Chapter no 6

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

When we first meet Ichigo in a cutscene at the beginning of Ichigo: A Child of the Sea, they—for Sadie and Sam conceived of Ichigo as having no gender—are a small child who knows few words and cannot read. Ichigo is sitting on the beach, by their parents’ modest seaside house, in what looks like a remote fishing village. They have a shiny black bowl haircut of the kind that an Asian child of any gender might have, and they are wearing only their favorite sports jersey (number 15), which goes to their knees like a dress, and wooden flip-flops. Ichigo is playing with a small bucket and a shovel when the tsunami hits.

Ichigo is swept out to sea, and that is where the game begins. With a limited vocabulary, their only tools that bucket and shovel, Ichigo must find their way home.

A bromide about the creative process is that an artist’s first idea is usually the best one. Ichigo was not Sam and Sadie’s first idea. It was, perhaps, their thousandth.

Herein, the difficulty. Sam and Sadie both knew what they liked in a game, and they could easily tell a good game from a bad game. For Sadie, that knowledge was not necessarily helpful. Her time with Dov and her years studying games in general had made her critical of everything. She could tell you exactly what was wrong with any game, but she didn’t necessarily know how to make a great game herself. There is a time for any fledgling artist where one’s taste exceeds one’s abilities. The only way to get through this period is to make things anyway. And it is possible that, without Sam (or someone like him) pushing her through this period, Sadie might not have become the game designer she became. She might not have become a designer at all.

Sadie knew she didn’t want to make a shooter, though, again, that was what tended to be popular. (She would never want to make a shooter—she, Dov’s student to her core, found them disgusting, immoral, and the disease of an immature society; Sam, for his part, enjoyed shooters.) And, in a summer, with only a team of two, there were limitations to what she felt they could accomplish. They weren’t trying to go for consoles, and they didn’t have the resources to make a fully 3D action game like an N64-era Zelda or a Mario anyway. The game would be for PC, and it would be 2D or 2½D, if she could swing it. For a long time, that was the extent of what she knew about their game.

In the weeks leading up to the end of the school year, Sadie and Sam brainstormed a long list of ideas on a whiteboard that Sam had stolen from the Science Center. Even with his bad foot, Sam was an accomplished thief, and he enjoyed a petty theft from time to time. He had walked into the Science Center for a goodbye meeting with Larsson. On the way out, he had seen the whiteboard unattended in a hallway, and he rolled it right out of the building, and then kept rolling it—across Harvard Yard, waving at a tour of prospective students as he passed, through Harvard Square, straight down Kennedy Street, and right up into the elevator of their building. The key to being a good thief, Sam always felt, was utter brazenness. Later in the week, he stole a pack of multicolor dry-erase markers from the Harvard Coop. He slipped them into the enormous pocket of the enormous coat that Marx had given him, and he walked right out the door.

For a long time, nothing they wrote on the whiteboard felt essential to them. They might have never made a game before. Their office might be in Sam’s rich roommate’s apartment, but they were young enough to believe that whatever they made, it could very well become a classic. As Sam often said to Sadie, “Why make anything if you don’t believe it could be great?”

It is worth noting that greatness for Sam and Sadie meant different things. To oversimplify: For Sam, greatness meant popular. For Sadie, art.

By May, with Sam’s purloined dry-erase markers already squeaky and parched, Sadie was worried that they would never settle on an idea, and that

they’d run out of time to make the game. From her point of view, they were already on an incredibly, indeed impossibly, tight schedule.

They stood in front of the whiteboard, which was covered with their rainbow of brainstorms. “There’s something here, I know it,” Sam said.

“What if there’s not?” Sadie said.

“Then we’ll come up with something else,” Sam said. He grinned at Sadie.

“You have no right to be this happy,” Sadie said.

While Sadie experienced this period of indecision as stressful, Sam didn’t feel that way at all. The best part of this moment, he thought, is that everything is still possible. But then, Sam could feel that way. Sam was a decent artist and he would come to be a decent programmer and level designer, but remember, he had never made a single game before. It was Sadie who knew what it took to make a game—even a bad game—and it was Sadie who would do most of the heavy lifting when it came to the programming, the engine building, and everything else.

Sam was not a physically affectionate person—something to do with having been touched too much during his years in the hospital. But he took Sadie’s shoulders in his hands—she was a full inch taller than him—and he looked into her eyes. “Sadie,” he said. “Do you know why I want to make a game?”

