Editor’s Note: Che Yeun’s “The Queen” was the winner of our 2014 Prose Contest and appeared in Issue 7.2 of New South. Our staff loved the story’s voice and wit, its vivid and affecting details, and we were thrilled when judge Christopher Merkner selected it for first place. Recently I caught up with Che over email, and she shared her inspiration for the piece and what she’s working on now.
Che Yeun: I came to the States for the first time as an adult. I had fully formed habits of speech and thought that I sensed were no longer relevant on American soil. A lot of words from my past languages that I would likely never need again. But they were still inside me, circling the drain. Where would they end up? Did I even want to fight to keep them? That line of questioning turned into some scribbles and drafts that turned into The Queen.
I’ve been putting together my first story collection. Lately, a range of odd jobs has sprung me into the midst of new and strange people. So I’ve been super busy keeping nosy records of them all for future stories.
Excerpt from “The Queen”
He does not like where Girl lives. He describes the architecture as Eastern Bloc Mental Asylum. He does not like her neighbor, the Cantonese girl in the next apartment who fights with her boyfriend in the middle of the night. Sometimes it seems the exasperated boyfriend will kill the crying girl, but sometimes it sounds as if she will kill him first. He asks Girl if she understands what they are saying. She tells him she cannot.
Girl asks him to go out and stop the fight.
No, he says, I don’t want to humiliate the young man.
But in the morning he asks her again: Why do you live here? You’re in America now. You don’t have to listen to people like that.
During the week they rarely see each other. She tells him she goes to class, even though she’s already decided she won’t finish college. She’ll do the bare minimum to keep her visa valid, until even that runs out.
He works long hours at the lab, clocking in early to set up the yeast colony arrays for the day. He does not trust the other researchers to be meticulous enough. He became a yeast genetics expert because he understood the organisms like no one else, long before the fashionable rise of biotechnological applications. His youth was disciplined, a sharpening of the mind into a blade. A youth nothing like hers. He had too much respect for the opportunities he had been given. He could never skip class, binge on Youtube videos, experiment with grocery store hair dyes, dawdle through illicit affairs with more important people. He was too busy becoming important himself.
Girl does not like his condo either, but that is where they enact their intimacy. Sleeping together, eating together. But they alternate when it comes to showering and talking, only one person, one voice at a time.
He does not own a TV. He tolerates music when it plays in the background. He lets her listen to anything she wants, as long as it stays under volume level five. She stops sampling his CD collection when she finds out all the discs were left behind by his wife. They continue sharing weekends, but without background noise.
At night their legs are stacked on top of each other’s, crisscrossing like latticework. She needs something pressing down on her to fall asleep, and he needs something between his knees to ease his lower back.
Girl knows he has switched sides of the bed. Now, he sleeps on the side where his wife used to lie. Girl knows this because, out of habit, he still puts his watch and keys on the wrong dresser, the one by her head.
He copies a set of keys for her so that they aren’t seen together when they leave and enter the building. He explains it would be devastating to his wife. You are too young, he says, to understand the pride of a 50-year-old woman.
Lana, the wife, moved out months ago, maybe over a year ago. Girl is not sure because she does not want to ask. The first and last time she asked for information, she was told that Lana still lived in the same building, one floor above, in the other condo she rightfully claims because it’s still titled to both names.
So you’re just separated, Girl had said.
Not by enough, he’d said to reassure her.
Can I see a picture of Lana?
Can we call her right now so I can hear her voice?
Don’t cheapen this.
He tells her he must keep his new life independent from his old. She thinks there is not much that is new about his new life, apart from her pussy, waxed every other week, a mound that gleams with nubile moisture. The first time he saw it, he stepped back off the bed to get a better look.
I know I should feel like an old creep right now, he said. But I feel amazing.
For Girl, his kitchen is the gleaming prize, an expensive duplicate of a lifestyle magazine spread. She gets to use every gadget—the juicer, the gnocchi paddle, the wine station. There are enough pots and plates for three dinner parties. She begins to take Fridays off, in order to salt or brine meat before roasting. She buys cookbooks, hardcover classics that come without pictures. Anything she breaks, she replaces immediately.
He is willing to try everything she puts on his plate, except for raw fish. She explains how they pierce the brain of the fish. It halts the production of lactic acid. It’s totally safe if it’s done right.
I study diseases, he says. I don’t invite them.
While the food cooks in the oven, she steps outside the building to watch the street at rush hour. She thinks that at some point, she must have brushed shoulders with Lana, felt her buttery fur coat rushing through the glass doors or in and out of the elevator. She wonders what Lana would say to her.
You wrecked our gleaming lifestyle magazine home how could you, or
You are exactly what he deserves.
Two boys come out on the street with their skateboards, always in the evening, weaving in and out of traffic to scare the grownups buckled in cars. Sometimes Justin the doorman comes out to smoke his break-time cigarette. He takes off his gloves before lighting up and Girl watches him stretch his fingers and palms. Sometimes, the boys decide to scare her too. They pull their tricks running at her and they steer away at the last second, laughing when they see her flinch. It’s not a friendly laugh, as if they feel a little shy too. They get so close that she can see her shadow passing over their piercings. She likes that the boys are always there. She likes that the police never come to stop them.
Che Yeun is from Seoul, Korea. A graduate of the creative writing workshop at the University of New Orleans, Che has also studied the history of science at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Cambridge. Other pieces of her writing can be found in The Kenyon Review Online, Trop, Enizagam, and Philadelphia Stories. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction.