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Authors: Suki Kim

The Interpreter

BOOK: The Interpreter
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For my parents
CIGARETTE AT 9 A.M. is a sure sign of desperation. Doesn’t happen to her often, except on mornings like this, November, rain, overcrowded McDonald’s in the South Bronx off the 6 train. Like a block party, this place, with those dopey eight-year-olds who should be in school, and their single mothers sick of shouting, and the bored men at each table still not at work. Morning is full here. Everyone’s in it together, a communal experience, this day, this life. It is not her life, though. She does not know this. She does not want this. She looks up, instead, at a huge sign for the breakfast special across the window. Not much mystery there, food is plenty. Ninety-nine cents for hash browns, an English muffin with microwaved egg yolks, and a miniature Tropicana. Too good to be true, such abundance for barely a dollar. This is a generous neighborhood.
She is twenty-nine, and it is November. She is overdressed, as usual. The black cashmere coat that costs double her rent, and the pin-striped pants are sleek enough for any Hollywood starlet.
Across her shoulder is a navy tote bag that matches the steel shine of her leather boots. Her face bears no trace of makeup. She is morose in black and blue. These are power colors.
November, and she stands facing the entrance of McDonald’s on Burnside Avenue. In her left hand is a black vinyl umbrella, and in her right, a half-smoked cigarette she barely sucks on. Five minutes past nine. She is too early. The subway was unexpectedly fast. Only when she is running ahead of schedule should this happen, should the local suddenly reroute to express and drop her off at the Bronx stop within minutes. Fifty-five minutes to hang outside McDonald’s in this part of town, a world away from her apartment back in downtown Manhattan. Fifty-four minutes and counting; she is stuck in this wilderness and peeks at her watch again.
But a rescue is handy, a cup of fresh coffee, a slab of butter on a toasted muffin. All she has to do is walk through that door and wave a dollar. A long drag on a cigarette, longer than necessary. She is stalling. She has not yet bought into this place.
Rain keeps on, halfhearted, barely soaking. She is Cinderella-at-midnight, and her chic ensemble a pumpkin dream ready to pop. There is no glass slipper in this part of town, no Prince Charming in search of a princess. The crossover is final. Beyond that door is the wrong track, whose morning begins with a dollar and a jaded appetite.
Looking in is easy, to stand out in rain and take note of what unfurls from a distance.
Instead, she is inside now. There are several lines, which all reach several faces taking orders. The line in which she stands moves fast enough, but she has time, enough time to stand and wait. Oh, but time is plenty here. People sit around in all corners. No one dashes out to a merger meeting at the head office. No one screams double espresso with a touch of skim milk. No one fumbles with a tray balancing a Motorola on their right ear.
None of that happens here. This is a place of leisure. She’s in no rush.
What do you want after all, do you want me to tell you?
Damian had lunged at her in his final message, as if he were pushing himself into her once more.
“What do you want, miss?”
She did not hear the man the first time. Such mishaps keep happening to her lately. She keeps missing the cue. She sets an alarm for eight and bolts out of bed at seven, or she presses “3” in the elevator and finds herself on the second floor, or she runs to answer the phone only to realize it is not ringing. Here she is dumbstruck before a man in a brown uniform who is shaking his head now, repeating for the third time, “What do you want, miss?”
“Coffee, a medium-sized cup of coffee, please.” She thought she had said it. She thought he knew what she wanted. The big-haired teenager behind her is popping her pink gum, visibly annoyed. The man in the brown uniform snatches the dollar from her, shaking his head once more. The coffee costs seventy-nine cents. Twenty more cents, she could have a complete breakfast; what’s she thinking? She can sense the man’s disapproval. Bitch, he must think. A cup of coffee for seventy-nine cents when a whole tray comes for a dollar, Miss Too-Good-for-a-Discounted-Meal, Miss Stuck-Up-Coat, Miss Can’t-Hear-for-Shit!
Bitch it is, this 9 a.m. Marlboro high. She needs to sit down, but the place is jam-packed, and no one is leaving anytime soon. But a miracle, it must be. There is someone waving at her, pointing at the empty seat across from him. Once she plops herself down and takes a hot sip of coffee, she notices that the man is in fact the only other Asian present.
He is reading the paper.
Hangukilbo
—the
Korea Daily
—she recognizes the bold type. Beneath the thick Walgreens reading
lenses, his eyes appear puffy and reddish. Lacking a good night’s sleep, she thinks. They all do, these immigrant men. He wiggles his nose, which is too small for his spacious face, before glancing up at her for a second. She smiles, grateful for the seat. He does not return the smile but continues to stare at her awhile before turning back to his paper. He knows, she thinks. They always do. It’s one of those things, the unspoken recognition among the same kind. She can tell who’s Korean from miles away. Of course, she’s been wrong before, though only a handful of times, mistaking a Japanese person for Korean. She is not sure why, perhaps something in the history, a possible side effect of the sick affinity between the colonizer and the colonized—Japan had once ruled Korea for thirty-six years, her father never forgot to remind her. Or it might simply be the way their facial bones are shaped, Koreans and Japanese more oval while Chinese seem flatter. All she knows is that she can always tell, and he can tell, and they both know that they are the same kind, sitting so close amidst a roomful of the rest of the world.
He is not interested in conversation, and she is glad. He does not harangue her with “Were you born in the States?,” “What do your parents do?,” or “Why is a good Korean girl like you not yet married?”—the prying questions that fellow immigrants often feel entitled to ask. Buried behind his newspaper now, he is no longer visible to her. It’s almost noble of him, she thinks, to offer her a seat and leave her alone.
Nothing comes for free, look closer, you always find a tag,
Damian had whispered into her ear while pulling at the last button on her dress. Then he took five steps backward and stood gazing at her first nakedness as if he were an artist before a muse. His eyes had appeared awfully blue then, bluer than they justifiably were, almost aqua, the ocean color, so different from her own black eyes that she looked away in a sudden wave of embarrassment,
thinking the whole time, “Even this has a price, even his lips on my skin, even his bluest eyes on me.”
Rain this morning is an accomplice. Even at the edge of the city through a cloudy window across which hangs a ninety-nine-cent-breakfast banner. The coffee is cooling. The waiting is not so bad after all. This might be her break. No one will find her here. A perfect hideout.
Then the man across from her shuts his newspaper. He picks up his tray without meeting her eyes. She watches him walk away. It is the shrunken walk of one who had once been a young man but is no longer, who has not spoken his language for longer than he can bear, who no longer believes that he will ever see his homeland. She can feel the weight of each step. She wants to look away. Yet she is relieved when he stops outside and lights a cigarette under the orange awning.
He is not gone. He is not yet gone from her. He stands with his back turned to the window, which she is facing now. The back of his hair is thinning. He is older than his actual age, perhaps. She notes the wrinkled seams of his gabardine pants and the shiny leather of his dress shoes, which are long out of style. He is awkward in his clothes, she thinks. Those are not his everyday shoes. When was the last time he put those shoes on, what was he like then, what was the rest of his life? But this is a terrible habit, to wonder upon a past, to dig into a history of anything, anyone, even a passing stranger at a fast-food joint in a neighborhood that is not hers. A lack of reserve, or boundary. Yet she still cannot look away. She knows men like him. She imagines how he might have fumbled through the back of his closet to pull out those black leather shoes, which might have sat in the dirt of his buried past for as long as a decade, or even longer, depending on when he had moved to this country, and how he might have shined them all morning with a bit of paper
towel and wax, thinking to himself, “Ah they are fine still, they fit still, I am not such an old man after all, this mute delivery guy from Queens whom no one ever looks at, including my own wife, who hasn’t had a day of smiles since she made that bad slip of following me so far, as far as this McDonald’s land in the middle of nowhere, to this bad-food, bad-mannered country where I am nothing but a frail old man, smoking the last butt of a Marlboro in the November rain, as if my life depended on it, as if this life were a thing I could have known when I last wore these shoes.”
She knows men like him. She knows what his days are like, the home he might return to at night, the daughters to whom he no longer reaches out.
She glances at her watch again. Quarter to ten, time’s almost up. Didn’t take so long after all. They must all be waiting for her. The case is nothing without her. She looks up and notices that the man outside is gone.
