Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 7 • Fall 2003 • Fiction


Jenie Pak

What does it mean if you dream of bugs, thousands of them, crawling in your hair, inside your crevices, slipping casually between your lashes?

Jun looks it up in his Meaningful Dreams book. "This one's better than any other dream book I've ever read," he says excitedly. Last week I dreamt of octopi in a huge circular tank. I was swimming amongst them, pulling their tentacles off. Strangely, they did not resist at all. I held the orphaned appendages in my arms as I watched the octopi, armless, floating around me like lost memories.

That same week I also dreamt of a green rabbit. It had six legs and three eyes. I kissed it like it was my lover, but it had no mouth.

"Bugs signify a loss of control. You feel powerless, like the world is violating you somehow. Bugs also signal anxiety and are a sure sign of stress."

I don't tell Jun about the other dream, of him and me lying in the middle of a street. Strangely, there are no cars, and we are naked. I turn to him, the concrete hot against my back, and say, "the dogs are barking." He pulls my ear and replies, "that's only me."

Jun doesn't let me talk about Erica. He can't even say her name. Enema, he calls her. "You don't have time for me because you are too busy with enema." Or, eczema, anemia, ectopia. "You're two different species," he explains. "You know, human and parasite?"


Massage school is not what I thought it would be. I had pictured an intimate setting with natural light and comfy zafu and zabuton cushions covering the tiled floors like lily pads. I had envisioned deep, throaty voices and dreamy eyes as we classmates applied pressure to all the right spots, kneading flesh and getting drunk inside each other's energy fields.

But what I was thinking? That massage school would be the equivalent of some holistic erotic film? Holirotica, a whole new genre.

As always, there is drama. We healers-in-training prickle at the teacher's praise of a pet student, get nasty when we are in a cranky mood and our partner presses too hard. Today, Lulu (yes, Lulu really is her name) is teaching us about bones. How bones have personalities too. Even chicken bones? I wonder.

As a teenager, how I had worried that my dog would get her teeth on a chicken bone. Imagining that thin intruder lodged inside my dog's tiny throat was almost enough to put me over the edge.

"When you are sad, your bones are also sad," says Lulu. "When you are exhilarated, your bones want to leap for joy." Somebody snorts. I don't think it was me. But Lulu doesn't flinch. She's cool like that.

When I start to fade, I pretend Lulu is my lover. "No, longer strokes, and in a diagonal fashion," she scolds. "Breathe in, breathe out. Let me feel you feel me."


Erica, with the short attention span. Who comes and goes like tenants in a moldy apartment. Erica with the tenderness of boiled parsnips seasoned with cinnamon and sugar.

Some mornings I awaken to her fingers dancing along my spine. "I want it," she says, as soon as she can tell I'm awake. Never, "You. I want you."

And me, I'm easy. So easy. A little gesture like that, her toes curling and uncurling against mine, a warm breath in my ear, is all it takes.

Sometimes I feign sleep when she pulls my legs apart with her elbows, and licks my thighs. No, not this time. I won't give in.

But within minutes, my fingers are lost in her hair, I'm drooling into the sheets, she's staring up at me like the rabbit in my dreams the moment before I pick it up from the vegetable patch and kiss it amorously.

She asks, "Do you want it? Tell me if you want it." But I'm unable, as always, to answer.


My family immigrated to New York City, where my father's tears still flow from the fountains and my mother's sweat coats the slick streets in summer. I was four then and Manhattan seemed like the whole universe. The subway entrances were portals leading to other planets. Meanwhile, here on Earth, hungry pedestrians gobbled down shish kebobs and hot salted pretzels, Korean wholesale stores sold hair accessories and leather goods, tall men and women kissed unabashedly on the street while waiting for the light to change.

Jun and I watch a Korean soap opera miniseries together. This one is called The Girl Next Door. "It sounds like a bad soft porno!" Jun had exclaimed. But now, he's hooked and apparently in love with the male lead. I agree that he's handsome but I'm troubled by his walk. Somehow, it's too heavy, like he's bogged down with all the worries of the world. It's distracting, so when Jun asks, "What did she say to him?" I shrug my shoulders and open another yogurt drink.

