Andrew Pak went about town minding his own business, usually with his hands clamped into gentle fists in his pockets. If he didn’t have pockets, he made sure to keep something in his hands. He didn’t like feeling like he had nothing to do or look forward to almost as much as he didn’t like feeling bare. One could perhaps see in Andrew’s hands a thin stack of notes from the radio observatory or his puffy green jacket draped over his arm because his part of Arizona did, in fact, get cold. If he had nothing to carry with him, he made an effort to appear natural in the sway of his arms. He had his days when he made a point of not glancing around for fear of catching another person’s eye. He’d look up only occasionally to make sure his path was clear or for a simple appreciation of how the coral wooden door of Hal’s Used Books juxtaposed nicely with the green and white striped awning of Rita’s Coffee right next door, for he liked to admire this trendy section of downtown. Otherwise, his focus was downward.
His brown Doc Marten Oxfords were scuffed and beaten after years of wear. He loved the sensation they offered when coupled with his black socks that were neither too thin nor too thick but just right. The shoes, after being accustomed to wear, contained a perpetual warmth Andrew reveled in. With the socks, his feet were blissfully snug, and on a cold day like today, he thought fleetingly he’d never get rid of the shoes and would therefore never have to miss the familiar comfort inherent in worn articles of clothing. It was a simple pleasure, the fit of his shoes, but Andrew could appreciate simple.
Simple was a part of his life in many ways. He was an astronomer—while perhaps not a common job, his work was simple enough, at least to him. He spent the bulk of his time at the observatory tracking black holes by the shifts of star alignments while the others, in addition to their work, talked freely and threw onion rings at each other. Even after years among them, Andrew had never found common ground with them—beside their passion for the cosmos—nor had he ever sought to find common ground. His default pose was reclining in the squeaky rolly chair, fingers entwined on his soft belly, ears clamped over with bulky headphones that transmitted atmospheric noise indicating the explosion of a supernova. It was a rare day when things were out of the ordinary. When he came home to a quiet apartment, sweaters and shoes littering the carpet, he usually opted to read rather than watch TV. He lounged upon the couch with his book in one hand and dinner on his lap. Sometimes he cooked, sometimes he ordered take-out or had microwave dinners. There were days when he didn’t have much of an appetite and only had a doughnut or snack of a similar size to sate his hunger. There were no trips to sites unseen, no parties to attend, no romantic encounters to fill his days. He was immersed in routine with no end in sight. He went to bed around 11 and woke up after hitting the snooze button at least twice. He liked to have the morning news on while he got ready for the day.
Some days, apart from the obligatory greeting to his colleagues, he didn’t communicate with anyone. There were some days when he didn’t use his voice at all except to talk to himself. The main character of that show who made a bad move, the driver who cut him off, the next item on his itinerary: all were good topics for self-conversation. His father, the only family around, didn’t call so much anymore. Jihoon Pak, who went by Jim, lived across town and was in declining health. He refused to go to the hospital or be sent to the nursing home, no matter how much Andrew urged him. He refused even to live with his son, insisting he needed space to revive his spirits. Their differing opinions led to many arguments. Jim would accuse Andrew of trying to get rid of him by sending him to a nursing home, and after hearing Andrew’s rebuttals of offering to either move back home or for him to move into the apartment, he’d then accuse his son of wanting the financial aid. “You only want my money,” he’d say. Andrew sincerely hoped he hadn’t inherited his father’s foolish stubbornness and pride if it cost him his health.
Hands in his pockets, Andrew walked along the shops and business of downtown. His steps slowed when he reached the bookstore and his breath faltered. Through the window he could see her. The glare on the window cast a blind spot on much of her body, but her face he could see clearly. He didn’t know anything about makeup but it seemed to him she never wore much. Her dark brown hair was tied back in a loose braid. He watched as she handed a plastic bag of books to the customer and smiled politely. Because the employees didn’t have nametags, he didn’t know her name and resigned to the fact he never would due to his inability to hold a conversation with pretty girls outside of business or professional interactions. The only time he ever exchanged words with the girl was when she greeted him into the store and occasionally made a comment about his selection.
“Oh, I’ve heard a lot about this one. Guess it’s popular, huh?” she once asked as she flipped a sci-fi novel to the back cover before typing in the price.
