jump! by Michelle Go-un Lee
Michelle Go-un Lee’s short story “jump!” mesmerizes. Driven by emotional momentum from the opening line, this story—a finalist for the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize judged by Alexander Chee—charges forward at an unwavering pace, propelling us, the readers, into moment after moment of familial violence, all rendered with a delicate, tender hand. Lee provides a master class in structure, managing to fragment and upset linear time while also still ricocheting us forward, sending us spinning (see her authors note for a discussion of structure, time, and more). We see each character caught in a circular tangle of action and reaction that so brilliantly and beautifully reflects the true nature of abuse. As a result, Lee welcomes us into a sort of dance, a sequence of push and pull. In fact, the whole story works via this kind of tension—between the girl and her father, between the various timelines and iterations of the girl herself. The language at the line level succeeds in creating tension as well, offering us a voice and overall tone that manage to be both direct and startling, at times detached yet sincere. The perspective holds us at a distance, yet simultaneously offers an intimate look at how a woman’s body—and her whole life—splinters and tumbles as a result of one man’s actions. —CRAFT
Content Warning—familial violence
For a while, it only amounts to simple things. Father plays practical jokes on daughter so often that daughter expects shit to happen at any given moment. For instance, father often kicks the back of girl’s knees when she’s leaning on one side, so that she buckles from her own weight. Funny. Father gives daughter wasabi instead of green tea ice cream. Hilarious, though the first time, girl was six and spice was pain. Father pushes fully clothed daughter into a pool and barely says sorry, the word squeezed between laughter. Girl is soaked and totally angry. These things are easily fixed. Tongue can be soothed with actual ice cream. Clothes can be wrung and thrown into a dryer. A banged-up knee only leaves a bruise.
Girl is twelve going on thirteen when, at a family gathering, father gets rowdy after many rounds of Go-Stop, and gathers up all his energy to heave girl onto her aunt’s kid-friendly trampoline. Father does this because he is still strong, and girl is still light enough to be thrown. As her body is falling, girl splits into three.
The first tumbles onto the trampoline and, mid-bounce, sees the sky. The second drags her foot on grass and trips, cracking her skull on the steel frame of the trampoline. The third sees what happens to the second and, while in her father’s grip, turns around to reach for her father’s hand.
Girl’s head against the metal frame makes a tremendous sound. At first, father laughs. Then he sees how daughter cannot stand up, body flopping on yellowed grass. The whites of her eyes are swarmed with red. Father tells the other relatives that daughter is fine, she just needs to go home and lie down. Then father takes her to the car, then to the ER.
Girl’s head is handled. CT scans are taken. All this time, girl’s world is an endless whorl. At the end of the evaluation, daughter and father are told that she has sustained a closed fracture. As far as we can tell, there is no major injury to the brain, the doctor says. It hurts to open her eyes; the man is a pasty blur. For this kind of injury, all you can do is rest, pasty doctor says.
Father looks sorry. He says, I didn’t mean for that to happen. That was a mistake. I will be careful.
Girl is given a supply of morphine for the pain, and then told to take Tylenol when she finishes it. That first night, father treats daughter’s body like the broken thing it is. Father piggybacks daughter up the stairs, lays her head gently against the backboard. Father feeds daughter morphine drops, lifts water to her parched mouth. As daughter falls asleep, father strokes her twirling head once. And when it is Monday morning, father brings in a case of water bottles and puts all the morphine and a half-consumed bottle of Tylenol on her nightstand. Father says, I have to go. You understand, right?
Girl makes sure to rest upright, even when her back hurts from the pillows and their lack of support. The water bottles are on the floor, so girl scooches over with head held high to open the tough plastic. She drinks too much because she is hungry. Later, she hears father come home, but he does not come up to her room. Instead, father’s feet putter in the kitchen, then the living room. I am hungry, girl wants to say, but her voice is too large for her head. Eventually, she hears father climb the stairs and close his door.
As girl turns, she sees first girl soar and second girl fall, all at once. When it is her turn, girl grips onto father’s sweater sleeve and she, plus the momentum, pulls him down with her onto the ground.
Father does not laugh this time. He is in pain, clutching the small of his back, that one wrinkle between his eyebrows deep enough to be a wound. 지호 you careless girl, an aunt says. Your father has a bad back, another aunt says. Girl gets up and looks down. Don’t ever do that again, she says to father.
Girl has a bad temper. Father says that girl is bad because of her mother, but girl knows this is not true. When father is not laughing, he is full of things in need of release. Father is tight-lipped in the car, the whole hour-and-a-half back home. Girl is thinking of where she can run once the car stops. Their neighborhood is dark at night, there are many places she can slip into and hide. Tall bushes, the local park. But father is quick, much quicker than girl. He is already at the minivan door.
Father goes upstairs first. Girl counts what will turn to bruises, then gathers herself into a whole to climb the stairs. The moon is too vast. She closes the blinds and takes a thick blanket to the corner, makes her world small. Girl thinks of what it must be like—to fly and come up short. How a body is a bag of pieces, even before it comes in contact with the ground.
When girl is thrown, she exits off the trampoline at an angle. Before she sees the ground, girl sees the sky, and it is endless and so clear. Then she turns and sees grass, slick with water balloon wreckage. She lands safe enough, but her knee will have a deep scab for weeks. Everyone is laughing with her father, at her. All these relatives she barely knows. The stucco of her aunt’s one-story home, streaked with LA smog and muggy mornings.
Girl gets up and rubs off the grass stains and stray blood. Girl is mortified, turns red. She does not hide, though. Instead, she tugs her sleeve over her hand and wipes her nose. She takes note of who is laughing, and who has already turned away.
3 + 2.
Eventually, cocooned girl unfurls herself from the blanket. As she straightens her body, girl hears a whimper and turns around. Second is sprawled on the bed, sweating.
See, third says to second. You should’ve watched where you were going. Third wipes down second’s brow.
Second grabs third’s hand. I’m hungry, she says.
Third opens her door with care. Down the hallway is father’s room, and the stairs to the side. Because everything is hardwood, she wears socks and walks slow. The kitchen is bare, the living room immaculate. When father and daughter moved to Tustin from Koreatown, father boasted to his friends about his new detached condo, and hosted soju-fueled gatherings every weekend for months.
Third makes ramen with egg, digs around the stale pantry for that box of saltine crackers. Father is still in his room, TV muttering behind the closed door. Bedridden girl is waiting, and third sits next to her. She blows on the noodles, spraying stock towards second. They giggle.
Third eats the ramen as second watches. Together, they both grow full. Second sighs, cheeks flushed. Third also climbs into bed, puts the saltines next to the pills. You already knew not to expect much, third says.
Second knows, but still hopes. Did you see her? Second asks. Third nods. I wish I also flew, second says.
But you didn’t, third says. There’s nothing you can do about that.
What happened to you? Second asks. Third pretends she did not hear.
Girl sleeps. Girl wakes, both iterations with heads throbbing.
Father is smiling in the car. He’s turned up the volume to 라디오코리아, and girl watches father from the whites of her eyes. Girl knows that father loves babies. He cradles newborns with tender hands that are strange to witness. Girl wonders at what age that soft touch is replaced with something else. She smiles at father and asks if he had fun.
He nods. You did, right? father asks. He lifts his hand. Girl flinches when he reaches out. Father hesitates, and then he pats her head just once. They stay quiet the rest of the ride.
A week into girl’s recovery, a CPS worker comes to their home, a blonde woman. Because girl still prefers bed and her head still spins, the woman goes up the stairs to her room to introduce herself. The woman’s hair is in a coif, and her mouth twists from Romanizing their names. From her lipstick-bled lips, 박정웅 becomes Park-Johng-Ooo. 박지호 becomes Park-Gee-Houh. Father tells her to call him Brian.
Blonde woman asks father to speak with girl alone, and then closes the door. She walks around the room, assessing the pastel pink walls, the sheer bright curtains. The woman settles on girl’s desk chair and smiles. A line of lipstick wobbles on her teeth each time her lips move. She asks her age. Any siblings.
Woman: I have it that your mother passed seven years ago.
Woman: I’m sorry for your loss.
Girl: (Shrugs, because what she retains of her mother are visions of slim shoulders and a big smile and coarse, thick hair that girl reached to grasp.) Thank you.
Woman: Gee-Houh, have you ever had other adults live with you besides your father?
