Music so faint she mistakes it for thought.
By morning she usually forgets whatever songs she wrote the night before. Sometimes she salvages one and figures it out on her guitar, but the new song is usually so different that she can’t trace it back to its spark. That’s her answer to friends who hint that her songwriting methods border on plagiarism. But it’s not she who’s writing the songs; they’re written by liminal delusion, by mishearing, by stillborn dreams. It’s true that she controls the playlist, an ever-growing creature cobbled together by various genres. A creature named Nepenthe. She feeds it a glut of emblematic ballads. She tells it to shuffle, but it does the shuffling. Then she lies in bed and lets the subaudible provoke the subconscious.
This song . . . Knocks Me Off My Feet? No, not even close: Nick Cave’s Lucy. And, like every time she recognizes a song, the composition she’d been flirting with vanishes. If she really wants any new material, she’ll have to get up out of bed and turn down her computer speakers a microscopic degree. But that will set back her passage into sleep at least another ten minutes.
And she isn’t getting much sleep these days; that’s the main problem with this job. At the slightest hallway noises, not to mention the late-night “emergency” knocks, her heart responds overdramatically. Then she has to decide whether to get up, to risk a draining argument with one of her students (ninety percent of the time Chelsea Cicoria) about why exactly her reasons for roaming the halls after lightsout are invalid. Then another noise. Laughter. All the more irksome because they think they’re getting away with something. She finds herself attentively awaiting exactly what she hopes not to hear.
The identified Lucy concludes, and mere volume transforms the next song from something she’s heard a million times, a song that once defined an August or October, into a catchy riddle of guitar and trumpet, three plus three plus two. She decides against flipping on her lamp and trying to jot it all down on staff paper— not because it isn’t worth remembering, but rather because it’s so distinct that she’s sure she won’t forget it tomorrow. And her first nonsensical thought of the night, the damp band between tide and dry sand: Men will tear at their pretty little cages until they are free—
A knock on her bedroom door.
What night is it? Tuesday or Wednesday, her days off? Can she ignore it?
No, it’s Saturday, right in the middle of her untraditional workweek. She rolls over and looks at the red letters on her digital clock. Two forty-eight am. The second knock seems to be the actual muscles springing her out of bed as she throws on a tee shirt and some pajama pants. “Just a minute!”
Although she expects her prime drama queen, Arielle Hendry, or possibly some antics centered around Ms. Cicorea, she’s surprised to find Min Ji Ahn on the threshold, crying.
“Sorry Dani, sorry,” Min Ji whimpers, taking a few tiny shuffle steps toward the open door.
Annoyance is now impossible; it’s like trying to be annoyed with Min Ji’s bunny slippers or her pink pajamas covered in cartoon skulls and bombs with lit fuses.
“Min Ji, what’s wrong?” Dani asks, not moving from her position in the doorway.
The tiny girl looks right and left down the dorm hallway, whispers, “Can we talk please?”
“We can talk in the office downstairs,” Dani replies.
“In your room?”
“Only if I prop the door open.”
The residence life protocol is awkward, especially to an emotionally-distraught, newly arrived international student. Dani concedes the doorway. “No big deal,” she says, maybe mostly to herself, as just the windowlessness of the door enclosing her in a room with a student feels somehow scandalous. Dani pushes some clothes off of her couch and motions for Min Ji to sit down.
“Thank you Dani,” the girl says, not sitting down until Dani does.
“Would you like something? Some hot cocoa?”
“No thank you.”
“Can you tell me what’s bothering you?”
Min Ji hangs her head, shaking it back and forth for a moment. Her shoulders begin quivering.
“Min Ji,” Dani says, holding out a box of tissues.
Min Ji’s arm is covered in doodles and writing (Dani admittedly can’t tell doodle from Korean), as if her peers had mistaken her skin for a fiberglass cast. Like most of the Koreans who aren’t pianists, Min Ji’s concentration is visual art; like most visual artists, she seems unconcerned by the department head’s crusade to let the world know that this type of tattooing is a gateway to cutting.
“Thank you Dani.” But a minute passes and she says nothing more.
“Min Ji, I’m gonna have trouble helping if you don’t tell me what’s on your mind.”
She continues to shake her head, covering her face with a tissue.
“Problems at home?” Dani tries. “With school? With Klaus?” Each of these guesses elicits no different reaction. “With your friends?”
Here she stops shaking her head, sniffs, blows her nose.
