“It’s not the story though, not the friend
leaning toward you, saying ‘And then I realized—,’
which is the part of stories one never quite believes.
I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.”
— Robert Hass, “Faint Music”
The year I hid in a convent, I met zero nuns. Instead, I met a group of young AmeriCorps service members who earned their convent beds in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles by drilling subtraction into inner-city kids or scrubbing showers for homeless people on Skid Row. I don’t know what my friend Melody said to convince her convent-mates to take me in, but they gladly dragged an extra mattress into a spare room, and sometimes when their stipends hit their bank accounts, they shared their beer.
It was the same year a tattoo artist in San Jose refused to ink the back of my neck because he said I would regret it. I’d spent the entire morning with a protractor making up a symbol that had no meaning. He didn’t budge even when I returned the next day.
I remember that year in flashes. It began around 6 a.m. on a December Monday in Seoul, when I lied to my father. I hugged him. Told him I was off to my first day of work at a tutoring center that actually existed and had offered me an actual job. But instead of walking to work, I ducked into a metro station, crashed down a set of stairs, tumbled—broken bag, torn slacks—into a train full of horrified commuters, and wound up at Incheon International Airport to fly nine thousand miles away.
I don’t remember what convinced me I was better off jetting without warning than having a reasonable conversation with my father. I believed I was in danger. Whether that was fact or paranoia is hard to say. I do recall that all I’d stuffed into the laptop bag, in addition to the laptop I stole from my father, was underwear. I’ve played and replayed that morning in my mind. Shoving, unshoving my getaway items into and out of the laptop bag. And deciding, finally, that my most pulsing concern was the possible embarrassment of my father finding lace thongs among my abandoned belongings. And my one inconsequential yet inescapable regret: not taking the royal blue coat he’d bought me during my first week in Seoul.
“Why don’t you wear your new coat to work?” he’d asked when I woke him.
I said it wasn’t cold enough. Or maybe that it was too cold. I loved that coat with a devotion objects don’t tend to elicit from me. That much-too-expensive, much-too-adult coat outshining the rest of my thrift store wardrobe and purchased by a man who patched a dozen odd jobs together to make a living for himself. I thought maybe he would sell it when I was gone. I hadn’t anticipated him destroying it with the rest of my things.
I had planned to live with him for a year after college. Perhaps to make up for the decade he was either in jail or, post-deportation, in a country I’d never known. But this was before I understood the mechanics of memory. How it’s possible to rewrite a father as someone less like a violent and convicted felon and more like a wounded soldier. I also didn’t understand what prison does to a person. Why anyone would want to live in a studio with every window blocked with boxes. It shouldn’t have surprised me that I was allowed only certain amounts of food and only occasional phone calls, but it did.
The more I observed my father’s erratic and alien habits, the faster homesickness devolved into a kind of terror. I had flashbacks of beatings, of my mother’s 911 calls. Then, rattled by nightmares of childhood plus my father’s pleas that I stay for two, maybe three, years, I started to make hysterical and secret phone calls. Enlisted an army of humans back in California willing to help me escape.
What kind of daughter flees in panic from her father—days before their first Christmas together in years—on a morning he gives her a hug, tells her he is proud of her, and insists she have a good day at work? The kind who doesn’t deserve Christmas. I boycotted the holidays that month. I hadn’t yet gone to see my mother or sisters since I’d landed at LAX. The guilt of betraying my father, who emailed daily bulletins of anguish and anger, spiraled into a narrative that convinced me I should be sentenced to a life without family, too. So I made a nest for myself on a friend’s futon while wasting most of my days sucking on a liter of cheap tequila and crafting a mix CD with songs about black hearts and suicide for another friend who’d convinced me to meet him in the parking lot of a desolate mall on Christmas Day. He was concerned. They all were. But their kindness only fueled the unrelenting voice telling me I didn’t deserve their care.
I’ve heard plenty about our deserving to be loved. But what do we deserve when we might have squandered our love stash? I became the kind of woman who cheated on a man who got caught in the crossfire of my self-loathing. Then eventually, the kind of woman who slept with men I found disgusting simply to prove I didn’t care what happened to my body.
During that year, I returned to bartending six nights a week at a Los Angeles karaoke bar I’d worked for in college. That following November, I volunteered to bartend on Thanksgiving mostly because it felt redundant to boycott the holidays for two years in a row. The scheduled karaoke jockey, who did not volunteer to work, hosted an early turkey dinner for us self-proclaimed orphans, a crew of mostly bar colleagues and our dearest alcoholic friends. It would be a slow night. The owners wouldn’t be there. We all drank. We all drove. We all lilted happily into work.
I can conjure the rest of what I remember in spurts cut with static. I remember two young guys entered the empty bar. They took the stools closest to the server station and asked for Jagermeister shots. It was the cocktail waitress who suggested a round of shots for all of us. Then another. I burned my arm on the cash register light reaching for a bottle of Hennessy, which I took a shot of, too. Chester, a favorite regular, eyed me warily as he ate the Thanksgiving leftovers we brought him. I grew wild and manic and all the best and worst kinds of loud.