Girl: (Since moving three years ago, there have been a total of ten women who’ve stayed with father in the master bedroom, ranging from a week to a few months each. For the most part these women do not bother girl, but girl has given all of them numbers. The one she remembers the most is number five from two years ago, only ten years older than girl. Father brought her home because five left her boyfriend to be with father. Five was beautiful, always put together with designer makeup father bought, always breathing down girl’s neck. You look nothing like your father, what a pity, five would say. This house is so nice. Let me have this jacket. Let me have that necklace. Once, girl told five that she had daddy issues and five slapped her, leaving a mark. Girl did not bother to hide it the next morning. Father took a look at her face and then looked away.) No.
Woman: Gee-Houh, tell me what happened the day you (gestures to girl’s head) were injured. (The lipstick line begins to lose shape.)
Girl: We were at my cousin’s baby’s birthday party. My dad thought it would be funny to play a prank on me. I slipped and that’s how I got hurt.
Woman: I see. Would you say your father does that often? Plays jokes like that? (The lipstick now a row of spiked spittle-specked mountains.)
Girl: (There’s the jump scares, there’s the times he tickles until girl cannot breathe, there are the times that father locks her outside while she’s taking the trash out in rain and stands laughing behind a window.) Yes. Nothing serious.
Woman: And have you ever gotten hurt like this before?
Girl: (There is a broken vase. There is a broken bowl. There is an arc of spattered sauce on the wall, and at the other end, there are bits of girl and glass). No.
Woman: I see.
The woman eventually leaves girl’s room, meets with father in the hallway. Girl sees father gesture to woman’s mouth, and the woman rubs her teeth, checks her reddened fingers, sighs. Girl will not see that woman again.
In girl’s first year of middle school, father was often late picking her up. But one day he didn’t come till dark. Father had just bought girl a pink Razor, but father was not answering any of her calls. Sometime past seven, sky a deep musk, father finally rolled up in the pickup lane.
I had a few emergencies at work today, father said. I couldn’t get out until now.
Girl knew father worked hard at his car shop on Olympic, and that only because the shop started doing well did father start leaving it to others. That they moved to Tustin without knowing anyone, because he wanted out and could finally afford to. That without father, she would be left at school all night, left only with her two feet to walk a suburban six miles home. But girl did not feel compelled to be grateful and slammed the car door shut.
Father side-eyed girl as he drove. He made a turn at a plaza, into a McDonald’s drive-thru. What do you want? Father asked.
Girl ordered everything she could think of. Twenty-piece McNuggets. A Big Mac. Extra-large fries. A big Coke, and two soft serves. Father didn’t make any changes. When the cashier handed over the ice cream, father gave her one and asked, can I eat this one?
The air felt pliable that day, and girl still felt pissy. No, it’s mine, she said.
Father looked at the ice cream as if in thought, and then smushed it against his face. A big chunk settled on his nose, and yet girl could see father’s smile. Can I have it now? father asked, and they laughed all the way back home, food hot on girl’s lap.
It is Saturday night now. Girl has finished clearing the dinner table, putting the still-warm pan in the sink. Father stretches, broad shoulders up to his ears. He gets up to smoke in his room, and as he passes by, sticks his foot out to trip girl. Girl stumbles but does not fall. When girl rights herself, she stomps on father’s foot. He winces, and then he looks at her. Father slaps daughter until she is on the ground, eyes shaken.
The next morning, as father readies himself for church, he studies girl’s face and takes an ice pack from the freezer.
I’m sorry, father says. He hands her the pack.
Girl lets the words fall to the floor. She lets the pack fall to the floor. Girl does not go with father to church. Girl watches father leave from deep shadows and décor, seething.
Once in a while, girl feels like she has more than one shadow. This happens the most when she is exhausted, or when she is alone. At first, girl believes she is being followed. But girl rarely finds anyone behind her. Must be some trick of light, she thinks. Maybe some people can have more than one shadow.
Girl is very sensitive to others’ faces now. She learns to straighten her posture, both legs unbent and bearing the weight of her body. To be stoic when father tries to make her into a fool. To stay quiet when he is in a bad mood. To decline going anywhere with father, saying she needs to study. Because of this, girl ends up studying a lot and does well in middle school, even better in high school. Girl has choices for college. Girl chooses somewhere far, far away.
Father does not help her pack, but watches her shove things into mothy suitcases. The day before girl’s flight, father comes home with bags of things from 김스전기. You might need this, father says. There is a pot set, a potato peeler, seasonings, and a pink plush scrunchie. To keep hair away from your face when you wash, father says.
