By Jean Kim.
On an early summer day in 1988, PJ, our neighbor’s cat, went on a rampage.
Earlier that morning before the rampage, I had seen an adorable baby bunny frozen with fear, on the ground near our front door and next to some blooming azaleas. I’d never seen one so tiny, a fuzzy brown bundle you could fit in your hand but perfectly shaped. Its dark eyes were as still as its body, as they stared out in bewilderment.
The air was fragrant with June blossoms; it was the first truly warm day of the year, and it seemed everyone and everything in our suburban neighborhood was rousing to life. I had turned 14 a couple months earlier. Mom was gardening and said she’d seen another baby bunny.
Our amusement quickly turned to horror. PJ, a golden tabby, often strolled across the street to our yard. We noticed him darting around more quickly than usual. I heard my mother suddenly yell at him and try to chase him back. She waved a shovel. But it was too late.
Mom told me to wait in the open garage. (Overprotective as always, she still thought of me as a young child.) She scurried about the yard and was carrying something in her arms. She came over, and I saw she was holding two of the bunnies.
She said, “They’re the only ones left. There were more, but he ate them.”
We put them inside our late hamster’s old cage. Mom told me to avoid the yard as she cleaned up the gruesome remains of some half-eaten bunnies.
I looked at the two creatures, still petrified and staring, like the one I saw this morning. I wasn’t sure if one of them was the one I’d seen. Or if the one I’d seen earlier was now just half a bunny, only its tiny legs and tail remaining.
We were supposed to go on vacation the following week to the mountains of West Virginia, a four-hour drive from our central Maryland home. Our family was taking another yearly road trip to some random nature preserve. My parents loved nature, although they never camped or did anything intensive. I had just graduated from middle school and was due to start 9th grade in the fall.
We cared for the bunnies as pets, mainly because we didn’t know what else to do. PJ was still roaming around outside. We set up a water bowl and a bed of fresh grass which also served as their food. They started to hop around the small cage but generally seemed content to huddle together in the tight space.
Since it was the 1988 presidential primary season, we named the pair Bush and Dole, due to their different personalities. (We just assumed they were both male.) Bush was very passive and seemed frail, while Dole was more robust and bullying. Sometimes we saw Dole start to attack Bush when he tried to eat, and Bush would flee to the other side of the cage. We would intervene and put in a cardboard divider to let Bush feed during those times.
Both bunnies grew surprisingly fast even in a week, already becoming a pair of wiry preteens.
For me, as for many, middle school had been an icky, conflicted time for me, and I had spent most of it in emotional denial. I was deeply insecure and created a grandiose cover by getting straight A’s and declaring myself smart enough to become President one day, even though I had the social skills of an autistic insect.
I wore thick glasses, braces and a headgear (the cruelest invention for socially awkward pre-teens) and somewhat overpriced clothes for middle-aged people that one classmate teased were from Kmart. I had shot up seven inches in a couple years, so I resembled a clumsy long- limbed marionette with frizzy hair my mother insisted on perming. So I focused on the simple purity of my intellect. I only listened to classical music, played violin, studied Cold War politics, and watched The McLaughlin Group. (These were all things that my father enjoyed.) I had no time for frivolous socializing with my peers or listening to Janet Jackson or hair metal or thinking about boys or makeup.
But my loneliness caught up with me.
My Korean immigrant parents, with the best of intentions, helped render me into this misfit nerd. Their priorities were not for me to fit into American society but to follow a straight, narrow typical immigrant formula to academic and financial stability. Study hard and go to an Ivy League college and then graduate professional school. My father himself was an up-and- comer from a working class family who got into the top schools in Korea and became a doctor. But when his ambition led him to America, his immigrant dream ran into trouble. His own social insecurities were magnified here in America with the language barrier and the harshness of hospital culture, as he picked a high-paying but high-stress specialty (anesthesiology) for his career. Sleepless nights with screaming patients giving birth at any hour and screaming surgeons frightened of making a fatal error all conspired to make my father gruff and miserable. Some people could handle the pressure, but not my increasingly brittle father.