It was the year I had a drinking problem, which I waved away by naming it a life problem. It was the year I was bipolar, which I blamed on birth control pills. I was young and unconquerable. I drove drunk because I wanted to die, but by God’s grace, the worst thing I ever did was shear off the side view mirrors of an entire row of parked cars.
And maybe that’s the ticket: grace. It was the year I expected harsh karma. But instead, I called my friends from the gutters of Hollywood and they picked me up. Every time. Even when I cursed at and punched them as they folded me into their cars. I roamed the streets wasted in miniskirts. Once, a golf cart—van?—full of men in blurry uniforms—cops?—drove me to an alleyway and parked next to a dumpster. They got out a first aid kit and patched up my bloody knees. They waited with me until I sobered up and could call someone to pick me up and take me home. And no, they didn’t rape me.
I remember my hands grabbing every emptied bottle of liquor from what turned out to be a busy Thanksgiving night and shaking them dry into a single, plastic cup. I remember downing that cup. A trash can shot. Then after two hours of utter nothingness, during which I’m told the server cleaned up the bar for me and closed out my cash register, I remember screaming at the bouncer and calling him a thief. I accused him of stealing my tips and of worse offenses as he laughed and apologized to the taxi driver he’d phoned to drive me home.
My first memory of the taxi ride is puking in the backseat. Having moved almost every year of my life and having recently found an apartment in Pasadena after months of hopping from couch to convent, I had no idea where I lived. That’s my next memory: shouting cities and numbers to cobble together an address that might mean home. And after some magic or trickery, when the taxi driver arrived in front of the place to which I had a key, he opened the back door of the cab and I fell out bawling. I had no money to give him except a rotten pile of singles. He refused my money. I shouted, though I didn’t mean to shout. I told him I would pay to clean his car. I begged him to come back to the bar to find me.
I woke up the following morning on the floor of the living room I shared with strangers. I needed a ride to go back to work that evening, so I phoned Melody, who, two years later, would become the friend who would send carnations in a margarita glass to commemorate the last time I stepped foot behind a bar. She’d graduated from the convent life and now worked at a hospital. She picked me up in the early afternoon on her way to her hospital shift. A crucifix dangled from her rearview mirror and the back bumper declared feminist exhortations. I adjusted my fishnets and said nothing.
I remember Melody spoke, and I remember she spoke for five minutes, almost exactly, but I don’t remember the words she used. It was the year I couldn’t parse the difference between love and condemnation. And whatever she said made me angry. Hateful even. Conjuring it now, seven years later, I remember it as nothing less than “I love you” in that difficult and truth-riddled way only family is capable of when they hate the mess you’ve made with your hands but will hold those filthy hands anyway.
Because I was afraid to show my face at the bar until the absolute last minute I had to be there, I sat alone at McDonald’s with a Filet-o-Fish. I sat on that unforgiving red bench for three hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving. A secular confessional. Then when I felt inside my purse for my phone to check whether it was time to finish my sentence at McDonald’s, I found this handwritten note:
MY NAME IS EDWARD, I WAS WORKING AS A TAXI THANKSGIVING EVENING. I GOT A CALL TO THE BRASS MONKEY & BROUGHT YOU HOME. YOU PUKED IN MY BACK SEAT, & OVER THE MOST OF ME. I CANNOT QUITE UNDERSTAND WHY THERE WAS NO ONE TO CARE FOR YOU ESPECIALLY ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS. IF YOU WISH TO CALL ME YOU MAY. (818) XXX-XXXX cell
I surrendered. I wept and wept under those obscene fluorescent lights as I thought about the taxi driver. The police officers. The friend who stood in the cold with me on Christmas. I thought about the tattoo artist. The AmeriCorps workers. Melody. I’d tried so damningly to punish myself and cut myself off from family, yet some higher Author had invaded my story with a cast of characters all fighting for the role of the Good Samaritan.
It was the year I most hated myself, but also the year my loose ideas of karma broke down and became replaced by that of grace, a terrible concept if I think too hard about it—the idea that the worst and most undeserving of us might also receive love.
It was a busy Friday night as Friday nights go. I was my typical, bitchy self because change doesn’t happen overnight, so I demanded orders from customers because I was also hungover. Halfway through my shift, a dark-haired, goofy young man stood a foot away from the bar and grinned at me.
“Are you going to order a fucking drink or what?” I shouted at him.
My walls crumbled. I sprinted out from behind the bar and gave the goofy young man the best hug I could muster. Then I gestured frantically toward the closet and babbled about needing to grab my purse and write him a hefty check to clean his car and replace his clothes. “Plus the cab fare. I also owe you over sixty dollars in cab fare. How much do you want? Two hundred? Three hundred? I mean, I probably owe you for saving my life.”
The taxi driver—true story—just laughed.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I just came by to make sure you’re alive and okay.” Then he handed me a tangerine and walked out of the bar.
Rumpus original art by Kaili Doud.