“Is that it? Is it social?”
Min Ji looks up. “What is . . .”
Her gaze falls back to the floor. “I can’t . . .”
“You can, Min Ji. You can trust me.”
There is something ancient and delphic in Min Ji’s bloodshot eyes. “Promise they won’t find out I tell.”
The counselors are cautioned against making promises to students, especially in regard to confidentiality. She looks away. “Min Ji, you need to tell me so I can try to help.”
But it isn’t until Dani looks back at the girl and nods that she comes out with it, quickly, almost like one giant word: “My friend’s dad is in Jopok and will kill my parents if I wear clouds.”
Although Dani understands all but one of the words, the whole sentence seems foreign.
“What is Jopok, Min Ji?”
“Is like . . . is like . . . Korean Italians.”
Dani has to disguise her laughter as a cough.
“Is like Korean Italian gang . . .”
“The Korean mafia?” Dani guesses.
Min Ji nods.
“And your friend’s dad is in the Jopok and will hurt your family if . . .”
“Will kill, yes.”
“If you do what?”
“If I don’t do everything my friend says.”
“What kind of stuff does she ask you to do?”
“Do all her homework plus all mine, stay up talking to her all night, wake her up for class every morning . . .”
“What about the clouds?”
Again Min Ji’s gaze falls to the carpet. “Today I wear new shirt with clouds, and I don’t know she was only girl who can wear clouds. She took my sketchbook.”
“Are you talking about Sun Ah?”
Min Ji’s head shoots back up. “She can’t know I tell.”
“Well, you didn’t really tell me her name, right?” Dani says. “All you mentioned were clouds.”
Min Ji lets slip a smile.
“How are things going with Klaus?” Dani asks, referring to the unlikely friendship between Min Ji and a freshman boy from Austria who speaks as little English as she—possibly the most adorable couple Dani has ever encountered.
The smile wins, and Dani envisions cartoon hearts popping above Min Ji’s head. “He so cute.”
When Dani told her about the conversation, Cora Csoke, the residence life manager, knew she would have to get the dean involved. Janelle Bazelguette thanked her for her prompt attention to the matter and set up a nine o’clock meeting for Monday morning.
Relaying the news of ad hoc meetings always proved distasteful, this time triply so.
Dani looked anxious. “Can we be sure that Min Ji’s name won’t be brought up?”
“We’ll try to keep it anonymous, the whole ‘multiple source’ route probably.”
“If Sun Ah finds out who told us, I’m sure she’ll take it out on Min Ji.”
“Then she’ll get sent home,” Cora shrugged. “We’re not gonna put up with this bullshit.”
Informed at sign-in Sunday night, Sun Ah met the news with a momentary scowl. Her hair was cut at a sharp upward angle at her shoulders, ending in tips like the ears of a lynx. She wore her powder blue cloud jacket as usual, the one where the multicolored zipper teeth traveled all the way up and around the baggy hood. Sun Ah quickly traded her annoyance for exaggerated bafflement.
“What is the meeting about?”
“No worries,” Cora assured her. “We just want to talk over a few things, some rumors that’ve been going around.”
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
“Who has been talking about me?”
“Nine o’clock, Sun Ah. You know where Janelle’s office is?”
“Nine o’clock . . . so early.”
From Min Ji, she expected panic. Instead, sorrow. The detachment of having set something in motion big enough to turn her into a spectator of her own life. Her words were urgent but her voice was resigned.
“But . . . I said she could not find out. Dani promised.”
“Don’t worry, Min Ji—you won’t be at the meeting. Janelle is really good at handling this type of thing. We’ll make sure to leave you out of it.”
“It won’t matter . . .”
“You said Sun Ah picks on all the freshmen and sophomores, right?”
“I am very youngest.”
“It could be any one of you that came to us. Or several of you,” Cora said. “It’ll be very clear to her that, if it continues, there’ll be big consequences. Like she could get sent home. So you’ll have to come tell us if she says anything more. Understand?”
“But what about my family?”
“Sun Ah was making that up to try and scare you.”
“How do you know? My family lives in Icheon.”
“We have to try, Min Ji. We can’t let this kind of thing happen.”
“You will only make it worse.”
Monday morning Cora arrives a few minutes late, already finding Dani and Sun Ah assembled in the small lobby outside Janelle’s office. “Good morning,” she says but receives no reply. “Is Janelle in?”
“She’s on the phone,” Dani responds. “She said she’d just be a minute.”