Andrew settled for coming to the bookstore every couple of weeks in hopes of seeing her; every week was too much. He’d buy a book if it really caught his attention but sometimes he’d leave empty-handed. On the days he came in and she wasn’t working, he pretended to browse for several minutes, mentally scolding himself for resorting to such tactics just to see a girl. Once he was done rolling his eyes at himself, he figured a trip to the bookstore should never be wasted and browsed the selection in earnest.
She wasn’t overdone in any way and he appreciated that. How old is she, he would think. She couldn’t be older than twenty-five, but then again, he’d never been good at guessing ages.
He’d come to a full stop in front of the large window and was only vaguely aware he might’ve looked odd standing there. He allowed himself to linger a short while longer before moving back into the flow of traffic. He wouldn’t go inside; he’d already been last week.
Following an afternoon of going in and out of shops without aim, Andrew returned home, changed into sweatpants and turned on his TV to the news. Lowering the volume, he sat back on the couch and flipped the pages of his book till he landed at his current place. Beyond the background noise of the TV, he could hear chatter and laughter in the hall outside his door. A male and two females. From the sounds of it, they were getting ready to go water rafting. They had everything loaded up in the car and were going to pick up more of their group. Andrew imagined himself walking out his door at that very moment, coming face to face with the people he presumed to be his age in the hall and having everyone fall silent as they took in his sweatpants while he discreetly took in their athletic gear.
Andrew didn’t have friends. He was the kind of person people would be willing to invite to their circle of conversation because they knew it would last only a short while. He was too reserved for anyone to make the effort of genuinely attempting friendship; likewise, he was too reserved to make the effort himself. Still, a deep part of him knew the truth: he craved companionship. A friend, a lover, anyone about whom he could say the feeling was mutual. He sometimes felt a deep yearning for the sort of experiences one can have only among friends or significant others—mutual understanding, easy laughter, freedom to say whatever comes to mind. Other times, he rationalized people were allowed to experience life differently. He figured he was adding a little variety to the world in this way. But those times of rationalization were sparse.
Andrew continued reading but soon lost focus and, consequently, tossed the book to the side and turned up the volume on his TV.
The following week passed as it typically would—when he wasn’t sleeping, Andrew spent most of his hours at the observatory. There was one day when he almost forgot to pay his internet and cable bills, but that was quickly taken care of by depositing the envelope in the large blue public mailbox downtown. It was out of his way to work, but that was no matter—he wasn’t comfortable with placing checks in his personal mailbox.
When the weekend came, Andrew was found downtown, for the time came to visit Hal’s Used Books once again. He walked into the shop as casually as he could, already having seen the girl through the window before he entered. He avoided eye contact and disappeared between the aisles of bookcases with suppressed haste as another employee greeted him. His cheeks were already burning by the time he came to a stop; he only hoped he wouldn’t seem so flustered in front of her later. He spent the next fifteen minutes browsing before he came across a nonfiction book about the theory of time travel. He slowly went to the register, glancing at the girl once. He put the book on the counter as she asked, “Ready to check out?” He nodded.
“Interesting choice,” she said.
He met her eyes briefly. His voice was stuck in his throat.
“You know much about this stuff?” she asked with a sly half-smile, as if she knew how fast his heart was pounding. “That’s $3.75.”
“Y-yeah,” he said, feeling around for his wallet. He handed her the money and cleared his throat. “I’m an astronomer, so…” He shrugged.
“No way,” she said with wide eyes. “Hey, that’s really cool.” She handed him his change. “Need a bag?”
He shook his head and answered quietly, “No. I’m fine, thank you.” He grabbed the book.
“Ok, have a good day. See you the next time you visit us.” She smiled good-naturedly.
He mumbled his thanks and left quickly, unaware of his surroundings. He didn’t know why he was surprised she noticed he came in quite often; he supposed he was embarrassed for not being as indiscreet as he’d hoped. But for all she knew, he was just another customer who liked to buy used books and not a man who’d only had one kiss in his twenty-nine years and who admired her from afar. Andrew kept this in mind as he left for home.
The next day, he stood on his father’s porch. The door swung open to reveal a man nearing seventy, with thinning, faded black and white hair and weathered olive skin. He shuffled to the side to let Andrew past. Jim Pak had phoned Andrew the previous evening requesting he come over the next day. They hadn’t seen each other in over a month. The phone call began with Andrew answering, “Hello?” and Jim saying his son’s name. Their calls often started this way. Jim would say Andrew’s name and stop there, as if waiting for confirmation it was in fact Andrew on the other end. Andrew would sigh and say, “Yes?” in a tone meant to convey his irritation. He wished his father would just get on with it.
