VOTM: What’s the most unusual experience you’ve had at a reading?
JU: I was at the Miami Book Fair, thinking about a letter I’d agreed to write for a literary website. I’d put off writing this letter for months, because I no longer knew how to write a letter. When I was a kid I was a prolific letter writer. I lived in remote towns in Kenya and sent aerogrammes to people all over the world. I wish I’d kept copies, because it baffles me—How did I fill up all those translucent blue pages? What did I possibly have to say?
These days I prefer talking to people in person.
So that weekend I was at the Miami Book Fair, where I talked to a bunch of people in person. One of those was Stephen Elliot. Some of you probably remember he used to write these crazy emails that went out to Rumpus readers who’d signed up to get them—they’d just land in your inbox at random times—that were often just about various experiences he’d had as a writer or human but were also sometimes clearly fictional tales and other times appeals for money for whatever project he was working on. I remember subscribing and unsubscribing repeatedly because he was just so prolific, the volume of writing he sent often got overwhelming for me, and I felt I needed long breaks from all of it.
Anyway, I was in the author’s lounge when Stephen came over eating a gigantic chocolate chip-filled brownie and said something about how we had to come all the way to Miami to see each other, though we both live in Los Angeles.
I said I needed to write this letter, but didn’t know what to write.
Okay, this is what you should write, he said, or something to that effect, I’m paraphrasing. He said, write a few words about whatever you’re doing, like hanging out at this book fair. And then say, here’s a story. Then write a random story. Then afterwards, say something like, well, that’s the story. Then sign it.
Fuck, I said. All this time I thought you were writing original emails and you were just following a formula.
So here’s a story.
That night, the Miami Book Fair had a party at The Standard. The party was fine, but near the end of it I had a phone conversation with a guy back in L.A., one sentence of which upset me so much I couldn’t sleep all night. I spent ten hours ruminating. When I got to the book fair on Sunday morning I felt morose, and weepy. Moving from reading to reading, all my nerves felt like they were dangling from the sky, like shredded tendrils, trembling with every breeze. Oddly this had the effect of making me feel closer to the authors whose events I went to, their words a soothing salve. I wanted to buy all their books.
Afterwards I took a nap and suddenly I felt okay again. I decided to sightsee. I walked down Ocean in South Beach. A young guy in swim trunks stopped me. Can I tell you something? he said. What, I said. You are the baddest Asian chick in the game, he said. I started walking again. Is that bad? he yelled from behind me. I don’t know, I replied, not looking back.
What game? I wondered. I walked down until an organic restaurant popped up on Google maps and I went in and ordered a probiotic bowl, with kimchi and bok choy and quinoa. I posted a video of it on Instagram stories and a friend in L.A. messaged, try raw juice!
I walked to a restaurant-club I’d found on the internet that was supposed to teach salsa lessons. I was early; the cheerful instructor was alone in the upstairs room, just him and the bottles of booze, glittering behind the bar. He told me he didn’t set the prices but that the lesson cost $49, including a shot, and a 25 percent discount on all drinks. I don’t really drink, I said, and I already know how to salsa…. I asked if there was open dancing afterwards and he shook his head. It’s all tourists here, he said apologetically. I asked him what he would do if he were me. It’s bachata night, at this Dominican place, he said, but I’m not sure you want to go there, it’s in a dicey part of town. Then he smacked his head with his hand. Oh, what am I saying, he said. It’s Salsa Sundays at Ball and Chain. You should go there.
I thanked him. Maybe I’ll see you there later, he said.
I took a Lyft to Ball and Chain. I danced. People kept asking if I lived in Miami, or was visiting. The first guy told me he used to live in Malibu, he liked sunsets and walks on the beach. The next guy told me he used to live in Redondo Beach. He’d gone to UCLA for business school. Now he sold motorcycle helmets on the internet. The music got louder and then there was less talking. One guy tried to get me to dance on two; it didn’t go well. The Redondo Beach guy came back and tried to get me to dance Cuban style. This went better, but was disorienting. I moved closer to the glass wall, where it was a little quieter. One guy told me he was from Irvine, but he didn’t learn to dance there, he’d picked it up after he moved. Save me another one for later, he said, then disappeared into the crowd. One guy told me it was his first time dancing in five years, he worked night shifts at a hospital and just didn’t have the time anymore. He was a good dancer, and very anxious.
