The year she turned twenty-five, Scarlett found God. This happened in a Korean Presbyterian church in Queens. Almost immediately she became a regular at Sunday service; in a matter of months she was baptized; and then she was given her own Sunday school class to teach. It seemed she’d found her calling — or at least, one realm of achievement.
The day of her baptism dawned on a clear March morning. She showered and stepped into her new dress, a white sheath, a blank slate. She tied back her damp hair, baring the homely wide plain of her face. She did not try to camouflage the brown patchiness of her skin, or highlight her small slanted eyes, or stain and shape her pale lips. This, she felt, was honest; this was how she might make a clean offering.
When the minister called on Scarlett to rise, she noticed how different her name sounded issuing forth from his lips: the bitter edges softened, the snarling irony lost. The collective gaze of the congregation pressed against her skin, a warm current carrying her to the front of the church, and then the minister began to speak, those rumbling tones designed to be heard from a distance — interpreting acts of God, moving wizened, war-hardened immigrants to tears — now resounding in her ear, recounting the story of her life.
He mentioned her atheist upbringing, the death of her father, her struggle with self-loathing, mistaking prettiness for beauty, popularity for acceptance, lust for love — until that first day she set foot in the church, meek and bewildered (and Chinese), the picture of a wandering soul, and realized what was really missing. Only God offered unconditional love, he declared, and all He asked in return was that she open her heart and receive. And so Scarlett, unbeliever of unbelievers, outsider of outsiders, proved to be a most devoted follower, and now, he said, they would complete her initiation into the church, God’s spiritual community on earth.
While he spoke, she kept her eyes downcast. This Scarlett sounded so deserving, every frayed thread of her life now neatly woven, her lonely quest for love the overarching theme, this sacrament the seemly ending.
She burned and itched inside the dress. The tight ponytail pulled at her scalp. She raised her gaze and searched the faces of those before her: her friend Hana — that lovely, magnanimous smile, that knowing model of charity — and her Bible study group, the church elders, her soon-to-be students — all placid, unwitting, blind. She swayed in her heels, nearly stumbled. The minister turned to her, his hand about to dip into the holy water, waiting to pronounce the words.
From the shadowy recess at the back of the church, she saw a flicker: Joon. He was leaning forward, his boyish face dimly lit by sunlight filtering through stained glass. His eyes were on hers. He ducked his head slightly and gave her a quick thumbs-up.
Her legs steadied even as she began to blush. She turned to receive her sprinkling. The water seeped where she had parted her hair, drizzled her forehead and the bridge of her nose, and when she opened her eyes, she saw that the whiteness over her chest was flecked with gray, the color of storm clouds, where stray droplets had fallen.
* * *
It had all begun with Rowan, last summer. That boy from Oklahoma with baby-thin blond hair and jade-green eyes, who talked often of karma and thought Mao’s Cultural Revolution was cool and wore a blue Chinese peasant jacket every day of the month Scarlett knew him. Rowan had bestowed on Scarlett her first-ever date, her first kiss, her first compliment from someone other than her mother. The kiss had been given only once, limply, at her request; and she’d overheard the compliments, which were spoken in Rowan’s terrible Mandarin, being repeated to a confused Korean waitress, when Rowan thought Scarlett was still in the bathroom.
Long ago, when Scarlett’s mother was still in denial, calling Scarlett her “pretty girl” and believing puberty was to blame, she’d given Scarlett this warning about boys, the closest she ever came to talking of the birds and the bees: “They can just pick up and walk away, but you’ll never be the same again.” Scarlett had stored this away until the day came when she finally had cause for concern. Something to set beside, say, the information, passed along by Hana and the girls, that the second most popular surgical procedure in South Korea, after snipping and sewing girls’ eyelids to achieve a flattering fold, was reconstructing the hymens of unmarried women. For years, Scarlett harbored an image of a man hammering away and then standing up, whole, clean, picking up his briefcase and striding out the door, while the girl stayed prostrate, her privates chafed into raw flesh, open and shocking as a baboon’s behind.
Of course, ecstasy had to be part of the equation, a bliss so transporting the girl wouldn’t mind so much the resultant mess. By the time Scarlett met Rowan, she just wanted to know; if his fascination with her was part of a general fetish for all things Asian, well, so what? But as soon as Scarlett gave him the go-ahead, Rowan bowed out. He did this with such swiftness and finesse that he left behind almost no trace.
