Content warning: references to self-harm and eating disorders.
In December, Karen and her family left the murky skies of Philadelphia behind and touched down at LAX on a breathtakingly warm and sunny day. The good weather felt like a miracle. As the rental car climbed the hills to Jin’s mega-house, Karen snapped the visor down to check her face in the mirror. The quality of the light struck Karen as a kind of sorcery. She could have sworn her skin looked smoother, her cheekbones higher.
“You look fine,” Micah muttered from the backseat.
Karen put her shades on and flipped up the visor. She was embarrassed. She had not thought her daughter would be watching.
“Better than fine,” Peter chirped. “Beautiful!”
“Thank you, sweetie,” Karen said. She beamed over her shoulder at her son and took the opportunity to glance at Micah from behind her sunglasses. Micah, sixteen and cold as a buddha, leaned her head back, closed her eyes, and pretended to sleep. T.J., perhaps sensing Karen’s tension, took his right hand off the wheel to reach over and give Karen’s knee a squeeze.
Karen was nervous. It had been four years since she had seen Jin. A lot had changed for both of them. Karen was now home full time because of Micah, Jin had had a fourth child, T.J. had lost his job, and Jin’s husband Raymond had struck gold as a real estate developer. Karen, who had not seen Raymond in almost a decade, wondered if great wealth had improved him.
When Karen received Jin’s “We’ve Moved” card a year ago, she googled the address and immediately regretted it, ashamed of her feelings of envy. Jammed high on a hill alongside similar homes dubbed “villas” in a cluster called “The Grove,” Jin’s house looked proud and serene and made Karen think of crisp hotel linens. Raymond’s gamble of leaving the law to join those developers had apparently paid off. Karen texted Jin to congratulate her. Jin left her on read, which Karen shrugged off as a symptom of her old friend’s feverishly paced life.
Summer came, and Jin, in a string of texts, invited Karen and her family out for Christmas:
Hey! You guys should come out for Christmas break
You can stay with us—there’s plenty of space!
It’ll be good for you with everything you’ve got going on ❤️
Let us take you to Disneyland! Our treat!
These messages had vexed Karen. Jin habitually went from imposing months of silence to proffering invitations to connect that dripped with such warmth that it was hard for Karen, who often felt piercingly lonely, to say no. Not that a text with a heart emoji could be considered dripping with warmth, but based on the patterns they had fallen into, it was. Their dynamic made Karen wonder: was it Jin’s affection that was meager, or was it her own, petty heart?
If only Jin’s hospitality didn’t feel like cover for an impulse to crow. With everything you’ve got going on was a reference to T.J.’s layoff and Micah’s discharge from a treatment center—neither of which Karen had ever shared with Jin directly. Jin had no doubt heard through the church mom whisper network, which made her offer that much more humiliating. But Karen chose not to dwell on whether Jin’s mention of her troubles was sly or careless. With Jin, it was—and always had been—impossible to tell.
I’m being awful, Karen thought. The distance that had grown between them wasn’t all Jin’s fault. Years of raising children had swept time around like a sandstorm and caused the friends to lose sight of each other. Karen admitted that she herself could be remote, often quashing an urge to call or text Jin out of fear of having to have a real conversation. Willing to own her part in their estrangement, Karen had suddenly felt hopeful about restoring their friendship, and so she’d accepted the invitation.
When they arrived, Karen and her family removed their shoes in the grand foyer and tried not to gawk. Raymond, all booming voice and hearty handshakes, welcomed them. Dressed in a pale blue button-down shirt and dark, slim-fitting jeans, he seemed to have been dipped in starch, right to the tips of his spikily gelled hair, which reminded Karen of a hedgehog. He was eager to point out the sport court through the window to Peter, who he called “buddy.” Meanwhile, four richly tanned children—Ellie, Minnie, Vivvy, and Max—clamored to be helpful, grabbing suitcases and shouting about sleeping arrangements.
“Stop, Max!” Vivvy commanded. She was already on the gleaming stairs and dragging Peter’s suitcase behind her. She was ten if Karen remembered correctly. Her little brother Max, just three, trailed behind and insisted on helping.
“I’m making it lighter,” he singsonged. He pressed his tiny fingertips into the sides of the suitcase to get a grip. Vivvy was not having it.
“Stop! You’re going to get hurt!”
She hoisted the suitcase high and marched upward.
Karen’s attention swerved back to her own children. Micah had elbowed Peter away. He put a hand out to the wall to regain his balance. Why Micah was so aggressive, Karen had no idea. All she knew was that these days, it didn’t take much for her teenager to go off on her little brother, who was nine years younger and who therefore should have been safe from such rough treatment. But lectures about the duties of kindness and forbearance that fell to Micah because she was older and female—values that had been drummed into Karen—had done nothing but make Micah angrier, so Karen took a different approach. The words of Micah’s therapist, a childless thirty-something named Melissa Woodhouse, who charged three-hundred dollars for thirty-five minutes of time, rose to mind: Your daughter needs you to be calm. No matter what’s going on with her, you need to be a safe person. Steady as a rock.
