Wednesday, October 16, 2019
ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
Out of the blue, my husband says I should go buy a strand of Mikimotos. But I say it's not my birthday. It's not Christmas. It's not anything. But we don't need an occasion, he says. So I go to Mikimotos. I try on the shortest, most inexpensive strand and I feel gorgeous in them. They cost $6,000 and the lady points out that life is short and that I should get them. I take them off. I don't get them.
Yesterday I get dressed in my faux leather skirt and faux strand of pearls and go to campus to give my lecture. I start with a reminder to college students of the difference between immigrate and emigrate. It's one of those things that can get confusing and why Benjamin Dreyer classifies this pair of words under the "Confusables" section in his book. When no one takes the time to explain the confusables to you, you can go on for an entire lifetime, writing immigrate when you mean emigrate and emigrate when you mean immigrate.
Even when we had practically nothing as a family emigrating from Korea and immigrating to America, I knew that mom and dad knew about gorgeous things. Mom sang opera. Dad conducted bands and orchestras. Mom never had Mikimotos but she ached for them. Even though she could sing notes more beautiful than cultured pearls, she wanted them.
In America, music would be a side gig as they wrapped hot dogs. Morning, noon, and night, they wrapped hot dogs. Chili dogs. Mustard dogs. All sorts of dogs. And when eventually tuition bills came in for brother Jim, then brother Jinil, then me, they got paid. In full. Before they were due. With money that immigrant musicians saved not from making music, but from selling hot dogs. Paid in full so that we could just study hard. And have doors open. To rooms with books. And operas. And gorgeous people wearing cultured pearls.
In his book, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong writes about the confusables or ironicles of pursuing beauty in the context of war, violence, addiction, love, desire, and inescapable mortality. The confusables of witnessing his mom breathing in toxic fumes and painting the nails of strangers. Repugnant nails. On their fingers. On their toes. Of hearing her say "I'm sorry" instead of "thank you" because "I'm sorry" helps her signal that she knows her place, that she's not gorgeous and that she's worthy of a tip. Please God, let them tip.
Perhaps it's because his mortality pounds loudly every three months that he wants me to buy Mikimotos. When I help him undress at the hospital for his routine stent replacements, gorgeous objects look ugly. Expensive objects look cheap. No one cares whether pearls are faux or authentic. No one cares whether the watch is Cartier or Timex. Nothing is gorgeous except the hope that the stent will stick. And that tomorrow will happen. And that in that tomorrow, there will be a syrupy room to enter. And that in that room will be the dogs napping so cute, and the book waiting to be held and read. So Jenny, get the pearls. You don't need an occasion. It doesn't matter. It's not a confusable.
TRAGEDY & BEAUTY
And that's the tragedy and the beauty of it all. Vuong knows that the more we want it, the less it matters. But that doesn't mean that we don't want it, "Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted." We want it. I want it. My mom wanted it. Even for just one stanza ... to be seen, to feel briefly gorgeous.