This is Tom Stock-Hendel's first published work. He recently completed his first novel. Since attending UCLA many years ago as a film major, he has taken numerous writing courses here and there. He lives in Southern California with his wife and son.
I was seventeen years old in the summer of 1983, the summer Lucia Kim chanced upon me.
Summer vacations had always baffled me. While others sauntered through parties, flirtations, illegal substances and babble, I spent the days cruising the avenues of Manhattan on a ten-speed, my backpack holding a drawing pad and a selection of pencils. Then, it was off to my room to create images inspired by my daily travels: a dark-suited arm lunging for the door handle of a taxicab, a woman in a long skirt stuffing a hot dog into her mouth as she strode across Sixth Avenue, a teenage boy and girl, both with hair down almost to their waists, sitting at the counter of a burger stand, holding hands and twisting in unison on circular, spinning stools.
Although this routine kept boredom from swallowing up my summer, it was still a routine.
Sundays, however, were a burst of fresh air. The City closed the roads running through Central Park to cars and buses, giving cyclists and skaters exclusive use. My bike sprang alive—no breathing in exhaust fumes, no dodging hordes of pedestrians, just riding in the cool shadow of wide trees, sunlight blinking through the leaves.
One Sunday, towards the end of August, I pulled over near the carousel to buy a drink. I sat down at the base of a tree, the sharp tang of sticky sweet orange soda coating my tongue, and began pencil sketching a mother and baby rolling a ball on the ground a few trees away. Two blades of deep green grass fell on my drawing.
“Hi, Henry.” Lucia Kim smiled down on me, waving the fingers that had just released the grass.
I almost dropped my pad getting up. “Lucia, hello.”
She stood beside her bicycle. Her eyes were dark and almond shaped, not quite Asian. Her skin, a fine oak color, defied racial labeling, her cheeks brushed with a sun-induced red glow. Straight black hair fell halfway down her back, held in place under a Brooklyn Dodgers cap. Her nose hooked in an imperfect yet beguiling manner, the hook made more prominent by her smile, and a spray of tiny, brown freckles fell across her cheeks and nose. More than once, I had recognized her profile in the mass of doodles that covered the margins of my school notebooks.
Although we were both in the same homeroom, we had different circles of friends and had never talked much.
She pushed her bike closer. “It's a beautiful day.”
I looked up at the sky, as if I had just noticed it. “Yes, it is.”
We walked our bikes to the soda vendor, where she bought one. She wore jeans, cut off above the knee, and a bright orange leotard that highlighted her small breasts and thin body.
She asked what had I been doing over the summer vacation.
I shrugged. “Just hanging around. Drawing.” I lifted my pad up a little, like I needed proof, then slid it into my backpack. “What about you?”
“I went on a trip with my parents to Guatemala. My mother is from there.”
We found a bit of shady grass to sit on. Nearby a few small children played with their parents, couples lounged in each other's arms or lay back to back on a blanket, sharing a newspaper.
Lucia sat cross-legged, the orange leotard popping against the green surroundings. “It's so different down there, almost surreal.” She explained how the country had been in different stages of civil war for what seemed like forever. A coup had even taken place a week after she left. “There were times when I was just plain scared, y'know? Not that I was in any direct danger but it was all so weird...so tense.”
I nodded like I knew what she meant but, in truth, I was really soaking up the way she talked. She inhabited every syllable she spoke, her eyes widening for emphasis, her brow tight with concern. With perfect posture, she leaned towards me to make sure I got her point, her arm gesturing, her collarbone and shoulder blade sliding smoothly under the tight leotard.
“But my uncle has a beautiful ranch out in the country and it's so green and lush. The trees go on forever.” She looked over my shoulder, remembering that horizon. “It was safe there. My whole family got together, all the cousins running around, and we just played all day. And the food, Henry, the food!” Her eyes got wide again, almost round. “I've never tasted vegetables that good. Even the corn! And, I hate to say this, but, oh, my God, freshly slaughtered beef is just amazing.” She giggled a little, then took a swig from her cherry soda. It left a pink blush on her lips.
Someone in the park had a boombox and the music sneaked around the trees and sunk into the grass. Lucia swayed lightly with the pleasant, bopping beat, silently mouthing words to a song I could not name.
“You said your family is from Guatemala?” I asked. She nodded. “And your name is Kim?”
