For your thirteenth birthday, your aunt gives you a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. She tells you that this book spoke to her, and that it will speak to you too. It’s a slim, smooth and slightly dog-eared book with a plain white cover; presumably, it’s her used copy. You flip through and note how much the color of the pages resembles old coffee stains, how the font constitutes an ugly, crowded affair. It looks like a terrible read—something meant to be covert between bathroom magazines or neglected in a box in the attic. You’re puzzled because your aunt is anything but boring or plain: she has wild, wavy black hair, an open-mouthed and contagious smile, a volcanic laugh. She drops curses like hard ginger candy and cracks dirty jokes and tells your mom to stop being so uptight. She is the only daughter not to bear children. On windy autumn days, she whisks you in her black convertible with the top down and seats hot. She gives you this dreadful snore of a book for your birthday, and not just any birthday, your thirteenth, a somewhat pivotal year. You cram the novel between stale textbooks that amass on your lowest shelf and forget all about it.
Your aunt was the only one among her siblings who decided to up and leave for New York City at eighteen, departing from the family’s poor, crowded house in Tennessee. Never mind that she immigrated from a desolate, post-war Korea as a child, and that many from that background stuck earnestly together in the States—she yearned to leave the familiar cocoon of her home in order to discover—to figure out—this new world on her terms. You can easily see her stepping out of the bus and onto West 34th Street with a bob cut and suitcase, stamping out both the winter cold and inner fear with her feet. She always tells you that if she didn’t do it then, she never would have. You always nod gravely in response.
Your aunt is everything you’re not. You labor through vivid dreams about shedding yourself like a too-tight snakeskin and donning her personhood with relief, the only salve for your madness. Because everything about you is wrong and inadequate. Where to begin?
Your voice. Your voice remains stuck in your throat like scraggly bark. You keep quiet. When you are forced to respond in class, your words eke out in painful strings. You sponge up the spearmint-scented insults of bullies without a sound and pass free time hiding in the bathroom stall, listening to the confident comings and flushings and goings of the well-adjusted student body. You don’t tell anyone about the time you walk down the stairs of your middle school and feel a cold glob of spit land squarely on top of your head. It feels like egg yolk. It slides down from the center parting of your hair. You hear snickers on the second floor, but you don’t stop and you don’t look up. You keep walking face-forward until you reach home. You shower while gazing at the tiles in wrathful silence.
Your body. It remains gaunt and aggressively prepubescent. Your tiny breasts are growing lopsided. You avoid full-length mirrors. Your hands are clammy and cold throughout the seasons. Your armpits develop a 5 o’clock shadow at noon. You despise your small Asian eyes: the ugly monolid signature, the dull shit-brown color of your irises. And your teeth. You are most insecure about your teeth. At thirteen, you have a mouth full of metal because your teeth are a jumbled mess—crossed planks and odd gaps. Your lips strain to fully cover them, so your smiles are swollen and dried out, strained and disingenuous.
Your aunt’s smile holds a set of stunning teeth and is framed by lips that draw back to free a roaring laugh. She flings her thoughts frank and unpolished like pewter spoons upon her listener. She befriends strangers in line at the grocery store and intervenes if there is wrongdoing; simply passing through a man’s line of sight triggers his shoulders to straighten and his eyes to soften. Her warm yet dry hands clasp yours with tenderness when you go over to her house. Her mysterious blaze of cheer stokes your insides regardless of how crappy of a mood you are in, regardless of how ugly you felt yourself to be when you woke up that morning. Her husband loves her past the moon and the stars.
You are desperate to steel up, to evolve over night and become as nonchalant and maverick a creature as your aunt. At thirteen, you are incapable of responding to anything with such a lack of doubt and fear. It’s her unrestraint, you tell yourself, that gives her that magic. You want that magic more than anything in the world.