As a child, it’s hard to process anger, or the reason for a person’s mercurial moods. Yes as children we spend some days crying, but we are little and easy to laugh at, hopefully soothed by a larger cuddly parent, until we reach some sort of a status quo, some later than others.
Yet what if your parent isn’t cuddly and is still angry and tantrum-prone. What if he is your tall, elegant, mysterious father–razor-thin in both habitus and patience, all elbows and edges underneath his prim Ralph Lauren clothes? Not unlike a fear-frozen bunny, I viewed him from a bewildered distance when I could, and he obliged by never hugging or physically touching me at all, except to occasionally smack me across the face.
My mother got the brunt of his fury. She was the physical opposite of my father, shorter in stature and all maternal softness and curves. From a well-bred family, the beloved baby with five much older siblings, naturally extroverted and charming, with her pick of doctors to marry as a nursing student, she became my father’s prisoner. He made her stay at home and cook and clean, despite her having a college degree from the same top school he did.
My father frequently called my mother “idiot,” “stupid.” She would spent all afternoon cooking gourmet Korean meals like time-consuming oxtail soup or grilled bulgogi beef, only to have him come home and insult it as “too salty” or “too sweet” and on the “best” days, throw dinner across the room.
He would go into rages (my childhood memory has largely blocked out the details), where he would shriek and physically attack her, and once in a while myself, and even less occasionally my sister, but never to the point of medical injury. Or so I assumed; I’m no longer sure. My mother was good at hiding things and moving on.
Finally, one time, the only time, after getting hit again, she drove away, when I was maybe around age 8.
It was a strange, scary moment. Would she leave forever? Would she come back for my younger sister and me? Part of me was terrified that she was gone, but part of me recognized she had had enough.
She drove back, later that night, crying and apologizing to me and my sister for ever leaving us. She said she had just cried in a local shopping center parking lot for hours. She said she would never leave us again.
Which was true. But the violence didn’t stop.
So here I was, stuck in the faux-wood-paneled station wagon (on its last legs) with my family on a trip to a ski resort, in the summer before 9th grade. Yes, a ski resort in the summer. In West Virginia. Sure enough, the place was nearly empty. I wasn’t sure what gave my parents the brilliant idea to come here in the off-season, but part of me didn’t mind. I liked the solitude, the feeling that this large place was our own playground now. I also felt relief from the overall sense of unease and judgment I felt whenever our ungainly clan went to public places. My parents would act clueless or oddly demanding with restaurant servers, culturally off somehow, or would start bickering, and I’d want to hide under the table. Maybe it was all in my head, but I felt like we were the alien Coneheads from Saturday Night Live sometimes. Here, the lone friendly waitress was happy to serve us, since we were virtually the only customers coming in to the hotel restaurant each day.
The bunnies came along in the hamster cage. Dole would still try to bully Bush now and then, but I would stop him with the piece of cardboard between them. Once he defiantly shoved and climbed up past the cardboard, and they ran in a circle around the cage, but I put it back again. They later quietly munched on grass and drank water from a dish.
The ski resort in Canaan Valley was scenic with once snowy slopes turned lush with emerald grass and pine trees standing tall and aromatic. The ski-lift continued to run, reduced a “sightseeing lift,” and we rode it alone up the mountain. The height scared me a little, but I looked out past the treetops and felt calm like an eagle slowly gliding over the mountainscape.
My parents also seemed quieter, not running round the cage at each other like the bunnies. Perhaps the scenery reminded them of home, since Korea is mainly mountainous. The isolation was maybe calming for my father, away from the clamor of the hospital and people always demanding something.
We spent the day driving to other parts of the park, including the vaunted Seneca Rocks, a geological formation on a mountain peak.
My father blasted classical music on the stereo, and one piece in particular caught my ear. It was a string orchestral piece, passionate and overtly sentimental. As the road towards the peak became wilder and weavier, the music fit the dramatic vistas, whether it be soaring valley views or dense forest overhead with sunlight trickling through.