The girl next door is really the male lead's fiancée's half-sister. Of course no one knows this because the girl next door is the result of the mother's infidelity and was given away at birth. And of course the male lead falls in love with her creating huge problems when the truth is spoken by the weeping mother on her deathbed.

When I was little my parents used to joke that they had found me under a bridge. I laughed along with them but never understood what was so funny. Were they implying that I was weird, abnormal, alien to them? When my father was in his last hours, I held his hand with both of mine for what seemed like days. There were too many things I wanted to know right then but none seemed appropriate to ask. And then the running joke about me under the bridge popped into my head. And I imagined my parents, childless and young, stooping beneath a bridge to lift me into their lives. "Thank you for finding me underneath the bridge," I said to my father in his last hours. I might have said it a few times as his hand grew heavy and the sun began to rise.

I turn to Jun because I want to tell him about my father who was married to a woman who did not love him enough because she did not love herself enough. But she loved other men. Mostly white men with big bellies. They came and went even in my father's presence. They were sharks with those shiny bellies and silver suits. I hated my mother. No, I wanted to hate her but I couldn't. I remember her bright lipsticked mouth always smiling and the marks it would leave on my skin. I would rub at it until my skin was sore and back to its original color. I wanted to hate my father for allowing my mother to steal his dignity. He became a shadow. She sucked out his light and gave it to the other men.

I turn to Jun but he says, "Miss Eczema, she isn't the one for you, Babe." He shakes his head, his mouth downturned. "Hey, what about the girl next door. I think she's pretty hot. We could fly Asiana and be there in no time."

"You know she's not my type," I say. Erica. Erica is my type, I say silently to the walls and to the floors. Erica, you are the one, I say to my hands and my feet and the bones in my neck. Erica, with the deep voice that could induce me into a trance forever, make me do whatever it commands. Erica, with the quick eyes and the sharp teeth. And the thin hands that make my world fat.

I press my nose into Jun's wild, shoulder-length hair. He's growing it out so I like to tease him. You'll look like seaweed, I tell him, because his hair is so thick and so dark. We can make kim bop with it.

I smell pineapple shampoo mixed in with sweat. "Hey, do you want a massage? I ask him. "I've got to practice before tomorrow's class."

Jun reaches into his pocket for a hair elastic and ties his locks through it. He takes his shirt off and lays face down on my futon, turning his head toward the television. I straddle him and begin effleurage on his back. Sometimes these are my favorite moments with Jun. When we don't talk and I work the kinks out of his body. He works at a rape crisis center, the only male on staff. Though he doesn't talk much about it, I know how important his job is to him, and how stressful. What made you want to work there, I had asked. My sister, he had said. And that was all.

I concentrate on the muscles not visible beneath the layers of skin. I feel a strange affection towards them as if they were little lost children in a big man's body. "Your skin's dry," I say and bend forward to lick Jun's shoulder. Jun grabs my arm and says, "Hey, I'm not a Popsicle." I pry his arm away and say, "No, you're Mr. Seaweed Head." I untie his hair and let the locks fall loosely over his shoulders. I comb through them with my fingers. On the television screen, the girl next door is telling the male lead that she can't betray her sister. That she doesn't love him at all. They are standing on a snow-covered street. The male lead brushes snow off her lashes. You don't have to love me, he says. I can love for us both.


I dream of giant girls. Tall as buildings five stories high. They walk around like fake Godzillas, tossing their hair and wringing their hands. I'm not sure where I exist in the picture. Am I a building, a car, one of the giant girls? Suddenly, a storm hits. The skies turn charcoal, bees fill the air, entering the girl's mouths. The girls are falling, one by one. But they are strangely silent like human earthquakes. I hear buzzing that grows louder and louder. Am I the girl with bees between her teeth, or am I the bee?

