It started with a middle stripe of polish on her perfect big toe. Hot pink. The color I imagined her vulva would be. The colour of all those salmon sunsets that have simmered down since, their great big ball of sun lowering itself so sensually behind the dirty buildings of this city my family chose to find its wealth within.
But I can’t tell this to my Grandmother Hyun, who stands before me now, one foot firm in the space between the wall and my bed, which she has pushed away to reveal my biggest shame, pointing a mean finger at the bright, flushing stain. She is shaking so hard that I drop my backpack on the ground, arms ready in case she falls. My great splotch of paint throbs atop her prized beige wallpaper, on which calligraphic brushstrokes outline tigers and streams.
You cannot wash your Korean away like this, she hisses. What were you thinking?
The stain looms larger, grows to encompass the whole wall, turns into a throbbing heat that spreads across my cheeks like a dozen tiny pinpricks. Its discovery makes me seethe and when she picks up a hairbrush from my discarded sack on the floor, I freeze beneath its whack of cold bone on my brow.
The truth is, I’m not sure what I was thinking. It started over a year ago, on my 17th birthday, when Sarah became the greatest present ever bestowed upon me. It was a Saturday and I was working morning shifts at the nail salon with my sister Ro and cousin Ann. Aunt Kelly surprised me with a birthday cake before we opened, and Uncle Jin-woo gave me a stack of vintage comic books, plus a lot of new Marvels with my favourite ladies: Storm, Rogue, Mystique, and Jean Grey. I couldn’t wait for work to be over so I could cuddle up in bed for the rest of the day and sink into fantasy with a bag of crispy chicharones from the carniceria next door. I was anxiously awaiting noon, passing the time that morning doing what I usually did while painting toes: turning all the customers into X-Men type mutants in my mind, some with positive powers and some with degrading ones.
The larger lady with the helmet of stiff, beige curls who always complained about our massage chairs being too small in width—as if they were the ones abnormally sized, not her—became a Medusa-like monster when hungry, able to devour whole towns if denied her daily dose of Cheetos. The two sisters who sat side by side and laughed constantly at photos on their smartphones became a fusion flashlight when standing back to back, able to illuminate the sky, even at midnight, when danger was looming. The nice blonde lady with the caramel-coloured freckles who came in every two weeks, asked for Aunt Kelly, and always got an outdated French manicure—her secret gift was a hypnotizing diplomacy. She could look any villain in the face, smile, invite him or her or it inside for a cup of coffee, and the villain would be unable to resist. When the bell rang on the salon door, I looked up to see which new character had entered, and then I saw Sarah for the first time.
The glare of sun through storefront glass placed an angelic corona around her entire body, so that at first she was simply a glittering cloud walking my way. Then details emerged: serpentine tall and lean, a snake goddess of strength in fact, with tight, pale denim shorts, a white tee, and braless beneath: two apple breasts bouncing gaily. Across her chest, the word Serenity, in muted gold letters. Her hair was a tint of red I’d never seen, slightly burnt orange, as if tangerine juice had been singed. There was no makeup on her stark white face with cheeks of whipped cream. When she sat in my chair, my guts started to scream. When she said hello to me with that strong oxen voice—and I knew she was going to be one of the nice ones—my chest constricted inward and electricity ran through my groins.
My family prizes me as the best nail technician they know. I learned at age ten from my mother before she became the one who went wrong. I used to practice on all Ro’s big American Girl dolls. I even practiced the calf massage and neck-and-shoulder rub on them. After I started working in the salon on weekends, I had a client list of at least ten regulars and sometimes people would ask for me by name. Sarah told me she had a friend who had come to me a few times and liked my firm fingers and steadied hand, that I never made mistakes. From the moment Sarah sat down, I had to concentrate, hard. Even though her skin was slightly leathery, from a life of sun tanning, I felt I could stand there rubbing her back forever with its slight hint of coconut, warm waft of gardenia; both smells hit my nose as her shoulder blades creased deliciously beneath my fingers. When she picked the colour hot pink, I spent sensuously long minutes painting each toe, as if laying down kisses with strokes by my own warm tongue. The daydream took me over and when I was finished she noted it was the best pedicure she’d ever received and said she’d definitely be back to ask for me.
I snuck the hot pink polish home that night, the elixir of Sarah who I craved, and when Ro was busy with her nightly shower, I locked myself in our bedroom and moved my bed away from the wall. I painstakingly painted every last bit of the polish into a little square patch on the wallpaper, small strokes of dread mingled with glee, and I knew I had branded myself a sinner. Then hot pink became the colour of my dreams, where everything bounced in cartoon animation, houses, cars, people, and stars—all juicy and ballooning with the consistent, inherent desire to be popped. It was the first bottle of many, pilfered for the pleasure of painting Sarah, laying her lasciviously down over Grandmother’s wallpaper.
