I come back to the dorms from winter break to find my new roommate dry-shaving her face in a cracked compact mirror. She hums as she scrapes the razor against her cheek, a sad tune I will never know. There is no visible fuzz on her cheeks, no discernible sound as the razor grazes skin. I don’t raise any of these points or ask any questions because I’m trying this new thing where I don’t judge people instantly or clutter conversations with my curiousness. The new roommate tells me she was born Woo-Kyung Cho, but prefers to be called Valerie.
Okay, I put a hand out for her to shake, Valerie it is. I’m Aura.
I know, she smiles, waving a thin sheet of paper bearing a UC Berkeley seal. The university told me we would be rooming together.
Woo-Kyung Cho, now Valerie, turns back to her compact and rolls a finger along her chin. She puckers her lips before she applies the razor. This is my first semester at Berkeley, she says to the compact.
I think to ask why she’s starting classes in the middle of the year—I haven’t declared a major, she shrugs, but I’ve got designs on Ethnic Studies with a focus on the modern minority in Europe. She snaps the compact shut and asks about my major, in kind. I fill her in on my film courses, about my love of Fellini and Visconti.
Miracle in Milan will always be a favorite, she agrees, pinning her hair into a tall bun. And I simply adore Italian men, don’t you? All of my boyfriends have been Italian. There is a small tattoo on the underside of Woo-Kyung-Valerie’s wrist, an infinity sign. It’s positioned next to a horn shaped birthmark the color of weak tea.
We’re discussing my plans to study abroad in Venice when she pitches the razor in my trash bin.
So sorry, she winces, I don’t have my own yet.
I tell her it’s no problem and offer to help unpack a box of sweaters.
You’re a sport, she says.
Within minutes we develop a system, a rhythm. I put the sweaters on hangers and Woo-Kyung-Valerie arranges them in her new closet. She tells me her father is a diplomat in Korea, her mother a depressed kleptomaniac in one of the Carolinas, she doesn’t remember which.
I ask a few questions about Korea and she becomes anxious, puts up a hand.
My family is Korean but I don’t really identify. I’m what you might call a citizen of the world. Her family has lived everywhere: Massachusetts, Benin, and Guatemala.
I pass the last sweater and pivot to a neutral topic.
I’ve never been to Guatemala, I offer, but just finished reading this fantastic Rigoberta Menchú biography. Her fight for women’s rights really resonates.
Woo-Kyung-Valerie sniffs and points to my music collection. Are those CDs yours?
I nod and she floats over to my desk, thumbs through a stack of discs.
Souls of Mischief, she beams, excellent taste!
She slides out the cover, asks if I remember where I was when I first heard “’93 Til Infinity”. I am midsentence when she picks up a photo of my brother Ellis and I. It’s a shot where his eyes appear to be a lighter blue than mine and I’m braiding his hair into swirl of plaits. His hair is parted in the middle, a short afro. One side is braided flat to his head, the other is curled and puffy, awaiting attention.
So you braid, she sits, cool. I admire the art.
I don’t do it a lot, I shrug, only when my brother asks.
She studies the photo with renewed intensity.
Both of you are so fair skinned, she says.
There is no question pending so I don’t comment. Instead I decide to ask about the shaving, a fair exchange since she feels free to comment on my skin tone.
Valerie, I say, I notice that you—
Wait, she stops, flicking her forefinger against the photo. Are you mixed? No offense, but you and your brother have got to be mixed. I spent time in Africa and I’ll bet a hundred dollars you’re not all black.
I glare and say nothing, don’t feel compelled to tell her that my mother is Sicilian.
She mistakes my silence for reluctance and puts a hand on my shoulder.
Be proud, Aura. It’s okay to be who you are.
I inch closer and lean in until my lips brush her ear.
Same to you, Woo-Kyung, I whisper. Same.
About the author:
Esme-Michelle is an attorney based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Boston Review and was recently featured at Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival.