Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Now in paperback!

Hold This Pose is now available as a self-published book at this link:

I am hoping to publish it professionally as well, if anyone would like to offer any thoughts or advice.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.
Thanks for all of your support!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

43. Getting on with Her Life

“If I'm the emblem for ‘This is what it looks like to be the lonely girl getting on with her life,’ then so be it. It's fine. I can take it.” —Jennifer Aniston

“Don’t decide now,” said Master Park. “Think about it overnight. You can tell me tomorrow.”

“Okay, but…”

“Tomorrow,” he interrupted. ,. “Or take a week,” he said. “It’s a very important decision. You shouldn’t rush it. Really take your time and think about it.”


He held up his hand up as though to block a kick. I closed my mouth. There was no point in telling him that I wanted to make this decision soon, as soon as possible, definitely sooner than a week.

In a week, I said to myself, closing the front door behind me, I’ll be gone.

I drove back to the lake house, feeling lost on the road I had traveled every single day for almost a year. I had fallen asleep last night with the lights still on, my face resting on Paula’s journal. I didn’t feel ready to make the kind of heavy, life-altering decision that Master Park had placed on my shoulders. His offer of opening a taekwondo academy together was an amazing opportunity, one that would solve all the problems of my life by bringing everything I loved into one place: Master Park, taekwondo, Los Angeles, my home, my friends.

Still, the thought of taking my teacher from his rightful home seemed like a violation this town that I had also come to love. It didn’t matter that he was really from Los Angeles, or that he wasn’t actually Korean, or that he wasn’t even really Master Park. His school was my favorite thing about North Middleton, and it would feel unethical to take it with me when I left.

But he wants to go back to LA, I told myself. He might leave even if I didn’t accept his offer, and then nobody would have him. Maybe it was the right thing to take him at his word that he wanted to leave; that part was his decision, not mine.

Then you should do it, I said to myself. You should open a school with Master Park.

It seemed so logical: I wanted to move to LA. He wanted to open a school in LA. We should open a school together. It made perfect sense.

Except when I thought about this hypothetical school, my heart sank. The problem wasn’t the school itself; I would love a school like that. The problem was that this morning, I had woken up with Paula’s journal under my face and a song of unbounded freedom in my heart. That was the reason for my urgency in leaving, right away, within the week, before I became dragged down by complacency and expectations and routine. I needed to go, to stir, to get moving while I was still burning with excitement to start my life again, with an unmarked slate that I could fill up with absolutely anything.

I didn’t want to move back to LA to do what Becky or Chase or Paula or Master Park wanted me to do. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. Except I didn’t know yet what it was that I wanted to do; and what if I gave up this opportunity and then never figured out what I was getting in its place? What if it turned out that this was the thing I wanted to do all along, open a taekwondo school, and I had missed my chance?

Back at the lake house, my first instinct was to do what I had done so many times before when I had to make a decision: consult Thomas Fo. Zen for Times of Crisis still occupied its privileged spot on the living room bookshelf, lying flat in front of the other books, placed there for easy access. But now, when I picked it up, it filled me with anger and betrayal instead of trust and calm as it used to.

It’s still the same book, I told myself. I forced myself to flip through the pages, starting at the back, visiting each of the sections that had provided guidance in the past: Embracing Your Ugliness. Healing the Divide Between Who You “Should” Be and Who You Are. Keeping the Outside Out.

I had underlined a passage—lightly, in pencil, since the book didn’t belong to me—that had inspired me so deeply that I had written it on a piece of paper and taped it on the wall of the bedroom: “Though we may not appreciate it at the time, adversity is our ally. The times when we are defeated, beaten down, broken, these are the times when we grow, the times that hone the metal of our being into the sharpest, strongest steel.”

These words seemed now like grocery-store wisdom, like something that, when you heard it quoted on an afternoon talk show, would cause you to think to yourself, well obviously. I tried to convince myself that it was just my new knowledge of Thomas Fo’s identity that was making his writing sound like a Groundbreaker’s pamphlet. But no matter how many times I reread it, I couldn’t shake the tawdry sound of Groundbreakers off of the words.

It shouldn’t matter that Thomas Fo doesn’t exist, I told myslf. It’s still the same book.

“The problem isn’t that Thomas Fo is a fake name,” I said, speaking aloud, as I often did in the lake house to lesson the loneliness there. “The problem is that it’s a fake name for Vanto Hatch.”

As soon as I said it, I felt better—because I had finally articulated the exact reason for my disturbance. And then I felt worse—because it was so, so disturbing. Vanto Hatch, I said. Vanto Hatch. I hit myself in the face with the open book. Vanto Hatch, I said again. I hit myself harder.

I closed the book again and let it fall back open, knowing already what I would see. It was the page I had read the most, the story of how the author had forced himself to watch every commercial he had ever acted in, all in one afternoon. That’s right, I said to myself. An actor. Becky had mentioned it a few times; “Vanto used to do commercials, too, you know, before he founded Groundbreakers,” she would say. “He knows how hard acting is.”

“You are still an actor,” I said aloud to the book. You were nothing but an actor all along.

As I placed it face-down on the shelf, my eyes fell on Nicolai Snail’s testimonial, printed on the back cover: “I have been a great fan of Fo’s work for many years.”

They all knew, I realized. All those men playing chess at the Snail Plant, complaining about Vanto Hatch and praising Thomas Fo all in the same breath.

The whole thing is fake, I thought in disgust. My guru. I hated the sound of the word, but what else would you call him? For almost a year, I had turned to him for guidance and inspiration, following his philosophy of living, studying his chess strategies, looking to him for reassurance on cold dark nights when the isolation of the lake house felt like too much to bear.

It’s my own fault for believing in anybody, I told myself bitterly, lying down on the couch, although it was still morning, and pulling Paula’s mother’s knitted blanket over my head to shut out this ominous day when everyone I trusted had turned out to be a liar and a fake. Nobody is my guru, I said to myself, as a grim, sickening sleep began to darken my senses. Not anymore. Never, never again.

I couldn’t tell how long I slept, but when I woke up, I felt clearer, ready to work on making a real decision. I sat on the couch—Paula’s mother’s couch, not mine, I thought, feeling horribly uncouth all of a sudden for sleeping on a stranger’s couch—and my eyes fell on a small red paperback book sitting on top of the bookshelf. It was shoved so far back towards the wall that if it had been any thinner, it would have fallen behind the heavy shelf and been lost forever. I had banished it there the moment I finished reading it, disgusted with its message of selfishness, competitiveness, and arrogance.

I’ll give it back to Master Park tomorrow, I had told myself each time my eyes fell on it. But just the sight of the book’s cover was so repugnant to me that I couldn’t bear to move it anywhere more visible. I rose to pick it up now, annoyed by the mere site of the bold, black-outlined font declaring its title.

The New Aggressive Male.

Its cover was already sticky from humidity and dust, and its back cover was speckled lightly with mildew, something I had never seen on a book before I lived in Michigan, where the summer air was wet enough to dampen paper.

I carried it to the kitchen and wiped the cover with a wet paper towel, hoping that Master Park would never find out how I had neglected it. The mildew and sticky dust lifted easily, and after a quick follow-up swipe with a dry towel, the book looked as healthy as when I had first borrowed it.

Turning it over in my hands, I began to wonder what Fred Fawls would have to say about the question I was supposed to be trying to answer.

You know what he would say, I reminded myself. The same exact thing that Thomas Fo would say. Which was the same exact thing that Vanto Hatch would say. Which, based on my morning of research, was absolutely nothing.

I opened the book and scanned the table of contents, looking for something about decisions. The chapter titles reflected a sense of disdainful judgmentalism that seemed to be the exact opposite of Thomas Fo’s message of self-acceptance: Valuing You Over Them. Real Love Doesn’t Hold Us Back. How to Not Care.

As I gave it some thought, though, I couldn’t define what the distinction between the two philosophies was. Don’t care about others; only care about yourself, both incarnations of Vanto Hatch seemed to say.

Then I noticed a chapter at the end of the list, the epilogue, entitled, “The Choices You Will Have to Make.” Although I had forced myself to read the entire book, I didn’t remember this chapter. Perhaps I had rushed through it, so eager to be done that I was no longer actually paying attention to what I was reading, or perhaps in my haste to finish, I had decided that the epilogue didn’t count and considered myself finished after the final chapter.

I sat down on the couch with the book in my lap, scanning the pages of the epilogue quickly, eager to find something useful, even if it was just some offensive recommendation that might help steer me in the opposite direction.

“If you truly want to become a Fully Actualized Male, you will at times need to make decisions that will upset those you care about, that society will not approve of, that will alienate your family and friends, because when you make them, you will be prioritizing yourself over all others.

“You might think that this sounds self-aggrandizing. Who cares about your decisions so much, anyway? It turns out that society places a host of demands on us in the form of conventions, and when we defy them, the people around us will condemn our actions, even when they have caused no harm. If you do not believe me, try returning an RSVP card saying that you will not be attending a friend’s wedding because you don’t feel like going. Refuse a holiday present from a coworker on the grounds that you don’t want to clutter up your house. Tell your wife that you need to leave the country for a few years, and that she can’t come with you.

“At best, these actions will win you any number of unflattering labels: stubborn, uncooperative, eccentric, self-centered. At worse, they will cost you your friendships, your job, your marriage. All because you dared to be honest, to state outright what would make you happy, what would make your life easier, what would further your development as a human being.”

“Vanto Hatch,” I cursed under my breath. “You will need to make decisions that society will not approve of.” I thought of Rob trying to work up the nerve to cheat on his girlfriend. “When we defy conventions, the people around us will condemn our actions.” I nodded in recognition. I wanted so much to hate this book, did in fact hate it, but I had to admit, I learned something profound every time I read it. Usually it was something I would rather not know, something that I had hoped was not the case. Why did Fred Fawls always have to so perfectly explain the actions of every man who had ever made me feel horrible?

“When people tie themselves to the things they think they need—friends, lovers, jobs, families—they gain a feeling of security in exchange for their freedom. It might be surprising to realize how often people willingly surrender their freedom, that thing that we believe is the most vital condition of our humanity.”

Stupid aggressive males, I said to myself. What would they do, I wondered, if we started acting that way, never thinking of anyone but ourselves, prioritizing our own wants and needs above everyone else’s...what would they do?

Really, what would they do? It was something to think about.

I finished reading the chapter. Then I read it once more, and once again after that, before it was time to get ready for class.

Everything was normal at the school that night, except for me. I felt like I was being watched, like cameras were capturing each movement and facial expression as I led Olivia through her usual training routine. I held the kicking pads in fast combinations of high kicks, low kicks, high kicks. We had spent the last month preparing her for her first competition, coming up in a few weeks.

I won’t be here, I realized suddenly, trying not to let the pang of disappointment distract me from the intricate pattern of kicks flying fast at my head and body, blocked only by the pads I was holding. My hands were shaky, and I felt like I might lose the rhythm at any moment. Pay attention, I scolded myself.

I watched Olivia’s back in the mirror, the snap of her hip and shoulder as she whipped the kick out from her body, the moment of perfect balance as her foot made contact. She had come a long way in such a short amount of time, only a few months.

