After the Party
The party was over. Mia Chang, thirty-six and in the first flush of what would, in a few years, become a full-blown midlife crisis, stood over the kitchen sink, surreptitiously smoking a cigarette out the window. From their bedroom down the hall, she heard her husband Paul mutter something in his sleep and sigh.
It had been a successful party. Many of the people who came were other math department faculty members and their wives. It was surprising, Mia thought, though perhaps not too surprising, that almost all of the women at these gatherings were the wives, rather than faculty themselves. In his eagerness to make sure everyone had a good time, Paul had drunk too much.
Mia was loading plates into the dishwasher and gathering bottles for the next day’s recycling when her mother called at 1:00 a.m. She let the phone ring a few times and lit another cigarette before she answered.
“Umma? What are you doing up so late?”
The refrigerator hummed impatiently. The kitchen was lit by a single light, the bulb over the stove. The nicotine coursing through her body made the light seem to pulsate.
“Well, your father finally moved out. He took everything. Even the loafers I gave him that he never wore.”
Mia wiped away the purple circle of a wine stain on the scratched kitchen counter. “Good. Now you don’t have to worry about getting rid of his stuff.” She grimaced as she listened to her own halting, rudimentary Korean.
Ice cubes clinked in the background. Her mother, who used to never have more than a glass of wine at Christmas time, was drinking now.
“I’m just glad your grandparents aren’t alive to see this. I could die of shame,” her mother said.
“I’m sorry, Umma,” Mia said, the familiar words by now a well-worn refrain. She was always apologizing to her mother for her father’s mistakes. “It’s late. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
“Call him, Mia,” her mother said. “He’ll listen to you. He respects you. He never respected me.”
Mia rubbed the balls of her aching feet and took another drag of her cigarette, holding the hot brick of the phone away from her ear, before promising her mother that she would. Mia and her father hadn’t spoken in over three years, not since she and Paul had gotten married, and she wasn’t even sure if the number she had for him still worked. But she would find a way. She always did.
After she hung up, Mia stubbed her cigarette out. She turned the dishwasher on and then washed the good wine glasses, which were so large they reminded her of small fish bowls, by hand. The glasses glinted in the dim light of the kitchen, like polished molars. They had been a wedding present from Paul’s parents, Jeanine and George.
Unlike their gangly son, Jeanine and George Fisher were small, compact people. They owned monogrammed towels, a dog named Ginger, a sailboat named The Halcyon, and a vacation home in Cape Cod that they always insisted she and Paul take advantage of. They reminded her of salt and pepper shakers, with Jeanine’s white bob and George’s full head of darkening gray hair.
“What’s it like having parents who actually like each other?” Mia had said to Paul after the first time she met them.
“I guess they’re just a happy pairing,” Paul said. “Like us.”
Paul was tall and narrow, but he gave an impression of solidity. It was part of what had drawn her to him, the day they met at a mutual friend’s thirtieth birthday party. Mia hadn’t known anyone else at the party, and neither had Paul, and so the two of them had made small talk by the coat closet until someone suggested that Paul get her number. He called her the very next day.
Paul reminded her a little of the spacious, straightforwardly elegant Massachusetts house that he had grown up in, with its tall windows, clapboard shutters, and the inviting porch that wrapped around the front like a friendly smile. She could imagine the house continuing to stand for centuries, and people who looked like Jeanine and George and Paul continuing to live in it for generations to come. But even now, three years into her marriage, she could not imagine anyone who looked like her ever living there.
She drained the sink and left the wine glasses upside-down to dry in the dish rack. She caught her own reflection in the window over the sink and dabbed at a wine stain on the corner of her mouth. It was almost the same shade as her new maroon lipstick, which had feathered past the edges of her lips over the course of the evening.
The head of the math department, Charlie Webb, had come on to her that night, leaning in a little too close when they hugged at the door. He had greeted Paul with a hearty handshake and clapped him on the back. When she put her hand out to shake his, he had clasped it and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek, close to her right ear. She caught the scent of his cologne, something leathery and expensive, and underneath it, the smell of the moth balls his wife probably used to store his sweaters and suits.
Later, he caught up with her in the kitchen when she was cutting fruit and cheese to take out to the guests. Paul was in the living room, regaling their guests with an anecdote from his undergraduate years at MIT that she had already heard several times.
“You look like a Vermeer standing there in that light,” Charlie said. “May I have a piece of fruit?”
She resisted the urge to correct him, to say that Vermeer had only ever depicted scenes in natural lighting. She remembered Paul telling her that Charlie, despite rumors of his impending retirement, was still held in high esteem at the college. Back in the ’70s, he had proven some important imaginary theorem on complex numbers. Or was it a complex theorem on imaginary numbers?
She offered him a slice of the green apple she was cutting, which he accepted.
“And what do you do, my dear? Paul says you’re dabbling in art history.”
“I’m just finishing my master’s, actually. I’m working on my thesis at the moment.”
“How wonderful. I’m a bit of an art fiend myself,” Charlie said. “Verna and I must have you both over for dinner soon.”
“That would be great,” Mia said with what she hoped was a firm, professional smile. The smile of a woman who knew she belonged, a woman who was not to be tampered or trifled with.
“Paul’s a lucky man,” Charlie said, biting down on the apple slice. Bits of apple flesh sprayed from his mouth as he spoke. “Lovely wife, and smart too. You remind me of an old girlfriend of mine. Keiko was her name. She made the most excellent sushi.”
Mia felt her smile grow brittle. “I should really finish up here and take this in,” she said.
He winked. “Come by for dinner sometime. I’ve got a great collection of some very special Japanese woodblock prints I’d love to show you.”
