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.
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. He asks Girl if she understands what they are saying. She tells him she cannot. Sometimes it seems the exasperated boyfriend will kill the crying girl, but sometimes it sounds as if she will kill him first.
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, he adds, you don’t have to listen to people like that.
During the week they rarely see each other. He works long hours at the lab, clocking in early in the morning to set up the yeast colony arrays for the day. He does not trust the other researchers to be meticulous enough.
Girl does not like his condo either, but that is where they spend their weekends together. That is, they sleep and read together, but they take turns showering and only talk one at a time. He does not own a TV and 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.
Their bodies sleep well together. At night their legs are stacked on top of each other’s, crisscrossing like latticework. She needs something pressing down on her thighs to fall asleep, and he needs something between his knees to ease his lower back.
This physical compatibility is very important to him; after all, he owes his career to his gut instincts. He became a yeast genetics expert only because intuition had pulled him into the field, long before anyone else understood its potential for biotechnological applications. She listens in bed as he slips off his watch and retells his destiny, his youth proudly spent on eukaryotic research.
Girl knows he has switched sides, now sleeping on the side of the bed where his wife used to lie. Girl knows 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, and that she is too young 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, in the other condo still under both names.
So you’re just separated, she had said.
Not by enough, he’d said to reassure her.
Still, Lana packs a lunchbox for him. She leaves it outside his door every morning. He confesses he had asked Lana to continue making him lunch. He is a terrible cook.
Girl offers to make him lunch instead.
No, he says, if I stop now, she’ll know.
Yes, Girl replies, she will know that you are no longer terrible.
He tells her it is not funny, that he must keep his new life separate from his old. She thinks there is not much that is new about his new life, besides herself.
She settles for dinner. His kitchen is a duplicate of a magazine spread. She gets to use every gadget in his cabinets and he is willing to try everything on his plate, except for raw fish. 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.
While the food cooks in the oven, she steps just outside the building to watch the streets at rush hour. She thinks that at one point, she must have brushed shoulders with Lana. She wonders what she would say to her.
1.You married a terrible cook.
Two inner city boys on skateboards always come out at this time, weaving in and out of traffic to scare the grownups in their 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, hoping to see her flinch. 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.
Ideally Girl will have three translating jobs going on at the same time. When she gets bored she can switch among the books and articles. She gets bored and switches every hour or so. Still, she is better and faster than anyone else her employers might hire. For her fluency, she is compensated with twenty dollars a page.
By the hour, he says, you might make more money than me.
She hopes it is true.
2. I make more money than your husband.
Her latest job is a book on the history of nuclear warfare. The author uses ancient Chinese characters that schools in her home country had stopped teaching long ago. When she cannot find them in her dictionaries, she calls her mother for help.
Her mother, an over-educated, over-worked flight attendant, is rarely ever home. When the house phone rings until the end, the girl calls her mother on her cell phone with International Roam. The girl saves up her questions, making these expensive calls when she has a list of ten unidentified characters or more.
Her mother rushes through the explanations to get to more urgent matters such as Zheng, the fortune-teller. Zheng has been coming to the house every week for years, a presence that has lasted longer than any of her mother’s boyfriends. Her mother had always been indecisive. But now, she is paralyzed without Zheng’s predictions to soothe and coax her along. It bothers the girl, even though she considers how difficult it might be to find comfort in old age. Girl reminds herself it was Zheng who had convinced her mother to let her come to America in the first place. Let the girl go, he had said, she will bring back treasures.
Her mother reminds her to brush her teeth well and to sleep twelve hours a day. Take care of your body and make it look good, she says, being smart will only get you half as far.
But you smoke two packs a day, Girl replies.
While the girl is walking around the city, or taking the bus to his part of town, she keeps her languages fresh by naming things that catch her eye. Steeple, dentist, cotton. It is how children learn, and still the best method that she knows of.
Sometimes on her walks, she uses her keys to make secret visits to his apartment. She looks through his belongings while he is at work. There are no photo albums, journals or pills behind the bathroom mirror. Not even a lab book with scribbles for her to dissect. All his work is kept at the lab. Everything he finds or thinks between Monday and Friday belongs to the company. His contract, in a drawer, explicitly says so.