I think I’m going to miss her. The unexpected realization disrupted the precariously balanced rhythm of the pads moving through space, and her foot smacked hard into my cheekbone. She gasped loudly.

“Sorry,” she and I both said at once. I tried to keep my face blank and reset the pads, to keep going rather than dwelling on my embarrassing mistake, but she was already making a fuss.

“Are you alright?” she said, leaning in to examine the side of my face. “That hit you pretty hard, didn’t it?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Look, your cheek is swelling up.” I could feel the side of my face heating up, throbbing a little, but I didn’t want to disrupt her workout any further by worrying about it.

“It’ll be all right,” I said. “I’ll put some ice on it after you’re done training.”

“Okay, if you’re sure,” Olivia said, with a motherly tone of skeptical concern in her voice.

“I’m sure,” I said, holding the pad in place for the first kick in the sequence she had been practicing.

Olivia returned to her fighting stance, bending her knees and lifting her arms, then paused. “It looks like you’re going to have an awesome black eye,” she said as she snapped her foot out to meet the pad.

“What happened to your face?” Master Park asked as I took my regular seat across from him at the chess board.

My inclination was to say “nothing,” but I had learned that the proper response to a question from Master Park was always the truth, in its most factual and unembellished form.

“I messed up holding the pads,” I said. I had iced my face for a few minutes before my own workout and should probably have been icing it once again now, but I didn’t want to draw my teacher’s attention to it. I looked down at the board, avoiding eye contact, waiting to see if my answer was satisfactory.

“Your move,” he said.

We played two games, each one lasting about an hour, our usual routine as of late. Master Park never bothered with having me choose a pawn anymore; we just took turns going first.

He still won every game easily, but lately he had seemed more engaged, as though he had to concentrate on his moves. When we had first started playing, it hadn’t bothered me how neatly and easily he could defeat me—after all, I was a brand new player—but his air of distraction while he did it was infuriating. His eyes would never stray from the board in front of him, but the calm, mechanical rhythm of his moves always gave me the feeling that he was reserving part of his brain for some other activity: planning the exercises for tomorrow’s class, perhaps, or making a grocery list, or even playing some other, more stimulating chess game in his mind.

Now, between moves, he stared intently at the board, furrowing his brow. I had even seen flashes of anger blaze through his eyes like quick flashes of lightning after I had made a particularly aggressive attack; that was when I knew I was about to be slaughtered.

After I had been mated on the first game and resigned from the second one to avoid a messy endgame, Master Park reset the board, just as he did each evening after we played.

“I’ve decided,” I said, as he dropped the last pawn into place.

“Wait,” said Master Park, rising from the table to carry our empty tea cups over to a tray on the bookcase. He must wash them in the bathroom, I thought, before remembering that he also had a little kitchen sink somewhere. “Don’t tell me anything today. Give it time.”

“I don’t need any more time,” I said. I cringed as I heard the assertiveness in my voice, so inappropriate for addressing my teacher, but I kept speaking. “I’m ready to tell you now.”

Master Park stopped mid-step, turned, and set the dirty cups back on the table. He sat down in his chair and looked straight at me. His stony expression was the same as ever, but it frightened me. I waited at least half a minute for him to say something before realizing that he was waiting for me to speak.

“Your offer,” I started “It’s a great idea, and I’m really honored.”

Master Park was still looking at me with that blank expression, that waiting expression, waiting calmly for me to throw the kick that would allow him to launch his own attack.

“I don’t want to open a taekwondo school,” I said.

It seemed that the slightest shadow fell across my teacher’s face, though I wouldn’t have been able to say what had moved. His mouth was calm, his eyes were still and quiet. Perhaps it was the skin over his cheeks, which seemed to hang more heavily downward off the bones.

“I am going to try to do what it says in The New Aggressive Male,” I said, hoping to persuade him through recourse to the book he had made me read. But how could I phrase my reasoning? I want unlimited possibility. I don’t want to be restrained by another person’s goals and aspirations. Opening a school with my teacher, my decisions would never truly be my own. I want to prioritize myself.

“I just don’t know what I want to do yet,” I said, finally. “And I need whatever it is to be something I decide on my own.”

I waited for Master Park to respond. He looked at me blankly. I waited. His face didn’t move.

What did I expect? Yelling? Crying? I had only rarely seen the slightest signs of emotions from him. Mild annoyance, at the Snail Plant. The quick anger when I captured one of chess pieces. Faint sorrow, as he spoke about his children. Now I looked at his features and saw nothing at all. I didn’t even see my teacher there anymore. What I saw was a mask: still, blank, unknowable, a wall.

Then, very slowly, he rose and lifted the dirty cups from the table. This time he made it all the way to the bookcase, where he placed them carefully on their tray. Then, without turning to face me, he spoke. I could hear his voice clearly, though he spoke quietly and I could only see the back of his head.

“I understand,” he said. His voice was calm. It’s going to be okay, I told myself. Then, without looking back at me, he walked out of the room.

I could hear him walking down the little hall, hear a key unlocking one of the mysterious doors, hear it open and then close again.

I sat in the room for a while, waiting to see if he would come back. I listened for footsteps, but I couldn’t hear anything except the quiet ticking of the small alarm clock on the bookshelf. I looked around me, trying to be patient and wait. He’ll come back, I said to myself. He just needs to think about it.

The walls of the room were lined with framed documents that I had never had time to examine before. There were certificates for earning his first, second, and third-degree black belts. One of the certificates made him promise to never use his taekwondo skills “in self-defense only, to protect myself, my family, and my country.” His signature below was as neat as computer-cursive.

There were also two awards from chess tournaments and a clipped-out newspaper article with the headline, “Snail Workers Get a Kick out of New Taekwondo Class.”

One frame near the door was so small that I couldn’t make out the words on the paper inside of it. I stood up and walked over to it. Inside the black frame was an aging piece of white typewriter paper with the following words typed on it:

“The times when we are defeated, beaten down, broken, these are the times when we grow, the times that hone the metal of our being into the sharpest, strongest steel.”

He’ll be okay, I said to myself.

I picked up my bag and walked back into the front of the school, shutting each door quietly behind me. The room was dark, and all the students had gone; Rob or one of the other students had closed up. I turned the bolt on the front door to let myself out. Normally Master Park walked me out of the school after our chess games, so that he could lock the door behind me. I hesitated as it shut behind me, not wanting to leave it unlocked.

He’ll lock it, I said, as I headed towards Paula’s mother’s car to drive to Paula’s mother’s house.

When I woke up the next morning, my vision was fuzzy and the skin on my face felt stretched and tight. Oh, right, I said, surveying my swollen, purple lower eyelid.

Maybe I shouldn’t leave until this thing is gone, I said to myself. I had seen this kind of bruising on one of the guys in the class once or twice; I was pretty sure it would take over a week to fully clear up. Becky would freak out when she saw it, and it wouldn’t do much to convince Paula or Chase that I should continue with my taekwondo practice, either. And then, in Los Angeles, there were always the photographers to think about. My stomach turned, thinking of everyone fussing over my face, back in a city where a person’s face was their most valued possession.

But knew that I needed to leave as soon as possible, before I lost my resolve and excitement to go. Besides, the thought of a lengthy goodbye to North Middleton seemed too painful to bear.

“I am going to Los Angeles with a black eye,” I said aloud. “And Becky and Paula and Chase and everyone can just…” I paused, searching for the right expression to please my audience of one. “Suck it.”

I bought the plane ticket myself. It was my first time calling the airline, making the reservation; Becky had always done it for me before. Listening to the dial tone on the lake house phone, I felt so nervous that I almost called Becky instead. Be brave, I told myself.

There was no need to be scared, of course. The perky-sounding lady on the phone helped me purchase a ticket for Saturday afternoon, three days away. That would give me enough time to pack and clean, and no time to sit around and think about my decision. It was a perfect plan, and I had done it all myself.

As I cleaned the house, washing the sticky bookshelves with soap and mopping the equally sticky kitchen floor, I wondered what Master Park would say when I arrived at the school that night. I hoped he would smile, forgive me, that I would train Olivia and then take his advanced class and then play chess with him, and that everything would be all right. But my heart told me this would not happen, that all he would show me would be the blank, stony face, that there would be no forgiveness and no chess.

I was nervous as I trained Olivia that night, waiting for Master Park to emerge from the back room, as he usually did part-way through the beginner’s class, if he wasn’t out already.

Olivia was almost as distracted as I was, buzzing from the effects of so much exciting news at once. “Check out that black eye—I must kick really hard!” “I can’t believe you’re going to move away before my fight!” “It’s going to be so boring around here without you!” “You’ll let me come visit, won’t you?”

I tried not to look around too much as I held the pads for her; one black eye was careless, but two would be ridiculous. But I glanced behind me halfway through Olivia’s workout, and then ten minutes before it was over, and once more when it was done. Master Park had still not appeared.

I warmed up for the advanced class, bracing for my teacher to finally arrive, and to ignore me, which I was now quite sure is what he would do.

But Master Park did not arrive. Instead, Rob taught the advanced class. And he taught it again the next night, and the one after that, on Friday. It was my last night at the school, and my teacher was nowhere to be found.

I hadn’t wanted to ask anyone where he was, to make a show of my anxiety. But that evening, after the advanced class, I pulled Rob aside. I hadn’t spoken to him, beyond responding to his directions when he taught classes, since that first day when we had visited the Snail Plant together, before I had joined the taekwondo school. His expression, when I told him I needed to ask him something, wasn’t just one of surprise; it was one of unexpected pleasure, like receiving a wonderful but excessive birthday present.

“What is it?” he said, smiling warmly at me, as he lead me to the back corner of the room, away from the bustle of the students packing up their uniforms and putting on their street shoes.

“Do you know where Master Park is?” I asked.

“He’s out of town,” he told me. “He said he had some kind of business.”

“Do you know when he’s coming back?” I asked.

“He supposed to be gone for a week,” Rob said.

I didn’t want to cry, especially not in front of Rob. But I could feel my lower lip shaking, and I knew if I tried to speak, my voice would break.

“What is it?” Rob asked, putting his arm gently on mine.

“I’m moving away tomorrow,” I said, my voice quavering at an odd, high frequency. “And he’s angry at me, and now I’m not going to be able to say…”

Rob was hugging me as I sobbed against his arm, a tight, warm hug, clinical-feeling in our crisp, white taekwondo jackets, like a child being hugged by the most kindly, comforting pediatrician. I haven’t hugged anybody since Becky left, I thought, burying my face in his shoulder and crying and crying until I couldn’t anymore.

“Who’s driving you to the airport?” Rob asked, when I pulled myself out of his arms and wiped my face.

“Oh,” I said. “A cab, I think.” I had meant to call and schedule a ride yesterday, but I had been too distracted worrying over Master Park, where he was, whether he was hiding in the back room until I moved away, whether I’d ever see him again.

“Let me drive you,” Rob said.

“No!” I said, horrified at the thought. It was a sweet offer, but it was a three-hour drive; there was no one in North Middleton that I could ask to take six hours out of their Saturday, just to drive me. Especially not Rob.

“No, really, please let me,” Rob said. “What time do you need to leave?”

“Around noon?” I said, hoping he would say that it was impossible, that he needed to teach class or take his kid somewhere, that he was so sorry but it wouldn’t work out.

"I can get someone else to teach the night classes," he said. Before I could protest, he added, "Why don’t I come pick you up for breakfast at nine?”

“Breakfast?” I asked, shocked. It was hard enough to imagine how we would fill three hours of driving time, after not speaking to each other for my entire stay in North Middleton.

“Sure. You won’t want to have food in the house if you’re moving. You should come over to my place and meet my family.”

After so many months of pretending Rob didn't exist, my instincts told me to refuse, to make up an excuse, to extricate myself from this plan.

I looked at Rob, who was smiling at me, as much as he ever smiled, his mouth stretched into an expression of wary approval. He looked a little older than when we'd first met, although that was less than a year ago. Under the harsh florescent lights of the school, I could see the delicate web of wrinkles creeping out from the corners of his eyes.

I thought about The New Aggressive Male. Would a Fully Actualized Man refuse a ride and a meal from someone simply because they had shared an awkward moment in the past? Would he pass up an opportunity just to avoid a few moments of discomfort?

“Okay,” I said.

“Great,” he said. “It’ll be fun.” He pointed at my swollen eye, which had turned a darker, more intense shade of purple. “Plus I can't wait to hear the story of how you did that to your face.”

Saturday morning, Rob picked me up outside the lake house. He lifted my one large suitcase into the back of his small, black sedan, the same one in which we had evaded the chasing reporters by driving through the back allies behind the food co-op.

“This is all you have?” he asked. For a cross-country move, it didn’t seem like much, I had to admit. I had given away all the clothes I had brought from California, donated them to Shane’s favorite thrift store, their tiny limbs far too small to accommodate the bulky muscles in my arms and legs. I had also donated most of the clothes I had bought in Michigan, the down jacket and bulky sweaters and thick, insulated pants that would be useless in Los Angeles. All I had were kept were some pajamas, a few pairs of jeans, some t-shirts and thin sweatshirts.

All of that only took up about a third of the suitcase. The rest was filled with my three taekwondo uniforms and all the books I had bought: two about Zen and three about chess, all by Thomas Fo. I had considered leaving them for Paula’s mother. But looking at them on the bookshelf, I couldn’t imagine not taking them with me. I can’t stay mad at you, Thomas Fo, I said, tucking them safely between my jeans and sweatshirts.

As I climbed into Rob’s car, I handed him the last book I had removed from the lake house: The New Aggressive Male.

“That book,” Rob said, crossing his arms. “That book tried to ruin my life.”

“It’s not so bad,” I said. “Could you please give it back to Master Park for me?”

Rob took the book and placed it in the backseat, holding it disdainfully between his thumb and index finger, like it might infect his hand with some awful disease.

Master Park had told the truth about Rob living in Cone. His building was only two driveways down the road, a giant house that had been divided into three apartments. In the sparsely populated woods, that still put him almost two miles away from where I had been living. Still, I couldn’t help but think wistfully of how I could have had a neighbor, someone to visit on those cold winter nights when the lake house had felt as frozen and barren and isolated as the North Pole.

The breakfast was heavier than anything I would have made for myself, but good, a hearty, family breakfast. Rob's girlfriend Diana made scrambled eggs and pancakes with fruit in them and a big pot of coffee. She ate a modest portion, instead focusing her energy on putting food onto Rob and Apollo's plates, rising every few minutes to get a serving spoon or the pepper shaker or a napkin. She floated around the small apartment with a frantic energy that reminded me of my own mother, even though her energy had been channeled into organizing erotic seances rather than cooking.

"It's too bad you're moving," Diana said, leaning in from behind me to refill my coffee cup. I had already had two cups, the first two I'd had in several years; there was no way I was going to sleep on the plane, I thought. It was fine; to meet Rob's girlfriend, this specter I had imagined as a dark shadow floating over him, was worth a little discomfort.

"Rob never brings any of his taekwondo friends around," she said. "If I had known you were living right down the street, I would have invited you over a long time ago."

She's fine, I realized, watching her scoop more eggs onto her son's plate. We really could have been friends.

As we ate, I told them the story of my black eye. Diana gasped as I described Olivia's foot hitting my face.

"I've messed up the pads" Rob said. "But I've never gotten a black eye. You must have messed it up really bad." He let out a laugh that was a little bit cruel and mocking, but mostly friendly.

While Rob and Apollo washed the dishes, Diana gave me a tour of the apartment, the two bedrooms and one tiny office that doubled as a guest room, where Master Park slept on a fold-out sofa when he stayed the night. “He's so sweet,” she said, her face melting into a sad expression. “Rob thinks he might be visiting his kids right now.”

“Really?” I asked. I hadn’t considered this possibility. It seemed a little more hopeful than what I had been imagining, that he was hiding in the back rooms, pretending to be out of town until I was gone.

“Well,” she said, “It’s probably just wishful thinking. But Rob said Master Park’s never gone out of town for a whole week before. It would be nice if that’s where he went.”

Breakfast was all cleaned up by eleven, and I didn’t need to leave for the airport until noon.

“Have you ever been out on the lake?” Rob asked me. “We have a canoe.” He saw me hesitate, not wanting to inconvenience him any further. “You can’t leave Cone without a canoe ride on your own lake,” he insisted, dragging me outside by the hand.

It was still mid-February, and just two weeks ago it had snowed, but today was a beautiful day for a ride. The lake was crisp and sparkling and blue, matching the clear cold blue of the winter sky. In two sweatshirts and a pair of gloves borrowed from Rob’s girlfriend, I felt just the slightest bit of bracing chill in my bones. Rob didn’t seem to notice the cold at all, even though he was only wearing one sweatshirt and no gloves, as he rowed us out to the middle of the lake.

He paused at a beautiful calm spot from which I could see the back yard of the lake house, where I used to practice my taekwondo forms on warm days.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"For what?" I asked. I was afraid he was about to have another breakdown, like the first day we met, that he would cry and tell me that he couldn't drive me to the airport because he felt too guilty being alone with me. I knew you shouldn't have trusted him, one part of my mind gloated at the other part.

"For how things started out between us," he said. "I really messed that up."

"It's okay," I said, wondering if I was just falling back into my old habit of saying whatever would get me out of an awkward conversation the most quickly. But no, I realized, I wasn't lying; of course it was okay.

"It was a really bad time in my life," Rob said, his gaze fixed across the lake, back towards the shore where both of us had, until this morning, lived. "We had all just moved in together, because I used to live separately, and things were so stressful, and I was really, really confused.”

“It’s better now?” I asked. I realized as I said it that I truly hoped it was better, that his life was as happy and sweet as it seemed.

“It’s a little better,” he said, without smiling. "I've been talking to Master Park about it, and that helps."

"What does he say?" I asked, wondering what sort of advice my teacher might give about how not to destroy one's family.

"He told me you never really lose the feeling of being trapped," Rob said. "You just get used to it, and it becomes the normal way your life is."

He was quiet for a while, and so was I. We sat staring back at our houses, the cold empty barren one and the one brimming with unbearable affection and connectedness.

Before we headed back to shore, I remembered something I wanted to see. “Look,” I said to Rob, pointing towards the green house on the far side of the lake from Paula’s mother’s house. “Do you see a man sitting on the balcony?”

Rob squinted. “Maybe,” he said.

I squinted, too, unsure of whether he was there today, and whether I could see him from this angle. And then suddenly, he came into sharp focus: the small man, squatting on what seemed to be a stool, his arms crossed over his chest, staring straight across the lake.

“Right there,” I said to Rob, pointing.

“Oh, I do see him,” said Rob. “Sitting on that stool.”

“That’s him!” I said. I lowered my voice, embarrassed to be yelling, but I was so excited to finally have someone confirm the presence of this guardian ghost who had been haunting me for months and months.

“Let’s go check him out,” Rob said, rowing towards the green house.

In all my puzzlement over the eerie figure, it had never occurred to me to simply get closer to him. I could have walked out on the frozen lake, I thought, but I knew I would have been too scared to ever try it; I had heard enough horror stories about what could happen to foolish, naïve Californians testing out ice for the first time.

“Hmm,” said Rob, as we grew closer. “Do you think he’s a statue or a real person?”

I stared at the figure, who was growing into sharper and sharper focus as we approached, now only a hundred feet away from shore. His eyes were staring fixed ahead of him, frozen like stone. But his crossed arms seemed to wave and shift with gentle liveliness.

And then we were fifty feet from shore, and as I stared at his stony eyes and swaying arms, they began to move slowly away from each other. One eye moved right, and the other eye moved left. The arms moved down, and the head moved up.

And then the left eye became the stubby end of a tree branch, just in front of the balcony, and the right eye was the top of a shovel leaning against the balcony’s railing. And the arms and body were a bush, an evergreen in a pot, squat and healthy in its cozy spot by the back wall of the balcony.

“He’s gone!” said Rob, his voice hushed in amazement. "Just dissolved into nothing."

But my guardian hadn't dissolved into nothing. He had dissolved into plants and tools and the wooden rail of a balcony and the sparkle of shimmering blue water.

"It's beautiful," I said. I wasn't lying. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

The End

Saturday, October 16, 2010

42. Nothing to Try to Do

“There is nothing to try to do but try to be purposeless and formless, like water.” —Bruce Lee

Two years later

The invitations lay in ten stacks on the table. They were printed in a simple gray and lavender letterpress style that had cost Jen almost as much as the gluten-free vegan cake she had ordered—three months in advance, as required—from the artisan bakery. They really do look nice, she thought, looking down grudgingly at the cards, even though she had only spent the money on them because Becky made her.

Still, her stomach churned uncomfortably every time her eyes fell on the stacks. She had agreed to put the invitations in envelopes, along with RSVP cards, and affix the address labels that Becky had printed out. It had seemed like an easy job when she had volunteered for it, until she saw them and realized exactly what five hundred invitations looked like. It’s going to take twelve hours, she thought, just as she had for the last six days since the cards had arrived.

She should have started days ago, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to spread out the cards and envelopes and labels and allow them to take over her desk. Becky wanted to send the invitations out before Sunday; that was only three days away now. Jen had a lot of other work she needed to do, and then there was her writing, and she didn’t want to spare a minute on something as frivolous as stuffing envelopes.

With a loud sigh, she moved a stack of papers from the desk top to the floor to make room for her project.

Marie looked up from her play area, where she was stacking blocks. “Wanna play?” she asked. She was having some trouble mastering the letter “l” though, so it sounded more like “pway.”

Jen hesitated for less than three seconds. “Sure,” she said, crossing the office to the play mat.

“Look, Mommy, it’s a castle!” Marie exclaimed when Becky arrived half an hour later. She pointed at the turreted structure they had built out of tiny red blocks that looked like bricks. “For my pwincess doll.”

“Hmph,” said Becky, wrinkling her nose in disapproval at Jen.

“And a stable for the ponies,” said Jen, with a sheepish smile.

“Have you started on those invites yet?” Becky asked.

“I’ll do it,” said Jen. “I was just about to start, and then Marie wanted to play.”