“Of course. Because you foolishly think it will make you rich and famous.”

“No. It’s very simple. I want to make something that will make people happy.”

“That seems trite,” Sadie remarked.

“I don’t think it is. Do you remember when we were kids, and how much fun it used to be to spend the whole afternoon in some game world?”

“Of course,” Sadie said.

“Sometimes, I would be in so much pain. The only thing that kept me from wanting to die was the fact that I could leave my body and be in a body that worked perfectly for a while—better than perfectly, actually— with a set of problems that were not my own.”

“You couldn’t land at the top of a pole, but Mario could.”

“Exactly. I could save the princess, even when I could barely get out of bed. So, I do want to be rich and famous. I am, as you know, a bottomless pit of ambition and need. But I also want to make something sweet. Something kids like us would have wanted to play to forget their troubles for a while.”

Sadie was moved by Sam’s words—in the years she had known him, he so rarely mentioned his own pain. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

“Good,” Sam said, as if they had settled something. “We should leave for the theater now.”

They were taking the night off to go see Marx in a student production of Twelfth Night at the mainstage of the American Repertory Theater. It was something of a big deal to be cast in the mainstage show. Since Marx was lending them the apartment for the summer, Sam had thought it would be a good idea for both of them to go.

Without knowing why, Sam had tried to keep Sadie and Marx apart. It wasn’t about either of them as individuals. But Sam could be private, verging on paranoid, and he liked to control the flow of information. He feared them comparing notes and somehow ganging up on him. There was another secret part of him that feared they would prefer each other to him— everyone, in Sam’s estimation, loved Sadie and Marx. No one, Sam felt, had ever loved him except those who had been obligated to love him: his mother (before she had died), his grandparents, Sadie (disputed hospital volunteer), Marx (his assigned roommate). But now, with Marx lending them the apartment, Sadie and Marx would inevitably know each other. Marx, who was playing the lead role of Orsino, had suggested that Sam bring Sadie to the show, and then they could all have dinner at the Charles Hotel afterward, with Marx’s dad, who was in town to see the play. “She’s moving in next week,” Marx said. “I’d like to break bread with her before I leave.” Marx was planning to spend the greater part of the summer interning for an investment banking firm in London.

Although Marx participated in college theater for three of his four years, he did not want to be an actor. He had the looks of an actor—six feet

tall, wide shoulders, slim waist and hips that looked elegant in clothes, strong jaw and voice, good posture and skin, a glorious pompadour of thick, black hair. If he had a complaint about his college theater career, it was that he was always being cast as wooden strongmen or priggish dukes. In life, Marx wasn’t at all wooden or priggish. He was quick to laugh, warm and energetic, verging on goofy, and so it was strange to him that he was cast this way, that people saw him this way. He wondered what it was about himself. At a cast party for Hamlet, having smoked a couple of joints, he once asked a director friend, “What is it about me? Why am I a Laertes and not a Hamlet?”

The friend had seemed uncomfortable when Marx had posed the question. “It’s your quality,” he had said.

“What about my quality?” Marx had insisted. “Like, your charisma or something.”

“What about my charisma?”

The friend had giggled. “Brother, don’t ask me about this now. I’m so wasted.”

“Seriously,” Marx said. “I want to know.”

The friend put his index fingers up to the side corners of his eyes and pulled them wide. He was making Asian eyes. The friend struck that pose for barely a second, and then it was gone. The friend giggled, apologetic. “Forgive me, Marx. I’m so fucking high. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Hey,” Marx said. “That is not cool.”

“You’re so goddamn beautiful,” the director said, kissing Marx on the


But in a way, Marx was grateful that the friend had made that racist

gesture. It was clarifying to him. The inscrutable, inaccessible, mysterious, exotic thing about him was—duh—his Asianness, and it was permanent. And even in college theater, there were only so many parts that an Asian actor could play.

Marx’s mother was an American-born Korean, and his father was Japanese. At his mother’s insistence, he’d gone to an international school in Tokyo, with kids from all over the world in it. It had sheltered him, for the

most part, from the racism in his own country. Still, he was aware of a certain amount of racism that the Japanese felt against Koreans, in particular, and foreigners, in general. For example, his Korean American mother, who had taught textile design at Tokyo University, had made very few friends in all the years they had lived in Tokyo—but he could not say whether that was the result of xenophobia, his mother’s reserved nature, or her imperfect Japanese. But because he had been mostly raised in Asia, he had been completely sheltered from the kind of racism that Asians experienced in America. Until Harvard, he had not realized that in America

—and not just in its college theaters—there were only so many roles an Asian could play.

