PEARL

by J. Vera Lee

ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019

For as many times as the shaman set the raw slab of meat on the machete point, it toppled. The patron looked over, as if we were to blame. We didn’t care one way or the other whether the patron had a son, and if we scared the spirits away, the shaman would have another chance to confer with the woman about her childbearing prospects after we left. 

I was inclined to think that Koreans were a bit demonstrative in their want of sons, and that the shaman’s booth at the market made a dumb show of expectations. It was an easy way to characterize the culture, and yet another part of me understood how deeply rooted the woman’s want was. Her face grew as she stared us down through thick glasses. By virtue of this magnification, the spirits looked to miss the slab of meat, and to occupy her face instead. 

The spiritual world could be generous with disappointment. The woman’s rage haunted me off and on for many years, her face an ineffective shelter for dashed hopes. 

Maybe this is why I felt mortified, or distraught, when I looked into the mirror and thought I saw my mouth pucker as my mother’s mouth did. I was not sure for how many weeks or months I noticed the similarity before I could admit it to myself. And then my mouth became an irrepressible part of some story I’d ignored. Clenched deep or self-satisfied, her mouth helped me identity her mood. What were the tones of my feeling then?

I looked in the mirror when I first woke up and before I went to sleep. I thought about my mother about to go to sleep or just waking up and wearing, invariably, at least one piece of silk. I had recently taken to wearing a dusty rose slip to bed. I loved its chilly slipperiness, even if I wore a thin cotton sweatshirt with it. My mother was a beautiful, tired woman.

I wouldn’t say she taught me about love, but she taught me to read people through their detailed performances. A phrase uttered could give a person’s desire away. It almost felt criminal to remember, much less quote their words. 

My thinking used to constellate into a million such threads. A good friend would go so far as to say Otto shattered my delicate textile. My account of a fling with Otto was heavy handed. That is, Otto looked to develop a girth and haunches. Or if bees swarmed around such a bear caught trespassing on a hive, Otto was atomized. And yet if Otto was blurry, I must have misunderstood methods of perspective or photography. 

The first time we were alone, Otto arrived late to the café. Clear sweat sprouted at his temples as he slid a book out of his leather satchel. When he flattened pages of the book open with his hand, I studied his fingernails. They bit into his fingertips. I looked into his long blinks of exhaustion and did not hear a word he said. He pushed the book closer to my place at the table and said I might want to take a look at a passage of medieval Korean. I apologized for reading slowly.

He said, “That’s okay. You’re from the English department.” 

I tried to focus, my body leaning toward the table where his hand held the book open. I asked if he wanted to go for a walk, and we left the crowded cafe. He navigated the crowd easily and made it outside to the sidewalk. 

Maybe he was heavy-set. The categorization hadn’t exactly occurred to me then, but he smoked quite a bit. If Otto only had this kind of death wish, it wasn’t even unique. Later, I began to smoke with him, and then I smoked when I was alone. Hence, the deepening pucker around my mouth.  

 

* * *

Once, we watched a movie that had to do with spies, intrigue, and inevitable betrayal between family members. Otto identified the mole even before the mole’s identity was revealed. Since I’m not a person who follows plots easily, I was impressed. I overplayed my enthusiasm and asked more questions. Otto shushed me. 

To make this acceptable, I put his behavior down to shyness. But he was the one who should have been embarrassed. In the first place, he had just finished dinner at the movie theatre. Littered on his plastic table were paper boxes of food he’d eaten—a sad trace of ketchup dried on a wrapper. Otto offered me a sip from a glass of beer. I refused, taking instead one kernel of over-saturated popcorn, just to be a sport. I chewed the kernel for a long time, and he folded over the top of the popcorn bag to save.

He said, “My lunch-dinner,” and joked about eating a salad later to cleanse. Given the food he’d eaten at the theatre, his tongue would be coated with chemicals until he lost his sense of taste. He’d never have a clean palate. 

Not that I worried anymore about this than I did about my own palate that evening, coated with the unction of one buttered popcorn kernel. The butter was so powerful it made the iodized salt grains cling to my lips. 

