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Missing Bones

One, two, three, four, five…All parents do it. As soon as their baby is born, they count the tiny fingers and toes. Only with my parents, when they got to four, they stopped. And toweled off the goo. And said, "Oh, Doctor—could you come here?" Because I was born with missing knucklebones on my fourth toes. A genetic defect.

I wonder what my parents felt. Panic at first? What else is wrong with her? Reassuring thoughts, maybe. It's minor—no one will notice. A sense of grief? Our baby's not perfect. Guilt over the grief? Why am I upset? She's healthy—who cares what her toes look like? Anger? It's your genes—your uncle with the weird ears, I bet he has missing bones. No wonder I'm an only child.

"Your toes are a special blessing, unique-looking," my mom is fond of saying. "My toes are unique-looking like Quasimodo is unique-looking," I like to joke. The Hunchback of Les Phalanges. The missing bones make my fourth toes short, half the length of the neighboring toes. What's more jarring is how boneless they look—floppy lumps stuck on top of my feet. When you step back to scan my feet, they look all wrong, like a toddler's Play-Doh project gone awry. Nice, straight line from the big toe to the little toe, children. That's how you make a pretty foot. No, no—don't tug on that dough toe before it dries! Ughhhh—it's ruined.

I have no memory of being embarrassed by my toes as a child in Korea. I never gave much thought to them, the same way I barely noticed the raised brown mole smack in the middle of my mom's forehead. They were simply a part of who we were.

My obsessive paranoia over my toes sprang up when I was eleven, a week after my parents and I moved from Seoul to Lutherville, a suburb of Baltimore. We were staying with my mom's sister, Ee-mo, her husband, and their son, nine-year-old Mike, in their three-bedroom split-level house. Even in this Korean haven, I felt a disquieting sense of being in a world where even familiar things are foreign. When we stepped into Ee-mo's house for the first time, I smelled kimchi and seaweed tofu soup, the mix of pungent and briny greeting me like an old friend. But there was a thick medicinal odor in the kitchen (Lysol, I learned at cleaning time) that gave my favorite dishes an exotic flavor. My cousin Mike looked like a typical Korean boy with coal black hair and narrow slits for eyes, but when he opened his mouth, fluent English (or garbled Korean) seemed to come from somewhere else, like a dubbed movie. And Ee-mo: her round face and dumpling-shaped eyes were a younger version of my mom's, but she wore heels, had a job, and drove a car—things I'd never seen any mom do in Seoul.

Still, after a week in America, I was feeling acclimated enough to revert to my preteen tendency of acting indifferent toward everything. I was starting school the next day, the first day of the spring term. Mike, a disciple of the Preppie Handbook, rolled his eyes at my non-Izod clothes. I shrugged—I had never cared for alligators. My parents fretted that I only knew a few words of English. "How is she going to get by on just 'hi' and 'bye' for a whole day? How will she learn anything?" I overheard my mom's whispered yell to Ee-mo. Funny—she had just spent ten minutes telling me not to worry, that I would be fine.

It wasn't until Ee-mo asked whether I knew the English for "bathroom" that I sat up. That seemed important. How could we have overlooked this? Especially given the incident at the airport minutes after my arrival in America: I came out of the stall, having not flushed (there being no need to flush in the outhouses I was used to). An irate older woman yelled gibberish at me while I stood there and smiled. Embarrassed, but not sure why.

Ee-mo ruled out teaching me to say "bathroom," as –th and –ph sounds are the most difficult sounds for Koreans. (Luckily, we didn't study diphthongs that year.) Ee-mo settled on "lavatory." "Proper and polite," she said. "Lah-bah-to-dee," I echoed, there being no v- or r- sounds in Korean. I didn't know—couldn't know—that teachers would interpret this sound to mean I was excited about science (as Asian children were reputed to be) and wanted to see the lab. I repeated the word over and over, quelling my rising panic with each utterance. Lah-bah-to-dee, lah-bah-to-dee, lah-bah-to-dee, I chanted, willing the syllables to form a carapace around me, fortifying my now-crumbling façade of indifference.

