My classmates were all getting their driver’s licenses. Like any of us had anywhere important to go. They drove cars their parents had gifted them, either a hand-me-down or a brand-new lease. I was the last without a provisional license and the only one without a car parked outside Shane Yamamoto’s house in Salt Lake, a neighborhood made up of military and upper-middle-class families and surrounded by Pearl Harbor, Fort Shafter, and Hickam Air Force Base. Shane’s family had just renovated the bottom floor of their two-story house for the tenants who were moving in soon. The empty apartment was a perfect excuse for another house party, our fifth as graduating seniors.
The majority of my classmates and their siblings had attended our private Baptist academy since kindergarten and called themselves “lifers.” They would remain friends for years after high school. I’d started at the academy as a freshman, the only Korean with immigrant parents, though I’d lived with my grandparents for most of my life. My grandmother was a devout Christian, and it was her idea that I attend the academy. My grandfather was a drunk but an excellent cook. He would always watch me eat his food.
I resented my parents, if only because I didn’t know who they were. I was the expense that caught up to them, retribution for having abandoned me in Hawaiʻi. As one of few financial-aid recipients in my class of a hundred students, most of Japanese descent, I had to work in the cafeteria during lunch and carry hot pans of rice that burned through my gloves — a fraction of what Umma endured in setting down tray after tray of stainless-steel rice bowls and dolsots bubbling with jjigae every night. My mom was always telling me I had a choice in life: to work either with my body or with my brain. At least I got to eat free lunch on my shifts.
The party was getting out of hand. We were testing our tolerances with flavored vodka, wine coolers, and Bud Light that someone’s older sibling had bought for us. Calvin Takahashi lost a beer-pong tournament and had to drink a solo cup of his own urine. He downed it, slammed the cup on the floor, and raised his arms like he’d just won gold. People groaned and laughed. Derek Okamura called me a pussy for chasing my shot with Coke. I burped in his face, and out came smoke. I felt sick to my stomach. That’s when I knew I had to leave.
No one at the party could take me home. We had all been warned of the consequences of drinking and driving, thanks to a driver’s-ed field trip to the medical examiner’s office. They had us drive golf carts while wearing goggles meant to simulate drunkenness, and they showed us photos of totaled cars and road “incidents,” as our instructor, Mr. Kobayashi, liked to call them. Incidents involved unfortunate, often fatal, mistakes, but there were things we could do to prevent them. Most fatalities were the result of three things: speed, curves in the road, and distractions.
I still had forty out of fifty hours to log behind the wheel under Appa’s supervision, but since my dad drove a taxi for a living, neither of us was very keen on fulfilling the requirement. It was time he could have spent working to pay my tuition. The only hours I had completed were with my grandfather, who yelled at me anytime I changed the radio or took my hands off ten and two. My grandfather would pick me up after school and let me take the wheel. Practicing defensive driving for the fifteen or twenty minutes it took to get to the apartment left me exhausted.
I left the bare living room through the sliding glass doors and found Dean Suzuki smoking a cigarette in the backyard. He took a drag and handed it to me, then gestured for me to sit and join him. Out of everyone at the party, Dean was the only one I’d consider an actual friend.
We talked about college — it was on everyone’s mind as we edged toward uncertain futures. I knew classmates who were going to Oregon, Arizona, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York. It was kind of embarrassing being one of the handful of academy students who were sticking around, enrolling in the University of Hawaiʻi, which was the only place I’d applied. Paying out-of-state tuition would have financially destroyed my parents. Tuition for the academy had already put them in debt. But at least I wasn’t going to Chaminade or Hawaiʻi Pacific University, which let just about anyone in.
My classmates often spoke about leaving Hawaiʻi for good. Their wealthy parents had raised them to become exports, trained and educated for employment around the world — anywhere but Hawaiʻi. When they wished to be cruel, they told me what future awaited me: driving a taxi or working at a Korean plate-lunch restaurant.