The week after that party, Marx changed his major from English (this was as close as Harvard came to a theater major) to economics.

But as much as Sam did not love math, Marx loved college theater. It wasn’t so much being on stage that he loved, but the productions themselves. He loved the intimacy of being in a tight group of people who had come together, miraculously, for a brief period in time, for the purpose of making art. He mourned every time a production was over, and he rejoiced when he was cast in a new one. The brief seasons of his college life were marked by the plays in which he performed. Freshman year: Macbeth, The Marriage of Bette and Boo. Sophomore year: The Mikado, Hamlet. Junior year: King Lear, Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck, though textually this happens offstage. But the director, who was a professional and not a student, had decided to elaborately stage the shipwreck, using much of the ample budget the college had given her to entice her to work with students in the first place. Undulating layers of programmed laser light and smoke; the sounds of waves crashing, thunder, and rain; and even a gentle misting of cold water that made the audience gasp and applaud like delighted children. The cast had sniped that the only thing Jules cared about was the shipwreck, and that it was clear she wished she was directing The Tempest instead of Twelfth Night.

Sadie, who knew nothing of this scuttlebutt, found the shipwreck mesmerizing. She whispered in Sam’s ear, “Our game should start with a shipwreck. Or maybe, a storm.” Even as she was saying it, she knew that “shipwreck,” and all the elements that a shipwreck could entail, meant that the game might not be finished by September.

“Yes,” Sam whispered back. “A child is lost at sea.”

Sadie nodded and whispered back, “A little girl—she’s maybe two or three years old—is lost at sea and she has to get back to her family, even though she doesn’t even know her last name or her phone number or many words or numbers past ten.”

“Why is it a little girl?” Sam asked. “Why isn’t it a little boy?” “I don’t know. Because in Twelfth Night it’s a girl?” Sadie said. Someone sitting nearby shushed them.

“Let’s design the character so they don’t have a gender,” Sam said in a softer whisper. “At that age, gender barely matters. And that way, every gamer will be able to see themselves in him/her.”

Sadie nodded. “Cool,” Sadie said. “I can live with that.”

Marx came onstage as Orsino, to deliver the opening speech of the play: “If music be the food of love, play on.” But, by then, Sadie wasn’t paying attention to Marx, their benefactor, or the play. She was dreaming about the storm she would make.

After the show, they went to dinner with Marx’s father at the restaurant in his hotel. “You already know Sam, and this is Sam’s partner, Sadie Green,” Marx introduced them. “They’re the ones whose video game I’m producing.”

Sam had never mentioned to Sadie that Marx would be a producer on the game, which, of course, didn’t yet have either a title or a single line of code to its credit. Sadie intuited Sam’s reasoning—Marx was giving them the apartment, and the apartment was certainly a kind of equity investment. Still, she felt resentful that she and Sam had never discussed it, and for the

next several minutes, she found herself unable to concentrate on the conversation.

Ryu Watanabe would turn out to be far more interested in the nascent game than he was in the play his son had been in. Around the time of Marx’s birth, Watanabe-san, a Princeton-educated economist, had left the academic world to get rich. He had succeeded. His portfolio included a chain of convenience stores, a medium-sized cell phone company, and a variety of other international investments. He told them he regretted that he had missed an early opportunity to invest in Nintendo in the 1970s. “They were just a playing-card company,” Watanabe-san said, with a self- deprecating laugh. “Hanafuda. For aunties and little children, you know?” Nintendo’s most successful product before they made Donkey Kong was, indeed, a deck of hanafuda playing cards.

“What’s hanafuda?” Sam asked.

“Plastic cards. Quite small and thick, with flowers and scenes of nature,” Watanabe-san said.

“Oh!” Sam said. “I know these! I used to play them with my grandmother, but we didn’t call them hanafuda. I think the game we played was called Stop-Go?”

“Yes,” Watanabe-san said. “In Japan, the game most people play with hanafuda is called Koi Koi, which means…”

“Come come,” Marx filled in.

“Good boy,” Watanabe-san said. “You haven’t forgotten all your Japanese.”

“It’s funny,” Sam said. “I always assumed the game was Korean.” He turned to Sadie. “Do you remember those little flower cards Bong Cha used to bring to the hospital?”