She nodded again. “My father is Korean. He and my mother met here in New York . I guess I'm my own melting pot, kim-chee mixed with coconut milk.”
“A wonderful recipe, no doubt.”
She glanced down, a little embarrassed. Unused to giving compliments, I felt my own cheeks redden.
She turned her face up to the sun. I wanted to trace the line traveling from her chin to the bottom of her throat with my finger. She took a deep breath and her chest swelled. “Would you like to ride with me, Henry?”
It was the best invitation of the summer.
We cruised under a clear sky, pedaling along with the stream of people flowing through the park.
“I'm dreading this school year,” Lucia said, our senior year only weeks away. “My parents are all over me about what college I'm going to get into.”
“Me, too. My parents keep telling me I have to decide what kind of career I want to have. Then, I'll know which schools to apply to.”
“Do you know what you want to do?”
I shrugged as much as you can while riding a bike and drinking. “Not really. I like to draw, but no one is discussing art school.”
Lucia shook her head. “My parents would be thrilled if I went to art school. They're art dealers. I think they're kind of disappointed in me—I like math and physics.” My surprise must have been evident. “I know, I know,” she said, “nobody expects that, especially from a girl. But it's fascinating. I mean, take riding a bike. Do you have any idea of the math involved?” She went on about the equations of balance and gravity, speed and drag, and how amazing it was that our brains and bodies could instinctually resolve these things and get up on top of two skinny wheels and fly.
I nodded mutely.
She smiled ruefully and looked down at her handlebars, her hair falling over one shoulder. “Yeah, it's a real conversation stopper.”
“No, it is interesting. Really.”
“Sure, for geeks like me.”
We rode on, the warm air rushing over us, until we came up to a small crowd around a band of street musicians. We got off the bikes to listen, nodding in time with the conga drums, banged up guitars and horns, the musicians' faces bright with sweat and broad smiles.
Lucia shocked me by asking to look at my drawings.
Only a few people, mostly family members, had seen my stuff. We found a bench and I pulled my drawing pad from my backpack. She opened it on her lap. Turning the pages slowly, she commented on my understanding of light and shadow, and found the use of perspective on a few pieces daring.
“I think that was just by accident,” I said.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” She closed my pad, careful not to bend any of the pages. “You got kind of an Edward Hopper thing going there. Keep at it.”
We mounted the bikes and took off, fast now, swooping into great leaning turns, defying the gravity she seemed so taken with, the wheels of our bikes tracing great sprawling curves. We pointed out different things that caught our eye—shocking green and spiky haircuts, splashy colors of clothing, a thousand different hats, even a few parasols, all against the trees, grass and massive black rocks of Central Park—a swirling, percolating light show that sucked us into its vortex.
But the world had to turn. The sun had to set. We found ourselves side by side looking over the lake in the center of the park. The water was a kind of green-brown, but reflected in it, upside down, were the sky, now a darker blue with plumes of orange, the low, leafy trees and the ring of tall, pale brown stone buildings that bordered the park. Our bikes rested between our legs like grazing steeds.
I plucked up my nerve. “Would you like to get together again?”
I was loving how her smile extended beyond her lips, all the way up to the corners of her eyes. “Would tomorrow be good for you?”
She chuckled at my impatience. “I'm sorry, I can't. My folks are leaving for Korea in a few days. They're going to be gone for a month and I promised I'd hang out with them until they leave.”
“They are leaving you alone?” My imagination leapt at the possibilities.
“Not really. My aunt will be with me a lot. Why don't you call me Thursday or Friday?”
“Thursday is swell,” I grinned. I never say swell.
I pushed my bike close to her and took her hand. We kissed, starting out careful and gentle, then flowering into something deeper, something that would still be dancing on my tongue when I lay down that night.
My next few days were dreamy, envisioning time with Lucia. Naturally, we would see movies and take the bikes back to the Park. But other things came to mind, like ferry rides around Manhattan, comparing the spectacular views from the top of the skyscrapers, taking in a ball game if her tastes ran that way. We could go down to Greenwich Village and dance at the loud music clubs I had read about, or just take long walks in the close warmth of the summer nights. We would talk about everything—suddenly, there seemed so much I had never told anyone.
