A SEVENTEEN-YEAR CYCLE
When she was seventeen years old, the cicadas came in full force for the first time in her life. According to her father, these periodical cicadas––they’re called magicicada, remember that, Haejin––reappeared every thirteen or seventeen years. The year had been 2013; she was a high school senior when she first heard that insistent buzz. Shells littered the grounds of school buses, the uneven blacktop roads, the windowsills of houses. She’d never forget the time she saw her neighbor shovel cicada shells off his driveway and almost gagged. In fact, it’s the anecdote she always tells people when she declares she’ll make sure she’s as far, far away from New Jersey the next time the cicadas rise.
But the year is 2030, the cicadas have returned, and Haejin has packed a weekend bag to the state she once called home.
The plane is silent. The first-class passengers spread their legs out, one passenger per row, enjoying the complimentary alcohol and the VR headsets they can plug into their monitors. The business-class passengers have a little less room but are mollified by the slightly discounted alcohol and VR headsets. The economy-class passengers are sitting shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, packed like sardines. They are offered free water, hand sanitizer, and a packet of peanuts.
In the very last row of the economy section of the plane, right next to the bathroom, Isela has fallen asleep on Haejin’s shoulder. There are strands of her dark curly hair stuck to her mouth where she’s drooled a little bit. Pinpricks shoot through Haejin’s left arm, which she can no longer feel from the weight of Isela’s head. But she can’t quite seem to muster the effort to move. Unlike Haejin, Isela has no trouble falling asleep wherever she is––be it a bus, her office, the row next to the plane’s bathroom. And unlike Haejin, Isela has spent the last few months in their living room-turned-organizing space, calling lawyers and holding community meetings, and researching deportation policies until three in the morning. Unlike Haejin, Isela’s sleeplessness isn’t chronic; it’s born out of the impossible task of a daughter trying to save her father from being kicked out of the country he’s lived in for the past fifty years.
There were so many nights in the past six months where Haejin would find Isela just like she is now, on this plane: head slumped over the dining room table, dark curly hair splayed across her laptop, the tiniest bit of drool on her chin. She’d shake her lightly, kiss her favorite mole (slightly under Isela’s nose, a little above her lips), sling one arm around her shoulder, and drag her to bed.
When she asked Isela why she was staying in Chicago instead of doing all this back in New Jersey, Isela replied: because it would mean admitting defeat. I can do everything I need to help him from here. Besides––Isela couldn’t just leave in the middle of the semester to let her undergraduate students fend for themselves. And, she reassured Haejin, her younger sister lived only a block away from their father and could help with anything that demanded a physical presence.
Haejin was already working home from their apartment, a policy her company kept since COVID began, almost a decade ago––so on the days Isela didn’t go to UChicago’s campus, Haejin greeted her guests and monitored their online petition and reached out to journalists she knew who might cover the story. The problem was––and both women knew it, though neither spoke it out loud to each other––there were too many people in Isela’s father’s situation.
You should take a break, Haejin said to Isela once, massaging her shoulders.
A break? Isela pushed Haejin’s hands away. This is my papi’s life. I can’t take a fucking break.
Two years ago, there’d been a robbery. The suspect was described as “Latino.” A day later, the police ran through the DMV’s facial recognition records, landed on the first face they perceived as “Latino,” discovered a man named Carlos Hernandez had a fraudulent license on file and had overstayed his TPS visa. Mere hours after that, they located his phone using the same GPS tracker tech companies had developed to trace the steps of people who tested positive for coronavirus and arrested him on the spot.
When Rosibel, Isela’s sister, called to break the news, Isela said, we can fight back. When they detained him at Essex County Correctional Facility for an indefinite amount of time, Isela said, we can fight back. When they kept delaying and delaying and delaying his hearing before a judge because of the mountain of backlogged cases, Isela said, we can fight back. When they released him the week of his last hearing, emerging with sunken cheekbones and his t-shirt now loose on his frame, Isela said, we can fight back.
