Ready for School by Hana Choi
Hana Choi opens her debut short story “Ready for School” with a striking line that serves as a haunting preamble to the narrator’s complicated relationship with her mother: “The day I discovered pleasure was the day I lost my mother.” Then, in five concise pages, Choi grounds the narrative conflict with a restrained voice that nonetheless lingers loudly in the mind long after the reading of the work.
Writing in epistolary form is incredibly intimate, as very often, a singular perspective is magnified through ostensibly mundane moments, and yet the narration can also become unreliable as events are retold in loose fragments. Choi explores how time is about multiple renegotiations as the present becomes residual imprints from the past, creating a fragile cycle that continues to repeat as timelines converge until they blur. Choi writes in her author’s note how the story steadily reveals itself as a “letter the narrator writes for her son’s kindergarten application. From that point on, the story becomes an answer to the question it explicitly poses: how do these seemingly disparate episodes divided by two decades come together in the context of this letter?” As the narrator continues to unravel her thoughts in her letter, she realizes how the letter is less about her son’s obsession with death and more about mothers understanding when to relinquish their maternal power and hold over their child as they enter school. In that space, whether at school or elsewhere, the child begins forming their own identity/identities without (or despite) their mother’s influence. And for both the narrator/mother and Jayden, her son, “The time has come for my departure, a graceful exit Jayden deserves.”
Just as the epistolary form heightens uncertainties, Choi highlights the complicated feelings and uncertainties of motherhood. As the narrator ends her letter, she realizes that her own mother wasn’t “ashamed” or “repulsed” by her, but her mother was afraid of the “unknowability of others.” Outside of a child’s insulated space, perhaps a home where a mother may have “curated” their lives, this unknowability, however it may be defined, proves vast and fraught with multiple ambivalences. The narrator, too, also realizes she fears this same unknowability as a mother. Choi ends the story with a meditation about what happens to a child after their mother disconnects from them, offering them a space elsewhere for their own autonomy. —CRAFT
The day I discovered pleasure was the day I lost my mother. It happened in the fall of 1995 when I was eleven years old. That afternoon I was standing naked on the balcony of our apartment, my skin taut in the crisp air. I’d wanted to retrieve my yellow dress from the drying rack after Janice—my nemesis then, whose wiry, scornful voice I still remember—lobbed a Fanta at me and ruined my other yellow dress. This was a year where my heart would falter if I didn’t wear a certain yellow dress. I was going through, as they say, a phase.
Our apartment was on the second floor of a ten-story building that faced a bus stop, often crowded with high schoolers whom I secretly feared and idolized. And it was seeing them, their rough, nearly grown-up faces, that made me realize I’d forgotten to put on any clothes in my rush to get the dress. Now any of them could see me—all of me. This realization seized me with such electrifying thrill that I could hardly breathe. I instinctively knew there was something sexual about it, this pleasure, something perverse even. It was appalling and seductive, altogether irresistible. So I stood there naked, chest jutted out and belly sucked in, and searched the faces of those at the bus stop, hoping and dreading to find a sign of recognition: wild eyes and slack mouth, perhaps flushed cheeks. It was only a few minutes later, I believe, that my mother came home and discovered me. Lost in my rapture, I didn’t notice her until I heard the noise from the kitchen as she put away the groceries, crushing the paper bags and slamming the fridge door—an announcement. I darted out of the balcony and into my room, having completely forgotten to grab my yellow dress.
My mother never mentioned the incident, nor did she acknowledge it ever happened. But something about how she regarded me changed after that day. For the years that followed, even in moments of great warmth and intimacy, I always felt a certain distance from her. It was as if our souls no longer occupied the same space, as if she’d packed her bags and moved to a house across the street, her interactions with me like visits to a neighbor’s place. Polite and pleasant, but no overnight stays.
Now, you may be wondering why I’m telling you all this. What, you’d rightfully ask, does this have to do with your son’s kindergarten application?
Kindly let me remind you of our conversation from last week. Toward the end of the interview, you noted how Jayden had been home since he was born and expressed reservations about his “school readiness.” A typical applicant to your school, you pointed out, would have received at least two years of Montessori education and developed a strong sense of independence. You then said, in a situation like ours, the issue is not only the child but also the mother, because mothers tend to struggle with the separation, often more than the children themselves.
I appreciated your candor, your willingness to share the school’s perspective. If I looked upset at the time, it was only because you were touching on a deeper truth—hence, my request to provide you this response. I hope the following paragraphs will clarify how the incident in my childhood is directly relevant to this question of school readiness.
