I Become An Ambiguity
by Jared Daniel Fagen
It would be the longest plane ride I would ever take. Later on I traveled, but never did I achieve that distance again. There is no memory I can invent, no shame to give origin. Neither a resemblance, traits I could with accuracy trace as I aged. I knew only what I would not become, what I would repudiate, loathe to be. It was too late for me. By now I had learned to lie, been trained to look away, to make apologies in my sleep. Endings were satisfied quicker by surrender, by silence.
Before I left, I came from a home overflowing with lost or unclaimed boys, few with next of kin. The oldest, thirteen, would lead the others every night in thievery. I was too hungry to struggle against them. Their eyes were like mine, a pair I would later assimilate to hate in order to forget I ever wore their expression. A lack thereof. Many of us here would know only borders, the periphery. Suffer a different kind of love.
I am adopted first by emptiness.
The matriarch reminds me I screamed for the full twenty hours of my journey, a day’s length of distress. Horrific, sobbing breaths. My escort, the woman on whose lap I sat during our flight, was not there for comfort, but to hand me over. To deliver me swiftly. My solace would be crippling. She wore the same appearance as the orphans whom I was forever leaving behind. I imagine her in a surgical mask over her mouth, never changing the position of her seat. That in what little phrases of my native tongue I picked up before my departure—want, need, hunger, please—we must have spoken. That my words were not devoured completely. I would remember none of them, but as an adult learn to say farewell with devastation in my voice.
On my arrival, I felt for the first time a glow that could be gained in the acquiescence of a stranger’s arms. A relinquishment of everything. I would memorize their generosity, shatter in their embrace. A requisite of peace I wished to be rid. His outfit is all wrong, said the matriarch, the governess already gone, only distantly familiar. Alone, at last, she undressed me under a flare of neon bulbs. I emerged in clothes not my own, mine now a memento, matching that of what my siblings wore. They each walked alongside us, the matriarch and me, past empty carousels, unspoken. Our heels, my tentative steps, echoed through the terminal. I am unsure if I could yet walk unassisted.
Arrangements were made, months in advance, for a family meal at the airport café. A banner composed of strange characters I would later find myself submitting to stretched above our booth, two blue balloons catching across their width the lamp flicker from the ceiling fan. There is a picture of me misplaced somewhere. Both cheeks puffed with pastry, their damp surface reflecting a paling light as the matriarch dries them with a napkin, my siblings applauding in the background behind me, their features falsified by the flash. We were made to understand that I was just like them, their new, younger brother, their equal in endearments. That our father always wanted a son, but the matriarch did not have the strength left to give us one. There are no more photographs found from that day.
II. The Lie So That I Might Live
In the decade I was born, the country from which I came was discarding daughters. Was desperate to have sons not dust of the streets. They were not desperate to have me. Young mothers gave birth with burden in ill-lit rooms, while husbands worked the industrial yards late into the evening. They too were denying their heritage. I was to be born into a concealed part of history. To inherit public apologies from a republic unprepared for the eventual return of its forbidden citizens. I would not be one of them, would not make explanations for my existence.
I would foster loss alone.
Before the peak year would begin, the highest rate of rejection, Iseul passed through the towering structures of the capital toward parts lesser known. With uncontrolled motion she threw herself into the industrial complex, the gray landscape embroidering its incompletion, and sculpted with concerning design circumspect shadows across its façade. They followed her along the promenade, the expanse of wanton avenues, reaching the boundaries her body drew with closeness. On the fringe is where she begged, though I was not yet conceived, with a hand over her belly, the other palm up to the sun that had not been that dawn, stained and trembling. Most who passed her by would believe there were no other women of such grave misfortune, increasing in number each day, that could be further ruined. Others took pity, their kindness demonstrated by plentiful sums and half-finished food. For the baby, they would say mistakenly, walking away as Iseul filled her pockets just as soon as their alms were received, maintaining the illusion. Only later at night would she calculate her earnings, examine the currency, and gauge tomorrow the more urgent she must be.
Seok knew her late schedule, saved his wages for their rare intimacies. When he could alight upon her next. Iseul, in his arms amongst the blurred conditions of hurried silhouettes and the quiver of flames from which light swept the arcane spaces of his quarters, in strewn patterns, would say he was the only one who thought her still beautiful. Seok would pull up beside her on his motorcycle, quieting the engine before he approached, and hand her his helmet, insisting he pay her when stopped at traffic signals. Iseul was humble but nonetheless effete to his benign gestures. It was the litany of lapsed customs that stirred them repeatedly into the perseverance of idyll passions. Seok apprenticed the lower arch of her back with blisters, found the layer of filth which fell in loosely collected parcels off her flesh tempting, the same way dread makes one shiver. Just as Iseul knew the way he ached when she withdrew her fingers from the soft spots of his skin. When to, by the rhythm of his heartbeat, put out the pipe of opium, let the last of it smolder, rise from the floor. Then fade. When to smother the amber candles that enclosed them, and watch the smoke vanish just the same. Iseul would get up shortly after, careful not to disturb the tranquility vacancy creates for itself, and become crepuscular, a contour, leaving past the thin curtain which separated them from the night.