Sitting, Cora attempts to meet Sun Ah’s glare with a smile devoid of syrup or sympathy or smirk. A completely commonplace smile. “How are you this morning, Sun Ah?”
“Dani said this is about a complaint.”
The residence life director almost glances over at her counselor. That wasn’t really the right way to have put it.
“Who has complained about me?”
“Multiple sources have come to us expressing concern over a particular issue.”
“Many people are complaining about me?” Sun Ah should have been born with slit pupils.
“Just wait. We’ll all be able to talk about it in just a minute.”
Sun Ah settles back into her chair, glowering. Notes and cartoons and checkerboard designs cover her thin wrists to where they disappear inside her sleeves. She catches Cora looking and puts her hands in the pockets of her jeans. As soon as the door opens and Janelle appears, Sun Ah quickly stands and smiles, giving a little giggle when the dean welcomes them into her office. Janelle is dressed today in a pantsuit and leather clogs, a wispy African-looking scarf draped around her shoulders. Books and labeled binders line the particleboard desk along the back wall. Janelle quickly turns off the computer monitor that affords a brief glimpse of an inbox deluged with messages. Several lamps cast a calming tungsten glow on the four chairs that face each other over a round coffee table.
“Please sit down,” Janelle motions.
“Thank you,” Sun Ah beams, and Cora can already tell that she’s slipped into the thicker accent and more limited fluency behind which international students sometimes hide.
For a minute or two, Janelle puts on a show of being flustered, saying “Sometimes this place is just madness,” but smiling in the practiced way that enlists Cora, Dani, and the student as co-combatants against the madness—rather than its sources. She offers banana bread, disclosing a few tidbits about her weekend. Dani and Cora decline the foil-wrapped loaf, but Sun Ah daintily plucks a small piece and pops it into her mouth, saying, “Mmmm, thas so good!”
Then the clumsy moment when conversation segues into business. “Sun Ah,” Janelle leans forward confidentially, “it has come to our attention that some of the upper-school Korean girls are acting toward the younger girls in an antagonistic way . . . Do you understand that word?”
Sun Ah shakes her head in feigned apologetic embarrassment.
“That’s okay. What we’ve heard is that some of the older girls are acting like bullies, bossing the first- and second-year students around. We called together this little meeting in hopes that you can help us understand what’s going on.”
Sun Ah casts her eyes downward.
“Does the way I describe the situation sound accurate?” Janelle presses.
Sun Ah nods. “Some girls, yes. Is like back home.”
“Thank you for your honesty, Sun Ah. But what you need to understand is that this isn’t back home, and that type of behavior can’t be tolerated in a school setting.”
“What is . . .” Sun Ah trails off, playing with her zipper.
“It has to stop. If it keeps happening, we might need to have a more serious meeting and think about sending people home.”
“But . . . but . . . is not me!” the girl pleads earnestly, now looking the dean in the eyes.
“That’s not the information that has come to us—”
“From who? Who is saying these things?”
“That’s not what’s important, Sun Ah. You’re the oldest Korean girl at the school. I know this gives you a lot of clout, a lot of power and influence over the others. Do you know what I mean when I say ‘pecking order’?”
“Pecking?” she repeats, maybe desperately confused.
Janelle decides that this one isn’t worth the time trying to explain. “Unfortunately, this type of thing has happened in previous years—”
“When I was freshman, four years ago,” Sun Ah interrupts, “the older girls, they would make me cut my arms and help them throw up, and they would say every day that I am fat and I must throw up also.” Tears. “I promised that when I am senior I will not do such things. But the other girls . . . I do not have this power. It is not pecking order. I don’t know why freshman girl would say my name. I’m the least who does this.”
She accepts a tissue from Janelle and dabs at her eyes. Cora suspects she wore extra mascara today.
“I’m sorry you had to go through all of that,” Janelle says. “It makes me very sad to hear that those kinds of things occur at this school. We’re not trying to make accusations—and if what you’re saying is true, I’m sorry about what we’re putting you through.”
“How come Jill is not here?” Sun Ah asks. “She is my counselor.”
“Today is Jill’s day off, and Dani was kind enough to sit in for her.”
“The girl is on Dani’s hall?”
“I was hoping I could ask for your help in trying to get rid of the type of behavior you describe,” Janelle continues.
Sun Ah nods.
“I think you have more power amongst the Korean girls than you’re telling us, especially in the art department. And I think you know this. I want to ask you to use that power to help these younger students who are feeling so threatened.”
