“Chan, be serious.”
Family fights. The family is fighting.
As CEO of Tsuperstar Enterprises, Aubrey runs the business and has to think about the bottom line. As Chandler’s only family, she occasionally works overtime as the angel on his shoulder.
“Cousin,” Chandler says into his iPhone. “She’s a kid. She’s got nobody, and no way to afford the flight. She’ll regret it her whole life if she doesn’t go back.”
“Her? Or you?”
“Fuck off,” he says.
“You’re gonna make me cancel a week of your scheduled appearances? And lose a week of prep for Daytona Diamonds, with jet lag on top? The guy is solid gold so far, and you’re distracted. Who even are you right now? The most pathologically competitive person I’ve ever met, and you want to torpedo your momentum for a kid who’s five years away from the big leagues?”
“She’s not five years…” Chandler trails off. Not worth arguing semantics, he thinks. Aubrey huffs on the other end of the phone line.
“Come and make sure I don’t get in trouble,” he says. “I know you got shit to do. If you think I’m likely to fuck this up or derail my Almasy chances, come and keep me in line. But I’m on that plane. I’m going.”
Korean Air. Flight KE18, LAX to ICN. Hour 9. Or 10?
Chandler sighs. Time doesn’t exist up here, just an endless stretch of horizon and 47%-on-Rotten-Tomatoes slop.
He should feel lucky. He’s got the four of them in first class, which makes the inter-Pacific travel as comfortable as can be. It’s not momentary turbulence or the endless daylight of a westbound flight that makes him uneasy. Five miles up, at six hundred miles per hour, Chandler has to be alone with himself, which: ick.
Across the aisle in the window seat, Aubrey’s fingers skitter across her keyboard like gel-manicured spiders. AirPods in, punching through some marketing deck or other. If the violence of her keystrokes is any indication, her fury at Chandler remains a fourteen out of ten.
Next to her, Jasmine Jeong, Tsonda’s 19-year-old pupil and sparring partner, barrels through her umpteenth consecutive episode of a Bravo show about women who are friends and want each other dead. Pretty apt for someone trying to make a career in pro wrestling.
Jasmine hasn’t said much. She stares ahead at the Botoxed shrews’ in-fighting; every so often she lifts her phone, unlocks it, stares down at the great noisy nothing of her home screen, and puts it back down. Grief starts with denial, and she’s just getting started.
On Chandler’s side of the aisle, Jaime Aguilar folds in on himself. The youngest member of the retinue holds his head down between his knees. Jaime is down bad.
“Hey dude,” Tsonda says, trying to affect comfort without really knowing how. “Still rough?”
“Still rough, Mister Tsonda.” Jaime’s nasally voice wobbles from his hunched over form. “I feel like my insides are doing shooting star presses.”
“Pretty badass for the first flight of your life to be a 14-hour long haul. You’re doing great, man.”
“It’s always like this?” Jaime asks. Fearless in the ring, he now seems a little boy, all compressed on himself and shaken by the oddities of air travel.
“Don’t freak, but I think you’re probably just having a little bit of a panic attack,” Tsonda says. “I know that can be scary. But all my shrinks have agreed that when you name the thing that’s fucking you up, you take back the power. So…no, it’s not always like this.”
“Oh,” Jaime says in a flattened voice, unconvinced. “Good.”
“Would it help to try and have a normal conversation? I can talk to you about proper form on drop toe-holds or something?”
“Maybe,” comes the muffled reply.
“I’ve probably been on a thousand planes,” Tsonda starts. “Safe as can be. Hell, you’re in more danger every time you try one of those Canadian destroyers on me. You probably know this, but you’re allowed to use Canadian destroyers in lucha feds, even though it’s technically a piledriver. All the other piledrivers get you DQ’d, but that one they allow. Is this helping at all?”
“Thanks for trying, sir.”
Chandler winces. For months, he has begged Jaime to chill with the “Mister Tsonda” bit. He won’t force the issue while Jaime’s bugging out 35,000 feet above the Sea of Okhotsk.
“How ‘bout this,” Chandler says, trying again. “Wanna feel better by comparison? My first flight was a total clusterfuck. LA to Hong Kong. Hot ass hoopty of a plane. Vietnam Airlines. There was still a US embargo, so they couldn’t buy any Western-made planes, and all their flights came through other hubs in Asia. I was a couple years younger than you, maybe fifteen. I was tripping. So was my mom. So were half the people on the flight. It was like fifty percent fresh off the boat SoCal first- and second-gen immigrants. You know, before white people found out you could take a vacation to Asia.”
The meekest of laughs emerges from Jaime.
“Full fetal position for the first four hours in my seat. My mom was losing her shit. Hail Marys and Our Fathers, and Vietnamese folk magic just to be safe. The pilot comes on the intercom, some Texas-sounding guy, and he goes: ‘Well, time-travelers, y’all just passed over the international date line, which means that for many of us, this will be the longest day of our lives. Let’s enjoy the extra time, sit back, and enjoy a smooth flight.”
“That sounds horrible, sir.”
“It was, and totally absurd. Just the world’s worst reading of the room. A bunch of wailing Vietnamese grannies and this guy is making a joke out of how this is going to be the literal longest day of our lives. I started laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. And because I was cracking up, and my abs were sore, the terror and the paralysis slowly started to drift away. I was more in control of my own mind than I thought. I walked around. I watched the flight attendants do their jobs. I watched the whole ass Pacific Ocean pass by. I got a ginger ale. I slept. And when I landed, we were in a place where all the people looked like me. Some kinda magic.”
Jaime pokes his head up. He cocks his head and neck to the side, his black ponytail disheveled.
“Ginger ale sounds good. Do you think I could get one, sir?”
“I’m on it. Time-traveler, sit back, and enjoy a smooth flight while I track you down a crisp ginger ale.”
Jaime puts his head back between his legs. Chandler is pretty sure there is a small smile on his face.
They’re finally close.
After the 2-hour layover in Seoul, after boarding the connection to Busan, after landing in Busan, after grabbing their luggage, after getting in the black car, they’re finally close to Geoje.
“You think Jasmine will be ok, Mister Tsonda?” Jaime asks. “She seems pretty sad.”
Aubrey sent Jasmine ahead in a separate car to her aunt’s house. Chandler’s cousin did it without consulting him, which he recognizes as probably the right move, but also the latest in an escalating series of minor fuck you’s. So it’s the three of them in the back of the limo. Aubrey silently taps away at her phone like it owes her money.
The limo exits the freeway, which means they should be five minutes from the hotel.
“Funerals are a motherfucker no matter where they are,” Chandler replies. “Jasmine’s strong.”
“I know that’s right,” Jaime chirps. “I seen that military press slam of hers. She strong.”
“You know what I mean, kid.”
“Hey, Mister Tsonda. It’s really cool to be here. I don’t want you to take it the wrong way or nothing. But how come we’re taking time off from training for a funeral when you got Round Two in, like, ten days?”
“Excellent question, Jaime.”
This is Aubrey’s voice, cold and dripping with told-you-so. She doesn’t look up from the business machinations at her fingertips.
“Daytona’s good, huh?” Tsonda says.
“Real good,” Jaime answers. “I like that cutter he uses to end the match. That’s nice. With all due respect.”
“The only thing ending our match is a dealer’s choice of Model Citizen or Narcissist’s Noose, and that Kirkland brand cattle rustler looking up at the bright lights. This isn’t time off. Sure, we’re switching up, and traveling, but we’re preparing, and we’ve got a plan.”
Aubrey takes the opportunity to clear her throat. Probably just a coincidence.
“To win the Almasy I gotta go six matches in fifty-seven days. Training balls to the wall non-stop for fifty-seven days would put me in the hospital just as quick as five of Mr. Diamonds’ little cutters in a row. I got his two PRIME matches downloaded, plus a dozen grainy videos from some indy fed in the Southwest. Watched every second on the flight over, and I’ll do the same on the flight back. For getting work in, our hotel gym is pretty decked out.”
“There’s a gym in the hotel?” Jaime’s eyes go wide. His innocence is delightful.
“And so much more. Here’s my take: if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” He gestures to the iPad. “We know how daddy’s broken little cowboy wants to wrestle, which means we know how to counter it. Single elimination tournaments are my homefield advantage. And when it comes down to it, rhinestones ain’t got the juice like me.”
Jaime locks eyes with his favorite wrestler. Tsonda knows when an audience is hanging on his words, whether it’s one or fifty thousand.
Chandler has been thinking about what he’ll leave behind when injury or age—but let’s be honest, it’ll probably require an injury and a doctor’s order—retire him. Perhaps if he’s good and if he’s lucky, some of Chandler will echo across time. A kid as talented as Jaime who understands that the cutthroat nature of their business doesn’t mean being alone. A competitor like Jasmine who sees people show up for her, not just at the bar on show nights, but in the low ebb of tragedy.
“And the other reason we’re here, even if it’s inconvenient as fuck? Even if we’d rather be running through prep for Round Two and answering the question of how to counter Blood Meridian? Jasmine’s one of us.”