Let’s jump forward in time to this past summer, to Jayden’s fifth birthday:
We had a small party with six other children, kids of our neighbors. All in all, it was a successful day. The only casualty was our goldfish, which the children pretended was a villain and defeated, overzealously, with plastic cutlery. As I tucked in Jayden that night, my head lumpy with fatigue, he asked me to come closer because he had a secret to tell me. I leaned over until his sweet breath rustled in my ear. It was then Jayden said, Mommy, you’re going to die.
At first, it didn’t alarm us, not really. In fact, when I told Dave about what happened, he said it was a sign that our boy was exceptionally intelligent. Despite my story about the fish hospital (and discreet flushing), Jayden must’ve learned from one of the kids at the party that the goldfish died. Perhaps that same kid also told Jayden about death in general, how we all die, even the grown-ups—especially the grown-ups. No matter how exactly it unfolded, what Jayden said to me that night showed an understanding of mortality and a direct application of such knowledge. When Dave explained this theory to me with his usual earnestness, I didn’t feel skeptical or smug like the other times. I felt relieved, even a little grateful.
But things took an ugly turn the next day when I took Jayden to a playground. There, amid the frenzy of unleashed children, I saw him walk up to a girl and whisper something into her ear. Immediately the girl’s face crumpled, then came a river of tears. Her mother ran to her aid and asked me if I saw what happened. I swallowed my breath and shrugged, my hands plunged defensively into the pockets of my capris. To my relief, the girl didn’t talk—she just couldn’t stop crying. As Jayden sat on a swing and watched the pair leave, I didn’t ask him what happened. I already knew.
Soon things began to show up on his windowsill, dead things. Smushed flowers and dried-up worms, things of that nature. I googled “my child is obsessed with death,” but everything I found on the internet suggested his behavior was normal. What ultimately eased my anxiety, though, wasn’t the expert opinions but the online comments: parental rants and confessions, perilous anecdotes, the sheer volume of them.
Weeks passed, quiet and uneventful. Then came the night of October 3. Dave was working late in the office, so I was home by myself with Jayden. After putting him down for the night, I took a long, satisfying shower. But the moment I stepped out of the bathroom, something jumped out of the dark. It was Jayden, lunging at me, his stubby fingers reaching for my naked body. I don’t believe I’d ever screamed so viscerally in my life. I ran to the opposite side of the bedroom.
God, Jayden—what are you doing?
He stared, one hand cupping his crotch. I couldn’t sleep, he said, I kept thinking about when you’re going to die.
I shuddered in my corner, heart thrashing, water dripping everywhere. Was he seeking consolation or plotting an attack or, or—
He remained on the other side of the bedroom, looking as if he’d never seen me in his life. His pajamas were rumpled and his hair was chaotic, but his eyes—they were still and private, impenetrable. I understood my mother then, why she acted the way she did twenty years ago. She wasn’t ashamed of me, or repulsed by me, as I’d suspected. No, she was afraid. It wasn’t me or what I did that she feared so much as the realization that she didn’t know me at all, her own daughter. What she encountered that afternoon was the true unknowability of others, its bottomless depth, the horror of it. Because what’s more frightening than the unknowability of a person you created, one you believed—quite justifiably—belonged to you?
When Jayden was born, his whole world was curated by me. I had the managerial power, the artistic control over what he saw, ate, heard, and touched. I fulfilled his wants and urges, and in turn, I trained and designed them. When did I begin to lose this power? I don’t know, but does any mother? What I know is this: my mother didn’t leave me then. It was I who pushed her out, who claimed the world she’d given me and filled it with desires and longings that were so devastatingly, so miraculously mine that I was no longer scrutable to her. It was I who had demoted her to a visitor.
All this is to say, yes, Jayden is very much ready for school, and so am I. The time has come for my departure, a graceful exit Jayden deserves. I’ll still be his mother, of course. From time to time, I’ll visit his little world of death—until his heart latches onto the next obsession, that is. (In case you’re wondering, I now derive no particular satisfaction from yellow dresses, nor do I revel in public nudity.) I’ll fuss and smile, politely marvel at the strange new furnishings he has acquired, and when the time comes, I’ll put on my shoes, give him a tight, motherly hug, and I’ll say goodbye.
HANA CHOI is a bilingual writer, translator, and attorney based in Seattle, Washington. She was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, where she studied film and worked as a staff writer at Cine21, a film magazine. Her fiction has received support from the Tin House Summer Workshop and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and her short story “The Last Home” was a semifinalist for the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize. “Ready for School” is her first published work of short fiction. You can find her on Twitter @hchoiwrites.
Featured image by Maruo Sueo courtesy of Unsplash