My lips reddened. I felt like I’d drunk a tablespoon of fake butter. I did not have eating issues, only even when I took a sip of water from my water bottle, I could not clear the oil that rested on my tongue. 

* * *

 

At nearly midnight, after the movie had finished, we walked near a lake where I ran with friends. The rental canoes were stacked and chained for the night. 

Otto said, “This looks like a perfect place to get killed,” and stopped in his tracks. His arms, long drops of flesh, kept swinging. We stood near the boathouse for some time.

I asked, “Are you tired, since you’ve been so busy?” 

He said, “I’m not sure I take to your line of questioning. You’ve repeated busy many times like you don’t believe me.”

If I repeated myself, I really meant why hadn’t he answered my emails. No one in my department was too busy to answer emails. And yet, I’d honestly thought my calling him busy was a compliment.

He crimped his clenched hands against his chest. 

I felt like an aggressor and apologized.

“I’m sorry. I tend to be glib about academia,” I said. 

Otto smoothed the clay block that performed as his forehead. 

He said, “Right. I understand.”  

I reached around his neck, whispering a fervid apology into his ear. 

He didn’t move. I had never been rejected like this. Even my ex-husband would have relented—and often did—when he was angry and I threw himself, say, at his mercy.

I pulled my hands under my black poncho, and blinked rapidly, a grounded bat.  

Otto walked further along the empty path, saying, “I thought you wanted to walk.” 

Every lamppost found Otto’s face rising, a little milk bottle.

He threw a question about my Asian American Lit course over his shoulder.

I followed, saying, “You don’t have to do that.”

He said, “What? I’m just making conversation.”

I hated his claim of innocence and shuffled at the sidewalk edge farthest from him. 

He said, “Don’t be so sheepish.” 

In that moment, I didn’t think I knew what the word meant. I was eager to have my behavior acknowledged, but not as a sheep. If I became a sheep, I would probably adopt qualities other than sheepishness, such as calmness or baying at grass.

“Sheepish?” I repeated, but Otto did not recant or clarify.  

I fantasized about finding a pace with my running group on the path. I would leave Otto to get killed by the lake.

Otto stopped again. Rather than gesture to human feeling, he said, “My paper was arguably the highlight of the conference,” perhaps rewarding the fragment of interest I’d displayed about his busyness. 

I said, “Of course, it’s your work. It’s important.” And added, “I’m sure it was stunning.”  

“Well, yeah,” he said, still clenching his hands. He raised just one hand, as if to say more, then changed his mind. 

We walked back to the movie theatre, where I had parked my car. I stood on a curb. Otto stopped to face me. I was quicker to hug Otto this time, to be done. I touched the tip of one of his collars and withdrew. 

Through his default, immobile face, he said, “Well, thanks for coming out to meet me.”

I said, “Of course. Thanks for the invite.”

He had parked in the neighborhood, he explained. But as he walked away, I seriously wondered how he had gotten to the theatre. It was hard to believe he did normal things. I decided on a hallucination of him as a superhero: Was he really a person with a car? 

Later that night, I checked the dictionary meaning for sheepish: “A strong embarrassment from shame or lack of self-confidence.” The definition fit me at shame and lack of self-confidence. I had used to think sheepish meant the reaction of someone caught out in a crime, on the scale of stealing a bite of food—hardly worth shaming. In this way, I began to learn Otto’s lexicon. 

A few days after the movie, I emailed Otto to let him know that I felt sore about being called sheepish. I explained that I took his angry response to mean, “Who do you think you are?” I went so far as to quote my former marriage of all things and said it had sensitized me to shaming. 

Otto apologized, saying he was sorry that something he said made me feel sad. He admitted that I sounded like his mother. 

* * *

 

In March, I thought Otto would be too busy to see me, but he showed up after I’d eaten two slices of pizza. My abdomen felt bloated, and grease clung to my fingers, though I’d washed my hands many times. 

I sat in an armchair, opposite the couch where Otto sat. Leaning over his knees, he looked like he intended to have a rather serious conversation with me. 