And, of course, there was sex. I ached for it. I was still a virgin and, although I had made out with a few girls at parties or on a date, I felt unsure about where to go and what to do. Lucia was the first that I could truthfully see making love to. She would not laugh at me or my skinny body, and if I tripped over my fingers taking off her bra she would help me. Then, I would hold her, feel her perfect skin against mine, and, at last, be inside her.
And she would agree to model for me. She would be stunning, light and shadow falling on the planes of her nude body. I would stroke out the flow of her arms draped across her legs, the curve of her back, the simple round of her breasts, the dark points of her nipples. I would draw her round face with subtle lines and shading, bringing her eyes alive with deeper contrast and texture, shaping that alluring hook to her nose, lightly peppering it and her cheeks with freckles. She would hold her chin up just a bit, secure and happy in my light. Upon showing her the work, she would be honored and impressed. Then, I would get to kiss all I had drawn.
Thursday morning, I woke up anxious. I forced myself to eat my cereal slowly while my parents and brother prepared for the bustle of their day. Not wanting to call her too early, I doodled for a while but could not get anything going. The yellow-blue light of the morning sun moved across family pictures and apartment knick-knacks. At eleven o'clock, long after everyone else had left, I pulled a stool up to the kitchen wall where a white phone hung and made the call.
An older woman answered on the first ring. It must have been her aunt. I asked for Lucia. I heard muffled talking then Lucia came on.
“Hi, Lucia,” I said, “this is Henry.”
“Henry. Hello.” She sounded distracted.
“So, how are you doing?”
Her voice cracked. “My parents were on that plane.”
“The one they say the Russians shot down. It's on TV.”
“We don't know if they are alive, we haven't heard. It's...” She broke down, her cries craggy, stone-tipped arrows. I heard the aunt's voice again, louder and more insistent.
Lucia's breath hitched. “I have to get off the phone right away. We're waiting for a call from Korea and we can't tie up the line.” These last words came out in a rushed wail as she hung up.
I ran to the living room to turn on the television, my socks slipping on the hardwood floors. Pounding buttons on the remote, I found the flat images and monotone voice of a newscast. The plane, Korean Airlines flight 007, had taken off from New York late Tuesday night and disappeared close to Soviet air space early Wednesday, Korean time. American and Japanese radar tracking stations said the Russians had shot it down with an air to air missile. Boats combed the waters north of Japan, where they thought the plane had crashed, but found nothing, all 269 people on board believed dead.
The USSR admitted nothing, monolithic and impenetrable. The President made statements about their brutality and inhumanity, his thinned eyes snapping. I thought about his finger on the button.
Video from Korea showed relatives of passengers on the plane crying uncontrollably. I heard Lucia's cries again, echoing over the telephone wire, as far away as the stuttering, broken up long distance images in front of me. I wanted to be with her, to support her even as the people in Korea collapsed in each other's arms.
Realizing that I would not get to see Lucia for quite some time, disappointment overran me, followed immediately by guilt and shame. How could I think of myself? I tried to imagine losing your parents, feeling so vulnerable. I would call her again in a few days, let her know I was there for her, offer to help in any way I could.
Time crawled. I began drawing trees with pen and ink, one tree per page, the bark etched precisely, leaves rendered painstakingly. After this got boring, I placed the trees on a busy street, adding buildings, cars and people. Then, almost mindlessly, I doodled a car higher in space than it should have been. I liked it. A person appeared in some random white space, his snarling face and outlandishly oversized head on top of a stick figure body. This was unlike my usual, naturalistic work, and its rawness struck me. My pen slashed thick black lines across the clean, soft pages, rejecting the rules of scale and dimension. Boxy buildings and trees were inhabited by two-dimensional figures—people dancing or wailing in anguish, sleeping or marching in step, playing catch or holding up banks. Somewhere in every picture, a twisted body was sprawled out, maybe behind striding sets of legs or partially obscured by the corner of a building. The tail section of an airplane might be sticking out an upper story window or standing up on a corner, leaning against a lamppost.
That Sunday, I stayed home, studying The New York Times. The Soviets finally admitted that they had, indeed, shot down the plane, but only because it was really on a spying mission masterminded by the United States. The Americans howled furiously in denial. Hope of finding survivors was gone.
I called Lucia. No answer. I tried again sometime later. The phone rang on, empty and dry. I tried before I went to bed. Again, no answer. Over the next few days I called as often as every two hours. No one was ever home.
