They’d have gathered on a rooftop in Noxhurst to watch the explosion. Platt Hall, I think, eleven floors up: I know his ego, and he’d have picked the tallest point he could. So often, I’ve imagined how they felt, waiting. With six minutes left, the slant light of dusk reddened the high old spiresof the college, the level gables of its surrounding town. They poured festive wine into big-bellied glasses. Hands shaking, they laughed. She would sit apart from this reveling group, cross-legged on the roof’s west ledge. Three minutes to go, two, one.
The Phipps building fell. Smoke plumed, the breath of God. Silence followed, then the group’s shouts of triumph. Wine glasses clashed together, flashing martial light. He sang the first bars of a Jejah psalm. Others soon joined in. Carillon bells chimed, distant birds blowing white, strewn, like dandelion tufts, an outsize wish. It must have been then that John Leal came to her side. In his bare feet, he closed his arm around her shoulders. She flinched, looking up at him. I can imagine how he’d have tightened his hold, telling her she’d done well, though before long, it would be time to act again, to do a little more—
But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So, here I am, trying. 2.John Leal
Once John Leal left Noxhurst, halfway through his last term of college, he drifted until he ended up in Yanji, China. In this city, adjacent to North Korea, he began working with an activist group that smuggled Korean refugees toward asylum in Seoul. He’d found his life’s work, he thought.
Instead, he was kidnapped by North Korean agents, spirited across the border, and thrown into a prison camp outside of Pyongyang. In the stories he later told the group, he said the gulag brutalities were bad enough, but at least they’d been expected. What astonished him was the allegiance his fellow inmates showed toward the lunatic despot whose policies had installed them in their cells. They’d been jailed because, oh, they’d splashed a drop of tea on his newsprint portrait. A neighbor claimed to have overheard them whistling a South Korean pop song. Punished for absurdities, they still maintained that the beloved sovereign, a divine being, couldn’t be to blame. At first, he assumed this was lip service, the prisoners afraid to say otherwise. But then, he thought of the refugees he’d met in Yanji, how they talked of loving the god they’d fled. They attributed the regime’s troubles to anyone but the sole person in charge.
A month into John Leal’s time in the gulag, prison guards held an optional foot race, the prize a framed icon of the despot. In the confusion, those who fell were trampled. One child died of a broken spine. Through howls of pain, he shouted hosannahs for his lord. They weren’t lying, the poor fools. They believed in the man as one might believe in Jesus Christ. Some people needed leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith. But think if the tyrant had been as upright as his disciples trusted him to be. The heights he’d have achieved, if he loved them—if, John Leal thought, until his idea began.
I hoped I’d be a piano genius, Phoebe told the group, in the first Jejah confession she tried giving. She’d have sat in the circle, holding a kidskin journal. Though I’d driven Phoebe here, I was outside, going home. It’s a mistake. I should have stayed, but I didn’t. Instead, I’ll add what details I can. The full lips, spit-polished. She licked them, tense. I’m striving to picture it: Phoebe, talking. The thin, long-fingered hands folded tight. She looked down, inhaled.
But I didn’t just wait, she said. I expected, no, I wanted to work for it. I spilled time into the piano as I’d have put cash in a bank. I saw full concert halls in the future, solo recitals. Front-page plaudits. I practiced Liszt while imagined spotlights gilded the living room. Recollection is half invention, but it feels as though I spent my entire childhood training to prove I was the significant pianist I believed I’d be.
So, I piled up trophies. It wasn’t enough. The teacher flicked my hands with a rod each time I didn’t hit the right note, but I didn’t mind. My ambition outstripped his. Let my hands swell. I could use the extra span. Bright-knuckled, I tried again. The months ticked past, then years. I kept lists of rivals; I indexed others’ exploits by age. Kiehl, at five, had given his first recital to the Danish king. Ohri, eleven, debuted at Carnegie Hall; Liu, fifteen. One night, my teacher called Libich’s Étude no. 5 the most challenging piece a soloist might attempt. It’s eluded the finest pianists, he said. I rushed to find the étude’s score. I learned it alone, in secret. I memorized Libich’s high trills. I flailed through wild ostinatos.
Once, at the table, my mother asked what I was smiling about. Haejin, she said.