“Yes,” she said, distracted. She was still thinking about Marx and the producer credit, so she didn’t even know what she was saying yes to. She decided to change the subject. She turned to Marx’s father. “Mr. Watanabe, what did you think of the play?”

“The storm,” Watanabe-san said, “was terrific.” “Much better than the duke,” Marx said.

“I loved it, too,” Sadie said.

“It reminded me of my childhood,” Watanabe-san said. “I’m not like Marx here. I’m not a city boy. I was born in a small town on the west coast of Japan, and every year, we waited for the great rains, which always came in the summer. As a child, my greatest fear was that I, or my father, who owned a small fleet of fishing boats, would be washed away to sea.”

Sadie nodded and exchanged a look with Sam.

“What conspiracy is this?” Watanabe-san said, smiling. “Well,” Sam said. “That’s how our game begins, actually.”

“A child is washed out to sea,” Sadie said. Once she said it, she knew she would have to do it. “And the rest of the game is how the child gets back home.”

“Yes.” Watanabe-san nodded. “This is a classic story.”

When Sam had described the relationship between Marx and his father, he had said it was fraught, that Watanabe-san was demanding and sometimes even demeaning to Marx. Sadie saw no evidence of that. She found Marx’s father to be bright, interesting, and engaged.

Other people’s parents are often a delight.

The next day, Sam helped Sadie pack. To save money, Sadie would live in Marx’s room and sublet her apartment. “Are you going to put the art in storage?” Sam asked. Whenever he was in her room, he found Sadie’s art comforting, an extension of Sadie herself: the Hokusai wave, the Duane Hanson “Tourists,” the Sam Masur maze.

Sadie stopped packing and stood in front of the Hokusai wave, hands on her hips. In the three hours since they’d been at it, Sam had come to realize that, while she was a wonderful person, she was a terrible packer. Each decision required extensive deliberation—which clothes? Which cords? Which computer hardware? It had taken ninety minutes to go through her relatively small bookshelf: Did Sam think she would finally have time to read Chaos this summer? Did Sam want to read it? Oh, he had

already read it. Well then, she should probably take it, unless he had a copy, in which case she could read his and store hers. And then she would pick up A Brief History of Time, and fondly pat its cover. Maybe I’ll read it again this summer? And then, Hackers. Have you read this, Sam? It’s so good. Hackers has a whole section on the Williamses. You know, Sierra games? King’s Quest. Leisure Suit Larry. We used to love those games. Sam was beginning to think it would have been easier if she’d taken everything.

“Sadie,” Sam said gently. “You can take the art, you know? Marx won’t mind if you hang it.”

Sadie continued to stare at the Hokusai wave. “Sadie,” Sam repeated.

“Sam, look at this.” She pushed him a little so that he had the same vantage point she did. “This is what the game should look like.”

The Hokusai print on Sadie’s wall was an exhibition poster from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was identified as The Great Wave at Kanagawa. (In Japanese, the title is far more ominous, something like, Under the Wave off Kanagawa.) The Great Wave is arguably the most famous Japanese artwork in the world, and in the 1990s, it was absolutely an MIT student housing staple, only slightly less ubiquitous than those Magic Eye prints that always left Sam so cold. The Great Wave depicts an enormous wave that dwarfs the other elements in the frame, three fishing boats and a mountain. The style is clean and graphic, befitting the fact that it was designed to be carved into a cherrywood block and infinitely reproduced.

Sadie knew that the key to making a video game on limited resources was to make the limitations part of the style. (That was why she had made Solution black-and-white.) For the same reason that the print would have been reproducible in the 1830s (its limited palette and the deceptive simplicity of its form language), Sadie knew she would be able to re-create this look in computer graphics as well.

Sam considered the Hokusai wave. He backed up, cleaned his glasses, and then considered it some more. “I see it,” he said. They were at that rare moment in a collaboration where they were consistently grokking, where

consensus was reached quickly on almost everything. “Is the child Japanese like Marx’s father?”

“No,” Sadie said. “Not explicitly. Or maybe that’s not the right word. Not obviously. Not like we’re making a point of it. But, in a way, it doesn’t matter where the child is from—they aren’t verbal, right? They can’t speak much or read. Their own language is a foreign language. So, the gamer won’t know anyway.”