The funeral is over. In the manner of good Catholics, there was a mass. In the manner of good Koreans, rice, soup, vegetables, a pair of shoes were all left out for the travelers who will accompany the soul across the veil.
Chandler wears the same black Ferragamo suit that he buried his mother in. It’s a stunner. He figures she would appreciate both the weeping white Jesus icons in the funeral parlor, and that he’s back in Asia for only the second time since the two of them left Hanoi a half century ago.
Like any funeral, so goes the spirit, and so go the spirits.
Jasmine’s family forms a protective phalanx around her newly widowed aunt. Jasmine isn’t usually forthcoming about herself, but Chandler has pieced together that she’s an only child with a dead dad, and a mom who’s gone. More importantly, he sees Jasmine’s pathological competitive streak, her study of the craft, how she fills the family-sized gap in her life with the dream of pro wrestling stardom. If he looks in a clouded mirror, she might be there, with her chance to be better, do better, achieve more, find happiness without chasing it all her life, get a Hall of Fame plaque he could see go up next to his.
But he’s not blood. And at times like this, kin and blood mean something different.
So Chandler idles and keeps his distance at the reception. He cradles a tumbler of soju and stands between the frosty presence of Aubrey and a not particularly subtle Jaime
“What is this stuff?” Jaime asks, inspecting the clear drink in a bottle with a peach on the label. “Like some kind of Korean White Claw?”
“Easy, tiger.” Tsonda’s technically in charge of Jaime’s behavior while they’re on this globetrotting field trip. Chandler and Aubrey gave the kids minimal restrictions when they talked about etiquette in LAX, but Jaime is, like all teenagers, a raptor testing the fences. Chandler doesn’t particularly want to report back to Jaime’s father any messiness, nor does Chan want a drunk child on his hands. “Soju hangovers are a ripcord lariat to the brain. You’ll have to trust me on that.”
Jaime grins. He’s little bit sauced already, and Chandler has seen him sneaking cheeky grins at several of the young women who seem to be Jasmine’s cousins. It’s innocent kid stuff. Let ‘em have a distraction from the reminder we’re all compost sooner or later.
“Oh buddy.” Jaime grimaces, and nods towards the family. Tsonda sees her.
Jasmine has a light sway about her. An older male family member talks at her, but she seems to have gotten into something stronger than the couple bottles of flavored soju that have dreams of foreign girlfriends dancing in Jaime’s head.
Aubrey makes eye contact with Chandler. He nods towards Jasmine, and shrugs at his cousin. What do we do here?
Aubrey exhales. Chandler throws his hands up in exasperation. You gonna be pissed at me forever?
A fellow mourner, an older man with a receding silver hairline in a rumpled black suit, interrupts the cousins’ silent argument, stepping between Aubrey and Chandler. He bows to the Model Citizen, who bows back and taps Jaime on the shoulder so that the young man will do the same. The man then blasts rapid fire into a monologue in Korean.
“Sorry, sorry,” Chandler says, showing the man both his palms. “No Korean. English. America,” he says, punctuating by pointing to himself and Jaime.
“San Diego,” Jaime adds. “Near Los Angeles.”
The man lights up. “Hollywood!” His English is accented, but they all seem able to understand each other.
“That’s us,” Chandler says. “We are friends of Jasmine,” he says, and points towards the assembled Jeong family. The man doesn’t even turn to look. He has the glass eye of someone well into his cups.
“I love Dirty Harry and outlaw Josey Wales,” the man says. He shows his teeth in a smile and does finger guns at Chandler, who forces a pained smile. Six thousand miles, an ocean, and a new continent, and I can’t get away from the cowboy industrial complex. Fuck off, Daytona.
“I love Squid Game,” Jaime replies, and Chandler is glad for the change in subject. “Sir, could you help me with some Korean words? I want to get, like, good at conversing.” Chandler follows Jaime’s eyes back to the pack of Jeong cousins, and has to appreciate the shamelessness of youth.
Chandler scans for Jasmine. He spies her just as she ducks out the side entrance.
Briskly, he steps around Jaime’s Korean lesson—not sure it’s great that he’s learning the word for ‘girlfriend’ but that sounds like a tomorrow problem—and gets to Aubrey. She’s making a good show of being fascinated by her bottled water.
“I think Jasmine might need some TLC. Any chance you want a break from freezing me out and do some supportive girl talk?”
Aubrey bites at the side of her top lip, and folds her arms. That’s an answer of a kind.
“Fuck’s sake,” he mutters. “Keep an eye on Don Juan over here please, and see that he doesn’t cause an international incident. I’ll go after Jasmine.”