Except this: Scarlett, though left intact, seemed to have been unveiled. As if a certain protective barrier afforded to homely twenty-four-year-old virgins had been, for better or worse, stripped away. She noticed, for the first time in her life, some men looking at her — not as an object of desire, exactly, nor with the incongruous intensity of Rowan’s gaze, but as a woman. Still a not-pretty, inappropriately named Chinese woman, but one perhaps not unworthy of sexual consideration after all. Her legs, for instance, were not bad. Her breasts were well-sized, her waist small. It was just her face. Her face had always been the problem. But it also seemed slightly transformed, to hold now a visible, harder hunger. Late at night, in the bed she’d slept in since outgrowing her crib, to the tune of her mother’s gentle snoring in the next room, Scarlett sometimes felt feverish with possibility.
* * *
The sound of her mother gargling in the bathroom. Scarlett got up, brought in the newspaper, boiled water for tea. Her mother left for work with a gesture toward the classifieds: “Maybe today. Come lock the door.” Scarlett scanned the ads while she watched morning TV, searched the Web while she played computer solitaire. Lunch: leftovers. She scrubbed the tub and toilet, cleaned mirrors and windows streak-free. Chinese-grocery shopping in Flushing: live sea bass, bean sprouts, red roast pork. More TV, internet, solitaire — she nearly won three games in a row. Five-thirty: start the rice cooker, chop ginger and scallions for the fish, heat oil for stir-frying. Her mother came home, Scarlett served dinner. The thought must have been taking root all the while: Months, years, a life, can pass just like this.
Dishes were washed, leftovers stored, and her mother had dozed off by the time Scarlett took the phone into her bedroom.
“Scarlett.” It was too late to hang up now. “This is Scarlett, remember, from—”
“Oh, Scarlett, I’m sorry — of course I remember. What have you been up to?”
And so Scarlett was quietly sipping a screwdriver in a downtown bar. Hana, Jin, Mary: it was as though plain names, contrary to her own mother’s hopes, were the ones that promised beauty and success. Hana worked at an Asian American non-profit, Jin was in law school, Mary was a buyer for Bloomingdale’s. Their conversation flowed, with mentions of co-workers’ names and relationship travails volleying back and forth, unexplained, confirming that their circle of friendship had continued since high school, seamlessly excluding Scarlett.
Now Hana (always the kindliest one, she’d once mounted an earnest campaign to convert atheist Scarlett) tried to draw her into the fold with questions. Scarlett answered: Yes, still living at home. Yes, Queens Community. Psych, not sure why. Um, since college? Nothing really. (Nothing?) Well, she’d only completed her credits in May. Didn’t know what she wanted to do yet. And her mother needed her around the house. (Her mother…?) Oh no, her mother was okay, it wasn’t like that. (They remembered a time when her mother had been less than stable, after her father died.) Scarlett took up her glass during each lag between her answer and the next question. She could tell she wasn’t earning her keep.
In high school, the fact that Scarlett was not in the same league as these girls had been offset by the fact that they were nice and Asian and rode the same train to the same stop after school. Of course, the gap was impossible to ignore completely, and by sophomore year, Scarlett had realized that talk of boys stopped whenever she was around. Now she finally had a story to tell. It was a tale of rejection, but that might make it even more effective as a ticket to admission, to that obstructed-view seat she used to occupy.
When Hana asked, with a generously casual air, Scarlett told the story of Rowan with relish. She described the Chinese characters tattooed on his neck. She pronounced Oklahoma as a punch line. She displayed the cheap Chinese-silk change purse he had solemnly presented to her, the gift that brought tears to her eyes a few months before. She didn’t mention that detail, or the nonexistence of sexual contact. The girls laughed and groaned, offered up tried-and-true methods of detecting and snubbing any guy with an Asian fetish. They noticed Scarlett sucking at her ice cubes and ordered her a fresh drink. As the conversation spun on, they took care to explain the names, the contexts. Scarlett heard herself giggling, felt a bubbling up inside as though she might float. They were telling her about a Young Asian Professionals party taking place the next weekend (“kind of like a high-end meat market for us Yappies”) when Hana’s cell phone rang.
“Jack wants to meet up with us,” she said with a grimace.
Who’s Jack? Scarlett was to remember asking, and when she replayed the scene, their three heads seemed to merge and sing in a kind of Greek chorus:
He works in Hana’s office—
You could call him our groupie—
Been in love with her for years—
Not, um, attractive.
Later that night, as the girls took their leave after Scarlett insisted she was fine, just fine, and Jack was ordering two more drinks, and during the cab ride as he kissed and groped her in the backseat, and even in his bed, as he removed her pants and his, it felt like a victory.
Wait, he said, I’ll get a condom.
The fog thinned then and she said no, but he went anyway, and the word became weightless as she covered herself with his sheets, sniffing the scent of a male, listening to the knock on his roommate’s door, the subsequent whispers, a drawer opening, sounds of fumbling.
When he reappeared and bore down upon her, there seemed nothing else to do but lie still, so she did, and decks of solitaire cards began to shuffle and deal themselves out on the screen of her closed eyelids. She didn’t really feel the pain until she felt a tickle just below her right temple, reached up and wiped away a tear.