A day later, Isela got a call from her sister. Haejin watched as Isela picked up her phone the second it rang, as her face slowly fell with each second. When she hung up, she stared at the water stain on their living room wall. She continued staring until Haejin walked over and wrapped her arms around her, gripping her so tightly she could feel Isela’s shoulder blades.
Will you come with me? Isela asked.
Haejin closed her eyes. She hadn’t been to New Jersey since she graduated from college in 2017 since her father more or less disowned her.
Please? Isela’s voice cracked.
Newark Airport is a mess, as usual. It is overcrowded with people and suitcases and flights. The last time Haejin was here, she was twenty-two and on a one-way trip to Chicago. In twelve years, it feels like nothing has changed––besides the introduction of robots to scan your boarding pass and sanitize the entire airport and the impossibly longer lines snaking around TSA security.
Hard to believe that she’ll be back tomorrow, with Isela and her father and the rest of Isela’s family.
Isela covers her mouth as she yawns. “Ros says she’s waiting outside in arrivals.” She brings the phone closer to her face, squinting.
“Oh my God.” Haejin looks up to see Isela blinking rapidly, which means she’s trying not to tear up. “Ros just texted saying abuela’s made her pupusas.”
“The ones you’ve been trying to get a recipe for the past few years?” Haejin asks.
“The exact same,” she replies. “But she says it’s not something you can just write down. Papi would––” Isela blinks again, clears her throat. “Papi would always nag her, too, for the recipe. He could never get them just right. Just like I can’t.”
Haejin takes Isela’s hand. “I like your pupusas just fine.”
“You won’t, once you taste my abuela’s.” Isela smiles, a little ruefully. “By the way––have you told your dad that you’re back?”
She’d been dreading this question. Haejin slips her hand from Isela’s. “No. Isela, it’s been years since I’ve talked to him––I don’t want to startle him if he suddenly gets a call from me, when the last time we talked––” she cuts herself off.
Isela sighs. “I know. But if it was your mom’s dying wish for you two to start talking again––”
“I already tried that. Years ago. The last time we talked. After she died.”
“I know. But you could try again. You haven’t been back to Jersey in what, twelve years? Are you going to wait another twelve to try?”
“Let’s just drop it,” Haejin mutters.
Isela looks like she wants to say more, but doesn’t. “Fine.”
They walk the rest of the way to the arrivals pick-up in silence. Once outside, the first thing Haejin notices is the line of cars waiting for newly arrived passengers that never seems to end. This, she concludes, does not bode well for four o’clock New Jersey Turnpike traffic on a Tuesday. The second thing she notices is the cicadas. She shakes her head, at first thinking the loud buzzing noise in her ears still adjusting to being back at sea level. People’s suitcases roll over the molten shells; she grimaces at the sight.
“Are the cicadas supposed to be out this early?” Haejin asks, lightly, hoping to move past their non-argument from a few moments ago. Isela shades her eyes from the sun, searching for her younger sister’s self-driving silver hybrid.
“I feel like I remember them coming out in the summer last time. Well, before summer started this early. So, probably not.”
There’s a honk about ten cars down. A young woman’s head pops out the side of her window. “Isela! Haejin!”
“Ros!” Isela grins––the first smile Haejin’s seen on her in a while. She takes off running, dodging other groggy passengers. Haejin sighs, then follows Isela––walking, not running.
When Haejin would fly from Chicago to Newark during her college winter breaks, her mom would always be the one to pick her up, since her dad always seemed to be working. She’d make sure she’d bring a steaming cup of boricha for Haejin and a thermos of rice and soondubu, the meal Haejin always craved when she came home and the meal she was always greeted with.
The two sisters are still hugging by the time Haejin reaches them. She misses her mother. Other cars behind them honk, angry New Jersey drivers trying to get the space that will soon be vacated by them, but Isela and Rosibel pay them no mind.
Rosibel breaks off first, only to pull Haejin into a bear hug. She makes a small oof sound. “Good to see you again too, Ros.” Haejin pauses. “I’m sorry about your dad.”
Ros puts her hands on Haejin’s shoulders. “Thank you for coming, Haejin. And for taking care of my sister.”