Girl thanks father. Father asks girl what time her flight is, he will take her to LAX, and girl replies that it is in the afternoon. 아빠 잘 자요, girl says, and smiles.
Girl is a good liar. Long before father would be awake, girl calls a cab service in twilight hours for her early morning flight. Girl leaves behind everything father bought, sorted into a tidy pile on the sofa.
Girl does not come home for a very long time.
The migraines form months after the fracture has officially fused back together, despite there being no major complications during healing. The doctors say that the migraines may or may not be related to her previous trauma, will most likely continue to recur, maybe for a year, maybe for her whole life. These migraines, all she can do is hold her head in the dark for hours, sometimes days. Girl struggles in school. Often, the world is a blur.
After high school, girl goes to community college, and eventually transfers to a local state college. Throughout this time, girl lives with father, because her head hurts too much to both work and go to school, because her room is sanctuary, because she cannot bring herself to leave father alone.
Father does not play any more of his pranks, does not lift a hand against her. But father cannot keep his mouth shut. Look at how much weight you gained, he says. Who’s going to want to marry you like that? Father says these things with a smile, but it does not make girl laugh. And then when he is not smiling, he will say nothing at all. That does not mean girl is unafraid.
One day, at the age of twenty-four, girl asks father, do you know anything about love?
Father looks at her and asks, why? You have a boyfriend?
Girl shakes her head. The next day, when father is at work, girl slips out to live with her internet boyfriend. Girl only gathers enough courage to come back when her love crumbles under the weight of her need, and the weight of that man’s hand. Even then, she gathers herself quickly, and does not stay for long.
Once, girl woke up to the sound of shattered drywall. The silence following was tremendous. Father’s door was open, and from the dark girl could see his slouched body washed in tepid light. At his feet, coarse, thick hair tangled in a broken brush formed oil slick swirls on carpet.
Father’s shoulders shuddered, and then his body gently sunk to kneel. His thick calloused fingers picking up pieces of wood handle, strands of that hair, neon green bristles one by one. Girl slinked back into shadow, unseen.
The next day, girl snuck into father’s room and found the jagged puncture in the wall. It retained nothing of the thrown object, only the force of impact. Girl closed her eyes and traced its contours with her fingertips, with the softest touch she was capable of. The brush itself was long gone.
Girl is still seething. Girl calculates the days she has left before she turns eighteen. When she sees the sheer number of days, girl groans.
Girl decides the best way out is to simply leave. Girl packs a duffel and folds all her cutoff shorts, her tank tops and hoodies. By then it is very late. Girl rubs her eyes and stares too hard at a weirdly shaped speck in the wall. The speck assesses her and then gingerly stretches open to form a giant gash, through which grey is all she can see. Girl runs her fingers along the dull edges of the opening, then slips through.
The gash opens into her aunt’s backyard, but this time, the sooty house is a uniform shade, like it is either clean or all covered in ash. The girl’s relatives in the periphery multiply quietly. And exploding into the monotone sky is a thrashing river of girl cascading onto the trampoline. Father stands in a pose of mid-toss. His arms are aftershadows of themselves, a million fathers in every tiny gesture he makes.
In this version, girl is a variable. Some of girl hits the ground and does not get up. Some crawl towards father. But most gather themselves and walk away from the trampoline, out of frame.
Girl shivers and clambers back into her room. The gash whispers itself shut. By then, it is 7:00 a.m. and father is downstairs calling her name, telling her to hurry up, they’ll be late for school. Girl packs her backpack and runs down the stairs.
Father will one day be wrecked and retired, slowly climbing up the stairs to take a nap. Turning the corner toward his room, he will find girl’s bedroom door ajar. It will have been closed for many years by then.
Father will nudge the door open, and see many different afterimages of daughter spread across the dusted room: one in nice clothes talking on the phone, one who rubs her eyes while drinking coffee, a few who look worse off curled on the bed, a very young one who simply stares. They will all begin to move—the nice-dressed one about to stand, the tired one grasping towards the sky, a few with clawed hands out as if to strangle, the staring one stepping forward—and father will flinch, closing his eyes. When he calms and looks around, the room will return to what it was: still strewn with girl’s young-adult things, still with pink walls, and with gauze curtains in mid-flutter.
MICHELLE GO-UN LEE is a fiction candidate at the Litowitz MFA+MA at Northwestern University. She was born and raised in southern California, and currently resides in Chicago.
Featured image by Schanin courtesy of Pixabay