“What’s this?” I asked, unfamiliar with it despite years of playing classics like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. Music was one of the few ways I could connect to my father, who despite his sternness had a penchant for romanticism.
“Elgar, a British composer. Reminds you of Wuthering Heights, doesn’t it?” my father replied. Wuthering Heights was my favorite book at the time. Always a sucker for classic literature, he had expressed approval when I had told him that.
I’d never heard of Elgar before, but I’d fallen in love. The piece was called Introduction and Allegro for Strings. It started with the slower, melancholy Introduction which gave way to the Allegro, a fugue that started quietly but became progressively intense, even frenetic, before moving to the finale, a grand reprise of the opening Introduction theme. I later read that the theme was based on a tune Elgar heard sung in the distance by a farm girl, while he vacationed in the Welsh countryside.
I felt something in me stirring with the harmony of stormy violins and rugged cliffside views. It was something beautiful and sad at once, and yes, not unlike Wuthering Heights—deep and chaotic and amoral in its portrayal of thwarted, doomed love. As we reached the viewpoint for Seneca Rocks, I stepped out of the car and looked up at the top of the mountain. I saw the grey jagged crags, its vaguely face-like stones presenting proudly outward like Mount Rushmore would look to someone tripping on acid. The rocks were a strange balance of stateliness and primality, unkempt yet semi-ordered with its stern vertical shapes. Some people were climbing the rocks in the distance, eager to conquer their impassive face. The rocks were intimidating yet sedate, a set of cold monoliths that belied a tumultuous geological past.
Bored in the hotel room at night, I channel-surfed as the rest of my family chatted or napped. As part of my single-minded dorkitude, I had up until then refused to acknowledge crushes on the opposite sex, even though, looking back, I probably had had a couple that I shyly kept in denial.
Here though, the stunning looks of a TV star in a cop show smacked me in the head. Jet- black hair, the bangs slightly tousled and hanging over heavy black brows, which in turn framed a pair of piercing baby blue eyes. Strong and symmetric nose, curved yet rugged mouth. Deep voice, New York accent, leather motorcycle jacket and ripped blue jeans. A flashing wide smile with sexy crooked teeth. Vinnie Terranova (as played by Ken Wahl) the undercover FBI agent on Wiseguy, and the hottest guy I had ever seen. Ever.
Yes it was just a TV show, but I caught it at an opportune time in the story arc. Vinnie had been trying to infiltrate Sonny Steelgrave’s Atlantic City crime syndicate, and had done so by becoming Sonny’s best friend. He was caught in a fascinating dilemma; by doing his job so well, his loyalties had become blurred. He really cared about Sonny. But it was a doomed bromance, because Vinnie had to betray Sonny, who was guilty of various crimes including murder.
I had caught the climactic episode where Sonny found out Vinnie was a cop. The two of them ran into an empty ballroom and were locked inside while the Feds closed in. Sonny went after Vinnie, and they tussled and wrestled in an epic punching match, while the Moody Blues’ song Nights in White Satin crooned in the background “Oh how I love you…”.
Vague homoeroticism aside, the scene was fraught with heartbreak and sadomasochism and broken glass and blood spatter. Exhausted, the two men reminisced until Sonny suddenly jumped up, grabbed a loose live wire and electrocuted himself. Vinnie was devastated.
I was moved and disturbed. That night I thought about poor Vinnie, damaged and broken for trying to do the right thing. There was no good way to love a criminal. Perhaps something resonated in me, his sense of torture in being torn between loyalty and duty. I still searched for a way to love my father, even though his love often meant pain. I felt like Echo at the pond, filled with pity and love for Narcissus, and watching quietly from a distance as he faded away, consumed by his poisonous self-adoration.
Vinnie Terranova was just a TV character, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him now. Something in me had opened up. I felt that strange mix of rueful giddiness, like faded rose petals dipping into gold—a secret crush. An unanswerable crush.