Karen rested a hand on Micah’s blade-like shoulder to settle her, but Micah shook her off. Mortified, Karen watched her daughter sidestep everyone and clutch her thin arms against her thin body. Hostility emanated from Micah like the play of light on dark water. At least there’s still fire in there somewhere, Karen thought. She would take her daughter in this form over the empty shell version any day.
It was Ellie, touching Karen lightly on the arm. She was Jin’s eldest, fifteen, with an unnerving poise. No one ever mentioned it, but Ellie had been born four months after Jin and Raymond’s wedding. A full-term baby.
“I’ll show you and Uncle T.J. to your room,” she said.
Thankful for the distraction, Karen started to follow Ellie toward the mouth of a long hall. At the same time, Vivvy reached the top of the stairs and set Peter’s suitcase down with a thud. Triumphant, she strode away, dragging the suitcase behind her like fresh kill.
Max, stranded halfway up the stairs, seemed unbothered. Karen watched him descend, humming and kicking up his plump feet. He was such a cutie. When he reached the final step, he noticed Karen’s gaze. Jumping down to the landing, he ran away, howling for his mother. His feet slapped the sparkling floors as he disappeared.
Jin, busy elsewhere, had not come to the door to greet them.
While Karen and T.J. sat in the kitchen sipping a very good Napa Valley cab, which Raymond boasted he had found for a steal at Costco, Micah and Ellie sat in the living room talking shyly. They seemed to be getting along. Peter had disappeared upstairs with Minnie and Vivvy, who were giving him a tour of the house. After about ten minutes of listening to Raymond talk to T.J. about the boom in construction, Karen excused herself to use the powder room. On her way, she ran into Jin, who emerged from around the corner with Max on her hip.
Jin extended a toned arm and hooked it around the back of Karen’s neck, drawing her close and squealing. Karen threw her arms around Jin and said how good it was to see her. She sank her face into Jin’s hair and noticed that it smelled of toast. Max, sandwiched between them, whined and pushed Karen away, hard. His hand left a sore spot on her breast, but Karen didn’t show it. Jin said nothing to Max.
Karen stood back to take in her friend. Trim as ever, Jin wore her usual attire of tight jeans and a snug T-shirt. She still had that shining sheet of hair hanging to the middle of her back. Her center part and neat hairline framed her small, round face. The most obvious change in Jin was that her previously ivory skin was tanned and gently mottled from the sun. Karen could practically hear Jin’s mom Nancy sucking her teeth at the sight of her daughter’s darkened complexion. She would have defended her friend and said that Jin looked even more beautiful this way—and she would have meant it. To keep things simple, though, she made no mention of the change and did the loving thing: she lied.
“You’re exactly the same,” she said.
“So are you,” Jin replied. “Except for your hair. You look good with a boy cut!”
Karen, who had not thought of her short do as a “boy cut,” grabbed the back of her neck and said with a nervous chuckle that overtook her that she was growing it out.
At dinner, the children ate in the kitchen. The older five sat perched on stools around the enormous marble island. Max, too small for a stool, sat alone at a tiny blue table with a matching set of chairs. The adults ate on the terrace. Now and then, one of the kids came outside for second helpings. Micah, of course, did not.
At some point during dinner, Peter ran out just for a hug. Karen squeezed him. She knew that his warm slightness in her arms would soon be a ghost of motherly memory. She treasured each of her son’s hugs in an almost desperate way because she had not recognized the final time Micah happily melted into her arms when it had happened. The moment had come and gone without Karen’s notice, and it killed her to think that she had missed it. Reluctantly, she let Peter go and sent him away with a smile on her face, her feelings in a clot.
As the evening wore on, Raymond continued to play host, at least in a technical sense. Mostly, he stood at the grill turning galbi. Besides being tall and Korean, Karen wondered what he had going for him that Jin had not been able to resist. He was so full of himself.
T.J., who never said anything unkind about anyone, bantered easily with Raymond. Karen chalked it up to T.J.’s sales experience, but she also knew that her husband was successful at sales because of his affability. She wondered what innate qualities of hers made her a successful mother. She wondered if she could even call herself successful.
“Your neighbors must be jealous,” said T.J. “Nothing like the smell of galbi on a grill.” He inhaled deeply and growled with satisfaction, a sound that Karen had only ever heard men make.
“Nah,” said Raymond. Sweeping his tongs in a wide arc to indicate the surrounding houses, he said, “Half of them are ‘pescatarians.’” The way he curled his fingers to make air quotes seemed menacing.
“That’s not true!” Jin protested. She admonished Raymond with a ringing, too-jolly laugh.
“Don’t listen to him,” she said, shaking her head. “He thinks the neighborhood is pretentious, which it totally isn’t.”
She got up to pour Karen more wine. When she went to refill T.J.’s glass, he held up his hand: no more for him.
“So you’re between jobs,” Raymond said to T.J. without looking up from the grill.
