Margaret Cho’s Mother
(a novel excerpt)
Margaret Cho’s mother had been eavesdropping on me.
“I saw you,” she said. “I saw you throw that shovel and I heard you say the F word. You shouldn’t swear.”
We were in the kitchen. I was standing at the sink, washing dishes. Margaret Cho’s mother had snuck up behind me, pulling on my sleeve. Her hair was big. The tips ended just below her ears and poofed out in big curls that didn’t move.
“You were spying on me?”
“I’m always telling Margaret not to swear too.”
“But you were spying. No one was supposed to hear me.”
“I heard you.”
“Well you weren’t supposed to!” I raised my voice then, only to bring it back down a moment later. “Mrs. Cho,” I said as I turned off the faucet and removed my mother’s fuchsia rubber gloves, “Why don’t we go to the living room?” I had turned to face her and I placed my hands on her shoulders, patting them gently. As I smoothed down her shoulder pads, I realized how awkward it felt to touch her like that, as if I was patting a puppy, but she didn’t let on that anything was out of the ordinary. I gently nudged her elbow. “Let’s go,” I said. “Into the living room we go.”
Margaret Cho’s mother didn’t budge. “This is how it started with Margaret,” she said. “First it was all the cussing, then it was the comedy, then drugs. She never went to school like you, you know, she didn’t go to college.”
“Well she didn’t need to,” I said. “She had her own T.V. show.” I searched her face, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. “Do you think I just started saying bad words? I’m in my thirties, Mrs. Cho! I’m almost forty.”
“I want you to be a good girl.”
“I’m not a girl.”
“Then what are you? You’re not a boy. Are you a tomboy? Don’t be a tomboy.”
I gave her a little shove to get her moving. It didn’t startle her a bit. We walked toward the living room, our bare feet sinking into the peach carpet, and sat down on the peach-flowered couch. Margaret Cho’s mother’s feet swung like pendulums, several inches above the ground. There was nobody in the living room. Where was everyone?
“Where is everyone?” I said.
“They’re in Kevin’s room. Having a séance.”
“How do they know how to do a séance?”
“Your mother asked the gypsy.”
“You mean the psychic.”
“Yes, the psychic.”
“Let’s not join them,” I said. “Let’s stay here.”
“Yes. I agree. I don’t think a séance will bring your brother back.”
“He’s not dead,” I said. “He’s just missing.”
“I know,” said Margaret Cho’s mother.
“How do you know?”
“I just know. How do you know?”
“Because I’m his sister.” I pulled at the loose threads fraying at the knee of my jeans. “Does my mother think he’s dead? Is that why she’s having a séance?”
“No I don’t think your mother thinks he’s dead. She thinks the séance will help Kevin find his way back home.”
“Wherever he is.”
There was a pot of barley tea on the coffee table, arranged on a tray with teacups and saucers. It was still fresh and warm from post-lunch, so I poured a cup for Margaret Cho’s mother and another for myself.
“How’s Margaret?” I asked.
“She has a new show, did you know?”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“It’s going to be her come-back!”
“That’s great,” I said. “Is it about sex?”
Margaret Cho’s mother’s face turned red. “I don’t know. It’s about…” her voice trailed off.
“It’s called All About Sex,” I said.
“I don’t know what it’s called,” said Margaret Cho’s mother.
“I just saw her on T.V.,” I said. “She was wearing a military uniform and playing a North Korean. She presented someone an acting award.”
“I recorded it on my VCR!” exclaimed Margaret Cho’s mother. When she smiled, her eyeglasses lifted a little with her full cheeks. We took sips of barley tea from our teacups.
“I don’t like it when she makes fun of me,” she said quietly.
“I wouldn’t think you would.”
“And Margaret uses bad words too much.”
“She does use a lot of bad words.”
“I just want her to be the best.”
“The best that she can be. At being Margaret.”
I wondered if she didn’t want Margaret to have confidence, like my mother used to say about me. You seemed too confident. If you think I was mean to you, that’s why. I just wanted you to be the best. But I didn’t want to bring my mother into it. She might think I was making her look bad.
“Do you want to go with me to the store?” I said.
“Why? Do you need something?”
“We’re out of apples,” I said. The fruit platter on the table had plenty of slices of oranges, kiwis, and peaches, but there were no more apples. “We need more fujis,” I said.
“Okay,” Margaret Cho’s mother said. “Let’s go.” She pushed herself off the couch, jumping onto the ground with both feet planted in unison, as if she was landing a flip off a pommel horse.
“Stick it!” I said.
“Nothing. You seem very athletic. Did you do gymnastics as a child?”
“I was a professional basketball player in Korea.”
“What? You were?”