Sun Ah opens her eyes wide, her lips quivering.
“Can you not tell me who is suffering?”
Now Janelle looks away, affected. Now down at the floor for a moment before turning again to the student.
“As I said before, Sun Ah, that’s not the point of this meeting. I need you to set a good example for the other seniors and to stand up for the younger students if they’re being treated badly. And I want you to tell us if anything bad is going on—Jill or Cora or me.”
“Tell Dani?” Sun Ah asks.
“Yes, you can tell any of the staff. That would be hugely helpful. Can you do that for us?”
“Yes, I want to help,” she smiles. “The girls do pick on Min Ji.”
Your daughter called again today.
Uh-oh. Same complaints?
What else? The older girls are being mean, saying things about her in class in Korean so the teachers don’t understand.
Do no adults speak Korean?
I guess not.
What did you tell her?
That she must toughen up and respect the older girls.
What if they are being cruel to her?
She said she’s afraid for us because one of the girl’s friends is in the Jopok, that she has threatened to have them hurt us and Sook Nyul.
She has a large imagination.
She says she wants to come home, that she must.
What? I should talk to her.
I think it is better to not react to such talk. I reminded her that this is her dream but the sacrifice of us all. I made her repeat after me, I am a lucky girl.
She is lucky. One day she will realize, when she is older and commands the respect.
The adults will call us, I am sure, if it gets very bad.
Blake was the only counselor who openly admitted to liking the Thursday administrative meetings: the confidentiality, the access to higher-ups, the flirtation with outright gossip, the scoop. An ironic, distanced enjoyment, he tried to assure himself. But sometimes he wondered . . .
“Shit stompin’” boots were a necessary component of his Thursday uniform, as was a tucked-in cowboy shirt (the letter but not the spirit of business casual). In the basement of the administrative building he would buy a thirty-five-cent cup of shitty coffee from one of those machines from the seventies that had somehow escaped retirement, feigning a shot of whisky, “passing a hand over his eyes” (a phrase in writing he’d only recently come to understand), invoking a movie line from some champion of world-weariness: Clive Owen or Harrison Ford or—the world-weariest in the world—Tommy Lee Jones.
Wallowing in the intolerability—that’s how he survived here, modeling himself a voice of reason but not the asshole kind. He had run into some trouble two months into the job when a parent screamed at him on the phone, extinguishing any confidence he’d been accruing. His own father had given him some strange advice, some words that had saved him thus far.
“You’re having a rough time because you’re trying to love your job,” he said during one late-night phone call. “Almost nobody loves their job.”
“So I should just . . . be okay with hating my job?”
“No, hatred leads to misery and unemployment. I’m talking about indifference. You have to fashion yourself a bastion of imperviousness if you want to do a good job and survive that snakepit.”
His father never talked like this. Never used words like love and hate. “Won’t indifference just look like I don’t care?”
“Not indifferent to the tasks,” his father stressed. “To the people.”
“Are you sure that’s not horrible advice?” Blake asked.
“If you befriend a student, he’ll get expelled. If you hate a student he’ll use that against you, and you’ll be right back where you are now. Invulnerability—place that word foremost in your mind. Cover your ass.”
And it had worked. He’d found heart in his heartlessness, comfort in his ability to handle the most awkward residential scenarios. He told his father it didn’t seem like any way to live. Would he do permanent harm to his humanity? It’s only a year, his father had consoled him, only nine months. Only seven more.
But now it’s five months, and as he walks into the sterile, windowless conference room, he wonders if this is what a calling sounds like. He takes a scalding sip and selects the quote he’ll repeat to himself throughout the day: “I like nightmares.” He talks too much at these meetings, and is fully aware of his infamy. But amidst all the bumbling and uncertainty and evasion, he relishes the clearly spoken fact, the opinion backed by solid incident, the connection cautiously suggested. Solution and recognized follow-through. His favorite: a contribution or anecdote regarding a student he shouldn’t necessarily know, but does-a boy who lives in another building, or a shy girl—the rolled eyes and impatience at his unnecessary stretching of this torturous meeting past the allotted hour.
Today he hopes to dominate a good sixty seconds rehashing his most recent phone call to Mr. Solorio, the father that had earlier berated Blake and seems now broodingly to despise him even more for his near-virtuosic composure and dispassion. But, as the meeting progresses, the conversation seems stalled around the particulars of a disagreement involving several Korean girls, and Blake finds himself with little to contribute.