Could he tell he was her first? Could she be his? Just then he sped up, and it was suddenly so strange, how all this movement only seemed to distance her more and more from her desires — and probably, she thought, from his.
* * *
Two-fifteen a.m. Shame closed in. She crossed her arms over her chest. A man behind her laughed. When the train arrived, she folded herself into a corner of the car.
Around her sat groups of Latino men in paint-splattered pants, a few teenagers, a sleepy couple holding hands. She was the only girl riding alone. Maybe she passed for being on her way back from a party, from a date. She tried to sniff herself. Two men sat across from her. She hooked her right ankle around her left. One of the men jutted his chin at her and muttered; the other nodded and smiled. The word rape wafted up inside her head and she batted it away. She was not a victim.
She forced herself to lift her gaze from a grimy footprint on the floor and took in the dirty sneakers, the knees thrust apart, the hard joints, the strong jaw. So this was man. She had never before perceived the potential threat of one, the decisive, unwavering force of his wants once they were directed at a girl, even a girl like her, even if she had stumbled into the glare. She looked at his face. He smiled and stretched out his tongue. She looked down, sickened and affirmed.
“What time did you get home last night?”
“Late.” Scarlett could feel her mother’s eyes boring into her back as she brewed tea. She set down two cups, took her seat and opened the newspaper.
“Three in the morning.” Her mother’s hand crushed the paper to the table. “I was awake.”
“I didn’t tell you to wait up.” The words crackled in her own ears.
Her mother’s hand flew to her chest. “I thought you were dead. You said you were going to see what’s-her-name — those Korean girls.”
“I did. We went to a party. It was fun.”
However she had gotten there, she was standing on the other side of the gates now, raw and new. After her mother slammed her way out, Scarlett scanned the classifieds in earnest. Cashier — easy, too easy. Data entry — she could do that. Executive assistant. She pictured herself wearing slim suits, taking messages for her boss, going out for dinner with co-workers. On Friday nights, she’d meet up with Hana and the girls for cocktails. Maybe Jack would join them. Or maybe she’d grimace when he called her cell phone. She decided to compose a new resume. She’d written only one before, as a required life-skills exercise in high school.
The phone rang. “Scarlett?” A male voice. “This is, uh, this is Jack.”
She sat up straight. “Oh, hi.”
“Have you talked to Hana yet?”
“Hana?” she said.
“You’re not planning on telling her what happened, are you?”
A chill spread, her throat constricted.
“Listen, I don’t know how well you know her — she’s never mentioned you before — but Hana and I are very close, and I think it’s better if she doesn’t know.”
His finger stroking her knee. A shiver through her body, the curtain of her eyelids shuddered and fell. When she could see again, the girls were across the table exchanging whispers and stares; her face hot, she’d pushed away his hand, but he hadn’t seemed to care — that was how badly, she thought, he wanted her.
She said, “She must know something happened.”
“Let me worry about that,” he said. “Look, don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t want any misunderstanding. But I — I had a nice time. I’d like to see you again.”
She tried to recall his face and found she could not, except that it was flat and doughy, and his glasses sat too low on his nose. She remembered the patchy hair on his forearms, the way his belly had squished into hers. She wondered how she’d felt and appeared to him; if, sitting in his office now, he could recall how small her eyes were, how wide her nostrils, how thick and pale her lips. Probably, she thought, he didn’t remember her face at all, and whether that was better or worse she wasn’t sure.
“Hana doesn’t have to know,” she said.
* * *
The waitress had just plunked down their food, and already, it seemed, Scarlett and Jack had run out of conversation. She concentrated on buttering her muffin, he on salting his eggs.
She took a bite, then blurted, “Are you going to that yappie party on Saturday?” The muffin sat in her throat like a dry sponge.
“That meat market?” He pushed up his glasses. “You shouldn’t go.”
There was an offering somewhere in those words. “Maybe,” she said into her coffee cup, “we could see a movie instead.”
He poked one egg with his fork and sunny yellow gushed out. He nodded.
Back in his room, he stripped her to her bra, then pulled back. “Can you get that?” he asked, turning away while he took off his glasses and tugged at his shirt. She nodded, fighting an impulse to smile, feeling a strange kind of power.
Then they were naked. The lights were off, the shades drawn, but there was no nighttime cover, no drunken sheen. She noticed that his sheets were blue plaid, that the dresser needed dusting, that a dilapidated spiderweb swayed in rhythm on the ceiling. With every thrust his breath flooded her nose, his chin bumped her cheek, his stubble scratched her skin. She tried looking up, looking down, pressing her head farther back; finally she turned to her right and saw, in a wall-mounted mirror, their reflection.
