I said it was nice to meet her and the two of us shook hands.
Then I asked her where she lived.
"Over on Halldale, across the street from the park," she answered.
"I live two blocks past the park. Want to walk together?" I asked.
"Sure," she said.
The light turned green and the two of us crossed. It was a little past four in the afternoon, the time of day when everything feels like it’s starting to wind down.
“So how come I’ve never seen you before? Did you just move here?" I asked as we stepped onto the curb on the other side.
“Because, you didn’t go to my elementary school. I would have seen you," I said.
“Oh that's because I went to Valley Christian,” she explained, and I understood.
“So how come you don’t go there anymore?” I asked.
“My dad said public school would be better for me, but I think he's trying to save money. Plus, it was my mom who wanted me to go to VC, but now that she’s no longer around ..." she said, and Iris's voice trailed off without finishing the sentence.
“What happened to your mom?” I asked.
“She died in a car accident a couple of years ago,” she said.
“Oh," I said, feeling like an idiot. "I'm sorry."
“That's okay, you didn't know."
Then out of curiosity I asked her if she had any brothers or sisters. She told me she was an only child.
“Me too!” I said, realizing we shared this in common as well.
I'd known of a few other only children in my elementary school, but none of them were from single parent homes as far as I knew. I didn't understand why, but it felt like a sign, like there was a reason our meeting.
We continued walking when Iris suddenly asked, “Didn’t anyone tell you about the ninth grade lawn?”
I turned and looked at her, and she was smiling.
“You saw,” I said, and I could feel my cheeks go red. Then Iris started laughing, but in a way that took all the embarrassment out of it, and I couldn't help but laugh thinking about it as well.
It was the first time all day I felt relaxed. We started talking about what we thought of our new school, of movies we watched during the summer, what music we liked. I’d never talked that much with anyone my own age before, and I was surprised how much we seemed to have in common. I could feel myself wanting to get to know her, and that's when I remembered the book she'd been reading on the bus that morning.
"What was that book you were reading in the morning?" I asked.
She seemed to have forgotten, and then her expression changed as she remembered.
“It’s called The Inverted Forest by J.D. Salinger,” she said. “I’ve already read it, so you can borrow it if you want.”
Before I could answer she swung her backpack around and pulled the book out. I wasn’t much of a reader, but I took it from her, looked at the cover, and said thanks.
A few minutes later, we stopped in front of a small blue house and Iris said this was where she lived.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
“Bye,” she said, and I watched as she walked up to her front door and used her key to get inside.
When I got home, Mom was still at work, so the apartment was perfectly quiet as I opened the door and went in. I threw my backpack on the couch, took off my shoes, and then I went to use the restroom. Afterwards, as I washed my hands in the sink I noticed my reflection in the mirror. On a whim I put some water in my hair and combed it to the side. I did look different, I thought, and wondered if that kid from lunch had only been trying to do me a favor.
Then I went back out, made myself a peanut butter jelly sandwich and took it into the living room. I sat and put my plate on the coffee table. I was just about to turn on the TV when I remembered the book Iris had given me. I went over and got it out of my backpack and started reading while I ate my sandwich.
I was still reading when mom came home a couple of hours later.
As soon as she saw me she asked how my first day was.
“It was okay,” I said, making no mention of getting thrown in the trash, or any of the other humiliations I’d suffered.
The two of us had dinner, most of it prepared dishes she'd picked up at the Korean market on the way home. After helping her clean everything up, I went to my room and started reading again.
"Wow, someone's being a good student!” mom said when she looked in on me a little later.
She started looking at me the way she sometimes did, but before she could get too emotional she turned away and said she was going to be in the living room watching one of her dramas.
I was still reading when it was time to go to bed. I could tell by the look on her face that my mom was kind of shocked to find me still reading, but she made no mention of it, only that it was time to wash up.
I brushed my teeth, changed into my pajamas, and got in bed.
After we'd said goodnight and I love you, she turned out the light and closed my door. As soon as I saw her shadow walking away I turned on my desk lamp and picked up the book again. I only had a few pages left, and I was determined to finish. When I finally did, I closed the book and left it on my chest as I lay there staring at the ceiling.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d never read a book cover to cover like that before. I tried to think about the story, to figure out what it all meant, but I wasn’t sure I understood the point. At the same time I felt a sense of accomplishment, like I’d done something important with my time, which was the exact opposite of how I felt after spending hours in front of the TV.
The next morning I couldn’t wait to get to the stop so I could tell Iris I’d finished her book. As I was getting ready for school, I wet my hair and combed it to the side like the day before, but this time I used a little bit of my mother's hairspray to make it stay.
“Sang-min, you look so handsome today,” my mother said when she saw me come out of the bathroom, and I was glad she didn't make a big deal out of it.
When I showed up at the stop Iris saw me with my new hairstyle and smiled.
“If I didn’t already know you, I’d think you were cute, Simon. I guess it’s too bad I already know you,” she said.
I didn’t know how to respond, but I took it as a compliment and it made me feel good inside. Then I grabbed the book out of my backpack and handed it to her.
“You finished, already!?!” she asked, and I nodded.
“I’m impressed. So what’d you think?” she asked.
“I think I liked it, but I don’t know if I really understood it,” I said.
Iris eyed me, and then replied: “Hmm, I don’t think you should think of it like that. A book isn’t like a riddle or a puzzle you’re supposed to solve.”
“Then how am I supposed to think of it?” I asked.
“Think of it like any other life experience. Like when things happen in your life, they just happen, they don’t always make sense, right?”
“I guess not,” I said.
“I like to think reading a book's the same way, it’s just another experience. So how’d you feel after you finished reading it?”
I tried to recall how I felt as I lay in bed the night before after putting the book down.
“Like I’d been reading for a lot longer than I really was,” I answered. “But I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
“I think that means you liked it,” she said.