Crisis averted, I went upstairs to sleep. Ee-mo had offered my parents the living room sofa bed and me the twin guest bed, but we were more comfortable sleeping on the floor in one room, as we had in our one-room home in Korea. (Besides, I was afraid I'd roll off the bed while sleeping, and I suspect my parents were as well.) So the three of us shared the guest room, where the plush wool carpet was more than soft enough but floor space was tight. I was lying on our bamboo mat, my feet almost out the door, pulling the blanket around me, when Mike walked by and saw my bare feet for the first time.

And just stared.

If only he had yelled, "Ewww, what's wrong with your toes?" Then I could have taken the part of a mature, older sister type, pontificating, "You really shouldn't ask questions like that. That's rude. Anyway, it's not a big deal, just a couple of toes."

Or if he had screamed or laughed and run downstairs, yelling, "Mommy, Daddy—you've gotta look at her freaky feet!" I could have rolled my eyes at this brat's immaturity and dismissed him as a third-grader.

Or he could have calmly said, "I never noticed that before. Does that hurt?" I would have shrugged, said, "No—it's always been like that." I would have told him my Quasimodo joke, he would have laughed in a forced way that made me realize he had no idea who Quasimodo was, and I would have patted a place beside me, inviting him to plunk down next to me, and told him about the humpback who was different, alone, lost. And it would have dawned on him that the tears I blinked back were not for Quasimodo.

But none of that happened. Mike just stared at my toes. And I stared at him, staring at my toes. No words. No grimace. No yell. No laugh.

As I followed Mike's stare, for the first time in my life, I saw what he saw, what anyone seeing my toes for the first time would see. At once, my bathroom worries faded away. Making sure that no one see my toes—the deformity that would confirm my Inherent, Irrevocable Difference—became paramount. I stopped chanting lah-bah-to-dee, stood up, and began my new mission: finding socks I could wear with both my first-day-of-school sandals and gym shoes (so I wouldn't have to take the socks off). As I threw sock after sock onto the floor, I remembered my mom's words from earlier in the day—"You must be nervous about tomorrow. It's natural; completely normal to be scared."—and it occurred to me. Nothing about me—my feelings, my clothes, my toes, my cousin, my language, my new life—was normal. Nothing about this situation was natural. I had left all the normal and natural parts of me behind in Korea, and my life—and my relationship with my toes—would never be the same again.

I suppose the bathroom episode the next day could have been worse. I said "lah-bah-to-dee" almost as soon as I got to my classroom, at which point the whole science lab thing happened. "Lah-bah-to-dee?" I asked again, more slowly this time. When the teacher pointed helpfully at the beaker, I entertained the idea of this being a really small chamber pot for a moment before dismissing it, certain I was remembering the word wrong. "Bah-lah-to-dee? Lah-bah-dee-to? Dah-to-lee-bah?" How many permutations could there be?

But before things got to the emergency-potty-dance stage, a beautiful thing happened. Spurred by the lab tour, the class took me on a school tour, which included...yes! A bathroom!

But if I avoided humiliation in the bathroom situation, I was not afforded such a luxury in the rest of the tour. An Asian-looking boy stepped to the front of the class. "Thomas Yoo. Korean," the teacher said slowly and loudly, pointing to him. It soon became clear that Thomas Yoo spoke about as much Korean as I did English. But Thomas took his responsibilities as translator seriously, repeating everything the teacher said slowly and loudly.

