In CAKE TIME, Siel Ju’s protagonist has no illusions about family or perfection. She’s left that all behind long ago. She’s self-sufficient and sexy, engaging in carnal encounters with an honest matter-of-factness. She makes choices, some empowering, some that may be seen as disempowering, but whatever the case, she has the ability to shake it off and move on. A compelling excerpt and Q&A with AFLW Fiction Editor Shilpa Agarwal.
In line to pay for a turkey sandwich at my neighborhood grocery store, I heard one cashier say to another, “That should teach you the perils of pride.” She said it laughing, like it was a joke, but the other girl twisted her mouth and said, “Yeah, the perils of telling you.” Then she swiped my sandwich over the scanner and looked up at me, hard, like she expected me to speak up and show I was on her side. “I don’t need a bag,” I said.
Those were the types of exchanges I’d been having lately. The kind that didn’t involve me, but with lots of meaningful eye contact.
When I got back home, a girl I hadn’t talked to since college had emailed out of the blue. She asked, “Did you hear about Allen?” He had been crushed in a freak accident involving a crane, spent a week in a coma before they pulled the plug. Reading this, I was surprised to find myself growing darkly gleeful, surprised that my feelings about him were still strong enough to elicit this response, four years after graduation. Allen was the first guy I’d slept with in college, though I knew he had a girlfriend who went to another school. He was shy in bed but gave great full-body massages. We’d have quiet sex in his dorm room then lie awake in the cold dark, he talking about his conflicted feelings about me and his girlfriend in excited, breathless tones that were oddly infectious. Of course the affair was brief, but I’d trusted him and it ended badly, spectacularly, so that the rest of my time there I imagined everyone on campus looked at me with an aloof distaste and pity. In those years I nursed revenge fantasies about hurting him somehow, exposing him as some kind of fraud, one-upping him in some life competition. Those more or less ended when I moved back to Los Angeles, leaving behind the Pennsylvania college town and its petty, ruminative drudgeries.
“It’s scary,” my college friend wrote. “People our age are already dying.”
“So great to hear from you!” I wrote back. “How goes it in the Windy City?”
I closed my laptop and looked out the window. It was just beginning to get dark. I started dressing. My friend Erin and I were going to a cocktail mixer for professional singles in their 20s and 30s. Erin had found out about the event through a coworker in the know; to get on the list for the mixers, you had to be invited by someone already on the list. It was at Evoq, a posh newish bar in Hollywood I hadn’t been to. I put on a black scoopneck tank, a tight black pencil skirt that hit just above the knee, fishnet stockings, and red heels with pointy toes.
Erin picked me up. “Fishnets?” she said. “It’s supposed to be like an after work event.”
“I could wear this to work.”
“The skirt, maybe.” She gave my outfit another once-over. “Who wears fishnets to work?”
“The ones planning to go to mixers afterwards,” I said. “Like people are really going to show up wearing their work clothes at this thing. Watch — we’re going to be the underdressed ones there.”
Erin checked the rearview mirror a little gloomily. She had on a pinkish beige skirt suit, the pressed jacket perfectly fitted over her thin shoulders. Her blouse was a rich cream. She looked liked a kept woman, somewhat demure, almost docile. She was wearing pantyhose.
“You look great,” I said. “Expensive.” I waited until she smiled thinly. “This guy I dated in college would always freak out when I wore fishnets, said I’d die of frostbite. This was in the winter. He liked them though. He’d take them off then rub my legs warm. I heard he died recently, but not of frostbite.”
Erin crinkled her eyes, then cocked her head at me, snorted. “Dated? Or slept with?” she said.
At the mixer we headed straight to the bar, then stayed there, a good vantage point. We’d arrived on the early side; the place was just starting to fill up. Two guys that looked about our age in tailored suits came next to us in the bar to order their drinks. One was cute, with a chiseled jawline and sandy blond hair that looked professionally tousled. He seemed snobbish, held his face tilted up so he was literally looking down his nose. The other looked Jewish and nervous, driven – good on paper. He caught me studying them and smiled, introduced himself and his friend. The guys were both lawyers, first-year associates at the same firm. The nervous one, Jonah, said he went to Harvard for both undergrad and law.