“Start now,” said Becky. “Chase is coming to get Marie in an hour.” She knelt down to survey Jen and Marie’s miniature architecture. “Not bad,” she said, poking her finger at one of the blocks.

While Becky and Marie staged a pony rebellion that, judging from the crashing noises, led to the destruction of both the castle and the stables, Jen split one of the stacks in half and spread the invitations out on the desk. Each one was bordered in a single lavender line, with gray words in the middle, reading:

You are warmly invited to a party
celebrating the first anniversary of
The Jennifer Aniston Center for Collaborative Learning.

Jen couldn’t help it; she sighed again. Every time she looked at the invitations, she sighed.

“What?” said Becky, looking up at Jen. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Jen said, silently chastising herself. “Everything’s fine.”

The truth was, Jen was dreading this party—the stress, all the work that would go into it, all the cheerful socializing that would have to occur during it. Jen was happy that the center had already received so much acclaim during its first ten months, but she would have chosen to celebrate its upcoming anniversary with something more casual, like a dinner party for the center’s small staff of paid employees and teachers. Or maybe even just a nice catered lunch at work. What a radical idea, Jen had thought to herself: celebrate the work we do just by doing it.

“That all sounds nice,” Becky had said, wrinkling up her mouth in a sardonic dismissal. “But it’s wrong. You have to do something big so you can make all the important people who’ve helped us feel appreciated. And it has to get in the newspaper so the important people can see their photos in there.”

It all sounded awfully cynical, a big fancy event just to please a bunch of people who, in Jen’s opinion, couldn’t care less about a party or having their faces in the paper. She personally knew all the big-name experts who had taught at the center, and like herself, they all seemed more interested in getting their work done than on patting themselves on the back for doing it so well, which is why they had agreed to teach at a place like the center in the first place. They’d probably love the idea of celebrating by carrying on with work like it was just another day.

I guess that’s why Becky does the public relations and I don’t, Jen thought.

“I’ll handle the whole thing,” Becky had said, when Jen complained about all the work that would be involved. Jen knew she could do it, too, but she felt too guilty not to help at least a little. And since she had agreed to the party, she was working as hard as she could to think about it positively, no matter how stressful she found the idea.

Anyway, Jen told herself, as she matched up one invitation with one RSVP card and placed them in one envelope, if Becky wants a party, she should have one, because, despite its name, the school belonged half to her. Becky and Jen were co-directors. And while Jen had developed the general concept for the school, the innovative business model that had been praised in several national economics magazines and newspapers was all Becky’s.

As she collated the large and small cards, she looked up at the newspaper clipping stuck with a thumbtack to the wall in front of the desk. She had read it so many times that she probably could have recited it with her eyes closed. Her heart still raced with a little burst of adrenaline every time she looked at it, so much that she had resolved several times to take it down to make her work area more tranquil, but had never quite been able to bring herself to do it.

When Jennifer Aniston disappeared from the public eye three years ago, the tabloids speculated that she was having the routine mental breakdown their readers had come to expect from Hollywood actresses such as herself.

Instead, Aniston returned from a year of introspection in a small Midwestern town inspired by a new vision of what her life’s work would be. And with all the dedication that she used to apply to her acting career, Aniston brought her inspiration to fruition in a remarkably short amount of time, just one year after moving back to Los Angeles.

Blending the course offerings of a community center, the cooperative spirit of a commune, and the ambiance of a yoga studio, the Jennifer Aniston Center for Collaborative Learning provides a non-traditional venue for sharing knowledge and skills.

“I thought about all the talented people I knew,” Aniston said, as she showed us around the building, formerly an unused middle-school. “I know so many talented people, and I have learned so much from them. I thought, what would be the best way for them to share their knowledge with each other, and with anyone else who wants to learn?”

Aniston’s close friend Rebecca Gold developed the center’s business model. “It functions like a cooperative,” said Gold, who teaches yoga at the center in addition to her role as co-director and business manager. “People can pay for their classes with money, or they can volunteer in the bookstore, the tea shop, or on the janitorial staff. The entire building is maintained by volunteers.”

The most unusual feature of the school is that anyone can teach a class. “People can earn volunteer credit by teaching their own classes,” Gold explained. “But once the class becomes popular enough, teachers get paid in money instead of credit.”

This focus on community participation allows the school to offer remarkably diverse and specialized course offerings at highly affordable prices. In its first year, the school has sponsored courses in over sixty subjects ranging from vegan baking to aerial acrobatics to figure drawing.

“Even someone who is not a professional teacher has a lot of knowledge to share,” Aniston said.

The center also provides more academic offerings such as Spanish conversation and bookkeeping. The most surprising and widely-discussed of these has been the Radical Gender course taught by the local artist and activist who goes only by the name of Ex. Both course and teacher have attracted quite a bit of attention in academic circles, and professors have traveled from as far as the University of Chicago, Duke University, and even the University of Sydney in Australia to attend.

“How are those invitations going?” Becky asked. Jen had put the cards and envelopes down on the desk and was staring up at the article.

“They’re going,” she said, beginning her collating again. I need to focus, she told herself, quickening her pace, even though it meant that the RSVP cards lay crooked instead of straight in their envelopes. She wanted to make a good amount of progress so she would not feel guilty when she stopped and headed downstairs for five o’clock taekwondo class.

The class had started four days ago, and though most students were attending once or twice a week, Jen had gone to every single class. She had hoped for a taekwondo class ever since the center had opened, but she hadn’t been able to find a teacher.

“You should teach it,” Becky had told her every time she complained about missing taekwondo, until Jen finally learned not to bring it up anymore. It was true that Jen had taught Olivia, but she didn’t feel ready to teach an entire class of students; she still had so much she wanted to learn.

Now, she had finally recruited a teacher, and the best part was, that teacher was Shane. Two weeks ago, Shane and Brittany had flown in from Ann Arbor, where they had both just graduated from college. Brittany had majored in business and wanted to work as an intern for Becky, and Shane would teach taekwondo. They had only committed to stay for three months, but Jen was hoping to lure them into a permanent move.

“Your form is a mess,” Shane said, as they sat in the school’s tea shop together after the first day of class. “How much have you been training?”

“Not very much,” Jen said, hiding her face behind her teacup. “Not at all.”

“It shows,” said Shane, raising his eyebrows. His? Jen wasn’t sure, actually.

It had been two and a half years since Jen had last seen her old training partner, and she had steeled herself for the new, male version of Shane. She had wondered whether he would be bigger, heavier, whether he would have a beard, what his voice would sound like, whether his Adam’s apple would protrude.

Jen had been shocked when Shane showed up at her office before the first class looking no different than when Jen had last seen him—or her. Same spiky hair, small face, strong jaw, muscular physique under a bulky shirt that masked any telltale clues. Even after watching Shane lead an entire taekwondo class, Jen still couldn’t tell whether he, or she, had actually gone through with the gender reassignment.

“So, the real thing I need to talk to you about,” Shane said, lowering his or her voice to an embarrassed whisper over his or her teacup, “is whether I can get into the Radical Gender class.”

“Of course you can!” Jen said, surprised that Shane would make it sound like a special favor. “Anyone can take that class.”

“But it started two weeks ago,” Shane said. “I’m going to feel horrible joining late. And I know it must be completely full. I wanted to come out earlier just to start the class on time, but I had to take my last set of finals, and Brittany really wanted to walk at graduation. I would wait until the next session, but I’ve been so excited for that class, I don’t think I can stand to wait. Brittany wants to take it, too, but she said she doesn’t mind waiting if I can get in. It’s actually the main reason we came out here, to take that class.”

Shane gulped his or her tea and wiped his or her mouth with the back of his or her hand. “You know, Ex’s work was one of the main influences on my decision not to make my transition.”

“Oh!” said Jen, relieved that she wouldn’t have to worry about what pronoun to use when the inevitable time came that she needed to refer to Shane in the third person. “Right,” she added feebly.

“You didn’t know?” Shane asked, smiling. “Do I look like I’m taking testosterone?”

“Well,” said Jen, not sure of the correct answer.

Shane laughed. Her high-pitched, melodic giggle sounded as incongruously feminine as ever.

“I guess it might be hard to tell with me,” she said, dropping from her laugh back to her lower, gruffer speaking voice. “But I was taking it for a while, and I started to look really masculine.”

“Why did you stop?” Jen asked. “You didn’t like it?”

“I liked how I looked. It felt great to really be a guy, a real guy, not just a sort-of guy or a halfway-guy like I’ve always felt. People started calling me ‘sir’ in stores and stuff like that, and I was getting kind of a mustache. It was great. But I didn’t like how it felt to take medicine all the time, and to know I’d have to take it for the rest of my life. And then there was the taekwondo.”

“You wouldn’t be able to compete,” Jen said. This had occurred to Jen when Shane first announced her intention to become a man. Jen had been in awe that Shane’s commitment to changing her gender would trump her commitment to her sport; she must really, really want this, Jen had thought.

“No, I wouldn’t,” Shane said. “And at first I thought it didn’t matter. But once it was really happening, I realized how sad I was about it. And I started hanging out with all these radical queer activists from the university and the town. All of them are like obsessed with Ex’s work—Ex is like a rock star to them. And they told me how I didn’t have to change my body to change my gender. I mean, a lot of them do change their bodies, and that’s fine, but I realized there are other options. I can be a boy if I want to, and no one can tell me I have to be a girl, or a traditional type of girl, just because I have a girl’s body.”

Oh, no, Jen thought. Now I don’t know what to call her—him. She searched her memory of the last minute to see if she had referred to Shane as a woman yet.

I should just ask, she realized. That would be much simpler. “So do you want me to call you ‘he’?” You’d have think all my interactions with Ex would have trained me better to be direct about this kind of thing, Jen scolded herself.

“Yeah, I guess I like ‘he.’ My genderqueer friends call me by male pronouns, usually,” Shane said. “And Brittany does. But you could call me either one. Or neither. Or you could go back and forth between he and she. I don’t care either way. I’m just going to accept that I’m somewhere between the usual kind of male and female, and everything is fine just the way it is.”

Shane’s explanation reminded Jen of a similar transformation in thinking that she herself had once undergone, long ago, it seemed. But before Jen could mention this, Shane seemed to guess her thoughts.

“Actually, I’ve been studying some Zen philosophy, too, and that’s helped me a lot. I’ve been looking at who I am, and really trying to see myself and learn to accept it. I’ve been reading these books by Thomas Fo. Master Park recommended them.”

Thomas Fo, Jen thought. What she knew now about Thomas Fo, and even about Master Park, flashed into her mind. She wondered if she should tell Shane, if the true identities of these men even mattered. Of course not, she thought.

“So you’ve been in touch with Master Park?” Jen asked.

“Yeah, I started training with him again,” Shane said. “It was a long drive up from Ann Arbor, so I could only go on the weekends, but I found some people to work out with during the week, and I even did a couple of tournaments. When I told him I was coming out here for a while, he told me to send his regards,” Shane said. “I think he misses you a lot.”

“I miss him, too,” Jen said.

