Friends Forever | Jane Won

Friends Forever

“What’s the big deal? Just go knock on her door and ask her to be your friend!” instructed my mom, as if it was as simple as ordering at a drive-thru.

Susie was the only other Korean girl around my age living in our Southern Californian apartment complex. She also lived on the third floor and we went to the same elementary school, but that was the extent of our similarities. She had smooth, straight black hair that cascaded down her back, while I had coarse, frizzy black hair pulled back into a bushy ponytail. She was tan and tall, while I was pale and short. I was even shorter with my habit of hunching like a turtle with its head poked back in its shell. She had friends of all different ethnicities like she was the almond-eyed Claudia Kishi of The Baby-Sitters Club, while I had none. The greatest difference of all was that she was a fifth grader while I was a fourth grader. What could I possibly have to talk about with such an all-knowing, sophisticated creature?

But I was young enough to do as my mom ordered me to, even though the probability of rejection seemed to grow with each step I took in the long hallway. By the time I reached Susan’s corner apartment, I was covered in shadows. My right index finger went up to ring the doorbell, but hovered over it, trembling. Then, a reassuring thought popped into my mind, maybe she won’t be home. Praying for her absence, I pressed down on the hard, nubby doorbell.

A small chime sounded. Silence. I was about to turn around when the door cracked open.

“Oh, hey,” said Susan, looking both surprised yet bored.

“Hi,” I croaked.

She stood chewing gum, her hand still on the door, as I squirmed with my hands stuffed in my jeans shorts pockets. She had on an aquamarine t-shirt and breezy, white shorts that made her tan skin glow bronze. I noticed something sparkling from her neck. Half of a golden heart shone, inscribed with:

Be

Frie

Staring at the half jagged heart, I stammered.

“My mom wanted me to come over because...”

“Um, your fly’s open,” she interrupted.

My head snapped down and saw my zipper gaping wide open. Time stretched as I looked up to see her lurch back in slow motion as if unzippered pants were contagious. My tongue swelled in my mouth, thick and heavy as a slug. The heat spreading through my body and face felt like I was being boiled alive. I stood there silent and wide-eyed for what felt like an eternity. Then, as if a fast forward button had been pressed, I spun around and bolted as quickly as my legs would allow.

I ran down the hallway, pounded on the door, swung past my mom when she opened it with a scowl, and rushed into the bedroom. I collapsed onto the floor, covered my eyes with my right arm, and felt my heart thud into the carpet. Thunk, thunk, thunk, my heart clanged like a muffled alarm bell.

The next day, even though I told my mom that I was feeling sick, she checked my temperature, and sent me off to school. Cursing my good health, I trudged to school only to find that Susie didn’t taunt me or point me out while laughing with her friends during recess. I played by myself in my usual corner of the playground by the small maple tree. When the bell rang and Susie breezed past me without even throwing a glance my way, I had a strange urge to wave my arm and yell out, “Hey! Remember me? I’m the one whose zipper was down yesterday!” Instead, I kept quiet like I always did.

After I got home and did my homework on the kitchen table, I decided to finish making cascarones, Mexican Easter eggs. A couple days ago, I had cracked holes in three eggs, emptied the gooey contents into a bowl, and put the shells by the windowsill to dry. Now came the fun part! I ripped different colored construction paper and stuffed it into the eggshells. When the shells were full, I carried them out to the exposed concrete stairwell next to our apartment.

I stood on the landing and gingerly grabbed one cascarón.

“Hi-yah!” I shouted as if I was doing a karate chop.

I smashed the cascarón against my forehead. It was what I wanted to do ever since I learned about them, but instead of confetti twirling down like snow, the heavy construction paper scraps dropped like rocks onto my shirt and the ground. I rubbed my forehead where a red mark was forming. Determined, I smashed the second cascarón to the left side of my head. The clunky confetti plummeted. I completed my ritual and smashed the final one to the right side of my head.