I blinked, Libich vibrating in my head. I, I don’t—
She laughed. It’s all right, she said. I ate while she peeled a white peach. The skin dropped in a single coil. She picked it up, holding it to the light. Such a rich hue, she said. It flushed pink, backlit; I nodded, then she put it down. I could tell she wished to talk, but I was lost in trills. I pushed a last peach slice in my mouth, and I went back to the piano.
Until then, nothing I played had evoked the orphic singing I knew to be possible. It was an ideal I lacked the skill to bring to life. Each first-place prize marked a point when I’d let the music down. With Libich, I failed less. His étude asked so much of me that, at times, I’d forget I had an I. I should have learned, from this, that playing had to be birthed in a place without ego, in which I didn’t exist except as the living conduit, Libich’s medium. But then, when I showed the teacher what I could do, he was astonished. I’d achieved more than he’d hoped, he said. He switched the piece in for the next competition, a city-level open. I was driven to the recital hall. The sun fell on my hands as I practiced Libich again, fingers dancing across my legs. Spotlit, I listened to the traffic sing my name. The lax blue of L.A., heat-rippled, veiled the horizon. Like curtains, I thought, poised to rise. 4.Will
I first met Phoebe in a house full of strangers, five weeks into the Edwards fall term. I was new to the Noxhurst school, but a sophomore, a late arrival. I’d transferred in from the Bible college I’d had to leave, and I was often on my own. Then, one night, while I was taking a walk alone, I noticed a loud throng of students turning into a gate. It was left propped open; I followed them in. Hip-hop pulsed, rolled. Pale limbs shone. I’d learned that the alcohol table was the one place where I could stand without looking too isolated, and I was idling at my usual station, finishing a third drink, when a girl in a striped dress tripped. She spilled cold liquid down my leg.
She shouted apologies, then a name: Phoebe Lin. Will Kendall, I said, also in a shout. We tried talking, but I kept mishearing what she said. Phoebe started tilting her pelvis from side to side. Life as a juvenile born-again hadn’t put me on a lot of dance floors; uncertain, I followed the girl’s lead. She swayed left, right, bare shoulders sliding. Others writhed to the frenzied tempo, but Phoebe’s hips beat out a slowed-down song. Punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals. Palms open, she levitated both hands. The room clattered into motion, rising to spin. She dipped, glided along its tilt, and still she moved to the calm rhythm she’d found, dragging the beat until my pulse joined hers.
She kept dancing, so I did, too. By the time she stopped, she looked flushed, out of breath. She lifted black, long hair into a makeshift ponytail. We shouted again, and I watched a drop of sweat trickle from Phoebe’s hairline toward the clavicle niche, where it might pool, I thought, to be lapped up. Thick bangs, damp at the tips, parted to expose her forehead. I wanted to kiss that spot, its sudden openness: I leaned down. She pulled close.
Since then, three weeks ago, we talked; we kissed, but that was all. I didn’t know what I had the right to ask. I waited, while the rest of Edwards played musical beds. Late at night, if I walked to the bathroom, I crossed paths with still more girls listing tipsily down the hall in oversized, borrowed polo shirts. They flashed smiles, then swerved back into my suitemates’ rooms. I returned to mine, but I could still hear the squeals, the high-pitched cries. In no time, a pretty girl might zigzag into my bed, and if it hadn’t happened yet, it was excitingly attainable—if I said the right words, reached for the right girl—
Instead, on the nights I couldn’t sleep, I imagined Phoebe’s sidling hips, the fist-sized breasts. She flailed and squirmed. With an arched back, rosebud ass soaring up, she starred in solo fantasies. The fact that I still hadn’t slept with Phoebe, or anyone, didn’t preclude these scenarios. If anything, it helped. Irritation absolved me of the guilt I might have felt about the uses to which I put the spectral mouth and breasts. Each time this ghost Phoebe jumped in my lap, I bit her lips. I licked fingers; I grabbed fistfuls of made-up skin until, sometimes, when I saw the girl in the flesh, she looked as implausible as all the Phoebes I’d dreamed into being.
