Ryan and the Technicolor Wardrobe
Short Stories and Essays

I used to fall off my bike a lot as a kid, so I was no stranger to scrapes and bruises.  Usually, I’d fall, get up, and walk my bike home, and then my parents would freak out and clean up the scrapes with rubbing alcohol (to say it was painful is an understatement).  I wouldn’t say that I ever got used to it, but there’s only one time where I can vividly remember how painful the fall was.  I was riding around the block, and somehow when I fell off my bike, my bike landed on top of me.  I think because of that, I freaked out and just laid on the street crying.  Luckily for me, a neighbor ended up rushing out of their house with bandages and disinfectant.  He helped clean my scrapes and I was finally able to get up and walk my bike back home.  I had never met this neighbor before and I don’t think I ever really saw him again, but this act of kindness didn’t really surprise me.  We were a tightly knit community.  I don’t think anyone ever came over to ask for some sugar, but it wouldn’t be a stretch.  It was nice.

I realize that things are different now.  If a man who I’d never met before rushed out of their house to tend to my wounds, he wouldn’t be referred to as a “neighbor”, but as a “stranger”.  While his intentions were clearly noble, they would now be looked at with skepticism, questioning whether he might be up to something more elaborate and sinister.  The world has clearly become much more cynical over the past 20 years and it’s not without just cause.  While I would love to say that the Minnesota neighborhood I grew up in is still a wonderful utopia, it’s not, in fact we were there when that image was shattered. Even though my parents won’t admit it, I think it’s the reason that we left.

Ever since kindergarten, I typically walked to school.  Obviously, on days where the weather was bad, I would get a ride, but for the most part, I walked.  I even walked home in a blizzard once, since the distance between the school and our house was so short.  It was convenient for both my parents and my sisters since their schedules didn’t have to be tied to my school schedule and this was common for lots of other families as well.  It was a no brainer for families in our neighborhood, we felt safe.

Then something terrible happened.  Something tragically terrible.

We lost one of our kids,  but not by a freak car accident, not by an accidental fall into a lake, but by murder.  She was walking home from the Junior High School when it happened.  That school was a bit farther then where the elementary school was, but I actually biked through that area pretty often to get to my friend’s house.  I didn’t know the girl since she was a few years older but I did know that she lived in our neighborhood.  Her death sent shock waves throughout our community.

It didn’t feel safe anymore, it didn’t feel like home.  Walking to school was no longer an option.  As a kid, I felt sad about the situation, but I couldn’t exactly comprehend how it affected the parents and other families of the community, whether they knew her family or not.  It changed how we all lived.  The neighbors were all still friendly with each other and the kids all felt safe running around in our yards, but I think we all started getting more rides to my friend’s houses even if they were in manageable walking/biking distances.  We moved a year later, and my parents gave me plenty of different reason for why we were moving, but none of them involved this girl, which I guess is for the best.  It’s probably not a good idea to have a kid walking into a new school telling all his new classmates that he moved because someone kid in his neighborhood was tragically taken away from their family.

I didn’t get to visit my old stomping grounds until 10 years later and it wasn’t a pretty sight.  I’m not trying to imply that this murder sent this suburb on a downward spiral, but I can’t see how this tragedy doesn’t  still loom over that neighborhood.  I didn’t know the girl or her family, or exactly which house was theirs, but I knew approximately where on the street they lived, and I think that’s what spooks me the most about all of this.  That man who had rushed out of his house to help this random kid a couple of years earlier could very well have been the girl’s dad., that could’ve very well been their house.  It pains me to think that one of the kindest people of my childhood, might’ve been the person who suffered the greatest tragedy.