Suddenly my phone started vibrating, I’d tucked it inside my bra strap. When the song ended I tried to fix it. I restarted it but it just kept vibrating nonstop. I googled, iphone vibrating nonstop. It took me to some forums. I scrolled, the phone still buzzing in my hands. One person had written, I was having the same problem and was ready to open my phone but I found that just shaking my phone hard got it to stop.
I shook my phone really hard. It stopped vibrating. But I was worried then, that my phone was about to break permanently. I called a Lyft.
The day after that I flew back to L.A., and the night after that I spent with the guy whose phone call had upset me so much, though by then, my feelings from Miami felt remote, I couldn’t understand why I’d been so upset. Or I could, but I didn’t feel that way anymore, so my past self seemed irrationally sensitive, obsessive.
In the morning I made us breakfast. I French-pressed the last of the coffee. It wasn’t enough, so when he left for work I walked out with him, to get a latte from a café.
I’d walked about a block and a half when a guy in a white SUV pulled up and yelled from his car, excuse me. Yes? I said. I thought he’d ask for directions, people do that pretty regularly in my neighborhood, they get turned around getting off the 405. I was wondering, what ethnicity are you? he asked. I cringed. Korean, I said, backing up. He leaned over the passenger seat, almost out the window. What do you think about sitting on a 3-inch dick, just like that? he said, holding up two fingers. Is that something that would….
He kept talking but I turned away and started walking fast. I went to the stoplight and pressed the button to cross. A long, quiet, sunny block later I’d almost started thinking about something else when I heard his voice again, he’d circled around so he could pass me and was yelling out the window. I’d fuck you up the ass and come over and over again, he said, his voice fading out as his car went by. I just kept walking, pretending not to hear, that is what you do when strange men start yelling obscenities at you from their cars. He circled back again on the next block. He yelled, you’re so wet your panties are all sticky creeping up your….
Finally I caught up to some other people on the street, two women walking to Lemonade. They were talking amicably about salads. This is the problem with where I live, there’s like a three-block gap between where I live and where the pedestrian traffic begins, and they can be a long three blocks, even at 10 in the morning on a Wednesday, even though it’s considered a fairly nice neighborhood on the westside, just south of Brentwood.
I went into Café Tomo and ordered a vanilla soy latte. I took a picture of it with the Paris Review I’d brought. You can see it on my Instagram feed. I read an interview with Maxine Groffsky, about her wild days running off to Paris to be with Harry Mathews, working on the Paris Review between jaunts to Burgundy and Nice and Palermo—
That is the end of my story. I realize it doesn’t really seem like a story. One thing happens then the next thing happens then the next thing happens. This is how I experience living, all the little things that happen in it, each uniquely disconnected save for the artificial connections I choose to make for myself, the connective tissue I invent to give it some semblance of cohesiveness, meaning.
I think that’s what attracts me to writing fiction, there’s this illusion that certain events get precipitated by other events, eventualities and inevitabilities. Good or bad things make some sort of sense even if it’s only at the level of emotion.
Also, works of fiction have a nice clear ending, as does this story. You can probably tell this story was originally a letter for a literary website—rejected by the editor for reasons she’d like to keep “between us, please.”
On the upside, I now have some vague ideas for an epistolary memoir—
Siel Ju lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her novel-in-stories, Cake Time, won the 2015 Red Hen Press Fiction Manuscript Award. Siel is also the author of two poetry chapbooks. Her stories and poems appear in ZYZZYVA, The Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), The Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, and other places. Siel gives away a book a month at sielju.com.
Come see Siel read at La Bodega Gallery in San Diego on Saturday, January 20 at 7pm.