I turned around to check whether the llama was still there. There he was, as fluffy and clueless as before, lashes waving as he sat on a tattered red mat thrown on the aisle.
With the final amen, the piano clamored, our cue to stand and fumble through the dusty church hymnals. In the typically impatient manner, the choir began to sing without waiting for all to stand. The noise as my cover, I could finally ask the question that was hovering in my mind ever since I entered the chapel that morning.
“Hey,” I poked Peter’s shoulder in front of me. He turned his head, eyes squinting.
“What…” I turned around to check whether the llama was still there. There he was, as fluffy and clueless as before, lashes waving as he sat on a tattered red mat thrown on the aisle. “Is that…?”
“That,” Peter said, “is Jessica’s emotional support llama.”
“Koreans don’t have emotional support… llamas.”
“Well, Jessica does.”
“Why does she need an emotional support llama?”
“Since, you know,” Peter lowered his voice, now smothered underneath the blanket of the choir. “She dropped out of MIT.”
The jipsanim next to him, still singing, glared at us, attempting to shame us into Holiness. Her formidably teased hair silenced me for a minute until curiosity won over again.
“When did Jessica drop out of MIT?”
“Like a few months ago? This is her first day back at church, I think.”
I didn’t get it. Jessica Park was the smartest, most driven girl I knew. She was one of the few Korean girls in the Huntsville area to go to college up North. She had to fight everyone to go there—the entire church, every adult in her family.
The pastor didn’t approve, the jipsanims didn’t approve, and the elders definitely didn’t approve. She was the primary subject of gossip during afternoon Bible study for months. The Sunday before she left for Cambridge, the pastor gave a sermon on how daughters should stay close to home with their loving parents until they were ready to become a loving wife. Why would any God-fearing man take a woman who had left her father’s roof for so long? How would he know she stayed pure during the time she was away? The world was after our girls like a lion roaring at the gate. It was the church’s obligation to protect them from the world. The parishioners proclaimed, amen, amen, remembering the times customers at the laundromat patronized their accents, when neighborhood teens stole from the store suspecting they were easy targets, when medical bills arrived in the mail and they waited for their children to come home to interpret them. Amen, we must protect our girls, we must protect our children, we cannot trust anyone else but ourselves.
Back then, the youth group had planned a goodbye party for her after service, with cake and marinated short ribs ready for grilling at the nearby park, but Jessica had left early, even before Benediction, affirming the jipsanims’ belief that the poor girl needed prayer so that she would come back into the loving arms of God.
“What a waste to spend that much money to educate a girl,” my dad said to my mom during the car ride home.
“The Parks must have done well for themselves,” she said.
While Jessica Park was away, my mom would ask me how she was doing. “Is she going to church? These fancy colleges are breeding grounds for sin. I hear these days, girls from Seoul are as liberal as white people, I really do worry about her.”
But if I’m honest, I’ve never really been that close to Jessica, even though there were only three girls our age at youth group. It wasn’t like I was actively avoiding her. But I always felt like she was different somehow, in a way that made the pastor praise her during Bible study about how the church was blessed with a modern-day Miriam, careful to remind us that Miriam caught leprosy as punishment for disobeying Moses, in a way that the jipsanims, clad in black and gray, would talk to my mom about how Jessica Park looked lovely in red, her favorite color, and how they never had the courage to wear such bright colors. All of this kept us girls away from her. She was forbidden. She was dangerous. Yes, Jessica Park was smart, Jessica Park excelled as much in Bible study as she excelled in school, but that didn’t seem to matter to the elders. I only imagined she’d be happy now that she was away, which is what I had told my mom. I imagined she’d be happy that finally no one was talking about her without talking about her, pretending she didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t ask my mom why she never asked about the boys that went to fancy colleges, why no one was worried about them living in sin.
I wondered what would happen now that Jessica Park was back, in Huntsville, at this little no-name church, without the degree from the college that sparked a thousand gossip trains. She had nothing to protect her but an emotional support llama.
“I guess with the llama, no one is talking about her anymore,” I said.
“She’s depressed, not stupid,” Peter said.
I looked back to see the llama again. He was sniffing inside someone’s open Louis Vuitton purse, likely a jipsamin’s most prized possession, slouched on the seat at the end of the pew. I watched as the llama nibbled on the bag’s tan-colored handles, blinking its sparkling globe eyes. The seat next to the purse was empty as if its owner had left for a restroom break. Behind the seat, I saw Jessica Park surveying her llama. Her lips curled in, fighting against her cheeks. She reached her hand out to stroke the llama’s neck, her fingers curling around his wavy fur.