“My sister went to Harvard,” I said.
“House? I don’t know.”
“Those shoes are fierce,” he said. “Do you work in the industry?”
I heard Erin snort again, then shrink into herself a little, embarrassed at the loud noise she’d made. The cute guy turned to look at her with a mild disgust, then politely rearranged his face. “I’m a writer,” I said. “At this trade magazine company.”
Jonah and I split away from our friends. We talked about restaurants and yoga. When I told him I majored in English, he went through what he read in college: lots of Nietzsche, some Edith Wharton. “I’d never have known pickles and donuts had to do with sex,” he said about Ethan Frome, then giggled. I laughed with him and he said, “It’s so great to meet someone smart here.” He squeezed my arm gamely with a sweaty hand. “Can I get you another drink?” The crowd at the bar was now three deep but he elbowed his way through, came back almost instantly holding two pinktinis, grapefruit-vodka cocktails that were the night’s $7 special. I was impressed by his uneasy determination. “Let’s sit down somewhere,” he said, and led the way to an empty booth in the back.
The booth was like a cave, darkly set apart from the rest of the bar. Even the music sounded muffled. “It’s quiet here,” I said. “Nice.”
He was a gulper, draining his drink as soon as we sat, like he was completing a prerequisite task. He said he and his friend, Brian, had gone straight from work to happy hour to here. “I actually don’t drink much usually,” he said, “if you can tell.” He looked at me with glassy eyes. I shook my head. He started talking about his law firm, began a story about a partner he didn’t like, then fluttered his hands like he was erasing the air. “Ugh, I don’t want to be one of those guys who always talks about work,” he said. His gestures turned more languid, as if his hands were moving through a viscous gel. I watched them like I would a lava lamp. “There’s this restaurant I want to take you to,” he said, slurring a little.
Suddenly he took both my hands in his and pulled me towards him. His kiss was overlong and slightly suffocating, with a beseeching quality that I found slightly endearing. Afterwards he shifted closer. We spent the night that way, pressing together inelegantly, then exchanged numbers when the event ended.
The drive back, Erin looked defeated. She said she’d wandered around for a while but no one paid attention because all the other girls were in tiny cocktail dresses. So she’d gone back to her spot at the bar. Jonah’s friend was still there, and they had a forced conversation just to occupy themselves.
“He asked me what I did for fun and I said I went to museums and galleries,” she said.
“I know. Then I said, ‘No I don’t. I don’t know why I said that.’ Then I went to the bathroom.”
For our first date Jonah took me to Hump, a high-priced sushi spot at Santa Monica Airport I’d never been to. It was a busy night and we got the last table, a round one that seated five in the middle of the restaurant, brightly lit like we were on stage.
He made a show of picking a sake from the list. He said he’d lived in Japan for six months, working, between undergrad and law school. The waiter brought big white plates, each with eight long pale strips of translucent sashimi, arranged like starbursts and topped with delicate garnishes – thin slices of jalapeno, slivers of jicama. Jonah gave me a slightly disapproving look when I mixed the wasabi with the soy sauce. “They don’t do that in Japan,” he said, then smiled forcibly to soften things.
I shrugged. “So what do they do in Japan?”
I watched his mouth move in time with his voice. He spoke quickly like he was afraid of losing my attention, punctuating his remarks with chuckles, his hand over his mouth when it was full. He seemed eager to please, which flattered me. In the short silence between sentences, a look of apprehension would creep over his face. Then he’d gulp more sake and start talking again. He said he moved here after law school just six months ago. Work could be brutal, he said. He hinted that he made a lot of money, but made clear he didn’t think it was enough. From what he described of his lifestyle he seemed wealthier than any guy I’d dated. This made me feel powerful in a passive kind of way.
Soon the sake loosened his face to a giddy droop. He ordered more. As a non sequitur he told me his grandmother would like me. I said I wasn’t close to my family, but that it didn’t worry me, I enjoyed the freedom. He looked at me quizzically. He asked me if I thought family was important. “I’m not sure what that means,” I said. “It’s not something I think about too much at this point in my life. I’m more focused on my friends, and meeting new people.” He nodded fervently.