(This references this story, which referenced this earlier story – call it a trilogy, if you will)

While I’ve written 2 stories about the impact that Chloe has had on my life, I must be honest, I’ve never actually had a conversation with the kid.  That’s not to say that I’ve never met her or talked to her (she’s given me plenty of high fives).  I distinctly remember the first time, I interacted with Chloe: I was walking back in to church while she was leaving with her dad, I waved to her  and said “Bye Chloe.”, she returned the wave and did sort of a double take.  I don’t think she really knew who I was (in fictional or non-fictional sense), but at the same time, waved to me regardless because I seemed familiar.  I wasn’t a stranger even though I actually was.  This added to the crazy future-child mythology.

I knew that if I ever wanted to read these stories in front of audience (and especially to an audience of people who might not know who Chloe is), I knew that I would need some visual assistance, which would mean I would need to talk to her parents, which upon a cursory glance, doesn’t seem like a big deal, but under much more thought, it is actually a very delicate situation.  I didn’t know them very well and since they didn’t live in the area anymore, I could understand if they found it a bit odd that I wanted to visit them and take pictures with their child, so when I wrote them an e-mail about the idea, I actually was very nervous about their response.  Fortunately they knew who I was, and eventually the shoot happened.  When we got there, I was scared that she wouldn’t cooperate since I assumed she didn’t really remember me, but she was fine, and for the first time ever, we actually talked.

Not to get too caught up in my only fake story, but my conversation with Chloe had a different feel than the conversations I’ve had with other kids.  I talk to Charis and Allison all the time (they’re both older than Chloe), and typically they talk about typical “kid” things (their friends, their favorite tv shows, etc).  Not to say that Chloe is more mature than they are, but in my short time with her, Chloe decided she wanted to jump straight to deeper matters.  When she questioned why I felt like I needed to change my shirt in private when I was already wearing an undershirt, I knew that we wouldn’t be talking about Spongebob Squarepants that day.  She didn’t want to ask me what my favorite color was or what I do for a living, I think she wanted to know if I was ready to be a real father.

While she didn’t talk to me about being a dad specifically, she asked me a lot of questions that made me feel I was being prepped to be a parent.  “Do you love us?” (referring to her and her brother, and then asking me “Why?  You’re not in our family.” after I replied “yes”) “Do you love your wife?”  and “Are you sad that you aren’t married yet?”,  (all which came within the first 5 minutes of our shoot) could easily be substituted with “Do you love us” (your kids), “Do you love Mommy?” and “Are you happy that you married Mommy?”  She then proceeded to talk to me about how much she missed living in Fullerton and how she’s had difficulty fitting in to her new neighborhood, school, and church.  At 6, she was articulating a lot of the same things that I felt when we left Minneapolis at the age of 11, so our frank and honest conversation had a hint of melancholy hovering over us.

We went outside for a little while and she taught me some games, all of which I was either terrible at, or she was making up as the games went along.  We went back inside and finished up our shoot of mostly candid photos.  She asked me if I knew how to write in cursive and then asked me to write something, so I wrote her a letter thanking her for helping me out and that she was so much fun to work with.  I told her that she could read it when she’s older so she could remember how helpful she was to her Uncle Ryan, but she told me to keep it.  I asked her why, and she told me that she “wanted [me] to keep it so [I] would remember [her] forever.” Obviously, I wasn’t going to forget her, but I also wasn’t going to argue with a 6 year old about keeping a piece of paper.

The shoot was over, I said my good byes and gave her and her brother a hug.  I told them I’d visit them again soon.  She told me she had a lot of fun.  I sat in the car exhausted, not just because we had been running around for two hours, but also because of the emotional weight of what we had talked about that day.  She wanted me to reach a little deeper than I was anticipating, and while I wouldn’t say I found that unwelcome, it was definitely a little jarring that a 6 year old could make me search my soul.  While I joke about the impact she’s had on me (ruining my online dating life), this time it wasn’t a joke, it was real.  She did what many adults haven’t been able to do: she made me question why emotionally I’m always hiding in private, even when I’m not in danger of being naked.