I awake as a mosquito flies past my ear, and I immediately spring out of bed and switch the lights on. I scan the walls and air for the evil bloodsucker, the vampirical thing. Aha, there it is, right above my pillow. After squashing it, I examine my body to discover three bites on my arms. Slathered in hydrocortisone, I get into bed with the covers up to my chin. The darkness recedes and pulls forward. I hear a mattress faintly squeaking. Erica, what is she doing now? We have a rule. Don't ask, don't tell. Since we're not girlfriends, since we're free agents. Free agents, like chemical agents, like I'm hydrogen and you are nitrous oxide. What if I became a vampire and bit her in ten different places? My blood in her blood. My memories, my obsessions, now hers. Would she grow more elastic, less of the brick or stone that she is built of? Would she allow me to climb through her window and breathe my dreams into hers?


While my mother cavorted with her American men, my father and I became fast friends. We played jacks, cat's cradle, Chinese jump rope. Can you imagine -- a grown man jumping in and out of elastic rope while his daughter counts out the steps? We played hide and seek, rock scissors paper, ohmuk, and he even taught me how to play Go. Can you imagine a little girl sitting over a wooden Go table almost as big as her, concentrating on the black and white marble discs as if her life depended upon it?

My mother would usually return home after we had fallen asleep. Sometimes in our separate rooms, sometimes on the couch in front of the flickering tv, our bodies contorted uncomfortably. She would turn the tv off, wake us up and put me to sleep. She was almost ghostly then, a night visitor with shiny eyes and warm hands. But her breath was always surprisingly cold. It smelled of cigarettes and beer. I wanted to say something to her, something that daughters are supposed to say to their mothers when they are putting them to bed. Read me a story, or tell me how much I mean to you. But her face was hard, never soft enough for me to throw words into, and too perfect for me to disturb. I waited for her to smooth my bangs or hug me but she was gone as soon as she had returned. The ten steps from my bed to the door could last a lifetime. My mother, her heels clacking, ten, nine, eight as I held my breath wondering if I could ever freeze time.

My father and I walked through Central Park, went to the Bronx Zoo, went to see James Bond movies where he would cover my eyes during the lovemaking scenes. "What are they doing? Why are they doing that?" I would ask. He would just smile, cover my eyes, and say, "When you grow up, it will all make sense." What a waste of time, I remember thinking, especially when the world had to be saved. Was 007 stupid, or something? And those women in their long, sequined gowns looked like gigantic fish. "The women look like fish," I had said to my father who nodded in agreement.

My favorite times with my father though were when we sat across from each other at the kitchen table eating ramen. I loved lifting up the thick string of noodles with my chopsticks high as I could and using my fingers to curl them around the chopsticks before slurping them into my mouth. The steam made my face and hair damp. My stomach grew hotter with each chopstickful. My father ate slowly, as if contemplating each noodle, each twist and curve. I smiled at him but he was too busy staring into the bowl. What did he see reflected in the broth that changed depending on what leftovers my father found in the fridge. Sometimes it was miso, spinach leaves and slices of beef. Sometimes it was kimchee and egg. Did he see his own cloudy reflection, a man who had been a respected history teacher in Korea but now worked janitorial jobs in a hospital at night? Did he see the faces of his sons who died at birth? Did he see my mother in her youth smiling back at him, her eyes twinkling among the sliced scallions?

There were many moments I wanted to wrap my arms around my father. Sad father, let me hold you. Let me make it better. But I had learned well. The way you show affection is not with your body, but with your words. Can I make you some ginseng tea? Do you need your white hairs plucked? The way to acknowledge someone's sorrow is not by blurting it out but by mentioning everything else. Groceries that need to be bought, whether the Yankees won last night's game or not, the huge waterbug that has been hiding behind the stove all week, the sound of loons that cry in the night when everyone should be sleeping.


Erica walks through my door. Erica, my poltergeist, whose sudden presence makes my home not my home. Erica, the twenty-fifth hour, who changes the shape of time.

"You're soaking wet," I say. Erica, the carefree spirit, who refuses to own an umbrella. I had braved thunderstorms with her. We had kissed in front of my apartment building not caring if the homophobic elderly Chinese woman who lived downstairs saw.

"Let's go to bed," she says, pulling off her boots. She leaves a trail of rain on my floors, a trail that leads to my waist where her fingers find me. Erica with the invisible fingerprints that will press into my body as I sleep.