The new sake arrived and he poured more, ordered dessert.
With the next drink what remained of his nervousness seemed to slink away. His posture sagged, though he retained his impatient quality. He gripped my arm and pulled me towards him, but he hadn’t measured the distance right and he almost pulled me off my chair. “Careful,” I said. “These seats are wobbly.”
I saw his mouth open wide as it neared my face. He was clumsy but insistent; once we started kissing it was hard to pull away. He had mentioned a girlfriend the first year of law school and I wondered if that was the last time he’d had sex. The waiter set down the green tea ice cream with a smirk.
Finally I whispered, “The dessert’s here.”
He stopped chewing my ear, quickly picked up a spoon. “They make their ice cream in house,” he said in a tone of embarrassed cheer. He tried to pour me more sake but he’d already drained the bottle. He asked for the check and paid it.
As we walked back to the car his anxiety returned full force. He was holding my hand but looked lost in thought, his expression almost angry. When he caught me looking at him, he unknitted his forehead and smiled unconvincingly. “That was fun,” he said.
In the car we fogged up the windows. The desperate quality of his need made me reticent, much more reserved than usual. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I kept putting them on his chest, pushing him away slightly. I didn’t want clothes coming off in the parking lot; I remembered how Erin had said “Dated? Or slept with,” in that resentful tone of hers. I could tell Jonah was trying not to appear too pushy but having a hard time of it. My mouth felt raw; he had this aggressive way of sucking my lip. Finally he pulled away, fell back into the driver’s seat, breathing hard. He looked at me with a mix of desire and dissatisfaction, then suddenly grabbed my hand and rubbed it against his crotch, hard, three times. He let go, waiting to see what I would do. When I moved my hand away his face contorted into a frustrated cringe. Then he recovered. He smiled, teeth gritted with a mock confidence, like this was about how far he’d expected things to go, and he respected me for it. I smiled back.
About a week later, it was my birthday. Jonah called with brief, happy wishes, made plans to take me out that weekend. I imagined what Erin’s voice would sound like when I told her about it, but instead of her usual call she sent me an ironic e-card. “Let’s celebrate the first time you cried naked in someone else’s bed,” it said. In the message section she wrote, “Champagne brunch with the girls at Lago Sunday?”
On Friday Jonah showed up with a book – a big, hardback Yoga basics book that I’d seen on the $4.99 sale table at Barnes & Noble. He handed it to me in a wrinkled gift bag that looked reused. “Thanks,” I said. “I thought about getting this book.” It had been a long while since a guy had gotten me a gift.
We went to Monsieur Marcel, an open air restaurant on a pedestrian shopping street in Santa Monica. We had trouble keeping up a conversation but pretended we were enjoying a comfortable silence. He ordered generously. He was an odd contradiction – cheap gifts, expensive meals. He drank less this time, stayed tense, but he worked hard to affect a laid-back attitude. The result was unpersuasive, but his effort warmed me to him. Waiting for the check, he slipped his hand under the table like a tentacle. My hand was on my lap and he gripped both my hand and the thigh beneath it, squeezing. “You’re good company,” he said. He smiled with an anxious flinch.
“You too,” I said. I put my other hand above his hand. “You have nice hands,” I said.
I’d already planned on sleeping with him that night, but he worked hard to talk me into going to his place, said his wine club had just sent some bottles and we could watch TiVo. Once we got in the car he turned less handsy and more officious, like he was biding his time before the big attack. He lived in a high-rise in Westwood, the kind with a valet. As we took the elevator up to the ninth floor I thought I felt a mix of excitement and dread, like I was about to take a big test I’d overprepared for.
“Study harder!” I said, when he opened the door. I was reading aloud his laptop screensaver’s scrolling green text.
He cringed. “I haven’t changed it since law school,” he said.
He showed me a bottle of Sangiovese, holding it at an angle like a sommelier, then looked up to see my expression. I raised my eyebrows and murmured something vaguely complimentary. He poured the wine into tall glasses without rinsing out the dust.
We started watching an episode of 24. I’d never seen the show before and couldn’t follow the plot. Keifer Sutherland was sweating while driving an SUV. “He developed an addiction while undercover,” Jonah said, then put his arm around my shoulders like this revelation brought us closer.