I know a lot of people who won’t date someone that has the same name as one their exes.  It sounds kind of silly and superstitious but I’m in the same boat. Of course I understand that everyone is unique regardless of their name and they should all be given a chance.  I also know that you shouldn’t give someone the power to ruin certain names for you, but I still understand and agree that it’s just too strange.  I’m not saying there will never be an exception to the rule, but at this point, it’s definitely looking that way.  I’m totally trying to not have too many hang ups with my dating life.  It’s complicated enough so maybe I’ll come around.  One thing I’m definitely not willing to ever budge on is dating someone that has the same name as one of my sisters.

Since we are a Korean American family, that means we each have two names: a Korean name and an English name, and since I have 4 sisters, that means that there are 8 names, not just 4, that I will not date.  With most girls in America, I don’t even need to worry about a Korean name, period, so it doesn’t stress me out beyond belief.  Though on one particular occasion, a girl’s name popped up to be the same as my sister’s Korean name, and it only got weirder from there.

I met this girl during my sophomore year of college.  She was a couple of years older than me and we started to hang out pretty regularly.  At one point, a lot of people were asking if we were dating, so inevitably we had to have that super awkward conversation about what we were.  At the time, the buzz word for this was a DTR, which stands for “Define The Relationship”.  I wasn’t sure how she felt, but she asked me if a relationship with her was what I wanted.  At the time, I didn’t want it because I was interested in another girl, one that would eventually rip out my heart and stomp all over it, but it wasn’t because this girl shared a name with one of my sisters.

Hypothetically, if it was, she could’ve argued that since she preferred a nickname version of the name, I wouldn’t have to think of it as the name name.  That, of course would actually makes things more bizarre, because her nickname plus her last name actually is my Korean name, which would mean I would in essence, be dating myself.  Luckily, this part of the conversation never happened, because I had, at least in my opinion, valid reason for not wanting more out of our relationship.  The most valid reason being that I was an immature sophomore in college.

I actually ran into her a few years later at a speed dating event that a friend of a friend had organized.  It was definitely nice to see her again, though I was a little disappointed to see that we were both once again single, 7 years after our little talk.  We kind of skipped the cursory introductions and we decided to catch up since we had fallen out of touch after she had graduated.  She told me that she was planning on moving to Hawaii and I told her that I was starting to write stories.  It’s the only conversation of the night that I remembered, the only one that wasn’t  blur in my memory.  While I don’t think either of us were itching to see if we had made a mistake by staying friends all those years before, it was clear in our conversations that we were headed in different directions and that this chance encounter was not the cosmos trying to give us a second chance.  If anything, it affirmed that I was right all those years before about us not working, regardless of the coincidence with the name.

In all this time since meeting her, I have not been in a dating situation with another girl who’s shared a name, English or Korean with any of my sisters, so perhaps I thought the universe had decided to take pity on me after I turned down this one girl for the right reasons instead of some silly hang up, but I was wrong.  A couple of years later, my parents warned me that if I wanted to date a girl who shared the same last name as me, I’d have to make sure that her family didn’t grow up in the same area of Korea as me, so not only was on the watch for names similar to me or my sisters, but now I had to be on the watch for the same last name as well.  It seems like more work in an already complicated dating landscape, and while my mom says that I can just ask a girl where her family is from as a basic introduction question, I think I’ll just try to keep things as simple as possible.

When I go to visit my parents in San Diego, I usually stay for less than 24 hours. I’ll arrive Friday night or Saturday morning and head back to Orange County Saturday night. If I stay until Sunday, I’ll have to argue about why I’m not going to church with my parents, which seems odd since I attend church regularly in Fullerton. So why will I go to one church and not the other? The answer on the surface is simple: I don’t want to wear a suit.

My parents go to a 0 generation Korean church (at least that’s what my friend calls it). The main service is in Korean, the hymns, the readings, the sermon, everything is in Korean. There’s also a smaller English service and the youth group is in English as well, but these are ancillary things. The ethnocentricity of the church doesn’t really bother me, but since it’s a 0 generation church, it’s definitely old fashioned, hence my father demanding I wear a suit if I’m to go now that I’m “grown up”.