"Music room, tell her it's the music room," she'd say (I'm guessing). Thomas would think for a moment. Do I know how to say 'music' in Korean? No. "MEEE-YOO-ZI-K," he'd say, and mime playing piano. Then think another minute. Oh—I know this one. Mom always says, 'Thomas, clean up your…' Huh. No idea. I really should pay more attention. "ROOOOOM," he'd say and point inside. Then silence as everyone expectantly turned to me, certain I'd understand "music room" as long as it was uttered by a tongue of Asian descent. I'd smile, nod, point to the piano, and say "pee-ah-no" (piano in Korean is piano). Smiles and sighs of relief all around, a pat or two on the back for Thomas, the boy wonder translator. And so on it went.

A few stops into the tour, two girls started walking next to me. Michelle was the Barbie doll I'd imagined all American girls to be—wavy blond hair, pale skin, and blue eyes so round she looked perpetually surprised. When I smiled at her, she delighted me with her dimples, perfectly placed in the middle of her pink cheeks.

The second girl disappointed me by having muddy brown hair and olive skin. When she pointed to her chest and said "DI-AH-NAH," though, I said a silent thanks. Here, finally, was a word I could say properly, with no pesky l-, r-, v-, th-, f-, z-, or short vowel sounds my tongue could not replicate. "Diana," I repeated fluently. Another round of smiles, a few claps for me, like those bestowed upon babies learning to say their first words.

Suddenly, tears came. I was momentarily confused as to why I should feel sad just now, at the first sign I might fit in someday. Then I remembered. There was another girl who had pointed to herself and said "Diana" just a few weeks ago—my best friend in Seoul as she assigned herself the role of Wonder Woman's alter ego in our neighborhood superhero game.

I couldn't understand the cacophony of whispered sounds that erupted then, but I could imagine. What's wrong? Is she crying? Somebody comfort her or get her tissues or…Do something! Michelle and Diana took my arms, mirroring each other as they linked elbows with me on either side, as if I were an infirm old lady they were helping across the street. Girl Scouts performing the good deed of the day.

As they escorted me through the rest of the tour, patting my shoulders and smoothing my hair occasionally, I tried to be glad. For the kind teacher who meant well. For the girls who were as nice as could be. For this school with a gymnasium and a grand piano and tennis courts. But I couldn't. Not when I'd been reduced to a deaf, mute, emotionally unstable invalid of questionable intelligence.

At the end of the day, I was glad for one thing: my perfect execution of the Socks Plan (changing into gym shoes without anyone seeing my toes). Because if I'd had to add "genetic mutant" to the list of things I'd become, I wasn't sure I could face going back to that school.

I did go back, with a dictionary this time. I made everyone write down what they wanted to say, translating it word by word. It was slow work, but between that and my daily English as a Second Language classes, I started putting a few words together. I continued with my Socks Plan on gym days, but otherwise started relaxing about my toes.

Throughout that spring, Michelle, Diana, and I became inseparable. "Best buds," they said. But I don't know that we were friends. Can preteen girls be friends without sharing secrets, giggling over gossip, plotting out plans to conquer a crush? It might be more accurate to say that I became Michelle and Diana's "Project," the Harriet to Jane Austen's Emma. A full-sized doll they could dress, groom, teach the occasional word or phrase. They fawned over me, took care of me, much like a beloved pet.

In early June, Michelle handed me a note: Diana's coming for a sleepover Saturday. Can you come? A few clarifying notes later (my non-teenage dictionary didn't have "sleepover"), it was confirmed. My first sleepover.

I wasn't as excited about the sleepover itself as I was about escaping Ee-mo's house. More specifically, dodging the weekly Saturday night conversation with my mom at Ee-mo's house. A month before, my parents had started a grocery store in downtown Baltimore. A tiny store, with the food and my parents locked inside a vault-like room, thick bulletproof glass separating them from the customers on the outside. From the cramped lobby, the store looked a bit like a used bookstore, with the interior walls lined from floor to ceiling with shelves and shelves of packages my parents could retrieve by climbing a tall ladder. But as soon as the bullet- and apparently odor-proof door opened, the whiff of deli meat mixed with chocolate (the most popular order being a bologna sandwich with a Snickers bar) revealed that, no, this was definitely not a bookstore. Another clue: the Open 6 AM to Midnight sign. No choice, the other Korean grocers had advised: The breakfast crowd and the teenage gangs on the night prowl would make up most of the profits. So my parents decided to live at the store, squeeze in sleep in the back storage room. I overheard the adults' late-night whispers—using words I had to look up, like "ghetto," "prostitutes," and "drugs"—that the store was too dangerous for me. So I would stay at Ee-mo's house, and my mom would try to come visit on Saturday nights and go to church with us on Sundays.

