CHAPTER 6: OLIVIA
Audrey and I became inseparable after meeting in Professor Adam’s writing class our freshman year at the University of Iowa. I’d confessed later that I’d never had an Asian friend before. Audrey had laughed, “Then you’ve got one up on me--I’ve never had an Asian friend either.”
Audrey’s parents are first-generation Korean-Americans who own a foreign candy company in a small town near to the university. They let us raid the candy store every other weekend for strawberry bonbons and green tea KitKats--giving us plastic shopping bags full of sugary goodies to take back to school while issuing warnings to not “get fat”.
How Mr. and Mrs. Cho decided on Iowa as their home away from Korea, Audrey still didn’t understand. “It’s like they thought to themselves, what is the most homogenous place in the United States? Yes! Iowa! Let’s go there!”
As much as she resented the awkwardness of being the only Asian girl in her class growing-up, Audrey said she loved her hometown and allowed that small-town America probably had a big hand in shaping her into the vocal, overly-opinionated and confident person she’d become.
When my college friends told stories about their youth and all the trouble they got into as kids, I loved to listen. It fascinated me that they snuck out windows and trapped kid brothers in basements, that neighborhood lawn ornaments were stolen only to be traded like shares on the stock market, that sneaking into college frat parties was what they did in high school.
What alternate universe had my friends come from where rules were made to be broken, only to later become raucous stories told over too many beers and margaritas? It irked me to no end that I loved to tell stories so much but had so few of my own to share. I wondered what my childhood might have been like with a friend like Audrey by my side.
Beginning the summer before fifth grade, my dad began depositing me in Tomahawk Hill with my grandparents for three months, his mind already on the summer getaway he’d booked with mom. They started renting a beach house in Florida with their teacher friends every summer after that one, calling me once a week to check-in. I’d always assumed my parents would get to know me better when I was an adult. As a kid, I wasn’t much fun for them and I accepted that.
As far as I can tell, having grandparents to talk to and play with instead of parents hasn’t damaged me much. Besides, I loved summers in Tomahawk Hill. Its rolling bluffs and wide-open spaces filled my heart, warmed my bare feet, and fueled my imagination.
When I wasn’t busy following my grandfather around town on business, I was hanging out with my grandmother at the bridge table or helping her pull weeds in her flower garden. I spent two weeks of every summer at a local equine camp run by a much younger Sam (a mustache not yet gone gray), where I learned to clean stalls, groom horses and fell in love with riding.
The camp closed years ago while I was still in high school, but Sam still keeps a few horses so he can give private riding lessons throughout the year to kids from Tomahawk Hill as well as neighboring towns.
By fifteen, I was working at my grandfather’s diner off Main Street, serving up hamburgers and old-fashioned malts, getting initiated into all the local gossip. I got a pretty comprehensive education about people. That’s also the summer I began to see the fuller picture regarding my grandparents’ standing within the community. There was a lot I didn't understand back then, but I got the gist. My grandparents continually pushed for change and growth, but the planning and economic growth directors consistently pushed against the kinds of projects my grandfather proposed. Sure, they’d won battles, but the victories were small in the length of years they’d fought them.
At my grandfather’s funeral, neither director met my eyes; their mumbled condolences devoid of any comfort because their words were soaked in regret. I’d glared at the tops of their balding heads until they’d shuffled past. Even now, a full year after my grandfather’s death, the thought of returning to Tomahawk Hill and facing any of the folks there twisted my insides into knots.
No. I wouldn’t be back. And if this crazy idea of Audrey’s to give my grandfather’s projects new life didn’t work, I would convince my grandmother to leave that-- doomed for extinction of a town-- and into a sunny future in LA, with me.