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The Sun Is Also a Star(6)
Author: Nicola Yoon

Local Teen Trapped in Parental Vortex of Expectation and Disappointment, Doesn’t Expect to Be Rescued

The nice thing about having an overachieving asshole for an older brother is that it takes the pressure off. Charlie has always been good enough for two sons. Now that he’s not so perfect after all, the pressure’s on me.

Here’s a conversation I’ve had 1.3 billion (give or take) times since he’s been home:

Mom: Your grades still okay?

Me: Yup.

Mom: Biology?

Me: Yup.

Mom: What about math? You don’t like math.

Me: I know I don’t like math.

Mom: But grades still okay?

Me: Still a B.

Mom: Why no A yet? Aigo. It’s time you get serious now. You not little boy anymore.

Today I have a college admission interview with a Yale alum. Yale is Second-Best School, but for once, I put my foot down and refused to apply to Best School (Harvard). The idea of being Charlie’s younger brother at another school is a bridge entirely too far. Besides, who knows if Harvard would even take me now that Charlie’s been suspended.

My mom and I are in the kitchen. Because of my interview, she’s steaming frozen mandu (dumplings) for me as a treat. I’m having a pre-mandu appetizer of Cap’n Crunch (the best cereal known to mankind) and writing in my Moleskine notebook. I’m working on a poem about heartbreak that I’ve been working on forever (give or take). The problem is that I’ve never had my heart broken, so I’m having a hard time.

Writing at the kitchen table feels like a luxury. I wouldn’t be able to do it if my dad were here. He doesn’t disapprove of my poem-writing tendencies out loud, but disapprove he definitely does.

My mom interrupts my eating and writing for a variation on our usual conversation. I’m cruising through it, adding my “yup’s” through mouthfuls of cereal, when she changes up the script. Instead of the usual “You not little boy anymore,” she says:

“Don’t be like your brother.”

She says it in Korean. For emphasis. And because of God or Fate or Sheer Rotten Luck, Charlie walks into the kitchen just in time to hear her say it. I stop chewing.

Anyone looking in at us from the outside would think things are copacetic. A mother making breakfast for her two sons. One son at the table eating cereal (no milk). Another son entering the scene from stage left. He’s about to have breakfast as well.

But that’s not what’s really happening. Mom is so ashamed about Charlie hearing her that she blushes. It’s faint, but it’s there. She offers him some mandu, even though he hates Korean food and has refused to eat it since junior high.

And Charlie? He just pretends. He pretends he doesn’t understand Korean. He pretends he didn’t hear her offer of dumplings. He pretends I don’t exist.

He almost fools me until I look at his hands. They curl into fists and give away the truth. He heard and he understood. She could’ve called him an epic douche bag, an animatronic dick complete with ball sac, and it would’ve been better than telling me not to be like him. My whole life it’s been the opposite. Why can’t you be more like your brother? This Reversal of Fortune is not good for either of us.

Charlie takes a glass from the cupboard and fills it with tap water. Drinking water from the tap is just to piss Mom off. She opens her mouth to say the usual “No. Drink filter,” but she closes it again. Charlie gulps the water down in three quick swallows and puts the glass back into the cupboard unwashed. He leaves the cupboard open.

“Umma, give him a break,” I tell her after he’s gone. I’m pissed at him and I’m pissed for him. My parents have been relentless with the criticism. I can only imagine how ass it is for him working at the store all day with my dad. I bet my dad berates him in between smiling at customers and answering questions about extensions and tea tree oils and treating chemically damaged hair. (My parents own a beauty supply shop that sells black hair care products. It’s called Black Hair Care.)

She opens the steamer basket to check on the mandu. The steam fogs up her glasses. When I was a little kid that used to make me laugh, and she would ham it up by letting them get as steamy as possible and then pretending she couldn’t see me. Now she just pulls them from her face and wipes them with a dishcloth.

“What happen to your brother? Why he fail? He never fail.”

Without her glasses she looks younger, prettier. Is it weird to think your mom is pretty? Probably. I’m sure that thought never occurs to Charlie. All his girlfriends (all six of them) have been very cute, slightly chubby white girls with blond hair and blue eyes.

No, I’m lying. There was one girl, Agatha. She was his last high school girlfriend before college.

She had green eyes.

Mom puts her glasses back on and waits, like I’m going to have an answer for her. She hates not knowing what happens next. Uncertainty is her enemy. I think it’s because she grew up poor in South Korea.

“He never fail. Something happen.”

And now I’m even more pissed. Maybe nothing happened to Charles. Maybe he failed out because he simply didn’t like his classes. Maybe he doesn’t want to be a doctor. Maybe he doesn’t know what he wants. Maybe he just changed.

But we’re not allowed to change in my household. We’re on a track to be doctors, and there’s no getting off.

“You boys have it too easy here. America make you soft.” If I had a brain cell for every time I heard this, I’d be a goddamn genius.

“We were born here, Mom. We were always soft.”

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