The bluntness of the remark made Karen flinch. But T.J. just nodded and calmly said yes, he was on hiatus.
“I’m telling you,” Raymond continued, “they don’t want us rising too high. Better to strike out on your own.”
“That’s the dream,” said T.J. “Always thinking about it.”
“Let’s talk. I could use someone with your global sales experience.”
“Would you just let them relax?” Jin scolded. She looked at Karen and mouthed sorry. Karen smiled to let Jin know everything was fine. She even felt a secret satisfaction in knowing that her husband never felt the need to peacock like Raymond.
The wine was taking effect. Karen glanced at T.J. and smiled drowsily. He squeezed her knee under the table as if to reassure her that, sure, Raymond was a loudmouth, but it wouldn’t get to him. She should enjoy herself. He would keep an eye out for the kids.
The terrace flaunted a panoramic view of the valley, which put Karen on edge. There was a cliff right there. A burly iron fence stood guard, but it still seemed like a foolish property for a family with four children. Children grew into teens, and some teens, she now knew, went to dark, unreachable places. Karen took a bite of rice and fought the urge to check whether Micah was eating. She stared out at the gaping vista.
“I love this view!” she declared. “But doesn’t that cliff make you nervous with the kids running around?”
“They’re smart,” Jin pronounced. “They know what’s up. Besides, that’s what the fence is for…”
She trailed off, seeming suddenly self-aware. In a more gentle tone, she added, “They spend most of their time on the sport court anyway.”
She lifted her chin to indicate. Karen and T.J. turned their heads. They feasted their eyes on a broad green surface delineated in dazzling white. It was an area that served as a tennis court and a basketball court. At its far side, a retaining wall aflame with bougainvillea marked the border between Jin’s property and her neighbors’.
The way Jin implied her kids were too smart to be in any danger made Karen feel silly. Maybe she was silly. Maybe she was projecting her own anxieties onto her friend’s life. Jin was just a different animal. Supernaturally energetic, she ran an immaculate house, raised four kids, and worked full-time as a CFO. The marital stresses she had revealed to Karen four years ago must have been resolved. As far as Karen could see, Jin’s life was in order.
Jin continued, cutting in on Karen’s thoughts as if she could read them. “You’re always waiting for disaster, Karen. Like that time we went to Vegas.”
With a devilish look on her face, Jin turned to T.J. and leaned toward him. Pointing to Karen, she said, “Your straight-arrow wife told me to be careful not to get addicted to gambling—just because I played a little poker!”
Jin cackled at the memory. Karen reddened, glad she had the wine as an excuse.
The trip to Las Vegas was four years back, when Karen had newly quit the law and Jin had just the three girls. After almost a year of non-communication, save for the occasional text from Karen that Jin left on read, Jin had suddenly texted, saying that she needed “a quick getaway.” Karen, disgusted with herself for feeling the same way, booked the tickets with a push from T.J. Why did a desire to break free of motherly responsibilities, even for a little while, generate such guilt?
“Go,” T.J. insisted. “Micah will be fine without you for one weekend.”
At the famous Japanese restaurant inside their Rome-themed hotel, Karen and Jin shared their troubles over a platter of obnoxiously priced sushi. Jin joked about Raymond, laughing off his ability to find the flaw in everything from her grocery shopping choices to the shade of lipstick she wore. From everything Jin said, Karen concluded that Raymond was a pill.
“He’d say this place was a total waste of money,” Jin said, laughing. “But, I mean, look around. It’s amazing!” She gestured toward the lanterns that seemed to float across the ceiling like a glowing bloom of jellyfish.
Then Jin asked how Karen liked staying at home. “Don’t you ever miss being a lawyer?” she said. “I mean after all that hard work to become one?”
Karen decided to take a chance and open up. In a rare moment of vulnerability—how she hated that word—she confessed that she had quit because Micah was having problems. Micah was twelve and punching staples into her leg—but Karen kept that detail to herself. She simply described Micah’s struggles as a case of “being too stressed out.” She hoped to go back to work once Micah was better.
Jin listened, her face placid.
“Micah’s lucky to have such a good mother,” she said. “She’ll pull through.”
Jin, it struck Karen, seemed eager to move on.
Maybe she had heard through Nancy—Karen always called Jin’s mother, “Nancy” in her head—that Micah’s problems were serious. Karen’s mother—whom Jin called “Debbie” out loud—might have confided in Nancy about Micah. Nancy would have taken Debbie’s tidbit and spun such a tale of woe to Jin about her old friend’s life. Maybe Jin wanted to change the subject out of kindness. Shielding people from awkwardness was a form of kindness, after all.
But what Jin said next stunned Karen. Holding a manicured hand in front of the lower part of her face, she talked with her mouth full and said, “You were smart to quit. You were always the smart one. I’d love to be able to stay home and chill.”
Stay home and chill.