FORTY-FOUR BURNSIDE AVENUE is a three-story concrete building east of McDonald’s, the sort of place where an insurance agent or an accountant keeps an office, filled with ancient filing cabinets and dubious clientele. The elevator has not worked in months. The “Broken” sign is ripped halfway across, and a tiny scribble in red ink proclaims not so shyly “Your Ass.” The staircase to the basement leads to a chunky wooden door adorned with a musty gold plaque that reads DIAMOND COURT REPORTING.
Inside, a Hispanic receptionist with bright-pink lips is screaming something into the phone. Then she looks up for a second and snaps, “You here for
Kim
versus
Santos
?,” pointing her matching pink-manicured index finger toward the room marked “3” without waiting for an answer.
“Your name?”
Name is always the first thing they ask, not out of personal interest, but because everything has to be recorded here,
stamped and witnessed. This is a mini-court. A place of honor, justice, and underpaid lawyers who didn’t make the grade at hundred-thousand-dollar firms.
“Suzy Park,” she answers automatically.
The stenographer scribbles the name in her note and adds, “Love that name Suzy, with ‘z-y,’ right?” Stenographers are always such chatty characters, mostly women from south-shore Long Island, mid-thirties with blond highlights. This one is no exception, although the blond streaks on her head appear almost natural against her blue-shadowed eyes. “As in Suzy Wong?” one of the lawyers blurts out with a chuckle, quickly realizes that no one is laughing, and tries hard not to blush. He is the young one, freshly out of law school and awkward in his crisp tan suit and the awful green tie with tiny boats on it that must have come from Macy’s sale rack. “You mean the Chinese prostitute in that Hollywood classic?” Suzy is tempted to throw back at him, but she ignores him, grabbing the seat next to the one reserved for the defendant, who is still not here.
“Oh, Mr. Kim just went to make a phone call, but he’ll be right back. Nice fella. Too bad about the union mess, though.” The stenographer nudges, as if any of this is Suzy’s business, as if the details of the case matter to anybody in the room at all. “Poor guy, he really doesn’t speak a word of English. I don’t know how they carry on. Amazing, don’t you think?” The stenographer addresses the young lawyer, who is still blushing and is now glad at the chance to redeem himself. “Well, he does know a word or two. A smart man, though. Just because he doesn’t speak the language, it doesn’t mean he’s dumb.” With this declaration he is quite proud of himself, and turns to Suzy, grinning.
The other lawyer glances at his wristwatch with the insolence of a student ready for the bell. He is older, perhaps in his late forties. He is not interested in the Ping-Pongy chat across the
table. He’s heard it all, and he is not having it today. He is worried that he might have parked his car in the wrong spot. What the hell, if he gets a ticket, he’ll just bill Santos. But where’s Santos anyway? Should be outside waiting for his line of questioning, even if he doesn’t want to sit face-to-face with this Kim guy! But he’s not sure he turned the headlights off before getting out of his car. Damn rain, shouldn’t have brought his brand-new Honda Accord to this pissy neighborhood. Then he remembers what his wife said to him this morning, about the loan on the car and how she’s not going to help pay a penny of it if he doesn’t pitch in for their Florida vacation this Christmas. And he thinks, Florida. They’ve gone every winter, dragging the kids, well, not really kids anymore, but brooding trench-coated teenagers who’d much rather stay online in their chat rooms than follow their mom and pop to the package hotel where they lie around the pool arguing over loans that seem to tag along with everything they own, from their Forest Hills house to the kids’ prep-school tuition to the brand-new Honda, which is possibly sitting on the wrong street corner with sparkling headlights calling to any thugs who watch from McDonald’s across the street, killing time.
With a mumbling moan, he rushes out. The stenographer, raising an eyebrow, is about to say something and then changes her mind. The young lawyer appears nonchalant, as if this sort of thing happens all the time at a deposition. “Oh well,” he says, “we’re gonna have to start a bit late. Why don’t you ladies take a little break?” Then he excuses himself and walks out also. “A cigarette?” the stenographer suggests, grabbing her white leather bag to head outside, and Suzy declines. They smoke like high-school girls, these Long Island women, usually Virginia Slims or Capri, menthol if they are over thirty-five and newly divorced.
