Angels of Queens
Matthew Kim sat at his makeshift plywood desk, barely able to focus on writing his Sunday sermon as honks and wails from the most cantankerous Korean neighborhood in Queens pierced his bedroom. He was about to toss his first draft onto the parched hardwood floor when his cell phone rang. Before he finished “Hello,” his ex-wife Esther said frantically, “Harry’s gone again. He didn’t show up to school.”
Matthew thought he knew where to find his seventeen-year-old son. Last year, Matthew had to trek into Connecticut to bail Harry out of jail after he had been caught drinking in a tree-lined alcove next to an abandoned train station.
“Do you remember the woods by the train station?” Matthew asked his ex-wife, figuring that hideout was the best place to start looking for Harry, who had been lashing out every few weeks since his mother moved him to his stepfather’s house in the manicured suburbs.
“Oh, where the cops found him last year? I guess I can go there with Jimmy.”
Since Harry usually referred to his stepfather as “that worthless fuckhead,” Matthew said, “Maybe I should go.”
His ex-wife paused for a bit, and then admitted, “I can’t control him anymore. He doesn’t respect me, and he treats his stepfather like dirt.”
“The court said he had to live with you,” Matthew said, though he wanted his son back in Queens. Since the second grade, Harry had attended special classes because he could not learn as fast as the other students, and, just a year after the divorce, his doctors had diagnosed him as bipolar. Matthew thought his faith could guide his son through his troubles though, in weak moments, he sometimes questioned why God burdened a teenager with so much.
“Just for a few days, maybe he can stay with you?” Esther asked.
As Matthew drove his shaky Chevy Malibu far into the WASP suburbs, he saw that his ex-wife, a primped Asian woman with a model’s build, must draw intrigued glances from the white-haired country club men in their SUV’s. After an hour, Matthew finally arrived at a haunted-looking wooden train station. He walked a few feet into a hideaway that was blocked from street view by blooming cloud-like bushes and willow trees with sagging branches. Littered with cigarette butts and empty bottles, the packed dirt of the garage-sized alcove looked like the scene of many nights of hard drinking and clumsy fumblings with any willing girl. Harry had told Matthew last year that white kids had keg parties at vacationing parents’ houses, but the small clique of Asians had to use that hideout as their parents rarely went away.
Matthew saw Harry sitting in the darkest corner of the alcove, holding a plastic bottle in his right hand. Harry was tall and robust, like Matthew, and shared his father’s austere, square face. Harry was shivering, wearing only a white T-shirt and jeans, though it was a brisk spring day.
“It’s warmer in Queens,” Matthew said with a smile.
On the ride home, Harry rambled drunken words, “I can’t live there anymore. He got a new dog. A disgusting fucking pug. I hate that damn thing. It pisses and shits on my stuff. I wanna kill it.”
“You can stay with me a few days, but you have to live with them not me. They have custody,” Matthew responded. He wished he had Harry’s anti-depressant pills somewhere in the car to calm him. Harry had always had disciplinary problems as a child, but since being diagnosed as bipolar, he was an effusive fountain of hate without his drugs.
“I hate him. I wish him and his fucking dog would just die,” Harry said.
“It’s just a dog. You can learn to live with a dog.”
“It’s not just that.” Harry’s right hand clenched into a fist as he shook his head, “I caught them doing it the other day.”
“What? You mean…”
“I skipped school and came home and they were there in the living room.”
“Don’t tell me anymore.”
“It was sick. What he does to her. It’s not normal. It’s just sick.”
Almost twenty years prior on their wedding night, Esther lay frozen with fear in her eyes, like she was about to undergo an unpleasant medical exam. She looked up at Matthew with expectation, as if he should know how to guide her to her proper role. Matthew had only one sexual experience, with a prostitute before he was drafted into the Korean army, so he knew little more than her.
“We don’t have to do this tonight,” he said.
“It’s our wedding night,” she said nervously.
“Well, you don’t have to look like you’re about to die.”
They had met during Matthew’s first year at a seminary in Upper Manhattan in 1989, when they were both twenty-four. Mutual friends in their Korean bible study group had suggested he might be a good match for Esther, then a nursing student in a nearby university, because, at six foot one, he was the only man they knew taller than her. They had their first date in the dimly lit seminary cafeteria which consisted of a few uneven tables steadied with old magazines. She was thin and towering, like girls in American fashion magazines, but she self-consciously stooped her shoulders around him. He had thought Esther, with her high cheek bones and almond eyes, was pretty in a wholesome way that his parents would like, though her unusual height would cause some concern. After only four months of dating, meeting mostly in dusty libraries and little Koreatown cafes, he had proposed on one knee in his closet-sized dormitory room. He had said, “Being a minister’s wife may not be the life that you dreamed of, but I will give you everything you need, and we will share a life in Christ always.”
On their wedding night, when he saw her naked, he was surprised by the curves she had kept hidden under the blouses that she usually wore buttoned to her neck. As he got on top of her, he felt himself letting go of discretion, allowing himself to indulge in the pleasure of her soft body, knowing that it was no longer a sin.
When he looked down into her eyes, he saw pain and fear for the first few minutes. Her breaths were short and she whimpered as if wounded. He thought he should ask if she were okay, but he could not bring himself to speak.
Then, near his climax, he looked down and saw her eyes closed, her back arched, and, in her face, a note of pure pleasure, like she was feeling blessings and sins combining for the first time. He had only seen exaggerated versions of such faces on women in magazines he had bought from corner vendors when he succumbed to temptation, but in his new wife’s eyes, there was nothing shameful. Only, he thought, a bliss that can be experienced after a lifetime of denial.
A week after Harry had run away, Esther and her seven-year-old daughter Candace, fathered by Esther’s second husband, came to see Harry. Esther had told Matthew over the phone that morning that she wanted to take Harry back to Connecticut if possible. This was the first time in several years that she had ventured into the messy rows of neon Korean signs in Queens. Dressed in a sleek leather jacket and tight designer jeans meant for a younger woman, Esther entered Matthew’s two-bedroom apartment bearing a box of tangerines bought at a Koreatown market. Candace, who looked like a wide-eyed miniature of her mother in pink overalls, looked up sadly at Matthew when she entered, like a kitten starved for affection.
“What happened to your jaw?” Matthew noticed a silver dollar-sized bruise that she had tried to cover with a lot of foundation. Matthew still found Esther, who at 44 could fit into her wedding dress, desirable and would have taken her into their former bedroom if she had shown any interest. Doing so would not have been a sin in Matthew’s mind, as she was still his wife in God’s eyes.
“I slipped on our porch and hit my jaw on the steps. Just stupid of me.”
“Want some ice?”
“No. I’ll be fine.” Esther looked around her former abode and seemed disgusted by the squalor of two males. She cringed at the empty take-out cartons, newspapers, and dirty clothes strewn across the floor, as if pests might crawl up her ebony high-heel boots if she were not careful. She was no longer shy about her height, and strode around with runway posture in shoes that made her an inch taller than Matthew.
“He’s in his old room. All he does is lay there,” Matthew said.
“Candace, stay here while we go talk to your brother, okay?”
“I’ll turn the TV on,” Matthew smiled. Candace’s eyes instantaneously sparkled.
“No, actually. She isn’t allowed to watch network TV,” Esther said. The sparkle quickly faded.
“I have cookies if she can have some,” Matthew said.
“No, she’s only eating organic.”
They had allowed Harry to eat junk food when he had been growing up, but Esther seemed to be taking a different approach with Candace, as if her daughter were a fresh canvas.
“Harry, your mother is here,” Matthew announced. Harry had his back turned to the door. He rolled over in his dingy twin-sized mattress to face them, but did not rise. Harry’s room, a dark cubbyhole with a little barred window that faced the building’s parking lot, could only qualify as a bedroom in New York City.
Matthew noticed the two anti-depressant pills that he had laid out for Harry were still sitting on top of a napkin on the rickety plastic nightstand, “You were supposed to take those hours ago, Harry.” Matthew said.
“I’ll take them when I want,” Harry groused.
“You know they make you better, Harry. The doctors all say so, even your stepdad,” Esther said.
“Don’t call him that. He’s nothing to me.”
Esther shook her head and then tried hard to smile, “What exactly have you been up to?”
“I haven’t left this room,” Harry responded
“Do you want to come back to Connecticut?” Esther said gingerly.
“Because I’ll kill that fucking bastard’s dog if I come back.”
“Don’t curse at your mom!” Matthew intervened.
“Curse? She’s gonna hear a lot worse burning in hell.”
“Harry!” Matthew shouted.
Esther covered her eyes with her willowy right hand and shook her head again.
Harry smugly continued, “That’s what you taught me, Dad. That if you die with sin in your soul, you’ll burn. Unless she comes back to you, she’s toast.”
“I never said your mother is burning in hell,” Matthew said.
“That’s what you taught me, Dad, and you know it. She’ll burn if she dies tomorrow, cuz she hasn’t repented for being a slut.” Matthew had never struck his son, but he approached as if he would. Harry smiled as if to dare Matthew.
“Stop it, Harry!” Matthew shouted, though he would have to admit, if forced, that he believed his wife was condemned in God’s eyes at that moment.
Esther said, her voice shaking, “This is pointless. I can’t talk to him when he’s like this.”
Harry smirked disdainfully into the ceiling.
Esther stormed out of Harry’s room and into the kitchen, where Candace, startled, hurriedly threw an object into the trash. Matthew slammed the door to Harry’s room shut and followed.
Esther grabbed Candace’s arm, “Let’s go.”
Matthew said, “He has serious problems. His mind is not right.”
“I’ll come by again sometime soon, and we can talk about it some more.”
“He can stay with me a while, but you have custody. He has to learn to live with you.”
“I know that, but you saw how he is. I can’t do this right now.”
After they left, Matthew looked down on his kitchen’s weathered black-and-white tile, and noticed a light dusting of sugar where Candace had been standing. When he looked in his plastic trash can, he saw, on top of his garbage, an open box of sugar taken from his cabinet and a small plastic spoon.
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