On one of our first dates—we lasted for about two weeks in July of 1998—we met up in New York's West Village for dinner.
I walked West 11th Street to get here, he said. Do you think it's out of our reach, to live there?
My heart caught in my ribs. Oh, I said, without explaining. It's not out of our reach. It's our destiny. He seemed to accept this. We were both drunk.
For a long time, living on West 11th was my dream—and while its power over me came from Grace Paley having lived there, the brick buildings were low, so there was beautiful light, and from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson Highway, these beautiful rooms full of books and art suggested lives that mesmerized me as I walked by. One of my very favorite writers once did me the compliment of naming someone in one of her stories, published in the New Yorker, after me—and giving him a home on West 11th. The closest I will ever get to this dream.
I think it was this moment that pierced me, but there were many, really. He was that sort of dangerous beauty with a knack for knowing just what I dreamed about.
K___ was a young professor at a university there in New York, tall and handsome, white with bright blue eyes. In retrospect I should have guessed: He reminded me of a friend from college who had studied Chinese and Korean, practiced Chinese calligraphy, trained in tae kwon do, and dated Korean women almost exclusively. A friend who'd once said to me, I'm half-Korean, too. Just, inside.
They had the same color eyes, the same twinkle, too, and while K___ was six foot four, about six inches taller than my friend, they could have been brothers.
On one of our first dates, he came over to my apartment and told me about the books I'd just been given by my grandfather, the jokbo for our family. I'm the oldest male in my generation, the 42nd, and by Korean tradition, we are given them. The books are kept in an antiquated Chinese script, and I am unable to read them, but he could read them. It was the sort of thing that shamed me regularly for the sort of upbringing I'd had—my father had committed us to assimilation and had not wanted us to speak Korean. He had died when I was young, though, and the language gap left us estranged from his family afterward. In 1998, we were putting these connections back together—I had just gone to Korea with my family that summer, and my grandfather had given me these books. But there was still so much no one had ever taught me.
Here's how you write your last name, K___ said that afternoon, as we sat with these books, and then he showed me. I practiced it as he watched and corrected me.
I have a very funny record in my diaries of a dream I had just before the end of us.
July 19, 1998
Roses re-emerging all through the garden. From here I can see the cats have broken off the top of the poor non-blooming QE [Queen Elizabeth]. I think it's cursed there, that rose.
Had a strange dream that K___ had ordered a steak medium rare and there I was, annoyed.
There's no record anywhere of what I can now see the dream was about: a moment when, in walking through his apartment, I found a photo of him and an ex of his from his studies in Japan, a beautiful Japanese boy.
Are you a rice queen? I asked, joking.
Yes, he said.
This startled me. I was pretty sure you were at least supposed to lie about this.
I knew what rice queens were, and they didn't usually go for me. When I worked at A Different Light bookstore in the Castro in 1990s-era San Francisco, I remember selling them copies of OG magazine—short for "Oriental Guy"—these men fantasizing about the sex trips they took to Asian countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, all of them in search of smooth young Asian men living in precarious economic conditions who were willing to do things sexually for, well, probably less than the cost of the magazine, in order to survive.
I had also been to the gay bars in San Francisco for Asian men, to discover they were for Asian men looking for white men and vice versa. As someone who was half, I was just exactly not enough of what each type wanted—exactly enough to be invisible to them or at least not eligible as desirable. They still walk by me sometimes, these mixed Asian and white gay couples, and I smile as both men seem to project their insecurities on to me, holding hands a little tighter as they walk by.
Even if it is only true half the times it happened, it is still funny.
As a result, I gave up on the idea that I would ever end up dating either kind of man—the gay white man who liked Asian men was likely not ever going to ask me out. I remember dancing with a white man once at a club, and he reached over and pulled my shirt front down to reveal my hairy chest. He looked shocked and then turned and left the dance floor, not even a good-bye, like I'd lied to him about the goods. I didn't expect any of this from K___.
I like Asian men, he said, after this confession. It's why I lived in Japan, why I studied Japanese.
I tried to imagine it. Having an erotic imagination so focused on one race of people. All that my ex-boyfriends had in common was me.
Questions I didn't ask ran through my head. Were you even gay if this is what your sexuality was? What was your sexuality if it was based on race and not gender preference? Especially if you were white?
We just broke up, he said.
I understood then he was on the rebound.
He vanished after that conversation. We never spoke again. In retrospect, I think he was letting himself out of the relationship by saying these things. Either way, I think we both knew, after my question and his answer, that there was nothing further for us.
I left him some phone messages, none of which he returned. I don't know if he worked things out with his Japanese ex-boyfriend or what; I recall checking on him at that university and seeing at some point he had been given tenure. Now when I look for him, there's no sign of him.
The diary entry I have for the dream is written on the back of a letter I never sent him.
It's hard for me to say what it meant to me, the time you spent looking over my family books. I'm writing to my grandfather this afternoon and will write the character on the envelope, and even pray for a little of my grandmother's calligraphy talent. Thank you for the primer on my family; until now, everything I knew about them came from their mouths. As I face making a new relationship with them, which is what the last year has meant, this was a real help, a wonderful surprise.
It's still the weirdest gift of that time, that he told me about me in a way no one else was able to tell me then. I at least have the sense to be grateful for that. Grateful, even, that he drove me away.
K___, if you're reading this, consider the letter sent.