Karen bit into a piece of toro and tried not to stare at the brightly-clad, sandy-haired people at the next table. Apparently, the restaurant was trendy enough to lure even the most squeamish of tourists. Karen reflected cynically that a glowing write-up in certain Style sections could override most food-based xenophobias, at least long enough to get people in the door.
The father, stalwart to the tips of his neatly trimmed hair, educated his family about the different sushi varieties. As he over-pronounced the name of each item and then translated what it was into English, his kids and even his wife poked at the food with their chopsticks. Their smiles were rigid, revealing their fear. Karen resolved to ignore the family. Their revulsion was ruining her dinner.
“I’m not smart,” she said, sort of snapping. “Micah needed more support. I just told you.”
“She’s struggling, which makes every day a struggle for me too.”
Karen immediately regretted the second part of the sentence, thinking it made her sound whiny. But she couldn’t deny that part of her did feel childish, in need of some kind of mothering.
Jin formed her face into an apologetic grimace and took a sip of her drink, a very lemony gin and tonic. Putting the glass down, she said in the manner of chitchat, “So Micah has anxiety?”
Karen paused, unsure how to answer. Words like “anxiety” and “depression” felt at once too blunt and too wispy. They didn’t explain what was happening. The crushing misery that consumed Micah, that was wasting her body and spirit, was terrifying. Every day, Karen did what she could to keep their home warm, stable, and running smoothly. Every week, she made sure Micah made it to all of her appointments with specialists who were supposed to help. But Micah’s bottomless sadness persisted. Most days, what looked like normal parenting actually felt like digging her daughter out from under a landslide, scraping with spoons to keep her from being buried alive.
One day, on a spontaneous phone call, Karen had tried to open up to her own mother about the situation.
“A therapist?” said Debbie. She practically spat the words.
Debbie’s incredulous, two-word question closed Karen’s throat. Silence fell between them like a shroud.
Taking a sip of her second old-fashioned, Karen decided to remain vague about Micah’s troubles. She didn’t say a word to Jin about her strained relationship with her mother, either. She felt a sudden need to throw a wall of protection around Micah’s privacy—and to be honest, her own. She knew what Melissa Woodhouse would say, that many factors influenced a child’s mental health, and that blame was not productive. But how could Karen see Micah’s illness as anything other than the result of her own failure? Hadn’t she herself been told countless times as a girl that how she appeared to others would reflect directly back onto her parents? Her mother’s disbelief about Micah’s need for therapy felt like an accusation. The shame that had flooded Karen at that moment kept knocking against the hull of her mind. If Jin were to judge her too—or worse, pity her—Karen would not have been able to take it.
“She’s been better,” Karen managed in reply to Jin’s tossed-off question, So Micah has anxiety?
What would Jin know about sadness or anxiety, anyway? She did everything possible to outrun them. Or maybe “outrun” wasn’t the right word. Maybe Jin’s approach was to vanquish sadness and anxiety. Whatever the tactic, Jin had never allowed herself to feel such things.
Karen stared across the table at her friend, who nodded in silence, an odd half-smile on her face. It was painfully clear that Jin had no idea what to say.
“So how are your girls?” Karen asked, changing the subject.
Jin happily took the cue. Karen listened as Jin regaled her with stories about how naughty, how amusing, how exhausting—in short, how dazzlingly alive her daughters were. Karen could not help but laugh as her friend launched from one anecdote into the next—Jin had always been funny. At one point, Karen dabbed the corners of her eyes to preserve her makeup. Jin’s hilarity had opened her up, and her deepest emotions, as usual, manifested as tears.
“Stop,” Karen pleaded, trying to catch her breath. “You’re killing me!”
She had almost forgotten about the family at the next table when one of the teenagers shouted, “Hell no!” at the idea of trying unagi after learning it was eel.
Doing her best to ignore the sushi novices, Karen asked, “So you and Raymond are good?”
She stopped herself from saying “now” at the end of the question. Jin prattled on about Raymond and his work, his obsession with home improvement, his big plans to go into business for himself, his strictness but good humor with the girls. Karen listened as if for termites. For years, she had watched from afar as Jin worked to convince everyone that she was happily married. Pictures on social media of her beaming family testified to a robust, fulfilling life. It was hard to tell that anything might be off because Jin was as animated talking about Raymond as she was about her girls. But Karen detected a shadow. In chipper tones, Jin alluded to Raymond’s “moods” and how he sometimes “got mad over the littlest things.”
“The way I run around because of the girls’ schedules…I guess he feels ignored,” Jin said in Raymond’s defense.
“That’s just parenting,” Karen countered. “No one prepares you for how much time children take. Plus, you’re still an executive!”
“I should make more of an effort,” Jin insisted.
Effort. Their true childhood religion. Korean and Presbyterian, she and Jin were forged to believe that if something was amiss, it meant one wasn’t trying hard enough. There was nothing in life that could not be overcome through hard work.
“My God,” said Karen. “How much more of an effort can we make?” She sputtered with the laughter of desperation and for some reason, Jin laughed too.
“You’re right!” she said.
