Chino

Chino

Buying a house in the San Francisco Bay Area was filling Jessica Chang’s head with financial acronyms and 3D maps searchable by schools’ average test scores.  When she was in her twenties and dancing at New York trance clubs in sweaty barely-there outfits, high on a mix of drugs cadged off willing strangers, moving to the suburbs with a yuppie husband and toddler sounded like a death sentence.  Now that she was thirty-seven, and in the back of a midsize SUV trying to comfort her son Kirby who was screaming “Out! Out!” while strapped into his child seat, she felt like a different person had lived that blur of strange men and pulsating dance floors.  She and her husband Stan were headed into the lawns of Sunnyview that afternoon with their realtor.  Jessica hoped to find a quiet place to settle into, though she was nervous that her Korean American family wouldn’t fit in well with the gymnastics studios and pumpkin patches she saw on her last visit that far south of San Francisco. 

“You lived in Manhattan, so I didn’t expect you to have sticker shock, but I get the feeling you’re disappointed by what a million and a half buys out here,” Deborah, their twenty-something agent, said as she glanced back from the passenger seat while Stan drove.  “This house is spacious and modern, so it should be more to your liking.”

For the past few weeks, Deborah had provided much-needed professional guidance on the insanely competitive real estate market they had moved to six months ago.  With her yoga-toned body and long blond tresses, she reminded Jessica of the intimidating Wall Street junior execs she used to serve when she waitressed in New York.  Stan seemed to take every opportunity to catch glimpses of the young go-getter’s legs when he thought his wife wasn’t looking.  Despite that, Jessica liked Deborah from the first interview because she was smart enough to smooth over the uncomfortable issue of race by using code phrases that got to the point without being offensive, like “low to moderate income” or “rising rents.”  

Deborah continued, “The part of Sunnyview we’re headed to today has recently become much more international and has rapidly improving schools.”  Jessica felt at ease, as she guessed Deborah meant new money Asians were moving in, probably replacing lower middle class whites and Latinos.

Disappointed after getting outbid by foreign real estate investors and venture capitalists for houses near San Francisco that resembled glorified trailers, Jessica had heeded Deborah’s advice to be “more realistic.” Jessica let Stan extend their search much further south since he wanted cut his commute to Silicon Valley, giving him more time to fiddle with some entrancing new gadget on the couch.  Not having earned a paycheck since her wedding, she didn’t feel like she could complain much.

  “We’re hardly cool club kids who need the city,” he had said to convince her to move out of the cramped two-bedroom they’d been temporarily renting downtown.  Jessica had only smiled.  She had never told Stan about her past, afraid that he’d look at her like she was shameful, as the peppy women in his social circle of young professionals always stopped after two glasses of wine.  They had met in a Manhattan church she had joined after a coke overdose scared her into rethinking all the nights she’d snuck away from her father’s scornful eyes to meet up with smoldering rock-star wannabes.  Desperate for a change, one Sunday, she smiled back at a brash Korean preppie with a military haircut who wouldn’t stop staring at her across the pews.  When she learned that Stan was a lawyer planning to move to California to do technology deals, she started dreaming of a new life far away from the mess she’d made of herself.

When they arrived at the Sunnyview house, Jessica was surprised to see a recently renovated two-story that had panoramic bay windows and a three-car garage.  It looked like one of the dream houses featured on real estate websites that Jessica pined for.   She climbed out of the SUV thinking something must be amiss.  As Jessica lifted Kirby out of his car seat and set him down to let him walk around a little, he wandered onto a verdant front lawn that could comfortably accommodate a stick ball game. He screamed with his arms raised, “Grreeeeeennnn!”   

As Deborah led them up a red brick path to the entrance, Jessica noticed an elderly Latino man sitting on a rocking chair in the porch of the much smaller ranch house next door.  His only companion was a green oxygen tank pumping life into his skeletal frame through a dirty plastic hose in his nostrils. 