The decision to style the world after the Hokusai pushed everything in a Japanese direction, though. And as they were coming up with the character design for their “child,” they found themselves drawn to Japanese references over and over: the deceptively innocent paintings of Yoshitomo Nara; Miyazaki anime like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke; other, more adult anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, both of which Sam had loved; and of course, Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series, the first of which is The Great Wave.

It was 1996, and the word “appropriation” never occurred to either of them. They were drawn to these references because they loved them, and they found them inspiring. They weren’t trying to steal from another culture, though that is probably what they did.

Consider Mazer in a 2017 interview with Kotaku, celebrating the twentieth-anniversary Nintendo Switch port of the original Ichigo:

KOTAKU: It is said that the original Ichigo is one of the most graphically beautiful low-budget games ever made, but its critics also accuse it of appropriation. How do you respond to that?

MAZER: I do not respond to that.

KOTAKU: Okay…But would you make the same game if you were making it now?

MAZER: No, because I am a different person than I was then.

KOTAKU: In terms of its obvious Japanese references, I mean. Ichigo looks like a character Yoshitomo Nara could have painted. The world design looks like Hokusai, except for the Undead level,

which looks like Murakami. The soundtrack sounds like Toshiro Mayuzumi…

MAZER: I won’t apologize for the game Sadie and I made. [Long pause.] We had many references—Dickens, Shakespeare, Homer, the Bible, Philip Glass, Chuck Close, Escher. [Another long pause.] And what is the alternative to appropriation?

KOTAKU: I don’t know.

MAZER: The alternative to appropriation is a world in which artists only reference their own cultures.

KOTAKU: That’s an oversimplification of the issue.

MAZER: The alternative to appropriation is a world where white European people make art about white European people, with only white European references in it. Swap African or Asian or Latin or whatever culture you want for European. A world where everyone is blind and deaf to any culture or experience that is not their own. I hate that world, don’t you? I’m terrified of that world, and I don’t want to live in that world, and as a mixed-race person, I literally don’t exist in it. My dad, who I barely knew, was Jewish. My mom was an American-born Korean. I was raised by Korean immigrant grandparents in Koreatown, Los Angeles. And as any mixed-race person will tell you—to be half of two things is to be whole of nothing. And, by the way, I don’t own or have a particularly rich understanding of the references of Jewishness or Koreanness because I happen to be those things. But if Ichigo had been fucking Korean, it wouldn’t be a problem for you, I guess?

Sam and his mother, Anna Lee, arrived in Los Angeles in July of 1984. It was the summer of the Olympics, the first Summer Olympics to be held in the United States in fifty years. The mood was hopeful and manic. Los Angeles, especially when taken from a distance, was not a beautiful city,

but she could will herself to be beautiful, if only for two weeks. Beauty, after all, is almost always a matter of angles and resolve. Urban renewal projects were accomplished so frantically it seemed like time-lapse photography. Stadiums built, hotels refurbished, decrepit buildings detonated, flora planted, less appealing native flora removed, roads paved, bus routes added, uniforms created, musicians recruited, dancers hired, corporate sponsors slapped on any surface that would receive a logo, graffiti painted over, homeless discreetly relocated, coyotes euthanized, bribes paid; deeper schisms around race and class momentarily tabled because company was coming! L.A. reinvented herself as a bright, modern city of the future who knew how to throw a party. With the narcissism of childhood, Sam would feel as if the “improvements” were being enacted for his and Anna’s benefit, and he would always feel a tenderness when he thought of those first months in Los Angeles and the way the city had rolled out its red carpet just for him.

They stayed with Anna’s parents, Dong Hyun and Bong Cha Lee, in their yellow Craftsman-style house in sleepy Echo Park, which was still twenty years away from being a hipster enclave. Dong Hyun and Bong Cha spent most of their waking hours at their eponymous pizzeria in nearby Koreatown, and that was where Sam would pass most of that summer. Anna had told Sam about K-town, but he had no sense of how large K-town would actually be. He thought it would be like Chinatown in New York, a couple of blocks of apothecaries, gift shops, and restaurants, or like Thirty- Second Street, Manhattan’s Korean restaurant row, where he and his mom would sometimes go after a show for bulgogi and banchan. K-town in Los Angeles was massive. It was miles and miles of Korean people and things, right in the center of town. There were Korean faces on the billboards, and these Korean faces were celebrities, and even if Sam didn’t know who these celebrities were, he hadn’t known that there could be Korean celebrities. There was bubbly Korean writing on all the storefronts, more Korean writing than English. If you didn’t read hangul, you were basically a K- town illiterate. There were Korean bookstores and bridal salons and grocery stores as big as white-people grocery stores that sold enormous,

individually wrapped Asian pears and family-sized jars of kimchi and thousands of Korean beauty products promising textureless skin, and thick paperback volumes of fluorescent and pastel-colored manhwa. There were enough Korean barbecues to eat at a different one every day for year. There were even two Korean television channels that came in on Bong Cha’s antenna. And yes, there were people. Sam had never seen so many Asian people in one place before. And seeing them made him wonder if he had completely misunderstood the world and who the people in it were. Maybe the whole world was Asian?

