My Better Half

When I was you

In winter’s blue

I said, “Adieu!

Let’s start anew.”

I walked across a stage that was lit like the dawn sky, beaming like the passing sun. I was in kindergarten and we all had to tell our parents in the audience what we wanted to be in the future. It was all dark before me and I forget now the full feeling of that moment—forget if I held my breath, if I could discern my parents among the silhouettes.  They were always there, even as I forget them now, in the dark. “Oh, how the parents all clapped!” my mother told me many years later as we reminisced by the empty fireplace on a cold night while the wind’s roar filled the chimney. Her eyes were warm; they glowed as she gazed at the dusty album on her lap. “Everyone said ‘I want to be a firefighter’ or ‘I want to be an astronaut’ but you—you said, ‘I want to be a doctor.’” And she smiled at the memory, at the clapping I could no longer hear. The wind subsided. I remember that lady with black lipstick bending down to shake my hand outside of the auditorium, her closed-mouth smile like a butterfly.

“You want to be a doctor, huh?”

I nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“James Han,” I said, somehow pleased by the sound. I was proud of my last name, its throaty roundness. Han—it rhymed with wan. “Good luck, James Han,” she said, and her smile opened its black wings and there were many perfect white teeth, like tombstones, within it. My father pulled me aside when she was out of earshot. “It’s James Han, not Han,” he said. It rhymed with fan. “That sounds weird,” I said. Nasal and flat. And the way he corrected me, with such stern funereal solemnity, you’d think there was more at stake. I’d learn later that there was.

***

When I was in high school I was known to all as James Han—it was always first and last together, like a two-note doorbell. “James Han!” someone would say, a classmate passing by. I remember one of my teachers saying, “I just love saying your name, James Han. I can see it on a nameplate: James Han, CEO. Or Dr. James Han.” She laughed and so did I. “What do you want to be, James Han?”

It was like an invocation, a jingle for a service. And what began as identification became identity. I became James Han. At first being him felt like clothes that’d already been broken into, something passed down. I wore it because it was something, and before then I’d felt like nothing. But by the end of high school I felt like it was trying to break into me. I no longer fit it. Only my close friends, the ones who’d gotten to know me as me and not a name, called me by my first name alone. And I didn’t have many close friends.

“James Han!” my peers would summon when they wanted me to sit beside them in class. “James Han!” they’d whisper when they wanted to copy my answers on a test. An invocation, a jingle for a service. Ding dong.

I can still hear it: “James Han!”

But now James Han, as a unit, is a measurement of distance. I’m now far away from James Han. James Han was the boy in the white hat who studied all night and watched the stars, like his dreams, be swallowed by the morning light. James Han set the curve on every test, in every class. James Han was a library creature—the library was his natural habitat. One of his “friends” actually said, after inviting him over to her house, “I can’t wait to see you outside of your natural habitat!”—which turned out to be the library. But James Han was, in fact, almost never in the library.

When the yearbook editor told him that he’d won the award for “smartest” in the senior polls he remembered what his teacher had said. A nameplate: Dr. James Han. It was eating him up inside.

***

Life changes behind your back; sometimes you only notice when you blink and the scene before you and the role you’re in are from another story. Two years ago I left James Han behind. I won’t pretend that I didn’t look back—he was there in outworn clothes on the driveway at dawn and I was in the car with my family on my way to college. I couldn’t help but watch him, as well as my whole life up to that moment, fade with distance in the rearview mirror. Soon the morning light swallowed him up, and only then did I close my eyes.

In college I changed a lot, but when I went back home for the holidays he was still there. He hadn’t changed at all. He was still sitting in my chair at the table when I walked into the kitchen to eat.

“Let’s talk about your grades,” my parents said over dinner. “You failed a class.” As if I didn’t know. I’d failed a math class, it was true, but it was because I no longer wanted what they wanted, what he wanted. It was strange. During those few weeks it felt like my family had to make room for me, for my dreams of being a writer. But there was no room for any of that, any of me. There was always room for him. “You were so passionate about being a doctor!” they said. I sighed. Not me! Him. James Han.

So for a long time after that I never wanted to go back home, but I did, of course. And the last time I did he wasn’t there. It was raining and I crossed through the door, wan like a sliver of moon. It was cold. He’d left his things behind: trophies, drawings, toys—things that were now miscellany but had meant everything back then. I smiled. I was glad for him, that we’d both moved on. And suddenly I felt warm; my cheeks glowed, I could hear food crackle on the stovetop and I listened as rain thudded on the roof and the eaves spilled over. I sensed that he was still there, after all.

And he still is. Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep I still think about him, even though I forget him more with time.

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