how to cook from her mother, guided by the instincts of her ancestors who inhabited a land with lush emerald mountains and shattered pottery sorrow. My mother’s best dishes are marinated meats and spicy stews, but Dad doesn’t tolerate pungent kimchi or any kind of spice at all. Mom keeps her kimchi faithfully in an old-fashioned refrigerator in the garage. Sometimes, late at night, I watch her tiptoe towards the garage to bring a rice-bowl full back inside to eat with rice, her eyes glistening with childish mischief.
Dad and Mom originally bonded over their love for classic rock. In South Korea, Mom listened to the fluctuating rhythms and melodies of every 1970s Western rock band on the radio. She knew all the words to her favorite songs that her limited English could muster. Dad and Mom met at a steakhouse a few cities away from where we live now. They were in the waiting area for an hour, and the restaurant’s playlist was ’70s and ’80s rock, some good Fleetwood Mac, Queen and The Police. Dad noticed Mom subtly swaying to the music, mouthing all the words she had memorized by heart. She was a receptionist for some Korean dentist’s office, and she didn’t know much English back then. He approached her. They were married in less than a year, and they have been married ever since.
She learned how to cook from her mother, guided by the instincts of her ancestors who inhabited a land with lush emerald mountains and shattered pottery sorrow.
I don’t know why my parents got married. On most evenings, Dad’s television and Mom’s rock jams mold themselves into a unified awful cacophony. Is this dissonance symbolic of their marriage, cracked pottery between manly sportscasters and old-fashioned music? Do I live between the corpses of two human beings who refuse to acknowledge the real world at their doorstep?
“Jack,” Dad nudges me. “We’re here.”
I just notice that it’s raining. The weeping window lets the burden of the rain loose, water droplets falling down, down, down. Dad and I sit in our warm seats in the parking lot. Silently, we maneuver ourselves out of the car and walk to Annie’s Burgers.
Whenever Dad and I go alone to Annie’s Burgers, we sit at the booth in front of the dilapidated bar, even if I am underage. We always order the same juicy cheeseburgers with fluffy sesame buns and homemade Thousand Island, along with extra tomatoes. The restaurant smells like grease, cinnamon and white people. Annie, an elderly white halmoni who always gives me extra onion rings, personally welcomes every guest, regardless of how busy the restaurant is. Tonight is moderately busy, usual for a weekday evening.
“Yoo-hoo!” Annie pops her head out from the hostess counter, wearing a red checkered apron over a white T-shirt and baggy jeans.
“Annie, good to see you,” Dad responds, shaking her hand firmly. “How is business?”
“Arthur and Jack, it’s been a while. I thought you boys and Suzy moved.” Annie addresses Dad and Mom by their first names. “I’m doing well! The husband is still doing his consulting.”
Everyone in town knows that Annie’s husband, a consultant, is fairly well-to-do, but she continues to work in the restaurant business. I wonder why. If I had the money, I would live in a wood cabin for a few years like transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, then write my own personal Walden. A few years ago, Annie explained her reasoning to me. She said that Annie’s Burgers was one of her children and that running the restaurant had become a way of life. I wish I could love something like it was my own child. What is love? Is packing podo grapes love? Is going to eat at burger restaurants love?
Is marriage love? If marriage is love, then why did Dad cheat on Mom with the mystery thong woman?
“Business as usual,” Annie says. “We’re definitely getting a new crowd of techies. I like them, though. Their toddlers are adorable.” Her eyebrows furrow at the word techies. It’s what she calls the hordes of software engineers moving to the suburbs.
“Toddlers are something else, though,” Dad heartily laughs.
“He was so well-behaved as a toddler.” Annie beams at me. “Didn’t even cry. He was a little quiet.”
“I wish he had cried,” Dad sighs. “He’s too quiet now. All he does is think.”
“Hush, Arthur,” Annie says. “Some people are just like that. We need thinkers in our society of go-getters. Let’s get you two seated. I still remember your orders.”
We sit again at the bar, the faux leather stools cracked, revealing their yellow foamy insides. “Mom said you were doing a project after school,” Dad begins.
I sense hesitation in his voice.
“History project,” I reply. “We did Malcolm X.”
“How was that?”
Was it good? I don’t know. I still know nothing about Malcolm X other than the fact that he promoted violent protests and that he was a Muslim. Dad briefly stops sipping and looks at me. “Did you go to the market with Mom? The … um, I forgot-”
“H-Mart, Dad,” I spare him the discomfort of wrangling his brain for information probably buried in the recesses of his long-term memory.
Mom isn’t a creature of habit. On the weekends, her sleep schedule is dependent on the length of the episode of variety television she watched the night before. Her weekdays have more routine, solely because she drives me to school. Occasionally, she oversleeps her alarm clock and forgets to pack me lunch, profusely apologizing and giving me a few folded dollars to buy previously frozen cafeteria chicken fried rice.
The only thing Mom does habitually is go to the local H-Mart. Every Thursday afternoon, for as long as I can remember, after picking me up from school, we drive 20 minutes to a worn-down parking lot facing a gargantuan ivory shopping center. Ajummas in floral silk and ajushis in olive cargo walk in and out like robotic Legos or puzzle pieces. Mom and I walk inside and join the organized bustle, an entryway into Korean microcosm. Inside, vendors sell everything imaginable — podo grapes, neon cookware, pastel quilted bedding, white bread in flimsy plastic, beef intestine, young woman’s lipstick for middle-aged women playing pretend, produce caged in Styrofoam, alive despairing fish in rectangular tanks. Mom personally knows not only every vendor and most of the red-vested cashiers but also the layout of the market itself. While others bump into each other with bulky carts attempting to pass each other in slim aisles, Mom assertively leads the way, taking more efficient alternative routes to avoid the shopping traffic.