After he took in the vases of fake flowers and the excessive number of framed photos in his childhood home, Andrew took a seat on the sofa.
“Are you good?” Jim asked as he crossed to the kitchen.
“Uh-huh.” Andrew heard the refrigerator door open and close.
Jim reappeared with a bottled water, which he handed to Andrew before settling into the armchair diagonally across from him. The lulls in their exchange were noticeable before they lapsed into conversation about Andrew’s work, how Jim filled his days—he gardened and did crossword puzzles, calling Andrew once in a while for answers—and whether Andrew was saving up enough money to buy his own place.
“I’m trying, dad. But it’s not gonna happen any time soon.”
“You need your own place, Andrew. You cannot rent forever. And what about a woman? You think you get married?”
“That’s fine. You still young anyway. And you too shy. I never see you talk to girl.”
“Well, it’s not like you’re with me all the time.”
“What, you talk to girl right now?” Jim laughed. “What her name?”
“There’s no girl. I don’t—I don’t even know her name.” Andrew focused on tearing off the label of the bottled water. Jim laughed again, but with a cough and a wheeze. Andrew looked at him. “You should go to the doctor.”
Jim shook his head vehemently. “No. They only try cheat you.” He coughed into his hand. “What’s wrong with you, Andrew? You not happy.”
Andrew wondered at his father’s perceptiveness. “What do you mean? I’m fine.”
“No, you not happy,” Jim insisted. “Why? You have job you always want, you pretty handsome guy. Because no girlfriend, that’s why you unhappy?”
“It’s not that,” Andrew said, damning it all to hell that he was admitting he was unhappy in some way. Had his father not been the only one of any personal significance in his life, he would have shied away from divulging any existential crises; but even then, with his father truly being the only one of any personal significance—even with how little they talked nowadays—Andrew was embarrassed to reveal any shortcomings on his part. Things like companionship and adventure and variety, he feared his father would dismiss as being such Western notions, just disguised needs for constant societal approval and fear of commitment and security. But Andrew did not know his father so well to know that while Jim could appreciate such desires, he valued first and foremost a person’s individuality, the right to be himself. Andrew did not know this.
“Let me tell you, Andrew,” Jim said. He looked his son in the eye. “Be your own man. Make yourself happy. Then maybe you make someone else happy.”
That was all they said on the subject. Andrew left after some benign conversation and a subtle pat on the back from his father as he stepped out the door. He could hear the coughing after the door had shut.
Andrew was a sensible man, but he was not so much a wise one. Two weeks later he visited Hal’s Used Books again. She wasn’t there. He broke his pattern and came back only a week later, and she was there. She was in the middle of ringing him up when he saw the ring on her finger. She noticed his attention.
“Pretty, isn’t it? My boyfriend proposed.” She smiled and his heart pounded. She was taken. Unattainable. But didn’t everything else he wanted seem that way?
“Thank you,” she said with a slight bow to her head as if he’d just done her a grave favor.
He wanted to rip the ring off her finger. He wanted to put a hole through the wall. He took his book and left. He was going down the hall outside his apartment when he heard one of the voices from weeks before, one of the people going rafting, coming down the steps from the floor above him. The man with sandy blond hair spoke on the phone as his flip-flops slapped against the wood. His and Andrew’s paths crossed. The man nodded at Andrew in passing before continuing to the steps leading to the ground floor, and Andrew was only reminded further of his inadequacy. After moments of hesitation, Andrew turned and left his apartment complex.
He drove until the temples at the sides of his head threatened to close in on him. He drove until he made it to the cold and arid desert. He drove until the front bumper of his car was feet away from the edge of the cliff that imitated rust. And he stopped short. The windows were down—the air was cold against his skin. He punched his steering wheel. The night was quiet.
He returned home the next morning and called off work, his first voluntary day off for a year. In the middle of the day, he answered a call from a number he didn’t recognize. “We’re very sorry for your loss,” they’d said. The next-door neighbor—Ella, the old lady who also liked to garden—had found him in his bed after he didn’t come out at the usual time to weed his plants.
Andrew was truly alone now. He considered returning to the cliff and contemplating the stars forever, on his own. But instead he waited until his lease was up and bought a smaller place closer to the observatory. In this way, he quietly reveled in his solitude with as much dignity as he could. The stars had always been his companions in a subtle, tacit way. They were dignified and regal, distant and celestial. Though they were light-years away, to the naked, untrained eye, they seemed to be doing fine on their own.