Benches Are for People by Caroline Kim

Benches Are for People

It’s crowded on the whale-watching boat, but I spot in the distance a couple of empty spots on a bench. When my sister-in-law and I get there, we see that part of the space is taken up with a backpack. I sit. At first, I take the woman’s bag on the seat to mean she’s saving the space for someone so I don’t say anything and my sister-in-law wanders away to find another spot. But no one comes. So now I’m mad at myself for not letting my sister-in-law sit down first and mad at the woman for thinking her bag deserves a seat more than a person. But I don’t say anything.

The woman on the other side of me leaves and my daughters sit down. A few minutes later, my niece wants to sit down too so I scoot over a little bit. It’s no big deal. We can all can fit comfortably on half this bench. The woman with the bag has a daughter who is sitting between us. She gets up to go to the bathroom. The woman moves her bag to where the daughter was sitting. It butts up against me. When I feel it, I edge it over with my body, still mad that a bag has been favored over a person.

The woman — did I mention she’s Asian? — says to me, “You pushed my bag. I’m saving this seat for my daughter.” So, I — did I mention I’m also Asian? — say, “There’s plenty of room for your daughter. You do know these benches are for people, not bags?”

She says, “You pushed my bag.”

I say, “So what? It’s a bag. Not a person.”

She gives me crazy eyes. I give it right back. She has an accent. I knew she would. I sometimes get into these fights with other Asian women; women who stand way too close to me in line, try to cut me like I won’t notice, women who reach from behind to grab something I’m looking at, women who push me when I’m in their way. I chalk this up to growing up in tight spaces with too many people where you have to be aggressive to survive. But I was born in Asia too so I’m also ready to fight for my rights.

The daughter comes back. The woman moves her bag and the girl sits. Then the woman says again, “You pushed my bag. My daughter has no room.”

I look at the girl who is staring straight ahead. “She looks fine to me,” I say.

“I was saving her seat and you pushed.”

I move over a bit. “Here! Is that better? I’ll move for a person but not for a bag! Benches are for people, not bags!” I imagine printing this slogan on signs and t-shirts, making my kids parade around chanting, “Benches are for people! Bags are not people! Benches are for people! Bags are not people!”

I address the girl directly. “Do you have enough room? I can move over more if you need space.” She keeps staring straight ahead but waves a hand that tells me, No, it’s okay. And her face says, I wish I wasn’t here between two Asian women fighting on a whale watching boat. My daughters and niece on the other side of me are similarly frozen.

I’m aware some people have noticed the woman and me fighting, but they probably can’t hear us because the boat’s engine is so loud. But just in case, I say loudly, “Benches are for people!” The woman says, “You pushed my daughter!”

I put a hand up and say, “Whatever.” I wish I hadn’t done that. That’s lame. I hate when people do that in arguments. But I no longer want to fight about this. It’s gone on so long that stupidity is all that’s left, and we’re both stinking of it. Thank god someone shouts, “Dolphins!”

We all leave our benches and flock to opposite sides of the boat where for the next twenty minutes our hearts lift at the sight of dolphins racing beside us, arcing out of the water two at a time, and sometimes we can see that it’s a mom and baby team. Sometimes there’s a whole family: a mom, a dad, and a baby. We’re all smiling and pointing and saying, “Did you see that? Look at that one!”

Then it’s over and we return to the bench. I have to sit next to the woman because the daughter doesn’t want to sit between us anymore and who can blame her. I feel bad that we fought over something so stupid when the world is messed up and dolphins might not be around much longer and our kids could die at school because we can’t do anything about guns. I want to turn to the woman and apologize but I don’t. And here’s the most awful part. I would have if she were not Asian. If she weren’t Asian, I can imagine saying, “I’m sorry. What we were fighting about was so stupid. Our kids are watching us. Let’s not do that anymore.” And I could imagine her saying, “Yeah, that was stupid. There’s plenty of room for all of us on this bench.” But sometimes it’s hardest to apologize to the people most like us. I expect her to say, “You shouldn’t have pushed my daughter.” Which would probably then lead me to say, “You should put your bag on the ground if there are people who need seats.” And then we would probably look at each other through our crazy eyes again, and start fighting. So I didn’t apologize, but sat next to her, until she got up and went to the top deck with her daughter, and I leaned over and said to my daughters, “I should go up there and sit next to her again,” and we laughed when what I really should have said was, “I was too much of a coward to say I’m sorry but I feel bad I had a stupid fight with that lady.” And that’s true even if I still believe that benches are for people.

Caroline Kim was born in Busan, South Korea, but moved to America at a young age. Her collection of short stories, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories won the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was long listed for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collections and The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Bare Life Review, Carve, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, The Santa Monica Review, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.

More by Caroline Kim Older Women / Premonition

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