The suit is definitely an issue for me, but it’s more of what the suit represents: image. I’m well liked by the parents at this church and I’m doing pretty well for myself, but my parents want these other parents to see that I’m doing well or at least that I dress like I’m an adult who knows what “doing well” is. It’s something I try not to blame on my parents, it’s very generational, but like I said, it’s not the suit that keeps me away.

There was a kid, we’ll call him Joel. He’s 4 years younger than me and I, for a lack of a better word, mentored him. He wanted to learn how to play guitar for the youth group worship team so for the majority of my senior year of high school, we’d hang out, play guitar, and I’d beat his ego down. He was a bright kid, who had just tested into a gifted program at school. This coupled with him joining this worship team at “such a young age” (the words of others, not mine) was a recipe for disaster, but for some reason I was the only person who could see it coming. I referred to him as my Anakin Skywalker and I knew that he definitely had the ability to bring things to the dark side.

I went to college and came back to see my parents every month and a half or so, and eventually I started to go back to Irvine, on Saturdays, much like I do now. This church was no longer part of my life, but I tried to check up on Joel every now and then. During my 4th year of college, I actually came down to San Diego every weekend because my Mom was in Korea and I figured my Dad could use some company. The first weekend I was there, I decided to see how Joel was doing, and there I saw Darth Vader destroying everything in his path.

Joel started to date this girl from the youth group. I’ve known them both for a very long time so I didn’t really think too much of it. The families didn’t like each other very much but this wasn’t a Romeo and Juliet generational feud. They didn’t like their kid dating the other families’ kid, and Joel decided to throw a tanker of gasoline onto the fire. Joel disclosed to me that he thought his girlfriend was pregnant, and he was turning to me for advice. Since I’m not well versed on after school specials, I decided to ask some questions.

I skipped the obligatory “Don’t you know premarital sex is forbidden by the Bible?” question but still found myself really disappointed with his answers even though I was trying to not be judgmental about the situation.

“‘How many times did you have unprotected sex?”
“Why didn’t you ever use protection?”
“I figured she could always get an abortion.”

I don’t want to open up a pro-choice/pro-life debate. I think either side will agree that these answers are ignorant, despicable, and absolutely appalling. For some reason, I didn’t punch him in the face and leave, I listened to him drone on about how he loved her and how his parents didn’t understand and blah blah blah blah blah. I heard him out and he asked me what he should do. I told him that he’d been really irresponsible about everything. I then proceeded to tell him to stop pissing everyone off and that he had done enough damage. He needed to graduate from high school (4 months away) and then move/ let his parents kick him out of the house and if he wanted to be with the girl and live happily ever after, but the key was to lay low until then.

I guess he wasn’t expecting this. I guess he was expecting me to tell him that he was right and that everyone should leave them alone since they were in love. The next day I was supposed to have lunch with him but he didn’t pick up his cell phone. I darted over to her apartment and found him there, trying to convince her to pack up her things and run away with him. I couldn’t put up with him anymore. He lied to me and I realized he didn’t want my advice, he wanted a “yes man”. I saw him a week later, he told me she wasn’t actually pregnant, and acted like all was well. That was the last time we spoke. I ran into his dad a week later at church. His dad didn’t know I knew what I knew about his and he openly mocked me for wanting to be “a movie producer”. Now I was completely fine cutting ties with this family and this church.

Eventually the truth came out about the kids and the pregnancy scare. My mom told me to stop talking to those kids, and I told her I was way ahead of her, but that’s the unfortunate thing about this. The church was not a place where these families could find support in their time of crisis, it was a place that shunned them and forced them to leave in disgrace. I found out later that Joel’s relationship with the girl ended because he couldn’t control his drinking. My relationship with this church ended because I was the only one trying to save Joel from himself.