Ji Hyun Joo

Chubby Asian Superhero

It’s the summer of 2010. Darwin is eighteen years old. There’s hope for change.

Freshly emerged from high school, the lower part of his face is currently healing from the acne he suffered for the past four years. Secondary school was a necessary learning experience, but Darwin believes that his real future starts now. He dreams of becoming a comic book artist. With the influx of comic book trading in his senior year, which Darwin himself never participated in (he enjoyed alternative comics like Love and Rockets that none of his classmates were interested in), he learned that he falls into the possibility of being desirable and cool. The artistic hand sexier than the athletic body? Darwin doesn’t think it feasible. The world usually doesn’t work in favor of boys like him.

Currently, he’s working on a comic strip for his creation, Chubby Asian Superhero. He fleshes out ideas for his comic strips in between shifts at the nail salon his parents own in National City, CA, where he works as part of the cleaning staff. Seated behind the check-out counter, Darwin uses a dull No. 2 pencil to draw out a rounded chin and plump cheeks. He didn’t choose to work under his parents after graduating high school. He was pushed into it, the way baby birds are pushed out of their nests in preparation for flight; in Darwin’s case, he spread his wings and his parents lassoed him back into their arms.
He did apply to college. He applied to thirteen schools but was rejected by all of them. His counselor told him not to apply to places like Duke University and Yale University because he would absolutely not get in, but he did anyway. Instead of addressing how disappointed they were in his thirteen failures, his parents showed it by doting on his older sister. They sent her care packages with face masks and seaweed snacks, reveling in writing “Harvard University” in parentheses beside the address of her dorm room.

But Darwin holds on to a delicious secret no one else in his family knows: the best artists don’t go to college, or they end up dropping out, eventually realizing that their natural brilliance conquers the rigid structure of higher education.

The day his last rejection letter came in the mail, Darwin consoled himself by drawing Chubby Asian Superhero rescuing guests on a cruise ship, his stomach rolls stretched flat as he held the massive boat over his head. As he was finishing the details of this moment of triumph, Darwin’s dad barged into his room, hands wrapped behind his back, and sat on the edge of his California king sized bed.

“Da-win, if college is not the road for you, you need to make use of yourself,” he said, followed by a deep exhale.

He then revealed what he had been hiding behind his back: the white uniform his masseuses wear at the nail salon. Darwin openly cringed, but his dad got up from the bed and placed the neatly folded uniform on top of his notebook anyway.
“Your mom ordered one in XL for you,” he said, sighing. Then he flicked Darwin’s ample left cheek before leaving the bedroom.

Darwin’s parents love to comment on his size. He’s a bigger guy, always has been, always will be.

“In Korea, there is no one fat like you. That’s an American trait. Because you were born here,” his mom says repeatedly at the dinner table, sometimes in front of guests.

Darwin writes CASH — his acronym for Chubby Asian Superhero — across the character’s stomach. He knows there’s dual meaning when his mom talks about his body outside the sphere of their immediate family. She wants others to know that he’s fat because he’s so very Americanized, with an insatiable need for greasy chips and fried butter.

Darwin’s accepted his body for the most part, but he does have his private moments of wishing to slip into someone else’s toned, muscular figure like a bodysuit. Last week, he was surveying himself in the full length mirror in the privacy of his sister’s empty room, wrapping his arms around himself and grabbing at his own love handles. Darwin’s mom walked in on him and asked what he was doing, to which he briskly answered he was hugging himself.

Darwin wants to move to Los Angeles, a city that he often sees on the screen. The city of angels; he dreams of finding his wings in a place so bright and shiny. In his most recent comic book strip, Chubby Asian Superhero, who resides in Los Angeles, saves a Damsel In Distress hanging from the HOLLYWOOD sign with the help of his sidekick, Bo. Bo exists in real life. He’s Darwin’s best friend. Real life Bo, with his chiseled jaw and mysterious dark brown eyes, outshadowed Darwin while growing up together in the hybrid city-suburb on the outskirts of National City. Darwin’s favorite aspect of writing is that he can change the narrative to his liking. Also, real life Bo revealed himself to be as much of a failure as Darwin after being rejected by all fifteen colleges he applied to. Bo’s mind is now filled mainly with loops of scenes from the 70’s pornos his dad keeps in the basement.

When Darwin daydreams of leaving home, his chest expands like he’s been given more room to breathe. But most times, he’s deeply rooted in his reality, only able to see the dark alleyway that’s his everyday, mundane routine of driving to and from the nail salon with his mom riding shotgun, listening to the same gossip he’s heard the day before.

Sometimes, when they’re returning home, his mom falls asleep, her neck slack against the back of her seat. In these rare moments of quiet, Darwin glances over at his mom’s profile and makes note of something new — the smallness of her ears or a fresh sunspot on her cheek.

* * *

It’s the summer of 2011. Darwin is nineteen years old. A few things have changed.

He acquired his massage license after his mom had to stop taking on customers due to nerve damage in her right hand. Initially, Darwin expected being in direct communication with the customers would inspire him to create, but the only customer he imagines Chubby Asian Superhero would be interested in defeating is the same person making it difficult to focus. While Darwin had seen him as a teenager, he’d never had a chance to interact with him until his mom’s clients were transferred to him. The man is in his late 50’s, permanently decked out in a suit, tie, and cufflinks. He’s seen without a wait. Darwin wonders if it’s the shine of his suit that makes his dad respect him more than his other customers.