“So he’s the good guy,” I said.
“More or less,” he said, then, “Yes.”
I slipped my shoes off and pulled up my knees, leaned my legs over his lap. His apartment took on a stage-like quality, where none of the actions seemed real. At the first commercial, he turned his head and covered my mouth in his suffocating way.
For a while I tried mirroring his enthusiasm, hands and mouth moving in grabby circles that seemed apologetic, then angry and demanding. Occasionally I could feel my desire shift inside me, but only in an abstract, underwater way.
He suddenly pulled back. “I have to go in to work tomorrow.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
His lips curled up in a quiet, satisfied manner. He quickly restraigtened them, then smiled with teeth. I smiled back. He pulled me into him. I turned my head so his mouth moved onto my cheek, my neck. His lips felt soggy and glutinous.
He pulled me down to the floor, into the space between the couch and the coffee table. It was a really narrow space, with the glass edge of the coffee table partially above us. It reminded me of being on Allen’s top bunk bed, so close to the ceiling we’d had to move cautiously. With Allen’s body over mine I’d had the sensation of being boxed in and pinned down, vulnerable under his cool, shy hands. Allen was always timid to start, but unstoppable after that. The first time we slept together he kept thrusting after he came, so the condom rolled off and lodged inside me in a coil. He was gentle as he reached his fingers in to drag it out, apologizing. Maybe he liked that moment of tenderness. Maybe that’s what I liked too, the collusion, cleaning up the small, organized mess of planned mistakes.
Jonah’s ad-hoc floor space was even tighter. With much effort he managed to unbutton my shirt and take it off, first lifting one shoulder and twisting out an arm, then the other. I could barely move, only shift a little. At first my inertness seemed to make him self-conscious, but then he took to it, asserting his will without preamble or apology. He bit my breasts, gently at first, and then with aggression. He clawed down my stomach, then started fiddling with the clasp to my pants. He had trouble with it but didn’t seem to want help, wanted to show me he could figure it out. He wriggled uncomfortably, rubbing his erection against me. He tried pulling at my pants again, and this time, hit his funny bone on the coffee table with a loud bang.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“That hurt.” His voice was small and angry.
“Do you want to stop?”
“If you want to.” He seemed to be seething, even bared his teeth. Then he turned up the corners of his mouth to mimic a sad smile.
I sat up. “Well,” I said. “Since you’re working tomorrow.”
He watched me button my shirt.
“I guess I should get home,” I said.
He flinched, then his manners came back. “It’s still early,” he said, “if you want to hang out for a bit.”
I got up, then plopped down heavily on the couch. My limbs felt heavy and lax, like they preferred their previous catatonic state. “Okay,” I said. I stifled a yawn. “I’ve been really lethargic lately for some reason. It isn’t you.” I let my head fall back so I was looking up at the ceiling. “Actually I found out someone I knew from college died. Someone I dated. It wasn’t serious but it was intense, for a little bit. Physically intense. I mean, it was someone I used to sleep with.”
He was quiet and I couldn’t see his expression. I heard him lift himself up to the couch. There was a long pause.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he said.
“No,” I said. “Not at all. I don’t know why I brought it up. I barely knew him and it wasn’t a big deal. But thanks.”
24 was still playing. We watched without interest. Jonah started rubbing my neck and shoulders, awkwardly, his arm crooked in a weird angle against the back of the couch. I turned to make it easier, and he pulled me against him so my back was against his chest, our heads turned to the right to face the screen. He eased his hands down to my stomach, then swirled them around in small, massaging circles. The circles slowly grew bigger, until his hands were grazing the bottom part of my breasts, then eventually brushing over my nipples, surreptitiously, like he was hoping I wouldn’t notice and stop him.
Finally I said, “Should we go to your bedroom?”
“If you want to,” he said quickly.