The day my parents left, my mom came in our room. "Suyeon-ah," she began. I knew, from her using my Korean name, that this was serious. "I know you're upset with me. But you know I'm not leaving because I want to. We came with nothing. We have to make money. Soon, we'll have enough to buy a house and we can all be together again," she said, stroking my hand.

I had known this talk was coming. I had imagined coolly replying, "I don't care what you do. It doesn't matter to me. I'll be just fine." But when I opened my mouth, the words came out all wrong. "We didn't have our own house in Seoul, and we did fine. Please don't go," I begged.

"You're not alone—your aunt and uncle love you very much, and Mike is here with you." She sounded more certain than she looked.

"But they're not my parents. And Mike hates me. He doesn't want me around. Please let me come with you." I squeezed her hand, our tears mixing together in the creases between our fingers.

My mom shook her head. "Remember—we're doing this for you."

I snatched my hands away. "This is not for me. You're abandoning me." And I turned away, pretending not to hear her good-byes, her I-love-you's.

She tried to talk to me every Saturday night, reiterate the reasons why this living arrangement was for the best. I don't know what hurt her the most—my tearful pleading on the day she left, or my feigned indifference on our subsequent weekly talks. I made little jabs. "You were right. Ee-mo is much more helpful on my homework than you ever could have been." Or "Are you sure you want to take time away from the store to come visit? It's so fun watching movies with Ee-mo. It doesn't matter to me at all if you come or not." And though she must have seen right through my clumsy lies, I knew from the pained look on her face that I'd gotten to her. I felt the child's satisfaction of revenge, and later, regret as I watched her drive away and whispered, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

By the time of Michelle's sleepover, I needed a respite from the weekly drama. I had a moment of hesitation when I was packing, worried about the toe complication. But it passed as soon as I decided to change into pajamas and my fuzzy PJ-like socks in the bathroom.

The problem didn't come until the morning, after we'd spent a giggly night of pillow fights on Michelle's water bed. (The beauty of pillow fights, by the way, is that there is no need to talk. You can bond without a word, which is rare for girls past the age of three.)

"Let's go swimming!" Michelle and Diana exclaimed in unison. Yay—more silly water fighting, no need to talk.

But then I remembered: I would need to take off my socks to go swimming.

"Nooohhhh," I said hesitantly, "too cold."

"It's okay, our pool's heated," Michelle said. "HEEEET, WAAAARM WAAAAH-TER." Michelle reverted back to slow, loud sentence fragments when she thought I didn't understand something.

Maybe it was the night of bonding that gave me the courage. Or maybe the feeling I was actually becoming a friend, someone they would like regardless of a deformity.

I would chance it. My feet would be under water. With all the splashing, they wouldn't see my toes.

I changed into one of Michelle's bathing suits, keeping my red fuzzy socks on and putting on my shoes to go out on the patio. Michelle and Diana looked puzzled, but they didn't say anything. They probably shrugged it off as a cultural anomaly, the inverse of the Korean custom of always taking shoes off in the house.

I waited until they were in the pool, then took off my shoes and socks and put them at the edge of the pool. I slid in and splashed over.

In the middle of our water fight, Michelle suddenly stopped. "Wait. Look—is that a…?" She pointed to my toes. And stared.

It was just an instant, but I recognized the stare as the same one Mike had the first time he saw my toes. Why had I agreed to this?