Even outside, away from the party, my head pounded, and my stomach was in knots. The last time I’d felt this sick was when we’d gone on a class field trip to the USS Arizona Memorial. We took a boat right through a glistening rainbow oil slick on the water. Our religion teacher asked me, Doesn’t the sheen look beautiful? It reminded him of the lives lost during the attack. The tour guide said that the dead were still trapped inside the USS Arizona and that the battleship had been leaking oil since 1941. It could continue to leak for another five hundred years. I hung my head over the side of the boat and gagged. Dean was the only one concerned about me. He rubbed my back and told me everything would be OK. The other guys liked to joke that we were secretly dating. They often played “gay chicken” with Dean, who liked to push the limits of their discomfort: he stroked the small of their backs and massaged their shoulders until they threatened to hit him. Maybe they all knew something about me that I didn’t want to admit then. I was scared. No matter how much I confided in Dean about the girls I had crushes on, he still held out hope that I’d have a change of heart.
While I called Appa for a ride, Dean fetched me some water. I drank it fast, praying I’d sober up quickly. Dean joked that at least I’d ride for free.
When Appa called to let me know he was outside, I said bye to Dean and told him I would pay him for a pack of cigarettes next time. He offered me a Listerine breath strip. I took two, and the taste perked me up. No one even noticed me slip out the front door. My classmates were too busy playing a game where they taped their finished beer cans into staffs and dueled each other. The person with the longest staff was named Grand Wizard and had the power to make drinking rules for everyone else.
The roof light of Appa’s Lincoln Town Car appeared like a halo. Before I could reach the passenger door, Appa got out, having seen me approach in the rearview mirror. He gestured for me to come closer.
Are you drunk? Appa asked.
Not really, I said.
OK, then. You drive.
But — wait, who’s that in the back seat? Is that Umma?
Yeah, she needed to lie down.
Are both of you . . . ?
Soju, Appa said. They’d been drinking with Umma’s friends and a few taxi guys.
If I knew you were both at a party, I would’ve gotten a ride from someone else.
We were just leaving, Appa said. So good timing.
I started to make an excuse about being too tired, but then I realized he had taken a risk already by coming to pick me up, and I thought it was better if I got pulled over instead of him. Maybe we could play it off as my being their designated driver. I got in behind the wheel.
This will be good practice, Appa said. You don’t get to drive at night usually. Oh, and look what I got.
Appa leaned in and reached across my lap to open the center console. The stubble on his cheek grazed my face, and the sudden contact startled me, as did the smell of alcohol on his breath. I held my own breath, worried he would find out I wasn’t fit to drive either. Or did he not care?
Appa took a step back and showed me the magnetic bumper sticker: PLEASE BE PATIENT, STUDENT DRIVER.
For tonight, he said. And next time we practice.
He squeezed my shoulder and gave me a quick pat — a rare gesture — then disappeared around the rear of the car for a moment. In the mirror I saw him back up, fists on hips, to admire the bumper magnet. I remembered the first time he’d let me take the wheel of his golf cart: He and Umma were visiting me in Hawaiʻi. Most of Appa’s visits revolved around playing golf with his friends, and he let me caddy and drive the cart, even though it wasn’t allowed. I was a natural, he said.
You know which way to go? Appa asked now.
I’m so dizzy, Umma said, sitting upright. Driving a taxi for a living, and you don’t know where you’re going.
It’s your adeul who’s driving, not me, Appa said.
I was still unfamiliar with the steep hills and roundabouts of the Salt Lake neighborhood, and I never liked driving the Town Car. Compared to my grandfather’s Nissan, it was bulky and wide and felt heavy on turns — more battleship than automobile. But there were hardly any cars on the road as, following Appa’s instructions, I made my way to Nimitz Highway. The H-1 had more twists and curves. Nimitz guaranteed us a straight shot past the airport and a calm ride home.
Adeul, Umma said, her voice soft, sleepy. You know your umma loves you, right?
Yes, Umma. I love you, too.
I’m sorry for leaving you here, she said. That we didn’t raise you ourselves. It was your grandmother who wanted you to go to school here.
I know, Umma.
