In Sung Woo’s story “The Suitcase,” a man, confronted with a marriage proposal, quickly proceeds to wreck his relationship by stealing a foreigner’s suitcase. There is perhaps much to examine here from a Freudian point of view. What female body part might the enclosed suitcase represent? Freud has written that the uncanny–unheimlich–is that which is “un-home-like,” familiar yet not familiar, that which terrifies by leading one back to what one has always known but has since forgotten. For Kristeva, the foreigner also exemplifies the uncanny because the foreigner is the “hidden face” already present in one’s identity, “the space that wrecks our abode.” Woo’s story welcomes all of these interpretations but evades them too. Hilarious, surreal, like a joke that is just steps from the punchline, “The Suitcase” is a trip into the native motherland of the heart, wherever that may be.
I was surrounded by people I did not know. Very happy people. Painfully happy people, their ebullient smiles a muscle tic away from turning into grimaces.
“I am just so incredibly happy for you two!” a woman said to the couple sitting together on the loveseat, a woman who’d introduced herself to me when we met this evening.
“Thank you so, so much,” Benjamin and Veronica said, together. They actually said the word “so” twice, in lockstep. It was creepy.
And it was also their engagement party. I knew them, but just barely. They were friends with my girlfriend, Jen, who was in the bathroom and had left me to fend for myself for the last ten minutes. I had a good angle to that bathroom door from where I was sitting. I felt it opening up…right now. Nope.
“Oh, how lovely!” Veronica said. The woman whose name I’d already forgotten had handed her a gift while I was pining for Jen’s return.
What the hell was Veronica holding up? It was all chrome and egg-shaped and a bunch of the people around me ooohed and aaahed. It was as large as a helmet and looked heavy, like if you accidentally dropped it on your foot, it would obliterate your toes.
The door to the bathroom opened. My Jen, all five feet of my little woman, I’d missed her so, so much. That’s not a joke. I really did miss her when she was gone, but now that she walked towards me, sat down next to me, took my hand and held it close to her chest, and now whispered this and that into my ear, leaned into me – I almost wished she was back in the bathroom.
“Hey,” Jen said, “why don’t we just get married?”
Back from the engagement party, we were sitting on the new couch we bought last month. That she bought. We were supposed to buy it together, but I didn’t have the cash. So Jen bought it. I paid the taxes, though, which was better than nothing.
Jen was smart, she was attractive, she wasn’t spectacular in bed but neither was I – people said we should get married. We’d been boyfriend-girlfriend for two years and living together for one.
“Are you talking to me?” I could’ve joked, but it wasn’t funny.
“Okay,” I could’ve said, but it wasn’t okay.
Why wasn’t it okay? Was it a question of love? Did I not love Jen enough? Or was it some other pop psychological issue, like me not being breastfed or not loving myself enough? Well, it was true, I had not been breastfed and I did not love myself very much. Obviously it was too late to fix the breastfeeding thing, but maybe I’d feel better if I got my mother on the phone and told her she really screwed me up. Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do to be an authentic person, confront your fears head-on, accuse the person who wronged you, reclaim your chi or whatever?
While I flipped and flopped these terrible ideas in my head, precious seconds were fluttering away. The proposal was losing its freshness, beginning to rot.
In the end, by saying nothing, I suppose it could’ve been interpreted that I pretended not to have heard her. At least that’s what I overheard Jen say into the phone to her sister that night in our bedroom, trying her best not to cry.
Our apartment, our home, became an unfamiliar space. We still slept in the same queen bed, but no longer did we speak of upgrading to the capacious king. We could now easily fit two additional people in the valley of the bedsheet between us. The kitchen sink, which used to house teetering towers of dirty dishes, stayed eerily empty.
