Writing

Free Food for Millionaires

COMPETENCE CAN be a curse. As a capable young woman, Casey Han felt compelled to choose respectability and success. But it was glamour and insight that she craved. A Korean immigrant who’d grown up in a dim, blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, she’d hoped for a bright, glittering life beyond the workhorse struggles of her parents, who managed a Manhattan dry cleaner.

Casey was unusually tall for a Korean, nearly five feet eight, slender, and self-conscious about what she wore. She kept her black hair shoulder length, fastidiously powdered her nose, and wore wine-colored lipstick without variation. To save money, she wore her eyeglasses at home, but outside she wore contact lenses to correct her nearsightedness. She did not believe she was pretty but felt she had something– some sort of workable sex appeal. She admired feminine modesty and looked down at women who tried to appear too sexy. For a girl of only twenty-two, Casey had numerous theories of beauty and sexuality, but the essence of her philosophy was that allure trumped flagrant display. She’d read that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis advised a woman to dress like a column, and Casey never failed to follow that instruction.

Seated in the spacious linoleum-covered kitchen of her parents’ rent-controlled two-bedroom in Elmhurst, Casey looked out of place in her white linen shirt and white cotton slacks–dressed as if she were about to have a gin and tonic brought to her on a silver tray. Next to her at the Formica-topped table, her father, Joseph Han, could’ve easily passed for her grandfather. He filled his tumbler with ice for his first whiskey of the evening. An hour earlier, he’d returned from a Saturday of sorting laundry at the Sutton Place drop shop, which he ran for a wealthy Korean who owned a dozen dry cleaners. Casey’s father did not speak to her, and she did not speak to him as they sat together. Her younger sister, Tina–a Bronx Science Westinghouse finalist, vice president of the M.I.T. Campus Christian Crusade, and a pre-med– was their father’s favorite. A classical Korean beauty, Tina was the picture of the girls’ mother, Leah, in her youth.

Leah bustled about cooking their first family dinner in months, singing hymns while Tina chopped scallions. Not yet forty, Leah had prematurely gray hair that obscured her smooth, pale brow. At seventeen, she’d married Joseph, who was then thirty-six. On their wedding night, Casey was conceived, and two years later, Tina was born.

Now it was a Saturday night in June, a week after Casey’s college graduation. Her four years at Princeton had given her a refined diction, an enviable golf handicap, wealthy friends, a popular white boyfriend, an agnostic’s closeted passion for reading the Bible, and a magna cum laude degree in economics. But she had no job and a number of bad habits.

Virginia Craft, Casey’s roommate of four years, had tried to convince her to give up the habit that preoccupied her considerably while she sat next to her brooding father. At the moment, Casey would’ve bartered her body for a cigarette. The promise of lighting one on the building roof after dinner was all that kept her seated in the kitchen–her bare foot tapping lightly on the floor. But the college graduate had other problems that were insoluble by a smoke. Since she had no job, she’d returned to her folks’ two-bedroom on Van Kleeck Street.

Seventeen years earlier, in the year of the Bicentennial, the family of four had immigrated to America. And Leah’s terror of change had kept them in the same apartment unit. It all seemed a bit pathetic. The smoking, among other things, was corroding Casey’s sense of being an honest person. She prided herself on being forthright, though she often dodged her parents. Her biggest secret was Jay Currie–her white American boyfriend. On the previous Sunday night after having some very nice sex, Jay had suggested, his elbow crooked over his pillow and head cradled in his hand, “Move in with me. Consider this, Miss Han: sexual congress on tap.” Her parents also had no idea that she wasn’t a virgin and that she’d been on the pill since she was fifteen. Being at home made Casey anxious. She continually felt like patting down her pockets for matches. Consequently, Casey found herself missing Princeton–even the starchy meals at Charter, her eating club. But nostalgia would do her no good. Casey needed a plan to escape Elmhurst.

Last spring, against Jay’s advice, Casey had applied to only one investment banking program. She learned, after all the sign-up sheets were filled, that Kearn Davis was the bank that every Econ major wanted in 1993. Yet, she reasoned, her grades were superior to Jay’s, and she could sell anything. At the Kearn Davis interview, Casey greeted the pair of female interviewers wearing a yellow silk suit and cracked a Nancy Reagan joke, thinking it might make a feminist connection. The two women were wearing navy and charcoal wool, and they let Casey hang herself in fifteen minutes flat. Showing her out, they waved, not bothering to shake her hand.