The man doesn’t need to articulate what he wants from Darwin. A mere gesture is enough. During their first massage, the man took off his pants and boxer briefs, remaining fully suited above his hips, and sat at the edge of the massage table. He looked at Darwin blankly, gesturing toward his penis. Briefly, Darwin contemplated acting like he didn’t know what was expected of him, but he found his hands moving toward the man with obedience. If he didn’t continue with the deed, he knew his dad would yell at him for losing one of the parlor’s top spenders. His dad treats the regulars like rare rubies that must be handled gingerly. The pitter patter of rain, a soundscape that Darwin turned on prior to the massage, played in the background. Normally, Darwin would’ve made small talk, asked the man questions about where he’d gotten his suit, but he found himself unable to say anything. The man also remained disturbingly silent until the very end when he let out what sounded like a growl.

After that first session, with his mom sitting beside him on the drive back home, Darwin wondered if she had also been made to comply with the man’s animal needs. The thought made his intestines shrivel and coil into knots. Darwin had to open his window to throw up on the side of the road. While Darwin vomited, he felt his mom’s hand patting his back, the way she used to when he got sick as a child. This gesture made Darwin all the more desperate to know whether her comforting was prompted by maternal instinct, or a more deeper understanding of what he had just endured.

The man used to come by once a week, but in recent months, he started coming by more frequently, sometimes four times a week. Darwin, for the sake of normalcy, kept the rain water on in the background. Darwin often sits on his bed and obsesses over what his dad would do if he found out his wife had been forced — possibly — to fondle a man’s penis to maintain the family business. Darwin has the sickening feeling his dad would do nothing.

Darwin’s seen the regular glance over at his mom, who would be immersed in paperwork with her glasses serenely propped onto the bridge of her nose, on his way back to the massage rooms. He’s wondered whether the regular would ever ask for his mom specifically, having grown bored of Darwin’s cherub hand. Darwin’s imagined scenarios in which he physically overpowers the regular, putting him in a chokehold, throwing him out to the sidewalk. Knowing that his authoritative nature exists only in his mind brings about the feeling of cockroaches breaking into his skin and crawling aimlessly along the path of his bones.

Every day, it crosses his mind to ask his mom if she had to touch the regular, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He can’t even think of a way to word the question. It feels offensive asking his mom such a thing, as it implies so many other things: his mom gave a handjob to a stranger, his mom felt that she had to give a handjob to a stranger, his mom felt she had to give a handjob to a stranger and couldn’t tell anyone about it.

Tonight, Darwin’s mind is so loud, he goes for a chip-and-dip run. As he stands at one end of the aisle scanning the colorful selection of chips, he sees her enter from the other end. Chelsea Han.

Darwin and Chelsea attended the same high school, but he was only able to get into close proximity to her because her mom is high up in the ranks of regulars at his parent’s nail salon. Chelsea’s mom visits the store every Wednesday afternoon to get her nails done, even when the coat is still sleek and shiny from the previous week. Her favorite color is lavender, a popular choice for girls and women between the ages of 15 to 55. Darwin’s spent many lunch breaks examining this color. He’s come to the conclusion that the versatility of the color is what makes it so popular: youthful, calm, flirty, pure, clean, simple, cool. Everything we want a woman to be, all in one color.

Chelsea moved to New Jersey last August to attend Princeton University. Several times in the past year, Darwin thought about reaching out to Chelsea to ask her how she was doing, but he felt himself shrink whenever he was in her presence, even virtually. A couple years ago, he accompanied his mom to Chelsea’s house for tea and rice cakes. Even though Darwin and Chelsea lived in the same upper middle class neighborhood, Darwin was well aware that he came from a family that serviced while she came from one that got serviced. To get to this level of suburbia, Darwin’s parents spent 20 years working on days of rest, primping and priming other people’s body parts while recklessly overusing their own. Chelsea was third generation, with her mom’s family owning a chain of gas stations across San Diego. It’s not that Darwin believes his parents worked harder than Chelsea’s. It simply felt like Darwin’s family was a generation behind. The work had already been done for the Hans.

Long black hair tied into a low ponytail, resting along her shoulder like a mane, Chelsea stops at her end of the aisle and places her hand on a bag of Doritos before pulling away. Darwin watches her run her fingers along the different chip brands: Lays, Utz, Cheetos (both cheese and hot), until she turns her head to the opposite end of the aisle.

“Darwin,” she says.

It sounds so different when Chelsea says Darwin’s name. He’s used to the way his parents say it, “Da-win,” letting the last part of his name drop inside of their throats like a sigh, or Bo, Darrrrwin, when he wants Darwin to chauffeur him to the Vietnamese restaurant he works at. Chelsea has always said it with a special zeal, like she has interesting secrets to share with Darwin.

Chelsea walks over and wraps her arms around his neck. A light, respectful hug. In the split second it takes for her to pull back, Darwin examines her face. If someone folded Chelsea Han in half, her eyes, nose, mouth, would align like they were one. She’s perfectly symmetrical, as if her mother drew her up with a ruler and compass.

“How have you been?” she asks.

Darwin isn’t proud of anything he’s done in the past year. He doesn’t even know what to lie about to make his life seem exciting.

“I’ve been alright. Working a lot. How’ve you been?”

She shrugs and nods simultaneously, in a way that suggests that she doesn’t want to get into detail about how she’s been. She puts a bag of Hot Cheetos and French onion dip in his cart.

“It’s the best combo,” she says with a broad smile.

Darwin doesn’t agree, but he shyly smiles back at her, knowing he’ll buy and consume them later.

“How long are you in town for?”

“Until the second week of August. We should get together and catch up before I head back.”

“Yeah, of course! I’d love to,” he responds, unable to hide his enthusiasm.

“You have my number. I’m pretty available this summer,” she says as she walks back to the end of the aisle, grabs the bag of Doritos she was eyeing earlier, and waves goodbye.