What was amazing to Sam—and what became a theme of the games he would go on to make with Sadie—was how quickly the world could shift. How your sense of self could change depending on your location. As Sadie would put it in an interview with Wired, “The game character, like the self, is contextual.” In Koreatown, no one ever thought Sam was Korean. In Manhattan, no one had ever thought he was white. In Los Angeles, he was the “white cousin.” In New York, he was that “little Chinese kid.” And yet, in K-town, he felt more Korean than he ever had before. Or to put a finer point on it, he felt more aware of the fact that he was a Korean and that that was not necessarily a negative or even a neutral fact about him. The awareness gave him pause: perhaps a funny-looking mixed-race kid could exist at the center of the world, not just on its periphery.

In Los Angeles, Sam suddenly had grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all of them invested in the drama of his and Anna’s lives. Where would Anna and Sam live? Where would they go to church? Would Sam enroll in Korean school? Would Anna star in a television show? Why had she left New York? All of these issues weighed pleasurably on the family. His mother was treated like a celebrity. She was the Korean girl who had made it among white people. She had been in A Chorus Line. On Broadway! His grandmother, Bong Cha, doted on him, and they played the Korean card game Stop-Go, and she fed him mandu and pleaded with his mother to take him to church. “But he will grow up without God, Anna. He will grow up lost,” Bong Cha said.

“Sam’s very spiritual,” Anna said. “We talk about the universe all the time.”

“Oh, Anna,” Bong Cha said.

That summer, Sam’s greatest spiritual experience was with the Donkey Kong machine in his grandparents’ pizza place. The machine had been a promotional idea of Dong Hyun’s during the early-’80s height of arcade game mania. When the machine had arrived, he had sent out postcards:


a non-Nintendo-licensed illustration of Donkey Kong tossing pizza dough in the air that Bong Cha had drawn. When he named the restaurant in 1972, Dong Hyun knew that if you removed the Hyun and the Cha from his and his wife’s perfectly ordinary, respectable Korean names, Dong and Bong became hilarious-sounding to white people. He hoped the Donkey Kong promotion would further capitalize on the comic properties of their names, drawing in customers from beyond K-town even—that is to say, nice white people. For a time, it did.

By the time Sam arrived in Los Angeles, arcade mania had passed, and almost no one ever competed with him to play Dong Hyun’s machine. Dong Hyun would turn the machine’s release key so Sam could play as long as he wanted. Sam felt a peacefulness come over him when he was playing Donkey Kong in his grandparents’ pizza parlor. When he could time the little Japanese Italian plumber’s jumps and ascend the staircases at the right pace, it felt as if the universe was capable of being ordered. It felt as if it were possible to achieve a perfect timing. It felt like synchronicity. It felt like the opposite of a frigid winter night when a woman had jumped from an apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue and landed at his and his mother’s feet. That woman, her face, the gruesome angle of her neck like the handle of an umbrella, the earthy, copper scent of her blood mixed with his mother’s familiar tuberose perfume—she appeared to him almost every night in his dreams. He wondered what had happened to her after she’d been taken away in an ambulance. He wondered what her name was. He never mentioned her to Anna. He knew that woman was the reason they had

left New York. “In California,” his mother had promised, “nothing bad will ever happen to us again.”

Sam turned ten the day Mary Lou Retton won the women’s all-around gold medal. At the party his grandparents threw for him, the television was left on, but muted, so that people could celebrate Sam while still watching Mary Lou. It didn’t matter to Sam that everyone’s eyes were on the television; he, too, wanted to know if she would win. Sam blew out ten candles, and in the distance, Mary Lou Retton received a perfect 10 on her floor routine. And he almost felt like he, by blowing out the ten candles at the precise moment that he had, had been what caused her to get the perfect

10. He fantasized that the universe was a Rube Goldberg machine. If he had blown out only nine candles, maybe the Romanian girl would have won instead.