He was a mass of muscle and motion, and she had done this to him. Her face was mostly hidden by the pillow and his thick hand. She could see, with each retreat of his body, the soft, quiescent surfaces of her own. How still she lay. How little she needed to do to bring about his abandonment to desire, his casting aside of shame. There was a certain strength to his profile, a dogged potency to his body — ugly, perhaps, but not the kind of ugliness she knew. It was like the bumping of their faces, the mixing of their breaths, the sweat converging on his chest and dripping onto her throat — like, she realized, the act itself. This wasn’t supposed to be pretty. Maybe that was something every man knew.
She turned from the mirror. She felt him inside her, a warmth leaking through her body, an urge to move with him in time. She willed his scrunched eyelids to lift. Their faces collided again. Her mouth found his. He blinked open in surprise. They kissed, eye to eye.
* * *
I’ll call you, he’d said, awkwardly patting her goodbye. Saturday dawned and still the phone sat silent. She decided he’d call by noon. She washed her hair and shaved her legs. Then it was afternoon. She asked her mother if the phone had rung while she was in the shower. “I sent out my resume,” she explained, and turned away from her mother’s stare. Then it was evening. She prepared dinner and began clearing the dishes while her mother was still eating. In her room, she tried to steady herself. She’d go to the yappie party with Hana and the girls. She called Hana’s cell phone, twice, but there was no answer.
They were probably all at the party together. That meat market. He’d meant that she wouldn’t find any takers. She wasn’t a young Asian professional. She was his dirty secret — not scandalous, just shameful. Maybe she was his Rowan: he could offer the story (the first time, the second, the blood, the kiss) as his ticket to admission.
Had she wronged Hana? She would like to think so. But Hana could never feel wronged by someone of Scarlett’s stature, scrabbling for something unwanted. Maybe it was funny to the girls, too fitting, that Scarlett and Jack had slept together. Could they guess that she’d lain down for the first man who’d asked?
She was awake when the sun rose. There was the stack of classifieds, the circles she’d drawn in neon, bold and hopeful. She reread her resume. In college, she’d stacked books at the library. In high school, she’d occasionally babysat. Through junior high, she’d helped her mother fold clothes and called out ticket numbers to her father at their laundromat, before he had the heart attack and her mother sold the place.
Over the next week, she cleaned inside and behind the stove, rearranged the kitchen cupboards, took down and washed the drapes. She watched TV; she nodded at everything her mother said. She found herself trembling when she started a game of solitaire.
The phone rang and when she heard the voice, a confession spilled out like hot, held-back tears.
“That’s not why I’m calling,” Hana said. “I don’t know what happened between you and Jack, and it’s really not my concern. I think you need something bigger in your life, someone more understanding. What are you doing on Sunday?”
She was enveloped in outstretched hands, smiling faces, the alternating staccato and sustained syllables of a tongue familiar yet foreign. The shrunken grandparents bobbed toward her, the well-dressed parents murmured in warm, slightly muddled tones, the motley teenagers studied her with curiosity, without contempt. Hana kept a guiding hand on Scarlett’s elbow as she explained over and over that Scarlett was Chinese.
Scarlett was spellbound by the minister’s voice, the way it reached the ceiling, reverberated against the walls, rumbled beneath her feet. She let her eyes wander as though following the sound. She’d never sat inside a church before, yet each part seemed to whisper to her as it shifted into focus, and each name seemed to strike a chord within. This is a pew, that is an altar. Here is a hymnal, there is holy water.
She looked at the stained glass windows and thought of a time, long ago, when her father had brought home a set of metal ornaments — a peacock, a rose, a wedding bell. He helped her fill them with colored crystals, put them in the oven to bake, and drew up a stool so she could watch. The crystals melted to syrup. In the orange oven light the shapes began to glint, smooth and hard. Her father set them on the counter to cool and cautioned her not to touch. When she stood on her tiptoes, she could just see past the crinkled edges of tin foil. A spread of brilliance, rainbow candy that could break her teeth if she bit too hard. She kept her hands clasped behind her back. The tail of the peacock was just within reach of her tongue; she could not resist. She clapped her mouth shut to quell the cry and felt saliva rush to bathe the burned spot. She was grateful for the pain, she accepted it as her penance; this way she wouldn’t have to tell her father what she’d done.
She was surrounded by black and gray heads bent in communion, eyes closed in unself-conscious repose, and if she would just bend hers too, she’d blend in; no one would know that she did not belong.
Phrases echoed in her head, and afterwards she could never be sure if the ones she remembered were embedded in that sermon, or were words she’d heedlessly heard all her life, or were those teachings of Jesus that she only absorbed later, when she found the copy of the Bible that Hana had given her in ninth grade and she began, for the first time, to read it. Wherever the words came from, they suddenly spoke to her, holding her in thrall. The sufferings of present time are nothing… Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near… Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.