Chandler catches up to her quickly. She may be a world-class athlete, but Jasmine is skunk drunk, and doesn’t seem to know where she’s going.
“Jasmine,” he calls out.
She hesitates, but doesn’t turn around. He runs to catch up and, once there, finds he’s not sure what to do.
“Hey,” he says, and now catches Jasmine’s gaze, sees the run of her mascara. “Hold up. I’m sure your family is gonna wonder where you are.”
“Those people aren’t my family,” she says defiantly, and steps around Tsonda. He walks at her side to keep up. “Every few years, we stand around a corpse and pray. I’m not their concern.”
“But you’re our concern,” Tsonda says. “And you’re toasted, walking around a city you don’t know, and I realize that I’m the farthest thing from a moral authority, but I think we should get you a car.”
“Please go back to the reception. I’m fine.” But she’s not. She’s flippant, huffy, and teetering. Her next step forward staggers her, and all of a sudden, she’s down in a heap, her black heel having caught a rough piece of sidewalk. Chandler rushes to her side.
“Hey, hey, stay down for a second,” he urges, but she shoves away the helping hand he offers. “Jasmine, seriously, you’re going to—
“Going to what?” She raises her voice and it takes on a sharp edge. “End up crying alone in a foreign country? Surrounded by strangers? Nobody but a pathetic, old, wash-up to look out for me? God forbid.”
“You’re drunk,” Chandler says. It comes out judgy. He thinks about trying to calm Jaime on the plane. “It’s not a big deal. I know today was hard. C’mon, let’s—
“Leave me alone.” She’s yelling. A passerby looks concerned.
“Jasmine,” he says, patience thinning.
“What are you even doing here? Do you think it’s normal to spend this much time with, what are we, like, coworkers? We train together. You’re twice my age. And it’s weird, and lonely, and freaking desperate that you brought us all here. So can you get the hell away from me?”
“I’d love to. Because you don’t need a friend. You need a babysitter. If this is the thanks I get for putting your ass on a plane on my dime to do orphan Annie a solid, then you’re welcome to wander the streets by yourself. And for the record, if this is how you handle a little adversity, then the closest you’ll ever come to the big show is telling people ‘I used to be Chandler Tsonda’s practice dummy.’ Enjoy your fucking night.”
He walks away.
Over his shoulder, she’s sniffling, and cursing him. Keep walking. Fuck this.
Chandler ignores that voice, the worst and smallest part of him. He turns around and endures the cruelties that being drunk and afraid bring out of her, and summons a car to come get them.
And when she’s too drunk to get herself into her aunt’s house, Chandler curses himself silently and puts her arm around his neck, and walks her up the stairs. An older male family member tut-tuts silently the sight of this man old enough to be her father bringing Jasmine home plastered. A cousin helps collect her, and lets Chandler know that it’s covered.
He walks away.
They pretend like nothing is wrong. Maybe nothing is wrong.
On the following day’s flight, Jasmine passes the time with more episodes of plastically-enhanced valkyries. Next to her, Chandler watches tape of Daytona Diamonds until he’s calling out each move progression. He sees where the match hinges: Diamonds wants to get first blood and end things fast. Of course Chandler wants to win a war of attrition, countering everything an opponent offers until they wrong-foot themselves and give Chandler his opening. This should be fun.
She pulls out her headphones to ask the flight attendant for water. Tsonda tries not to be too eager, and removes his a minute later.
“Housewives trading knife edge chops yet?”
“That’s next episode. Prepping for Diamonds?” she asks.
“I’ve seen every second of tape available. Itching to get back in the ring,” he says. Chandler feels sheepish in the wake of their blowup. He remembers the whole fight. Does she? “He’s quite the fuckface. But his ring style, it’s a bit like me.”
“Hey, this really sucked,” Jasmine says. “Burying someone else, I mean. I really appreciate—
“Don’t mention it. Do the same for someone else when you’re a big star someday.”
“He may be like you,” she says. “Diamonds. But not as good.”
It feels like a thaw.
“Not as washed up, either,” Tsonda says, and offers a smile as an olive branch.
He wants to apologize for last night. Does she? They’re together. That will have to do for now.
Jasmine turns on Bravo. Chandler sees his face reflected in the iPad.
He wonders if this is how parents feel. Hoping and praying you’ve done the right thing. Hoping and praying they don’t resent you for it. That you get another chance.
He looks across the aisle at Jaime and Aubrey, at Jasmine next to him. He’s fucked some things up. Even so, they are…forming something.
He’s one of us. So is she. So is she.
And I’m one of them.