From this moment onward, something started to churn inside me. I couldn’t process it but I felt it, these stirrings of longing and regret. I didn’t know why or how, these feelings just were– this new torrent of shadowy allure, this maelstrom of creation and destruction.
Maybe they were related somehow to the crucible of my unwieldy childhood, the veneer of placid suburbia overlaying a fractured tempest of thwarted hopes, unchecked outbursts, hidden shame. No one knew, even I didn’t know, anything to be done or said about my father’s anger. It didn’t matter that I’d written him a birthday card at age 8 saying I understood why he hurt us, that I would try to be a good person moving forward. I was being forced to make sense of the nonsensical as a kid.
It would be many years into the future before I could start to process what this confused fusion of love and hurt indicated, but even then, I would realize there was no rational answer or solution. Although decades later, he eventually calmed down and stopped the physical abuse (if not always the verbal), he would never acknowledge it. He wasn’t capable of doing so.
So all I could do was embrace it as my own; I could swallow the bomb whole, even if it might wreck me from within. I could transmute it into my voice, my personal muse.
I began to let my soul sing its own lonely melody into this West Virginia valley. I felt the beauty surge dark, the music roil in my head, those Elgar strings marching notes into a fiery fugue. They would collapse onto themselves like cardboard soldiers turned into dominoes. Like Vinnie collapsing after the love was beat out of him after he betrayed Sonny. Like supernova fury collapsing into a black hole. Then out of the smoldering ruin, the simple song would rise, the Welsh maid’s melody gliding over the green valley, my heart feeling the rise of the poetic. The mournful loveliness that might save me.
But part of me worried, would that song eventually become a scream? 9
The vacation was almost over, and we prepared to leave.
We took one last drive into the park to sightsee before heading home. It was the perfect temperature outside, and we parked on the side of the road next to a large flat patch of wildflowers and tall grass. Mountainsides rose in the distance around us.
My parents agonized over what to do with the bunnies. They were bigger now, but still not full-grown. They would outgrow the cage soon. Should we take them back to Maryland? Should we raise them as pets? Should we let them go in a park there? Should we let them go here? Even my father looked passive and befuddled.
My parents put the cage outside on the grass. They even asked another random passing visitor what should be done. The middle-aged man said, “Well, they’re wild, they belong back in nature. Probably not good to keep them as pets.” He left.
My parents and my sister started to pick up the cage. They wanted to keep them for now.
I’m not sure what came over me. Maybe I’d been roused by this place, and this turbulent rising adolescent flood of feeling. Maybe I felt impatient and fed up at my parents for years of their singleminded control interspersed with periods of clueless helplessness as foreigners. Life could be cruel, nature and love could be an unruly blend of violence and virtue. Maybe I didn’t want to feel anything at all.
“Let them go,” I said.
“Really?” asked my mother.
“You heard him. They’re wild. It’s a park. They belong here.”
Almost sheepishly, my parents lifted the bunnies out of the cage. The bunnies didn’t run away; they just took a few steps and sat on the grass, quiet, their noses wiggling. One started to munch on a tall stalk of grass but then spit it back out.
“We have to let them go,” I said again.
My family obeyed me this time. We left the bunnies sitting in the grass and took the cage with us. We drove away.
Afterwards, I felt some regret at my cold decision. It was such a wild park, wouldn’t there be more dangerous predators like wolves and bears here? Wouldn’t winter come sooner here in the mountains and freeze the bunnies? There was a new “nature preserve” behind my middle school, why didn’t I bring them there?
Most animals in the wild live only a year or two on average, I had heard once. But it was the way of the world. At least there, in Canaan Valley, it was beautiful.
Jean Kim is a physician and writer who currently works and lives in the DC Metro area. She will be receiving her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing at Johns Hopkins and has also been a nonfiction fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center of CUNY. She is a blogger for Psychology Today and has work published or forthcoming in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, XOJane, In These Times, Bethesda Magazine, Storyscape Journal, and more.