“Well not professional professional. Almost professional! I was famous in Seoul, you know. A lot of women, they weren’t allowed to play basketball, but at my college, we had an all girls’ basketball team. We played against other female colleges, and I was the star! I was famous!”
“Interesting,” I said. “I had no idea.”
* * *
As we walked outside to my car, I tried to imagine Margaret Cho’s mother wearing a jersey and mesh polyester shorts, dribbling a basketball, and shooting it across the court with a flick of her wrist, hopping into the air, watching it arc and swish through the hoop, no rim. Margaret Cho’s mother was barely five feet tall. If she had been a basketball star, she must have had skills. Maybe all the players were the same size.
My car was blocked in the driveway by two other cars parked haphazardly behind it. “Let’s take mine!” Margaret Cho’s mother said. She took her keys out of her purse and pressed a button that made her car beep three times while the headlights flashed. It was a silver Porsche convertible. Margaret had bought it for her in the nineties, the year Margaret’s sitcom All-American Girl was on the air. We opened the doors and slid into the slippery black seats. Margaret Cho’s mother revved the engine. She maneuvered the car out of the spot expertly, and drove the stick so smoothly, I could barely tell we were moving. She took tight, efficient turns around corners, sitting close to the steering wheel with the seat elevated so that she had a clear view through the windshield. Whoever says Asian women can’t drive has never been taken for a drive by Margaret’s mother.
“I wish I could be a race car driver!” she said. “I like to watch NASCAR. Do you ever watch it?” I looked at her, then at the road, and back at her propped up against the steering wheel. She was driving the speed limit, coming to a full stop at stop signs, using her blinker. Margaret Cho’s mother was incredibly competent.
“I don’t like how the race car drivers are all men, and did you notice they all look the same? It’s like they’re brothers, from the same Mormon family. And there’s always some beautiful blonde babe handing the winner a trophy.”
“Ha ha! Jane. You’re so serious. Just watch those little cars drive around that track. So fast! And then they crash. Boom! Pow! Waaaaaaaahhhh—psssshhhh! It’s so fun.” She never took her hands off the wheel.
We drove with the top down. The wind whipped through our hair and flattened out my words as I shouted directions into town. We bought a bag of apples, a couple baguettes, and stinky cheese. On our way home, the sun was setting, casting a sienna glow over everything. We drove through tree-lined back-roads and pulled over beside a vineyard so that we could watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. I munched on an apple and gazed at the landscape. Margaret Cho’s mother was digging something out of her purse. It was a joint. She lit it, sucked on it, held her breath, and exhaled, letting out a stream of smoke. She passed it to me.
“Want some?” she said.
“Ummmm,” I said, looking quizzically at her.
“Oh come one. It’s legal. Margaret gets it for me in Humboldt. She says to me, Mom, this is so strong it’s ridiculous.” Margaret Cho’s mother took another hit. “Once they made it legal, I thought, Why not? I feel so much more relaxed now.”
I stared at Margaret Cho’s mother holding the joint in my face, her thumb and index finger pinching the butt-end. Why not? I thought. I took a hit and we passed it back and forth a few times. “I’m glad it makes you happy,” I said.
Margaret Cho’s mother sucked it down to the roach before opening the driver’s side door. She leaned over and put out the fading ember in the dirt next to the car. She popped her head back in, closed the door, and lowered her seat so that she was almost completely reclined. I put mine back too. There was no roof because the top was down. We looked up at the sky, which was just beginning to darken, and the air was warm and dry. I giggled to myself about the sight of us, two Korean ladies—one in her sixties, the other in her thirties—lying down in reclined seats in a convertible sports car, at the foot of a vineyard. I could be her daughter, she my mother, the two of us enjoying the scenery.
“I remember Kevin’s first birthday dol party. You wouldn’t remember because you weren’t born yet,” Margaret Cho’s mother said.
“Oh yeah, I saw pictures of mine,” I said, remembering my fat round face, nearly a perfect circle, my colorful hanbok outfit and peaked black hat. My one-year old self sat in a tiny chair, at a low rectangular Korean table, completely covered with pyramids of persimmons, peaches, apples, oranges, bananas, several different kinds of dumpling-sized red bean paste-filled rice cakes, speckled with black sesame seeds, dusted with crushed red and green and yellow beans, pocked with dried black beans, food-colored in pastel green and pink. There was money too, stacks of bills fanned out on the table.
“What did Kevin grab first?” I asked Margaret Cho’s mother, remembering my mother telling me that I had picked a peach and greedily chomped into it, which was supposed to foretell that I would be fat and poor.
“He took the money. He never had a big appetite, like you. That’s why you were always the strong one. You never got sick. He was too picky.”
“He took the money? So he was supposed to be rich,” I said. “Interesting,” I said, knowing that Kevin felt bad that he never made as much money as our father.