His bed looked like it had just been made. I eased my shoes off and lay down. I realized I was tired; I felt my body fall for what seemed like miles. I closed my eyes. In a minute he started to touch me, but I stayed still, which felt interesting, almost pleasurable. When I opened my eyes again he gave me a look of confusion and veiled repugnance. At that I mustered up my strength and sat up, took my clothes off like a Band-Aid before sinking back again. I watched him undress hurriedly, trying to shield his middle; he wasn’t overweight, but a little soft. He covered my body with his. He rolled around on top of me grabbing and sucking parts of my body, at times self-consciously, at times more heatedly. I veered between feeling guilty for not being more involved, and feeling entertained with a sort of cruel mirth. Occasionally, I wanted to laugh out loud. He seemed to be really exerting himself, working hard for a reaction.
He touched me between my legs. “Should I get a condom,” he said. His face had a somewhat grim, expectant look.
“Okay,” I said.
He sat turned away from me to put on the condom, then hurriedly flipped on top of me, hiding himself. He fucked me in a furtive, discomfited sort of way, not meeting my eyes – quick, strained thrusts, then a suppressed grunt when he came. It was over quickly.
Afterwards, he immediately snapped up and near-ran to the bathroom to throw the condom in the trash. When he came back, he had on boxers and a look of self-loathing.
“Hey,” I said.
We settled into bed, but I could tell he wanted me to leave. I stayed naked, my head on the pillow with the comforter up to my waist, and that seemed to make him uncomfortable. He offered me a T-shirt but I declined because I didn’t want to bother sitting up to put it on. He sat upright a foot away from me, and when he talked he stared hard at my face, his eyes tense and fixed away from my breasts. After a few minutes he said he needed to check his email for work, and I said “mm-hmm” and blinked softly, like I was falling asleep. He turned out the light and left the room.
I too wished I was in my own bed, but the effort to dress myself and drive home felt too great. I wondered why we’d forcibly put ourselves through the trouble of sleeping with each other, like we were both trying to prove something about ourselves. I tried to remember why I’d slept with Allen, but the feelings I could recall were too filled with the angst of the relationship’s ending. I couldn’t remember any of the exact words Allen had said, just the tones of his voice – warm and shy and bewildered at the beginning, hard and unforgiving at the end. What I recalled more clearly were the fantasies I indulged in after it all ended – both the sweet drama of painful reconciliation and the violent red crush of his head under my heel.
I stretched out in shavasana pose and breathed deeply to induce sleep. Through the door I heard Jonah’s voice on the phone. He said something that sounded like “obdurate fish.” I thought he was insulting me, but I must have misheard, because then I heard him say, “It’s part of the Robertson case.” He sounded cold and cynical, like a man in the know.
Siel Ju in Conversation With Shilpa Agarwal
Shilpa Agarwal: The book has a voyeuristic feel; you invite us into very intimate moments, and you don’t sugarcoat them. You write, “I started really watching him, hard. And as I bore my eyes into him, I could sense a shift in him, too … I was frightening him.” Sexual encounters fade into a parody of themselves. Characters shift under the unflinching gaze of the protagonist, who misses nothing. Would you say this is the point of view of the book?
Siel Ju: I love this question — it really points to the voyeuristic experience of reading for me, this desire as a reader to watch the characters go through the experiences of a story and feel a part of that experience by proxy. It makes me wonder if living is all that different from reading, especially when both modes can evoke the exact same thoughts and emotions.
SA: The protagonist fluctuates from being in cruel relationships, such as when she’s someone’s “fuck buddy,” to calling the shots: “We settled into bed, but I could tell he wanted me to leave. I stayed naked, my head on the pillow with the comforter up to my waist, and that seemed to make him uncomfortable … He sat upright a foot away from me, and when he talked he stared hard at my face, his eyes tense and fixed away from my breasts.” Do you see her as disempowered or empowered? Why?
SJ: This was a question I was trying to elicit through this book — the difficulty of figuring out whether you’re making empowered or disempowering decisions when you go about doing the things you do as a woman in this day and time. It’s a difficult question to answer for me, because I don’t know that there’s an ultimate answer. So much seems to depend on how you choose to see yourself and interpret your actions — meaning if you see yourself as empowered, you’re likely to interpret the choices you make as empowering, and vice versa, even if in both instances you’re doing the same thing.