Sitting with Shane like this after a taekwondo class, she missed him all the more, more freshly and immediately. But in the rest of her life, as she ran the school and took classes and wrote and talked to the press and helped with Marie, she still often thought of her old teacher and her old school and of how happy she had been to be a student, a devoted student, with nothing more to worry about but showing up to class and doing her exercises and playing her chess games.

You can’t have a life like that forever, she thought. Eventually, you need to become your own teacher and lead yourself.

She had tried repeatedly to convince Master Park to come teach at the academy. Every time she wrote to invite him, he wrote back congratulating her on her success, but he would never agree to come teach. “I’m not able to at this time,” he would say. “Perhaps someday.”

Everyone else who Jen had invited had eventually come to teach. Paula had signed on right away as the first full-time teacher, teaching yoga classes as well as anything else she wanted. Ex had also joined from the beginning, and the Radical Gender class had quickly become so popular that the center now ran ten sections of it. Jen’s mother had flown out to take Ex’s class, paying for it by teaching her own class on occult sexuality, which Ex in turn had taken.

Nicolai Snail had flown out to teach a three day business seminar. He had wanted to teach a workshop on his new passion, crossbow hunting, and Jen had allowed him to. But she had convinced him, by mustering of every last drop of her persuasive energy, that he would appeal to a wider audience if he could give advice from his position as the founder and CEO of a major national corporation. Though he was reluctant, he seemed thrilled when his seminar was attended by a battery of business leaders, business students, and eager newspaper and magazine reporters (the center did not allow television cameras, though several students were in the process of filming a documentary about it).

Even Vanto Hatch had agreed to come teach a class. His course on memoir writing would start in two-and-a-half months, at the beginning of the next session. Jen, who was just finishing the first draft of her own memoir and getting ready to edit it, was actually looking forward to attending.

The only person who had turned down her invitation was the one she would most like to see, her old teacher and mentor. She had a fantasy where she could fix his life and make him happy. He could move to Los Angeles and teach at the center full-time, and go back to using his real name, whatever it was, and mend his relationship with his children and ex-wife. And it would be okay then that she had hurt him by rejecting his offer to open a school together, and it would be almost as though they had, because he would be part of this thing that she had created, this great thing that she had built up out of nothing through the strength of her own determination and focus.

“So,” Shane had said, finishing his last sip of tea and rising from his seat. “Could you ask Ex if I can join the class late, and tell Ex that I’m really sorry I missed the first two weeks? I mean, do you talk to Ex regularly? Would it be a problem to ask?”

“No, not at all,” said Jen, laughing at Shane’s elevation of this person who was one of Jen’s closest friends. In fact, Ex and Paula had their own office in the center, just across the hall from the office Jen shared with Becky. “I see Ex all the time. I’ll make sure Ex knows you and Brittany will be joining the class late, and I’ll send your apologies. And we should all get together for dinner or something this weekend.”

“Dinner with Ex?” Shane repeated, almost bumping into the counter as he placed his teacup into the plastic bin that held dirty dishes.

“Sure, with you and Brittany and Ex’s partner, Paula,” Jen said. “And maybe my friend Becky will come.”

“Oh my god,” Shane had exclaimed, her voice rising to that of a giddy schoolgirl. She wrapped her arms around Jen, who hugged her back, pleased that it was this easy to make at least one person she cared about happy.

“Brittany is going to freak out,” Shane said.

Sitting at her desk, Jen smiled in spite of the stack of invitations in front of her, which was shrinking at a much slower pace than she would like. Having Shane at the center as a teacher and student was one of her most satisfying accomplishments so far. Now she just needed to work on Master Park. She wasn’t going to give up. She would invite him to teach each time the new session started, every three months, for the rest of her life if necessary.

After that, there was only one other thing that she hoped would happen. This was a thing so important that she couldn’t even say it out loud in her head for fear she would jinx it. One thing she wanted so badly, wishing for it hurt her stomach and made it hard to breathe.

“It’s my girls!” said a booming voice from the doorway. Jen turned and saw Chase walking into the office, followed by his new boyfriend, Winston. Despite his rather nerdy name, Winston was a vision of masculine beauty, the tallest Chinese man Jen had ever seen, with smooth skin and biceps that could barely be contained by the sleeves of his t-shirt, a great sense of humor, and an easy, warm smile. Chase adored him; Jen adored him; Becky adored him; Marie adored him. Everyone adored him. Jen was occasionally jealous of how everyone seemed to love him instantly. That’s not my role in life, to be loved instantly by everyone, Jen would remind herself. That’s Winston’s role.

Chase crossed the room and grabbed Marie off the play mat, hoisting her high over his head. Marie shrieked in excitement. “Hey, careful,” Becky said, rising to save her.

Winston was carrying a stack of mail. “We ran into the mailman on the way up,” he said, handing the stack to Jen.

Most of the mail was for Becky, bills and invoices and press correspondence. She put these into the inbox on Becky’s impossibly tidy desk. But the last piece in the stack had Jen’s name on it.

“It’s from a publisher,” Jen said, her fingers shaking as she ripped a sloppy gash in the envelope.

Chase and Winston were too focused on tossing Marie back and forth between them to hear her.

“What’s that?” Becky asked, coming over to Jen. “Did you say a publisher?”

“Look,” said Jen, waiving the envelope numbly.

“What does it say?” Becky asked, shaking Jen’s arm impatiently.

Jen pulled the letter out and read aloud. “We have reviewed the summary and sample chapters you sent from your book, If You Can Hold This Pose for Three Minutes, You Can Do Anything. At this time, we are interested in meeting with you to discuss publication options. Please contact us at…”

“Chase!” Becky was screaming, jumping up and down, still holding onto Jen’s arm as she jumped. “They want to publish Jen’s memoir!”

And then, like the dramatic final shot of a made-for-TV movie, everyone was there hugging Jen. Chase and Winston and Becky and Marie, all surrounding her in a tight ecstatic huddle, jumping and screaming until Ex and Paula came running over from across the hall to see what was going on, and then they were screaming and jumping and hugging Jen, too.

This is my party, Jen thought to herself, looking at her friends with tears running down her face and a smile so wide it hurt her cheeks. In fact, if this really happened, if this publisher really agreed to take her book, she wouldn’t mind having a real party; she would welcome it. Now, she thought, finally, I’m ready for a celebration.

With her famous name, she had known that somebody would publish the book. But she and Becky had decided to only send proposals to literary presses, ones that wouldn’t try to edit out the book’s complexity to sell it to a larger audience. “It's a long shot,” Becky’s book-editor friend had told Jen when she asked for advice. "Publishing houses like these don't usually do celebrity stuff."

Becky ripped the letter out of Jen’s hand to read it herself. “This sounds serious,” Becky said. “They’re talking about an advance, and working out rights. I’d better come with you to the meeting.” She handed the letter back to Jen. “Sorry,” she said. “I mean if you want me to.”

“Of course I do,” Jen said, squeezing Becky’s hand. She had never been so happy to have a partner in everything—a partner in life.

“Now you just need to shorten that title,” Becky said. “It’s way too long.”

“We’ll see,” Jen said, but it was her title, her very favorite part of the book, and she knew she would never, ever change it, not even for Becky, not for anyone.

Chapter 43

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

41. Without Makeup Or Masks

"As in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live." —Julia Kristeva

“It’s okay, no need to explain,” said Master Park. “I knew you were going to leave. You’ve had that look lately, ever since your friend with the baby left. Maybe ever since Brittany left. Shane,” he corrected himself, before Jen had a chance to.

Standing in front of the desk, Jen towered over her teacher, who was still sitting, shuffling some papers around. Still, she had the feeling he was staring down his nose at her.

“What look?” Jen asked.

“That look like you’re not really here,” he said. “You’ve looked bored, maybe, or dissatisfied. It’s all right,” he added, as she opened her mouth to contradict him. “I guess I should have known that you wouldn’t want to stay here forever. North Middleton is a pretty boring town, especially if you’re used to L.A.”

“No, that’s not it at all,” Jen said. “I don’t even like L.A.”

She wasn’t sure herself what had spurred her decision to return to Los Angeles. Something in Paula’s journal had steered her so firmly in that direction that it did not feel like a decision at all, but like the self-evident future had simple presented itself to her. But she felt that she owed Master Park an explanation, as much as he claimed not to require one. Or perhaps it simply frustrated her not to be able to answer such a simple question about her own life.

As she searched her mind for the words that would match her feelings, an image appeared instead: a piece of computer paper designed to look like a blueprint, with rows of detailed instructions printed in tiny letters running accross the blue walls and support beams. It was something she had seen on Becky’s desk once, years ago.

“Do you know what Groundbreakers is?” she asked. Immediately, she realized that of course he did; he was friends, or at least chess partners, with Vanto Hatch. He didn’t say anything, though, just nodded his head in quiet affirmation.

“In Los Angeles, all my friends were in Groundbreakers,” Jen said. “It made me feel like everyone was in a cult.”

She took a breath, pausing until she could figure out what her point was.

“But then I was here studying taekwondo and chess every day and doing exercises and reading all those books by Thomas Fo. It started to feel like its own cult in a way.”

“Well, that makes sense,” said Master Park. He didn’t sound like he was offering empty agreement, but rather like he was pleased to hear her confirm what he had been thinking all along.

“It does?” Jen asked. She felt bad for implying that his school was a cult. She hoped he would understand what she had meant, that it was a cult for her, because she was treating it like one.

“About the Thomas Fo books,” said Master Park. “It’s not surprising that they remind you of Groundbreakers.”

“Oh,” said Jen. “Why not?”

“Because they were written by Vanto Hatch,” Master Park said. He looked up at her, shuffling the papers on the desk absentmindedly while he waited for her to comprehend his statement.

“Vanto Hatch,” Jen repeated blankly.

“Thomas Fo is a pen name,” said Master Park.

“But why wouldn’t he just use his real name?” Jen asked. “He’d probably sell more books that way. People buy millions of those Groundbreakers books.” She thought of the parenting book that Becky had found so offensive; Becky had at least ten other books with the same cover design on her shelf, each one a national bestseller.

“I’ve asked him the same thing,” Master Park said, with the same offended snort he had used to dismiss the excessive security at the Snail Plant. “Believe me.”

“What’s his answer?” Jen asked.

“He says he wants to try out these different styles without everyone thinking the books are a part of Groundbreakers. That’s what he says.”

“You don’t believe him?” Jen asked.

“The thing about Vanto,” said Master Park, “is that he’s obsessed with self-help.” He had collected all the papers on the desk into a stack between his hands. He whacked the long side and then the short side of the stack against the desk to neaten it.

“He’s one of those guys, always looking for the next great path to enlightenment,” he said. “One day it’s Zen, the next day Christianity or Scientology or some Indian thing. Sometimes it’s martial arts or chess. Whatever it is, he wants to write a book about it, but it would confuse his little fan club: Vanto Hatch wants us to fight! Vanto Hatch wants us to play chess! They’d only put up with it for so long, and then he’d lose them. So he writes the books, but he makes up all these fake names: Thomas Fo, Fred Fawls.”

“Fred Fawls?” Jen could hear the hint of hysteria in her voice. She couldn’t take this all in. The idea that a single author could have written Zen For Times of Crisis and The New Aggressive Male was more shocking than the fact that this author was Vanto Hatch.

