I saw it there, laid haphazardly on the table near the spot where his mother had been sitting. It was nothing to her, just a worthless partially used bottle of nail polish, but to me, it meant the world. I had to have it.
There were no guests left within the hall, only a handful of catering staff bussing leftover dishes and sweeping floors. I had to hurry. I knew they were all waiting for me. At least I was reasonably sure they’d be waiting for me, right? After all, they were my “family” and they wouldn’t leave without one of their family, would they? Or would they even notice I was missing?
No, they were waiting. My father, my adopted father, was gone often, off on one trip or another, at a baseball game, most likely, but I was special to him for some reason. I was the apple of my adopted father’s eye and he would never leave me to my own devices. He’d promised me that long, long ago when I hadn’t even understood what he was saying, but the look in his eyes I could never forget. It was compassion and I needed to remember I was lucky to have what my adopted mom called a first-class seating kind of life.
I grabbed the bottle of nail polish and shoved it into my little handbag that matched the precise color of my yoga-like wrapped and loose evening gown. I ran up the stairs as fast as I could, pulling the hem of my gown up as I rushed, one hand carrying my handbag and the other had my sling-back heels dangling from my fingers. They would be there. They would be waiting, wouldn’t they? What would I do if they weren’t?
How quickly and swiftly my life had changed. At some point in life, I hadn’t depended on anyone or anything. Now here I was out in the middle of nowhere USA, Cooperstown, New York, a town no bigger than a postage stamp and, if they’d left without me, I’d have nothing. I didn’t have a dime to my name, no money, no clothes, no family, no means of support, and all the while dressed in a luxurious evening gown that had cost as much money as I’d ever seen in my life up until the time I met Julia and Michael Utechte. But now I was a part of them, Mika Kim Utechte, although legally I was still Mi Cha Kim.
Finally, I pushed through the double doors to the banquet hall where the dinner for inductees and invited guests had been held. It was an annual event I’d been coming to since I was eleven, so this was my sixth year. The place, the museums, the baseball park, the plaques of “famous” men I’d never heard of and didn’t really care about had grown tiresome.
My eyes scanned the horizon for some sign of them, usually a mass of talkative children was my first clue of the whereabouts of my family but all I saw was an empty parking lot, the lights in the center glowing all around, and not a car to be seen. Then I noticed it, a limo set in my view along the tree line surrounding the center, parked in the far corner. It had blinked its lights twice and the engine started. Soon it was rolling in my direction and it drove my way.
My pounding heart eased a little. They had waited. They were there, had been waiting far too long. This would be seen as another of my shenanigans, but they were used to this kind of behavior from me. I knew I was a terrible disappointment to them, but we were from different cultures whether or not they wanted to admit it. The fears and superstitions that made me who I am were always present and they weren’t going anywhere.
They would forgive me. They always did. I counted on it every time. At some point, I’d have to grow up and stop relying on their goodness of heart but that wasn’t today. Today they’d forgive me for waiting too long to snatch a piece of someone’s life, a memento of sorts, a tidbit to spur the recall of a tender or happy flash in one’s life that could act as a good-luck charm or talisman for wishes and dreams.
The long car pulled up and the back door opened. The sound of my younger siblings bickering hit me first. Yup, they were my family.
“Move over, darling, and make room for Mika,” my mom said from the side seat where she sat next to my father, well, adopted father, Bill Utechte. Some said he was the greatest catcher alive, but I only knew him as the compassionate man who saved me from a life of destitution, probably prostitution, and early death.
My older, all-American sister, Diana, three years my senior, reluctantly scooted over on the bench seat until she was pressed against our brother, Will, who was two years older than me. The eyes staring at me from the two of them might as well as have been daggers slashing through the air to stab me in the heart.
They hated me and always had. I’d messed up the natural order of things. I’d been handed on a silver platter the life they’d been born to live. I had no right to it but I’d also never asked for it. I was just as unwilling of a participant as they had been when they’d been willing, squiggling zygotes bouncing around in Julia Utechte’s uterus. I’d been chosen when they had not, out of a sea of Korean children’s faces, and had no idea what would happen to me by going with these people. At first, I’d feared I would become their permanent, live-in domestic, to wait on them and their children night and day. They’d had to hire an interpreter to come in and tell me to stop cleaning things to within an inch of their life. They had told me there was a maid who would come in to clean once a week and I was not required to clean anything. I was their child just like the other children.