One of the teenagers from the other table screamed. She had dropped a piece of sushi into her lap. All around the restaurant heads turned.
“Let’s get dessert somewhere else,” Karen said, signaling for the check.
After dinner, Karen and Jin bought gelato scooped into crispy cones and strolled out to the famous fountains. The oscillating jets performed their choreography to lights and music. Karen regarded the oohs and aahs of the other tourists with jealousy. She wanted to be like that: unabashed in her wonder and enjoyment of life. She wanted the simplest things to seem amazing. Most of all, she wanted all that for Micah, who had lost her childhood spark so completely that Karen sometimes felt her daughter was a ghost.
“Raymond thinks he’d be happier if he had a son,” Jin said, apropos of nothing.
Arrogant bastard, Karen thought. But what she said was, “Would you be happier?”
“We’re married,” she said. “What makes him happy makes me happy, right? And you know me. I’m pretty happy already!”
“Yes, you are,” said Karen, laughing. Then, more seriously, she added, “I always end up regretting my choices.”
Seeing Jin’s eyes glint with lurid curiosity and judging that her words had had the desired effect, Karen continued:
“I should have gotten peach instead of almond. Yours looks so much better than mine.”
Jin gave Karen’s shoulder a little shove.
“Silly!” she said.
Karen wasn’t sure when it had happened, but a large crowd had amassed and was pressing in. She and Jin retreated back into an empty space, a bubble of their own. As they moved, Jin drew Karen’s wrist closer and took a greedy chunk of almond gelato with her teeth. She then offered her cone and urged Karen to take a big bite. As Karen went in, a warm wind gusted, lifting some of Jin’s hair into the ice cream and some of it right into Karen’s wide-open mouth. She gagged, and she and Jin became a tangle of laughter and sticky fingers threading through cream-and-sugar-coated hair.
The eyes of a passing man grazed them; they felt it without even looking. Karen resented how men let their eyes rove wherever. But Jin was different. She always made the most of things. While the man gawked, Jin licked a smear of gelato off Karen’s face and then kissed it.
“All clean,” she said, as if Karen were a baby.
It was the kind of thing Jin used to do all the time when they were kids. Karen admitted to herself that she still liked it.
Back at their hotel, they shared a king bed.
You don’t mind, right?
Jin had texted before booking the room, adding,
We’re old friends.
Karen couldn’t explain how, but the phrase covered everything that needed to be covered, so she texted back that of course she didn't mind.
The smooth linens stretched over the fat mattress made the bed plush as a marshmallow. Hansel and Gretel and the witch’s candy house rose up in Karen’s imagination and she wondered at her mind’s wanderings. She yawned, which made Jin yawn. A few last reflections on life drifted from their lips as they settled down, just like at their girlhood sleepovers.
How many times had they slept at each other’s houses after parties, their parents so trusting that as long as the two of them were together, anything unwholesome could be withstood or dispelled? Since their church nursery days, they had shared a bond that reassured their parents that neither of them would let the other come to any harm. The two of them must have imagined that they had their parents’ blessing when they clasped hands, intertwined their fingers, their thighs, drank in the odors of each other’s hair. It was only after Karen had gotten engaged to T.J. at twenty-four that they finally drew the expected boundaries around their closeness. No one ever had to tell them to because everyone and everything around them dictated what the shape of their lives was to be. It had been their job to grow up into it.
Karen closed her eyes. Jin was doing that thing she used to do when they were young. She felt the lustrous ends of Jin’s hair tracing her eyes, nose, and mouth—as if she were being painted into being. She luxuriated in the slithering feeling. They must have been drunker than they realized. Karen couldn’t remember the last time they felt this close. For the moment, they were girls again, not grown women with husbands and children who needed them.
That night, a familiar dream. Karen was thrust back in time to Jin’s room, to Jin’s bed. Her body awash in one of Jin’s soft, oversized T-shirts, she wore nothing but underwear on the bottom. Jin, dressed identically, sat astride Karen’s torso, her shirt hiked up to her hips. She drew a dangling lock of hair across Karen’s eyes like a blindfold. Karen giggled. Jin suddenly took more hair and wrapped it over Karen’s entire face, smothering her with the silken bolt, pressing down harder and harder. Karen, unafraid, heard Jin’s voice floating above her, chortling and saying Die! Just die! And then Karen’s heart bloomed as a weight lifted. Her eyes flooded with light as Jin’s hair slipped away…
Nancy, Jin’s mother, had walked in on them and yanked Jin off of Karen’s body. Her eyes bulged. She stared at her daughter, who rubbed her sore arm and looked down at the carpet. Nancy’s voice sounded hot in her throat as she said Are you crazy?
But this had all happened. Nancy, chest heaving, had called her fourteen-year-old daughter crazy. And then the next part: You could have hurt your sweet friend!
The word Nancy had used for “sweet” was chak han, also meaning “good.” Put another way, she meant: You could have hurt your friend, the good girl.