Darwin drives to his safe haven: a hill behind an abandoned Lowe’s, overlooking the houses down below. If he forgets where he is for a second, staring at the warm lights spilling out of the eggshell white houses, he can imagine he’s in Santorini. Darwin’s never been to Greece, but he often stares at images of Santorini in the nighttime, blue roofs glowing magically, as if to put themselves on the map. Darwin wishes he could light up like this, ridding himself of the fear that he’s as insignificant as he feels. He dips a Hot Cheeto into the French onion dip. The saltiness of both flavors overwhelms him, but he doesn’t dare spit it out.

Sitting in his air-conditioned car, eating chips, and gazing down at the houses, makes Darwin feel at peace. His mind is not a large space. It’s compact, easily clustered. One by one, the lights in the houses below turn off. Darwin remains still until there’s complete darkness, and by that time, the bag of Hot Cheetos and the French onion dip are finished.

* * *

Darwin has Tuesdays off. He puts impassioned effort in fleshing out more adventures for Chubby Asian Superhero when he’s away from the salon and his family, but, lately, inspiration falls flat. Restless from his recent Red Bull consumption, he begins writing out a text to Chelsea.

Hey Chelsea, it was really lovely seeing you the other day. If you’re free next Wednesday, I’d really love to grab a drink with you.

The word love is a bit strong here. He deletes it. Two really’s sounds desperately eager. He deletes both. Lovely is too poetic; a neutral word would be best. After a few minutes of revision, the text reads: Hey Chelsea, it was nice seeing you the other day. If you’re free next Wednesday, it’d be cool to grab a drink.

He presses send and immediately drives over to Bo’s house four blocks away. Occasionally, Darwin goes to Bo’s house to do research for his comic strip. Bo is the most bizarre person Darwin knows. After graduation, Bo moved into his parents’ basement where the vintage porno videos are stacked in one corner. When he isn’t working as a dishwasher at his parents’ Vietnamese restaurant, he plays Sudoku on the ripped futon until it’s too dark to see the numbers on the page. He doesn’t eat or go to the bathroom during these Sudoku hours. Darwin believes Bo is a genius, one that isn’t appreciated by his generation. Bo can memorize lyrics to songs he’s only listened to once and he’s fantastic at Sudoku: skills deemed useless by most.

Darwin enters through the backdoor of Bo’s garage, which is always left unlocked, and gallops down the stairs to the basement. Bo is laying out on his futon in plaid boxers, staring at his Sudoku book. Darwin sits on his designated ottoman across from Bo.

“Hello, my handsome friend. How’s it going?”

Bo shrugs. Darwin suspects that Bo is depressed, given his lackluster attitude toward life. In the hopes that Bo never realizes how depressed he is, as it’s unclear what that’ll do to his fragile psyche, Darwin always starts the conversation with “hello, my handsome friend,” even though it secretly kills him to remind himself how good-looking Bo is, even when he’s doing nothing.

“I saw Chelsea Han a couple days ago.”

“Oh yeah? That’s cool,” responds Bo as he pushes the Sudoku book against his thigh to erase a mistake.

“I texted her, just to hang out, no big deal.”

Bo raises an eyebrow, which Darwin initially interprets as curiosity until he realizes Bo is squinting at a number. Darwin takes out his notebook and quickly begins sketching out Bo in his sidekick outfit, raising an eyebrow.

“I gave Chubby Asian Superhero an all-purpose frisbee today.”

Darwin flips the page and shows Bo the hollowed-out frisbee he drew earlier in the day.

“It flies on its own. And it can electrocute people on touch. And returns on command.”

Bo glances over. “It looks like a giant NuvaRing.”

Darwin turns the notebook back around and examines the frisbee.

“I guess any emptied out circle can look like a NuvaRing.”

Bo nods. “New existence brings erasure to what we once knew.”

Darwin stares at Bo for a moment, mouth agape, before jotting down what Bo said in his notebook. It happens far more infrequently than it used to, but Bo still manages to amaze Darwin in the way he casually offers insight into the world around him, all while lying horizontally on his couch.

With this nugget of wisdom, Darwin wonders if Bo would be able to offer him advice on the regular. He’d been hesitant to tell him what happened for fear of appearing less masculine, a quality that Darwin values, but doesn’t yet fully understand.

“Have you ever been asked to touch someone?” Darwin keeps his eyes fixed on his notebook.
“Touch someone how?”

“You know. Touch someone in a way that’s pleasurable to them.”

Bo doesn’t respond right away. Darwin starts doodling so that the sound of his No. 2 pencil scratching against the paper fills the open basement space.

“I’ve been asked, but I’ve never done it.” Bo looks over at Darwin, his dark eyes beautifully melancholic. “What if I disappoint?”

Looking into the familiarity of Bo’s high cheekbones, Darwin wants to divulge everything. He wants to go into detail about how he’s had to tend to the regular, how the webs between his fingers have grown dry from the amount of sanitizer he’s used afterwards, how he’s wanted to create a steel bubble around his mom so that she’s forever protected. However, Bo appears much too fragile, like any truth too disgusting would melt him like a candle.

Darwin’s phone buzzes in his pocket.

Wednesday works for me. But what bars do we have around us?

Darwin’s attention turns to the dreadful fact that he doesn’t have a fake I.D. His drinking is confined to the privacy of his car behind the Lowe’s. He eyes Bo’s wallet on the coffee table between them. He flips it open to Bo’s fake I.D., hoping they can pass as one singular Asian male, but Bo’s chiseled jaw is enough for Darwin to slap the wallet shut.

“She wants to go to a bar, but I don’t have an I.D. to get in anywhere.”

Bo remains focused on his numbers for a moment before responding, “Why don’t you guys drink in your car.”