She does, however, find porn on his computer. She is hurt that it wasn’t hidden very well. She learns she is not his type. She imagines becoming like one of the girls on his websites, someone with arms like toothpicks and breasts like marshmallow puffs. But even as a girl, Girl cannot imagine what marshmallow breasts would feel like.
The two of them cannot eat her kitchen creations fast enough. Tupperware containers of leftovers crowd the fridge, and he jokes that their fridge is starting to smell like his lab. She resorts to throwing out bags of untouched food and soaking the Tupperware in bleach solution to minimize tomato stains.
But sometimes, she catches glimpses of progress. He allows her to wash her clothes in the same cycle with his. He invites her to the wedding of one of his lab technicians. She agrees to attend, and agrees to the stipulation that she will only be known as a family friend. She spends too much money on a lavender dress.
At the reception he introduces her as a polyglot. And, he adds, she could explain what that means in four languages. He thinks this is clever.
At the salad station she feels a hand on her back. It slips under her hair. She turns around to find the hand belongs to Cory, the best man, also in Epigenetics. She notices that he has no manners, but he has a Vespa. He pulls her around the back of the church to show her where it’s parked.
He asks her if she knows how much younger she is.
She plays dumb.
Date me instead, he says, we’re closer in age. And in everything else.
She plays dumb again.
Ever been to Miami, he splutters. She is drunk herself, and cannot remember if she had two or three fuzzy navels. She tells him she hasn’t.
Well by this time tomorrow, he says, you’ll know someone who has. He leaves his empty cup next to his helmet in the grass. He tells her he could take her to places she has never been. He shoots at her with his finger guns. She watches him and the round mudguards of his vehicle disappear over the horizon.
Back at the condo, the man takes off his socks and puts down his watch, still on the wrong dresser.
When he undresses her, he saves her bra for last. He turns off the light as she waits, lying on her stomach. She feels her breasts press and push up against the gel sacs tucked into each cup.She feels the sweat trapped between their membrane and her skin. He comes to the edge of the bed and wedges a finger between the two cups, wiggles it slowly to move her flesh like Jell-O. She is never sure which finger he’s using.
Jugs, Girl thinks to herself. Airbags. Sweater meat. Winnebagos. She thinks of the characters she used to hear before America, meow meow and steamed buns and big tofu.
Have you ever been to Miami? she asks later.
You wouldn’t like it, he tells her. It’s a provincial place.
Girl doesn’t tell him she is already in a provincial place. He is provincial too, with his refusal to cut ties with Lana or eat sashimi. His uncouth, provincial desire for silicone breasts. She finds herself missing the bullet trains back home, the towering glass buildings, how she could go entire months without touching another body or looking up at the sky.
I like provincial, is all Girl says.
She spends her free days internally debating the ethical dilemmas of her job. Is it her duty to correct bad writing, to clean up sentences and reorganize paragraphs? Sometimes she feels entire chapters could be taken out from books. With each translation, she is often sure the book will be a failure in the American market.
The girl calls her mother with her next set of unidentified characters. She learns how to say and read words she will never use. Containment, disarmament, proliferation.
In the end, she always sides with the purists. She stays true to the author’s hand. That is all they expect. Even the queen ant, as he would say, is just an egg factory, force-fed by her colony.
She finishes all three books, with every problem intact, in all twelve-hundred-and-fifty pages.
Some mornings, as the coffee maker bubbles, he tells her a story about Lana. Usually the story takes too long and he has to finish up while shaving and pushing his feet into his shoes. But she can guess how it ends so she stops listening and wonders what chain of events made Lana so unpleasant.
3. You are so unpleasant.
She vows to never be unpleasant. She will not be Lana Continued. She will never make him miss a Parkinson’s disease convention.
When he bends down to tie his laces, she notices his hair has been arranged differently, into a combover. He had never tried to conceal his bald spot before. She feels for him, enough to wait with him in the hall for the elevator. She hopes she makes him feel younger, not older. She barely feels upset when he leaves with Lana’s neoprene lunchbox, the grenade left outside the door every morning.