He smiled knowingly at Jessica.  “Chino family over there.  Chino family over there,” he said in a scratchy voice, pointing at each of the houses on the block.  “Chino family over there, too.  Chinos, taking over.”

As her imposing husband shot a warning glare across the driveway, Jessica put a hand on his tensed shoulder.

“Ignore him.  He’s just an old man,”  she said.  

Jessica caught a flash of uncomfortable worry on Deborah’s face as she quickly unlocked the door.

The old man continued, pointing at the desirable house in front of them, “No Chino in that house.  Nobody wants that house.  You know why?  Bad Feng Shui.” 

As he laughed, Jessica shook her head.  She didn’t care about Feng Shui any more than she cared about Wicca or Rastafari.  Kirby, however, giggled in Jessica’s arms, apparently tickled by those new strange words.  He tried them himself, yelling “Feeen Shuuuuweeeee!”

Jessica quickly forgot what had happened outside when she entered a gigantic open floor living space with vaulted ceilings.  She stepped onto hardwood floors as smooth as an ice rink and followed Deborah to an expansive family room staged with a three-piece sofa set and a giant flat-screen TV.  Jessica thought they were better off with one crazy man next door than with the warped roofs, termite-infested add-ons or closet-sized “bedrooms” that had disappointed her in other $1.5 million dollar homes.  But given all that she’d seen in San Francisco real estate, she suspected something must be wrong.

“There’s a catch, isn’t there?”  Stan said to Deborah.  As a mid-level associate at a law firm, Stan negotiated deals all day and was nicknamed the “Ball Buster.”  He didn’t know how to turn off his graceless bark, often irking Jessica, but at that moment, she appreciated that he could be so blunt, so she didn’t have to be. 

When Jessica brought Stan home for dinner four years ago, she was amused by the wide-eyed surprise on her parents’ faces as they sat at the shaky kitchen table over steaming bowls of rice.  Jessica knew her aging parents never dreamt their wayward daughter, nearly a spinster by their standards, would bring home a Korean guy with two Ivy League degrees.  She had been at war with her stump-like father as long as she could remember, staying out late since her teens, refusing to go to college, and barely hiding her drug use.  The switch beatings stopped when she hit puberty, replaced by stiff slaps to her face that barely stung by the time she was in high school.  A couple of times she had run off with scruffy white men she’d chosen for the seething red they’d put in her father’s dark eyes, only to have him relentlessly hound everyone she knew day and night until she finally gave up and returned home.  As she sat beside a Korean man who promised to take her three thousand miles away, she noticed her father beaming a smile at Jessica that was full of pride, an emotion she could not ever recall seeing on her father’s granite face.  All she could think about was her freedom.  She’d finally be allowed to go far away with his blessing, instead of being forced to carve little corners for herself in his presence.

Deborah tried to skirt Stan’s question, replying cheerily, “This is a tremendous bargain in a neighborhood on the rise.  There are a lot of professionals from diverse backgrounds here so I don’t think you’ll feel uncomfortable.”  Yuppie Asians, Deborah confirmed to Jessica.

Stan repeated himself, “But there’s something wrong, isn’t there? What’d that guy outside mean?”

Jessica watched Kirby run around the family room with his arms stretched and laughing.  Then, he gleefully hopped around on top of a fluffy white shag rug that covered the floor. 

After a few uncomfortable seconds, Deborah replied, “There’s nothing wrong with the place physically.”

Stan rolled his eyes in a show of two Ivy League degree condescension that enraged Jessica when directed at her. “Come on, Deborah.  You’re not telling me something.  We both know I can find out what it is soon enough.” 

Deborah looked at Jessica for sympathy, but she simply looked down at her son, who was now attempting the pull the rug over his head, and waited. 

Deborah spoke some lines she seemed to have rehearsed in the mirror for a moment like this, “The former owner of the house was arrested a few years ago for child molestation, and is currently serving a long prison sentence.  The mother moved away with her daughters after he was convicted. They tried to sell the house before, but when the news was fresh and the market was down during the recession, no one would buy.  Since the market is now going crazy, they decided to try again.”