Because I had no job, I was home a lot. I was without a job because I had gotten fired. Or laid off, I suppose, though it felt like the same thing. I was a Tech Support Level 2 Associate for a large computer gaming company, meaning I didn’t ask the idiotic questions like, “Are you sure your machine is on?” Instead, I asked about the location of the configuration file, the version of the video driver, questions I had learned to loathe in the four years I worked for them. After the company’s latest foray into smartphone gaming resulted in ugly losses, they had to cut costs. So a team of smiling consultants came in and interviewed everyone in my department, and rumor had it that if you wanted out, this was time to do it because the severance packages were the bomb.
So like a boxer paid to take a fall, I listed all the things that were wrong with my job, my department, my company. I bitched and I moaned. Basically, I just told the truth. Even though I’d wanted to be let go, it sort of hurt when they told me to empty out my drawers.
That was five months ago. Severance turned out to be a mere firecracker, two meager months of my salary. So I was collecting unemployment, spending an embarrassing amount of time reading snarky web sites where people commented on paparazzi photos of celebrities in compromising situations, and staring out the window in the kitchen when I saw him. And her.
In the year that Jen and I had been living in this apartment complex, neither of us had taken much notice of the guy who lived in 4A by himself. There was nothing striking about him – about thirty, of slight build, not too tall, not too short. Like the other anonymous neighbors surrounding us, he left for work in the morning and came home in the evening. Sometimes he returned hugging a few bags of groceries.
But his singular predictable existence changed on this day when he yanked open the passenger door of his car. A redhead, a woman, about his age. He popped the trunk and lifted out her black suitcase as if it were a treasure, briefly holding it against his chest.
I watched them as they held hands and walked into his apartment. After a few minutes passed, they came back out and headed for the car. Her face was like a potato sliced in half, flat and white and substantive. Not exactly pretty, but there was something heavy and hearty about her that I found comforting.
After they left, I crossed the courtyard and sauntered up to the gray block of mailboxes. I scanned the little doors and found the name: GARIBALDI, MIKE.
For the next few days, I kept tabs on Mike and Ms. Potato Face. Mostly I saw them get in and out of Mike’s Toyota, but on two occasions they walked around the courtyard.
Mike was no longer going to work, so either he was fired like me, or he was on vacation. He didn’t seem like the type to get fired.
Even though they walked close to one another, there was a buffer of awkwardness between them. Every so often, I saw them attempt to close up this gap, but there was a certain desperation to their efforts, and frankly, I wished they would stop, because it made me feel as if I was watching something private.
On day four, they kissed. Right in the middle of their walk around the courtyard, by the beds of red and white tulips, they went at it with open mouths and probing tongues. And I stopped feeling guilty for peeping.
On day six, they were gone, because when I looked out my window during lunch, Mike’s spot was already empty.
Mike and Ms. Potato Face might have had the time of their lives on day six, but it was a shitty day for me, because it was when Jen asked me to sleep in the other bedroom.
She came home from her loan-officering job at the bank, put down her briefcase, and said, “Would you mind sleeping in the office?”
That’s what we called the guest bedroom, which was the office because in addition to a twin bed and a dresser, it had a desk.
Jen sat down next to me on the couch, but not close enough so we would touch. She pried off her heels, her toes finally free of their daily constriction. Sometimes Jen would close her eyes and put her feet up on the table, and I would watch her little feet slowly return to fullness. Her pinky toes were the first to uncurl. It was like watching a flower bloom.
But now her feet were under the coffee table, hidden away from me.
“I think it just would be better, that’s all.”
“Okay,” I said.
I have trouble sleeping as it is, so I knew it would take me hours, so I just stayed up, going to the kitchen window every so often to see when Mike’s car would return.
At midnight, I asked myself why I was waiting for the arrival of a stranger’s car. I felt stupid, empty, and alone.
At one, I started to get mad. Where the hell were they? Hitting the beach during the day, a lovely seafood dinner at a fancy restaurant, then bar-hopping until last call. Assholes.
At quarter past two, the car returned, and I was overcome with relief and fell asleep to the rain drumming against the house.
On day seven, a little after eleven, Mike’s door opened. No one came out, but I heard what sounded like an argument. I cracked my kitchen window and yes, there were definitely words being thrown around. And then there was something else actually thrown, a black suitcase, the kind built to fit inside the overhead compartment of an airplane. It flew over the steps and past the bushes and landed on the grass. It rolled over twice before coming to rest on the sidewalk.