Isela rolls her eyes. “Ros, I’m thirty-two. I can take perfectly good care of myself.”
Before the two can start squabbling, Haejin points to Rosibel’s car. “So, should we get in?” The sounds of honking have surpassed the buzz of the cicadas now. “There’s a lot of people who want us to leave.”
Isela opens the passenger door, taking shotgun. “Isn’t there always?”
Haejin is right about the New Jersey Turnpike traffic.
The three of them have been idling in the same spot for at least fifteen minutes, slowly inching forward every so now and then. Even though most of the cars on the highway are self-driving, the jam seems to never end––so many people take public transportation less now, so much of the funding has been cut.
“We’re close to American Dream, aren’t we? Is it still open?” Isela asks.
“Oh God, no,” Rosibel says. She keeps turning on the windshield wipers every now and then, trying to get rid of the cicada shells still stuck to the car’s window. “It closed a few years ago. I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did, even after all the other malls closed.”
“Did you ever go?” Haejin asks.
Ros makes a pfft sound. “As if I would ever go to that shitty dumpster fire of peak capitalism. Why would anyone need an amusement park and a skiing center and a mall in one place?”
“Is this what you teach your second graders?” Isela asks.
“I sneak it around here and there.”
“I’m just sad I never got to see the gigantic HMart they put in there,” Haejin says.
“How come it’s been so long since you’ve been back?”
Haejin and Isela share a glance in the mirror. Haejin shrugs. “My dad and I had a falling-out.”
A falling-out is putting it nicely. The summer after she graduated from college, Haejin came back home to New Jersey, not having found a job yet. She remembers the last time she had dinner with her father, alone: her mother was at work, so it was just the two of them, and normally he’d buy jajangmyeon while she’d get jjamppong, and normally they’d share their noodles with each other, but just a few moments before, they’d gotten into a fight. On their way to the restaurant, they’d walked past storefronts with ads featuring celebrities posing with soju, television screens glowing with different colorful K-pop music videos.
With each step, her father’s frown deepened. I don’t understand why these boys are wearing makeup, he said.
What do you mean you don’t understand? She felt her heart rate quicken, the same as it always did when she knew their small annoyances would explode into larger fights.
Boys shouldn’t look like girls. So feminine.
They can look however the fuck they want to look. She knew what she was doing when she said the word fuck. Before she let him interrupt, she went on and on about the gender binary, about the performance of gender, everything she could remember from her queer theory class her last semester.
He cut her off. Don’t curse at me. You can’t talk to me like that. You can’t talk slow like I can’t speak English.
I can talk to you however I want. You can’t tell me what to do––I’m an adult, she spat back. She knew she was being childish; she didn’t care. This is America. We’re not in Korea.
We’re still Korean, he said, and they simmered silently. Neither of them was willing to just leave since neither of them wanted to admit that something was wrong and neither of them wanted to apologize. It felt like the fastest she’d ever eaten dinner, the fastest her father––who always kept to the speed limit, sometimes under––had ever driven on the highway.
And then, of course, a week later, when she was going to the bathroom, she’d been careless and left her laptop open in the living room, and while she was briefly gone, he saw texts between her and her then-girlfriend on the screen, scrolled up, saw pictures not meant for anyone else but the two of them, slammed her laptop closed, threw it across the room, breaking it, and when she returned from the bathroom, he yelled at her, asking why she was doing such disgusting things with a girl, and she yelled back at him, asking why he was invading her privacy, and they kept yelling at each other until she grabbed her still unpacked suitcase, declared she was leaving, and he said she shouldn’t come back if she wasn’t going to change and apologize.
So the next day, she stayed at a friend’s apartment in Hoboken. A week later, her mom drove her to Newark so she could take the cheapest and earliest flight she could find to Chicago.
Why do you have to leave? her mom asked.
Are you seriously asking me this right now? I can do whatever I want, umma. I’m a college graduate and I’m a grown woman and I’m my own person.
I know, I know, Haejin-ah. Just . . . . can’t you talk about it?
She gripped the sides of her seat. What’s there to talk about? Appa doesn’t think I’m a normal human being because I like women.