She lowered her chin and shut her eyes.
* * *
It just doesn’t make sense.
That was the essence of her argument, in ninth grade. Hana had been gently prodding about the void she perceived in Scarlett’s life for some time, but the debate hadn’t taken place until that day, as they sat in the cafeteria over their sporks and styrofoam trays, the gift-wrapped Bible on the table. A boy was there too, the cute tenth-grader who would become Hana’s boyfriend that summer, though at the time it was a subject of much speculation whether it was Hana he desired, or Mary, or Jin.
Scarlett tried to elaborate: There was something so male, so egocentric about Christianity — man being made in His image, for starters. She brought up biology — the Big Bang, human evolution. Hana and the girls talked of faith over reason, a higher power, a grand design; how else, they asked, could she explain hearts and souls? Scarlett wanted to argue that, if you wanted, you could see an animal in every cloud, a constellation in every patch of sky, but she faltered.
Instead, she questioned the idea of sinners burning in hell, which seemed kind of, well, un-Christian, and then there was the question of who those sinners were — unrepentant gays? People who had premarital sex? To this Hana said, apologetically, that homosexuality was a sin; and was Scarlett suggesting that people shouldn’t save themselves for marriage?
The tenth-grader broke in: Hold up. You Korean girls are so uptight. Let Scarlett explain why she believes in premarital sex.
Scarlett had blushed so hard that tears pricked her eyes as she stammered, I don’t — it’s not that I believe in it — but doesn’t everyone? — from what I’ve heard—
She should have known then. She should have known, for one thing, that in the next few years, as Hana and the girls became immersed in their privileges, with prominent positions of school leadership, and party-filled weekends, and worshipful boyfriends, they would have to compromise between those church teachings and this new reality — for instance, the fact that homophobia was not only unkind but uncool. And of course they never told her and she never asked, but everyone knew, and how ironic it was, that she, Scarlett, the only one who didn’t take moral stock by her virtue was the only one who kept it.
If she had known then, she could have swallowed her reasoned objections that day in the cafeteria, she could have usurped their faith long ago, submitting every aspect of herself to be transformed by the righteous light tumbling through — her passivity to patience, her shyness to meekness, her undesirability to innocence.
* * *
The pages were like tissue paper, pale translucent sheets layered thick and cloaking secrets. She flipped through and let words catch her eye — Caleb, Moses, Cain, names that seemed to glow though she didn’t know their stories.
She skipped ahead to the New Testament, thinking perhaps it was an update of the original, a more relevant sequel. At first it read like Greek mythology, like folk tales and fables, earth-shattering events hinged on angels and stars. She puzzled over the genealogies, who the Pharisees and Sadducees might be, where the towns of Zebulun and Naphtali. But she kept on, and soon she was able to let the passages wash over her, to become something more unassailable than fact.
She thought she understood Jesus as a character. Compassionate and wise, yes — also impatient, cocky, even a show-off. He would communicate the meaning of the cosmos to the masses in cryptic parables and then yell at them when they didn’t understand. He would perform miracles before huge crowds and then command them not to tell. He was like the supreme man, with never a doubt in himself or in what he was meant to do on this earth.
At first, prayer stymied her. She recited the Lord’s Prayer, silently, slowly, hearing herself as though on a tape recorder. Our Father, who art in heaven,/ hallowed be thy name;/ thy kingdom come;/ thy will be done… Tasting the near-rhymes, she felt hope that inspiration would strike; but soon she closed on Amen, her mind still blank. She couldn’t think what to tell God that He wasn’t already supposed to know.
Finally she thought to ask for things she wanted, and soon it became easy — obvious, even. It was just like wishing, minus the penny in the fountain, the clock showing 11:11, the fallen eyelash on her fingertip.
* * *
“Brainwashed!” Her mother banged the plates on the table, threw the chopsticks and napkins on top. “Those Koreans, and now you too.”
“Let me get that.” Scarlett tried to take the steaming dish, but her mother slammed it down. Sauce splattered, staining the tablecloth.
“You should have been home. Instead I work all day, I come home, the kitchen is dirty, no food for dinner, not even rice cooked, and my daughter is out at church.”
Scarlett bustled around, head down, to sop up the sauce, fold the napkins, straighten the chopsticks. “I told you, we had a meeting.”
“They’re no different from a cult. Worse than the Communists.”
Scarlett skirted the jabbing of her mother’s finger and went to scoop the rice into bowls.
“Let me ask you something,” her mother said. “All those Koreans you know are Christian. More Christian than Americans. Why do you think that is?”
They were both seated now and Scarlett could no longer dodge the onslaught. “They have a very tight-knit community,” she said.
