My mother placed the wig atop my own head, where it sat like a long-haired lapdog. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was a strange-looking child, with a sallow complexion, my father's high forehead, and a large, crooked mouth. My mother laughed and called me "Beatle."
My mother. Her eyes, when she was happy, glanced across a room like sunlight, dark centers strewn with diamond facets. When she was unhappy, they seemed to retract beneath eyelids precisely outlined in liquid black, her look averted, cast down, all the giddy shine suddenly leached from the world.
For most of my life I watched her, ensorcelled by her beauty, by the daily acts of grace that were her movements. She peeled an apple by moving her thumb backward along the knife, her small hands seeming to float, to flutter, loosing the skin in one long ribbon, until it fell to the plate like a molted snakeskin. She raced down the aisles of the A & P, picking things upred grapes, Camembert cheese, salmon steakand tossing them in the grocery cart, as though she were on a TV game show. Tucking me in at night, she sang "Raindrops on Roses" or "Que Sera Sera," in perfect imitation of Doris Day. ". . . . Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?" My mother would lean in, her breath hot in my ear. "Both, Isa," she would whisper. "You'll be both," and I'd feel a chill run through me at the maternal prophecy.
If I watched my mother and was enthralled, I looked out for my father for different reasons. He was rarer in our house. For most of my childhood he would return to work after dinner, in pursuit of something called "tenure" that I did not understand but that seemed to hold talismanic power for both my parents. When he was home he was often irritable, snapping at me for biting my fingernails or spilling my milk. I tried not to attract his attention for this reason, though because he was mysterious, I was also drawn to him.
Nighttime was my father's dominion. I'd lie in bed and hear his slippered feet pass my door, pat-patting down the stairs. The door to the freezer would open and close, followed by the tinkling of ice in a glass, and I would picture my father sitting at our kitchen table in his pajamas, nursing a whiskey and water, attentive to the low hum of the refrigerator and the random headlights of passing cars. In the morning his glass would be sitting in the sink, empty except for an amber viscosity at the bottom, which I once swirled and sniffed and stuck my tongue into, recoiling at the burn. Sometimes a Korean magazine would be left on the table, its spine cracked open. My father's battered briefcase would be left on the floor, a yellow legal pad on top with strange characters marked in blackneither Korean nor English but numbers and Greek symbols in neat equations that ran the length of the paper.
These were my father's tracks, his spoor, which he left behind like some nocturnal animal. His insomnia, incurable and lifelong, reinforced the sense of his aloneness, his haunted exile from a world in repose.
When my father spoke to me in Korean, it was harsh, a vocabulary of scolding, of rebuke. "Mae-majeulae?" Do you want a spanking? uttered with a flat palm raised. "Babo!" Stupid! as we went over math problems together, his middle knuckle boring into my head as if to drill an answer into my skull.
In neither Korean nor English was my father voluble. The language of science was his mother tongue, the silver-voiced siren call to mathematical formulation. It was a language I had no ear for, its jargon so much gobbledygook. My father would grow frustrated as he tried to explain to me the second law of thermodynamics, or the concept of cold fusion. "Look," he would say, his hands raised in a gesture that was half threat and half entreaty, "it's not hard." And I'd try to follow him, his English as barbed as concertina wire, the concepts entering my head and leaving it unprocessed, like baggage down a conveyor belt.
Excerpted from Secondhand World by Katherine Min Copyright © 2006 by Katherine Min. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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