We don't sleep right away. I watch Erica's slideshow of faces. Insistent as she thrusts inside me. Peaceful as she sucks on my tongue like a child sucking its mother's milk. Exuberant as I memorize the length of her body with my lips.

When there is no more to give or to get, when our eyes begin to close on us, she says, "I want to try a threesome." Don't ask, don't tell. Be cool, be the Mother Theresa of nonmonogamy, accept all confessions, all secret fantasies casually.

"Great, let me know how it goes," I mumble though I am now fully awake, though her words echo in my head. I picture her and two women, or two men, or one woman and one man. It's two complicated, all these bodies with no faces to attach them to. The excess of naked flesh, the thirty fingers (and toes), the three gleaming torsos. How long would it last? Would they make it into a weekly thing like Sunday bingo or taking out the recycling?

"No, you dork. With you. I want to do a threesome with you." She kisses the back of my neck, then sniffs it. I'm both relieved and disappointed. Thanks for the sentiment, for including me in your plans. How could you, how could you want a third party to knock on our house and leave its thumbprints on the walls?

"Well? What do you think?" She bites my shoulder lightly. Parasite, Jun's voice emerges from the depths. You're human.

I want to say, No, you will never have a threesome with this girl. No sex triangle, no x-rated Twister, no triple-decker trapeze show. Look at the left arm disappear behind the right thigh which is slung over the shoulder. Clumsy contortions attempting to defy gravity like an art history slide reminiscent of some weird combination of a Picasso and a Chagall.

I want to fly over the moon with you. I want to hold your hand and count stars. "Okay, I'll do it," I say. "I've always wanted to." And, it's the truth, the whole truth. This girl who is still shy when you spread lube over me, this girl who wants to say the nasty things that will get you wet. I have wanted to engage in a live reenactment of the triangular motif. The strange geometry of bodies, of waistlines, of tongues, of swaying hips. Maybe I've got it all wrong. Maybe we would be helical instead, breaking through mattress springs, burrowing through the floor. Maybe we would form serpentine shapes. Beware of the rattle. See it rise. I want to experience that much flesh, that much pleasure, that much sensation. But not with you. Not with you whose smile wraps itself around my waist, whose touch makes me think I am breakable, that I could break over and over again and always come back whole.


My father, on one of those October late afternoons in Manhattan, said to me, "Don't hate your mother." We were walking through Times Square, not yet rush hour but the sun was setting. I remember the pinks and oranges of the sky clashing terribly with the neon versions of xxx video stores and peepshow houses. "Why are those women naked?" I asked my father once, pointing to the life sized posters of women who looked like they might be named something like Brandi or Bambi. Later on, at a suburban high school, I could believe that those women had given birth to the girls in my classes. Same long, curly hair streaked with Sun In so that looking at their orange brown heads made me hungry for cinnamon crumb cake and pumpkin ice cream.

"But I don't hate Mother," I had said, finishing off the last shish kebob piece. I sucked the charcoal meat juice and Tabasco sauce from my fingers. I looked up at the skyscrapers and tried to make out tiny heads moving through the windows. All those people sitting at their desks in front of their computers would sit at a T.G.I. Fridays two hours later slugging down shots with their coworkers while trying to work up the nerve to smile at some cutie across the bar. Was that true, or am I making this up now? Did I really eat a shish kebob, was it October, because I don't remember leaves on the ground and smelling the smokiness of autumn air.

"When someone is nice to you all the time, it's not real," he had said. I remember him stopping to stare at one of those nudie posters. He stood there a long time. He was a middle aged Asian man smack in the heart of Times Square contemplating what might be the life of this girl whose name was probably Mandy. Oh Mandy, did you know you would show your naked body for all the world to see when you were little and cutting up paper dolls? Oh Mandy, do you dance for these men because you can't remember doing anything else but dancing for men all your life, and do you continue to dance inside the glittering stage of your dreams?

"Father, I'm going to tell Mother you were looking," I had said. I pulled on his hand, but he refused to move. It was getting darker, and people were starting to leave work. I wanted to get home and put on La Traviata, my father's favorite opera, and ask him to tell me the story again, act by act. I liked listening to my father's opera stories when it was cold and dark outside. It made the stories more alive somehow, and it made the warmth I felt with my father inside our apartment even greater.