“Koreans are a downtrodden people. Invaded by the Japanese, forced to speak another language, their women stolen, the worst things you can imagine. Then when they were at most desperate, during the war, those Western missionaries flooded the place, brainwashed all of them. The church took advantage of those poor people to build their own power. And now they’re using you.”
Scarlett flinched. “Who could be using me? For what?”
“You tell me. Free labor, at least.”
Scarlett mustered what she imagined to be a Christian composure. “Why is religion a bad thing? If it works for people, if it gives them comfort—”
“Comfort? Your Korean friends, I know what their parents do. They slave away in dry cleaners and delis every day except Sunday, and then they give their hard-earned money to the church — to build another stained glass window? To pay those corrupt priests?”
“The church isn’t perfect. Because humans are imperfect. You’ve never read the Bible. You shouldn’t be so closed-minded.”
“I’m closed-minded? Your precious church has Koreans convinced that the world began with the birth of their white Jesus, when right next door we Chinese have been keeping count for five thousand years.”
Scarlett clasped her hands in her lap, beneath the folds of the tablecloth.
“All these years I’ve raised you, fed you. I paid for your college and now I’m still supporting you. This is how you repay me, choosing the church over your own mother. What would your father say—” Her mother’s voice snagged.
Scarlett closed her eyes and said her prayers. They ate in silence. When she had cleared the table and washed the dishes, she went to her room and flipped through the Bible until she came upon the passage she was looking for: …Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…
She was not brainwashed. Far from it. She supposed that in the circle of her high school friends, she’d been, in a way, the Korean — the downtrodden. But the downtrodden learn how to take what they need, too.
Scarlett’s days now had distinct personalities. Each week was textured, replete.
Sundays, of course, were church services. At first, she’d waited for Hana — the keeper of her secrets, the appointed guard at the gates — so they could head in together, but now she enjoyed her solo entrances. She was familiar enough not to attract surprise or scrutiny, yet new enough to merit enthusiastic greetings — more enthusiastic than Hana often received. Soon a church elder asked if Scarlett would consider becoming a Sunday school teacher, and she began staying after service to observe the classes, feeling like she gained points every week. Hana never stayed, and someday the score would be close; someday Scarlett might pull away.
Tuesday evenings were given to Bible study with three other twenty-somethings who, Scarlett recognized, would have ranked on her level in the high school hierarchy or, without pretty friends like Hana and Mary and Jin, perhaps lower. The truth was, they bored her, though she never tired of feeling superior. Perhaps they sensed this, because they often extolled Scarlett for being not only the newcomer but the natural: the way she braved an all-Korean church, went against the wishes of her own mother, radiated the contentment that came only with true faith.
Thursdays she volunteered at a Korean community center run by church mothers. Her being Chinese shielded her from the most intimidating duty — answering a hotline for referrals to domestic abuse counselors, immigration lawyers, Alcoholics Anonymous, gang intervention programs. At first, she kept to dusting, filing, brewing barley tea. Soon she began to help with day care, reading from an illustrated Bible, passing out drawings of Jesus and Mary for the kids to color. Then she began playing checkers with the elders, games that remained comfortably wordless, punctuated by exaggerated sounds of triumph and doom.
Friday evenings were spent at youth group meetings. As part of her teaching preparation, she attended the informal sermons, set up and cleaned up dinner, and attended the group discussions, which often centered on what Jesus would do if confronted by a racist gang or a drug dealer or pressure to have premarital sex. Sometimes, picking up pizza crusts, collecting half-empty cups of soda, she wondered if any of the teenagers would do what they said Jesus would — if any of them truly believed. In a way, the question seemed moot. They could simply enjoy the lifelong perks of their faith: a community, a purpose, a social calendar, a gathering place.
The teenagers’ hierarchy was somewhat blurred in this setting, but she could still see who was pretty and who was desired and who was unpretty yet desired and who was not, who made people laugh and who had direction and who did not. At first she felt sure they could place her too at first glance, though whether they saw her as an old virgin or as someone who had taken her one chance, she couldn’t decide. Weeks passed before she realized they didn’t consider her at all, that her age and position made her irrelevant in their order, and then she began to relax.
Joon was a boy who also seemed outside the order, but in a different way, as though its existence might be news to him. He often ambled in late and sat at the other end of the back row, giving her a quick, deferential nod across a stretch of empty seats. The cool boys respected him and the pretty girls flirted, and she thought he flirted back until she saw him talk to an ugly girl with more effort. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but he was what girls called baby-cute, his eyes thick-lashed and twinkly, his mouth and cheeks tinged pink. She’d heard that he, like her, was the only churchgoing member of his family; that his father had moved back to Korea, that something was wrong with his mother; that at school, he’d been deemed a delinquent.