He began by saying, “You know, this isn’t really something I’m desiring.” Or repeated a version of “There’s so much expectation going into this,” which he’d told me in January. 

In a way, Otto was right. I had been expecting things from him. But did he mean that he showed up at my place to set me straight?

Otto asked, “Are you okay?”

“Of course, I appreciate your honesty,” I said, which was what I said every time Otto offered a refusal. At least, I was true to myself. I appreciated Otto’s honesty, perhaps even his self-searching, though it went no way toward clarifying why he came over to see me. 

Otto said, “It’s useful. But are you okay?”

I stared into my carpet, frankly hoping my whole apartment didn’t smell like pizza. I’m not sure why it was important that the apartment be wiped clean of habitation. Other than the risk of my neighbor Ruthie looking in to complement whatever she smelled, wafting into the hallway, I didn’t want to pretend that I didn’t eat. 

I said, “I don’t know why I’m so attached to you. I just am.” 

“I don’t know why either,” Otto replied. “You go on with no encouragement. It’s almost frightening.”

I was almost afraid of myself, too, if that’s the way Otto saw it. 

Otto waited, moving to another side of my couch, and sank into a lot of throw pillows.

“I’m okay though. You don’t have to apologize,” I went on. “You’ve made yourself pretty clear, every time.”

“Well,” Otto said. 

“You don’t have to stay. Thank you for letting me know in person,” I said, standing.

Then Otto stretched his arms above his head and held them there.  

“Really, Otto?” I asked and crawled into his lap. I held his heavy head to my chest and made little kisses across his broad forehead. My kisses were something like jelly, threading—as would veins—a clay block. Otto was an intelligent person, but his body was not responsive. 

When I asked, “Can I kiss you?” he made a scoffing sound to make clear that I had already been kissing him. 

I had not ventured to his lips yet. When I got there—well, Otto’s lips were very soft, and they summed up his general tenderness versus all the inscrutable behavior I’d experienced to get to his lips.

When Otto left that night—and really every night Otto left—I could smell him in my hair, on my arms, in my clothes, and on my couch. He’d hate for me to trace his trail. But I watched from my second-floor window as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. He’d have a lift in his step, and because he wore cargo shorts that held everything he’d brought over, he looked independent. He could have gone anywhere from my front steps. For instance, he could have gone to his place where I’d never been. 

* * *

 

The whole relationship felt outside reality. Otto had a habit of looking to the side of my face. Or even when he looked straight at me, Otto was missing from his gaze. 

During another conversation, he faux-admitted, “I’m not all here.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, while the way it was going—our looking past one another; the sense that Otto was not “all there”—made me wonder what we were. 

I narrowed my eyes, trying to read Otto, and said, “I see a lot of good in you.” Working to divine Otto’s best self, I was not myself but a fake agent of analysis. 

“I think you have a contempt for people. That’s why you go through the gestures,” I said. 

“I perform,” Otto admitted.

“I didn’t say that.”

“It’s part of my job,” he said, but I found it boring when, for instance, we talked about a priggish professor in his department. From early feminist work, she shared findings that only suggested a newly worded moral sanction for sex. And was so glued to morality that she mapped the sad fates of such liberated women—divorce, lost custody, institutionalization. Really, she managed to make sex seem not worth the trouble. 

“Right,” I said. 

Otto said, “I’m a brain inside a jar.” Or just as Otto reminded me that his department stressed him out, he was uncanny, and struck a chord of my interest. I had translated a poem about a snail-wife who cleaned the kitchen at night and retreated into a shell during the day. I could volunteer myself as a glass jar filled with my brain and body.

“But you have a body,” I said, admixing my metaphor with Otto’s, as if his body would ever join his brain in the jar.

Perhaps neither of us was a cohesive self. It made complete sense that our relationship would develop. 

When one night, he said, “I’m not really interested in pursuing anything,” and lifted my body this way and that, I did feel moved around by mitts. Still, when he touched my hair, he opened his hands.  

When he kissed my inner thighs, I guessed he had been with other women. When he lifted me into his mouth, I watched, fascinated.   