"You see, people are not made like machines. They don't turn off when they should, and sometimes they forget to turn on." My father didn't look at me when he spoke, so I wondered if he was talking to himself. Or maybe he was talking to the girl on the poster. People bumped into my father because he was standing almost in the middle of the street, as if he didn't want to get too close to the window. They didn't say sorry or excuse me, just sneered and laughed at him. If he were a better dressed white man, it would be a different story. But who had time to lament the shortcomings of the human race? I had my hands full enough trying to get my father unglued from the poster girl, the fantasy dancer, this object of his impulsive preachings.

"Look," he had said as he pointed. "Her thigh, there is a scar on her thigh." Then he began to weep. I mean, really weep, as if he had just lost his only child which would be me but I was there, whole and alive standing right next to him. He was weeping like he had seen his dead mother back from the grave and she was asking him why he had been such a bad son. His cries sounded like the earth crying after a long and bloody war.

There was nothing I could do to calm my father down. And passersby were now pointing as well as laughing and sneering. Would someone throw a punch at my father? Trip him so he would fall flat on the piss stained cement? My penetrating stares and mean faces yielded no results so I ran up close to the poster and took a good hard look. There were no scars to be found on either of her thighs. Her skin was flawless, like her smile, which was the shape of the edge of a clamshell. I could almost see that shell, shiny and wet on some deserted beach. And I wanted her smile. I wanted her skin. I wanted my father to want her smile and her skin, instead of noticing scars or bruises that didn't exist. I wanted the strangers to leave my father alone and my father to stop weeping. I wanted the sun to go down, all the way down.


I quit massage school. My classmates don't seem particularly wounded which hurts my feelings for a while but I recover quickly when they present me with a gift. Fifteen massage certificates, one from each classmate. And there's even one from Lulu, who says, "You have to do what you have to do. Listen to what your body needs."

"Does this mean I won't be getting any more freebies?" Jun asks. By now his hair is way past his shoulders. But it doesn't look anything like seaweed. The ocean, it looks like the ocean at night. Except there are no white frothy waves.

"I want to paint your hair," I say. White frothy waves, plus some bright blue damselfish and some yellow tang. A whole ocean inside Jun's hair and me swimming in it.

"Why did you do it?" Jun asks. "I knew you were thinking about it, but what was the final straw?" We look at porno covers trying to decide on one to rent. They're all the same to me, naked bodies and faces you can't distinguish as pleasure or pain. "We might as well get the more interesting ones, like Detention School Boys or Military Men," I say. At least in those there might be some dramatic tension. Porn doesn't get either of us off. It's just something we do once in a while when we're in the mood to sit quietly next to each other for once, allowing the occasional mutual laugh. I used to boycott porn and wouldn't allow any of my girlfriends to watch them either. At least not with me in the same room. "How do you know they weren't forced to make those movies against their will?" I had asked. What had happened to me? How had I gone from that to trying to coax my friend into renting Detention School Boys? Is this what my father had been trying to tell me, via his enigmatic sayings, all along?

"I got tired of touching bodies," I tell Jun. "There were all kinds. Hairy, sweaty, pale, fake tanned, clammy, warm like a warm river in spring. Goosebumps so big on this one woman I hallucinated midway and thought I was massaging a leopard." I don't tell Jun the real reason. Yes, there were too many bodies and unexpectedly, I had loved each one of them as if they were somehow related to my own body, my own skin and bones. I'm type AB, and you? Are we long lost?

The truth is, I was delirious from all those bodies. Not in some sexual way, but in some way that cannot be accurately articulated. It was I, not the person lying facedown on the table, who saw herself during those sessions as a little girl walking through the botanical gardens filled with sunflowers and crocuses. Or sitting on the warm cement floor of a tennis court in summertime while big boys swung their rackets and the balls lifted high into the air. I saw my mother's dimples and the cleft of her chin. I saw myself studying the half moons on my father's nails.

Kneading the flesh of strangers' bodies kept bringing me closer to the various montages of myself. If we each have our own version of life in an alternate universe, that was mine. As if a warehouse of images, of colors, of scents were stored in different parts of the body for me to walk through the square footage and travel back in time. The truth is, time travel is not for those who would be happy staying in that obscure corner, existing in that kind of thin-skinned life.