But I wasn’t one of their other children and never would be. Will was twelve when I’d come to their home and he accepted me with open arms, happy to have another playmate to run around the yard, to play catch endlessly so he could grow up to be just like Dad, and he was well in his way.
Diana was the spitting image of our mother and already working as a model most of the year, following in her mother’s footsteps. She had never accepted me fully. She wasn’t a mean wicked step-sister or anything but never quite fully included me in her life either. I’m sure, in her eyes, I was more of a charity case, a supplemental figure. If anything, she was indifferent to me and that was perhaps worse than if she’d been mean or domineering. At least then I would know she cared one way or the other.
Mom reached out to me, taking hold of my hand.
“Are you all right, my dear? Where have you been?” She asked.
My father asked, “What took so long, Mika?”
“I was hanging out in the restroom after dinner. I just lost track of time playing on my phone.” This was a complete fabrication, but they wouldn’t know better. “The next thing I knew everyone was gone and I hadn’t realized it was all over.”
Julia sat my hand down on my knee and patted it tenderly.
“As long as you’re not hurt and everything’s okay.”
I nodded and pulled my clutch purse into myself, cherishing the tidbit of memory held within. “I’m fine. I’m sorry I held you all up and worried you.”
Diana made a noise beside me much like a pig snorting. This was how she treated me. She clearly didn’t approve, but never said enough negative things to outwardly blame her for unacceptable behavior. Just enough to put me in my place but not enough to get in trouble. I didn’t look but I’m sure she also rolled her eyes. She was a famous eye-roller.
“Let’s get going,” my father said loudly, more to the driver than to any of us.
We rode together in silence the few miles from the banquet hall through the rolling hills of Upstate New York. The airport was not far but the scenery was so picturesque along the way, even at night as the waning light of the moon shone through the roadside forests of such a desolate area, I marveled at how similar life was here to our home in Minnesota. Different and yet the same, like so much of life.
We all disembarked from the car and made our way up the stairway of our awaiting private jet. I helped my two younger siblings, twin boys named Kwan and Kang, up the steps, each of their five-year-old hands clasped in mine as they held tightly to the rails on either side. Julia and Bill had adopted them two years ago at my urging when I told Julia how glad I was to be adopted.
I remembered distinctly telling her how I knew they were destined to adopt me because four was such a terribly unlucky number. They needed another child so they chose me. She’d smiled and laughed but after a bit, she realized I was serious.
“Why would you think four is so unlucky, my dear Mika?”
“Because my parents died when I was four and now this is the fourth year I’ve lived with you.”
“And you’re worried?” she asked.
I nodded, my eyes held low, afraid to ask anything more of her than what they already gave me.
“What’s on your mind, Mika?” She reached out and gently tucked my hair behind my ear, cupping her hand behind my head, her gesture of love unmistakable. How could I have asked so much of her? She was as much a mother as I would ever have and she loved me unconditionally. She truly did. I knew it had been difficult for them, teaching an already nearly-grown girl so many new things. I’d had to learn the American way of life, English, table manners, general politeness. There were so many times I had messed up and embarrassed her and my Dad. They were famous people and someone was always watching. No matter how much I tried, I still was a hindrance to them.
“Could we get two more children?” I asked meekly, in my very small voice. “Then we’d have seven in our family and seven and eight are very lucky numbers.”
She patted my head. “Would that make you feel safer?”
I smiled and looked up at her, nodding.
“Well, then, Daddy and I will talk about it, okay?” She stood and held out her hand to me. I was behaving like a baby but I was quickly becoming a woman. I shouldn’t have asked for such a huge thing, but they’d done it. I overheard them talking one night, agreeing that this time they’d get younger children that wouldn’t need to be “retrained” or have so many ingrained fears from living a life on the streets for so long.
The whole family settled in our chairs and buckled our seatbelts. The twins were growing tired, so their chairs were tilted back and they were tucked in with blankets. They’d be fast asleep within minutes.
I sat across from Will and a slow grin crossed his face as he tilted his head as if investigating a new kind of bug. He was similarly dressed up in a black tux, a miniature version of our father.
“Did you have fun?” He asked.
I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a quirky grin. With the air conditioning blowing and after my run through the cool night air combined with the slinky, sleeveless bodice of my gown, I’d caught a chill and the skin of my upper arms broke out in goosebumps. I rubbed my upper arms trying to regain some warmth.
“Cold?” he asked.
Will got up to get a cashmere blanket off the couch where our parents sat. He handed it to me, bending down to whisper in my ear.
“You know, I saw you with him.”