He’s just afraid for you, you know.
Afraid for me or afraid of me?
Okay well, why doesn’t he tell me?
You know why. All that time, hiding the fact that we used to be illegal before you were born…
Undocumented, umma. Undocumented.
Why does it matter?
It––never mind. It just does. Okay, so what does that have to do with––
He hid everything for so long, including his emotions. He was afraid someone would find us and send us away from you.
Well, you had to hide things too, and you’re talking to me right now.
I know, Haejin, but he’s just not used to talking like we do. Can’t you understand that?
She crossed her arms, looking away from her mom. You wouldn’t have broken my laptop like he did. You wouldn’t have called me disgusting. You wouldn’t have told me to get out and leave and change. But you feel more or less the same as he does.
Her mother sighed. We . . . process things different. React different.
I’m not going to say sorry if he doesn’t.
They were parked in the departure lane then. Her mom rubbed her temples. Aescham . . .. how did I end up with such two stubborn people?
I’m gonna be late for my flight. Haejin got out of the car and grabbed her suitcase. Her mom got out on her side, coming over and hugging her. They were the same height, which made it easy for her mom to rest her head against Haejin’s shoulder.
Call me when you land. And text me if you need any food.
Haejin rolled her eyes. They have HMarts in Chicago too, you know.
I know. She rested her hand on Haejin’s cheek; Haejin allowed herself to close her eyes and lean into her mother. I still love you, Haejin. Appa still loves you, too. Please… jaebal… just think about talking to him?
Haejin took a step back. I’ll think about it. Then she waved goodbye and entered the airport.
Warm. That’s the first word that comes to mind when Haejin enters Isela’s childhood home.
The walls are a subdued yellow-orange, filled with copies of Fernando Llort’s vibrant art: houses and flowers and birds; there are photographs of Isela and Rosibel from elementary school, their parents when they met in high school in Los Angeles, their abuelas in front of their homes in El Salvador; Isela and Rosibel’s degrees hang proudly next to the photographs, with a tiny cross above it all.
Before they’d gone inside, Isela whispered to her, “Only Ros and papi know we’re together. Everyone else––we’re just really good friends.”
As Haejin takes in the walls, the smell of food coming from the kitchen, the friends and family and other Salvadorans who’ve come from New York scattered on the couch, the floor, the table, a woman closely resembling Isela and Rosibel comes running to them.
She hugs Isela first. “What took you so long?” she turns to Rosibel. “Your abuela could get here faster than you.”
Rosibel rolls her eyes. “Mami, it’s not my fault we ran into four o’clock traffic. You can just blame Isela for picking a flight that landed in the afternoon.”
Their mother tsks, but Haejin can see she’s smiling.
“Mami, this is Haejin,” Isela gestures to her. “She’s my friend and roommate from Chicago.”
“Haejin,” her mother says the name hesitantly, a question at the end.
Haejin nods. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs––”
“Please, please, call me Alejandra.”
“Alejandra,” she smiles. “Thank you for having me.”
Alejandra waves, as if hosting yet another person in her tiny home is no burden. “Isela’s friends are always welcome. You must be hungry––come, come. Have you had pupusas?”
Haejin glances at Isela. “A few times. Isela’s made them before.”
“Abuelita won’t give me her recipe.”
Rosibel snorts. “You should know better than to ask Abuelita for her recipe.”
They follow Alejandra to the kitchen, where every inch of counter space is taken up by dishes Haejin doesn’t recognize. Her mouth immediately waters, and Isela leans close, pointing at each plate: there’s abuela’s famous pupusas (every abuela says that, Ros interjects), yuca frita con curtido, tamales de elote, empanadas (Salvis make better empanadas than anyone else), yuca con chicharrón, casamiento, panes con pollo (puchica, she didn’t make panes con pavo!).
“Ros, of course, feels like she has to comment on everything,” Isela says, reaching for a pupusa, when Alejandra slaps her hand away.
“Aie! You get one when everyone else does.” She turns to Haejin. “Do you want to try one?”