So it’s Suzy all alone in the windowless room, staring at the stenograph mounted on a tripod, which is the only object other
than the oversized conference table. The pay is by the hour, so it hardly matters if the case is delayed. Depositions never start on time anyway. Witnesses are rarely the problem. In fact, they usually show up early, nervous and guilty by association. The confusion begins with the whole arrangement of such interested, or disinterested, parties. Lawyers behave like children at a playground. Some are bullies flying on a verbal roller coaster like kids on speed; and others, bored and sullen, reluctantly finish up homework under supervision. Stenographers are jesters, butting in with needless commentaries and inevitably running out of ink or paper right at the crunch of a testimony. The interpreter, however, is the shadow. The key is to be invisible. She is the only one in the room who hears the truth, a keeper of secrets.
In fact, that is why Suzy has stuck with the job thus far. She has never before held a job for more than six months. She’s done what college dropouts do—lie and get on with what she can scrape together. Waitressing required too much smile, although she did give it a shot for a few weeks at a sushi restaurant on Bleecker Street, only to get fired for refusing to pretend to be Japanese. Nightclub hostessing was a disaster, and she hated sleeping through the day and missing the sun. Internet sales made her head spin, as if her life were being gambled on fictitious credits. An artist’s model meant being grabbed in the wrong places by the wrong hands. Copyediting ruined her eyesight. Copywriting was a hoax. The latest gig was a fact-checking stint at a literary magazine. She lasted barely four months. She only got there through the connections of an old college roommate who was an editor and declared Suzy’s career phobia to be “so nineties.” “Get over it,” Jen told Suzy over the phone. “Damian must’ve fucked with your brains.” It was Jen who begged her to reconsider when Suzy packed her bag in the
spring semester of their senior year. “Everyone will forget soon, it’ll soon blow over.” Jen had always been the sensible one. She never seemed to suffer from hangovers or PMS. Jen was right, of course. Except forgetting came with its price, as Damian had said. Was it a premonition? How did he know?
It wasn’t that the fact-checking job was necessarily boring. Suzy didn’t mind reading the copy all day. She could pretend that her cubicle was a waiting room at a doctor’s office or an airport lounge as she scanned articles about the President’s latest run-ins with that big-haired intern, or Philip Roth’s ex-wife’s tell-all book about Philip Roth, or the usual groundbreaking news, most of which she forgot instantly. Every day she had to call the New York Public Library and ask them to verify the year of publication of
The Bell Jar
or
The Crying of Lot 49
or the exact number of literary texts mentioned in Harold Bloom’s monstrous canon book. The line was always busy, and she had to keep redialing. She thought it was kind of a miracle, that someone somewhere across the city was looking up all the gritty facts for her, as if it mattered to anyone, except Mr. Bloom, whether the magazine should print 100 texts or 101. What she did mind, and could not stand, in fact, was the voice of the researcher who came on the phone in the third month. It was a new person; by then, Suzy could recognize all voices on the other end. There was a shy, whispery girl-voice that answered in the morning, which Suzy imagined might actually belong to a tall woman in her fifties with wavy silver hair and a pleated skirt. Another was a husky male who often answered during lunchtime, whose intonation of words like “chiaroscuro” and “serendipitous” made Suzy swallow hard before saying thank you. But the new voice was without much character: monotone, matter-of-fact, flat. Suzy cringed when he answered, and was not sure why. She would forget the question and mumble whatever came into her
mind, or, worse, she would hang up instantly. But it bothered her, this ominous voice she had to hear every day, almost every hour on busy days. Finally, in her fourth month, she quit. She did not explain why, and she was never asked. Fact-checkers are a dime a dozen. They come and go. Some get real jobs at the women’s magazines around town, and a few actually sell the novel they’ve been slaving away at for years. But most move back home to Wichita or Baltimore, swearing never to return to New York. Jen laughed when Suzy told her later and said, “Damian, he must’ve been some fuck.” Sure, something about the researcher’s dark drone reminded her of Damian, but that was almost an afterthought.