That next day, Sam and Anna went to lunch by themselves. To Sam, it seemed like years since it had just been them, and even at barely ten years old, he felt a palpable nostalgia for the railroad flat in derelict Manhattan Valley and the takeout Chinese and the life they had left behind. At a nearby table, two men in suits were discussing the gymnastics final in booming voices.

“She never would have won if the Russians hadn’t boycotted,” the man insisted. “It’s not a victory if the best players aren’t there.”

Sam asked his mother whether she thought the man with the loud voice was right.

“Hmm.” Anna sipped at her iced tea and then she rested her chin in her hands, which Sam had learned to recognize as her philosophizing gesture. Anna was a great talker, and it was one of the most profound pleasures of young Sam’s life to discuss the world and its mysteries with his mother. No one took him, and his queries, more seriously than she did. “Even if what he says is true, I think it’s still a victory,” she said. “Because she won on this day, with this particular set of people. We can never know what else might have happened had other competitors been there. The Russian girls could have won, or they could have gotten jet-lagged and choked.” Anna shrugged. “And this is the truth of any game—it can only exist at the

moment that it is being played. It’s the same with being an actor. In the end, all we can ever know is the game that was played, in the only world that we know.”

Sam considered his French fries. “Are there other worlds?”

“I think there probably are,” Anna said. “But I don’t have any hard proof.”

“In some other world, maybe Mary Lou doesn’t win the gold medal.

Maybe she doesn’t even place?” “Maybe.”

“I like Mary Lou,” Sam said. “She seems like a hard worker.”

“Yes, but I imagine all those girls work hard. Even the ones that didn’t win.”

“Did you know she’s only four foot nine inches tall? That’s only two inches taller than me.”

“Sam, do you have a crush on Mary Lou Retton?” “No,” Sam said. “I was stating a fact.”

“She’s only six years older than you.” “Mom, don’t be gross.”

“It seems like a big age gap now, but it won’t in a couple of years.”

At that moment, one of the men in suits approached their table. “Anna?” It was the man with the loud voice.

Anna turned. “Oh hello,” she said.

“I thought that was you,” the man with the loud voice said. “You’re looking well.”

“George, how are you?” Anna said.

The man with the loud voice turned toward Sam. “Hello there, Sam.”

Sam knew the man was familiar, but for half a second, he couldn’t quite place him. It had been three years since he had last seen him, a lifetime when one is ten. And then he remembered who George was. “Hi, George,” Sam said. George shook Sam’s hand in a casual, professional way.

“I didn’t know you were in L.A.,” George said.

“We just got here,” Anna said. “I was planning to call you when we’d gotten settled.”

“So, this is a permanent thing?” George said.

“Yes, I think so,” Anna said. “My agent has been begging me to come out for pilot season for years.”

“Pilot season is in the spring,” George said.

“Yes,” Anna said. “Of course, I know that. But I had to wait until Sam’s school year ended, so we’re here now, and I’ll be ready for next year.”

George nodded. “Well. Good to see you, Anna.” George began to walk away and then he turned and walked back to the table. “Sam,” George said, “if you have the time, I would very much like us to have lunch. You name the day, and my assistant, Miss Elliot, will set it up.”

Sam met his father, George Masur, at La Scala, one of those pleasantly decaying Los Angeles establishments that sounded fancier than they actually were. He had only met George a half-dozen times before, usually when George had been in New York City on business. On these occasions, they did New York City–tourist or divorced-dad things together: FAO Schwarz, afternoon tea at the Plaza, the Bronx Zoo, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the Rockettes, etc. These activities had not bonded them, and Sam felt no meaningful connection to George. He did not, for instance, call him Dad; he called him George. When he thought of George, he thought of him as a person that his mother had once had sex with, though Sam, at age ten, was not entirely clear on the mechanics of sex.

Sam knew that George was an agent for the William Morris Agency, and that the William Morris Agency was not the agency that represented his mother. He knew that George had come backstage after a revival performance of Flower Drum Song to tell his mother that her rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl” had been the best thing in it. He knew that George and his mother had dated for about six weeks and that his mother had ended it for ambiguous reasons. He knew that six weeks after that, she had determined that she was pregnant. He knew that she had considered having an abortion, and he knew what an abortion was. He knew that she had never wanted to marry George. He knew that George had written her a check for

$10,000 when she told him about the pregnancy, but that she had never

asked for it. He knew that the money had been deposited in a trust fund for Sam’s college, and that George had not made any contributions to the fund since. Sam knew these things mainly from Anna’s acting class friend, Gary. He sometimes babysat for Anna when she had to work, and he was chatty to a fault.