She was the one who guilted us into coming back, she said. Asking how could we live without our son for all those years? That’s why we came back. That’s why we work so hard to put you through school.
Enough already, Appa said.
It’s OK, I said.
My parents were definitely drunk. I’d learned over the years how alcohol opened them up. They would talk with me about regret, give me advice, tell me there is only so much you can do to protect someone you love, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. That’s the biggest lesson they could give me as parents.
I don’t know how much longer I can live like this, Umma said. I told our friends at dinner how my sister in Korea invited me to come work at her designer-clothing store, to get started on my own designs. What do you think about moving to Korea?
I don’t know, Umma. I have to go to college first, I guess.
That’s right, she said. Maybe after you graduate. What’s a few more years of my life?
Umma dozed off, and we drove in silence on Nimitz. Something about the weight of Appa’s Town Car, or perhaps my being slightly inebriated, made stepping on the gas pedal feel like a great effort. My calf was starting to hurt, and my lower back needled with pain. I had no idea how Appa could sit in this car for so long, facing the endless road ahead.
The highway I was driving on had been named for Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II. The highways had been built to connect military bases on Oʻahu. They were called “interstate” highways even though we were on an island. Many U.S. soldiers had stopped in Hawaiʻi on their way to war in the Pacific, or to the next war, in Korea, where I was born.
I don’t think I told you, Appa said. He’s going to jail now. Dishonorably discharged. They got that son of a bitch.
He meant the soldier who’d beaten him after refusing to pay for a ride. When I’d seen Appa in the hospital after the incident, I’d felt a prickly heat up my back and around my throat. It had taken a long time for Appa’s wounds to heal, for his face to return to normal.
That’s good, I said. I imagined driving through a huge oil slick, our car spinning out of control. That’s how the attack had made me feel. I couldn’t stop thinking about how Appa had been hospitalized while working to pay my tuition. Once I learned to drive, perhaps I could take his place. Who better to drive a taxi than a taxi driver’s son?
Sometimes you see weird things while driving late at night, Appa said, his eyes closed. If you’re not careful, it catches up to you, so you need to always stay alert. Adeul, do you understand? Once, I saw a car without any lights on driving far ahead of me. I tried to catch up and flash my high beams to warn them, but I could never get close enough. Then the car was gone. I kept seeing that ghost car anytime I drove late. I’d see it turn at an intersection and another car plow right through it. Another time I saw it drive right through someone on a crosswalk. I realized that the car was just my mind telling me to stay awake, or this is what could happen to me.
I began to see legions of dark cars ahead of me on the highway. They collided into an invisible wall and piled up like at a junkyard, every vehicle an example of the worst that could happen. I saw my face instead of Appa’s on the laminated taxi-driver’s license stuck above the glove compartment. I saw the shadow of a naval ship floating by. Beyond a sleeping Umma in the rearview mirror, a convoy of military vehicles approached in the distance. Above the windshield a squadron of dark fighter jets sliced and looped through the night sky. Angels of death. I kept both hands on the wheel, practicing defensive driving.
When we got to the apartment, I parked the car and told my parents it would be twenty dollars for the ride. They laughed.
Appa wrapped his arm around my shoulders. Umma hooked her elbow into mine, and we stumbled toward the elevator. Walking between them, I felt small again, as if they might lift me by my hands and swing me through the air, the way they would in the parking lot of the mall when they would visit me each summer. Other times my parents would play tricks on me, hiding behind a wall as I walked on ahead. I’d turn around, notice they were gone, and cry until they revealed themselves. They always came running back to console me, always. Then I’d cry myself to sleep the rest of the year, while they were in Korea.
A natural, Appa said as we walked to the apartment.
By the time of my college graduation, my parents would return to Korea and leave me behind once more. I’d inherit my grandfather’s Nissan after he died. From then on, I’d be the one visiting Appa and Umma every summer.
The last thing Umma told me when they were leaving for the airport, as Appa put their luggage in his friend’s taxi van, was a simple message that contained both fear and hope, that implied our lives were under our control. She would repeat it at the end of phone calls during our years apart.