Haejin can’t help but laugh. It’s something her mother would do all the time. As soon as she thinks this, her smile disappears. Haejin met Isela a few years after her mother died, but if she’d been alive and able to meet Isela––would she react the same way Alejandra is right now? Would she fuss over Haejin and offer Isela heaping amounts of mandu and kimbop and pajeon?
Isela brushes her hand against Haejin’s, eyebrows raised. You okay? Haejin nods.
By the stove, there’s a shorter woman with Isela’s curls, though graying. She stands over the pan, while next to her, a thin man with stooped shoulders watches, hands clasped behind his back.
“Papi,” Isela whispers, and Haejin finds herself staring at their tiled floor, unable to watch the two as they embrace.
“Dios mío, there are too many people in here!” Isela’s grandmother says, but pinches both her granddaughters’ cheeks. “Did you gain weight, Isela?” She doesn’t wait for her to respond. “Everyone except Alejandra, out, out.”
“Missed you too, abuela,” Isela says, rolling her eyes but kissing her cheek before leaving.
In the living room, Isela’s father clasps Haejin’s hands. “Thank you for coming. I’m glad I could meet you, before––”
Haejin nods. “I know. Me too. Your daughter––she means a lot to me.”
He doesn’t smile or frown, but his hands grip hers tighter.
The next two hours pass in a blur of plate after plate of food, of small talk with strangers, of hidden touches underneath the table or the slightest press of knee against knee. It feels more like a celebration than the night before someone’s deportation.
“Salvis must, if nothing else, laugh during the bad times,” Rosibel says, lifting her beer to Isela’s.
“Besides,” Isela’s voice is quiet. “Papi would want to be happy on his last night here. He’s got no one else in El Salvador.”
The family breaks out the photo albums, and Alejandra starts telling everyone the story of how she met her husband, Carlos: she and her mother left El Salvador when she was four, a decade before the Civil War broke out (gracias a Dios por eso) and settled in Los Angeles, becoming citizens when she was fourteen (I still have the little American flag they gave us!). Two years later, in 1981, she met Carlos (he was bony and tried to grow a mustache, aie, how did I ever fall in love with him?) (he’s laughing because he knows it’s true)––when he was sixteen he left El Salvador by himself to escape the Civil War, crossing the border with the help of a coyote (pasmados, all of them) and made it to Los Angeles, attending the same high school she did (I helped tutor him in English, and that’s how he fell in love with me) (it’s true, it was pure guaza that she even noticed me and even luckier that she said yes when I proposed two years later).
Alejandra starts tearing up and Carlos kisses the tears away and Isela and Rosibel move in to hug their parents, their abuela patting Alejandra’s shoulder, and Haejin thinks that she should give the family some space but is also thinking that she feels overwhelmed, so she slips away quietly, going up the stairs and into Isela’s room.
She closes the door behind her, breathing heavily. She takes in the teal walls of Isela’s childhood room, the stuffed animals on the bed, the Salvadoran flag hanging above. She walks over to her nightstand and picks up a framed picture of Isela and Alejandra.
The very last time Haejin was physically with her mother, she was in New York for a conference, two years after she left home. It was January; her mother was two months out of recovery from several months’ worth of breast cancer treatments. Her grandmother had also had breast cancer; the doctor said it was lucky they started treating her when they did.
I can come to you, you know. Haejin had told her mother on the phone, before getting on her flight to New York. You don’t have to come to the city.
It’s okay, she insisted. I’ll be fine.
They met at a café in Koreatown. Her mother looked skinnier, paler, but she was smiling and her hug was just as fierce as it’d been when she first came to visit Haejin in Chicago a year after she’d left.
After they asked each other how they were and updated each other on their lives, Haejin stared at her cup of matcha, letting the drink warm her hands. How’s appa?
Good. Her mother fidgeted with her cup. He drove me here.
What? He’s here?
No, no––he just drove me. He’ll pick me up again when you have to go back to your conference.
Why did he leave? She tried to make her voice sound even, unaffected.
He said parking was expensive. Her mother paused. And he wasn’t sure you wanted to see him.