You are gangly, clammy-handed and wooden-tongued the year your aunt gives you The Catcher in the Rye. You finally pick it up a year later, after a long and very sad day; your hands unconsciously seek out the worn and pliable book from among the stacks, as you are desperate and yearning for answers. Your thumbs slide in-between its pages of velvet; they yield serenely in your palms. The narrator’s first lines snare you like wire around a rabbit neck: the touchy-as-hell parents and lousy childhood, the madman stuff and “crumby” surroundings. You don’t put it down once. You read the entire book, plain cover to plain cover. And then you read it again. It does speak to you. Holden’s experience is yours and yours his: the gaping chasm that follows him like a loyal hound, the mirror he does not wish to hold up to himself, his blustering, youthful despair. The truthfulness of this book can barely be contained in your small, ragged self. More importantly, it baffles you that this same story rang true for your aunt—the lovely, unrestrained creature that you grew up idolizing.
You come to realize that you know your family and yet you don’t. You come to realize that a burlap sack languishes upon each relative’s shoulders. These sacks contain their real histories—histories that speak to their Holden self, that crusty, unrefined core. No one talks about how each of them possesses the same hefty bag of demons and humiliations, and how this bag follows them from start to finish. (Your realization is borne from cracks and fissures in conversation and body language, grandma’s gossip and vulnerable disclosures during funerals and chats in the car).
You wonder what is in your aunt’s sack—what items will remain hidden from view, past her death. It’s impossible to speculate (only the reader herself sees how precisely she encapsulates Holden, through all the cuts of that smeared diamond). Your own burlap sack already feels too heavy, sagging upon your back. What events transpired in your aunt’s life that burned her through and through? At what point did the darkness give way to such a cultivated, heightened state? At thirteen, you’re too afraid to ask—believing she would guffaw and throw an incredulous eye at you. Your urgency to discover her truth smolders in you like live coal, because the world continues to fragment beyond your control. You don’t look thirteen, feel thirteen or understand thirteen.
You want to open up her sack while she’s sleeping. You want to pull out the snakes and stones that haunted her when she used to be a gaunt, lopsided girl who found it hard to breathe when contemplating the future (as you grow up, your aunts and uncles begin to drop precious bits of her story onto your ears as they reminisce about Tennessee). Maybe the truth comes from finding love, you think, or having lots of money. Maybe it’s a genetic thing—you either have it or you don’t—and you were simply allotted the recessive path. You begin to convince yourself that any opportunity to self-beautify, to transform, was withheld from you before birth. Wallowing in this much self-pity leaves a sharp and ugly taste in your mouth.
As you grow older, you also realize you know yourself and yet you don’t. You continue to re-read the same dog-eared, plain book year after year, through high school and college. Through your twenties. Your sack is now writhing and full, and yet you are closer to peace than you ever were. The coarse bindle that once burdened you has become, oddly, a comforting possession (the preface to wisdom, perhaps). When you concentrate and think back to how you have evolved from your original, unprocessed self, you struggle to articulate even a bit of it. Because something occurs, slowly and without your knowing, without your permission or initiative. One morning you awaken, and it has already happened. And all you know is that one day you are reading Salinger’s novel as Holden, and one day you’re not. And only then do you finally discover the truth: that the bricks and mortar of your foundation and the manner in which they ultimately arrange are hidden even from yourself—and as the transformative process remains unknown to you, so it has for your aunt. All you both know is how the unfolding manifests itself once complete. Your new narrative is woven through your capacity to laugh more freely and how you tell rude people to fuck off, how you convey your brutal love for family and how you’re able to sit with yourself in quiet. How you are able to stand in front of a full-length mirror and take a long breath and look.
You still have your thirteenth birthday present, snug in your bookcase, worn and torn from years of beloved page-turning. It is both artifact and augur, one that you keep by your side until the day you can gift it to your niece or nephew. You don’t believe you will ever be as courageous and uninhibited as your aunt, but you do know that as you hand over this gift to another thirteen-year-old, you will be able to look her straight in the eye, and repeat your aunt’s words, “This book was the first book that ever spoke to me. It will do the same to you.”
Helen's creative nonfiction was recently published in the online journal BlazeVOX and will be published by Inertia in early 2015. She has also published a poem in the Asian American Female Anthology, Yellow as Turmeric; Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press, 2008).
Helen received a B.A. in English from Wesleyan University and is currently working on several pieces about family and gender and a memoir about her father’s journey from North to South Korea.