Senior year is begun. Is begun sounds cooler than the more normal has begun, because if you say it right, you sound like a lone surviving knight delivering dire news to a weary king on the brink of defeat, his limp hand raking his face with dread. The final breach is begun, your grace. The downfall of House Li is begun. I’m the king in that scenario, by the way, raking my face with dread.
For senior year is begun. Sometimes I look way back to six months ago, during the halcyon days of junior year. How we pranced in the meadows after taking the PSAT: a practice run of the SAT, which in Playa Mesa, in California, in the United States of America, is widely used to gauge whether an early human is fit for entrance into an institution of higher learning.
But the PSAT? A mere trial, we juniors sang. What counts not for shit, your grace! How we lazed in the sunlight, sharing jokes about that one reading comprehension passage about the experiment testing whether dogs found it easier to tip a bin (easier) for food or pull a rope (trickier). Based on the passage and results in Figure 4, were the dogs
A) more likely to solve the rope task than the bin task?
B) more frustrated by the rope task than the bin task?
C) more likely to resent their human caregivers for being presented with such absurd tasks to begin with, I mean, just give us the food in a damn dog bowl like normal people?
Or D) more likely to rake a paw over their face with dread?
The answer was D.
For come Score Day, I discovered I got a total of 1400 points out of a possible 1520, the 96th percentile. This earned me plenty of robust, spontaneous high fives from my friends, but to me they sounded like palms—ptt ptt ptt—slapping the sealed door of a crypt. The target was 1500. When I told Mom-n-Dad, they stared at me with pity and disbelief, like I was a little dead sparrow in the park. And Mom actually said this, for real: Don’t worry, we still love you.
Mom has said the words I love you exactly two times in my life. Once for the 1400, and another time when she called after her mother’s funeral in Korea when I was ten. Hanna and I didn’t go. Dad was at The Store; he didn’t go either. In retrospect, it’s weird we didn’t all go. Secretly, in retrospect: I’m glad I didn’t go. I met my grandma only once, when I was six. She spoke no English, me no Korean. So in retro-retrospect, maybe it’s not so weird that we didn’t all go. Dad has said the words I love you exactly zero times in my life.
Let’s go back to that PSAT score. As a leading indicator, a bellwether, augury, harbinger, and many other words from the now-useless PSAT vocabulary study guide, a score of 1500 would mean I would probably kick the real SAT’s ass high enough to gain the attention of The Harvard, which is the Number One Top School in Whole of United States, according to Mom-n-Dad.
A 1400 means I’ll probably only ess-ay-tee just high enough to get into the University of California at Berkeley, which in Mom-n-Dad’s mind is a sad consolation prize compared with The Harvard. And sometimes, just for a nanosecond, their brainlock actually has me thinking: Berkeley sucks. My big sister, Hanna, coined the term brainlock, which is like a headlock but for your mind. Hanna lives in Boston near the other Berkeley, the Berklee College of Music. Berklee is my real dream school. But Mom-n-Dad have already nixed that notion. Music? How you making money? How you eating?
Hanna’s two names are Hanna Li (character count: seven) and Ji-Young Li (nine). Dad named Hanna Li after Honali, from a popular 1960s marijuana anthem disguised as a children’s song, “Puff (The Magic Dragon).” The song had found its way into high-school English classes in Seoul in the 1970s. Dad has never smoked pot in his life. He had no idea what he was singing.
Hanna is the oldest; Hanna did everything right. Momn-Dad told her to study hard, so she got straight As. They told her to go to The Harvard, so she did, and graduated with honors. She moved on to Harvard Law School, and graduated with a leap big enough to catapult her above assistants her same age at Eastern Edge Consulting downtown, which specializes in negotiating ridiculous patents for billion-dollar tech companies. She’s even dabbling in venture capital now from her home office high atop Beacon Hill. Weekdays, she wears very expensive pantsuits; weekends, sensible (but still very expensive) dresses. Someone should put her on the cover of a business travel magazine or something.
But then Hanna did the one wrong thing. She fell in love. Falling in love isn’t bad by itself. But when it’s with a black boy, it’s big enough to cancel out everything she did right her whole life. This boy gave Hanna a ring, which Mom-n-Dad have not seen and might never. In another family perhaps on another planet, this brown boy would be brought home for summer vacation to meet the family, and we would all try out his name in the open air: Miles Lane.
But we’re on this planet, and Mom-n-Dad are Mom-nDad, so there will be no Hanna this summer. I miss her. But I understand why she won’t come home. Even though it does mean I’ll be left high and dry without someone to make fun of the world with.
The last time she came home was a Thanksgiving holiday two years ago. She was at a Gathering. It was the Changs’ turn to host. I’m not sure why she did what she did that night. So I have this boy now, she said. And he is The One. And she held out her phone with a photo of Miles to Mom-n-Dad and everyone. It was like she cast a Silence spell on the room. No one said shit. After a long minute, the phone turned itself off.
Mom-n-Dad went to the front door, put on their shoes, and waited with eyes averted for us to join them. We left without a word of explanation—none was needed—and the next morning Hanna vanished onto a flight back to Boston, four days early. A year later, after six or seven Hanna-free Gatherings, Ella Chang dared utter the word disowned.
And life went on. Mom-n-Dad no longer talked about Hanna. They acted like she moved to a foreign country with no modern forms of communication. Whenever I brought her up, they would literally—literally—avert their eyes and fall silent until I gave up. After a while, I did. So did Hanna. Her text message responses fell from every day to every other day, then every week, and so on. This is how disownment happens. It’s not like some final sentence declared during some family tribunal. Disownment is a gradual kind of neglect. Since Mom-n-Dad gave up on Hanna, Hanna decided to give up as well. I get that. But I never gave up on her. I still haven’t. It’s a scary thing to watch someone you love vanish from sight. ●
From Frankly in Love by David Yoon. Copyright © 2019 by David Yoon. Published by arrangement with Putnam, a member of Penguin Random House LLC.
David Yoon grew up in Orange County, California, and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, novelist Nicola Yoon, and their daughter. He drew the illustrations for Nicola's #1 New York Times bestseller Everything, Everything. Frankly in Love is his first novel. You can visit him at davidyoon.com.