Haejin looked out the window, watching the tourists walk past. I ask about him every time we talk. You tell him that, right?
Of course. She sounded offended.
Does he even ask about me?
Of course, Haejin-ah. He prays for you every night.
Praying for me to stop liking girls?
Her mother didn’t say anything. Later, when they parted ways, she leaned into Haejin, relying on her weight a little too much, maybe. Try to understand, Haejin. Appa’s a proud and stubborn man.
Three months later, she was dead. Her mother fought back but the cancer fought back even harder. Worse yet, Haejin couldn’t even leave Chicago to go to the funeral––nearly every state was on lockdown with COVID spreading and spreading and spreading. She had to tune in through Zoom with other people her mother had known––friends and coworkers and family members in South Korea––watching the small gathering of three people standing six feet apart, watching her father, bald head bowed down, shoulders hunched, eyes empty when he read the eulogy.
Afterwards, she called him. Hi, appa, she said, gently.
I can’t believe she’s gone. I miss her.
A pause. Haejin took a breath. I miss you, appa. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. But you know, with everything…
Her father was silent for a while. Appa? she asked. Are you still there?
He made a noise of agreement. Then: You could have been here.
What? It wouldn’t have been safe for you, or for me, or––
No. You could have been here if you didn’t leave.
She gripped her phone tighter. You mean when I left two years ago?
He makes another noise.
For the first time that day, she feels something that isn’t sadness, that isn’t despair, that isn’t utter hopelessness. Well, if you hadn’t been snooping through my things and called me disgusting and looked at me as if I wasn’t your daughter and told me to leave then maybe I wouldn’t have left.
If you had been here, you could have driven her to the hospital too. I wouldn’t have been the only one.
I was working! Umma said it was fine, that I shouldn’t leave Chicago for nothing!
She was lying! She was lying!
How could I have known?
You would have known if you were here.
That’s not fair. The doctor said we were lucky, there was a low chance of it coming back, and we both believed him.
Your duty is to your parents. You should have been there to take care of her too.
That’s bullshit. This is my life. I’m sorry I wasn’t there during treatment but umma told me not to come. I bought a ticket and everything and cancelled it when she told me not to come. Don’t talk to me as if I didn’t even fucking try.
Stop telling me what to do. This is pointless. I called you because I was worried about you and because umma just fucking died. I didn’t call to get into an argument with you. I’m done fighting with you. I’m done.
And then she hung up the phone.
She felt guilty, but not guilty enough to call him later and apologize. And apparently, she thought, he didn’t either.
The most that she’s talked to him since has been in the form of their monthly check-ins: she texts annyeong and he texts annyeong back and they both know that they’re still alive.
She opens her phone: the last time he texted was a week and a half ago.
There’s a knock on the door; Haejin jumps, but it’s just Isela, who joins her on the bed. She pries the framed photo of her and her mom out of Haejin’s hands; Haejin hadn’t even realized she’d been gripping it.
“You’ve been gone for a little,” Isela says.
Haejin sighs. “Sorry. Seeing your family, it…”
“Missing your mom?” Isela puts the photo back on her nightstand.
“Every day. Some days more than others.”
Isela tucks a strand of Haejin’s hair behind her ear, then kisses her, briefly. “I know it’s hard. And I appreciate you being here with me.”
Haejin manages a smile. “Of course. Anything for you.”
“You’d do anything for me?”
“Then will you text your dad?” She gestures at Haejin’s unlocked phone, where her messages with her father are still open.
Haejin locks her phone. “You know it’s complicated, Isela.”
“Haejin, I know he’s said some hurtful things to you in the past. I know he’s still probably homophobic. But––”
“But what? Our visit isn’t supposed to be about me, it’s supposed to be about you and your dad.”
Isela closes her eyes. “Then why are you making it about you?”
Haejin startles. “That’s not fair. You don’t know how hard it is, still, even years after my mom died––”
“Haejin, Haejin.” Isela grabs her hand. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant. But I’ve tried talking to you about this before, and every time I bring it up, you’re always moving onto the next subject.”