Deborah paused, her eyes nervously moving back and forth between the couple to gauge their reaction.  Stan pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and fiddled a few moments.  Jessica could feel a cold seed take hold inside of her as Deborah’s words sunk in.  She looked over Stan’s shoulder, and saw a headline, “Sunnyview Man Charged with Child Molestation.” 

“Is this it?” Stan asked as he showed Deborah his phone’s screen.  She nodded.  

Jessica looked around for Kirby, who was now rolling head-first into the rug, getting little white threads stuck into his black hair.  As she went to pick him up, the house no longer felt fresh or impressive, but like a neatly coordinated deception. 

While Jessica held Kirby close to keep him from flailing his way back onto the rug, Stan summarized the rest of the article out loud, “They had three girls who were between seven and twelve years old.  He had his daughters hold sleepovers.  During the sleepovers, he’d touch them and their friends.  Happened for months until one of the friends told her mother.”

Deborah said, suddenly sounding as aggressive as Stan, “This is a terrible tragedy that’s making buyers pause a little.  If you look beyond this incident, this is probably one of the most undervalued houses in the Bay Area right now.  However, in this market, even this house will get snatched up within days if we don’t move quickly.”

With the air seeming to get colder, Jessica imagined a broken woman, probably not much older than her, who fixed and modernized every last bit of a poisoned house, hoping, as the housing market boomed, she would have the chance to unload it.

Jessica shook her head.  “I don’t like this,” she said as her hands started to feel numb.

Deborah replied, “I know this leaves a bad feeling in your gut but this happened to people you will never know.  As the neighborhood changes, everyone will forget what happened.”   

Stan took Kirby out of Jessica’s arms, and motioned for her to follow him to one of the bedrooms at the end of the hallway. 

He said over his shoulder to Deborah, “We need a moment.” 

The room contained a twin bed in the shape of a race car and dinosaur pictograms covering baby blue walls.  To Jessica it was another lie, perfectly staged for a little boy though the house had been full of girls.   Stan plopped Kirby on the ground, and the boy immediately threw himself on top of a green foam play mat with multi-colored balloon shapes. 

“No way,”  Jessica said to Stan, coldness taking over her body.  She couldn’t do it.  The old man next door, or even neighbor children who knew the house’s secret, might feed Kirby’s nightmares with horror stories about what that monster had done to those girls.  When she was a child, as she’d clutched her blanket in the dim moonlight coming into her bedroom at night, she saw shadowy ghosts of immoral girls from cautionary Korean fairy tales her father had told her before bedtime.   Kirby’s fears would be far more incarnate, an evil man sitting in prison fantasizing about what he’d done in that house. 

Stan said, “Let’s think about this rationally.”

“I don’t want to start out in this house.” 

“You think we’re ever going to find another house like this?  We keep getting outbid.  We’ve got a shot at this one because everyone else is a little scared.  Well, I’m not,” Stan declared.  Though she wanted to stand firm, she felt herself allowing him to overbear her.   

Before Jessica could respond, Kirby ran out of the room, running out of sight as he turned the corner into a family room at the far end of the hallway.  Jessica and Stan chased him, catching up as he looked outside a sliding glass door which led to a spacious backyard with a playground set.  Stan scooped the boy up as he was on his tip toes pointing at something in the distance. 

“Hut,” Kirby said.

Jessica looked out the window and saw a dilapidated windowless storage shed by the fence at the end of the grass.  Made of dull grey wood and nearly covered by hedges, it was the only part of the property that didn’t shine with pristine newness. 