The next morning, Karen heard the unmistakable sounds of a stomach heaving in the bathroom. When Karen knocked and asked through the door if Jin was alright, there was a long silence. When Jin finally spoke, she said she must be pregnant. Karen wondered right away if it was a boy, the son that was supposed to solve everything.
The evening chill shuddered down. Raymond turned on the outdoor heater. Karen zipped her jacket. Crossing her arms for warmth, she yawned and fluttered her watering eyes.
“Too much wine?” T.J. teased.
He flashed his beautiful teeth, which made Karen sick with lust. How long it had been. She smiled and lightly slapped his leg.
“I didn’t sleep well,” she murmured.
“You should take a sleeping pill,” a voice piped.
It was Ellie. She had wandered onto the terrace with an outstretched plate asking for her third helping.
“My girl’s hungry!” Jin crowed. She took hold of Ellie’s long ponytail and let its silky jet slip through her hand.
“My mom has some,” said Ellie.
“I do indeed,” said Jin, chuckling. “Do you want one, Karen?”
Karen wasn’t comfortable discussing pills in front of children, so she feigned ignorance. She eyed Ellie furtively to let Jin know of her discomfort. But Jin wasn’t paying attention.
As Raymond piled galbi onto Ellie’s plate, Karen felt ashamed. She had to look away. She knew it wasn’t rational, but Micah’s lack of hunger felt like an indictment of her mothering. Ellie’s vivacity and huge appetite, on the other hand, seemed like proof of Jin’s magnificent maternal powers.
After Ellie went back inside, Jin repeated her question.
“Seriously, Karen, do you want a sleeping pill?”
Karen shook her head. She didn’t even like to take anything for headaches. Jin’s casual attitude about sleeping pills concerned her, so she asked how often Jin needed to take them.
“Oh, I don’t know. Half a tablet now and then? Can’t function on poor sleep with this life.”
“Aren’t you worried about developing an addiction?”
Raymond got animated when he heard this question.
“That’s what I always say!”
He pointed the tongs back and forth between Karen and his wife. Jin laughed her bubbly laugh.
“Oh my gosh, you guys,” she said. “You’re such worrywarts!”
That night, T.J. wanted sex, and for the first time in ages, Karen truly did too.
Afterward, T.J. was thirsty and wanted a glass of water. He tiptoed out to the kitchen but returned almost immediately, no glass in hand. There was a strange look on his face as he climbed back into bed.
“What?” Karen said, a little afraid to ask.
He signaled that she should lower her voice. He then tried to whisper, but the words came out blustery. He was titillated.
“They’re out there doing it!”
Karen shot him a look.
T.J. explained: He had been about to step into the kitchen when he saw Raymond and Jin having sex in the living room. No, they hadn’t seen him, he was pretty sure. He noted that Jin had been flopped over the back of the sofa like a ragdoll.
“She looked dead asleep—or just dead. Raymond was—”
Karen cut him off. He didn’t need to paint her a picture.
“I guess that’s why she has the sleeping pills,” T.J. said, laughing. When Karen slapped his arm, he laughed even harder.
“It’s not funny,” Karen whispered, horrified. She shoved her pillow in T.J.’s face to muffle his laughter, but smiled as she did it.
“You’re right, you’re right,” T.J. said, batting away the pillow and raising his hands in surrender.
Karen gave T.J. a different look, and when he returned it, she set herself over him, her knees sinking into his pillow on either side of his face.
The next day, the two families rose early to beat the crowds at Disneyland. After a frantic breakfast of eggs and toast, everyone put on their shoes and headed outside to pile into their cars. Karen noted how Raymond had parked Jin’s majestic new SUV where it gleamed in the rays of the morning sun.
“Nice car!” T.J. exclaimed.
The corners of Raymond’s mouth curled up in satisfaction. Karen wished to God that T.J. wasn’t so nice all the time. She suddenly realized she might not have had enough coffee—why was she so grumpy?—and promised herself another cup when she got to the park.
“Why don’t you come with us?” Jin said brightly. She threw her arm around Micah’s shoulders and guided her toward the shining car. Karen prepared to feel the dejection of seeing Micah falling under Jin’s spell, but to her surprise, Micah shrugged Jin off and said,
“No, thanks. I’ll ride with my family.”
“Ok,” Jin said.
Even she seemed surprised.
After a few hours, Karen felt stretched to the limit. The unseasonable warmth, the breeze, the smell of grease and sugar hanging in the air—all the sensory frizzle of the thronging theme park turned the children wild. They were unruly and had big appetites—even Micah. All day, they pointed and shouted about what they wanted to see, ride, or eat.
At about three-thirty in the afternoon, the families sat down for a second lunch or an early dinner. Jin’s girls crowded around Micah, whose magnetism as the elder, ethereal teen seemed irresistible. Max, left out, found solace with his mother. Karen watched, slightly repulsed, as he buried his face in Jin’s lap and screamed.
“He’s just tired,” Jin explained as she rubbed Max’s back.