Ms. Potato Face was next to come through the door. I thought she was going to retrieve her suitcase, but no, she cut a hard right and started running through the courtyard, her feet splashing through rainy puddles.
Mike was next.
“Stop!” he yelled.
But Ms. Potato Face didn’t stop, and she quickly ran out of view.
Then Mike ran out of view.
I rose from my chair. Somebody had to get that suitcase before it got soaked.
It was cold outside, mid-forties at best, but I took my time to arrive in front of the suitcase. I felt the rain. Droplets slapped my skin, rolled down my arms.
I picked up the suitcase and carried it back to my apartment.
Which was not my intention. What I had intended was to carry it to Mike’s apartment and lean it against the door to keep it from the rain, but once I felt that faux leather handle in my hand, I knew I was taking it home.
I looked out my kitchen window. The courtyard remained empty, and the rain now fell in sheets. If Mike and Ms. Potato Face were still scampering about, they were swimming in it.
A black tag with a clear plastic window was attached near the telescoping handle. The insert read:
55 WHITCOMB DRIVE
BROOKVILLE, NJ 07864
Another address bled through the back of the card. I opened the sleeve and flipped it over to the other side:
I looked out my kitchen window and saw that Mike and Maria had returned. They were looking at the spot where the suitcase should be.
I was a little afraid for possessing an object that didn’t belong to me, but excited at the same time. I knew friends who shoplifted when we were kids, but I never got into that. This was different. After watching these two for all these days, it almost seemed like my right to have this suitcase.
Mike and Maria went back into their apartment.
The rain petered out to a mist.
Jen came home and saw the suitcase.
She didn’t say anything, and then I realized – shit, she probably thinks I bought a suitcase, had it packed up as if ready to hit the road, a threat for her booting me out of our bedroom.
She slammed the door to what was now her bedroom, and didn’t come out for hours. When she finally did, she asked if we could talk about this.
“What about?” I said.
She was like a unicorn about to charge, her golden horn grown from layers upon layers of sadness and disappointment.
“It’s not my suitcase,” I said, but then again, it kind of was.
Next morning, Mike and Maria got into the Toyota. It felt funny to open it while they were still here, so I waited until the car drove away.
People sometimes say they are living out of a suitcase. For two weeks while I was at the Y, I lived out of a suitcase. When I stayed with my mom while she was sick, I lived out of my suitcase. Maria had granola bars in here, a little bottle of water, even a small Ziploc bag of vitamins. She had a red poncho rolled up into an impossibly small cylinder, which I felt badly about opening up because I couldn’t shrink it back down as neatly as she had. Each t-shirt was folded brick-sized and layered into rows and columns.
Once I had everything out, I was left with an empty rectangular space that was lined with a black fabric softer than velvet. I imagined crawling inside, drawing my legs and arms into my belly. Pull the flap of the suitcase closed, run the zipper around until there was nothing but perfect darkness. Float inside its sheltering warmth, its silent solemnity.
Peace. Nurture. Love.
The car returned around lunchtime, and as soon as Mike got out, the door next to his apartment, 6A, opened. An old lady lived there.
She raised her hand to get Mike’s attention.
The old lady walked up to Mike. She was saying something. Then she extended her arm and jutted out her index finger and pointed right at me.
The doorbell rang. It rang again.
Mike Garibaldi leaned over and peered through the veranda window, and our eyes met. He rapped his knuckles on the door.
“Excuse me!” he yelled. “I see you!”
Maria’s suitcase was in the office, my bedroom, its innards splayed out onto the floor.
Like a horror movie, Mike tried the knob of the front door. If this continued to be like a movie, then Mike would either slam his shoulder into the door or kick it down, but he did neither. Instead, he spoke his next words with equanimity.
“Listen, Mrs. Payton lives next to me, and she thinks she saw you take the suitcase that was outside yesterday.”