Hot pink became the colour of the love I didn’t understand, the love I could not name, the love I knew was wrong. It was the colour of all the things you keep inside before the gotcha blush spreads its reign; the colour of a dentist’s pick striking a sensitive nerve; the colour of things you don’t want to see on the movie screen but that you look at through your fingers anyway. It was the colour of freakish delight.
I started scouring the reservation sheets before my shifts, looking for her name. I started taking a shift on Friday night so that I would know if she was coming in over the weekend. Grandma Hyun was proud of me for wanting to work extra, for wanting to save money. No one suspected a thing.
Then one Friday there it was: Sarah for Saturday. I read the curve of the S, growing nauseated with yearning. I woke up on Saturday and went into Grandma Hyun’s prized garden where the squash blossoms were stretching into bright, yellow cups in the early morning sun. A fresh bloom of hot pink peonies wavered near the fence and I was so heady with the idea of seeing Sarah that I did a foolish thing. I bent down close to one of the unfurled flowers and stuck in my nose, then breathed in deep so that its scent could fill me and inflate my burgeoning lust. I felt the sting on the tip of my nose before I saw the bee wafting away, my flesh freshly impregnated with its venom. It was the first time I ever said the word fuck, but something happens when you are in the daze of love. I forgot the sting immediately, put it in the back of my mind like an event that did not happen, and quickly snipped the largest peony from its stem.
When I got to the salon, I could feel a small beat in my nose but I stored it away. I could remember that later at home, I could deal with it then. For now, I had Sarah coming. I placed the pink peony in a crystal dish usually used to hold acetone remover, and floated it in a bath of cold water. I set it on the arm of the massage table. Aunt Kelly noted what a nice touch that was, said I would go far in this business if I kept thinking about my station as a setting for beautification. She also asked me if I was getting a cold, stating that my nose seemed a little red. I ignored her question and went about filling the footbath with water.
When Sarah came in, as devastatingly beautiful as the first time I saw her, a picture of pale, striking calmness, she squealed after sitting down before me. I thought her squeal was in appreciation of the peony but before I could even feel an ounce of pride, she started ruffling through her purse. What happened to your nose, she asked, her face contorted with alarm. She took a mirror from her purse and showed me. My nose had become a shiny, red bump, the size of a walnut. She was holding a tube of aloe before me and before I could hear her next words, I fainted.
I woke up later that night with Grandma Hyun at the foot of my bed. Drink, she said, holding out a cup of tea swimming with herbs, bark and seaweed. What were you thinking, she asked, not telling me you got stung? I forgot, I half lied, not knowing whether or not it had all been a dream. I love you but I don’t understand you, she said, before swishing out of my room in her fancy rattan house sandals. For two days, I stayed home in bed, listless and without showering, picking the ache on my nose that festered into a wound from my grubby clawing, and feeling its hot puss lazily roam down my skin.
The next time I saw Sarah, she whisked in with an almost maternal sense of concern for me. She asked my name and I told her it was Jay. She asked about my nose and I told her it was fine. She apologized when she had to take a call during her calf massage. I listened to her speak to the person on the other end as I learned every muscle of her rock-hard legs. Her muscles mingled with her words to let me know she was powerfully compassionate; I could tell through her tensing and flexing. We say, one day at a time, she said to the phone, because it forces us to live in the now. To take each moment as it comes, so that we can make the right decisions on that micro level rather than becoming consumed in our minds with the overwhelming big picture. If you want to drink, that’s fine, but instead of going into your mind’s treadmill of indecision, guilt, and shame, just pick up the phone and call me, and we’ll take it from there together.
When she got off the phone, she told me she had been sober for 13 years and that she was a sponsor to that person on the phone. She told me she had been a heroin user in New York all through her 20s, when she used to be a high fashion model. That put her in her early 40s, a fact that tweaked my guilt over loving her because she was around the same age as the one who went wrong, old enough to be my mother. But it was easy to deny the guilt with my hands still wrapped around her legs. As I painted the hot pink polish on her perfect toes that day, she asked me my heritage and when I told her Korean she swooned, telling me how much she loved a good, sizzling bowl of bibimbap.