This solo fiesta had fallen flat. I left the mess of eggshells and colorful scraps on the stairwell, as if three best friends had a raucous good time there.

That night, the shadows cast a different light on things—the TV emitted a sinister glow that illuminated tired bags underneath my mom’s eyes and deep lines around her mouth as we watched the nightly Korean news. At eight p.m. sharp, I slunk away from the living room to the room my mom and I shared, cordless phone in hand.

I called my dad. The phone rang once. Then twice. By the third ring, I could feel my eyes smarting with tears. What if he doesn’t pick up? What if he doesn’t want to talk to me ever again? I hated that I was acting like such a baby, but I needed to talk to him. I needed to talk to him every night. Our phone calls were the only time I was truly safe.

“Hello,” he answered.

“Hi appa!” I exhaled after gulping down my relief.

“How are you tonight?”

“Good,” I lied. “Appa, how did you make friends when you were my age?”

“Hm,” he paused. “When I was a kid, I liked to play cowboys and robbers, and so did other little boys, so we just played it together.”

“Right,” I said, certain that he never made the deadly mistake of having an open zipper.

“Do you wish you had friends?”

“Not really. I like being at home and reading.”

“You’ll make friends in no time. It’s because I moved away that you’re having these… difficulties.”

“I’m sorry.”

I was apologizing for taking his recent move far worse than my fourteen-year-old sister whose phone time with her gaggle of friends was interrupted for my daily nighttime calls with him. I was apologizing for not sleeping at night, and feeling more zombie than human at school. Mostly, I was apologizing for being afraid—afraid of the night, afraid of my mom, and afraid that nothing would fill the nighttime void in my chest ever since he left.

“Children shouldn’t apologize to their parents,” he hushed. “It’s me who should apologize to you.”

I fell quiet, the string of apologies tangled inside of me.

“You’re going to be ok,” he soothed. “I just know it.”

That evening, I brushed my teeth and changed into my Little Mermaid nightgown. I climbed on the queen bed my mom used to share with my dad. I crawled to the left side and she took her usual spot on the right side. I closed my eyes, waiting for drowsiness to magically appear. Instead, I could hear my heartbeat quickening in my ears. I had read that a mouse’s heart rate is ten times faster than a human’s. I was a human with the heart of a mouse. I felt certain I was going to die any minute with my heart pounding at this rate. My mom started softly snoring next to me.

Then I heard a faint rustling sound coming from the living room. What was that? I thought. It has to be a burglar! I pictured a masked face and gloved hands prying our front door open. I gulped as I imagined the weapon he would use to kill me—would it be a long, sharp knife or a gleaming black pistol? I shifted to my right side as my mom let out a small, irritated groan.

I laid rigid with my eyes wide open, waiting to hear our bedroom door creak open and padded footsteps lunge towards us. But, nothing. Of course there was no burglar. I was simply losing my mind. I would go crazy like my mom’s friend, an unremarkable ajumma with two kids, who had been institutionalized for hearing voices. She was released after a few months, but once back home, she stopped taking her medication and ended up hanging herself from the ceiling fan. I wheezed, feeling my fate wrap around my throat, and cried into my pillow.

That’s when my mom yowled awake, tearing the blanket off her body.

“Again!” she shrieked. “You’re waking me up for that man again! If you miss him so much, why don’t you just go live with him? I can’t stand this anymore!”

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed.

She stormed off into the living room where I heard the TV roar back to life, and I wailed into my sodden pillow. Stupid, I’m so stupid, I thought. This is why Dad’s never asked me to live with him.

The next two years followed this routine.

On the first day of middle school, I stood in the cavernous cafeteria with my lunch tray in front of me. The clamor of five hundred kids was deafening. Everywhere I looked, I saw a blur of unfamiliar faces. I tasted metallic panic rising up. Suddenly, two smiling girls appeared.