Interpreting, Suzy finds, is somehow simpler, freer to be exact. The agency calls her when there is a job, and she shows up wherever the deposition happens to take place. Most cases are banal: automobile accidents, slip-and-falls, medical malpractice, basically any misfortune that might generate cash. The details are almost always predictable. The plaintiff wasn’t really hurt at the time of the accident, but now, six months later, cannot move his head. Or the plaintiff had surgery and is now suffering from complications. Suzy never finds out what happens to these cases, whether they actually end up in trial or settle out of court or lead to another set of depositions. Her job is just to show up and translate into English verbatim what the witness testifies in Korean. She often feels like the buxom communication officer in
Star Trek
, the one who repeats exactly what the computer says. Except Suzy’s role is neither so fleshy nor so comical. The contract, which the agency made her sign, included a clause never to engage in small talk with witnesses. The interpreter is always hired by the law firm on the side opposing the witness. It is they who need the testimony translated. The witness, summoned to testify without any knowledge of English, inevitably views the
interpreter as his savior. But the interpreter, as much as her heart might commiserate with her fellow native speaker, is always working for the other side. It is this idiosyncrasy Suzy likes. Both sides need her desperately, but she, in fact, belongs to neither. One of the job requirements was no involvement: Shut up and get the work done. That’s fine with her.
Except it doesn’t go as smoothly as that. Suzy often finds herself cheating. Sometimes the witness falters and reveals devastating, self-incriminating information. The opposing counsel might ask how much he makes a week, and the witness turns to Suzy and asks what he should say. Should he tell him five hundred dollars, although he usually makes more money on the side? Suzy knows that the immigrant life follows different rules—no taxes, no benefits, sometimes not even Social Security or green cards. And she also knows that he should never tell lawyers that. So she might fudge the answer. She might turn to the lawyer innocently and translate, “My income is private information; approximately five hundred dollars, I would say, but I cannot be exact.” Or the opposing side might try to make a case out of the fact that the plaintiff, when struck by a car, told the police that he was feeling fine and refused an ambulance. “Surely,” the lawyer insists, “the injury must not have been severe if you even refused medical attention!” But Suzy knows that it is a cultural misunderstanding. It is the Korean way always to underplay the situation, to declare one is fine even when suffering from pain or ravenous hunger. This might stem from their Confucian or even Buddhist tradition, but the lawyers don’t care about that. “Why did you say you were fine at the time of the accident if you weren’t? Were you lying then, or are you lying now?” the lawyer presses once more, and Suzy winces, decides that she hates him. The witness gets all nervous and stammers something about how he’s not a liar, and Suzy puts on a steel
face to hide her anger and translates, “I was in shock, and the pain was not obvious to me until I got home and collapsed.” Then the lawyer looks stumped and moves on to the next question. Suzy knows it is wrong, to embellish truth according to how she sees fit. In fact, she will be fired on the spot if anyone discovers that her translation harbors a bias. But truth, she has learned, comes in different shades, different languages at times, and lawyers with a propensity for Suzy Wong movies may not always see that. The job comes naturally to her. Neither of her parents had spoken much English. Interpreting is almost a habit.
Suddenly a light tap on her right shoulder. Suzy turns around to find a man standing there. It is the Korean man from McDonald’s, the one with the freshly polished shoes, with a tired wife and unreachable daughters. “Mr. Kim?” She is delighted at such a coincidence. Breaking into a shy smile, he nods. He looks meek and timid now, no longer the grave man sitting across from her buried in his newspaper. “
An-nyung-ha-sae-yo
.” She makes a slight bow, the way Koreans do when addressing the elderly. Then he stares at Suzy’s face intently, as he had done earlier this morning, and says in the unfamiliar midregional Korean accent, “You remind me of someone I used to know, a good woman, too young to be killed like that.” Before she can ask what he means, the stenographer and two lawyers charge in as if they have been hanging outside together the whole time. “Shit, a ticket.” The older lawyer shakes his head, waving a piece of paper. The younger one frowns, trying to appear sympathetic. The stenographer ignores both and adjusts the paper into her machine with the efficiency of a pro, turning to Suzy.
BOOK: The Interpreter
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