2. He’s a man’s man, meaning he’s an asshole a lot of the time. Most of the time. All of the time.
3. He is tall, with chiseled, sculpted, and every-romance-novel-ever adjective for cheekbones. The girls (all the girls, not just the Korean Bible study ones) say his lips are kissable.
4. All this would be fine—an embarrassment of riches, to be sure; a tad too many treasures to be bestowed on a single human, certainly—if he were nice. But he is not. Charles Jae Won Bae is not kind. He is smug and, worst of all, he is a bully. He’s an asshole. An inveterate one.
5. He doesn’t like me, and hasn’t liked me for years.
I PUT MY PHONE, headphones, and backpack into the gray bin before walking through the metal detector. The guard—her name tag says Irene—stops my bin from traveling onto the conveyor belt, as she’s done every day.
I look up at her and don’t smile.
She looks down into the bin, flips my phone over, and stares at the case, as she’s done every day. The case is the cover art for an album called Nevermind by the band Nirvana. Every day her fingers linger on the baby on the cover, and every day I don’t like her touching it. Nirvana’s lead singer was Kurt Cobain. His voice, the damage in it, the way it’s not at all perfect, the way you can feel everything he’s ever felt in it, the way his voice stretches out so thin that you think it’s going to break and then it doesn’t, is the only thing that’s kept me sane since this nightmare began. His misery is so much more abject than mine.
She’s taking a long time, and I can’t miss this appointment. I consider saying something, but I don’t want to make her angry. Probably she hates her job. I don’t want to give her a reason to delay me even further. She glances up at me again but shows no sign that she recognizes me, even though I’ve been here every day for the last week. To her I’m just another anonymous face, another applicant, another someone who wants something from America.
NATASHA IS NOT AT ALL correct about Irene. Irene loves her job. More than loves it—needs it. It’s almost the sole human contact she has. It’s the only thing keeping her total and desperate loneliness at bay.
Every interaction with these applicants saves her life just a little. At first they barely notice her. They dump their items into the bin and watch closely as they go through the machine. Most are suspicious that Irene will pocket loose change or a pen or keys or whatever. In the normal course of things, the applicant would never notice her, but she makes sure they do. It’s her only connection to the world.
So she waylays each bin with a single gloved hand. The delay is long enough that the applicant is forced to look up and meet her eyes. To actually see the person standing in front of them. Most mumble a reluctant good morning, and the words fill her up a little. Others ask how she’s doing and she expands a little more.
Irene never answers. She doesn’t know how. Instead, she looks back down at the bin and scrutinizes each object for clues, for some bit of information to store away and examine later.
More than anything, she wishes she could take her gloves off and touch the keys and the wallets and the loose change. She wishes she could slide her fingertips along the surfaces, memorizing textures and letting the artifacts of other people’s lives seep into her. But she can’t delay the line too long. Eventually she sends the bin and its owner away from her.
Last night was a particularly bad night for Irene. The impossible hungry mouth of her loneliness wanted to swallow her in a single piece. This morning she needs contact to save her life. She drags her eyes away from a retreating bin and up to the next applicant.
It’s the same girl who’s been coming every day this week. She can’t be more than seventeen. Like everyone else, the girl doesn’t look up from the bin. She keeps her eyes focused on it, like she can’t bear to be parted from the hot-pink headphones and her cell phone. Irene lays her gloved hand on the side of the bin to prevent its slide out of her life and onto the conveyor belt.
The girl looks up and Irene inflates. She looks as desperate as Irene feels. Irene almost smiles at her. In her head she does smile at her.
Welcome back. Nice to see you, Irene says, but only in her head.
In reality, she’s already looking down, studying the girl’s phone case. The picture on it is of a fat white baby boy completely submerged in clear blue water. The baby is spread-eagled and looks more like he’s flying than swimming. His mouth and eyes are open. In front of him a dollar bill dangles on a fishhook. The picture is not decent, and every time Irene looks at it she feels herself take an extra breath, as if she were the one underwater.
She wants to find a reason to confiscate the phone, but there is none.
I KNOW THE PRECISE MOMENT when Charlie stopped liking me. It was the summer I turned six and he turned eight. He was riding his shiny new bike (red, ten-speed, awesome) with his shiny new friends (white, ten years old, awesome). Even though there were lots of hints all summer long, I hadn’t really figured out that I’d been demoted to Annoying Younger Brother.
That day he and his friends rode away without me. I chased him for blocks and blocks, calling out, “Charlie,” convinced that he just forgot to invite me. I pedaled so fast that I got tired (six-year-olds on bikes don’t get tired, so that’s saying something).
Why didn’t I just give up? Of course he could hear me calling.
Finally he stopped and hopped off his bike. He shoved it into the dirt, kickstand be damned, and stood there waiting for me to catch up. I could see that he was angry. He kicked dirt onto his bike to make sure everyone was clear on that fact.