Peter edged as close to his big sister as he could but realized he was an afterthought among all those girls. He settled for slapping his stick balloon against his head to relieve his boredom. Karen reflected on Peter’s sweetness and was so thankful. He was seven and the buoy for their family as they rode the waves of Micah’s adolescence.
But Karen couldn’t bask in her loving thoughts about Peter for long because suddenly, Max was making another fuss. He and Jin were tussling. Climbing into her lap, he yanked on her neckline. The stick balloon he held in one fist squeaked as Jin tried to keep it out of her face.
“Let me SEE!” he shouted.
“Can you believe this?” Jin said, craning to talk to Karen over Max’s head. “He’s the only one I breastfed, and this is what I get.”
Karen chuckled sheepishly, as if it were her own breasts being pawed at in public. She suddenly felt bad for Jin as she watched her adjust her sunglasses, which had slipped down her nose during the struggle.
She looked away and cast her gaze toward Micah holding court with Jin’s girls. Micah was wiping her hands with a napkin with an obsessive intensity. It was a telltale sign: anxiety had Micah in its grip over something she had eaten. She had gone quiet. While Jin’s daughters talked loudly around her, shouting with their mouths full and taking big gulps of their soft drinks, Micah stared at what was left of her cheese fries and wiped her fingers over and over.
“How long did you breastfeed?” Karen asked blankly, turning back toward Jin. Her eyes darted back and forth between Jin and Micah.
“She still does!” Ellie shouted.
Minnie and Vivvy started chanting.
“Max loves boobies! Max loves boobies!”
“Where are you going?” asked Karen.
“To the bathroom,” said Micah.
“You just went.”
“You have to wait,” said Karen, lifting her sunglasses to cast Micah a meaningful look.
“Just let her go!” T.J. cut in, not understanding.
Karen glared at him. How did he not get it? Micah was going to the bathroom to throw up, to void herself of the food she had appeared to be enjoying until a moment ago. Karen began to feel breathless as Minnie and Vivvy kept chanting, their voices ringing.
“Max loves boobies! Max loves boobies!”
“Girls, enough,” Raymond said. He sliced the air in front of his throat with his hand.
“I’ll go with you,” Karen said to Micah.
“You don’t have to!” Micah insisted, raising her voice.
“Max loves boobies! Max loves boobies!”
Vivvy had come over to their side of the table and was now chanting in Max’s ear.
“BE! QUIET!” Max screamed. His eyes went cold, his face turned red. He wheeled around in the direction of Vivvy’s voice with his fist raised like a fleshy little hammer. When he brought it down, Vivvy dodged it with such ease that it made Max rage even louder.
Peter suddenly hopped out of his seat. Maybe he wanted to distract Max, maybe he wanted to cheer him up, Karen couldn’t tell. But at the sight of Max’s meltdown, Peter came over and playfully tapped Max on the shoulder with his stick balloon. Max froze and turned to stare at Peter, who smiled.
Jin cupped her mouth and put it to Max’s ear. But Karen heard what she said clear as day.
Go get him.
Max jumped down from his mother’s lap. Arms windmilling, he flew at Peter. It took a second to register what was happening. Max’s stick balloon flapped in Peter’s face. Peter jerked a hand up to shield his eye. He had been scratched. Both dads were shouting, the girls were screaming, Micah covered her mouth, and Peter, seeing the blood on his hand, was too mesmerized to notice Max lunging, tiny fingers clawed.
The doctor snipped away the skin that hung in curls from Peter’s cheek. She cleaned the area now marked with three deep, parallel grooves dug out by Max’s fingernails, then covered it with a large piece of gauze that she taped to Peter’s face. The cut above Peter’s eye from the plastic parts of the stick balloon required two butterfly strips but, thankfully, no stitches. Peter took it all like a champ. He barely even whimpered, even when the doctor flushed out the cuts with antiseptic.
T.J. leaned against the doorjamb. His arms were crossed, his expression severe. He was careful to smooth his face whenever Peter caught his eye, though. Smiling, he said more than once, “You’re doing great, kiddo.”
As the doctor tapped notes into her computer, Karen noticed that Micah was gone. She had been standing outside the exam room a second ago. Karen asked where Micah was, prompting T.J. to peer down the hall but nevertheless getting up to stick her head out and look for herself.
Micah, still some distance away, strolled back toward the exam room with a brand-new bag of corn chips in her hand. And, of course, she was scrolling on her phone. But hope stirred when Karen thought that her daughter, unprompted, had gone to buy herself a snack. Hunger was hope, and hope was hunger.
Stepping back into the room, Micah stood before Peter, who gripped the edge of the papered table where he had been sitting so bravely.
“Here,” she said, offering the corn chips.
“Nice sister you have there,” the doctor said to Peter.
Peter took the chips and looked at Micah a little sideways. He seemed even more confused when his sister reached out and smoothed his hair away from his forehead. His confusion soon melted into something like happiness, however: a smile played across his bandaged face.
“We should pin your hair back until that cut over your eye heals,” said Micah. She let her hand fall and took the bag of corn chips from Peter to open it for him. When she tugged the seal apart, a small whine of air escaped.