After the guests had gone, she had told Paul about it, while they were cleaning up. “Japanese woodblock prints, can you imagine?” she said. This was usually the part of their parties she liked best, when they stayed up late with snifters of brandy and made fun of all the people they didn’t like.
“I hope you said yes,” said Paul. “You know he’s on my tenure review committee next year.”
There was a pause. “I didn’t say no. I just changed the subject,” she said eventually.
“Mia,” said Paul. “Be reasonable. I’m not saying you have to flatter him or flirt with him. I’m just saying, he’s an old goat but he’s still an important old goat.”
“Must be some imaginary theorem he figured out. Funny, your line of work. You’re all always trying to prove things that are imaginary or unreal.”
“Nothing funny about it,” Paul said. His eyes were shining from the wine and he sounded quarrelsome. “Math is the cornerstone of all the world’s disciplines.”
“Save it for your tenure review,” she said.
Paul put down the plate he had been washing and left the kitchen, leaving the rest of the unwashed cups and plates for her to do. Ten minutes later, she could hear him snoring. No matter how stressed he was about departmental politics or how bad their fights were, Paul never had any trouble falling asleep.
It was 1:30 a.m. Mia considered calling her father’s office number. Obviously he would not be there this time of night, but she could still call and leave a vitriolic or plaintive voicemail that would weigh on her mind until Monday morning.
She did not like to think of it, but she supposed that if he had finally moved out, it was time to face facts: her father, at the age of sixty-five, after nearly four decades of marriage, had left her mother. Mia found, with a sharp sense of guilt, that she could not really blame him. Her mother could be difficult and bitter, even nasty, towards her father. Mia had not bothered to wonder why this was until she had gotten married herself and learned what it meant to be a wife.
She knew nothing of her father’s new girlfriend, only that she was a former graduate student of his that he had begun seeing around the time she and Paul got married. So far she had resisted the urge to google her, but she could not be much older than Mia herself.
Mia thought about the many faculty dinner parties her mother had hosted over the years, starting from when she was a child. All the chopping, mincing, roasting, basting, mixing, and baking she must have done. In Mia’s childhood memories, her mother was comprised of two different women. One version of her mother sweated over the kitchen stove for hours, agonized over complicated French recipes, and practiced making small talk in English with Mia.
“How are you liking this weather?” Mia would say in English, giggling at what she thought was just a game.
“It’s too cold. I hate it here in the winter,” her mother said.
“You can’t say that to people, Umma. They’ll be offended.”
“Ask me something else then.”
The second version of her mother, the one Mia liked better, wore silk blouses and pearly gray eyeshadow, laughed politely at compliments about her food. This mother worked furiously on her thesis at night long after everyone else had gone to bed, determined to finish her PhD and become a professor of economics herself, like Mia’s father. Her father’s colleagues used to ask her mother about her progress, offering to take a look at her research. But by the time Mia entered middle school, the thesis had been abandoned and was no longer brought up in conversation.
And now, thirty-eight years after her parents met as skinny graduate students and married in Seoul, before moving to a small town in Indiana (the university there having been the only place where they had both been accepted), her father had left. It was a betrayal so deep and unthinkable for Mia that she could barely comprehend it. It was almost easier to imagine that her father who, until then, had been a solid, immovable fact of her life, had turned into a fish or a bird.
Mia turned off the kitchen light. She slipped off her tights and wadded them up in one hand as she walked to the bathroom, treading lightly so Paul wouldn’t wake up. She placed the lighter and the crumpled carton of cigarettes back into her underwear drawer, beneath the piles of lacy lingerie she never wore. She wasn’t trying to hide her cigarettes from Paul, not exactly.
Tomorrow, she and Paul would talk more about the party, about his plans for impressing the tenure review committee, and she would nod and agree and make suggestions, because she loved him. He would do the same for her, wouldn’t he? They were a happy pairing.
She would not bring up Charlie Webb or his Japanese woodblock prints again. The old goat, Paul had called him, not without affection. Within a year, he would not remember this part of the party, and she would do her best to forget it as well.
And then, once their lives slowed down and it was summer again, she would apply for jobs outside of the college, so she wouldn’t have to stay in the development department placing phone calls to alumni and crafting pithy one-liners for their email newsletter until she wanted to staple her fingers together out of boredom. She would finish her thesis and send it off to her advisor back in New York, and then she would finally be able to tell the other faculty members and their wives that she had a master’s degree in art history. She would figure out what exactly she wanted to do with the degree later.
There would even be children, at some point. Paul was ambivalent about children. But Mia thought he would probably be a good father, in the same way he was a good husband—kind, loving, and forgetful enough to believe the best of everyone.
She would call her mother tomorrow and ask her to come stay with them for a week. She would not call her father, but she would tell her mother that she had, and that no one had picked up.
Mia crawled into bed next to Paul, making sure to take his glasses off and plug his phone in to charge overnight.
The radiators in their bedroom clanked and hissed. Mia was too warm.
When they first moved to this rural college town, she often stayed up late to look at the stars. Mia loved that which was vast and unknowable. The night sky made her feel the imaginary as a possibility in her body, and she found comfort in the idea that the stars existed without her, that they did not need her to notice them.
Still sleeping, Paul curled himself around her, his long hot body like a comma. In sleep his body was like a furnace. Mia took slow breaths. She wanted cold air, to drink in the light of the stars and the night sky. She wanted to remember that the night held far more than what she could see with her eyes alone.
Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the communications manager at PEN America and an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School. She holds a BA in literary studies from Williams College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in F(r)iction, Split Lip Magazine, Jellyfish Review, and LIT Magazine. She is currently working on a collection of short stories about family, memory, myths, and loss. Find her at gina-chung.com.