He drew maps to the purple crescents below her eyes, met her irises with the burnt sienna circles of his own. He outlined her bones, the ones that showed. Tendered gently with an amphibious tongue the mortal portion of her form’s upheaval. Iseul comes to him always in a fog, the dusk or haze. She is radiant after it rains. Seok would descry her figure in the damp, depthless reaches of his prurience for proximity, as far as he was. Her words came forth as a corpus, a melody of reeds that would erode him deeper. He longed to feel their caress. Dream within the short, chambered range of her vernacular Hyangga. None else remained. Seok learned fear this way, collapsed below metrical compositions. He strained not to exhaust them.
She learned of Seok’s death from the obituary in the newspaper she had spread out in the shade of a scaffold, to get off her feet for a moment. She read: “The deceased, twenty-four, fled from this world by way of fatal collision, an accident on his motor bike, from which his life, despite hours of effort from authorities, could not be restored.” Devastated, she slept through the morning. By noon the sun, on so many occasions astray, will climb an approximate height to carve a dimness, diagonally, along the pavement, baring for the first time Iseul’s fecund stomach. She need not beg any longer.
We survived through the winter on uncooked noodles and dog chow. We fetched our water after it would snow, carried it back with us from the unplowed iron compound in our unprotected, frostbitten hands. Stored it in a gasoline container and hoped for a squall. An end to morning sickness. For shelter we found a furnace room in The National Library, which we would sneak into from the archives before it closed. When she was closer to full term, Iseul gathered damaged cloth, torn fabrics. Exercised for labor with cold, bitter tea and antiquated breathing techniques. But she could not avoid the look of dead things, was too poor to meal on protein. There was no hospital, no ropes from which Iseul could hang. Birth screams, boarded windows, the concrete. They would greet my nativity in the cold, I am told early by the matriarch, on an American holiday. Ritual would not keep me from defect.
The matriarch reassures me I was given a better life, tells me that I should be grateful. I never confess the pain this privilege costs me, but display my indebtedness by never asking about the background that has brought me to her charity. Instead, I covet the outlines of things, search for the exotic in the plainest of domestic places, for peculiar monoliths like bridges over highways or fountains in shopping malls, to mark the regions of where I was. She says: I wanted you… just because.
I am prone to fits in public, to easily weep for no other reason than a sadness that could solely be described as a feeling of not knowing who I am while, unmistakably, knowing who I am not. The matriarch knows no explanation for these outbursts, as she, embarrassed my fits have created yet another scene, hopes the other mothers in the vicinity do not become suspicious of kidnapping.
1990. On our way to Nana’s house, the car is stopped at a red light. The driver next to us looks in my direction, next to the siblings in the backseat, and snickers at me before speeding away. No one else notices, and I am left, alone, with a humiliation for which I have already become all too familiar. The matriarch could not give reason to the relatives for why I was dismal that day.
There is, of course, the option for augmentation, a surgical procedure for those who abhor themselves. Blepharoplasty, rhinoplasty, limb lengthening. Though the choices are endless, I couldn’t bear the blade, to add the mockery of bandages to the long list of acute insults I’d withstood. The matriarch pleads for a last measure, says there is no expense she wouldn’t pay. It is myself I choose not to betray.
No one wonders where I’ve been, only what I will become. Appreciation. Interest. Margins. First it was my vision, then my feet. Soon after my gums, my bite, my teeth. The seizures follow abruptly. How I talked differently. The matriarch falls in debt due to my illnesses. I am sorry, family, for the poor investment you are afflicted with financially.
1985. Just two years after I got here, father dies unexpectedly in his sleep. The siblings grieve, mournfully. Delilah takes up drugs, Renée arson and larceny. Rachel starts to overeat. I ask if I may go back to the den, to continue playing make believe. For this the matriarch still blames me.
I learn early on those despicable details of my appearance; despise what I cannot hide from obvious aim. I hurt for attention less injurious. The matriarch implores me to endure, but it is my own self-punishment, the own ignorance of myself, which will not be hushed.
I don’t know Michael has Tourette’s. I meet him my first day of public school, the autumn of 1988. Do you want to be my friend? he asks. I agree, with hatred as others have already hated me, almost immediately. On weekends, I stay overnight at his house. The matriarch, relieved I found a friend, is reluctant to argue when I come home hysterical from my visits. Sent to my room for misbehaving with words, I write letters in misspelled profanities, so that she has something to reference in the years ahead.