“Right,” said Master Park, smiling sardonically. “That’s his ‘fighter’ personality.” Jen thought she could hear the scare quotes in his voice.

Thomas Fo doesn’t exist, she said to herself. There is no Thomas Fo. She had devoted herself to the words of somebody who was not even a real person, but a persona. She reminded herself that her disappointment was irrational, since a book is never more than a collection of words and ideas, and that those matter more than who wrote it. Still, she couldn’t stop herself from feeling that the purpose of the universe had collapsed in on itself.

“It doesn’t sound like you like him very much,” she said.

“He’s one of my closest friends,” said Master Park. “Which doesn't mean much, since I only have a few friends and they are not that close." Jen searched his face for some sign of whether this was a joke, and whether she should laugh, but his expression was neutral, neither laughing nor sad.

"I tease him about changing his identity so often. But then, who here hasn’t benefited from a good identity change?”

Jen looked around the empty academy to see who else was there, but she knew already; there was no one in the school but the two of them.

“Come in back, have some tea,” said Master Park, rising and turning towards the back room. “There are a lot of things you should probably know about. Before you leave.” Jen watched his back as he walked across the padded workout floor without turning to see if she was following him.

They walked past the screen and into the small living room. Jen remembered how fascinated she had been by the screen when she first came to the school, how mysterious it had seemed each time Master Park had emerged from it followed by Rob and Shane. Now she played chess daily in this room; it was as familiar and worn as the kicking pads she held for Olivia each night.

Jen sat on the couch as Master Park poured two cups of tea from the electric kettle he kept on the bookshelf.

“Are you comfortable?” Master Park asked, placing one of the steaming cups of tea on the coffee table in front of her and the other on the taller dining-room table in front of his favorite straight-backed chair.

Jen nodded and tried to pick up her tea, but the cup was too hot to hold comfortably.

Master Park sat up very tall in his chair, looking at Jen through the steam rising from his own cup of tea. “Have you ever done something really, really bad?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Jen, without really thinking about it.

Master Park scowled. “What was it?” he asked.

Nothing came to mind immediately, but she was sure there was something. Stealing Becky’s boyfriend in middle school had been pretty bad, even though it was an accident. And sleeping with Skipper had been really stupid, but she wouldn’t call it bad, exactly.

“Nothing specific,” said Jen, not wanting to share these particular stories with her teacher. “I’ve done things that have hurt my friends’ feelings, or caused them a lot of problems.”

“No, I mean something bad,” said Master Park. “Something so bad it ruins your life, and other people’s lives, forever.”

“I guess I haven’t,” said Jen. “You have?”

Master Park didn’t say anything. She took a sip of her tea—ginseng, she realized, trying not to grimace as the bitter taste hit her tongue—and waited.

Master Park took a sip of his tea as well. He was sitting very straight, his taekwondo uniform as crisp and well-laundered as ever, with both feet planted straight on the floor. He held the tea in his mouth for a minute, his eyes thoughtful, before exhaling forcefully from his nose.

“Where do you think I’m from?” he asked finally.

“From?” Jen asked, wondering if this were a trick. “Do you mean Korea?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not from Korea.” Jen opened her mouth to apologize for her assumption, her face flushing with embarrassment. He held up his hand to stop her.

“It’s a logical assumption,” he said. “It would be fair to say that I’ve been hoping people would assume that.”

Why had she assumed it? He definitely spoke with some kind of accent, though it was very faint. She searched her memory for clues to Master Park’s heritage. She remembered Rob mentioning something about Master Park’s time “back in Korea,” and anyway that was where taekwondo was from. And “Park” was a Korean name, wasn’t it? Maybe it was his parents who were from Korea, and his accent was the sort acquired by the children of immigrants, especially those who had grown up hardly ever hearing English spoken in their own neighborhoods.

“In fact, I am from your city,” he said.

“Cone?” Jen asked. She had long suspected that he lived there, though it was difficult to imagine an enclave of Korean immigrants living there, or even just one family of them.

“No,” he said, drawing the word out. He looked at her suspiciously over the tops of his glasses. “I meant Los Angeles,” he said. “That’s where I was born and where I grew up.”

“Oh,” said Jen. That made sense. A lot more sense than him growing up in Cone, anyway.

“So your parents are from Korea,” she said.

“No,” said Master Park. “I’m not Korean. I’m Filipino.”

“Filipino?” Jen repeated back to him. From what she could remember, that was one of those nationalities had long, winding last names with consonants in orders that it seemed consonants should not be able to go in. Or were Filipinos the ones with the Spanish last names? Anyway, “Park” was neither long and windy nor Spanish, nor, she was fairly certain, anything else but Korean, or maybe something like Chinese.

“This is how the story begins,” said Master Park. “I was born in Los Angeles. My parents were both born in Los Angeles, too. Their parents came from the Philippines, in something like 1920.

“I grew up down the street from a taekwondo studio. I studied taekwondo from the time I was seven.

“I was in a lot of plays in grade school. And I studied acting in college. I wanted to be a martial-arts movie star. But it turns out they don’t really make that many martial-arts movies in Los Angeles, and when they do, the lead characters are white.

“I played some villains in a few action movies. Then I went to Hong Kong for a few years and played villains there, usually the evil Korean guy because of my Taekwondo, but sometimes the evil Japanese guy or the evil Mongolian guy. I didn’t really need to speak much Chinese to do those roles, since they were mostly fighting. It was fun for a while, but I wouldn’t have been able to advance my career without studying Chinese pretty seriously.

“Plus I missed Los Angeles. I had a girlfriend back there, a model. So I moved back and became a stunt man, and we got married.

“I liked the stunt work. It was regular and paid better than the small acting roles, and my wife could stop working while we had kids.”

“You have kids?” Jen asked. She had never imagined him having any sort of family; even thinking of his parents and grandparents had been startling.

“Two,” said Master Park. “A daughter and a son.” His face softened for a moment, and Jen almost expected him to pronounce his undying love for them. But after a moment his features regained their usual evenness, and he continued his story.

“I started working for this one police show long term, and there was this guy Charlie I became pretty good friends with. He did the stunts for the white cop, and I was doing them mostly for the Latino criminals.”

He looked straight at Jen, making sure she had caught the bitterness in his voice. She nodded.

“He was the typical L.A. bachelor. Barely spent any time in his apartment, couldn’t cook, always had some new girlfriend making food and doing his laundry. He started coming over for dinner a lot. My wife was a really good cook, and he seemed to like playing with the kids after dinner. They would get all excited when he came. They’d start yelling, ‘Uncle Charlie’s coming over!’ It used to make me mad, because I didn’t know many good ways to play with them, and they were never that excited to see me.

“So one night, I was at home trying to play with my son, Gabriel. We were playing guns, and he kept telling me I wasn’t shooting my gun right. Which was ridiculous because I knew how to really shoot a gun.”

He looked up at Jen, who hadn’t said anything. “We used to play guns back then,” he said with a shrug.

“And Gabe said, ‘Uncle Charlie taught me you need to hold your breath. Like this.’” Master Park took in a deep breath through his lips and puffed up his cheeks like a trumpet player.

“I said, ‘When did Uncle Charlie tell you that?’ And Gabe said, ‘Last night, when you were at work.’

“My wife was folding laundry with our daughter on the other side of the room, and she jumped to her feet, ran across the room, and slapped Gabe right across the face.”

Jen gasped. “That’s terrible!” she exclaimed.

Master Park furrowed his eyebrows at her. “Well, hitting your kids wasn’t such a big deal back then.”

“No, I meant…” Jen sputtered, confused now about what part of the scene was most troubling.

“Oh, right,” said Master Park, nodding. “Yes, it was terrible. Gabe was screaming and crying, and my wife locked herself in the bedroom and wouldn’t come out, and I was screaming at her through the door, and the kids hid in their rooms. I had to sleep on the couch, even though I wasn’t the one who had done anything wrong.

“She and I didn’t talk at all for the next two days. Every day I left before she woke up, drove around until it was time for work, picked up some fast food at night, went to the bar. I’d come home after midnight and sleep for a few hours on the couch. I think I only saw her a couple of times, when she came out of the bedroom at night to get something from the kitchen. And when she saw I was on the couch, she looked at me so scared, like I was going to kill her, and she turned and ran back into the room, and I could hear her lock the door.

“I could have gotten through that lock anyway. It was one of those little push-button locks. You can open it with a safety pin.” He pantomimed the procedure, his hands deftly turning the invisible doorknob.

“On the third day, I had to do a scene with Charlie. And he must have known something was wrong, because he was looking at me all nervous. I didn’t know if he had talked to my wife, or just guessed what had happened. He was sweating, pouring sweat, that’s all I know.

“I was supposed to throw a punch at him and kind of leave it out so he could grab my arm, and he was going to grab my arm and do a kind of judo throw so I’d fly through the air and land on my back. Because he was the good guy, so he always won.

“I punched, and I saw him lunge in towards my wrist. And his hand was coming reaching down, and I turned, and I threw a side-kick as hard as I could, right at the side of his head.”

Jen gasped. “What happened?” she asked.

“It looked like your fight,” said Master Park. Jen cringed in embarrassment but didn’t say anything. “His eyes rolled up in his head, and he just fell sideways to the floor like chopping down a tree. But he didn’t get up. And they called an ambulance, but by the time he got to the hospital…”

“He was dead?” Jen asked.

“No, not dead!” said Master Park, sounding indignant at the suggestion that he might have killed somebody. “But his neck was broken. It turned funny when I kicked him and then he made it worse when he fell.”

“Oh no,” said Jen, putting her hands over her face to shut out the image.

“They saved his movement in his upper body, but below the waist, he was paralyzed.”

She tried to imagine what would happen after one stunt man paralyzed another, and whether such an act was considered a crime or merely an occupational hazard. “Did you get arrested?” she asked.

“I thought I would,” said Master Park. “I was ready to turn myself in. I wasn’t allowed to go to work while they were investigating. But when Charlie was able to talk to the police finally, he said it was an accident. He didn’t want to press charges.

“So I was a free man. I had taken some money from our savings and rented a little apartment, but I didn’t have any income. I couldn’t work anymore in stunts.

“I went to see my old taekwondo teacher—I hadn’t been back to the school since I started college—and I told him what happened. I asked him, ‘Could I teach here?’ I knew it wouldn’t make much money, but maybe it would cover some of my rent and give me something to do besides stare at the wall in my apartment all day.

“‘You can’t teach here,’ he told me. ‘Not after what happened.’ And he was right, I realized. How would people feel safe with me as their teacher if they found out what I had done? And the school taught lots of little kids from the neighborhood. How could parents leave their children with me?

“‘There is something,’ my teacher told me. ‘Master Park, the teacher at one of our sister schools, has just died. His students are a bunch of white kids, and they don’t want to run the school themselves; they asked if I know of an authentic taekwondo teacher.’

“‘It sounds like they want a Korean,’ I said.

“’Yes, but they did not say that,’ said my teacher. ‘But perhaps we should pretend you are Korean, just in case. I will tell them you are their old teacher’s second cousin.’

