Justine’s father tells me why Koreans use metal chopsticks. He says during the war, all you had was scrap metal and grains of rice, so Koreans made their chopsticks in such a way that you could pick up a single grain of rice. The Korean War, what really lies behind the slogan Freedom is not Free. He says they are descendants of Genghis Khan, because they were born with a bruise-like birthmark that fades after birth. Warriors, nomads, fearless, irreverent.
“We could legally adopt her,” Justine says over breakfast. She’s a close friend of my mother’s and visited us once during Christmas. We’re having waffles, Grandpa is having homemade kimchee with rice and instant miso soup. Her husband peers over the paper, eyebrows raised. He smiles at me, that big wide smile like sunshine and pearls.
“Violet, could you give us some privacy?” He winks at me through black-rimmed glasses.
As they argue, I walk to the bedroom they had prepared for me. “We already have three, Justine,” I hear him say. I feel bad, like an intruder—Megan and Sarah have to share a room now that I am here. I have been washing my own underwear and I throw them into a Ralph’s plastic bag. My things are still in the backpack and I haul it on.
I’m not sure why New Yorkers hate Los Angeles. When Justine takes me down the coast, all I see are mountains and the Pacific Ocean, to the west is Asia, to the east is New York, London. Once, a guy on Venice Beach told me to smile and I tried, but it made me too vulnerable, naked. A bible thumper came up to me and told me I was going to hell. He was convinced of his belief and desperately wanted to help me. I spent half an hour listening to his personal experience of rebirth and how it is his mission now to spread the good news. I told him this is hell, and if he would leave me alone I might be an inch closer to Paradise.
I remember standing on the top of the Rockefeller Center with Mom, and she pointed out Los Angeles to me, saying it would always be home.
Now that I am here, all I want is to bottle that blue.
Solstice Canyon. 7pm. Jazz in the trees bouncing off the cliff walls.
I step back into the kitchen with my backpack, and Justine glares at her husband.
“Put that away,” she says to me. “We’re going out. Eat your waffles first.”
I tell them I have to go to Paris.
“But you’re only 16!” She folds her arms. “All alone in Paris?”
Khari puts down his cell phone, sits forward, hands clenched together. “Just, she has a French passport. She’s French. She’ll be alright. It’s what her mother would have wanted.”
She erupts into a monologue about five year plans, did I not want to go to school, there was plenty of room at their house, did they upset me in any way, they could get me a scholarship with my credits at LaGuardia, music lessons, Ivy League, and all they could offer, the whole time waving that wooden spatula.
Finally she sits down, exhausted.
“We’ll get you your ticket to Paris,” she takes my hands in hers. “But V, always remember this. You want to be just like your mother, I know that, except she was very strategic. She may have seemed spontaneous and adventurous, but the majority of her life was planned.”
I adjust my backpack. “And look where she ended up.”
Justine looks like she just got slapped, and Khari bursts out laughing.
“Damn girl, you got spunk.” He gets up and puts a hand on my shoulder. “She’ll be fine. She’s coping too. Let her go.” Then he realizes his wife looks like she’s about to pour iced tea down his shirt. He clears his throat and scatches his head, “Ahem, sorry I laughed.”
I look in my notepad, it says under “Paris”:
Euros, go to the Indian restaurant on Pico and Westwood, look for Aziz.
Aziz runs an overpriced Indian restaurant on Pico and Westwood called The White Elephant. It must be euphemistic considering the operations behind the restaurant. I show up and everyone in there seems to be blonde. I know I will never eat there. My mother always told me that Americans, referring to WASPS, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, had their tastebuds scrubbed off by Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes the moment they were born. She only went into restaurants where there were Asians.
The male maître d’ greets us quizzingly, we don’t look like we are here for food. I look too solemn, like I’m in mourning or a brooding philosopher.
The smells, spices. It all rushes back to me. I remember New Delhi, water from copper pans, eating with our hands, the slums of Mumbai, my laughter streaming from trains as I ran from carriage to carriage with kids from Norway, Australia, England, their parents snoring in cabins after curries, seared salmon with Hollandaise, chips and afternoon tea. My mother was usually deep in discussion with locals discussing why Sikhs wear turbans or why Indian people sold gold in Singapore and mosquito nets in Cambodia; the impact of British colonization and the effects of imperialism on religion, the caste system, poverty, politics.
I ask Khari if we can eat here. We are ushered in and seated by Guarav, his gold-plated name tag says. A server looms over me in his white starchy colonial uniform, gold lacing his sleeves as he pours water into glasses. I ask Guarav for Aziz as he is about to walk away. He stops in his tracks, a smile frozen on his face.
He comes back and stands next to me, crouching lower and still smiling. I hear easy flutters of conversation and champagne flutes tinkling, silverware hitting porcelain. The light is stark white in here, too white.
He lowers his voice. “And may I ask why you are looking for Aziz, Miss?”
“Is he here?” I insist, I hate it when people answer questions with a question. Khari speaks up, “Sorry, she’s from New York. Do you happen to know Adela Lee?”
“Let me make a phone call.” He gestures for a server to take our order and briskly escapes into the kitchen.
We get lamb korma and butter chicken to share, with steamed basmati rice and two glasses of mango lassi. Guarav comes back and says Aziz is in Dubai, on his way to Paris. He has heard the heartbreaking news about my mother, and he will send for me at Charles de Gaulle. Guarav hands me the necessary details on an envelope filled with euros and I thank him. Then he gives me a rose for his condolences, tells me I am pretty and to be careful in Paris. For the first time, Khari looks like he doesn’t know what to say. I blush a little and tuck the receipt into my journal. As we eat, we start discussing plans for Paris.
Right now, all I know to do is run. If I stand still, I’m not sure I won’t start drowning.
© Alicia Khoo
The Inimitable Livers
Written in Bangkok, Thailand