There's a theorem in mathematics that says if you take something the size of an onion and cut it into small enough pieces, you can take those pieces and construct something larger than the sun. In those first months after Hannah went missing, we learned to be careful around my mother. We had no past. Everything was off limits. Coming home was entering oblivion - my father was obsessed with my last conversations with Hannah, and my mother resolutely surrounded herself with silence. So when she came padding into the kitchen, I slapped a smile onto my face, same as my father.
To be honest, I never really understood what Hannah had against my parents. Sure they'd made mistakes, but nothing we shouldn't be able to get over. They had tried their best. When Hannah left for college in Chicago, I was already in my junior year at the University of Michigan. My dorm was a forty- five- minute drive from our house, and I came home every other weekend to visit. The summer before Hannah left for school, she broke curfew nearly every night. At first my parents waited up for her. As the summer wore on, they waited until morning to pound on her door. How she slept through all that pounding, I'll never know. I woke up after two seconds of it. I'd jump into the shower to drown out the noise. Besides, I knew what came next. After several minutes my father would call, "I'm coming in!" and pick her lock open with a toothpick. Then my parents would stand over Hannah's defiantly sleeping body, prodding her shoulders to wake her up. And Hannah would turn, scowling, hugging her pillow over her head.
"Let me sleep," she murmured. "Go away."
In the end it was her unwillingness to engage that defeated my parents. Even when she was awake she didn't argue, a polite little smile frozen to her face. "I got into college, what more do you want from me?" she asked at breakfast one morning after a late night out.
My mother unleashed a tirade about gratitude, filial duty, and decency.
"I guess I just don't agree," Hannah said, as if there was nothing more to say.
When she left for college she wouldn't even let my parents drive her. She took her own beat-up Corolla packed full of clothes and books and music. "I don't need anything else," she said when my parents insisted on going with her. "I'll be fine." My mother cried the day Hannah left, but Hannah pulled away.
"I'll call you when I get there," she mumbled, shaking my father's hand. Then she got into her car and pulled the door shut. My parents and I stood on the driveway, watching her. She started the car and didn't look back, but opened the window and waved once. Then her arm relaxed as though all the good- byes she had to make were taken care of, and she let her arm hang limply out the window as she drove away.
You'll never understand," she said the last time we came home together for Thanksgiving. "They were useless as parents - when did they give us what we needed?" The sleeves of her red shirt were pulled over her hands; her thumbs beginning to wear familiar holes along the seams.
"They gave us food," I said. "They gave us water, shelter, life." "Whatever." Hannah waved those things away. "Big deal." I'm not sure when things changed for her, but until Hannah forgot how to speak Korean, we had spent hours pretending to be our parents in their youth: it had been the best and deepest of mysteries to us. Long ago, my father used to jump trains as they passed. He was very poor and lived in the mountains: walking to school took over an hour. If there was a train going by he jumped on and took it as far as he could and jumped off. He had shown us the scar on his hand from a particularly bad fall.
Hannah and I pretended that our swing set, which our father had built for us, was a train. We ran at the swings, yelling, "We have to catch this one if we're going to make it on time!" Sometimes Hannah missed the swing on purpose. "Give me your hand!" I yelled, pulling her along until she leaped up. "That was a close call," we said to each other, wiping our brows. We didn't know then that wiping your brow meant that you'd been sweating. We had just seen movie actors do it after tense situations, and it felt grown-up and dramatic. Then we'd swing, standing up, until I cried, "It's time to jump! Clear the track!" and off we leaped, rolling into the grass.
Excerpted from Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung. Copyright © 2012 by Catherine Chung. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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