“We hoped that he would be like Michael Chang.”
“He tried,” I said.
“Maybe he should have picked the peach, like you, to be strong.”
“How did you know that? Did you come to mine?” I assumed that she hadn’t. It wouldn’t have been expected, since I was a girl.
“I did! Margaret was there too. Do you remember? She tried to eat the ddeok before the ceremony.”
“No. I was one.”
“When Kevin was little, he saved a jar full of pennies and he gave it to you. Do you remember?”
“Kind of,” I said. “I remember he was mad about it.” We gazed at the sky. One lone cloud moved slowly above us, lengthening.
“In Korea, people look up to police officers,” Margaret Cho’s mother said.
“I don’t know if they still do. But they did, a long time ago.”
“Oh,” I said. “After he became a cop, he was surprised to learn that nobody respects cops. He said he didn’t know. Somebody told him and he was really mad about it. He asked me if I knew and when I told him I did, he was more mad and wanted to know how I knew.”
Margaret Cho’s mother seemed to be nodding off. I closed me eyes. A moment later, I felt something touch my left arm. I looked down and saw Margaret Cho’s mother tugging on my sleeve. She lightly tapped the back of her hand on my forearm, her palm up and open. I put my left hand in it and she closed hers around mine. We held hands like that, across the center console, fluttering our eyes at the sky.
* * *
When we got back to the house, the séance was over and my mother, Mrs. Chang, Mrs. Park, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Oh, and Mrs. Eom were lounging on the couch in the living room drinking tea. The toddler was crawling underneath a chair and the tween was sitting on the floor with her legs crossed. Margaret Cho’s mother and I waved hello before going into the kitchen to put away the groceries. My mother followed us.
“Where did you go?” she demanded, looking at me, then Margaret Cho’s mother, her eyes shifting back and forth.
“Kevin Kim’s mother! We just went to get more apples. See?” She held up the apples that she had just pulled out of the grocery bag.
“You were gone a long time,” my mother said. “What were you doing?” She was looking at me now.
“We went for a drive. I showed Margaret Cho’s mother some scenery. I thought you like it when I do that,” I said.
“What did you talk about?” my mother asked.
Margaret Cho’s mother and I locked eyes. Her eyes looked glossy, but they weren’t red. She had squirted Rohto into her eyes, her head cocked back, before coming into the house. I hadn’t, so I had no idea whether I was bleary-eyed. Margaret’s mother waited for me to speak.
“We talked about Kevin,” I said. “Margaret Cho’s mother told me some stories she remembered about Kevin from when he was little, and I told her stories about when he was older. That’s all,” I said. “We just talked about Kevin. And we tried to think about where he might be.”
“Good,” my mother said. “It’s good to think about him. He needs to know that we’re thinking about him.”
My mother sliced up the apples and took them into the living room. When she was gone, Margaret Cho’s mother raised her eyebrows at me. I let out a sigh of relief.
“I think she was jealous,” Margaret Cho’s mother said.
“That we were together, without her.”
“I thought she was being paranoid, like maybe we were talking about her.”
“That too,” Margaret Cho’s mother said.
* * *
When it was dark, everyone finally left. Mrs. Chang, Mrs. Park, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Oh, Mrs. Eom, and Margaret Cho’s mother had fulfilled their duty in supporting my mother. The house was quiet. There was no toddler playing Rachmaninoff on the grand piano. There were no voices speaking at once, the conversations overlapping and weaving into each other like thread on a loom. The house felt lifeless, but smelled of incense, which had been burning in Kevin’s room during the séance. The sweet, smoky eucalyptus scent wafted through the house as my mother and I cleaned up. We stacked the dishes and teacups in the sink and left them there to be taken care of later. We wrapped up the leftovers that had not been sent home with our guests, carefully placing them in the fridge.
“How was the séance?” I asked my mother. I sat at the kitchen table while my mother wiped the countertops.
She rinsed the sponge and squeezed out the soap and crumbs, then placed it in the little sponge holder next to the sink. She turned, and when she was facing me she said, “What did you do?”
“Did you do something?
“Why did Kevin leave?”
“I don’t know. You think I made him leave?”
“You must have done something.”
“I haven’t talked to him in five years.”
She was quiet then. “Maybe Sanghee did something. It must have been Sanghee.”
“I don’t think that Sanghee did something to make him leave.”
My mother opened a cupboard door. She moved some jars around and slammed the door shut. “Where did he go? Why did he leave?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s never been happy.”
“Of course he was happy. Why wouldn’t he be happy? There’s nothing wrong with him.”
“Yeah, I guess there isn’t.”
I wished for my mother that she could have the perfect son. I wished that my brother could have had a different mother. In our family, we impose our will on one another, generation after generation, with no one ever getting what they want, as if we live a legacy of melancholy, a public historical trauma made private and intimate. It pulls us apart, but we always come back, braided together in our need.