One night, Scarlett was wiping down the tables when she overheard him telling people to meet at the park, he had a bottle of soju in his backpack. Someone elbowed him and nodded in alarm toward her; she scrubbed intently. When she looked up again, to her surprise he appeared as a repentant little boy, his head slightly lowered, his soft cheeks flushed. Their eyes met and he gave her an abashed wave, then herded the group to the door, and she had the urge to call him back, to say that his sins were safe with her, or even reassure him with a wink.
* * *
Word spread that Scarlett’s twenty-fifth birthday fell on the last Monday of March. The church elders chose the Sunday immediately preceding it for her baptism.
Her Bible study group was atwitter: Wasn’t it amazing how quickly she’d become ready, and wasn’t it funny how she’d tiptoed into the church on Hana’s arm that first Sunday and now she was a more valued member than Hana had ever been. That night, feeling generous and slightly guilty, Scarlett called her oldest friend.
“So Sunday is the big day,” Hana said.
“Yes. And I’ve been meaning to tell you—” A tide of her old timidity washed over her, and then a clashing wave of resentment. “Thank you. If it weren’t for you—”
“No, no, you’ve done it on your own.” Hana paused. “But are you sure you’re ready?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“You’re making a public profession of your faith. You’re being accepted into the fellowship of the church. It’s a spiritual cleansing, a rebirth.”
“I know that.”
“Maybe you haven’t considered what it really means, or whether you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
“What are the right reasons?”
“I think you just answered my question.”
“I believe,” Scarlett said. “Everyone at church knows it. Why else would they ask me to teach Sunday school?”
“They need all the bodies they can find to teach Sunday school.”
Scarlett heard a loud breathing before she realized it was her own. “I’m a better church member than you are.”
“It’s not a competition,” Hana said. “I have a job. I have a social life. And I don’t think religion should be used as a crutch.”
Scarlett had heard that before. Well, why shouldn’t it be? She blurted, “But you have it easy.”
“I work at a nonprofit. I give my parents a chunk of my paycheck. They still work six days a week. How do I have it easy?”
“You’ve always had your church, your grades, your looks—”
Hana let out an incredulous laugh. “My grades? We’re not in high school anymore. And I’ve never relied on my looks.”
Of course not, Scarlett thought. That would be like Rowan relying on his whiteness.
When Hana spoke, she sounded patient and kind again. “When I brought you into the church, I just wanted to help. You seemed so sad. I didn’t mean for you to get carried away.”
* * *
The spring-morning sun, a callow thing, had been swallowed by clouds. After her baptism, on the church steps, Scarlett was surrounded by people patting and congratulating her. Hana gave her a Hallmark card. A church elder handed her a printout: as of next week, her students. Nine names, high school juniors, and one of them was Joon.
She glimpsed him walking away alone, head down, hands in pockets. She could have imagined it. She could have misunderstood.
Someone proposed a celebratory lunch, and this became a chorus. No thank you, she heard herself saying, Thank you but no, over and over.
Back home, in her bedroom, she looked in the mirror. The material over her chest was dry now; she couldn’t tell where the drops had landed. Her mother called for her to buy groceries. She tossed the dress into a dusty corner of her closet.
It was surprisingly easy to find the number of Hana’s nonprofit in the phone book, to press the tones of Jack’s name into the automated directory.
His bedroom looked faded and familiar. She undressed without waiting for him to ask. She touched her lips to his neck and pushed her tongue inside his mouth. As he moved on top of her, she let her limbs and eyelids relax, wallowing in the warm, dark closeness. It felt so normal. It felt like she’d been granted a taste of what other people did all the time.
Afterwards they lay, nearly touching, in quiet shadow. I got baptized yesterday, she thought to tell him. Or, Today’s my twenty-fifth birthday. At last she reached for her clothes, flung inside-out and twisted, and caught sight of a framed photograph: Hana, aglow in a sparkly dress. She picked it up. In the background were other attractive people — Yappies — laughing, hugging, draped in tinsel.
Jack sat up. “That was our office party, last Christmas.”
“Where are you?”
“I took the picture.” In a rush, he said, “What was Hana like in high school?”
“Who cares anymore?” Scarlett said. “Do you know how she talks about you? Do you think you ever had a chance?”
His doughy face hardened. He said, “Put the picture back.”
“Hana took pity on people like us,” Scarlett said. “She still does.”
* * *
Teaching Sunday school was the hardest work she’d ever done. She had to learn how to speak in front of the room without her cheeks burning or her voice trembling. She had to remember to avoid passages that contained the word “flesh,” lest she relinquish the discussion to two jokester boys. Then the class would only settle down when Joon looked up and said, with a quiet note of authoritative annoyance, “Man, shut up.” He might have seemed like a kiss-up, except that he’d return immediately to his doodling or daydreaming, and when she called on him, he always needed the question repeated.
