You cannot wash your Korean away like this, she hisses. What were you thinking?
Young love. It makes fools of us all, and when we are older we can look back at those times and laugh, or become bewildered at our strange ideas, or ashamed, or angry at what happened, or – well, lots of things. Hopefully, mostly we can laugh. When I was fourteen a friend of mine explained to me how women masturbated, and I believed him. The way they did it was by rubbing themselves sideways against the rim of a toilet seat. He said it with such confidence. He was a year older, and of course he knew. I remember viewing toilet seats with trepidation – wouldn’t that hurt whoever did that? How could it possibly be a good thing to do?
He was wrong, of course, but I held on to that belief longer than I should, and I remember feeling so sorry for all the women who had to do that and contort themselves in painful, unpleasant ways. Maybe that belief lasted a year?
At any rate, Kimberly Nichols’ short story, Hot Pink, is about a young girl coming into her sexual awareness, though that isn’t quite what she recognises it as at first. Instead she simply adores a woman, adores adores adores her, obsesses over her and thinks about her.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Aunt Kelly surprised me with a birthday cake before we opened, and Uncle Jin-woo gave me a stack of vintage comic books, plus a lot of new Marvels with my favourite ladies: Storm, Rogue, Mystique, and Jean Grey. I couldn’t wait for work to be over so I could cuddle up in bed for the rest of the day and sink into fantasy with a bag of crispy chicharones from the carniceria next door.
I like the casual mix and flow of cultures, of cuisine, and of popular media. It all swims together. There’s a lack of segregation, which is refreshing. Race doesn’t seem to matter, much, or class. But sex certainly does.
The narrator’s family is Korean, and while the atmosphere of the family seems generally relaxed, Grandma Hyun is a bit of a controlling tyrant. Her daughter, ‘the one who went wrong’, left the family home years ago, and now our narrator, Jay, is becoming an adult and developing a strong internal identity. She’s seventeen, and she’s started painting nails at the family business.
And Sarah comes in. Sarah is older, impossibly sophisticated, beautiful, and alluring. Or, at least, she is to the narrator. The text is awash in colour, smell and sound as the narrator obsesses over Sarah, idolising her. It’s unclear whether she wants to be with Sarah or simply be Sarah. What she does know, however, is that how she feels towards Sarah is wrong.
By the time I turned 18, I had painted Sarah over 20 times. The hot pink splotch on the wallpaper behind my bed had grown to 24 square inches, its shaky-lined sides threatening to escape above my bed. I put extra pillows atop my covers lest it show. It grew exponentially with the turmoil eating away my brain, but every time I painted another spot, the peacefulness came to wash away the dirty.
Each time she paints Sarah’s toenails she squirrels away the nail polish and dabs at her wall, covering it in hot pink, hiding her shame. Words like ‘stain’ are used. It is ‘a throbbing heat that spreads across my cheeks like a dozen tiny pinpricks’. It’s an impulse, something she doesn’t really understand, and certainly doesn’t want to stop. It’s part of the ritual that comes with looking after Sarah.
There is an extended sequence where the narrator is ‘so heady with the idea of seeing Sarah’ that she frolics about with some flowers and ends up being stung by a bee. I suppose she is allergic, because later she has a strong reaction to it. But all she cares about is Sarah’s reaction, which is – concern. This section is good, but it goes on for a little too long, I think, and its function within the story is overshadowed by a slightly later section dealing with Korean food. In this part, the Sarah tells the narrator that she loves Korean food and so she goes home and puts her heart and soul into cooking bibimbap for her family. Her grandmother is astonished at her unexpected interest in the food. And pleased. It’s a great sequence, and really highlights how when a teenager falls in love – particularly unrequited love – they become willing to bend all aspects of their self to seize on the perceived interests and desires of the focus of their attention. Sarah mentions a food she likes, so the narrator must master it. A follows B, obsession follows obsession.
Later, through a series of events which stretch credulity a touch, the narrator ends up next to Sarah in a massage room, naked or nearly so, and it’s there that she stumbles into her first confusing orgasm and the realisation that the love she has been experiencing is, well, love. The orgasm+love portion of this is told very well, and is quite sensitive to the scattered feelings of a young, scrambled mind, but the surrounding events left me cold.
It comes down to length. At close to four and a half thousand words, I think the story would have been more effective at three thousand. That’s a lot easier to say in this forum than it is to understand (or agree with!) when writing the piece itself. I don’t begrudge the extra sequences, but I think the same ideas are explored with greater clarity and force in other portions of the story. Hot Pink is at its best when the narrator swims in and out of her and other people’s cultures, and when she revels, simply revels, in the confusing maelstrom of erotic, romantic confusion.
So what do we have, then? A story about a young gay woman discovering herself which touches on the difficulty of being gay in America in a migrant family without beating anyone over the head with it (good!). A story about a young woman who is stung by a bee and has a mother who abandoned her, mostly so the end can tie up neatly (less good). A story which is sensitive to the heightened feelings of youth, of how seriously they take themselves even when the activities they perform and thoughts they have are beyond ridiculous (excellent).
And Sarah? Well, she could have been anyone. She wasn’t, she was Sarah, but she could have been anyone. The narrator was a flower waiting to unfold, and Sarah was the catalyst to make this happen. I would hope that the narrator, when she herself is in her forties, would imagine Sarah fondly, wistfully appreciative that an object of desire was able to make itself available just as her teenage self needed it. And that is something. You don’t forget your Sarah.
Hot Pink is a short story by American writer Kimberly Nichols. You can read the story online at The Puritan.
Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.