More Than Four Squares

A recent DNA analysis told me I’m “less likely to freckle,” “more susceptible to male pattern baldness,” and have “a stronger tendency to be agreeable.” Coincidentally, I do have very few freckles, am shedding hair by the fistful, and when in the right mood, I can be as congenial as Sandra Bullock in a rom-com flick. It was only when I was told I had “a tendency toward lower childhood intelligence” that I began to question the scientific validity of the product. And then there was the trait that surprised me most: “A strong tendency toward longevity.” It turned out I held the genetic markers commonly found in elderly humans over 80 years old.

My mother, pictured second from the left.

My mother is in her mid-eighties and thriving in retirement—knock on wood—she’s enjoying twice-weekly Korean folk dancing troupe rehearsals and monthly performances, as well as late nights out with her church friends in Flushing, Queens. She often boasts of two-hour daily workouts at the gym and yoga, despite persistent knee pain and arthritis.

In contrast, my father died suddenly of a stroke a few days after his 57th birthday. I was thirteen at the time. At his funeral, members of our extended family and his friends all said he left us too soon. Because I was an adolescent and distraught by his sudden passing, I didn’t think of fifty-seven as particularly young. Until now. 

My father and I.

The physical resemblance between my father and me is uncanny. I often joke that I am a product of asexual reproduction. A clone. We have the same high-arched eyebrows, the same moon-shaped face, the same high forehead, the same slightly-wicked half-grin. The similarities have only grown as I’ve aged. The last few times I reunited with extended family members, they’ve gushed about how much I look like him. Some have even been moved to tears. This makes me uncomfortable because I hope I don’t mirror him on the inside. I’ve laid awake many a sleepless night anxiously imagining my arteries hardening, blood clots forming in my legs, fat deposits congealing on the walls of my heart. And though recent medical checkups state otherwise, I often wonder if my organs are a ticking time bomb set to go off when I turn fifty-seven in 2034.

Over the past two years, I’ve planned accordingly. Around my 40th birthday, I worked with a lawyer to set-up a will and trust. Though this was not particularly atypical for someone my age, it felt a little excessive as a single man with no heirs and few assets. Then again, I could fall asleep any evening and never awaken; a tiny fleck of arterial plaque blocking the flow of blood to my brain.

In the Notes app on my phone, I keep a bucket list. 

  1. Sell a novel to a big five publishing house
  2. Travel Asia for an entire year
  3. Learn how to speak Korean fluently no, semi-fluently (it’s really hard)
  4. Learn how to play jazz piano so I can sing along to my own accompaniment
  5. Adopt a rescue dog, maybe a Golden Retriever (I can be a little basic) or a Samoyed (It was love at first sight with @mayapolarbear)

I often wonder about my dad’s bucket list. He was an untenured philosophy professor, an artist and intellectual at heart, though the burden of living as an immigrant with four children to support had turned him highly-practical bordering on miserly. One of my earliest memories is of him shouting at me through the bathroom door while I sat on the toilet bowl.

“Toilet paper is expensive.” He rapped on the door. “Remember, four squares only.”  

I will never know my father’s highest wishes yet I can imagine, quite clearly, what he would say about my bucket list. 

How the hell are you going to pay for all that?

I’ve considered cashing out my retirement account to fund my travels though I wouldn’t last more than a year or two. The same holds true with opening a slew of credit cards and living off them until the banks show up on my front door. These options make sense for the unfortunate soul sentenced with a terminal diagnosis but are beyond reason for a healthy man in his early forties.

Despite the impracticality of my whims, I recently booked a one-way ticket to Bali. It’s in Asia, it’s cheap, and there’s a beach. There’s also an English-speaking, jazz piano teacher who charges ten bucks a lesson. While there, I hope to write, practice piano, and volunteer at a dog rescue. I will suckle on my savings and hustle up some remote freelance work. After Bali, I will head to South Korea for a language-intensive course and remain in Asia as long as I can, barring an emergency or the more likely scenario, going broke.

My father’s spirit asks, What are you going to do when that happens?

I’ve asked each of my three sisters individually if I could live in an RV in their driveways if worst comes to worst. It’s the least they can do, after all, I did write them into my will. 

Some might call this familial obligation. I call it economic privilege.

But what will you do after that?  He says.    

I could join a Korean folk-dancing troupe like mom and perform at Veterans’ Day celebrations at Rotary Clubs throughout Long Island. 

And after that?

I don’t know. But I do know I’m going to be fine. At least until August 15, 2034. Speaking of which, I’m going to be a hot mess at my 57th birthday party. 

Tom Pyun is a writer based in Los Angeles. He was a fellow with Tin House, Vermont Studio Center, Gemini Ink, and VONA/Voices. His work has appeared in The Rumpus7×7.laJoyland, and Blue Mesa Review and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. He is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University.