“‘But they’ll never believe that,’ I said. ‘I’ll have to make up all these lies, and they’ll see that I look Filipino.’

“‘You’re an actor,’ he said to me. ‘Act Korean.’

“‘I don’t know if I’m a good enough actor to do that,’ I said.

“‘They’ll never know the difference,’ he said. ‘They live in Michigan.’

“And then I finally realized what he was signing me up for: to move far away, to somewhere I had never been, where I didn’t know anybody for miles and miles. Where I would have a fake name, and a fake history.

“The thought of moving so far away from my children made me so sad. I couldn’t sleep or eat for days. But finally I decided it would be better for them if I weren’t around, easier not to have to deal with a divorce, with two feuding parents and a father who had made such a horrible, horrible mistake.”

He lifted his tea cup with both hands, and Jen thought she could see a shudder travel across his shoulders. She thought he might be crying, and she looked down at her cup so she wouldn’t see his eyes.

“Since then, I have sent all my money to my wife, if you can call her that. She is still my wife, legally, and everything I make I send for my children. That’s why I have to live back here.”

“Back where?” Jen asked.

“Here,” he said, waving his right hand through the air. “In the back of the school.”

Jen looked around the tiny room. “You live here?” she asked. She still couldn’t understand, exactly.

“I thought you knew,” he said.

“Where do you sleep?” she asked, frightened that it might be on the very couch where she was sitting.

“I have a bedroom,” he said, pointing to the wall behind Jen’s head. “Next door down the hall. And there’s a bathroom, and a little area with a sink and a hot plate. It’s all made from little offices, so the rooms are very small. The rooms come with the rental for the school, so I keep my living expenses very low. And I just teach and study and play chess and live like a monk here, all in penance for destroying my family.”

“I thought you lived in Cone,” she said.

“Rob lives in Cone,” he said. “With his girlfriend and the kid. I go to their house for dinner a lot, and sometimes I sleep there in their fold-out couch. It’s more comfortable than my little futon here, I’m sad to say.

“He’s a nice boy, Rob,” Master Park said, looking Jen straight in the eye as though he expected her to argue. “He’s been like my son here.”

The admission seemed to make him uncomfortable, and Jen almost thought she could see him squirm in his seat for a moment.

“Do you need more tea?” he asked her, rattling his empty cup around by its handle. She shook her head.

“Okay,” said Master Park. “Here’s the reason I’m telling you this story. Two weeks ago my son turned eighteen. That means both my children are adults now.”

“So you won’t need to send them money anymore,” said Jen.

“I think it is time to go back,” Master Park said. “To make things right in my life.”

“But what about your life here?” Jen asked, imagining the void that his absence would leave in the town.

“Rob could run the school,” said Master Park. “He would love to. And he won’t have to pretend he’s Korean. He won’t have to pretend he’s anything, since he’s from here, and everyone has known him his whole life.”

He looked at Jen. “Pretending is very, very tiring,” he said. “It is so ugly to me that sometimes I don’t want to teach, and I don’t want to run the school, and I just want to stay back here and play chess. I don’t feel like I am pretending to be anything when I play chess. All that pretending is bad for your soul, I think. Better if you can just be what you are. That’s what I want to do.

“And you,” he asked Jen. “What do you want to do? What will you do in L.A.?”

“Oh,” said Jen, feeling a little stunned as she searched her mind for an answer. “I’m not sure. Help Becky raise the baby. Maybe find a taekwondo school to study at.”

“Have you ever thought of opening your own school?” said Master Park. “You’ve got money and connections. And I know a guy who’s pretty good at teaching taekwondo, for a Filipino.”

Chapter 42

Sunday, August 29, 2010

40. The Big Scary Unknown

“People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.” —Chuck Palahniuk

Like an exclamation point punctuating her confusion, the letter from Paula’s mother was in the mailbox when Jen arrived home from dropping Becky and Marie at the airport. She ripped open the envelope as she walked into the house.

“Thanks for taking such good care of the lake house,” the letter read, the scrawled handwriting filling a page of notepad paper that had the words “Deacon-Sanders Educational Publishing Company,” printed across the top. “We’ll be returning for the summer at the beginning of May.”

May, Jen thought. That’s less than three months. It didn’t seem like enough time to make a decision. She read the letter again, silently, leaning against the inside of the front door, her purse at her feet where she had dropped it, her hands growing cold even in her winter gloves.

How do they know I took good care of the house, anyway, she asked herself, surveying the living room in front of her, which was as messy as it had been before she cleaned up for Becky’s visit.

She tidied up the clutter as she walked through the house, carrying a dirty coffee cup, its rim stained with Becky’s tawny lipstick, from the living room to the kitchen, making a little pile of the assorted baby items—a sticky bib, a pacifier—that hadn’t made it back into Becky’s suitcase.

She was going to miss them horribly, she realized, as she placed Marie’s possessions into a kitchen drawer. And more, she felt guilty that she would not be around to help Becky with Olivia, after Becky had helped her with every part of her life, putting Jen’s career and finances and publicity and personal issues before her own for so many years. It was time to return the favor, Jen decided. Wherever she was going to live, it was going to be with Becky.

Becky had sounded serious about wanting to move to Michigan. It sounded like the perfect solution, one requiring almost no decisive action on Jen’s part. But Jen didn’t know if she could stomach the responsibility of having her friend move across the country, to a place where she had no friends or family besides Jen, just to be closer to her. Sure, Becky had liked North Middleton, but she was romanticizing it as a nowhere-place, a clean slate upon which to sketch out a new life, just as Jen herself once had. Would Becky still want to live here once it was no longer a blank, when it was filled in with all the meanings and problems and annoyances of any other town? And what would they do for work— get jobs at the college, or a grocery store? Live off of Jen’s savings forever? With Becky’s cleverness at investing, it just might work, but never working again seemed too decadent for Jen to seriously consider.

And then there was the other solution: Jen could move back to Los Angeles. In a sense, that would be even easier than having Becky move to Michigan. Jen already had a house and a bunch of friends and a career waiting for her in LA. And what did she have in North Middleton? A taekwondo school where she worked out a little, trained a woman she didn’t trust, and learned to play chess. Leaving should be easy.

And it might be; she wasn’t sure yet. Nor was she sure if she would be able to handle the heady rush of Los Angeles after such a long spell of sobriety. She did not think the words “Bradley’s baby”—but an image flashed briefly in her head. That’s what I need to find out today, she thought, picking up her purse and heading right back out the door that she had just entered through fifteen minutes ago.

She hadn’t been back in the drug store since that day long ago when she bought her pregnancy test and stack of celebrity magazines. Her new market had everything she needed—food, medicine, ice packs and ace bandages—plus they didn’t carry magazines at all. It was perfect, usually. But today she went to the drugstore instead, and when she saw the wall of magazines out of the corner of her eye, she headed straight towards them.

She had envisioned herself flipping around to find what she was looking for, but there was no need; it was right there on at least half of the displayed covers. “Bradley trades parties for Pampers,” said one, below a picture of Jen’s ex-husband, a scrubby beard unevenly covering his cheeks, a cherubic blond baby in his arms, smiling up at him. Another showed Bradley looking goofy and cross-eyes, his girlfriend scowling at him as she held the baby out of his reach: “Will parenthood drive them apart?” the caption asked.

There was even one with a tiny picture of Jen under a gigantic one of Bradley and his family: “Jen’s friends say she is crushed: ‘I wanted to have his baby!” cries reclusive star.”

Jen was startled, not by these words but by the photograph that accompanied them. Of course she looked distressed in it, her brow rumpled into a prize-winning grimace that must have funded some photographer’s mortgage payments for a year. But it was an old photo, one from before her divorce, her hair still long and stylishly cut, her cheeks soft and rosy from well-placed makeup.

She knew the face well, and was already quite aware that she was barely recognizable now as that same person. No one turned to stare at her on the streets of North Middleton anymore. She knew that many of the residents were simply accustomed to sharing their town with a former celebrity. But increasingly, she felt convinced that the people she passed did not recognize her at all. When she caught glimpses of reflection during the day, her puffy jacket and practical haircut made her look more like a graduate student than an actress.

But what really surprised her about her image was how old she looked in a photograph that must have been taken at least three years ago. She carried the magazine to the little mirror by the sunglasses stand; and yes, there it was. She had gotten younger. The face of the woman in the photograph was gaunt, skeletal, the skin stretched tensely across the bones like leather tanning in the sun. In the mirror, her current face was dewy with health, her skin seeming to emit light like a maiden in a Renaissance painting. The wrinkles around her eyes had faded into smoothness and her cheeks were full and soft like a teenager’s.

She had planned to buy a few of the magazines, but she didn’t need to. She had come here to find out if she could return to L.A., and she was still not sure, but not for the reason she had anticipated. Bradley, his girlfriend, the baby—Jen would be fine with them. But the rest of it, she was not so sure about.

That evening, mechanically holding pads up for Olivia to kick, Jen felt like she was already gone. She watched the men in the beginner’s class throwing clumsy roundhouse kicks in the air, and realized she didn’t recognize any of them. I used to know the face of everyone at the academy, she thought. Back when Shane was still here. Now an entire generation of new students had arrived, and she hadn’t even noticed.

“You’re doing a good job training Olivia,” said Master Park that night after their second game of chess, as she lifted her bag to go home.

“Thanks,” said Jen, trying to accept the compliment blankly, but she couldn’t: she could feel her eyebrows rise just about a quarter of an inch in surprise. She could not remember Master Park ever having complimented her on anything before, other than her mild humiliation of Nicolai Snail. Certainly he had never said anything positive concerning taekwondo—or anything negative either, she realized. While he could talk endlessly about chess, he had probably said no more than fifty total words to her, in the entire time she had trained at his school, about the sport he purported to be teaching her.

“She’ll be ready to start sparring soon,” said Master Park. “Once she gets a little better, she’ll be a good training partner for you.”

“Great,” said Jen. She stood in the doorway of the back living room, her backpack slung over her shoulder, waiting in case he planned to say more. He was not speaking, but his open gaze suggested that he had left some thought unfinished.

Just as she began to shift her weight to turn around and leave, he spoke again. “I think you’re ready to be an assistant teacher,” he said. “If you want to.”

Jen sucked in a breath between her teeth.

“Don’t give me an answer yet,” he said, raising a hand as though to block her words from reaching him. “I want you to think about it.”

Think about it, Jen repeated to herself as she nodded in silence and left the room. Too many things to think about already, thoughts overflowing like a stack of books or groceries, and just one more would make her drop them all.

The lake house seemed abandoned when Jen got home. Even with the light on, her bedroom looked dark and bleak. She had forgotten how dark it was outside the windows, how dark the entire house was, standing in the shadows of the forest, a mile from the nearest residence or street light.

She decided to sleep in Paula’s old room instead, the one Becky and Marie had been occupying. The sheets in the bed had a lingering baby smell, and Jen imagined that Marie was snuggling next to her as she tried to fall asleep. It was less lonely in this room, but something was wrong with the bed. Jen lay on her left side, moved her arm in front of her and then in back, switched to her right side, turned onto her back. It felt like there was lump, something poking up through the mattress just under her left shoulder blade. The mattress is just uneven, she told herself, trying to ignore the hard spot.