“I don’t want to fight with you,” Haejin says, quietly.
“But you keep avoiding this conversation. Have you even considered how it makes me feel?” Isela gets up. She gestures towards Haejin’s phone. “By some stroke of luck no one ever found out your parents were undocumented and they became permanent residents and no one ever looked their way again. But despite the fact that my papi has lived here for fifty fucking years, he’s being deported tomorrow. And sure, I can talk to him over VR, but he’s sixty-six and there’s only so much technology he can handle. He’s never going to be able to come here again, not for my birthday, not for Ros’s birthday, not for his anniversary with mami. And what if I can’t visit him, Haejin? What if there’s another fucking pandemic, because you know all the scientists are saying there’s going to be more, and I can’t fly to El Salvador to see him? What if this is the last time I’ll ever get to hug him, to slap his shoulder when he makes some bad joke?”
Haejin is silent, fiddling with Isela’s blanket. “I know. I know, Isela. I know, and I’m so sorry. But it’s more complicated than that.”
“Why is it so complicated?” Isela throws her arms in the air. “Haejin, what if your dad drops dead tomorrow? Do you really want the last significant interaction between you and your father to be over the phone after your mother’s funeral? Do you really want the last text you send him to be the same ‘hi’ that you’ve sent the past eleven years?” She puts a finger to her temple, closing her eyes. “If you can’t even do this for your mom, can you at least do this for me?”
Haejin gets up, eyes on the ceiling. “I need some air. I’ll be outside.”
She shuts the door behind her, leaving Isela staring at her carpet.
Haejin sits outside on the steps, despite the insistent sound of the cicadas. She brushes off the shells with her shoes before sitting down, wincing.
She’d never been able to see the stars all that well in New Jersey, being so close to the city. But she’d at least been able to catch at least one tiny wink, perhaps mistake it for a satellite. Now, with all the light pollution, the sky isn’t even dark enough to see one tiny wink.
Light spills onto the steps; for a second she thinks it’s Isela, but when she looks up, she sees it’s Isela’s father that has joined her. He kicks some cicada shells away before sitting next to her. His face still looks sunken from his time in detention, invisible bruises scattered across his body, but he manages a small smile.
There’s a bit of an awkward pause before he clears his throat. “Are you from Chicago, Haejin?”
“I’m from New Jersey too, actually. Palisades Park. Isela and I met as grad students in Chicago.”
“Palisades Park,” he repeats, stroking the gray stubble on his face. “Lots of Koreans.”
Haejin lets out a short laugh. “Lots of Koreans.”
He looks at her. “Lots of us work for you.”
Her cheeks begin to pink. She remembers how her father would react when they’d pass the small groups of men waiting outside closed restaurants and shops, waiting for them to open so they could start their shifts, or perhaps waiting to ask about a job opening, or maybe they were escaping something Haejin and her father couldn’t see. He’d walk as far away from them as possible on the sidewalk, trying to steer Haejin along with him, though she didn’t budge, and instead she walked as close to the men as possible without invading their sense of space. That always angered him, sent him into long silences as they would walk several more blocks––how easy it was for her to do the opposite of everything he tried to make her do.
“Yes,” she finally says. “I know we’re––well, the Korean employers, they’re––I know they’re not always the nicest.”
He nods. The silence stretches between them. Haejin keeps biting her nail, trying to think of something to say, to fill the empty space. She latches onto the only commonality between them, despite the fact that she’s just fought with said commonality:
“What was Isela like growing up?”
Her father chuckles. “I’ll tell you a story. The first time these cicadas came,” he gestures to the air around them. “Do you remember that?”
She nods. Of course, she remembers.
“Isela always liked collecting bugs. She put them in jars, went to the library, and tried to match them to the pictures she saw in books.”
“Sounds like Isela,” Haejin says. When Haejin finds a bug in their apartment, she always screeches and cowers behind the couch. And Isela, without fail, cups the bug in her hands and lets it out the window, turning to Haejin and asking why she’s screaming like there’s a murderer in the room.