Michelle didn't say anything. She dove toward my feet. Then she came up, grabbing something shiny in her hand. "I found a penny. It's good luck." She smiled at me.

"I'm cold," I said and splashed over to the other end. I was shivering, in fact, though not from the cold. I got out, careful to use the towel to hide my toes while I put on my red fuzzy socks again. Had Michelle seen my toes? She dove right past them.

I bet she did see them, I convinced myself. She saw my face before she was about to say something. She decided to be nice in front of me, but she's whispering something to Diana now. I wonder if she's telling her. They're laughing. They're laughing at me.

I don't know to this day if Michelle saw my toes. Most likely not. If she had seen them, she would have had no choice but to spend hours analyzing them and concocting some remedy, so strong was her urge to improve me. Too powerful a force to be suppressed by politeness or common decency.

I never went back to Michelle's pool. That summer, she and Diana seemed to live there, judging from the frequent "come over for a swim" calls. Eventually, she stopped calling. Or maybe I stopped answering the phone. I was trying to avoid my mom's calls, anyway.

I know what you're thinking. I'm thinking it, too. Michelle and Diana would have been fine seeing my toes. I would have had a great summer if I hadn't been paranoid about something so small. My English was getting passable by then. A real friendship could have grown, would have grown. I know it.

But there's the possibility that the twelve-year-old me was right, that seeing my defective toes would have opened their eyes to the fact that I wasn't some cute little doll or pet for them to play with, but a girl, like any other girl. Then they would have lost interest and discarded me, like a broken toy. At least this way, I had the rainy days to play with them, maintain the semblance of a friendship.

That was my summer of silence. My parents saved up enough for a down payment on a small house. The store was doing well enough for us to qualify for a mortgage. So I moved out of Ee-mo's house. In theory, it seemed like a good idea. I wasn't particularly fond of Mike, nor he of me. I didn't see much of Ee-mo or my uncle. So I didn't see how being in a house on my own would be too different.

There's something, though, about the sounds that other people make. Not talking, necessarily. Just their sounds of living—walking, creaking upstairs, humming a tune, watching TV, clanging dishes, fidgeting—that blot away your loneliness. You miss them when they're gone. Their absence—the total silence—becomes palpable.

And so it was with me. With the toe paranoia denying me my only social outlet, I went days without seeing another human being. My parents were gone before dawn, and didn't return until midnight. I never saw them.

I did hear them, though. They always came in my room when they returned home, stepping over my pile of dirty clothes to pull the blankets over me, stroke my cheek, kiss me good night. I was usually still awake, consumed by the possibility they would be caught in gunfire as they left their bulletproof vault, leaving me a real orphan, not merely a de facto one. When I heard their tiptoes in the hallway, a mix of relief and anger coursed through me. I thought it best not to speak, so I pretended to be asleep.

Except once. They were later than usual. As midnight went by, then 12:30, then 12:45, my what-if's turned to certainty. I ran downstairs to call the police. Then I heard it, the creak of the key turning with the click of the deadbolt. I ran back upstairs, pulled the covers over my head, and started sobbing into the pillow. There was no feigning sleep.

By the time my mom calmed me with her gentle shushing, my fatigue had won the battle against my fury. Through the hiccups that wouldn't stop, I whispered, "Please let's just go back. Sell the house, sell the store. It's not too late." I knew it was, though.

I fell asleep with my mom holding me. When I awoke, she was gone.

To fill the silence, I watched a lot of TV, shows with loud children—Diff'rent Strokes, The Brady Bunch, The Facts of Life. Funny thing about TV. It seems like you could watch it all day, a preteen's dream. But at some point, it becomes torture, like eating nothing but Doritos and Rocky Road ice cream meal after meal. At least, it did for me.