That was the summer Ro, Ann, and I were constantly devising ways to avoid the family dinners. We would finish our shifts at the salon after school and then stay late in the library under the pretense of homework; later, on our way home, we’d spend our nail salon earnings on boba teas, cheap ramen, cheeseburgers, and taco trucks. So Grandma Hyun was skeptical the night I offered to make bibimbap. I told her I had watched her so many times that I knew how to do it without her instruction. She sniffed as if I were insane then watched over me with eagle eyes every step of the way, secretly plumped with pride. I took extra care in marinating the matchstick cucumbers in gochuchang. I blanched the spinach at the perfect boiling point to a verdant green and sauced it with a spritz of soy sauce as if dousing a baby’s forehead with holy water. I spent so much time making sure the carrots were julienned uniformly and softening them with garlic, letting the perfumed air whirl around me until Grandma Hyun threatened to turn on the oven fan to dispel the cloud of warm musk. She was worried about the funk seeping into her expensive silk robe. No, I told her, I want to breathe this Korea into my bones, which made her happy. When the time came to brown the beef, I was intoxicated, and when I put everything atop a steaming pile of rice, including a fried egg that jiggled into golden syrup when poked, Hyun told me it was about time I was high on my own heritage. That night we ate together around the table, everyone oohing and ahhing over my creation. As I oohed and ahhed alongside them, I kept imagining that Sarah was sitting across from me, in the seat permanently absent of the one who went wrong, and she was licking her lips in bliss as the inside of my thighs ached.
One night Ro, Ann, and I walked past our nail shop after doing our homework at the boba cafe. Ro’s new friend Sheila was with us—a loud, rich, white girl who was obsessed with everything Asian, which is why she had glommed onto Ro. Ro was flattered; being the social one, she prided herself on her latest position in the popular crowd—a role I kindly declined when Ro offered me membership by association. You want to grow up, shrivel up, and die alone she would tell me, jokingly, whenever I refused an invitation to join her on her many weekend outings. You going to find a soulmate in the pages of those comic books you always read? You want to paint rich women’s toes forever? Grandma Hyun, surprisingly, loved Sheila. Whenever Sheila was over, she would peek into the refrigerator and positively shriek over our exotic ingredients and bottles of sauces, their contents unintelligible to her eyes. Grandma felt like a star while being followed around by Sheila. She even gave her a handwritten book of her best Korean recipes during the holidays and offered to teach her to cook. I knew Sheila was full of shit when she never followed up to make a date, but Grandma Hyun kept hoping that darling would come over.
The fluorescent lights in the salon were still on and a scrim was pulled down over the window facing the street. All the girls were lying down on the massage chairs while Uncle Jin-woo lead the meeting. I knew, from being in those late-night meetings before, that nobody inside thought that people on the outside could see in. The scrim lent a false sense of concealment. But there they were for the world to see.
Wow, do you think they sleep in there? Sheila asked, as a warm stream of hatred infiltrated the pores of my cheeks. I’ve read horror stories about those places, she continued. I read an article once that said vans go throughout the town in the mornings and pick up dozens of nail technicians who are here illegally and then they are forced to work ten-hour days for barely any pay. I heard they all live together in tiny houses, crammed together on cots, no privacy.
I was about to inform Sheila of many things. Like, even if that were true in some cases, it certainly wasn’t the case with our family’s salon. Grandma Hyun had come to this country absolutely legally with her own husband. They had built up this salon together, with the help of Uncle Jin-woo and Aunt Kelly. They had run it for years until Grandpa died, employing many people from the local neighborhoods—including those who were Chinese, Vietnamese, and Hispanic. Grandma bought our big Victorian house with her earnings and even though Ro and I shared a room, our cousin Ann had her own. Uncle Jin-woo and Aunt Kelly had their own room too, and even though they could afford their own home, we all stayed together for the sake of Grandma, who had given part ownership of the salon to everyone equally, including Ro and I, who were destined to own it on our own one day too. I was about to inform Sheila of these things when I saw Ro’s pleading eyes looking at me in panic. I realized that she hadn’t told Sheila about our family business so I kept my mouth shut, but I was pissed. If the salon were not ours, I would never have met Sarah.
By the time I turned 18, I had painted Sarah over 20 times. The hot pink splotch on the wallpaper behind my bed had grown to 24 square inches, its shaky-lined sides threatening to escape above my bed. I put extra pillows atop my covers lest it show. It grew exponentially with the turmoil eating away my brain, but every time I painted another spot, the peacefulness came to wash away the dirty. I had heard Sarah talking to her sponsees on the phone enough by now that I knew was addicted to her, addicted to the stain—yet I had no one I could tell about my confusing inner pain. I spent many nights in bed rifling through the pages of my comic books, trying to transfer my desire onto any one of their hot heroines. I tried my best to feel aroused between my thighs while looking at Mystique’s taut, blue skin or Jean Grey’s flaming mane. I begged and begged my mind to take me into dreams that would not be hot pink and would not turn my normal world into bouncing cartoons of the colour of Sarah.