There was always law school. She’d managed to get into Columbia. But her friends’ fathers were beleaguered lawyers, their lives unappealing. Casey’s lawyer customers at Sabine’s, the department store where she’d worked weekends, advised her, “For money– go to B school. To save lives, med.” The unholy trinity of Law, Business, and Medicine seemed the only faith in town. It was arrogant, perhaps rash, for an immigrant girl from the boroughs to want to choose her own trade. Nevertheless, Casey wasn’t ready to relinquish her dream, however vague, for a secure profession. Without telling her father, she wrote Columbia to defer a year.

Her mother was singing a hymn in her remarkable voice while she ladled scallion sauce over the roasted porgy. Leah’s voice trilled at the close of the verse “waking or sleeping, thy presence my light,” then with a quiet inhale, she began, “Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word . . .” She’d left the store early that morning to shop and to cook her daughters’ favorite dishes. Tina, her baby, had returned on Thursday night, and now both her girls were finally home. Her heart felt full, and she prayed for Joseph to be in a good mood. She eyeballed the whiskey level in the jug-sized bottle of Dewar’s. It had not shifted much from the night before. In their twenty-two years of marriage, Leah had discovered that it was better when Joseph had a glass or two with his dinner than none. Her husband wasn’t a drunk–the sort who went to bars, fooled around, or lost his salary envelope. He was a hard worker. But without his whiskey, Joseph couldn’t fall asleep. One of her sisters-in-law had told her how to keep a man content: “Never deny a man his bop, sex, and sleep.”

Leah carried the fish to the table, wearing a blue apron over her plum-colored housedress. At the sight of Casey pouring her second glass of water, Leah clamped her lips, giving her soft, oval face a severe appearance. Mr. Jun, the ancient choir director, had pointed out this anxiety tic to her before her solos, shouting, “Show us your joy! You are singing to God!”

Tina, of course, the one who noticed everything, thought Casey was just asking for it. Her own mind had been filled with the pleasant thoughts of her boyfriend, Chul, whom she’d promised to phone that night, but even so, she could feel Casey’s restlessness. Maybe her sister would consider how much trouble their mother had gone through to make dinner.

It was the water drinking–this seemingly innocent thing. For always, Joseph believed that the girls should eat heartily at the table, grateful for the food and for the care given to it, but Casey habitually picked at her dinner, and he blamed Casey’s not eating on her excessive water consumption. Casey denied this accusation, but her father was on the mark. Back in junior high school, Casey had read in a fashion magazine that if you drank three glasses of water before a meal, you’d eat less. It took great effort on Casey’s part to wear a size six or smaller; after all, she was a girl with a large frame. Her weight also shifted by five pounds depending on how much she smoked. Her mother was thin from perpetual activity, and her younger sister, who was short like their father, had a normal build, and Tina disapproved of dieting. A brilliant student of both physics and philosophy, Tina had once scolded Casey when she was on Weight Watchers: “The world is awash in hunger. How could you cause your own?”

Casey’s water drinking at the table was not lost on her father.

At five feet three, Joseph was compact, yet his rich, booming voice gave him the sound of a bigger man. He was bald except for a wisp of baby fuzz on the back of his head, and his baldness did not grieve him except in the winters when he had to wear a gray felt fedora to protect his head and large lobed ears. He was only fifty-eight but looked older, more like a vigorous man of seventy, especially beside his young wife. She was his second wife. His first, a girl his age whom he’d deeply loved, died of tuberculosis after a year of marriage and before she bore him any children. Joseph adored his second wife, perhaps more so because of his loss. He appreciated Leah’s good health and her docile Christian nature, and he was still attracted to her pretty face and her delicate form, which belied her resilience. He made love to her every Friday evening. She had given him two daughters, though the elder looked nothing like her mother.

Casey drained her water glass and rested it on the table. Then she reached for the pitcher.

“I’m not Rockefeller, you know,” Joseph said.