I wish I could love something like it was my own child. What is love? Is packing podo grapes love? Is going to eat at burger restaurants love?
Dad isn’t a big fan of the market because he cannot enjoy what he cannot understand. He has the firm belief that contemplation is not a manly pursuit. He doesn’t realize that many major philosophers, beginning from Socrates to the postmodernist greats, are all men. Every time we talk, he gives a disclaimer, like the start of every Untold Stories of the E.R. episode. “Jack”, he says, “don’t try to unpack what I’m saying. Remember that men don’t think, they just do.” Don’t you have to think in order to do? I always think. I probably tried bringing this up to Dad once or twice, but eventually, I stopped trying. Converting Dad to the philosophy lifestyle will not be the hill I choose to die on. I usually just let him rattle on, absorbing every word he carelessly chooses at our Annie’s Burgers’ dinners like the osmosis potato without saying anything in return.
But the burgundy thong flashes in my mind, a cold reminder that an old married dog can learn new tricks.
Dad and I sip our respective drinks until the burgers come, and when they do, their meaty aroma makes my stomach twist and growl. I instantly take a bite of mine, savoring the medium rare juices and acidic tomato, forgetting to pray over the food. Whenever Mom is there, we pray together before eating. But Mom isn’t here, so I eat. Dad also takes a bite of his burger and swallows it carefully.
“Jack,” he asks, “I want to ask you something, and I want you to answer honestly.”
Is he going to ask about the affair? I panic, not at the disco. Did he know I knew? Did he place the burgundy thong in the car on purpose? Was I going to be tested like Neo in The Matrix? Take the blue pill, and don’t say anything like you always do. Be quiet and thoughtful like you always have been. Or take the red pill, grab the creaky barstool on your left, and fight your much stronger father to the death?
I’m not that man. Even when I grow taller and older, I will never be that man. The wealthy suited businessman making deals in a building with glass windows overlooking a New York skyline. The football player willing to get his head bashed on the field. The fighter stabbing with jagged words and raw fists. Dad wants me to metamorphose into someone, the brash American go-getter, that I was clearly not. Why couldn’t he see that?
“How would you describe Mom’s and my marriage?”
“What?” I gasp.
Dad is completely silent. I don’t want to talk about marriage. I feel like the burgundy thong is about to twist its satin string and lace body around my neck and choke me in the middle of Annie’s Burgers. After a while, I finally ask, “Why do you want to know?”
He bites his lip, pauses, and after another long few minutes, says, “Because we’re a family. You, me and Mom. And because Mom is distant, you know?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Um,” Dad struggles to speak, babbling. “The television, and the spicy food and the … the … I don’t know … the eyes.”
“Her eyes. They’re too … dark? Do you know what I mean? Um … she misses something, but it’s not me.”
I am incredibly confused, and then I understand. I attempt to talk in simpler words, so Dad will understand me, also for the first time in my life.
“The half of me,” I say, “that’s not you.”
“So, what do you think?” he asks. “You know I love her.”
I stare blankly at him. You do? Then why did you cheat?
“I don’t know,” I say, after some time. “How am I supposed to know?”
“Well, you’re our son. You know me. You know Mom.”
The burgundy thong, now ingrained in the fabric of my mind, blends with the scarlet walls of Annie’s Burgers and the half-eaten, Thousand Island-dripping tomato in my burger. I am suddenly overwhelmed by thoughts of my kimchi-sneaking, granny underwear-donning mother. Part of me wants to scream from the restaurant booth to the black void parking lot and the underground sewers. My fists quiver in my jean pockets. I clench my back molars, tightening my cheek muscles. I silently rage against the dying of the light, like that poem by Dylan Thomas that I memorized in English class. But instead of screaming, I cry. The tears first well up in my eyes, two saline under-eye pockets, then awkwardly run down my nostrils.
“Are you crying?” Dad asks. “C’mon, Jack, don’t cry.”
“No,” I mutter, trying to wipe my tears with my sweatshirt sleeves.
I thought you and Mom were happy. But you cheated, so I guess not.
“Men don’t cry,” Dad says.
“I know,” I reply automatically, since Dad says this all the time.
But the tears don’t stop and eventually my throat tightens with the urge to wail. I see Mom jamming to Western 1980s rock over the ballads of her people. I feel Mom’s hands connecting mine with interwoven silk string to a homeland of podo grapes she misses dearly, even if this land is several time zones and thousands of miles away. Mom transcends all my other thoughts. Mom’s brown eyes. Her circular nose. Her dainty liver spots and freckles she attempts to cover with CC cream from the Korean market.
“Why are you crying? I just asked a question,” Dad says.
My tears flow down my flushed cheeks and some drop on my plate, conglomerating with Thousand Island and indenting the fluffy half-eaten bun. I can barely articulate myself, so I choose to not say anything. Soggy corn flakes disappointment and sorrow from a failed quest to find a home in what could never be, like in the movies. And emptiness, somewhat nostalgic. Deep and all-consuming like Murakami’s well from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Disappointed, lugubrious, emptiness.
Perhaps I sang with the spirit of Mom’s homeland that night at Annie’s Burgers, or perhaps I released a melancholy dragon concealed within my lanky body. No one knows, but the next Thursday afternoon, I go the Korean market with Mom and buy the podo grapes myself.