In the Queens apartment she grew up in, there was a little coat closet by the front entrance that her father threw her inside as punishment whenever she talked back or refused to study.  She would struggle and scream to be let out, but the door was usually blocked by a chair from the outside.  When he saw her talking to boys he didn’t know, he hit her with a wooden stick on the back of her legs, hard enough that she’d scream as she felt needles dig into her calves and then little streams of hot blood roll down her ankles.  Her mother did nothing but shake her head as he’d then barricade her inside that dark tomb for hours.  Cold and terrified, Jessica would rub her bloody legs as she quietly wept, praying to God or whoever would listen for any escape from her hellish father.   Sometimes, feeling totally isolated, she would cope by taking one of the wire hangers in the closet and digging small grooves into the back wall.  By the time she was in middle school there were more grooves than she could count, and she would take comfort in feeling them with her fingertips in the dark, knowing she could get through another few hours in that closet, because she’d done it so many times before.  She hated her father, hated him even as he walked her down the aisle on her wedding day.  She hated him so much she thought of him when she had a tramp stamp of an orchid tattooed to her lower back, because he had told her orchids symbolized purity in Korea.  She didn’t even know how many men saw it before she married Stan, or how many times she’d said I love you even though she’d usually been too high to even know if she’d meant it.  She hated him so much she thought she’d never marry a Korean man, until she met one that offered her a new beginning. 

“Where are you going, Jessica?” Stan demanded as he wrestled with Kirby.  The toddler was pushing his father’s face away and crying, “Down! Down!”

She walked toward the shed, feeling she had to know what was inside.  Jessica could feel her husband’s eyes follow her as she walked past a manicured lawn.  When she pushed open the rickety wooden doors, she was hit with the smell of sawdust.  She looked around and, through the thin sunlight from the doorway, she saw splintery walls that looked unsafe to touch.  After a quick scan of the interior, her eyes stopped on three sets of initials lightly carved into one of the old wooden boards on the ground: KL, DL, EL.  There were three girls, she remembered.  Did those girls carve themselves into that property, in places where no one would think to look? Did they leave themselves elsewhere, perhaps some untouched crevice where only little hands could reach?

Jessica slammed the door shut.  She wanted no part of that house, not if she could find reminders of what had happened there.  She stood in front of Stan, who was attempting to distract Kirby with an app on his phone, and said, “We’re not living here.” 

He responded, “Why’d you go out there?”

“It doesn’t matter.  We’re not living here.”

“Every house has something ugly in the past.  We just don’t know about it.  Once we move in here, we make it our own.”

Jessica thought, You think you’ve made me your own, don’t you?  You don’t know what I was like before you.  You don’t know anything about me.  You don’t know what I’ve been through.  I don’t tell you because you couldn’t live with it if you knew. 

But all she said was, “No.  We’ll find something else.”

“So you think that old guy is right?  This place has bad Feng Shui?”  Stan rolled his eyes the way he had at Deborah earlier. 

“Don’t you ever roll your eyes at me!” Jessica shouted, putting a finger in Stan’s face.

Furious, she grabbed Kirby out of Stan’s arms and walked out the door as the boy started to cry.  She didn’t look back.  Without saying a word, she stormed passed Deborah, who was checking messages on her phone. 

Jessica couldn’t stand the thought of her son finding a relic of abuse in her house.  She had moved here to begin anew.  Everything had to be like the baptized, free from the pain that came before.  

When she got to the front lawn, the old man sat up in his rocking chair and stared at her like a bird dog spotting a carcass. 

“You know now, don’t you?” he said with a nod.

Stan followed outside and stomped to the driver’s side of the SUV.  As the old man retreated back into his chair, Jessica got into the backseat with Kirby.  While they drove back to San Francisco with Deborah searching through more house listings on her iPad, Jessica clung to her boy’s squirmy hand.   They would go far south or east or a “not yet gentrified” part of town if need be to find their son a blank slate to live in.   At that moment, she only wanted a place where nobody knew who she was, and where, as far as she knew, nothing bad had ever happened.

Tom Lee

About Tom Lee

Thomas Lee is a writer and lawyer who lives in Northern California. He is currently developing a short story collection about the experiences of Korean American immigrants. He was the winner of the first annual Ploughshares Emerging Fiction Writers' Contest. His work has also been published in American Literary Review, Asia Literary Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Azalea (a publication of Harvard's Korea Institute), and several other literary journals.

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