“Oh my gosh, you’re so cute. Isn’t she too cute, Sunny?” one crooned.

I looked around to make sure they were talking to me. The one who spoke was my height, but her crown of clear plastic mini hair claws made her seem taller and regal. Sunny had high cheekbones that made her eyes look wild and feline. They both sported sticky, pink lip balm that made their mouths shine like dewy orchids.

I was wearing a brand new outfit—a white Calvin Klein t-shirt and light blue bell bottom jeans—that had the desired effect of making me blend in with other kids and not stand out. Also, my mom convinced me to cut my hair into a bob for this new, mature chapter of my life, so my head had the silhouette of a mushroom. Yet, their eyes scanned me up and down in approval.

“Aw, she’s adorable. You look Korean. Are you Korean?” asked Sunny.

I nodded, wriggling from the attention, while wishing they would never stop admiring me.

“We’re Korean too! My name is Yoo-bin. What’s your name?”

“Jane. Jane Won,” I emphasized as if proving my Koreanness.

“You have to come eat lunch with us and our friends!”

I followed them as if I were floating in a dream. They led me to a table of all Korean girls, half of them clearly eighth graders with their relaxed familiarity with one another, and the other half, dazed seventh graders like me. Sunny sidled next to me and explained that they had a self-initiated unni, older sister, program where the eighth graders each chose a dongsaeng, younger sister.

“We’ll tell you all about the teachers, give you tips or advice, and just be there for you. We all had unnis last year, but now we’re the unnis,” she boasted. “Would you like to be my dongsaeng?”

“Hey!” interrupted Yoo-bin. “I want Jane to be my dongsaeng, too!”

“What if we share and we’re both her unnis? What do you think, Jane?”

I was speechless. These two goddesses were arguing over me. I somehow managed a nod. They squealed and hugged me simultaneously, enveloping me in a double bouquet of flower-scented shampoo.

Overnight, I made friends. Middle schoolers are pack animals, and we had organized ourselves neatly based on our ethnicities. All this time, I thought there was some special friendship skill that I had yet to unlock but it was simply a numbers game. There were too few of us Korean Americans scattered throughout different elementary schools, but when we were funneled into the same middle school, we hit a critical mass. Suddenly, we were a tribe some thirty members strong, and made our affiliation known by tagging Korean Pride or K.P. across our backpacks and binders with sharpies and wite-out.

All I had to be was Korean, which meant that I just had to be myself. All of us dongsaengs bonded over our love of K- pop bands like H.O.T., and even came to school dressed up like them in fuzzy, colorful oversized overalls, mittens, and hats. No one else knew why we had come dressed for a Siberian winter in the middle of the Southern Californian heat, but we felt smug as we sweated in our itchy, cheap knock offs.

I was undergoing a transformation that surprised everyone, including myself. At school, I was still the quiet, shy student, but after school, a different side came out.

“Hey, let’s all practice the choreography to Candy,” I suggested. I pitched this idea daily. When Hannah, Jessica, Janet, and Liz groaned, I shouted, “C’mon, the talent show’s coming up and we need to nail this routine. I’ll be Hee-joon!”

“You always get to be Hee-joon,” complained Liz.

“We already claimed our favorites and you picked Tony,” I reasoned.

“He’s my favorite, but his dance solo is the lamest.”

“Fine, I’ll swap for today, but tomorrow, Hee-joon’s mine again!”

It turned out that I was loud and bossy. I drove us to practice dance routines repeatedly until it met my expectations. I led us outdoors to the playground where our gangly bodies would make the swings groan tiredly. I suggested that we play handball, ride our rollerblades, and other outdoor activities that my friends had long grown out of. It was as if I was making up for my elementary school years spent alone.

“I knew you’d get better, but I couldn’t have imagined what a social butterfly you’d turn out to be!” my dad rejoiced. We now had our phone calls every other week.