Darwin hasn’t taken Bo to the spot behind the Lowe’s in fear of tainting the tranquility of the space. Bo would cast a shade on the magical lights coming from the mansion-esque homes down below. He’s too depressed to imagine Greece.

Chelsea, however, might be able to see what Darwin sees.

Darwin writes back: There’s a quiet place behind the Lowe’s we can go to. We can grab a few beers, if you don’t mind drinking in my car.

Isn’t there an abandoned lot behind the Lowe’s? Should I bring my pepper spray? she writes back.

Darwin feels his heart sink straight through his digestive tract. Is she joking? Will she be using the pepper spray to protect both of them from potential serial killers? Or will she be using it against him? Is he dangerous to her?

Jk. Pick me up at 7? I’m sure my mom will want to say hi to you as well. I’m still bringing my pepper spray, just in case! Haha

Darwin doesn’t know whether the Haha is meant to diminish the weight of the prior sentence. To say one will prepare the pepper spray implies imminent danger, yet she appears to be laughing. Maybe this is the way college girls talk. The only college girl Darwin talks to from time to time is his older sister, who kindly reminds him over the phone that it’s okay to live at home until he’s ready to grow up. She, however, hasn’t returned home since leaving for Harvard.

The rest of the afternoon Darwin watches Bo play Sudoku. While the Bo in his comic strip is only a secondary character, Darwin wants his best friend to feel important. He folds back half of his drawing to hide Chubby Asian Superhero saving a Cute Kitten in a blazing tree and shows real life Bo the cartoonized version of him.

“You’re saving the day in today’s comic,” Darwin tells Bo.

Bo glances over from his Sudoku. “He’s better looking than I am.”

Darwin takes a solid hour sweeping a handful of gel through his thick black hair and styling the tip upwards like a wave at its peak right before crashing into the shore. It was the prime hairstyle in the early 2000’s. When he was living it, he hated the early 2000’s, but now that it’s passed through him, he wishes he could go back in time. Often, nostalgia sits inside of him like his own sweet baby, reminding him of all the things that came and left him like a shell. Darwin listens to My Chemical Romance and Blink-182 in the car on his way to and from work. His mom tells him to stop listening to “that screamo music” so he turns the volume lower, but still mouths the lyrics.

Love for nostalgia is one of the few things Darwin and his mom have in common. His mom is nostalgic for different things, like when his dad massaged her feet every night, and when there were sounds of classical music coming from his sister’s room every morning. After she mentions Darwin’s sister, there’s always a silence, in which she stares at Darwin’s profile, possibly marveling at her son’s ability to stay exactly the same.

His mom only speaks about the past with a yearning, as if she could mime a rope into existence and pull it back to her. This is her therapy. Like everyone else in his family, the prospect of an honest conversation paralyzes her.

He wishes he were brave enough to initiate such a thing with her. What would it be like to talk to his mother? To sit across a table from her, each of them with a cup of coffee warming their hands, and listen to each of her worries, as if he were plucking rotten fruit off the branches that are her limbs.

When Darwin pulls up to Chelsea’s house, her mom waves at him from the doorway, the edges of her floral silk cardigan blowing in the breeze. He’s too far to see them, but he knows her nails are painted the lightest shade of lavender. The garage is open to reveal a homemade gym. Chelsea’s three brothers are pulling, lifting, pushing, sculpting their already muscular bodies. Per Darwin’s mom: all three of them work in finance in Carlsbad, choosing to live at home until marriage like good Korean boys. Her brothers will never cease to intimidate Darwin with their glass skin and naturally straight teeth. They would’ve served as the perfect male role models for him, but he’s always been too scared to hold a full conversation with them.

Chelsea emerges from behind her mom in a black romper. Her hair is loose, swinging outside the frame of her body as she walks toward the car.

When she enters, he notices her old Jansport backpack slung across her shoulder. She places it between her legs and drums her hands against her thighs.

“Let’s do this! I haven’t had a drink for the past month because of finals.”

During the roughly eight-minute car ride to Darwin’s sacred place, Chelsea talks casually about school in a way that makes him feel like he also attends Princeton University. She doesn’t open up much about the friends she’s made, talking mainly about her women’s studies class and the respect she has for her professor, who used to be a professional weightlifter.

When they arrive a few feet away from the edge of the hill, the lights from the houses below flicker on one by one. Chelsea takes off her seatbelt and leans toward the window.

“If you forget you’re in Cali, you can imagine you’re in Santorini,” Darwin offers.

She takes a moment to consider this. “Huh, yeah, you’re right. Who would’ve thought we could find Greece in our shitty city?”
Chelsea opens her backpack, removes the pepper spray disguised as a shiny lipstick case along with two bottles of beer.

“You did bring the pepper spray,” Darwin says, feeling a sudden rush of blood to his face.

“I bring it with me everywhere,” she says as she turns to him. “Don’t worry. I’ve only had to use it twice.”

She uses the bottle opener attached to her key chain and pops both beers open.

“So what about you, Darwin? You haven’t said anything about how your year’s been,” she says before taking a long sip of her beer.

“Well, things at work have been busy.”

“How do you massage people without getting freaked out? I’d hate to have to touch so many people.”

“Well, at one point, you end up seeing them as a bunch of body parts, not people. Like, a leg is just a leg. A foot is just a foot. It helps if you forget about the person it’s attached to.”

“Have you come across any weirdos?” she asks.

“Yeah, of course. There’s this one regular in a suit that comes in four, five times a week and asks for a handjob. It’s pretty sick.” Darwin, surprised by his own admission, quickly takes a sip of his beer.

“What?” Chelsea says, turning to face him in her seat. “That’s disgusting. You don’t have to touch him, right?”

“Of course not,” he lies.

“I’m sure your dad is looking to completely refuse service to him if he hasn’t already. Your family’s business is not that kind of place.”