“You farted!” Micah and Peter said at the same time, pointing at each other.
The doctor gave final instructions about caring for Peter’s cuts. She agreed that Micah’s idea about keeping Peter’s forelock pinned back was a good one. Cheerfully, she said that there should be minimal scarring.
Karen noticed how worn out T.J. looked. Even after the fart joke had made everyone else laugh, his face remained crumpled with concern as he glanced at Peter out of the corner of his eye. His mouth looked small, almost puckered, as if in an effort to keep something ugly from leaping out from between his teeth.
“Is that her?” he asked, eyeing Karen’s bag, which was vibrating. Again.
Karen ignored it. Jin had been texting nonstop, from the moment Karen’s family had fled the park in search of a real emergency room to the moment she messaged to say her kids were going to bed early.
I think it was a long day for everyone, Jin wrote, making Karen realize that those words of excuse were Jin’s idea of an apology. She had continued to send messages, asking how Peter was doing, if they had waited long to see a doctor, if she should order pizza for when they got home. Karen left the texts on read. But it was one text in particular that had left Karen fuming, a message so incredible that Karen had simply put her phone away and stopped reading.
I hope you all can let this go. They’re just kids.
After Peter’s release, Karen insisted on driving back to Jin’s. T.J. didn’t argue. As she carried Peter out to the car, she inhaled his sweaty fragrance and whispered that she was sorry. Peter, falling asleep in her arms, murmured, “But you didn’t do anything, Mom.”
“Can I sit in front?” Micah asked her dad. “I get carsick.”
“Sure,” T.J. said.
There was a time when Karen would have pointed out that Micah might not get motion sick if she were in better overall health, but this time, she kept quiet. Melissa Woodhouse’s serene face floated before her, commending her for staying calm and remaining a safe harbor for her daughter.
Within minutes, Peter and T.J. were both sound asleep, heads tilted back from exhaustion. Karen glanced at them in the mirror and mused: To sleep the sleep of the good.
“Can we go there?” asked Micah, a little excited. She was pointing down the road.
“Taco Bell?” said Karen, incredulous.
“Of course we can.”
Karen pulled into the drive-thru. Minutes later, Micah was unwrapping a bean burrito as Karen looked for an opening to merge back into traffic. By the time they were back on the freeway, Micah had unwrapped her second burrito and was eating quietly.
“So are you still friends?” she asked.
“With Jin?” Karen said, stalling.
“I don’t think she loves you the way you love her.”
Where had that come from? Karen glanced at Micah, but only for a split second. She had to keep her eyes on the road, but more importantly, she didn’t want direct eye contact to snuff out whatever was happening between them.
“I heard what she said, Mom.” Micah took an enormous bite of burrito and then a noisy slurp of soda. She chewed a little, then spoke.
“That was messed up,” she said with her mouth full.
Karen could swear that Micah’s voice sounded different. That Micah was different. Right now, Micah was all there. Karen had not noticed the last hug when it happened, and so she willed herself to give this moment her full attention. Something new had arrived. It might not last, but right now, this new thing was here and she would hold it in her heart.
“It was messed up,” Karen agreed, blinking back tears.
“She didn’t even say anything to Max after what he did. Did you notice that?”
Karen had noticed.
“Maybe she did later,” she said.
“Do you really believe that?”
Karen scratched the back of her head.
“Not really, no,” she confessed. And then Karen was seized with such amazement, she addressed Micah as she would a spirit from on high.
“How do you know her so well?” she asked. There was no teasing tone in the question. Karen really wondered. She sniffed back the tears that kept threatening to fall.
“I can just tell what she’s like,” said Micah. “All she cares about is winning.”
All she cares about is winning. As Karen turned these words over in her head, Micah continued.
“I thought the whole point of being an adult was that you could make your own decisions. Seems like deciding who to stay close to is pretty basic.”
Karen smiled at Micah’s sureness.
“It’s not always that simple,” she said.
“Seems pretty simple to me. She totally sucks, Mom. Let her go.”
Karen chose her next words carefully.
“Believe me,” she said. “I’m furious. But I’m going to take a minute.”
“What for?” Micah sputtered.
“I don’t think people should be so quick to let other people go, especially in anger.”
Micah seemed to let that sink in. Then she said, “All I can say is that I wouldn’t want to be you.”
“What do you mean?” said Karen, trying to sound light. She stared out at the freeway with a look on her face that wasn’t quite a smile.
“Just saying, when Peter is old enough to realize you stayed close after this—might be awkward to be you.”
The voice on the navigation said their exit was approaching. There was still so much to live through when they got back to the house.
Karen cleared her throat, then asked, “Can I have a sip of your drink?”
“You can have as much as you want.”
Micah turned to look at her brother, who was now leaning his unhurt cheek on his fist and sleeping with his mouth open.
“I’ll make sure he keeps his cuts clean,” she said. “Don’t worry, Mom. He’s going to be good as new.”