My insomnia was a thing of the past. I collapsed onto the bed at night, grateful for rest after a day of talking with my friends at recess, after school, and on the phone when I got back home.

Our parents delighted in our Korean friend group, perhaps from seeing us follow in their footsteps of seeking refuge amongst other Koreans after they immigrated here. My mom seemed to see a bit of her in me for the first time.

“When I was your age, I had many friends too,” she reminisced. “It was all so simple back then.”

She was right. It could all be so simple.

Jane Won

Jane Won is a Korean American self-taught writer and lifelong bookworm originally from Los Angeles. She is currently in a graduate counseling psychology program and believes creative writing to be a powerful tool for healing. Her passions include fermenting her own kimchi and hiking all over the Bay Area where she currently lives. Connect with her on Instagram at @byjanewon.

Bad Boundaries | Suzanna Clores

Bad Boundaries

When I was younger, I hunted men who yearned for deep bar conversations. My habit: find a topic, probe, then sink together into the underworld, both of us a burning mess. “People drink each other like medicine but don’t stop after one sip,” I once said to an open faced man across the table. His amber eyebrows furrowed, I twirled my hair with a sigh, eyeing his throat. When he asked what I meant I startled him with a troubling story (my older, alcoholic roommate’s demand for late night eggs when he stumbled into my room ravenous, and my compliance). When he voiced concern for my safety I dangled karma over his head. He could be us. Who will make us eggs when we’re old and sad and lonely? The light in his eyes grew dark with uncertainty. With practice, dragging them under became second nature. “You bring out the lost soul in me,” one young man quaked, dim light and Kalamata olives between us. We established no safe words. Capturing credulous men built my confidence. Their perplexed faces satisfied my impulse to disrupt instead of soothe.

 

I experienced a type of hangover after these underworld journeys: a constant queasiness from too much intimacy too fast. I liked it, the junkie’s thrill that resembled the bends. It was easy to ignore their trace resistance, my imperceptible shift away from passion, towards sport.

 

But once I almost drowned a new acquaintance, crossed a line we both noticed when I mentioned I had convinced a date he was deathly ill because, “he wanted to believe it.” He called me a name I won’t repeat. I resisted the urge to capture earnest company after, despite their complicity. I tried to imagine the feeling, wondering if vampires drew the life out of people like this. Later, I learned my behavior was more like an etheric possession. Not merely a blood draw but a full abduction.

 

I learned when a colleague tried the same on me. He bought me a drink or two, insisting. I agreed because it was late, and because the bar’s dim mahogany glow surrounded us. I sipped while he monologued about childhood abandonment and romantic rejection, linking the two and throwing them at me like an anchor overboard. I knew the game, how to resist, how to feign growing closer. He was an amateur, unstable and flailing in choppy water.

 

Then, in a terrible shift, he began to cry and I lost track, got pulled under by his sadness. To restabilize I tried to meet him in the depths by admitting some limitation—that my outer membrane was a sponge, more permeable than most —and like an oil spill, he oozed over me until I couldn’t move. Stuck in my seat, I saw something akin to a hand—clear and yellow— reach between our barstools with long fingers and pass through my skin into my viscera. I caught his eye, mid-ramble, to let him know I could feel his violation. Coldness invaded the juncture between my lumbar and thoracic vertebrae, a steel hook into a fish. He did not blink.

 

Get your phantom hand out of my solar plexus, I said without words. He didn’t pause or bristle. Indifferent, he continued to implant himself. Is this what I had been doing to others? What good could come of this type of transgression? Like a host organism recognizing a parasite, I panicked and pushed the hand out, bearing down until I could see its fingers withdraw and curl. I finished the drink, and declined his offer to buy me another. Someone brought hot bagels into the bar. He ate happily while I hydrated, aghast. I told him I felt the hand, and he acted confused. But a flicker beneath his expression, a lifted lip and breath of a smile, confirmed excitement. He had intended to make contact, to disturb. I let it go. I knew he would deny it. He might even flip the conflict, say that I set the trap or dreamed of some ghostly clutch.