“Yeah, he’s looking into it,” he lies again.

“Men are so repulsive, aren’t they?”

“They are,” he responds, nodding and gulping down his beer.

“What else has been going on? Aside from all the massages? Any changes?”

So many things have changed. His self esteem is now licking dirt off the floor and he’s unable to shake the constant feeling that he’s powerless. But he knows she’s asking about positive change. He takes another sip of his beer to buy himself some time while his mind drums its fingers nervously against his temple, trying to beat an answer out of him.

“I think home is where you grow sideways,” he blurts out.

Before he can explain himself, Chelsea nods, her face tranquil and understanding like a gorgeous Buddha.

“It’s true. Home is so weird like that, right? I don’t know how you do it. I could never live here with my parents, just moving through a routine that revolves around everyone else.”

“You grow in what you can’t stop. Aging. Feeling bad for your mom. Not trusting your dad. But you don’t grow, really,” he adds softly.

Chelsea turns to Darwin. “Then why don’t you leave? Why don’t you save and move away?”

“I wouldn’t know where to go. And I can’t leave my mom. Who would take care of her?”

“Well, how do you take care of her now?”

For a moment, Darwin wants to tell her that he’s only inappropriately touching the regular so his mom doesn’t have to do it, but he realizes he would be unearthing his own lie.

“I help her around the house. Do the laundry. You know, small chores.”

Chelsea smiles a maternal, gentle smile.

“Your mom will be fine. Maybe you’re a little scared to move away from home. It’s all you know. I remember you wanting to be an artist, Darwin. Maybe save up, move out to spaces where you’ll be able to find people serious about their craft. San Diego is where people come to retire and die. You have so much potential.”

Darwin feels the light buzz of the beer ringing in his head. Suddenly, a surge of confidence rushes through him like he’s been cleansed. He can’t help but stare at Chelsea’s slightly red cheeks. They look like mini furnaces. He resists the urge to place a hand on one side.

Chelsea places a hand on Darwin’s knee. “You can be someone, Darwin.”

No one has ever told Darwin he can live an entirely different life than the one he’s leading now. He wants to tell Chelsea about Chubby Asian Superhero, but instead, he places a hand over Chelsea’s and leans in. Surprisingly, she doesn’t pull away. He gets close enough to smell her. When his lips touch hers, his eyes instantly water. Before the kiss can deepen, the tears fall from his cheeks and rub on to hers. She pulls away.

“Darwin. Are you crying?”

He quickly rubs his face with the back of his hand. He downs more of his beer, even though the taste buds on his tongue feel numb.

“You’re a tender soul, Darwin,” she says, as she sighs and leans back into her seat.

They look out at the lights of the houses until one by one, they flicker off. Before they’re surrounded by complete darkness, Chelsea asks that he drive her home.

On the way back, Chelsea returns to talking about her life at Princeton. At one point, she talks about her roommate, who has people visiting from home all the time, and Darwin hopes that she will invite him in the near future. When they reach Chelsea’s house, her brothers are sitting on plastic cartons in the garage playing cards. The oldest brother waves at Darwin, and he waves back, intimidated by the slope of his carved bicep. Chelsea slings her backpack across her shoulder and opens the door. Before heading up her driveway, she leans in and says, “I’ll see you next summer, yeah?”

Darwin nods and watches her join her brothers in the garage. He’s at peak adrenaline. He’s ready to fight the world.

Darwin walks in on his mom massaging her feet with her one good hand and the television on mute, so as to not wake his dad. All the blood that had been bubbling inside him like lava, preparing him to launch his hidden potential out from under him, boils down to a simmer. His heart clenches in his chest. He grabs a pack of rice cakes off the counter, sits in his designated spot beside his mom, and sets his eyes on the Korean drama she’s watching. He doesn’t need to know what they’re saying to understand the storyline. It’s the same plot over and over again.

* * *

It’s the summer of 2012. Darwin is 20 years old. He experienced the thrill of change before finding himself back in his original state.

Shortly after Chelsea returned to Princeton last August, Darwin went on one of the trending diet fads, seeking guidance from one of the women’s magazines piled up at the salon. One meal a day and an hour of cardio-based exercise. For his one meal, he chose a simple combination of soybean soup, rice, kimchi, and steamed egg. He was constantly hungry — acid lining the walls of his stomach — but he wanted to know what change looked like. He dedicated an hour to jogging at the park. The class shirt he got before graduating high school weighed down his shoulders as he sweat and sweat and sweat. During his runs, he imagined himself buff, as muscular as Chelsea’s oldest brother, strong enough to herd predators away from his mom.

In the beginning, he didn’t see the results. He only felt them. He walked into work with a different air about him. He drummed his hands against his hips, a beat playing in his head.

“Da-win, why do you look so happy? Stop tapping. It’s disturbing everyone,” his dad whispered in his ear, gesturing to the unbothered customers.

In the past year, Darwin blocked out his dad’s comments, allowing for space to hate him a little less than he usually does.
He lost 23 pounds. Chubby Asian Superhero got a new Superhero Suit and Superhero Abs. He was also given a defined jawline that made the content in his speech bubbles sound more important. Darwin visited Bo less and less during this time. Bo was only lightly playing Sudoku and almost exclusively spending his days staring up at the ceiling. Darwin secretly feared the depression would travel across from Bo to Darwin and settle inside of him with a deep, consuming hunger.

In February, his mom began wearing a beige brace hoping it would help with the tremors that developed in her hand. Going to the doctor was always an absolute last resort in Darwin’s family. His dad referred to the American health system as the biggest and most successful scam in the world.

“Shame on us for going to the hospital when we know we’re being scammed,” he used to say whenever Darwin’s mom contemplated going to an orthopedic doctor.