When he asked, “Can you lick me?” I was stunned. 

I said, “Oh, okay.” And “I’m not very good at this.” 

I took the tip of his penis into my mouth. He stroked my hair.

He said, “Your face. I want to see your face.” I twisted my hair into a knot at the back of my head. Or truly curious about what my face looked like in these moments—did I know myself? 

* * *

 

I’d met Otto at a translation studies roundtable that his department organized. When Otto followed me into the hallway to thank me for participating, he acted like an eager, departmental champion. He had cleaned up the seminar room and had a number of surplus drinks to offer. The cans were dripping with water from the ice chest, and I shook the moisture off a green tea before settling it into my tote bag. 

Otto thanked me especially, since I was not a student in his department. When he shook my hand with his moist hand, his face turned sullen. I couldn’t tell whether he was registering my appearance, felt tired, or really meant to communicate longing. 

Months after the roundtable, on the way to my car, I saw Otto again. He crossed a parking lot, and looked into the sun. He did not see me, nor did he shade his eyes. His forehead was glassy with perspiration. 

I passed directly beside him, on the path near the university cathedral, before he noticed me.

“Hey,” he said, his voice husky. 

When he bent his head, his thin hair, threaded with silver and receding to a widow’s peak, was obvious. I checked my attraction for him. Nothing so far. 

We chatted easily—almost excitedly. He rushed to describe a semester of travel to conferences, almost one per month. I talked about going to Hong Kong to visit friends for spring break. We might have been friends catching up. Otto’s face looked lost and found at the same time—one side fallen when describing his workload; the other side lifting toward the silver strip of hair when I talked about Hong Kong. 

When he asked me to go out for coffee, I dodged the invitation. If I got carried away in the momentum of being nice, I would commit to something I didn’t want. 

I said, “Your department’s so sweet,” about the amount of food at the roundtable reception—part of a convoluted No per my habitual refusal to attend department functions. I did not know what I was saying. I’d hardly given a thought to my department’s receptions. The assortment of desiccated vegetables with dips and individually wrapped desserts could not be confused for meals, but what difference did that make?  

As Otto and I parted then, on the sidewalk, he said he would email me. I waited for an email. He never wrote. 

For eight days of waiting, if I thought about the coincidence of seeing Otto, I felt uneasy about a greyhound I’d read about in a story. The dog died while its family, absent the father, went on holiday. The father, in a rush to join his family, had forgotten to close the dog’s eyes before burying it in the back yard. Even if I’d read about dead and open eyes before, I kept trying to catch at why they reminded me of Otto.  

Something had shifted. By now—in retrospect—our asphalt parking lot resembled a lava field with black, upturned outcroppings, caught churning. Otto’s arm was buried there, in its short sleeve, and my eye would retrieve it.

After what felt like a dignified interval of eight days, I emailed Otto to ask if he’d join my running group and penned what would become my signature phrase—“Please let me know, Otto.” I got a commitment for our first coffee. 

* * *

 

In April, after I got back from Hong Kong, I hung out at my friend Faye’s house, and told her about Otto calling me sheepish. We had been running together for months before I met Otto, and by then, she knew a lot about X, too, even if I was ashamed of what I’d been during my marriage to him. 

Faye liked to say I was brave because I left X. When X started seeing someone seriously for the first time, and I’d thought I was still in love with X, I’d begged him to get back together with me. When X rejected me, Faye said that to get the other side was There was no other way but Through

Too, Faye said over and over again, “I’m sorry,” to release me from my sense of failure. 

That night, Faye folded laundry or pushed more clothes into her jammed closet, as I sat on the floor and watched. Every article of clothing had a story, and she kept things around because she could not throw them out. I didn’t think of Faye’s attachment as sentimental or pragmatic. Only Faye had achieved a kind of loyal empire of decisions by way of her clothes and looked stable to me. At that time in my life, Faye’s steady commitment to her life seemed exceptional. 

About Otto’s habit of not replying to emails, Faye said, “It’s a bad precedent. Everything happens according to him. He’s like a walking trauma and doesn’t even trust you.”