I wrapped the super-soft comfort around my shoulders and let it fall down my body before tugging it tightly to my chest. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He sat back down, re-buckling himself and chuckling. “You can play dumb if you want, but I saw what I saw.”
This time I rolled my eyes at him. That was usually Diana’s job. “Whatever.”
He leaned forward and whispered, “You know I won’t tell. I think it’s awesome.”
I turned my face away from him, pretending to pay attention to the tarmac as we started to roll down the runway. I had nowhere to go to get away from this conversation but I could always get away mentally. It was my specialty, to go somewhere else in my head.
I traveled back in my mind to the moment Will had apparently witnessed. The moment when standing behind the garbage dumpster to enjoy a sneaky cigarette, I’d met one of the most gorgeous specimen of a man that I’d ever seen in person.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one in need of a taste of nicotine after the Hall of Fame Inductee dinner. It was a great dinner and a hilarious, well-known comedian was taking the stage. I was sorely tempted to sit and listen but the call to not be the odd person in the room was loud. At least through the kitchen, out in the back next to the smelly garbage, yes, that was my place.
I was standing there, my feet wedged into my high heels, slowly savoring my cigarette when a handsome young man in a tux came to a sudden stop as he came into view around the corner of the dumpster.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Why? I’m not,” I said.
“I didn’t mean to catch you, you know …”
“Catch me at what?”
“Well,” he said, pointing at the hand that held what was left of the heater I’d been smoking.
“Oh, it’s not a big deal,” I said. “My parents know I smoke. I have all my life.”
“Huh?” The perplexed look on the face of young Donny Tripp’s face served only to mar his perfect complexion.
“Well, you know I’m adopted, right?”
And suddenly the confusion disappeared. “Yeah, of course, because, you know, your Dad’s not, you know, Chinese or whatever.”
“Yeah, Korean.” His gaze dropped to the ground, then back to me. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to … we’ll, sometimes I’m none too bright.”
Now I was perplexed. “What do you mean, none too bright?” Here was the son of a Hall of Fame Baseball player, in peak physical form himself. Nobody would expect him to be a rocket scientist.
“Well, you know, all I know is …”
“Baseball,” I said, finishing his sentence. I pulled my pack out of my little purse, tapped one out and handed it out to him. “Want one?”
He took it and placed it in his mouth. “Gotta light?”
I handed him my lighter and he lit it up, even though it was one of those long, slender ladies’ cigarettes, the only kind I liked. He handed it back and our fingers touched.
“Thanks,” he said and took a long drag, letting the smoke flow out of his mouth like he was an old pro. “So, you won’t say anything to …”
“Not if you don’t,” I said.
“I thought you said they knew you smoked.”
“They do. I didn’t say they liked it.”
He just nodded and looked out on the horizon.
“I don’t suppose you wouldn’t wanna go for a stroll when we’re done with these unless you love the ambiance of the dumpster situation here.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said, dropping my butt to the ground, squishing it with my shoe. The moment I did it I realized I’d probably hear about ruining an expensive pair of shoes with a cigarette. Although my mom hadn’t come from money or maybe because she hadn’t, taking care of the expensive things in our life was really important to her. Me, I couldn’t care less. I knew very well that in life people and things come and go and you needed to appreciate and use them while you had them. You never knew what could or would happen tomorrow.
When Donny had finished his heater and similarly left behind his butt he reached out his hand to me. “Shall we?”
I smiled at his feigning attempt at chivalry. It was cute, considering there was very little culture historically as part of the baseball world. In fact, it was usually a pretty raucous crowd, both for players and spectators. That was one of the first things I learned in America, that, as a street kid, I fit right in at a baseball game.
When we reached the grass, I let go of his hand and bent over to take off my shoes. “Sorry, but heels and sod don’t mix.”
“I totally get it,” he said, taking my shoes and carrying them for me, taking my hand again. “Besides, I like a girl barefoot.”
“Hehe, and I suppose pregnant?”
“No way!” He said, quickly letting go. “Not right now!”
“Relax,” I said, putting my hand back in his. “It’s just an expression. Besides, we just met.”
“Yeah, and, I’m sorry, but I don’t even know your name, well, I mean, your first name. I assume you’re a Utechte.”
“Mika,” I said. “I go by Mika Utechte, but my name’s really Mi Cha Kim. I was adopted by them when I was ten or so. I don’t really know my birthday, so … Well, they let me keep my name so I wouldn’t lose everything that made me, well, me.”