Watching her hold her own hand whenever it shook violently, as if it needed to be guided across a busy street, broke Darwin. He began going on his chip-and-dip runs again. He bought Hot Cheetos and French Onion Dip because he thought of Chelsea every day, and he felt slightly closer to her by eating her gross creation. Darwin sent a Hey Chelsea, how are you? text after a runner’s high, but she never responded. When she’s at Princeton, she needs to be focused completely on Princeton. He understands, but it still makes him feel like he’s a fan on the sidelines, rooting for an athlete he’ll never get to meet.

It’s July. He’s regained the 23 pounds he’s lost and more. Chubby Asian Superhero loses his abs and finds a new enemy, Greedy Nail Salon Owner. Darwin’s been using every opportunity he has during his shift to glare at his dad so he can sketch out all of his flaws for his comic strip.

On a Wednesday evening, Chelsea comes into the salon with her mom. Darwin is sitting at the register, a long strip of paper from the receipt roll hidden under a keyboard, on which he is feverishly dabbing his pencil to draw his dad’s many cheek moles.

He doesn’t notice until he hears his mom call out, “Aah, Chelsea! Beautiful girl. Back in town!”

Darwin looks up to see Chelsea standing beside Mrs. Han. Her hair cut right below her ears, she appears a few years older.

In front of their parents, Darwin and Chelsea become different people. Chelsea stands slightly behind Mrs. Han, allowing her to take the lead. She still waves at Darwin, smiling awkwardly, but she doesn’t hug him the way she did at the grocery store a year ago. Darwin also finds himself automatically maintaining distance while his mom leads them to two plushy seats in the corner of the store.

“We’ll both go for lavender,” Mrs. Han says, dipping her body into a chair.

Chelsea sits in the seat next to her mom. Chelsea’s back remains stiff, her fingers spread apart from one another with intention. She watches while her nails are painted a soft purple. As Darwin remains seated at the register, watching Chelsea from the corner of his eye, the familiar ring of the door opening sounds. The regular in the suit, immersed in the glow of his phone screen, half-looks at Darwin, then at his mom, and walks straight for the stairs leading down to the massage rooms.
Darwin’s knees go weak. Chelsea is in quiet conversation with her mom. Like a bad habit, Darwin checks that his mom is at a safe distance from the regular, gets up, walks past the Hans and down the stairs to the farthest room to the left.

When Darwin returns upstairs, his hands doused in sanitizing gel, Chelsea is gone. He feels his self-esteem liquefy and pour onto the ground, surrounding him like a wet puddle.

“Chelsea has grown into such a beautiful young lady, hasn’t she?” Darwin’s mom says in the car. “When it’s time for her to get married, she’s going to get so many suitors. Someone high up there. In the 1%. An ivy league girl like that, she’ll meet someone handsome and rich. I’d love to have a daughter-in-law like her.”

She swiftly turns in her seat to face Darwin, poking and prodding using only her eyes and her tone of voice, a skill gifted to Korean mothers. Darwin doesn’t say anything. He turns up the volume to Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” slightly swaying his head to the beat like a lost balloon.

When he returns home, he goes straight into his room and plops facedown on his bed. He lays like this until his phone buzzes in his pocket.

Hey, sorry that was so awkward! We had to leave for dinner before you came back up. We should hang out again like we did last summer. That spot behind the Lowe’s is way better than many of the bars I’ve been to.

Darwin’s heart, which he was sure had detached and fallen away from his arteries hours ago, rises from the dusty bottom of his body’s floor.

He picks her up on Friday evening. She’s sitting beside her three brothers inside the open garage, looking pensively at a board game set up on two upside down milk cartons in front of her. While the Hans are undeniably wealthy, they’ve always kept the furnishings of their four-car garage strangely humble.

Darwin adjusts his rear view mirror and practices smiling into it. He took a good long look at himself in his sister’s room before leaving the house. He was struck with the disturbing realization that he looked so much like his dad. He tries to find more of his mom in himself as he smiles with all his mildly yellow teeth.

There’s a knock at his window. Chelsea is looking into Darwin’s car, waiting for him to let her in. He quickly unlocks the door and waves to her three brothers, who are watching him from the garage. They wave back at him.

“Darwin!” she sits beside him and leans in to hug him.

The edges of her short hair tickle his nose. During the drive over to the abandoned lot, Darwin feels himself cowering at how unfamiliar she’s grown in the past year. She’s no longer talking about the day to day of college life, but elaborating on the observations she’s made about her parents. How her father expects her mother to take care of everything because she’s a homemaker, how the power dynamic is skewed unfairly. Darwin nods his head, makes sure she knows he’s listening. Darwin is merely a tourist in the foreign country that is Chelsea Han. The red-orange glow of the sunset colors the sky as he parks at the edge of the hill.

“I brought a little surprise,” Chelsea says, her lips curling into a smile.

She pulls out a bottle of Hibiki whiskey from her purse.

“My dad got two from a client. You need to drive so we shouldn’t go too crazy, but maybe we can have a glass each?”

She takes out two red solo cups, the mascot for unhinged college fun, from her backpack and pops them into the cup holders. She pours him a cup of whiskey, the honey-like liquid flowing into the plastic, then pours one for herself. A dull clink sounds as Chelsea leans her cup in to cheers with his.

“So, what have you been up to this past year?” she asks.

Darwin finds himself in the same position he was in last year, frantically searching for something positive to tell her about his life.

“I’ve been writing a lot for my comic series,” he says after a moment’s hesitation.

“Oh yeah?” Chelsea reveals her perfect row of teeth as she smiles proudly at him. Chelsea had braces between 9th and 11th grade, Darwin remembers. She smiled just as widely back then too, the metal constraints never holding her back.