She checks her bank balance every day until the twenty-five thousand dollars appear. She goes to real estate agencies and walks around the city tearing off phone numbers from message boards in the nicer neighborhoods. It would be nice to take walks and get to know the owners of the corner shops. She could even get a provincial dog for the dog park.
He tells her he knows a doctor, a man who comes highly recommended for his light touch. We’ve known each other for a long time, he explains. You’ll be taken care of. He tells her it would drive him crazy to wear chicken cutlets on his chest all the time. She should try harder to make things easier for herself. She should know by now that she deserves to feel comfortable. Twenty-five thousand, he points out, is more than enough. She would have enough left over for a Mediterranean cruise.
Girl does not show up at the café near his lab to meet him for coffee. She ignores his calls.
You fucking bitch, he screams in a voicemail.
My little lizard, he says in another, I need you in my arms.
Twenty-five thousand, Girl finds out, is enough to slow down time. She wakes up convinced she’s slept through the night, only to hear the same argument from the couple next door. She opens the fridge expecting to be greeted with rot, but the lettuce she inspects is as crisp and light as ever. She waits through 45-minute washing cycles that take all day.
Girl spends days, weeks, on the bus line that loops. She keeps her languages fresh: petroleum, mittens, pie crust. She pictures his slumped shoulders and hairy knuckles and wishes she knew people her age. She wishes she had spent more time learning how to put on make-up, how to take tequila shots.
On the afternoon of his 50th birthday, he is waiting outside her building, distraught. Girl recognizes his suit as the one she had picked out for him while shopping together. He does not ask for an explanation. He kneels and wraps his arms around her legs so that she can’t walk or loop anymore. He presses his ear to her stomach. He tells her he cannot live without her. She lets him in and smiles at him until he has fallen asleep.
The word, her mother says, is actually two words put together. She is explaining the compound word for contradiction; antinomy; conflict. The first character is sword and the second character is shield. In between lighter flicks and long exhales, her mother explains the origin of this word through a story about a street peddler at an ancient marketplace. This sword, the peddler cries, will cut through any shield. Then: this shield, he cries, will block any sword.
The girl listens as she reorganizes the contents of his pantry. She hopes she will never need a sword or a shield in her life.
When he calls from work she tells him she will be translating all day. In truth, she will visit a breast augmentation clinic by the music academy downtown. She surprises herself with these dangerous impulses.
During consultation, Girl watches an orchestra climb onto their tour bus parked below. Each member has two suitcases in addition to an instrument case. If the orchestra were to look up, they would tell her it was all a bad idea. If they were to look up, she would wave and ask to join them on the road. But they do not look up, so instead she leaves with a Thursday morning appointment and writes down the name of the personal injury lawyer across the street, just in case.
He can tell that Girl has been somewhere else. She sees him smelling the new smell on her, one that is not just chicken and rice and laundry. His fear is confirmed at the dinner table, when he comments on a hair that has been cooked into his rice.
I’m sorry, he goes, did I order the special? In the past, it would have sent her running to the bathroom in tears. Tonight she stays in her seat.
I love you, he says and eats his rice.
It is almost grant proposal time, which means he will be giving as many talks as possible to test the interest in his new project. He plans to team up with a fruit fly lab also studying Lou Gehrig’s disease. She helps him put the slides together and sits through his practice talks. For the London talk he has replaced the picture of Lou Gehrig with one of Stephen Hawking; for Beijing, he will use Chairman Mao. He hopes it will make them care.
She is surprised to find out how much sense it makes to work with yeast, fruit flies, zebrafish. Yeast and humans, he says, share a quarter of their genome. I bet you didn’t know that, I bet you didn’t even think that was possible.
My mother smokes on planes, she replies. Never been caught. I bet you didn’t think that was possible.
Girl is in charge of the apartment while he is gone on his grant proposal trips. She begins to appreciate the motherly touches Lana put into the place, little plants on top of bookshelves and glass jars of potpourri in the bathrooms. If they ever meet, that is the first thing she will say.