One morning, while we were waking from sleep in our room, Ro surprised me by confessing that she had overheard Aunt Kelly and Uncle Jin-woo talking about the one who went wrong. She had learned that our mother was currently employed at the posh Korean spa in town. She asked if I wanted to go with her to see her. Will she even recognize us? I wondered. It’s been eight years. She’s never tried to meet up, I reminded Ro. Then Ro reminded me that Grandma Hyun was the one who had forbidden our mother to see us. But she could have seen us if she wanted to, I replied, tangled strands of old love unknotting themselves in my heart. She knows where we go to school, she could have sneaked in.
When I thought of my mother, there was nothing but cold. Sure, underneath the cold were plenty of things from long ago: her long black hair, her funny bird-like walk, the way she winked at us when she’d tell jokes that Grandma Hyun hated. But those were faded memories from before the storm, visions that grew blacker as time went on, mere wisps of a human I used to know. What if she never wanted to see us because she knew Grandma Hyun was right and she was wrong, Ro said. What if she was trying to protect us? From what, I yelled, suddenly defensive. I went into the bathroom to pee, and to hide my anger, because I knew my mother was just like me.
But I did go with Ro. It was the first time we ever lied to Grandma Hyun. One Thursday after school, we booked ourselves sessions at the Korean spa. I was nervous about going but didn’t tell Ro. I took it like a man, packed my duffle bag with flip flops and a hair tie, walked in behind her, shaking like a wet goose in the rain, desperately trying to keep the tremors under my skin. At first it was fine. There were naked women everywhere: stuffing their belongings into the communal lockers; spread like slabs of meat on the warm, jade mediation floors; sprawled like chickens on the Himalayan pink salt beds; on the tiers of wooden planks in the saunas, they were plump as hot dogs; bobbing in the scalding angelica tea pools; and packed in the massage room on glistening steel beds, side by side and across from each other, as the masseuses kneaded their meat and poured buckets of water over the whole shivering, slippery mess of their bodies. The proliferation of flesh in such mass quantities oddly erased all sense of eroticism. For this, I was glad.
We looked for our mother in between our visits to the steam room, from underneath the purifying showers, in the halls between rooms, even in the café. When it was our turn to be led onto beds, we looked for her in the sea of masseuses working on others around us. They all wore black silk underwear and bras, one indiscernible from the other, save for a bit of extra belly fat or a varied black hairstyle. But none had the face of our mother, until the moment my masseuse told me to lie on my stomach and look to my right so she could start rubbing all that might have strained me out from behind. The one who went wrong was in the stall right next to me. That sharp face with mischievous, twinkling eyes were there, holding onto her private and self-proclaimed glee. She was laughing and I realized I had never really stopped loving her. My eyes glanced down at the woman on her bed, before I could fully come to grips with my raw feelings of old love, and I saw that she was working on Sarah.
Hot pink infused me then. It was the color of fear and the color of being choked and the color of wanting to die and the color of cake and the color of hiss and fire that grabbed me first at the forehead and then singed down to my toes. I was lost in hell, a hell so overpowered by a melting, liquid heat that I could do nothing but succumb to its overladen victory. Something inside was screaming at me to flee but I was paralyzed under the weight of my masseuse’s hands, pushing into my shoulder blades. Sarah was on her back, face turned the other way, and I could not stop my eyes from roaming over her nudity, those taut long legs, that tuft of honey between her legs, her nipples like rose hips atop scoops of vanilla cream. My desire began to mentally conjoin and conspire with the hands of my masseuse, and then it came, that dizzying tornado of all-encompassing fuschia, a spiral that reached itself deep between my legs as I squeezed and tightened around my first timid orgasm, squelching its power as one stifles a sneeze.
I spent the rest of the time looking the other way so that neither my mother nor Sarah would recognize me. When Ro and I met in the halls afterwards, I did not let on that I had seen our mother. I had realized—and wanted to have a hand in perpetuating—that our mother had become truly free.
But I am not free, as I stand here today, having just been whacked on the head by my well-meaning yet inflexible grandmother, with a brush made of bone.
You can’t just paint the Korean away, Grandma Hyun says, looking at me with bewildered distaste, and then at her pricey, soiled wallpaper.
I don’t tell her that she’s wrong. I don’t tell her that it isn’t my heritage I am desperately trying to escape. I don’t even tell her—dare not, no way—that I am truly the daughter of the one who went wrong. And there is simply, never will be, hell, god, no, no, no way that I will ever be able to let her know that it’s really the gay I’m trying to paint away.
Kimberly Nichols is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles, California. She is author of the short story collection Mad Anatomy (Del Sol Press) and her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a variety of publications including the Los Angeles Times, 3 A.M. Magazine, and VICE. She is an arts writer for New York’s TheArtStory.org and the Netherlands’ Artdependence Magazine. She is currently at work on a novel about desire. More of her work can be seen online at kimberlynicholsstudio.com.