Before I got lost in that big porno theater on Astoria, my therapist told me how his husband wasn’t really his husband. He said that his husband had been a friend who’d been terminally ill and that his literal dying wish had been to marry so the friend turned over in his hospital bed, held out a plastic ring, and said Who better than my very best friend in the whole wide world? And, so absolutely taken by this, my therapist nodded his head and the dying friend then slipped the ring on his finger—just as they would in a movie, my therapist added. A nurse entered the room right then, as the plastic ring had been attached to a call cord, to which they both felt was kismet, seeing as her name was Divine. They married right there in that very hospital room later that very same day by the hospital chaplain. That was three years ago, the dying friend is no longer dying, and my therapist feels duped.
My therapist told me all of this in my second session because that’s what people do. They tell me their secrets. Often, it’s strangers. And, mostly, it’s things that exist in their periphery. It’s that thing you’re looking at when you stare into space, whatever that business is on the other end of a heavy sigh. This has been happening to me since I was a kid. I don’t mind it except sometimes I’ll be in a hurry like when the cashier at Trader Joe’s tells me that when he used to work at McDonald’s he’d take home dozens and dozens of extra cups and containers during the Monopoly promotion in an attempt to win millions but all he ever got were small fries and medium drinks. A dozen glaring people in line behind me. When I look back at the cashier, he looks sheepish and shrugs his shoulders as if to apologize. I nod my head, smile, and grab my bag. Someone in the line flicks me off.
Or, maybe I’m running between terminals and I miss my connecting flight because I make eye contact with a woman walking out of the bathroom who unloads a whole story about being diverted from her teenage wish to become a musician when her father trashed her guitar. Just the day before she dumped a glass of water on her daughter’s keyboard. The kid was getting too good.
Or, how I failed my Korean 101 finals at the community college when I retrieved a fallen pen for the woman behind me whom I had not spoken to once all semester, who, as I passed the Bic into her hand, looked me in the eye and instead of saying thank you said, I’ve been sleeping with my stepmom. I dropped her pen and was asked to leave the classroom.
Anyhow, I’d been telling my therapist how I was getting bored of sex. That now, at 40, I still hadn’t had any sort of meaningful relationships, just a bunch of quickies. So, about two weeks before the first session with my therapist, I’d met this guy online, he came over, we got naked, and not even five minutes in, I went soft. We tried, he tried, I tried. I just couldn’t get it up, so he left. Afterward, I finish up on my own no problem. I hit up the bathhouses but every time, with any of these dudes, I just can’t get it up. That’s when I start shopping for therapists.
During that first session, I’m initially taken with how handsome my therapist is—square jaw, kind eyes. I tell him what’s going on and he wants to know about my parents. I tell him how my father used to beat my mother anytime she suggested a trip home to Korea to see her family. Or that time she saw a Red Lobster commercial and imagined out loud about having shrimp scampi for her birthday. What scampi? she’d always ask before he’d smack her. But one time, in my late teens, I finally did something. I held a knife to his belly. It was the same knife my mother had been using moments earlier to peel an apple in one single spiral, like a snake uncoiling. The dining table is on its side, rice stuck to the wall, kimchi staining the carpet again, and Uhma’s neck clamped to the wall by Ahpa’s hands. I grabbed the knife off the floor and told him to stop. My hand shaking. He pushed his face into Uhma’s and, in Korean, sneered, See? He’s so weak. Then he laughed. He walked right up to me so that his belly pressed into the point of the knife. His grin was so tight and wide I could see every tooth in his mouth, his eyes so big they looked ready to spill from their sockets. And, then I pushed the tip in, just barely. His eyes never dropped but he stopped smiling. Suddenly, Uhma wedged her arms between us and pushed us away from each other. There was a tiny splotch of red on his shirt.
I guess she’d told him I was gay. He said it was obvious, blamed her for it.
It doesn’t matter, I said to my therapist. My father was never gonna love me.
My therapist dabbed his eyes with a Kleenex, Oh, Gawd. That’s terrible. And then he said, Do you think I should leave my husband?
Back in the 6th grade, my history teacher Mr. Berg says, in the middle of a lesson about World War I, Did you know that if you looked at Earth from the North Star with something like the new Hubble Space Telescope right now, you’d actually see what was happening about 400 years ago? He was always way more into science than history.
He tells us about light years and how everything we see is in the past. Albeit in fractions of milliseconds, he adds pacing around the room. Now imagine something even farther away. We see the moon as it was about a second and a half ago. And, really, most of us will never get to see it exactly as it is.
From the back of the classroom, I hear April Weber’s voice, So, could I see myself being born? Beside her was Joey Lombardi who smiled when our eyes locked for a fraction of a second. Then, he winked.
Sure, if you were about 12 light-years away, Ms. Weber.
I raised my hand and asked, Mr. Berg, do you think you could change anything? Like that’s already happened?
His eyes swiveled up and around, his mustache danced a little with his pursed lips and then he said, Change the past you mean? No. I’m talking about how long it takes light to travel. What you’d see would have already happened. Like a delay on the telephone line when you call another country. What you’re talking about is time travel, which would be something, huh?
Then he looks me in the eye and smirks, Ya know, what I really wanted to be growing up was an astronaut. Even later. I wanted to go to outer space. I still do. To be in that vastness. Can you imagine? Haven’t thought about that in forever.
This is the first time it happens—as if I was unlocking a door just by looking at him. His eyes are wet and brimming, pointed towards infinity. He rubbed his index fingers and thumbs together, almost as if conjuring. I think there was more he wanted to share but he caught a raised hand somewhere behind me.
How many light-years away to see the Big Bang? You know…back when you were born, Mr. Berg.
It’s Joey, of course. The classroom bursts into laughter and I am slapping my desk so hard hoping Joey will see. He does and I think he blushes.
Mr. Berg chuckles with just a hint of shame then says, Yes, yes. I may be a bit old, now that you mention it, Mr. Lombardi. He straightens back and the hand that was resting on his belly moves over the few hairs on his bald head, terribly self-aware. Sorry, kids. Guess I can be a real space cadet sometimes!
He winks, the class groans.
But if you could imagine a super-telescope, why couldn’t you imagine being able to change the past? I thought about the silver dollar I’d stolen from April Weber’s desk that her grandpa had given her, about my dad beating up my mom all the time. I’d wish I could stop myself from telling all those guys how in love I thought I was just for their faces to become clouded with irritation or apology.
At lunch that same day, I stared at Joey Lombardi in the school cafeteria, hoping he’d look up and say that he was in love with me. He nods his head along with some conversation about I can’t remember what, takes a bite out of his bologna sandwich, then, lifting the carton of milk towards his mouth, catches my eye. Everything is still, everything is exciting. Everything is this moment.
Jeez Is that your lunch, ching-chong?! Did your mom fry up your dog? The table shakes with laughter. Hello? What the hell are you staring at, faggot?
This is why they’re called crushes.
I finish my lunch in the boys’ bathroom while crying and listening to Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” on endless repeat. When I get home, I tell Uhma to never put kimchi in my lunch again. I tell her to make bologna sandwiches like normal people. As I storm out of the kitchen, I hear her ask to no one in particular, What is balloony?
Years later, after college, I’m pulling my head out of a pastry case at the Starbucks I worked at, and there’s Joey. More handsome than ever. Beside him is a square-jawed, tank of a man with gleaming white teeth, and a whole knuckle of bananas in his pants.
Oh. My. God. You went to Kennedy, right? He is practically shouting.
Yeah. We were in Mr. Berg’s history class together.
Oh yeah, Mr. Berg, “the space cadet.” I was such a shit to him. Hope he’s doin’ alright. Anyways, so wild to see you again. He quickly scans the room and loops his arm around the other guy’s. In a whisper he says, This is Tony. My life partner.
Tony nods his head, extends a hand, and crushes mine.
Hey! Great to meet you… He squints and looks at my nametag. Yeah, I’m never gonna be able to say that. Chinese?
Anyhow, I’m a real estate agent. Office is just down the street.
That’s cool, I guess.
What do you do—sorry, THIS is what you do! Right! Well … yeah, so we’ll have two skinny vanilla lattes when you get a sec! Oh, and sugar-free. And, if you’re ever in the market, call me up, ‘kay?
As I’m pulling espresso shots, I watch them. Joey grips Tony’s arm tight and you can tell he wants to be held tight. He looks up, searching for Tony’s eyes but Tony is standing stark straight looking out the window at a bulldog tied to a bench. Joey unlatches and heads to the bathroom. I call their drinks.
I cheat on him all the time. Even before we had our union ceremony. I just, I can’t help myself, ya know?
The bathroom door swooshes open and Tony offers his arm to Joey straight away, looks him straight in the eye, and says, I missed you.
Joey beams as they walk out the door, arm-in-arm. I watch them step into traffic, nearly mowed down by an armored truck barreling down the road. Joey shrieks as Tony pulls him close.
A few weeks later, April Weber calls to tell me that Mr. Berg died. Found alone at his cabin in Wisconsin, she said.
They’re saying it was a heart attack. Found him on the roof.
On the roof?
Yeah, I guess he was laying next to his telescope. Did I ever tell you that I absorbed my twin in utero? And, that I love being an only child?
My manager strolls over, taps me on the shoulder, and tells me I need to smile more. Then says, I give most people decaf.
I really thought my therapist would get into more the stuff about my dad in the second session but he didn’t. When I walked out of his office, I put money in the meter, then walked a few blocks to the theater to see if I’d ever have a boner again. I waited until the coast was clear before ducking into the doors beneath the crumbling art deco marquee.
My nose dies a little every time I walk in there. Sex and bleach, splashed atop one another, decade after decade but you get used to it. Before my eyes adjust to the darkness, I move down the hall. On either side, are two smaller theaters. The one on the right plays straight porn and above the doorway to the theater on the left is a janky neon sign, a relic from the 70s that reads She-Males! The Best of Both Worlds!
Ahead is the main theater, the one with big velour drapes, forever drawn open, that used to play classics like Gone With the Wind or Casablanca but now just plays movies called Street Meat 2: Behind Bars. A handful of lonely men jerk themselves off in sullied velvet seats. The ceiling once ornate and gold-gilded looks now as if a good shake would bring it all raining down.
I poke my head into the straight theater where, in the very back, a man stands against the wall staring dead-on at the screen, though it feels like he’s looking at me. The wedding band and raised chin tell me he’s too afraid of himself to do anything. There are two other men in this theater, both alone. One looks just like Robert Stack from Unsolved Mysteries, trenchcoat and all. He’s staring at me for I’m not sure how long before he turns his head back to the screen. Serial killer vibes. The third guy is pawing at my crotch. He has a handsome face. He is fully naked and has one leg. There isn’t a shred of clothing, let alone crutches or a wheelchair, in the vicinity of him. Does he live here?
I let him unzip my pants. He uses both hands to lower my underwear and takes me into his mouth while his hands travel further back and cup my ass. This goes on for all of a minute before I pull out, limp and wet. I do live here if you were wondering. I hand him a five and he spits at my feet as I back into the hallway.
There are deep nooks in the corridors between the theaters. Guys looking for action linger half in the scant light of exit signs. There are none today, so I venture further in, swallowed up by the dark, looking. I bump into someone who pushes me away. His body moves in rhythm with another and I hear, I beat my son for wearing my wife’s lipstick but I do the same thing.
Beyond them is a guy jacking off. He steadies his free hand on my chest and in a tiny draped in shame says, I’ve never done this before. I kiss him on the forehead. He begins to cry as he cums.
As I walk away, I hear him whisper to God, I’m going to hell.
For what seems like hours, I make dozens of loops in this dark corner of the theater.
I wonder why I haven’t heard the shuffling of bodies or even felt the familiar sticking and unsticking of my shoes on the floor. No climaxing breaths, and it doesn’t smell bad anymore. Doesn’t smell like anything, actually. It’s cold, too. I try shouting for help but I can’t tell if my voice ever leaves my mouth. My ears feel stopped up. Am I floating?
It’s pitch black, I walk with my hands out in front of me. Only thinking of how to get out of this place.
Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?
I jump back into nothing, startled then relieved to finally find someone.
Hey, how do you get out—
Beautiful day, right?
Outside. It’s sunny and beautiful, no?
I don’t know. I guess it was…earlier…
Are you lost?
No. I mean, yeah, kind of. Like, which way is the lobby?
What kind of Oriental are you?
You are an Oriental, right? I really like the Orientals.
How can you even see anything in here?
If you get an Oriental, especially the Koreans, they don’t care about anyone else but you. I had a Korean but he died a couple years ago. I miss him so much.
Oh. I’m so—
Please. Do not feel bad. It was magical. There’s nothing like it, you know? Have you ever been in love?
Yeah, of course. Who hasn’t?
Oh, sorry, sorry—Have you ever been in love with someone who loves you back? You know. Real love.
There was a camp friend tapping his finger on a bible while our bare, interlaced legs are pressed tight, our breaths heavy, I remember another man who invited me into his bed for a year but never touched me, but close enough that I could feel the heat leaving his body. Then there’s the guy I’d traveled to Mexico with who asked me to pretend we didn’t know each other right before we entered a leather bar. Finally, I think of my dog’s face in my hands as I told him I loved him, and how he blinked once before his chest stopped moving, his skin fell slack, his eyes shut. The vet said she’d never seen a dog’s eyes close before.
I think my dog loved me back, I say.
Oh, honey. Oh, no no no. I’m so sorry. I really do hope you know this feeling someday. It really is the best thing. Nothing better than to be really in love, it is truly something.
Yeah, that’s what I hear.
I really hope this happens for you. He grabs my crotch before walking off, Good luck, sweet Oriental boy.
Before I lose my shit, he double backs, puts his hands on my face. They feel so familiar.
“Asian, not oriental” is what you say next. You add that “oriental is reserved for vases and rugs. Not people.”
Who are you?
He traces my lips with his thumb.
This was how we met. This is a memory.
I try to see his face, but it’s too dark. So, I place a hand on his cheek. I can feel him smile. He draws a quick, sharp breath. A warm tear on my thumb. A kiss.
He steps away.
I don’t think I’ll be too long.
I am standing where he left me, my face now cool where his hands had been. I wonder where he’s gone. I wonder where I am before I run after him into the abyss, unsure of the direction he’s gone.
And, a moment later, there are stars above. I am in the sky room at the planetarium. I’d only been there once.
Uhma and Ahpa had dropped me off before they headed to the flea market to sell bird cages and picture frames that nobody ended up wanting. On Lake Shore Drive, that day, I’d asked Ahpa if he’d gone to museums when he was a kid, asked him what his parents had been like, and what it was like being born into a war. No response, just glanced at me in the rearview. I stood on the curb with a ten-dollar bill Uhma had just given me as they drove away. I think I was seven or eight.
I headed directly to the sky room where they were playing jazz. There were bean bags all over the room but few people. I plopped down and lost myself in the stars gliding across the domed ceiling. Though I still can’t name a single constellation.
Nearby, two men caught my eye. They were laying on their sides facing one another, locked in some touchless embrace. They moved in closer and kissed. Then they laughed and gripped each other tight. They were still smiling even when they were being escorted out.
One of them looked back at me and winked. He shouts, just before he’s out of sight, We’re gonna be okay!
I remember thinking I looked like him.
Now, there is a pinprick of light. I walk towards it, though there is no floor beneath me. I am wading, spinning as if caught in a whirlpool. Now there are two specks of light, then they are countless and infinite, pulsing, making some kind of music I feel more than hear.
Floating past me here is Mr. Berg in a NASA-issued spacesuit waving at me as he glides around. My dog swims past and I drag my fingers through his lush fur as the one-legged man in Row 3, Seat 1 sails past, keeping his eyes peeled for another fella. They’re all here, too, drifting around like flowers in the water, all the men I wanted to love me back but didn’t.
There is my father, as I last saw him, lying on a table in the funeral parlor with his arms folded across his belly. I grab both his hands because we never did that. I put my hand on his cold cheek. The tears, one after another, drift off my cheeks like dandelion seeds.
His eyes remain closed, his hands unmoving, and I let him go. He and the table and the white cloth that covers him shrink away into the immensity like a tide receding.
From behind me, so close to my ear, her hand sweeps the hair out of my eyes just as she did when I was a child at bedtime. It’s my mother, perched on a swing, in a cage, the door wide open. She smiles as she propels her body out into space. A whole galaxy stretches between her and the enclosure that makes the tiniest spark as it crashes into the sun.
All of them, moving together like a fever of stingrays all through the firmament. It’s just me now careening through this multitude of galaxies somewhere in the direction of Alpha Centauri.
I feel heat in my chest, warmth in my belly. I am burning everywhere.
I am light. I am a star. I am the sun.
How many light-years away am I now, Mr. Berg?
Tell me, what do you see?
A man sits in a chair with crossed arms. His heel taps on the linoleum floor. Ahead of him an empty hospital bed. Overhead, the news is on but the man looks only at the door. The window looks over a snow-covered city.
He jumps to his feet when a nurse enters the room. She hands the baby over and he is so careful. He is holding me for the very first time.
And he is so in love.
Wancy Young Cho is a writer from Chicago. He holds an MFA from Columbia University and was a Jack Straw Writing Fellow (2017). He is a recipient of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s Gold Circle Award (2008) and the Written Image Screenwriting Award (2005). His writing appears on NBC’s THINK, The Stranger, Salon, The Windy City Times, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.