Maybe, I thought, she was staying with her aunt. I looked up Kim in the phone book. There were hundreds of such listings in New York City. I began a regimen of calling fifteen or twenty a day, asking if they knew my Lucia. It was painfully awkward, but I plodded on. No luck.
School started a week later. The summer was over, which was fine by me. Now, Lucia would be back in my homeroom, right where she belonged. I entered the class and scanned the knots of kids comparing new hairdos acquired over the summer. No Lucia. The teacher had no information when I asked if she had enrolled. Every morning, granting myself a glimmer of hope, I arrived early, wondering if her eyes would smile for me as they had that sunny afternoon. Each day, that question went unanswered.
She could have been anywhere. Korea. Guatemala. The upper eastside. Anywhere. Who was she living with? Was she all alone? Would she think of calling me? Did she have my number?
At least once a day, I phoned her home. I found myself listening to the sound of the ring, b-r-r-r-n-n...b-r-r-r-n-n...b-r-r-r-n-n, letting it ring on and on.
I combed the newspaper each day for news of KAL 007. After a time, those articles thinned out. As I turned the pages, instead of finding fuel for my obsession, I found fear. When people died in the civil war in Lebanon, I worried for their children. When an earthquake struck Turkey, I was horrified by the wreckage and the pained faces of survivors appeared in my art. And stories of the brutal wars in Central America, where Lucia may have ended up, left a hollow feeling in my gut.
One afternoon, the ringing on the other end of the phone stopped. A disembodied voice answered, telling me the number was no longer in service and if I needed help call the operator. Who do you call to find people orphaned by heat seeking missiles? I put the receiver gently on the hook and lay down on my bed.
I had told no one about myself and Lucia. What could I say? How could I explain that I had spent a beautiful afternoon in the park with a girl but now she had vanished and I had trouble finding my face in the mirror?
Sundays in Central Park became a ritualistic chore, my eyes always searching for a Brooklyn Dodgers hat on top of long, straight black hair. Autumn brought its cooling. Fewer people came to play in the park, fewer chances that she might return. Leaves began to fall, the fiery reds giving way to the gray and black of twisted, bare branches against a sky that darkened earlier each day.
I am underwater, sinking comfortably in the gray-green murk. On the ocean floor, the sand gives softly under my sneakers. The landscape is barren, the sea silent and remarkably void of life. The water tastes metallic. The few fish I see swim quickly away. In the distance, two people sit at a small table, debris of some kind scattered around them. It is Mr. and Mrs. Kim, drinking tea.
I take my place at the table. It is fashioned from a section of an airline passenger door, no doubt ripped away from the fuselage in the explosion, its edges craggy and sharp, resting on a few stacked suitcases. We sit on passenger seats propped up on small piles of rocks and sand. Bones and engine parts float around us.
“We are so happy to have you with us, Henry,” Mr. Kim says. “Lucia told us about you.” He is older than I had expected, probably close to sixty. He is dressed in a cool pink button down shirt, still well pressed in spite of all he has been through, and a red and brown tie, its knot high and tight. His graying hair is perfectly brushed back, only a few strands along the back of his head are mussed by the passing current.
“Can I pour you some tea?” Mrs. Kim says. Her silken voice is somewhat garbled by the ocean water. She sits tall and erect, her hair pinned up precisely, her lively eyes protected by high cheekbones. She wears a black sweater knitted from thick yarn which must carry the heat of a hundred candles.
“Tea sounds swell,” I say.
Mrs. Kim reaches down next to her seat and comes up with a dented, stainless steel pitcher and a small, plastic cup with the KAL logo applied to its side. She pours a sweet smelling brew.
They ask me how things are in New York . They miss the big city. I tell them New York is still the same, so much to love and so much to hate. They are curious about the theater and do not understand making musicals based on cartoons. They want me to fill them in on all the latest exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art.
“I do not get to the museums very often,” I say.
“Oh, my dear young man,” Mr. Kim says, “you must take advantage of living in one of the art capitals of the world. Especially someone with your skill and interest.”
I nod and promise to go regularly.
Mrs. Kim reaches up to snag a child's mangled rib cage that has floated by. She snaps off a bone and stirs her tea. I gasp audibly.
“Pardon me,” she says, “but we only have cutlery for two.”
I apologize for my own lack of manners and sip the strong tea. It warms me.