Kyon natters softly. His mouthful of little songs wakes Cho because it’s the sound of her son. She opens her eyes and gazes into his copper-coin face, her devotion the precise size and density of a four-year-old boy. Uncurling from around Kyon, Cho flounders out from between lightly starched sheets – up and getting ready. Cho brushes the black wave of her hair and then slips into a cream-colored camisole and nylons her skinny legs. A simple blue dress with long sleeves unifies her style.
Finding matching socks for Kyon has eaten up years of Cho’s life. Every morning her hands become frenzied shovels, scattering socks and misplaced toys in the dresser drawers until she finds a pair of matching socks and shoes. Then it’s, “Make the ears. Crisscross. Into the bunny hole. Pull them tight.” Until, finally, Kyon is socked and shoed and ready for daycare.
On this early-January morning, Cho collects her bags and then out through her Park Slope brownstone door steps into the winter street. The sleet stopped in the small of the night, but the morning is still gray and takes on a gangrenous fluorescent glow. Cho’s scarf frames her narrow face, the pale light a glaze hardening on her ceramic cheeks. Her wool coat is an ocean in which both she and Kyon swim. They wait on the corner to hail a cab, every freezing minute stretching into the space of two. All the while Kyon pulls at the soles of his brown-leather shoes.
The city is in Cho’s ears and the morning is all bang, bang, boom. Her impractical shoes make the shuttling of Kyon from taxi to the Tiny Years Daycare Center a teetering task. Kyon prattles all the while, his voice perceptible but not his words. Cho hands Kyon to a shrunken old woman with black eyes, and a “Hello. My name is…” sticker. But there’s no name written on the tag so it’s just “Hello. My name is…” nothing. Still, Cho trusts the nameless woman to keep Kyon from a thousand accidents.
Cho jumps back into the taxi, her hair splashed across the back of the seat. She reaches for her scarf, bracelets sliding down her arm, and realizes it’s no longer there. How many scarves has she lost conveying Kyon from taxi to daycare? How many gloves? How many umbrellas? How many earrings? Really, I must be more careful, she thinks.
But this is the last thought of Kyon Cho permits herself for the rest of the workday. Rather, she concentrates on transforming herself into the dragon-lady of corporate advertising: frigid, bitchy, and ready, if necessary, to get her way with a Samurai sword. It’s not a stereotype of Cho’s choosing, but it is a role her boss expects her to fulfill. It is, after all, why the asshole hired her: he likes Lucy Liu.
Stilettos punctuate with a fashionable snick Cho’s every move on the thirty-ninth floor of Rockefeller Center. She fires the man with horse teeth. Snick. She lands a multimillion-dollar account. Snick. She moves the Walton Esq. deadline up three days. Snick. She answers her own phone abruptly because she fired her horse-toothed assistant. Snick.
“Cho Nahm speaking.”
“This is Mi-sook at the Tiny Years Daycare Center. I’m sorry. Kyon is crying.”
“I don’t understand.” Snick.
“Kyon won’t stop crying.”
“You called me because my son is crying?” Snick! Snick!
“I’m sorry, Ms. Nahm. Kyon has been crying for three hours. I’m sorry. I can’t make him happy. So sorry.”
“Are you asking me to come and pick him up?”
“Yes, please. I’m so sorry.”
Cho leaves the office in a flurry of snicks. And for nine blocks in the back of a yellow taxi, she is two schools of thought: corporate executive versus devoted mother. The corporate executive orders the cabbie to stop, the devoted mother asks the driver to keep the meter running while she gets her son. Cho enters the daycare center and the sound is overwhelming, like Grand Central Station but diminutive. And there, there in the middle of it all, is Kyon, crying.
He looks like an exhausted swimmer, red and drenched. Kyon’s relief gathers itself in his expression as soon as he sees Cho, who swoops down to rescue her drowning son. Together they become the still in the center of the room. Cho gathers the familiar shape of Kyon to herself, pressing kisses into the bend of his neck. She slowly pivots on her pointed heel to face Mi-sook who bows. Then Mi-sook tilts her head upward and, unexpectedly, the bright look of discovery makes a sunrise of her face.
“His shoes are on the wrong feet!”
Cho looks at her blankly. Mi-sook doesn’t have the confidence to repeat herself, so she gingerly approaches Kyon’s feet, every mannerism a bowing apology. Quick, quick she unties one shoe, then the other. She juggles them to opposite hands and then quick, quick she ties one shoe, then the other. She looks up for approval. When Cho utters, “Thank you,” it also means “I hate you,” and, “Write your name on the nametag, stupid bitch.”
Leaning against the cold cab window on the way home, Cho watches narrow alleys and the lights on in every apartment pass by. She hides from the driver’s rearview eyes behind a curtain of hair and listens to Kyon breathing deeply as a child will do just before falling asleep. The cab slows, stops, and then idles in front of Cho’s brownstone. The porcelain sky shatters just then, and sleet clatters on the sheets of sidewalk ice and car glass. Cho collects her bags and her son and dashes to the door, splattering slush up the back of her legs.
Cho’s coat on a chair, shoes slipped off, heavy wet nylons piled on the first step to upstairs. Kyon’s quilted coat drenched, little hat hung, and he’s yawning. And then Cho notices a vacancy on her wrist – her porcelain bracelets missing. The desire to keep everything she can’t possesses Cho. She rushes outside in her bare feet hoping to find the bracelets between the front door and where the taxi was parked. She tips on her toes searching in the pelting sleet, but the bracelets are not to be found. Cho returns to the house and sits silent, rubbing warmth back into her feet. She contemplates the significance of the missing bracelets, inventing meaning when it doesn’t become evident. Cho begins to feel that Kyon has ruined her life. His neediness, his mismatched socks, his culpability in her disappearing accessories. The sharp-edged toys on the kitchen floor, the sleeplessness, the forever-sticky face and fingers – all of it making her forget who she is and what she ever wanted.
Cho’s eyes become a mystery to Kyon. Sensing an atmospheric change, he hoards himself – mouth closed in fear, chin trembling. In a quiet explosion of movement, Cho collects Kyon’s wet shoes and moves to him kneeling. Without words, she positions him on the floor, his soles directed at her. And then, like so many times before, she puts Kyon’s left shoe on his right foot, and the right shoe on his left. She pulls the laces tight while Kyon whimpers:
“Make the ears. Crisscross. Into the bunny hole. Pull them tight.”
The particular places from which Cho’s fury erupts makes her deaf to Kyon’s pleading. And all Kyon understands is that his feet hurt and, somehow, it’s his fault.
Eric Bennett lives in New Jersey with his wife and four children. He loves trees without leaves, the silence between songs on a vinyl record, fierce wounded things, and beginning sentences with the word “and.”