“What have you been writing about?”

“Just … about this superhero. It’s stupid. I’ve been working on it for a while. Bo’s in it.”

Chelsea releases her lips from her cup, her eyes widening. “Oh, Bo! How’s he doing? I used to have a little crush on him back in freshman year.”

He feels a searing jealousy brandishing the side of his neck.

“Well,” Darwin lingers before saying, “he’s really depressed. Watches porn, does math, stares at the ceiling all day.”

Chelsea cocks her neck to the side in confusion. “Porn, math, and ceiling staring, huh? He was always kind of a weird guy. I’m sorry he’s been depressed. I know he’s your best friend.”

Darwin knows he shouldn’t spill Bo’s secrets like this, but Bo would understand, especially now that he cares about so little. They both sit and sip their respective whiskeys, as if to take a moment to mourn the once happy Bo. Chelsea cuts into the silence.

“I have to say, though, I’m impressed, Darwin. Writing is difficult. I wrote a story during a creative writing class I took and it was a mess. I mean, I had a lot of fun, but it was probably one of my more challenging classes, given that I’ve never written creatively before.”

“What was your story about?” Darwin asks.

“It was about a female sumo wrestler. I liked writing about how a woman can build her body into this vessel of strength. Sumo wrestling is a male-dominated sport, you know. And going against the more socially accepted body of a dainty Asian woman is empowering.”

“Do you think that applies to men too? The whole going against the socially accepted body thing.”

Darwin has no interest in sumo wrestlers, but he’s suddenly curious about Chelsea’s views on the male body. She stares down into the houses as she contemplates the question. The whiskey burns Darwin’s throat as it travels through its pathway into his stomach.

“I think men are less constrained by their appearance. When a woman doesn’t conform to beauty standards set by society, they are immediately seen as less than, the bottom of the totem pole. Absolutely unfuckable, and thus, useless. When men do, it’s celebrated. People use words like rad to describe men who don’t conform.”

“So you think fat men are celebrated?”

Shortly after graduating high school, Darwin, in an attempt to push himself to be more confident, asked a girl out at the Jamba Juice. It was probably the biggest risk he’s ever taken in his life. She giggled in his face, as if he told her a joke that wasn’t very funny, and walked out, leaving him with his giant smoothie. At the nail salon, customers often sighed if they decided he was in the way, blaming his size rather than the narrowness of the corridor. He was not considered rad during these moments. Instead, he felt like an amorphous shape undeserving of love and space.

“I don’t think any fat human is celebrated in this world, unless it’s to be fetishized. Anyone that has a characteristic that sets themselves apart ends up being sexualized. People are shallow and unfair. But I think bigger women are subject to all the ridicule that bigger men endure and far worse. Bigger men will always have the advantage of being men.”

Chelsea takes a long sip of her whiskey. She keeps her unblinking eyes on Darwin’s.

Most people in Darwin’s life don’t understand him. Even Darwin doesn’t really understand what he wants or needs. Last summer, with her encouragement and the kiss they shared, he believed Chelsea truly cared about him. Even though she never reached out when she was away at Princeton, he thought Chelsea might understand him a little bit more than anyone else.

For her to imply that she knew how people treated fat men and women while comfortably navigating the world as a universally attractive, slender Asian woman, slipping her body between vehicles parked a hair’s breadth apart from each other, ignited a fire inside of him.

“You talk about it like you’ve lived it,” he says.

“Well, of course I haven’t lived it, but I know what it’s like being uncomfortable in my own body.”

“But you’re like 50 pounds.”

“I’m not 50 pounds. And that’s not the point. I’m talking about knowing what it’s like to feel unsafe in the body that I have. Wondering if it’s my fault people think they can treat me however they want.”

“How do you know what that feels like?”

“Do you know how many men have tried to grab me off the street? Because they think they can. Because the spheres of being small and Asian and a woman overlap, they think I won’t say anything. I’ll just say yes to everything and they can fuck my brains out and I’ll just say yes yes yes. They think they can follow me and ask to hug me on the street and when I say no, they spit at me. Then they ask why I’m not grateful. And why should I be grateful? Do handsome men also have to be grateful for being handsome? I’m punished for looking the way I look. The world would rather defile me than have someone like me feel good about myself. I need to get raped first, they think. I need to know my place.”

Darwin cringes, stunned by her sudden vulgarity and the violent realization that his mom also fits within the center of this Venn diagram. Is this why the regular demanded as he did from his mom? Because he believed he so easily could?
“You have to think about the structure of our society, Darwin. Don’t think small.”

“I mean, men are repulsive, we’ve established that before. I can’t escape them either. Like that regular in the suit.”
“Who?” Chelsea asks, her face crumpled in irritation.

“The regular in the suit. The one I’m forced to give handjobs to.”

Chelsea waves her hand in the air as if to brush his words away from her. “Darwin, what are you talking about? We’re discussing something important.”

“This is important,” he says.

Chelsea continues talking about the oppressive structure of our society, specifically American society, and how it is built to keep everyone in their cubicles of stereotyped identity. She provides a list of examples that, in Darwin’s ears, fade from words to murmurs, like a clean dollop of paint that is being smeared across a canvas.

Darwin closes his eyes, tries to focus on Chelsea’s lecture, begins an internal monologue about how he should really listen to her because she’s proven herself to be brilliant.