 

Years later, I read online public letters by distraught students who complained of his bizarre demand for emotional vulnerability in his classes. Each recalled feeling threatened when expressing themselves around him, a trace fear of entrapment they couldn’t explain. Only after the dean asked him to leave his post did I understand others could feel this type of violation. An attack that had no name. We have invisible barriers for a reason. I saved myself when I learned to stop these casual abductions but I shudder at how long I spent confusing them with love.

Suzanna Clores

Suzanne Clores’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, Salon, The Rumpus, Hypertext, and has aired on NPR. She is the author of Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider, the creator of The Extraordinary Project Podcast, and the recipient of grants from the Illinois Arts Council. She lives in Chicago.

Shadowboxing | Kirsti MacKenzie

Shadowboxing

Weigh-in

When I started I was romantic about it. Everyone here is a fighter, kind of thing. But romance in boxing is artifice. Big fucking hero til you drop to the mats for pushups. Arms shaking between rounds. Try not to puke. Come up covered in sweat and skin flakes and pubes. Fifty heaving bodies crammed into a basement. The stench.

The idea is beautiful, maybe. Not the doing.

Real fighters—not moonlighters, like me—focus on the doing. Head down. Feet moving. Count the blows like: One. One Two. One Two Three. One Two Three Four.

I wanted to see myself in them. But I’m amateur as they come, in love with the idea. If I’m honest, I’m mostly a fighter in how I keep people at arm’s length. I trust boxers for this reason. They get it. You weave and dodge and slip. When someone comes too close, you swing.

Problem is, I also have to swing to know someone’s still there.

_______________

Physical exam

While I wrap my hands I imagine him pinning me. His sweat and mine. Boxers on one side of the gym, BJJ fighters on the other. His hair sweeps into his eyes while he rolls and wrestles. Blue-eyed, bearded even in the August heat. Nods at me between rounds.

First class back after the world ground to a halt. Bad health makes me cautious. This year I’ve been sick more weeks than not. But I got divorced in April. New to the city, working from home. I’m lonely. Best way to make friends now is at the end of my fist.

The BJJ fighter smiles at me. Catches my eye while he does push ups, which is how I know he imagines pinning me, too. I skip rope in my sports bra and his grin grows dopey. When he finally says hi, my reflexes kick in. Weave, dodge, slip. Too stubborn, too scared to open up.

After a couple weeks of classes, my lungs get swampy again. Doctor tells me I should stay home for a while.

How long? I ask.

Long enough, she says. Get a boxing bag.

________________

Round One

Tell my friend about being sick, about being lonely. Physical risks versus mental ones. Somehow we start sparring about masks. About bad ethics when I leave the house. About bad health being my fault. Neither of us is right. None of it is simple.

This is about others, she says. Not just about you.

I’ve had four vaccines, three years masked, two bouts with the virus. She is my closest friend in the new city. She lives blocks away, but never comes by. Look around my empty apartment and wonder what others.

I’m all I have left, I say. If being sick doesn’t kill me, being alone might.

I’m only trying to explain; she doesn’t want to hear it. She tells me not to make it her problem. Furious, I come out of my corner and swing. She stops responding for good.

On my hospital forms, I strike her name from the emergency contact.

________________

Round Two

Join dating apps. If I can’t meet people at the end of my fist, I’ll meet them at the end of my fingertips. All the men I swipe right on look the same. Like the BJJ fighter, like someone I’m trying to forget. They want to go on dates. But they’re never quite right, or I’m never quite ready.

It’s not you, I explain. It’s me.

Bitch, one says, kys.

Have to look it up to know what it means. Voice in my head says, not for the first time, yeah maybe you should.

Glass jaws, every last one of them. They can’t bear hearing no. Too tired to fight back, I block and block and block.