So I turned to books. I spent hours each day in our sunny living room reading books from Ee-mo's collection. Gone with the Wind was the first English book I read. Then every Sidney Sheldon book in publication. I lay on my stomach on the worn nylon carpet, book in my left hand, pen in my right, dictionary and notebook on the floor, reading and jotting down every word I didn't know. By the end of the summer, I didn't need the dictionary most of the time, and I placed out of ESL for the upcoming year. I guess, in a way, my mom had been right about my toes being a "special blessing." If it hadn't been for them (or, rather, my paranoia over them), I wouldn't have learned English that summer.

Over the years, my fear of exposing my toes has served other useful functions. I figure I've saved at least $10,800 in pedicure costs (one pedicure every three weeks at $30 a pop for twenty years) and at least $12,000 in cute designer shoes (three a year at $200 per pair). And another $20,000 in cute clothes that go with the cute shoes.

At this point, I'm tempted to make up a dramatic story of how I made peace with my toes. A passionate lover-mentor with a deformity of his own who taught me to love his anomaly and, by extension, my own. Or a reunion with Michelle and Diana in which I discover they knew all about my defect but thought it was no big deal. Maybe a teary, soul-baring psychotherapy session with my mom. No matter—just some climactic scene encapsulating my deformed toes as a symbol of an immigrant girl's feelings of difference, complete with an epiphany that the abnormal is normal. My shame over my toes would disappear, and I'd emerge stronger, grateful to my toes for this life's lesson. I'd call it fiction, and be done with it.

But this isn't fiction, and there was no Single Moment of Realization that resolved my feelings toward my toes. Just the experiences of growing older—a series of small and big things dispersed throughout my life that, little by little, smoothed away my paranoia into a dull dislike. Like when I showed my toes to Cheryl, my best friend in high school, and she thought my toes were cute. Or when I started baring my toes to boyfriends out of fear that keeping my socks on in bed would make me seem a bigger freak than my physical deformity. Not once did any boy kick me out of bed in disgust.

Or the first time I went barefoot in public and no one even noticed. It happened during a college summer break. My mom's youngest sister was visiting from Korea, and we were driving to Gunpowder Falls State Park for a picnic with my extended family.

"Suyeon-ah," my mom said in the car, "I need to tell you something. Everyone knows, and I don't want it just coming out." She stared straight ahead as she sat in the front passenger seat. "Your dad was shot a few months ago, in the store lobby." She turned to look at me as I gasped. "He's fine, obviously," she said, touching my dad's shoulder as he kept driving. "The bullet grazed his neck. So lucky. Just a centimeter in any direction…"

"How could you not tell me?" I asked.

"We didn't want to tell you over the phone. You used to be so upset something like this might happen. You would cry and cry, you remember? That summer after we started the store? No use making you worry again."

I felt something cold and heavy spreading in my chest, forcing me to take choppy breaths. I couldn't say anything. I was shocked. By the gunshot story, of course, but also by my mom's admission that they had known, had noticed, what that summer had been like for me. I wondered how it was that I had never given thought to how hard that summer must have been for my parents, watching their daughter punishing them for the very things they were doing for her, for her future.

When we got to the park, I saw my family in the picnic area on one side of the parking lot, and a river on the other. My parents walked over to the picnic, looking back at me every few steps. I walked the opposite way. When I reached the water, I took off my shoes and socks and walked in. I wish I could say I did this consciously, damn who noticed my toes, but the fact is, I simply forgot about them.

As the icy, rushing water swirled pebbles around my numbing feet, all I could think about was my dad, strong and silent, with blood trickling (gushing?) down his neck; my mom, terrified as she heard the deafening blast and saw him crumple to the concrete floor; and me, how I needed to stop punishing my parents.

After a while, I stopped and breathed deep. From across the lot, I smelled tangy galbi (marinated beef short ribs) cooking on the grill. I looked over to my family, twenty-one Koreans laughing and yelling and talking in Korean. I felt transported back to Seoul. I walked out of the river and straight to my family, stepping over my socks and shoes.