I pushed through a revolving door into the Colonial: a private club, college-affiliated. She’d invited me to have a drink. One last date, I’d resolved. With Phoebe, I kept spending time I didn’t have. I rushed from classes to Michelangelo’s, an Italian restaurant fifteen miles from Noxhurst’s town limits—distant enough, I hoped, that no fellow students would walk in. I took the bus. I waited tables; I relied on staff meals. I filched apples from the Edwards dining hall. I received scholarship funding, but not enough. I told no one.
She was sitting alone at the bar, back facing out. I touched the girl’s waist, and she slipped down from the stool. Phoebe’s smile, angling up, floated toward me. She asked the bow-tied barkeep, Bix, to bring me a gimlet.
You’ll love it, Will, she said. Bix makes, no joke, the world’s best gimlets. He puts something extra in. I’ve asked, but he won’t tell me what it is.
If it was my recipe to give, I would, he said.
I believed him. It was obvious he liked Phoebe. She asked how I was, and I said I’d passed a man playing the fiddle while I walked here. I’d paused, to listen. I had no small bills, so I’d put quarters in his upside-down hat. Oh, ho, he said. It’s high-rolling time. It’s like jingle bells tonight.
He threw out the coins, I said, to Phoebe. I forced a smile, but I hadn’t told the story well. I’d tried to help him, all to be mocked. If I could just tell him as a gag, I’d forget his ridicule. But then, as though she heard the version I intended, Phoebe obliged me, and laughed. She asked what I’d said next. I rattled along. I was pleased; unsettled, too. It was odd, how well she listened. It made me anxious I’d reveal more than I should. When I could, I turned the questions: an old evangelist’s trick. In general, people love talking about themselves. If, at times, with Phoebe, I felt a slight resistance, I pushed through.
It’s my first time in the Colonial, I said. I asked if she came here often. She explained the club’s rituals and traditions, its complicated drinking-cup rules. A ghost-white candle stub guttered between us. I kept asking questions. I liked watching Phoebe talk. She halted, circled the point. Lit up with her own stories, she laughed in big gusts that blew out the candle flame. Bix relit it; before long, she put it out again.
You pass the cup around until it’s finished, she said. The last person to drink upends it on his head. He spins it while people sing—
She fell silent, gaze fixed to my left. I turned, but I noticed nothing unusual. Lilies splayed open on the windowsill, wilting stars. A tall man waited at the stoplight.
I thought I saw him again, she said.
His name’s John Leal—do you know him?
I don’t think so.
No, it’s nothing, she said. I just, I keep thinking I’ve spotted him, but—
Who is this?
Flustered, she tried to explain. Bix lit the candle, and she thanked him. It took a few tries, but, at last, I gathered she’d gone to a club the other night, downtown. She stepped outside, phone in hand, to call a taxi. Someone else was also there, leaning against the wall. When she hung up, he hailed Phoebe by name. She didn’t recognize him, but figured she was to blame. They’d met. She’d forgotten. To be polite, she played along, as if she knew him, but he ignored the act. I’m John Leal, he said. You’re Phoebe. I hoped I’d run into you. I thought of how to set it up, and look, here you are.
Then, he listed small facts about her life. Trivial details, but nothing he should have known. He handed a folded note to Phoebe. I’d love to see you again, he said. It’s up to you, though. Call me when you’re tired of wasting this life.
When you’re tired of—huh, I said.
Isn’t it strange? Phoebe said. Oh, also, he had no shoes on. I thought, at first, that friends might be playing a practical joke on me. But it’s not much of a joke.
She lifted a glass to Bix. From the level above us, male voices united in song, a capella. I asked if she intended to get in touch with this John Leal. No, but she wished she’d asked how he knew what he did. She’d kept the note, she said, pulling a slip from her wallet. It was a plain, lined, ripping along the fold. In block letters, he’d printed his name. John Leal. I suggested she give him a call.
It’s bothering you, I said. If you want, I’ll help. I could see him with you.
Just then, a large man popped up behind Phoebe, sliding his hands across her eyes. Guess who, he said. He raised his arms. A full lilac robe spilled out from beneath his peacoat, a priest’s white band at his throat. No, don’t get up, he said. I’ve left Liesl outside in the cold, and I told her I wouldn’t be a minute but hello, Phoebe, don’t you look tip-top. Tell me if you like this outfit. One of Liesl’s friends is hosting a themed night: come as you aren’t.
Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.