Once twenty minutes had passed on the digital clock, she decided to investigate. She stood up in the dark, lifted the mattress with one hand, and slid the other one over the wooden bed frame. She couldn’t feel anything except the smooth, solid wood. See, nothing there, she said to herself. But just to be sure, she knelt and reached her hand in further, all the way to her shoulder, and hit something hard and flat. When she pulled it out, she could feel the soft, worn pages of a notebook.

She turned on the light and sat down on the bed. It was a red notebook, the kind a student would use in school. She opened it, half expecting to see math equations and English notes, but of course there would be no reason to hide something like that. Instead, she saw pages and pages of short, scribbled paragraphs, each one prefaced with the day and month when it had been written, though not the year.

I shouldn’t read it, Jen thought, closing the notebook and lying back down on the bed which was now uniformly hard and unyielding instead of unevenly so. She held the book against her chest, the light still on, staring at the dark blankness of the window. Then she propped the bed’s two pillows against each other to raise her head up, opened the journal to a page near the beginning, and began to read.

January 8
I’m sick of everybody at my school. I’m sick of everybody in Toledo. Everyone is talking about college all the time. They think it’s going to be so much better at Ohio State. Maybe it will be, for them. Everything will be the same. Everything will be normal. I hate normal! I hate how they don’t know anything about art or music or culture. I hate all their normal plans, how they want to major in business or become a dentist. Please don’t let me get stuck here!

March 22
I am so excited to move to California! Mom didn’t want to let me go without being enrolled in school, but the schools there are too expensive unless you have state residency, so I’m going to work for a year until I get it. By then maybe I’ll have a good job and be doing some cool stuff and I won’t have to go to college at all.

I feel like I can’t wait one more day. Everything is open and creative there, and you can do anything you want. You could be an artist, or be in a band, or be a dancer, or be in a movie. No one expects you to get a boring job or get married and have a boring family. Everyone is cool and no one cares if you’re weird. It will be the perfect place, heaven on earth.

June 4
Been in L.A. three days now. It’s amazing! I’m sharing this apartment in Silverlake, and everyone is so cool and creative. I got a job in a restaurant already, but I think I want to be a singer. I’m going to start going to shows and listening to music, and try to meet some people.

August 16
My band played our first show last night! Well, they’ve played before a lot with their old singer, but this is their first show after she quit and I joined. I think I am falling in love with the guitar player, Tad. We’ve been talking a lot and hanging out after practice, which is really late at night, but nothing has happened between us yet. He writes all the songs and is kind of the manager of the band. He is totally devoted to living an artistic life. He doesn’t even have a day job. He just does small parts in movies and artsy films and he can pay his bills from that. He doesn’t even have to work most days, because one acting job pays enough for him to live on for almost a month. He’s going to help me get started doing that, too, because I am so tired of waitressing, especially since I’ve been working six days a week and then going to band rehearsal every night. He said I’d just need to lose some weight—like maybe fifteen pounds—and then I could totally get enough roles to live on.

November 3
I’m so tired. So so tired. Still waitressing in the day, now five days a week, and on the other ones I go to auditions, and band practice every night or else shows. I got one little part on a commercial where I didn’t say anything but just stood in the background looking excited about this cheese spread. But Tad was right that all the girls are skinnier than me. We’ve been sleeping together, and he’s not exactly my boyfriend, but we spend a lot of time together and he’s been giving me some good advice, like to dye my hair blonde, even though neither of us like blonde hair, but because it’s good for getting roles. I’ve already lost ten pounds, but I’m not quite thin enough. It’s a little hard to lose weight when you work in a restaurant, but what I do is eat my one free meal, which is usually something pretty heavy like pasta, and then don’t eat anything else all day. Luckily no one in the band ever seems to eat anything, so I’m not tempted during practice. Sometimes we do some coke or speed which makes me not want to eat anything even the next day, but I don’t want to get into a habit of that, plus it’s expensive.

January 14
I think we’re going to get signed by this big record label! Tad has been talking with the representative guy, and he came to three of our practices so far. They were talking about making videos, and Tad told the guy that I am going to lose ten more pounds, which made me kind of mad, but the record guy nodded his head like it was a good idea. By Ohio standards, I’d be pretty thin already, but here they want you to have no body fat at all because it looks better in photos or videos. I don’t agree with it and Tad says he doesn’t either, but that it’s just part of working, and the work is what is most important to us.

May 12
In some big hospital. I guess I took too many pills. Something happened during a show, I was on stage and my brain didn’t feel like it was working right and I couldn’t remember the words to the song and then right after the show ended I passed out. I called Tad but he won’t come and see me. He’s really mad that I ruined the show. It’s at least partly his fault because he’s the one who gave me the pills. They were working really well, as long as I kept them balanced. My appetite was really down and I had a lot of energy for work and practice, but if I took too many I would get really anxious and my heart would beat really fast and I’d think I was having a heart attack. Now my head just hurts a lot and I feel so tired, more tired than that time I did two straight weeks of waitressing with no day off and band practice every night. It feels like it takes all my energy just to move my arm. I don’t know how I would ever stand up—right now they have a thing for me to pee into on the bed. I am all along here and everything is horrible, the most horrible place I have ever been.

May 28
Mom came to get me and now I’m with them at the lake house in Michigan. It’s even worse than Toledo here. Worse than the hospital in Los Angeles. This is Hell, and the worst part is that it’s my own fault that I’m here, and I have nobody to blame but myself.

Jen looked up. She hadn’t meant to read this much, just to glance at a few pages. The parts about Los Angeles had drawn her in, though. She remembered the feelings the journal was describing as though she had written it—the excitement of being young in L.A., the endless possibility, the fun of not knowing anybody and starting life anew, friends falling into your life effortlessly, as only happens when you’re twenty.

She remembered these later events in the journal, too. The dieting, the auditions, the fifty girls waiting in the hall, at least fifteen who were prettier than you. The men who claimed to lament the “unrealistic beauty standard,” even as they reminded you that it was a necessary evil. The men who didn’t even bother.

She knew she shouldn’t be reading it, but she couldn’t stop here, in this horrifying spot. She had to keep going until it got better. She hoped it would be soon, or she would have to skip ahead, because she didn’t think she could stand many more entries like the last few.

June 10
I hate Michigan so much. There is absolutely nothing to do here. I’ve been feeling a little better, and I want to go out, but there is no place to listen to music here except this one coffee shop where hippies sing folksongs and all the other hippies get stoned and sing along or dance around like elves. I went a couple of times anyway, but they kept making fun of my bleached hair, which I’m trying to grow out but that makes it worse because you can see the roots so it really looks fake. There are a couple little bars I can get into with my fake ID. One is all old rednecks and the other one is preppy college students.

I hate them all.

July 11
I am going back to LA next week. Mom thinks it’s too soon, but I can’t stand it here any longer. She’ll be going back to Toledo in September, but I don’t think I can wait that long, plus I don’t really want to be there, either. I want to be someplace where I can find out who I am supposed to be, where there are lots of options, where nobody knows me and I can discover whatever my destiny is. I’m nervous. But I don’t know what else to do.

August 4
LA is not so scary as I thought. I met up with some girls from this other band we used to play with. I wanted to see if they’d let me join their band, but they said I had to learn to play an instrument first. It’s their rule: all women, and everyone has to play at least one instrument, but all of them play two or three, and they all take turns singing. They said that women are usually just the singers in a band because men want them to stand in front and look sexy but not actually write any of the music. I think I’m going to learn to play guitar, because their guitar player might be moving away to college.

September 16
I started doing yoga. I didn’t think I’d like it because I thought it was for hippies, but actually I like it a lot. The people in the class are normal and weird and nice, and a few of them are hippies and even they’re nice. Yoga makes me feel really good and strong after I do it, like I can take care of myself and do anything I want.

November 21
I started working at the yoga studio. They needed someone at the front desk, so I’m doing that. I get to go to all their classes for free, plus they pay me a little so I only have to work at the restaurant a few days a week. They have training courses to become a yoga teacher, and I totally want to do it. They said you have to have studied yoga for at least a year, but they said maybe they could make an exception and let me start after six months since I’m taking so many classes, plus I read all the yoga books at work when there’s not a lot to do.

I am still working on learning guitar, and I’m getting a lot better, but I don’t think I’ll be good enough to be in a band for a while. But I am trying to write some songs. I wrote a few I like already. I played them for the girls in the band, and they liked them a lot. They said if I write a few more and practice them really well, I could open up for them sometime, which would be so exciting.

April 8
Everything is going great in L.A., so much better than the first time I moved here. I feel really creative with all the songs I’m learning, and my guitar playing is getting pretty good. I love all the yoga I’m doing, and I think I have found what I want to do as my job. I don’t know why I ever thought I wanted to be an actress.

There’s a girl I like a lot in my yoga teacher training, and she wants to be an actress. I asked her how she can stand going to auditions with all those starving, pretty girls there. She told me that she doesn’t audition for those types of roles. Which is funny, because she could—she’s skinny and naturally blond, except dark blond, and she has freckles, but you can cover those up with makeup, and it would be easy to get her hair highlighted. But she told me that she only applies for roles with descriptions like “smart girl” or “athletic girl” or “quirky girl.” That way, she doesn’t have to be any particular way, or just like everybody else.

She told me, “The most important thing is to always be honest about who you are. Never pretend to be something you’re not. Then you never have to apologize to anyone for not really being what you were pretending to be, because they knew all along, and they had the choice to take you or leave you.”

In North Middleton and Toledo, there were only a few different things you could be: a student, a redneck, a hippy, a suburban middle-American type. In Los Angeles, you can be anything you can imagine. It’s nice, but it’s dangerous, because you can get caught up in pretending to be something, and the act becomes more important than anything else. I guess the trick is to do what that girl said, and always be who you really are, no matter what. The only problem is figuring out who that is, exactly, which part is the act and which part is really you.

Still, I’d pick freedom of choice, even if some of the choices are dangerous, over safe but limited choices any day.

Jen closed the journal. “See,” she said aloud to herself. “Everything turned out okay.” She hugged the book to her chest and rolled onto her side, feeling less lonely with it in the bed next to her. “Everything will turn out okay,” she said.

When she woke up the next morning with the light still on and lines on her face from sleeping with her head on the red notebook, she did not put on her exercise close, make her toast and tea, or begin her morning exercises. Instead she drove straight to the taekwondo academy, where she knew Master Park would be finishing up the seven o’clock before-work class.

She walked in just in time to pass the last few motivated office employees as they hustled out of the school so they could shower and dress for work.

Master Park was sitting behind the front desk, staring down at a student waver-of-liability form.

“Hello,” he said, not looking up at her.

“Hi,” she said. And then, not wanting to lose her nerve, she said, “I’m moving back to Los Angeles.”

Master Park raised his head to meet her gaze. His face was as blank and unmoved as ever, just has Jen had expected. But through his oddly stylish glasses, she could see lines near the corners of his eyes deepen just a little. She had never really thought of him as old, but at this moment, he looked as elderly as her grandfather had in the months between her grandmother’s death and his own.

“I knew you’d say that,” he said.

Chapter 41