Castaways by Jules Chung

Castaways

Lucy sits, suspended. It is May. Here, spring arrives like a blade. Because marine layer. Thank God for this throng of other bodies: at least it’s warm inside. I bounce Lucy and sip faded coffee while drinking in the talk all around me. When I lift my cup, I wince. My wrist. Because caregiving, housekeeping, and trying — still trying — to write.

We are at Jane’s. Jane is tall, baby-faced, far too young to be matroning — Would you like cake? Here’s a plate — let alone living in such a house in San Francisco. Built high into a hill, it boasts sweeping views of other hills, other houses often shrouded in frosty, rolling marine layer.

It’s 2002. All of us moved here thinking There’s still gold in them hills

Half of us stand in the kitchen. We crowd around the butcher block to snarfle at adult conversation. The other half clamber all over the living room. Those women try to talk, but mostly they wrestle squirming children. 

I look into Lucy’s face with its geyser of plumage. Such black hair. The way it grows straight up! Her bare feet dangle. They touch ever further down my leg as the days pass. I palm her thigh like an avocado. Delight clings to me now in a way that suggests I have measured out time wrongly my whole life. I should never have measured it out at all. 

But bliss doesn’t last. 

Julie! I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without that kid on your hip! 

Jane’s voice silences the room. She shuts the refrigerator from which she’s retrieved something. I laugh and say Probably not. Jane moves on. 

Her baby sleeps in a corner, in a car seat carrier on the floor. He’s only a few weeks old.

Lucy, at seven months, is not yet walking but most definitely crawling. Her sling keeps her glued to me. This arrangement keeps her happy, which keeps me happy. Wearing her on my body is my only hope for socializing. I muse that Jane is not yet familiar with the Where’d-the-Baby-Go? phase of childrearing. 

The sling also saves my wrists, their throbbing bone and tendon, from total ruin. I am still trying to write. In between washing, drying, folding, wiping, stacking, chopping, stirring, twisting, buttoning, tying, zipping, brushing, clipping, sweeping, lifting, gathering, collecting, carrying — and the list goes on — I am typing. I stay up late or wake up early. I plot stolen time during Lucy’s naps but too often squeeze in chores instead. I am writing a novel but it feels like random scenes, thoughts, scraps of dialogue. I fingerpaint with words, trusting a book will materialize.

My pain feels like punishment for doing too much, wanting too much. My desire to write feels like too much. We new moms are all trying not to drown, and desires beyond house and baby raise eyebrows. But where does wanting end and faith begin?

My husband is a sunny father. “Hands-on” as the saying goes. But he is gone too much. His work is demanding, and he is demanding of himself when it comes to his work. He advances because he takes opportunities that allow him to advance. Advancing takes him away from home. I am thankful for the money. Of course I am. But I have a gnawing sense of being marooned.

I come to Jane’s so I don’t stay adrift in my own head.

Lucy squawks. Time for a change of scenery — or maybe a diaper? I move to the sunny living room. On my way, I pass Jane and stop.

It’s great that he can sleep through all this.

I mean her baby on the floor.

I know I should put him in his crib, but I swear, he cries and cries and driving him around before you all come over is the only way I can get him the fuck down!

See Jane. See Jane’s strickenness. See Jane’s house. See Jane play house. See us all play house.

See Jane marooned in luxury. Her living room has fat velvet sofas. They huddle up to a chic oval coffee table. Babies use the table for walking practice. Tiny, oily handprints cloud its gloss. A designer chain mail curtain divides the sitting and dining areas. A toddler tugs on it with glee, and Jane jerks it aside. The metal ball bearings hiss in their track.

When time is up, our gratitude toward Jane mobilizes us. We clean. Every crumb, stain, and smudge gets removed. We all want to be invited back, don’t we? 

We ballast each other against loneliness. 

On my way out, Jane touches my arm. She asks if my husband and I would like to come for dinner next week when her husband is home.

I accept.

Jules Chung writes fiction and can’t stop thinking about women, gender, family, and being Korean in America. Her work appears in Catapult, Jellyfish Review, Chestnut Review, and Armstrong Review. Her story “Oranges” appeared last year in Jellyfish Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In summer 2022, Jules attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a contributor in fiction. She has a novel underway. Find her online at juleschungwriting.com and on Twitter @andthewordwas.

More by Jules Chung Oranges

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Art (cropped): MIKI Yoshihito CC2.0 ALT: A close up photograph of a sleeping baby’s face

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