SA: The protagonist taps into a male violence and anger that seems to exist just under the surface of sexual encounters. You write, “His manner changed. He turned so I was beneath him on the couch. He was simulating a sudden passion but I could feel a violence beneath it. Suddenly, I could taste his teeth. His body seemed bonier, pressing down on me like a dull weapon. He shoved his hands down my pants. His fingers felt cold and severe … I found myself growing afraid.” The protagonist, in general, affects a certain nonchalant attitude with the men she meets, who seem to constantly disappoint or hurt her. Is this her defense against male anger? Does it work?
SJ: I don’t know that I would call it a defense, necessarily, and I’m not sure that I’m trying to say anything specifically about men or women. I think one thing I was trying to get across is the sense of casual impermanence that tends to imbue urban relationships. It’s easy to see people as disposable or treat them badly because you don’t have to fear seeing them again, and you can always meet other people you imagine might be “better.” In CAKE TIME, it’s true that the protagonist is at times treated callously by men — but she’s also pretty judgmental and cruel and detached herself, too.
SA:CAKE TIME is subtitled “a novel-in-stories.” Can you speak to the overarching theme of the book? What would you say is the protagonist’s journey? Is there one story that stands out as a transformative moment?
SJ: I think one overarching theme might be this sense that the things we think we most desire are nebulous and hard to define — and because of that, difficult if not impossible to find. To me, it’s unclear what the protagonist really wants — but the sense that she hasn’t gotten it is palpable, I hope. Perhaps there’s a moment in the last story that this sense of desire’s always, necessarily elusive quality is apparent to the narrator. But this book doesn’t really tell the story of a transformative journey, in my view. At least I hope it doesn’t!
SA: You write about “the father who’d disappeared when I was seven,” and “the dank, cramped walk-up apartment in Koreatown you lived in with your sister and your mom, who was never around, and who, when she was, you wished she wasn’t.” This difficult past, and the protagonist’s Koreanness don’t seem to infiltrate her sense of identity in the present. Is this part of her “no-nonsense exterior,” or is something else going on?
SJ: Well, the two lines you quoted above are pretty much the only lines that really refer to the protagonist’s ethnicity, and they do happen to fall early in the book. I guess the short answer is that I didn’t want to write yet another book about the typical immigrant Asian-American experience. Those have been written before, and though I love some of these books and am very glad they’re in the world, they generally seem far from my own lived reality as a Korean-American.
Living in L.A. in 2017, I don’t go around thinking about my Koreanness all the time, though of course there are of course times when I do think about it, and, inevitably, moments when I’m reminded of it by the interactions I have. Which is to say, in my day-to-day life, I’m mostly thinking about things other than my ethnicity. I think that’s true of many people, regardless of their ethnicity. I wanted my book to reflect that.
SA: You’re not just an author, you’ve been a blogger since the early days of blogging, first with an environmental blog and now with a literary blog. Can you tell us more about it?
The environmental blogging I did feels like it was in another life, but I’ve really been enjoying blogging about literary Los Angeles. I’m trying to create the kind of resource I would’ve wanted when I was just starting to write!
In a sprawling city like Los Angeles, it’s actually pretty tough for a newbie to even find out about reading series, let alone find the courage to go to these things by herself if she feels she’ll be the one outsider trying to crash a cliquey party.
Plus, the blog is a chance for me to promote all the amazing things friends and acquaintances are doing. I feel there are many, many people in L.A. who want to go to the smaller, homier literary events than actually go (either because they don’t know about them or are afraid of putting themselves out there at an event where they don’t know what the vibe will be like), and there are many, many events in L.A. that seek a bigger audience. With the blog, I’m trying to play matchmaker, in a way.
On a more personal level, I do think we all as writers need encouragement — and being part of a community can feed us with encouragement. So much of writing can be frustrating and lonely and there’s endless rejection and failure in the process. I think many writers give up because they don’t have the support they need to continue on. The blog seeks to remedy that to some degree. To that end, I’ve put together a free eBook, A Guide to Literary Los Angeles. Anyone who wants it can download it at sielju.com.
Siel Ju is the author of the novel-in-stories, CAKE TIME, winner of the 2015 Red Hen Press Fiction Manuscript Award. She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks. Her stories and poems appear in ZYZZYVA, The Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), The Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly and other places. She gives away a book every month at sielju.com.