1999. The matriarch comes home to discover I had dyed my hair. She scolds: Look what you’ve done to my bathroom, there’s peroxide everywhere. Grinning in defiance I prove to her that, contrary to months of our debate and her doubt, even the most sable of tresses could be bleached platinum blond. I would, to my dismay, not be erased so easily.
1993, adoption day. The matriarch is remarried, and I am excused from class to be given national status in the city. To commemorate the contract signing of my naturalization, I have on clothing that, together as an outfit, contains each color of the flag. The star-spangled banner is sung without mistake. The next day, the matriarch celebrates my enfranchisement with my classmates, bringing in for everyone confections endemic to the sovereign state from which I originated. I take the bus home hungry.
1996. This is the last time you’ll see any more money from me again, the matriarch tells my self-defense instructor after my suspension from school for fighting with another student. She slams the door behind her, dragging me along by the ear, before he can explain the violence of reconciliation, what it is I must truly guard myself against.
More than once my thoughts confront concepts of biology. The lore of my genetic code. From what heredity am I perishing? By nature I languish, seek surreptitiously to recover what connects me to the world in which I have come to dwell. The matriarch swears that one day we’ll make it there.
2001. Late into nightfall, I assemble wardrobes in imitation of Stiv Bators behind my bedroom door. In front of the mirror I model, sing into my fist. Writhe on the floor wearing the matriarch’s makeup. A knock hastens my pulse: I am reminded of my identity and its deceit.
It is in our forced harmony, long predestined, that the matriarch and I’s fatal event of union, our tragedy, resides. I spin the reel in spite of my dizziness, have played its recorded sound down so that love as I perceive it be accompanied by silence.
Sometimes I resort to theft of those left closest to me. I’ve provided all that you’ve required, the matriarch says. Again: I have nothing left to shed. It is precisely because she does that I can have everything. The role-model matriarch.
By 1996, the matriarch seldom minds me. I consent to my reminiscences as a metaphor would imply, wander the hostile territory of our anthropomorphic matrimony, recreate the most dramatic of divisions I have ever known not to fill a void, but to refuse my anguish was something needed to be conquered.
The matriarch is the only past which recurs I can look in the eye. Death does not speak of any terrific truth, I will tell her, only the torment secret inside you.
IV. Distance (Redefined)
At twenty-nine my wife, Cassis, travels the sky often. I worry constantly that she will not return to me, that if she were to die what my life would be like. That her last words to me will be, “Talk to you when I land, to let you know I’ve touched down safely,” when the opposite is the case I fear. Cassis and I are married after four years of us together growing wary that, one day, our love will mean to mourn, that we’ll have to bury each other, pay for graves with our shared savings, organize one another’s funeral for our two families, go on eventually.
Death is experienced differently in a plane crash—to die much sooner than you cease living. It grips you from the trace that you were, that once you felt infinitely trapped under, before impact. Then the moments left are only circumstance—the elation of one’s conclusion. Recollections, the revival of transformed impressions, establishing the longitude, the breadth at which you plummet farther apart from being alive. I’ve spent, my entire life, knowing this possibility; the hemisphere of rapture and fright, this point of parting, seeing oneself as a separate object.
Cassis is overseas in a government building for a business trip, and on her way to the conference room is seized by an art installment meant to help lobby for an amendment that would discourage the country’s overseas adoption policies. She describes to me, later on the phone, a long, bright hallway papered with 60,000 price tags, each with its own hand-stamped identification number representing those that have been given away. Some suspend from the ceiling, where a single series of numbers alone hangs in front of you. She sighs, having not the ability to locate mine. She says the portraits, the scattered Polaroids pasted along the walls, could “just be anyone.” That they give the room dynamic, the perfect contrast, make it not feel so much like an asylum as more an installment of removal; a symbol of cancellation.
Before Cassis leaves for her meeting, early in the morning, I think I am asleep. At the doorway of the bedroom, the shape of a cerulean figure, she says that she wished I would go with her—and if I ever felt ready to go, too, she would go again with me. I feign sleep in the innocent bareness of dreams, afraid an elegy is what I am hearing, guiding images astray from sources unseen but never totally lost.
The apartment is empty of her when I wake, save for the raincoat she had forgotten to take with her. Awake, I move forward with little certainty. Just fading. From our bed, in a fetal position, I see it draped there over the armchair, subsequently left behind when she came over next to tell me she’s leaving now. The luminescence coming in from the blinds is scarce, but within the slender rays of light a faint element of dust and debris dulls its luster, is settling over everything the shadows meet near me. But never me.
The day for me is decided to end, and Cassis is still in the air. I am careful to follow her on the meridian. I render her a satellite. I become an ambiguity.
Jared Daniel Fagen was born in Seoul and currently lives in Prospect Heights. His work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Collagist, Entropy, and elsewhere. He is editor of Black Sun Lit and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY.