We pass a woman shaking her head and slapping at the steering wheel with her hands. Only after we’ve passed her do I figure out that she was probably dancing to music. Two kids in the back of another car stick their tongues out at me and laugh. I don’t do anything because I’m not sure what the etiquette is for that.
Gradually we slow down to a more human speed and leave the highway.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“She lives in Koreatown.”
My head buzzes from trying to look everywhere at once. There are brightly lit signs and billboards written only in Korean. Since I can’t read the language, the signs seem like art pieces with beautiful, mysterious forms. Of course, they probably just say things as mundane as Restaurant or Pharmacy or Open 24 Hours.
It’s early, but still there are so many people doing so many things—walking or talking or sitting or standing or running or riding bicycles. I don’t quite believe they’re really real. They’re just like the mini figures I pose in my architecture models, here to give Koreatown the vigor of life.
Or maybe it’s me that’s not really real, not really here at all.
We drive along for a few minutes more. Eventually we pull up to a two-story apartment complex with a fountain in the courtyard.
He undoes his seat belt but makes no move to leave the car. “Nothing can happen to you,” he says.
I reach over and take his hand. “Thank you,” is all I can think to say. I want to tell him that it’s his fault that I’m out here. That love opens you up the world.
I was happy before I met him. But I’m alive now, and those are not the same thing.
Carla screams and covers her face when she first sees me.
“Are you a ghost?” She grabs my shoulders, squeezes me against her bosom, rocks me side to side, and then squeezes me again. I don’t have any air left in my lungs when she’s finished.
“What are you doing here? You can’t be here,” she says, still squeezing me.
“I’m happy to see you, too,” I squeak.
She pulls away, shakes her head as if I were some kind of a miracle and pulls me back in for more.
“Oh, my girl,” she says. “Oh, how I missed you.” She holds my face in her hands.
“I missed you, too. I’m so sorry about—”
“Stop. You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”
“You lost your job because of me.”
She shrugs. “I got another one. Besides, it’s you that I miss.”
“I miss you, too.”
“Your mama did what she had to do.”
I don’t want to think about my mom. So I look around for Olly, who’s standing off in the distance.
“You remember Olly,” I say.
“How could I forget that face? And that body,” she says, definitely loud enough for him to hear. She marches over to him and pulls him into a hug only slightly more restrained than the one she gave me.
“You taking care of our girl?” She pulls away and pats him a little too hard on his cheek.
Olly rubs it. “I’m doing my best. I don’t know if you know this, but she can be a little stubborn.”
Carla looks back and forth between us for a long second, noting the tension between us.
We’re still standing in her doorway.
“Come inside. Come inside,” she says.
“We didn’t think you would be awake so early,” I say as we enter.
“You stop sleeping when you get old. You’ll see.”
I want to ask Will I ever grow old? But instead I ask, “Is Rosa here?”
“Upstairs, asleep. You want me to wake her?”
“We don’t have time. I just wanted to see you.”
She takes my face into her hands again and examines me again, this time with nurse’s eyes.
“I must’ve missed a lot of things. What are you doing here? How are you feeling?”
Olly steps closer, wanting to hear my answer. I wrap my arms around my stomach.
“I’m great,” I say, far too brightly.
“Tell her about the pills,” Olly says.
“What pills?” Carla demands, looking only at me.
“We got pills. Experimental ones.”
“I know your mama didn’t give you anything experimental.”
“I got them on my own. Mom doesn’t know.”
She nods, validated. “From where?”
I tell her the same thing I told Olly, but she doesn’t believe me. Not for a second. She covers her mouth with her hand and her eyes are cartoon big.
I put my heart into my eyes and plead with her silently. Please, Carla. Please understand. Please don’t expose me. You said life is a gift.