He often walked in late, smelling of cigarettes, with a kind of calm haste and an apologetic air, utterly unlike the jokesters swaggering, the pretty girls dawdling. He never raised his hand, but he spoke slowly and earnestly, without shyness. One Sunday, he wore a pair of khakis with an big blotch of ink on the back pocket, and when the boys pointed this out, hooting, he simply twisted to look, then turned back with a shrug and a mild grin.
Sometimes Scarlett thought the thumbs-up must have been a casual signal for someone else. Other times, she caught in his gaze a trace of that light that had flickered from the dimness of the back of the church to where she stood, and she shivered at how he’d known, in that moment, to save her.
* * *
It was time, she resolved, to teach the chapter of First Corinthians that contained the line she held closest: For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
She read aloud her first discussion question: “What is this passage about?”
“My sister had this read at her wedding.”
“But isn’t this about God’s love, not romantic love?”
“What do the rest of you think?” When Scarlett had waited for a response and received none, she said, “I think it’s about both. It’s about the transformative power of God’s love, which is what inspires us to love other people truly and well. And not just in a romantic way.”
They discussed different kinds of love: Eternal love. Mortal love. Motherly love, brotherly love. Love between friends. Love between a man and a woman.
“Love between a man and a man,” one of the boys whispered.
“Love between a man and a goat,” the other boy sniggered.
Under the resulting din, Scarlett said, “Okay. All right,” again and again, until Joon called for silence. Hastily, she moved on: “Next question: Reread verse 12. What does this line mean? What do you see when you look in a mirror?” The class was still giggling. She ventured, “Joon?”
To her surprise, he didn’t ask her to repeat the question. He said, “It’s like, how you look — what you see in a mirror — it’s not what God sees, or what people see if they truly love you. Your outward appearance is just a pale reflection of yourself.”
* * *
There had been a time, not so long ago, when the wish foremost in Scarlett’s mind was for her mother to stop calling her a pretty girl, so that she could just settle into the life she was meant to live, and maybe even change her name. But then Rowan had come along and showed her what it was to be wanted, even for a little while, even for what others would call the wrong reasons, and after that, she couldn’t go back.
It seemed to her that you had a finite number of chances to make your life. If you had a boyfriend, you could marry; if you had a husband, you could divorce; if you had a career, you could switch it; if you had faith, you could lose it. But what if, with a quarter-century behind you, you seemed fated not to have any of these things? She’d seen the road ahead for her and she’d resisted, reached out for more. With Jack she’d used up one chance. She supposed church was another.
She had made a life for herself — though to someone like Hana, it wasn’t any kind of life at all. And to her, there seemed to be so much out there, so unbearably much, that she was still forbidden to touch.
* * *
Time was up. The girls in the class, suddenly inspired, had discussed self-esteem and body image, the prevalence of anorexia among their peers, the inevitability of being judged by their clothes. Scarlett was no longer sure what she’d intended, and she was grateful for the spirited discussion. As the class exited, she collected her discussion sheets, scattered on the chairs and the floor.
One of the boys appeared to be imitating the way Joon might look at himself in a mirror, sticking out his butt to check his back pocket, grinning and giving a thumbs-up, stroking an imaginary mustache.
“Wait, what am I thinking? Your mom’s got more of a mustache than you do.”
“Man, shut up.”
Joon shoved the boy. The boy shoved him back. Joon fell against a chair that toppled onto Scarlett. Papers went flying. Abashed, the boys stooped to pick things up, but Joon barked at them to leave, so they did, calling out an apology to Scarlett from the corridor.
She knelt and fixed her eyes on the floor. An opened can of soda had also been upturned, soaking her handouts. Joon knelt too. She saw a puddle slowly oozing toward his knee but she couldn’t think how to warn him.
He gathered a handful of papers and flapped them up and down. Scarlett covered her eyes. Tiny drops had been caught by her lashes, crowding her vision with strange points of light. He apologized and reached into his pockets, his cheeks flushing red. She watched him fumble, unable to shift her gaze from the strong line of his jaw, the undercurrent of motion in his chest, the jutting angles of his elbows. He pulled out a napkin. She took it and wiped her eyes.
There was her heading — “Scarlett’s Sunday School Class” above the date — and the last questions she’d labored over, left unasked.
How can we try to see ourselves through God’s eyes, in the light of His love?
How might you appear if seen “face to face”?
She said, “I didn’t get to ask all my questions.”
“We could continue next week,” he said.
She watched him sop up the spill, his knuckles working beneath the milky thin skin. The puddle by his knee was seeping into his pants, a dark stain slowly spreading. What the boys had said was true: the skin on his upper lip and chin was hairless, smooth as a newborn’s. If she lifted her arm, if she stretched out her hand, his face would be just within reach.