“Next on the list, Sun Ah Meng,” Janelle coaxes the room down the list of students, “purportedly one of the main antagonists in this group of seniors. I met with her on Monday along with Cora and Dani, and I think we had a really good conversation. Although she didn’t take complete ownership, she opened up quite a bit, and I think we might have even enlisted her help in defusing this potentially volatile situation. What have you all noticed in the dorms?”
“I’m less optimistic about how the meeting went,” Dani speaks up from the seat right next to Blake. Her voice wavering and scratchy, her eyes tired, her notes disorganized—she reminds Blake of himself three months ago.
Sometimes he zones out and, instead of listening to his coworkers, just watches the glowing spreadsheet projected on the wall, where Marilyn, the school therapist, records minutes for each student:
Dani: Sun Ah acting outwardly kind toward Min Ji, but suspicions that she’s instructing other Korean students to torment her for “narking.” Spread mean rumor about Min Ji to Klaus, Min Ji’s interest. Klaus now avoiding Min Ji.
JB: wonders if other students will verify. Call to parents. Min Ji to meet with Marilyn?
“I’m not sure we can trust absolutely everything Min Ji is saying,” Bo LaMott, the head of the art department, speaks up. “Cindy says she’s really been flaking out in class lately. Apparently just the other day she was tracing a diamond shape in the back of her hand with an eraser, over and over. Went through the skin.”
“I should definitely talk with her,” Marilyn reaffirms softly, writing a note in her lime-green, leather-bound planner.
“And her artwork has a pretty morbid side to it. She works well and turns her exercises in on time, but there’s always something a little . . . off about it. Like the other day there was this figure hand drawing; hers was pretty good, but she’d drawn a string around the pinkie finger—you know, like when you’re trying to remember something—and the string was drawn on so tight that the tip of the finger had shriveled up from lack of blood. Sun Ah, on the other hand, never really causes us any problems, except that she’s doing the tattoo thing too, which, as I’ve said, is a known gateway—”
“For anyone that doesn’t know,” Janelle explains, “something similar to this happens every year, this Korean girl . . . situation. There’s this vicious queen bee mentality where the oldest seniors boss around the younger girls, ridicule them in their own language, and we can never really figure out who’s doing what and who’s making stuff up. It’s not just here, either; lots of boarding schools with significant Korean populations express similar frustrations. But nobody’s ever really proposed a good solution. Somebody could make a lot of money writing a decent book on the subject.”
“Have we thought of hiring an ESL teacher who speaks Korean?” Blake volunteers. He sees Dani flash him a thankful “Ya think?” look.
“Yeah, maybe we just need a bigger queen bee,” someone jokes.
“So how’s the somnolent, soporific songwriting career?” Blake asks Dani.
The meeting is over and all the counselors are heading toward the cafeteria for Thursday’s chicken finger lunch.
“Oh, all right. This really great melody came to me the other night, but I haven’t been able to figure it out. I think I lost it.” As they step from the concourse into the chill glare of sunlight on ice, she asks, “So what are the Korean boys like? Do you have any on your hallway?”
“Three. They’re totally chill.”
“I guess they’d have to be to put up with their women.”
Blake cracks up, delighted. “Actually I had this really surreal cultural moment last Saturday night. Won Shik came to me while I was at the desk—it was like twelve-thirty—and he tells me that Jin Ho’s feeling really sick. I, of course, say let me see the kid. Won Shik holds up his hands, says that’s not how we do it. ‘He sends me to tell you how he’s doing.’ Over the next hour, Won Shik updated me three or four times on Jin Ho’s status, always urging me not to go check up on him. I got the impression he wasn’t dangerously sick, and I didn’t smell anything suspicious—not from these guys. So I just recommended he go to Health Services in the morning. Won Shik agrees and says that I will need to accompany him—Jin Ho, that is. Once I figured out he was serious, I was like are you fuckin’ kidding me? Do I really have to get up at eight am? It’s like a five-minute walk—can’t he make it by himself? Then, very solemnly, Won Shik says in our culture we need someone to take care of us when we’re sick. And then I understood this was some bizarre thing I’d never understand. He was, I guess, relinquishing his best friend’s care to me . . . and that got me out of bed on my day off.”
Dani smiles. “Trade you your Koreans for mine.”
They step into the cafeteria, into clanking silverware, student chatter, and the reek of mass food preparation.