“I’ll find him,” I said to my mother to ease her pain. “Don’t worry. I can find him,” I said. I sounded confident, but I had no idea where Kevin could be or how I could bring him back.
* * *
Before I left, I visited Kevin’s room. My mother and her friends had moved a round table from a spare room into the middle of Kevin’s bedroom. Six chairs were pushed in against the table and a white cloth covered the top of it. The table and set of chairs were the only evidence of a séance having had taken place in his room.
I sat down in one of the chairs, folded my hands, resting them on the table, and closed my eyes. First, I tried to free my mind of all thoughts, then I tried to picture Kevin’s image in my head, then I wondered if I should chant. I repeated softly, under my breath, Kevin Kim, Kevin Kim, Kevin Kim, for about a minute before I decided to quit. Nothing happened. I opened my eyes. I scanned the bookcase. Spiderman and Archie comic books, a Dr. Doolittle box set, the Dune series, a bunch of Guns & Ammo magazines, a complete set of burgundy leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica, and three large books on Hawaii. I pulled the Hawaii books off the shelf and flipped through the pages. There were pictures of beaches, sunsets, palm trees, volcanoes, pineapples, taro, coral reefs, underwater landscapes with colorful fishes, ladies in grass skirts dancing at luaus, and whole pigs roasted in the ground.
Kevin had always loved Hawaii, ever since we went on vacation to Maui as a family when Kevin and I were teenagers. I remembered how we had stepped off the plane onto the runway, the only time I can recall doing that from a commercial airplane. Almost immediately, my hair frizzed up from the humidity. Three beautiful women in grass skirts came up to us and placed leis around our necks while saying Aloha.
Twice a year, Kevin and Sanghee took a vacation to Hawaii, even though Sanghee always tried to convince him to travel to Asia, or Europe, or any other destination.
“I love the atmosphere. It’s laid-back, people are nice, there are a lot of Asians. I feel comfortable there,” he said.
“There are Asians in Asia,” I said.
“I like Hawaii,” he said. “It’s still America, but it doesn’t feel like America.”
I wondered if he had run away to Hawaii. The picture in my mind seemed so lovely. Kevin snorkeling, parasailing, surfing, exploring volcanoes, collecting obsidian, drinking out of a coconut, eating Spam, living on a pineapple farm with a pet pig named Roseanne. I wanted to go there and find him.
A piece of paper fluttered out of the book. It was a full-size sheet of white paper folded into thirds, and had been wedged into the binding. The book was open to a vibrant picture of a coral reef, a scuba diver shimmying through the blue water, a school of yellow fish passing him in the shape of a diamond. I opened the piece of paper. There was a symbol drawn in the middle of it, with a black ballpoint pen. It was a triangle, with a circle inside it, and a square inside the circle.
“What are you doing?” my mother said from the doorway. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just some scratch paper.” Quickly, I folded up the piece of paper along its original creases and closed the book. I got up and made a movement as if to throw the paper into the trashcan.
“Put everything back where you found it,” my mother said. “You know how he gets when people move his stuff.”
“Okay,” I said. I stuffed the piece of paper into my pocket when my mother wasn’t looking, her head down as she inspected what appeared to be a stain on the bedspread. I gathered the Hawaii books together and put them back on the shelf, in the order in which I had found them. My mother left the room, taking the bedspread with her.
I didn’t know how old that piece of paper was, how long ago it had been placed in the book. I didn’t know if it meant anything. It had looked crisp, bright white, with no yellowing along the edges. I stood there, next to the bookcase, surveying the room, looking for signs of when Kevin had last visited. Weeks ago? Months? Years?
I looked out the window. It was dark. I could see the shadowy outlines of trees, the branches nearly touching the windowpane. There was a rustling sound. I narrowed my eyes as I tried to locate where the sound came from. I darted across the room and flicked off the light switch. When I stood close to the window, my face an inch from the glass, I tried not to breathe to keep the window from fogging up, and as I gazed into the darkness, the trees and bushes were more visible than they had been a moment earlier. I heard the rustling again, at the same time that I saw the bamboo bush vigorously shaking, the stalks tall and leafy, having grown back long ago, after my grandfather died. I had never understood why he had always hacked the bamboo down to little pointy stubs. Now lengthened, lush, and green, the bamboo hid well, though not completely, a small, stout body, with familiar poofed hair atop an equally familiar head. The figure walked toward the window where I stood, and a set of eyes peered straight into my eyes, owl-like, large-rimmed glasses perched on her face. She broke into a smile.
It was Margaret Cho’s mother. She put her hand up and waved. I waved back. I walked over to the back door and let her in.