Erica and I had our threesome. She was an acquaintance of ours, neither too girly nor too butch in order to meet our appetites. I wanted to get drunk but Erica wouldn't let me. "You can't numb yourself like that", she said. "This is for real". This is for real, me and you and this girl whose wrists are too big. I don't like fat wrists, I didn't like the forced purr in her voice. I had imagined a mental soundtrack set to a certain tempo, maybe something not unlike Ravel's Bolero. Or maybe instead the magnified hum of white noise. At one point I had a view out the bedroom window. There was a huge bird perched on a thick black wire. Was it watching us? Wondering what our bodies were trying to accomplish? The light falling from the lamppost above formed a sheen on its feathers. I felt like I was stroking the bird, but then I realized I was stroking Erica's hair. While she kissed the other girl and murmured into her face, which was as pale as the shiny streetcar tracks at night, the bird and I watched each other.


My father and I grew apart. Once I turned twelve I became a bad daughter. I neglected him for my girlfriends with whom I formed a secret club. We had pizza parties and prank called the boys that we liked. I shed the seriousness of a girl who loved listening to opera with her father as he told her about the dying man waiting for the last leaf on the tree to drop. I became a girl who giggled and blushed a lot. Why couldn't I have been content eating ramen and staring at my father's hair growing whiter? I can't remember where my mother went or if she remained. All that matters is that my father no longer asked me to play Go with him. And in a way that was a good thing since I had forgotten all the rules.

Jun says that when you dream of your parent you are really dreaming of your secret desires. I dream of my father steaming rice. The steam rises up over his head and his eyes turn shiny. He ladles the rice into big soup bowls for us to eat. I am not in the kitchen but I am somewhere nearby. Maybe in the living room opening the gated windows. Or in the bathroom shaking a loose tooth between my thumb and forefinger. I want to sit at the table to a bowl of steaming rice. I want to sit across from my father and for us to eat our meal together in silence.

Dreams might tell us something about ourselves. But real life is not much different. I didn't want the mother I got yet wanted to believe that I did. Isn't a daughter's hope for her mother supposed to be limitless? I wanted to believe my father would become a superhero one day, revealing himself to be an equal to Batman or the Incredible Hulk. I thought, one of these days his anger will be so great he will turn into a green monster and ravage the house with his grief. I imagined he had a secret hideout -- if not some bat cave, then at least some secret opening in our house where he hid top secret information about evil villains and their plots to destroy the world. When my father revealed himself to be ordinary, plain, when he seemed so disinterested in his life I wanted to dye his hair orange and paint his nails blue, I left him for my girlfriends with their bubblegum mouths and fluorescent Swatch watches. I left him for boys with long eyelashes and later on girls with hyperextended elbows and soft lips. Maybe I was not found underneath a bridge. Maybe my father was searching for his footprints in the living room. How much living can you go through in the same four rooms and with the same people?

My last night with Erica I tell her about my father for the first time. The first time that I really try to tell her who he was. I tell her about the way he stood in front of the nudie poster in Times Square for hours while the cold air bristled upon my cheeks. I tell her about the way he stood there in his oversized jogging suit until I thought his clothes would fall off and run off without him. And I tell her about the girl on the poster who walked out the door of the peep show theater and walked straight up to my father and kissed him on the lips. Long, like a woman kisses her lover when she realizes she might lose her. And joyfully like a young girl in love for the first time. I tell Erica these things as she sleeps in my arms and I count the moles on her neck. There are five of them like stars forming a constellation though I can't remember what it's called and I keep staring harder and harder waiting until the name pops up from memory, not forgotten, always to be found.

Jenie Pak received her MFA in Poetry at Cornell University. She has work published or forthcoming in Alligator Juniper, Asian Pacific American Journal, AsianWeek, Blithe House Quarterly, Five Fingers Review, Love Shook My Heart II, Many Mountains Moving, The Oakland Review, and Watchword Press. Currently, she is working on a queer Korean-American soap opera script as well as learning the awesome possibilities of digital video.

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