Five minutes later, seated by the wide wall of windows with a table full of counselors, their plates mutually stacked with chicken fingers and barbecue sauce, puddles of cottage cheese and no-bake bars, and glasses of Orange Crush, Dani says
to Blake, “I liked your suggestion about hiring an ESL teacher who speaks Korean.”
“I liked how that conversation unfolded: atrocious problem . . . happens every year . . . any suggestions? . . . no? . . . let’s move on. I like nightmares.”
“I’ve started trying to learn the language, and as much about their culture as I can, just the past few days.”
“You better hurry,” Blake laughs, taking a gulp of pop.
“What does that mean?”
“It means you can’t save them all.”
“I feel so powerless, so—”
“Dani, as a wise man once said, successfully hating your job is better than trying and failing to love it.”
“But you love this job . . . right?”
Blake takes a big bite of chicken and leans back in his chair, grinning, chewing with his mouth open. “Let me give you some advice . . .”
“Are you sure that’s not terrible advice?” she says when he finishes.
Blake shrugs. “Just giving you a rare opportunity to learn without experiencing.”
Cindy Kordash had decided to resign at the end of the year, but she was nervous to inform Bo. Part of her knew she should be thankful to have such a secure job, and she’d made her decision without confirming any kind of position elsewhere. True, she had a few interviews in the spring, but part of her honestly hoped that the end of the year would find her completely floating. Although she’d secured an optimistic dealer for the jewelry she designed, she had zero expectations of “making it” as an artist. She might as well write poetry.
But it was days like this one that had lately convinced her that she was officially “living for other people”—for her students and their parents and the school administration, not for herself and her artist statement. She’d only taught for four hours today, but they were spread out enough that it felt like an eight-hour day, and those segments of time between classes never yielded the productivity they had back in college. Then three hours setting up for and attending a visiting artist’s exhibition none of the students would have gone to if it wasn’t mandatory. An hour checking e-mail and succumbing to internet distractions, and now it’s nine o’clock and she still has a giant pile of student chapbooks to grade before her one mindless respite of the day, Conan O’Brien. The horrible guilt she feels when she lies down at night not having created some bit of art—she blames it on her Catholic upbringing. Then maybe seven hours of sleep, then another similar day.
She doesn’t care for that whole “Those who can’t do, teach” maxim, but sometimes it seems as if, for her purposes, she might as well be dead—even when she can fight for a little studio time. And so her most daring daydreams include her not finding another job in academia, working as a waitress like she had in grad school, or at a greenhouse maybe . . . “Is this really what you want to be doing in twenty years?” some wizened veteran will ask her, and she will reply, “This isn’t what I want to be doing today.” But it will be, because two years of hectic comfort have taught her that a job that builds toward nothing is preferable to a job that builds toward something you don’t want.
The first chapbook she opens—a sort of visual journal she assigns her drawing students—had obviously been rushed through the day-of. Interesting concept though, various black-and-white drawings of places cartoon hearts traditionally appear (Valentine’s cards, candy boxes, enclosing initials, the end of Cupid’s arrows, etc.), replaced by realistic-looking hearts, with tubes and spurts and sheen. She openly laughs at the protagonist of the board game Operation pleading “Quit playing games with my heart” as his is tweezed and his nose lights up in alarm. Good enough. A-minus for Klaus.
The next one, Min Ji’s, is so meticulously rendered that, although she can’t help but give her an A, it doesn’t really resemble a spontaneous font of inspiration and nascent ideas so much as a series of planned, well-executed drawings.
The first few depict a very fat, laughing Asian woman hanging out with hens in various social situations: having coffee, watching Dr. Phil, playing Scrabble, shopping. Then one single drawing of a man in his organized suburban garage, surrounded by large cardboard boxes branded in black magic marker with words like FAMILY, RELIGION, and WORK. Again, a shit-eating grin as he beams at the viewer and tapes up a final box labeled DEATH. A little heavy-handed.
The last series is of exit signs stenciled with various synonyms: EGRESS, OUTLET, GONE, EXODUS, ESCAPE, LEAVE, etc. Below each is a drawing of a black-haired girl looking downward, her face concealed by bangs. Every turn of the page shows a different perspective of her, like she’s revolving in a circle, always wearing the same blank zippered jacket. And between her and the signs, a connecting line grows thicker and more detailed with each page turned. Cindy realizes that she’s looking at something like a flipbook, but she resists treating it as such.