________________

Round Three

Start seeing a therapist. I’ve kept people at arms’ length my whole life. He makes a face when I count the reasons and says he understands why. He asks about the last person to get close. Tell him about a man who I don’t talk to anymore, who lives far away. Tell him about whiskey, tell him about late-night texts. Tell him about ten years lost between you.

I think I love the idea of him, I explain.

Don’t you want a real connection? he asks.

I do. I want it more than anything. But when someone leans in, they may swing for a kiss, or for the kill. Kiss kys kiss kys kiss kys. Somehow it’s safer to be in love with an idea. His jaw is beautiful, too far away to withstand my bullshit.

________________

Split Decision

Stay home for six months. Health gets better. Head gets worse.

I miss swinging, just to know someone’s there. The only person I fight at home is myself. Rounds in the mirror, in the shower, in my head. Shadowboxing my worst impulses.

I can’t buy a boxing bag because I live in an apartment. No noise, no sand, no water. Just my fists striking empty air.

In a movie there would be a training montage. But this is life. No swelling music, only silence. My breath and heartbeats. Count them to know something still lands, to know I’m still here. One. One two. One two three. One two three four.

________________

Rematch

Doctor clears me to return. Start slow, during quiet hours. When I show there are only real fighters there, young guys with hunched shoulders and proud chins. They smile big and shout hello.

Two of them are roughhousing, a fighter and his coach. Shoving and feeding soft fists to each others’ laughing sides. When I pass, the fighter grabs my waist, hides behind me. He knows his coach won’t hurt me. Coach advances and I put my fists up in jest but he knocks them away. Folds me into a big hug. It’s the most touch I’ve had in months. Joy beats the breath clean out of me.

Where have you been? he asks.

Open my mouth. Choke on six months of being sick, six months of suicidal thoughts.

It’s okay, he says. You don’t have to explain.

Go to a corner, wrap my shaking hands. Greet the heavy bag, something new to swing at. Something solid. Something other than my shadow.

I’m not counting breaths or heartbeats anymore. I know it’s getting better because I count days. When there’s a bad one, I start over. One. One two. One two three. One two three four. One.

Kirsti MacKenzie

Kirsti MacKenzie (@KeersteeMack) is a writer and editor in chief of Major 7th Magazine. Her work has been published in HAD, Rejection Letters, trampset, Autofocus, Maudlin House, Identity Theory and elsewhere.

Mandatory Reporter | Beth Konskoski

I am silent under the October stars. A boy has ridden home on the bus today to a house where his mother pushed him down the stairs. I saw the bruises and watched his eyes drop like anchors when I asked him what happened.

I am silent under the October moon. Checking school email, the filed report, a chance perhaps to help him, but the wheels and screens and checkpoints of CPS are slow to rise and lumber into action.

I am silent under the October clouds. In the blank space where the morning will shine, I imagine his bed with a blue comforter, a lacrosse stick and old baseball hats, dirty sheets and a tangle of pillows without cases, jeans too short after a growth spurt, mismatched socks left beneath the bed like the untethered days of loss, his cold feet. The family’s lavish vacations, the expensive pitching coach for Little League, and the certainty of his screams, muffled and stowed away. All the lies he will tell.

I am silent beneath the October eclipse. Still wondering as the shadow blots the sun, as the mother denies the accusation, as the cupboards offer up their plenty and the bruises start to heal... will it stay dark forever? No safe way to gaze at brightness either when it blinds more than it reveals. No safe way to help him if he never returns to class. No moonlight for my sorrow when the silence pins me down.

Beth Konskoski

Beth Konkoski is a writer and high school English teacher living in Northern Virginia with her husband and two mostly grown kids. Her writing has been published in journals such as: Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, The Greensboro Review, and The Baltimore Review. Her collection of short fiction, A Drawn & Papered Heart, won the 2023 Acacia Prize for Short Fiction and will be published in June 2024 by Kallisto Gaia Press.

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