George was wearing a suit of fine, summer-weight wool—Sam would think of him as always wearing a suit. He offered Sam his hand to shake. “Hello, Sam. Thanks for making the time for this meeting,” George said.

“You’re welcome,” Sam said.

“I’m glad we were able to make this happen.”

Sam asked George what he should order, and George suggested the “famous chopped salad,” which Sam would end up finding watery. They spoke of the Olympics, the family in K-town, the differences between living in New York City and Los Angeles.

“You know,” George said, “I’m Jewish, which means that you are partially Jewish as well.”

“Does it?” Sam said.

“I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but you’re half of what I am.” Sam nodded.

“It wasn’t my choice that we should see each other so little, you know.” Sam nodded again.

“I’m not saying it’s Anna’s fault, but your mother doesn’t always make things easy. Did you know that I asked her to move here when she was pregnant? She refused. She said she couldn’t see herself raising a child in Los Angeles. And now she’s here.” George shrugged. “What’s funnier than people, right?” He looked at Sam expectantly.

“People,” Sam said, sounding like a sixty-year-old man. It seemed like the response George was seeking.

“People is right. I have a place in Malibu,” George said. “Do you think you’d like to come to the Bu sometime?”

“Yes,” Sam said politely, though he felt no particular desire to go to Malibu. “It takes a long time to drive to…the Bu.”

“Not that long. Maybe you’d like to meet my girlfriend? She’s a very nice-looking woman. I’m not saying this to brag, but to paint a picture for you. It is important to make things visual for people. If you can do that, you’ll be ahead of the game, Sam my boy. But yes, my girlfriend is a very attractive woman. Do you know the James Bond movies? She was Bond’s second secretary in the last one. Some people say that playing the secretary in a Bond movie is not the same as being a Bond girl, but I think it is.” He looked at Sam. “What do you think?”

“Hmm,” Sam said. “I don’t really have an opinion about that.”

George gestured a checkmark, and a waiter brought the bill. He paid the check and shook Sam’s hand again. George handed Sam a business card: GEORGE MASURMOTION PICTURE TALENT AGENTWILLIAM MORRIS AGENCY.

“You can call this number if you ever need anything. Miss Elliot will answer, but she always knows where to find me, and if she can’t find me, she will give me the message.”

They went outside. They were a few minutes shy of the time Bong Cha was supposed to pick Sam up.

George looked at his watch.

“You don’t have to wait,” Sam said. “No, it’s fine.”

“I’m by myself all the time.” Sam realized that there might have been an implied insult to his mother in this disclosure. “I mean, not all the time.”

At precisely one o’clock, Bong Cha drove up to the curb, neatly wedging her burgundy MG into a space barely half a foot longer than the length of the car. Bong Cha was a spectacular, aggressive driver. She had driven for a local moving company when she and Dong Hyun had first arrived in L.A., and she was known in the family for her epic parallel parking abilities. Sam said she drove like she was playing Tetris.

Sam waved to George as he got into the car. “Goodbye, George.” “Goodbye, Sam.”

Sam closed the door. Bong Cha wore a head kerchief and professional driving gloves that had been a gift from her husband, and her car’s interior was, as always, immaculate. The driver’s seat had a wooden bead overlay

that supposedly gave a massage or did something for circulation; maneki neko, the zaftig hospitality cat, waved from the back window; an air freshener in the shape of the Virgin Mary hung from the rearview mirror. The scent had long faded, but a label indicated that it had once been pine. As Sam often put it, “To be in a car with my grandmother was to know everything you needed to know about her.”

“Your mother says not to say. But I do not like him,” Bong Cha said. “He said I could come visit him in Malibu.”

“Malibu,” Bong Cha said, as if the word was disgusting to her. “Your mother is so beautiful and talented. But she has terrible taste in men.”

“But,” Sam said, “George said I was half-him. And if I’m half-him…” Bong Cha caught her mistake. “You are one-hundred-percent perfect,

good Korean boy I love.”

At the stoplight, Bong Cha patted Sam on the head, and then she kissed him on his forehead and then both of his delicious, round, shtetl Buddha cheeks, and Sam accepted her lie without argument.

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