After maybe twenty drawings, she begins to turn the pages more quickly, impatient for some kind of variety. She stops. The line connecting the exit sign to the girl twists into a rope and snakes around her neck. A noose. She wasn’t looking down. The sign reads WAY OUT. Her hand shaking, Cindy turns the page, everything the same except that the sign reads SOON, and the hanged girl’s jacket is colored in: powder blue with clouds.
Digging her cell phone from her pocket, she turns another page and actually recoils from the book. Min Ji had worn through the rest of the pages and the back cover writing I AM A LUCKY GIRL on top of itself again and again and again.
“Hi, Bo,” Cindy says when he picks up. “Sorry to call so late.”
She’d made a compilation CD for every school year’s favorite songs ever since seventh grade. Summer slipped by uncatalogued. Like a very particular smell, the chosen songs evoked the moods and atmospheres of that year more perfectly than any photograph or journal entry could. Though the recordings were among her most valued possessions, she didn’t listen to them that often. It seemed the nature of rock n’ roll to attach itself to transitory visions, shameful stages, and drama too ugly to want to relive.
Over the past week, she’d been listening to Cat Power’s The Greatest incessantly, to the point where she risked soon coming to despise it. In particular, tonight, “Where Is My Love?” has been tumbling all over itself in her head; her brain’s DJ keeps skipping ahead to the next verse, creating a frantic canon remix. She certainly doesn’t mind this simple song claiming a coveted two minutes and fifty-five seconds on this year’s album, but what she fears is that it has become so inextricably linked to tonight’s pain that, once the immediacy dulls, the desperation and vulnerability she attaches to the song will make her never want to hear it again. Solace provided is a beautiful gift, the need for it pathetic.
She’d turned her music to a fully audible level before retreating to bed; she needed familiarity, and she knew there’d be no writing any new material tonight. During Dani’s closing desk shift, Janelle had showed up—usually a bad sign, certainly at eleven pm, a fact uncomfortably obvious to every student in the lobby area as well. Dani could immediately see the speculation start to fly.
Taking her into the back office, Janelle explained that they would need to see Min Ji tonight. The dean wore a sweatshirt and jeans. No makeup.
“Yes. She turned in some work to Cindy Kordash that makes us concerned about self-harm, or possibly against a fellow student. Marilyn is on her way.”
“Yeah, I was hoping to talk to you soon about Min Ji’s situation,” Dani said, though Janelle’s eyes were already heading out the office door and through the freshman hallway. “I’m not sure if we’ve done everything we can, or if we’re going about it in the right way. I think maybe we need to have a meeting with just—”
When they knocked on Min Ji’s door and entered, she didn’t seem surprised to see the dean of students and the school therapist at such a late hour. On her bed, an open suitcase.
Her roommate, Beth, however, did look surprised. And hysterical, and confused. “What’s she talking about?”
Back in the office, Janelle and Marilyn suggested that surely Min Ji didn’t mean those things. They could get her professional help in town.
Dani had never seen a student so relaxed and comfortable in the face of such serious consequences. Min Ji would allow the adults to speak for a minute or two, then would reply with some variation on, “I will hurt her. If you keep me here, I promise.”
Maybe she’d actually read the student handbook. Either way, she’d discovered a startlingly simple way a student could bring about immediate change. Dani said nothing, except once pointing out that Sun Ah had stolen Min Ji’s chapbook earlier in the week. To the three others in the room, it was as if no one had spoken.
“I loved it here,” was all the girl said to Dani before exiting. “It is my dream.”
Min Ji was taken to Health Services on twenty-four-hour watch, and Janelle called her parents to arrange travel. It was nearly three in the afternoon tomorrow in South Korea, luckily.
“I’m learning Korean,” Dani now realizes she should have said, defending herself.
“I’m learning American,” Min Ji should have countered.
In those confused thoughts just before sleep, Dani finds all her words, the lyrics of a love song:
I wrote a song for you
You, person version of that song misheard
You, you wrote a song for you
You, person version of that song misheard
Yours was so divergent, a melody so strange
Joseph Sacksteder will release an album of Werner Herzog sound poems (as The Young Vish) later this year through Punctum Records. To check some of them out, Google his name plus Quarterly West, Sleepingfish, The Collagist, or textsound. He’s off to the Rocky Mountains for a PhD program in the fall.
“The Korean Girl Problem” originally appeared in Game Theory (TLR, Summer 2014).