“That’s pretty cool, but I can’t imagine not knowing my own birthday. It just seems so foreign to me, not knowing my parents or where I stood in the world.”
We had walked all the way through the park next to the museum and came to a bench.
“Wanna sit?” he asked.
“Sure.” I sat and he sat next to me, as I held out my bare feet in front of me. “I always knew where I stood in the world, at the back of the line, the bottom, however you want to see it.”
He turned to me, put his arm on the bench’s backrest, more or less with his arm around me, again with a confused look on his face.
“Well, my mom, my adopted mom, Julia has a great way of thinking about it. She and I were born into a steerage class of the world, the bottom of the heap, lowest of the low. We’re both very lucky to have found ourselves through no fault of our own in first-class seating for the time being. She got here because she’s drop-dead gorgeous.”
The look of understanding on his face was like a lightbulb going on in his head. I could almost see it.
“Me, I was just the luckiest little girl in Seoul one day when my famous father came to town to promote American baseball and his wife could no longer have children of her own. I was in the right place at the right time and when his eyes met mine, I saw something in him. He saw something in me. We clicked and he chose me. I was just extremely lucky. It could’ve been any of the other kids standing next to me.”
“Or maybe it was because you were drop-dead gorgeous.”
I looked up at him, not knowing what to say. Nobody had ever called me that before, that’s for sure.
“Anyway, I keep getting lucky. I love fashion, makeup, all of that dress-up kind of thing. I designed my own gown for tonight.”
“It’s nearly as beautiful as you,” he said, brushing a finger along the one strap holding up my dress’s bodice. His finger lingered, brushing lightly along my collarbone. It felt as though electricity was flowing through his finger. I’d never felt this kind of immediate attraction to someone in my life. “You really don’t know how stunning you are, do you? Maybe ole Utechte saw in you as a child the amazing beauty you would become. He knows how to pick ‘em, I tell ya.”
My breath was coming tighter as I thought of what it would feel like to have those fingers touching more of my body. “Maybe, I suppose.” My cheeks were burning now as I felt the pull towards him, all too aware of how close he was sitting next to me. His scent mixed with mine and it was alluring, the thought of touching him. “Anyway, my mom has said she’ll help me with a career in fashion, after I go to Fashion School, probably in New York. She knows people, you know, from the catwalk point of view, but she has connections. “ I looked up into those eyes taking in every ounce of me and what I was saying, his face so close to mine. “Again, I’m lucky.”
“Yeah, you are and so am I for having met you when I went off to be a bad boy.” He tore his eyes away and looked off into the distance. “At least you have a choice.”
“You do, too, don’t you?” I leaned in closer to him, concerned about that far away look.
“I never have. It was all decided before I was conceived. If I was a boy, it was a done deal.”
“You mean, baseball?”
“What else is there?” He asked, looking back at my face.
“There’s a lot. You know I’d never even heard of baseball before I was adopted. I didn’t even know what it was.”
“I can’t imagine,” he said, his finger gently touching along the line of my jaw. “You’re amazing. You’ve seen the rest of the world, and yet here you are.”
Now our faces were so close, each of us taking in the other’s features, the curve of his lips, the edge of his hairline, the line of his jaw, and the faint bit of stubble growing in with his five o’clock shadow, the curve of his Adam’s apple.
“So you don’t like it, baseball?”
“That’s the rub. I love it. It’s been my everything for so long and I’m good at it. If I train right, I could be better than my Dad, without question. It’s that I’ve never had another choice that I rebel against.” He placed his palm against the back of my neck and gently placed his lips against mine.
Very slowly, ever so gently his lips pursued and sought out the corners of my lips, of my mouth, devouring me and surging through my body latent desires I had not known existed. Here I was a sixteen-year-old with a twenty-two-year-old, experienced baseball player, who had his pick of any woman in the world. But his kisses, deep and passionate were awakening some very adult desires within. At that point, I would’ve given myself to him gladly, but the sound of a car pulling out of a nearby parking lot and heading our direction stopped the kiss in its tracks.
And I’d ran. I got up and ran, across the grass, tripping at one point and getting a grass stain on my gown. I’d hidden out in the restroom of the banquet hall, embarrassed to have gone so far so fast with a total stranger. I knew nearly nothing about this handsome ballplayer, but I knew I would never be the same.
And so I would relive the memory of that moment, even if only when I held his mother’s nail polish and on rare days when I used it as my own.
And I knew my brother had seen it. He knew my secret. What would happen now?