It’s with knowledge that he’s behaving wildly inappropriately when he grabs Chelsea’s face and kisses her, causing her to drop her cup, the whiskey spilling on her lap and staining her jeans. It’s with full acknowledgement that she won’t easily be able to escape him that he chooses to lean into her seat until he’s pinning her down with his weight as she struggles to pull away from him. It’s with intent to punish her for being smarter than him that he bites her lip until she lets out a muffled scream. It’s with wonderment that he too can violate a body that he quickly unbuttons her jeans and puts his hand inside her panties, digging his fingers into her tangled pubic hair. It’s only when he hears his name being called that Darwin comes to, and remembers that he’s not one to do what he imagines himself doing.

Darwin opens his eyes. He realizes that he’s been hitting his own elbow against the window.

“Darwin, are you listening to me?”

Darwin looks at Chelsea, her cheeks flushed and fueled from the alcohol. “Yeah. All the oppression.”

“Yes. We have to constantly think against the grain. We have to be smart.”

Darwin sits erect against his chair while Chelsea starts talking about toxic masculinity and how women are inevitably the ones to suffer from such societal disease. There’s a pulsing deep inside his body somewhere, punching him over and over again. Even without having done what his mind had envisioned, he can’t ignore the pull of his body to act, to respond, to hurt. Darwin remains still, his hands placed firmly against his steering wheel until the lights below turn off, telling him to return home.

* * *

It’s the summer of 2013. Darwin is twenty-one years old.

Darwin won’t be seeing Chelsea. Last summer had shattered his image of her. When he had dropped her off at home, she pointedly didn’t bring up seeing each other next summer. Without a hug, she walked up her driveway, joining her brothers. She is not the one that will embolden him with her unique understanding of him. Instead, she will tell him of the exact places of everyone around him — his dad, his mom, himself — in the bigger scope of society. He’s ashamed to admit to himself that he’d still like her to text him, just so that he can know what it would be like to reject her. Mrs. Han continues to visit the nail salon by herself, requesting a refresh of the same lavender.

Chubby Asian Superhero is going through an identity crisis. He is still saving Damsels and Cute Kittens, but he’s also occasionally taking off his Superhero Suit. He spends a lot of time staring at himself in the mirror, one that’s attached to the sliding doors of a closet, like the one in Darwin’s sister’s still-empty room. When Chubby Asian Superhero senses danger, he throws his all-purpose frisbee out the window to combat the bad guys while he sits at home.

Darwin visits Bo once a week on Tuesdays again. There’s a comfort in seeing his friend, who, like him, appears to be incapable of change. Sidekick Bo has also stripped himself of his Suit. Now, the Bo in the comic is uncanny in resemblance to the real life Bo: angular jawline paired with sad, searching eyes.

Toward the end of summer, with the departure of two employees at the nail salon, Darwin’s mom starts taking on two massage customers a day. Darwin forgoes his days off, a decision his dad applauds, and one that instills quiet worry in his mom. Often, he’ll feel eyes on him, prompting him to look around to find his mom sitting at a distance, staring at him.

Monday mornings tend to be the slowest time of day at the salon. His dad usually takes this time to go grocery shopping for the house at the adjacent mall.

Her hand in a newer, more durable brace, she sits beside him at the register.

“What do you want to be, Darwin?”

Since turning 21, Darwin’s been asked this question frequently by his dad. However, his mom’s tone is different from his dad’s. More curious rather than scolding.

When Darwin shrugs, he feels the immense stress on his shoulders and back, like boulders creaking to move along with him.

“You can’t be here forever.” His mom draws a circle around the interior of the nail salon. The space is miraculously small, capable of fitting within his mom’s one gesture. “I don’t want you to do this work forever.”

It will be in his early thirties when Darwin understands that when his mom spoke of “this work,” she was referencing a larger scope of work: standing work, bodily work, distressing work. Work that forces one to be in perpetual discomfort. Ugly work that no one else wants to do.

Darwin wants to ask if she’ll be doing this work forever, but he’s stopped by the jingle of the door opening, another customer entering. Before Darwin’s mom gets up, he places his hand on her lap, asks the customer how he can help, leads them toward the back of the salon, detaches the body from the person, releases all the knots of unknown origin, sanitizes his hands, returns to find his mom mopping at the far corner.

After pulling down the shutters of the salon, Darwin asks his mom if she can accompany him somewhere. His parents look at him bewildered. He hasn’t ventured away from the same roads leading him to the nail salon, home, Bo’s house, and the grocery store since last year. When his dad is about to speak, his mom grabs at his forearm, and tells him to go home first. They’ll be home for dinner soon. His dad obliges, grumbling to himself as he walks out to the parking lot to his car.

Once his mom gets into the passenger seat of Darwin’s car, she starts her daily gossip of who, what, where, how. Darwin listens and nods, responding occasionally to the more shocking news.

Darwin’s stayed away from the lot behind the Lowe’s. He didn’t want to be reminded of what he had imagined himself doing to Chelsea. For the first time, he had been surprised by his own potential, except it had been of his capacity to cause destruction. He’s lost clarity on who he is, what his hands can do. He needs to figure himself out. He needs to grow up.

His mom stops talking when he pulls up to the edge of the lot above the lit houses. She adjusts herself in her seat so she can get a better look down below. She puts on her glasses, which had been hanging from her eyeglass lanyard, hitting just below her collarbone.

“It looks like a place I had once wanted to go to,” she says. Her voice is drenched with the nostalgia of yearning for a place she had dreamt of visiting, like she is no longer a person of want.

Darwin closes his eyes. He imagines he’s in Santorini looking down at the blue roofs glowing with the warmth of the white lights, putting himself on a map in a world where he is trying to exist.

Ji Hyun Joo is a writer raised in San Diego and Gyeongido, South Korea, and currently based in Astoria, New York. She completed her M.F.A in Fiction at Columbia University, where she is a recipient of the 2020 Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship and a nominee for the Henfield Prize. Her stories have been published in New England Review, The Margins, The Normal School, and elsewhere.