1. You know what livable means.
On Thursday she is on time, with her hair braided beforehand, away from her chest, as the surgeon had suggested. She will not be able to raise her arms or bathe for two weeks. Any sudden force could cause shifts, or even ruptures and leaks. A nurse sits with her afterwards and pulls out a thin folder. This is about your recovery, she says, read it with your companion.
She finds out she is not allowed to leave without a companion. She thinks about calling the personal injury lawyer across the street for a ride. She thinks he will help without asking questions, but his receptionist refuses to connect her until she can say what her case concerns.
She calls her mother, hoping the conversation will last until other things distract the nurse. But her mother is busy talking with Zheng. Her mother tells her Zheng had come by the house to tell her that her daughter was seeing a man.
Are you with someone, her mother asks. Before she can answer, her mother tells her to stop. Listen to me, she says, Zheng came to tell me it will only end in embarrassment.
Which one is it? The girl asks her mother. Treasures or embarrassment?
The nurse gives her a funny look. She hangs up on her mother mid-sentence and calls the lab, the one number he had asked her never to reach him at. A bright hello answers her call, and she recognizes the voice as Cory’s, the best man. She can tell he does not remember her name.
I need a ride, she says.
I’m at work, he replies. Sober Cory is not fun and games.
You sound just like your boss, she says.
Yeah, well. You sound nothing like his wife.
The girl keeps the receiver glued to her face. She goes through all of her words for the right one. Disarmament. Cory, she says. You’re the only person I know.
He tells her he will come.
The Vespa is slow but she feels pain over every bump. At their first red light, she is pulled forward and her bandaged chest slams into his back. A low ripping sound, a nectarine splitting open. She blinks away fat, sudden tears.
How was Miami, she asks.
He does not hear. He drops her off and vrooms away without looking back.
The girl lies down on the empty living room floor. She thinks about calling her mother, but in the dark, she can’t remember where she put down her phone. So instead she imagines they are together, back in the house that she can barely recall. The air is unbreathable from all the cigarettes but her mother still looks lovely in her uniform skirt. The girl remembers when her mother taught her the in-flight smoking trick: lighting up in the lavatory, crouching over the waterless toilet, and coordinating each exhale with a push of the flush button. Virtually all the smoke would get sucked through the siphon and past the valve.
This was how her mother sometimes smoked, even at home. Girl can recall inexplicable moments, opening the bathroom door to find her mother blowing cigarette smoke into the toilet bowl. She wonders if it is possible for her mother to miss being on a plane.
People complain about sitting for thousands of miles, her mother used to say. Just remember, I’m the one walking for thousands of miles.
She wonders if her mother prefers walking thousands of miles to being at home.
Girl listens to her breasts gurgle and settle in the dark. Occasionally, she lifts herself on her elbows to scratch where the bandages dig in. She supposes there could be worse obstacles for two people living together. Still, she worries about his reaction when he returns. She thinks of what he might say. Stupid girl, perhaps, or does it hurt my little lizard. But she knows he will wash her hair and help make her bandages fit better.
He calls from the airport as he waits for his bags. I missed you, he says, and she knows it is true.
She makes tiramisu to celebrate his return, the traditional way that takes up six hours from whisking to dusting. She has broken the rules by carrying groceries and operating heavy cookware so soon, but augmented breasts can always be re-augmented.
One morning she looks in Lana’s lunchbox. She finds a large sandwich and some grapes, and wonders why she expected other things.
When Girl goes to her own apartment now, she sees what he sees. The stiff brown carpet, the narrow hallways, the unremarkable view of a parking garage. She doesn’t bother to get the sink fixed and waits for Thursday. She ignores the Cantonese couple next door, even when she thinks she can understand what they are demanding from each other.
Strangers talk to her on the bus. They are all likely married, like he is. They have learned to skip the prettiest girls for the ones that will not throw down ultimatums. They introduce themselves and look over her airbags and fingernails. She introduces herself as a polyglot.
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.