Otto’s calling me sheepish and lashing out this early in the relationship was a horrible sign, she said. She was sorry it had turned into this, though the conversation between me and Otto had been strangely intimate, she admitted. 

I heard intimate as promising. I exaggerated Otto’s regret, saying he’d recognized the outrage of his outrage. I left out the part about his attachment to his mother. I hated that I might be repeating part of my marriage to X. 

On the scale of things—a twelve-year marriage versus a months-long obsession—it didn’t make sense that I cared more about Otto than X. My mind played tricks on me. I would never tell X about Otto, and X would never deign to be jealous either. I nevertheless held Otto in mind as an advance guard against further humiliation by X. 

He was my first after X—that was all. 

“I know,” I said but kept writing emails to Otto.

Months after the start of whatever was happening between us, I didn’t have Otto’s phone number. He wanted to keep our conversation going through university email. When I pushed him to use my number as a matter of convenience, and asked that we not to trade personal bits through university email, he qualified my request as “neurotic ; ).” He added that he would brace himself for my 3-5 notes parsing neurotic.

I did not spend time parsing neurotic. Faye had warned me about sacrificing my dignity, but I couldn’t hear her appeal to my common sense. 

She added, “Stop giving him the benefit of the doubt.” This, too, I did not understand. 

I invited him to a cocktail party. He said yes to meeting me at a party, describing his attendance as doable, or “a stay of execution,” since it was Spring Break. 

During the party, Otto emailed that he was in the parking lot, and I went out to find him when the “coast was clear” (his phrase). 

When I reached the top of Otto’s shadow, I pecked his cheek. He pulled my back into his body. 

I offered cigarettes. He lit one. I smoked a second cigarette and felt sick while making myself sicker. Perhaps I meant to heal myself later—or I was simply eager to smoke with Otto.

“Go inside, Otto,” I said. I needed fresh air.

He said, “I’ll stay with you.” 

When Otto said he’d like a drink, I did not offer my water bottle.

I’d had several cocktails already and had no desire to go back into the hot room with heated people. The vegetable sticks and hummus would be lukewarm. 

He said, “No, I can’t do it.”

I said, “Of course, you can. No one will care.”

“No,” he said. “I can’t.”

“Why?” I asked.

“According to my sense of morality,” he said, managing once again to make English sound like his second language. I wondered if the party would be his first chance to meet faculty socially. 

Otto overstated the stakes or parroted colloquial English (see stay of execution), as many immigrants do when learning English. Otto was not an immigrant or Korean but had spent much of his college and graduate life in Korea, inhabiting Korean. Now a scholar of Korean Language and Literature, Otto thought in Korean, and I was embarrassed about Otto’s English. 

I said, “Just go in. I’ll find you later. I’ll walk.”

He refused and we walked aimlessly to the end of the parking lot. I smoked more than I had in years. When we shared a cigarette, Otto took impressively long drags, making the ash grow. Smoking thickened the outer layer of skin on his body. Like leather, cured by removing fat and hair cells, Otto’s flesh hung off his body.  

He said, “I’m not used to sharing.” 

His words probably had nothing to do with me again.

“Let’s go inside, Otto,” I offered. 

When we walked into the apartment, Otto helped himself to ice from a plastic bag in the freezer, and drank whisky after whisky with ice. He’d had a busy semester. The last time I said anything about his being busy—well, you know the story. I was glad Otto wasn’t the loneliest scholar in the world.

Darius, the party host and a professor of African American poetics, took Otto to his bookshelf and handed him a book of drawings of slave holds in ships. Otto stuck close to Darius, who elaborated on Fred Moten’s use of Blackness/Nothingness as a creative-generative freedom in language. 

Darius’ partner Enid, a Victorian studies scholar, wrote about the implicit colonization of animal subjectivities in 19th century British literature. She had two cats that—one assumed—had an acute awareness of their relationship to Enid. She wore bright red lipstick that made the rest of her face sink back into her unkempt hair. I thought of her face as a web one fell into if not careful enough.      

The entire apartment felt furry, since I was allergic to cats and Enid’s cats had shredded the cat toy’s fur. When I nudged the stuffed mouse toward the bookcase, I noticed its glassy eye. The cat-toy was newly an object of my fascination.

Otto said, “The cat toy is too realistic,” and pored over Darius’ book.

I took Otto’s words as an article of faith. Even if I seemed fake, I wanted to have real feelings. And I shadowed Otto’s comprehension as if it would reveal something to me about how he felt about me. 

I retreated to a couch to text Faye.

“We’re at Enid’s. He’s ignoring me.”

I headed for the bathroom closest to the front door, then slunk out of the apartment without saying goodbye. I wanted to sleep. I walked to my apartment, a few streets away. 

In the middle of the night, when the alcohol wore off, I read Faye’s text: “Were you ignoring him?!”

“No. He likes Enid though. I think he had a good time,” I texted back.

“Don’t go there. Enid says he doesn’t laugh. You laugh all the time.” 

Did I really laugh all the time?

“I don’t know.”

Faye texted, “He had to dilute the feeling he was there for you. It makes perfect sense.”

Again, Faye’s interpretation sounded promising, even if I knew it wasn’t true. Faye held no grudge against Otto. 

I went back to sleep. 

Strangely, Otto emailed two days after the party, and asked to go out for a walk to smoke. 

Keen to tease out Otto’s interest, when I met him on a street between our buildings, and said, “Enid’s quite curious about you.” 

Otto, lacking a sense of humor, asked, “Why? That doesn’t make sense.”

I answered, “That’s just the way we talk, since she’s seen you with me.”


He said, blinking rapidly, “That kind of thing’s not in my wheelhouse.”

I winced at his phrasing. Was he steering a ship from said wheelhouse, and attending to real risks and dangers due his vessel, such as raging seas, uncooperative weather, or governments?

I regretted that I’d tried to read—or even make up—Otto’s mind per my friends.  

The next time I saw Enid, I would try to correct the mistake. I would confide that Otto had rejected me altogether, to erase any lingering speculation about me with Otto. 

Oddly, as if he’d read my plans, Otto said, “You’re making a project of hanging out with me.”

“That’s not true, and I’m not sure what I’d gain from that project.” I said. “I could lie to everyone, and they wouldn’t notice, or care.” 

Otto said, “I’ve never asked you to lie.”

* * *

 

Ruthie vacuumed the hallways of our Victorian house on Sundays. The second floor was split into two apartments. Ruthie and her husband Don maintained the common areas for a break in rent, and it could seem like they were everywhere. If I put my laundry in the washing machine, she would know. By the time I returned to put my clothes in the dryer, their clothes that had been drying on the line would be gone.

The morning after I saw Otto, I lay in bed, staring at the light in my window. When I closed my eyes, I noticed floaters under my eyelids. Like transparent worms, they tracked the way my eyes moved. I tried to stare them into place but my stare was no match for their skittish recourse into the back reaches of my head. 

Prayer was almost trickery. I was not honest if I made a direct display of my suffering, and asked for relief.

“I’m in love with you, and miserable,” I wrote to Otto. “But if there’s nothing you want from me, let’s let go.” 

Otto wrote, “If you want, we can do that,” and then detailed what he expected from friendships. Most importantly, he wanted to feel free to be himself. 

“You know what I mean?” he wrote.

I had no idea we were friends. I didn’t respond. 

He wrote back quickly. “Are you okay?” 

He added, “You sound very frustrated, probably for good reason.”

I thanked him for checking on me. 

In a rare show of intuition, Otto wrote again, saying, “Of course, it would be good to talk.”

“Why (at all)?” I asked. “Please let me know, Otto.”

J. Vera Lee wrote “Pearl” as part of a short story collection/dissertation to earn her Ph.D. in English at UH Mānoa. Her work has appeared recently in Asymptote and New American Writing, and is forthcoming in StoryQuarterly. She works as a cataloging librarian at the Honolulu Museum of Art.  

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