“Isela and Rosibel are close now, but they fought a lot when they were younger. Dios mío, the screaming at seven in the morning…” He trails off, smiling wistfully. “Isela wanted to do something with the cicada shells. There were so many––not enough for her jars. She was mad at Rosibel, because she’d lost her favorite book from the library, and she didn’t want to pay the fee…”
“So what did she do?”
“She took the cicada shells, tied them to string, and decorated Rosibel’s room while she was at soccer practice.”
Haejin’s mouth dropped. “And Rosibel?”
“The loudest screaming we heard in the house.”
“Wow,” Haejin says, and they both laugh. “Did you and Isela get along?”
He sighs, placing his elbows on his knees. “No, not always. For Lent, once, she gave up speaking to me for forty days.”
Haejin raises her eyebrows. “And did she do it all the way through?”
He shakes his head. “She lasted one day, but it was the longest day of my life.” He sighs. “I know, with VR, we can see each other every day after tomorrow…” he looks at his hands. “But I’ll never be able to touch her face again.”
They’re both silent. Until, a few beats later, Haejin asks: “Is that why you’re okay with us?”
He looks sideways at her. “Yes. I don’t agree with it. I think Isela should be with a man. But I want her to be happy––and I can’t see her happiness again, after tomorrow. Not like this.”
Haejin nods, slowly. There’s a shout from inside the house, then some raucous applause as someone turns on music she can’t quite recognize.
Isela’s father chuckles. “The night isn’t over without some cumbia sampuesana.” He stands up, stretching his arms above his head. “Will you come back inside? Talk to my daughter?”
Haejin glances at the door, at Isela’s father, at the sky. “In a little bit. Thank you, Carlos.”
He smiles, and Haejin sees Isela in him. “Thank you, Haejin.” And then he walks back inside.
Haejin pulls out her phone, scrolling through unread news notifications, emails, Twitter. She opens iMessage, staring at the screen.
She puts her phone away and notices a broken cicada wing next to her foot. Gritting her teeth, she picks it up, pinching the fragile thing between her thumb and forefinger.
The last happy memory she has of her and her father was during her first experience with the cicadas, all the way back in 2013 when she was a high school senior. While Isela was stringing cicada shells in her sister’s room, thirty minutes away, Haejin’s father was outside, looking closely at a wing.
What are you looking at that for? Haejin asked him.
He beckoned with his hand to come closer. Orange veins. Then he held up another wing. Black veins. Another. Black and orange.
Black and yellow black and yellow black and yellow, she sang under her breath, and when he gave her a quizzical look, she shook her head. Never mind.
He offered the wing. She recoiled. It won’t hurt you, he said.
But it’s so gross. She took it anyways. Black veins. The wing felt paper-thin, like a veil, a glass-stained window to look through.
She held it up in front of her father: she could still see his silhouette. He posed, throwing a peace sign. She laughed. He did the same, placing the wing in front of his eye, and she threw up two peace signs close to her cheeks.
She gave her wing back to him, and he placed both gently on the ground.
I don’t wanna be here when they’re back in seventeen years, she said.
Not even to visit me and umma?
She shrugged. You could always come to me, avoid the cicadas, too.
He bent down, looking at the wing again. Magic. Or magi?
What? she asked, puzzled.
Magic cicada. Or magi cicada?
I thought they were just regular cicadas.
He placed the wing in her palm, gently. Black and orange veins. No. They’re called magicicada.
It’s past nine o’clock and while a few guests start to trickle out, most of them are still here, outside smoking e-cigarettes or otherwise inside swapping family stories. Haejin goes inside and notices Isela on the couch, sandwiched between two younger cousins. They make eye contact; Haejin mouths Sorry. Then, I love you. Isela blinks at her, and a beat later, mouths I love you back.
Haejin slips into the hallway, away from the voices and the bodies and the laughter. She pulls out her phone, the blue light illuminating her face. She bites her lip, swiping back and forth across her home screen, then opens her conversation with her father.
She starts typing, then quickly backspaces. She clicks on the call button instead.
Leaning against the wall, she closes her eyes. On the third ring, he picks up.
She takes a deep breath.