She thinks she saw. It was dark, it was raining, she’s got Coke-bottle glasses, and why would I, a sane person, take someone else’s luggage and then lie about it? If Mike stayed reasonable, I could even admit to him that I did take it, that I was keeping it safe because his door was locked and I couldn’t place the suitcase inside it.
I opened the door.
“Hey,” I said.
Mike’s eyes were a pale blue, his skin even paler.
“Give me the fucking suitcase,” he said.
“No,” I said.
Blurted it out, a pure defense mechanism.
“No, I mean, because I don’t have it.”
Mike’s eyes narrowed.
“Look,” he said. He leaned against the doorjamb and looked away as he spoke. “I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.”
I nodded. It was a relief to agree with him.
“There’s nothing of value in there. It’s just her clothes. No jewelry, nothing.”
“I told you,” I said. “I don’t have it.”
Deny, deny, deny.
Mike left without a word.
That evening, half an hour after Jen had come home, the doorbell rang again.
“Who is it?” Jen asked.
“The police, ma’am,” the voice said. “Please open up.”
His name was Officer Jonathan Peterson, and his badge was gold and shiny and the blue pants of his uniform were so sharply creased they looked like blades.
Behind him stood Mike Garibaldi, arms crossed, lips thin.
Maria’s suitcase was still in the office. Was this what it was like being a criminal, the fear so oppressive that breathing became difficult? If so, it sucked being a criminal.
“How can I help you, Officer?” Jen said.
“Mr. Garibaldi called us this afternoon. He believes his suitcase is in your possession. It’s twenty-two inches high, black, rolling type of luggage.”
Jen slowly swiveled her head toward me.
“Have you seen a suitcase?”
I didn’t want to sound too eager. Nor did I want to sound purposefully lackadaisical.
“No,” I said.
“He has it,” Mike said from behind.
Officer Peterson closed his eyes for a second and said, “Mr. Garibaldi.”
“But he does, Officer, Mrs. Payton saw him carry it into…”
Officer Peterson turned around with great reluctance.
“But Mrs. Payton is not here.”
“I don’t know where she is,” Mike said, starting to sound desperate. “I think she goes to visit her son sometimes.”
“Can we just resolve this right here, right now?” Officer Peterson asked Jen. “May I come in?”
Jen looked at me. I would have given a million dollars to know what she was thinking. Well, maybe not a million dollars, but certainly a hundred.
“No,” Jen said.
Officer Peterson, who up to this point had looked like a pleasant enough man, puffed up his chest and slung his hands around his belt. It was like seeing a man turn into a werewolf. If this was the persona he used to scare people, it probably worked very well, but not on Jen. Nothing made her angrier than threats.
“Not unless you have a search warrant, Officer Peterson. Do you have a search warrant?”
“I can get one,” he growled.
“Then please do so, because you’re not coming in here without one,” Jen said.
Officer Peterson stared at Jen as if he had heat-ray vision.
Jen stared back with nails for eyes.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered as he walked away.
Jen closed the door gently. What a fool I was. She was so strong, so beautiful. I blew my first chance, but I wasn’t going to blow this one. I got down on one knee.
She smiled a smile that wasn’t a smile.
“And what is it that you think you’re doing?” she asked.
I got down on the other knee.
“I want you to take the suitcase and leave.” She walked into the kitchen. “Tonight.”
Brookville was two and a half hours away. I got there a little before ten.
It was a small yellow house with black shutters. A For Sale sign hung from the mailbox, the teeth of the grinning real estate agent glowing white off my headlights.
The night was cold and clammy after the rain. The wheels of the suitcase cut two tracks through sodden leaves. There were no lights on in the house. Which was fine. I just wanted to drop it off.
As I neared the door, motion-detecting floods blinded me. I pulled the luggage to the porch and turned to go when the front door opened.
“Hello?” the voice said.
I considered just leaving, but there was no need to be rude.
“Your suitcase,” I said, shading my eyes.
She stood inside, in darkness. With the floods on, I couldn’t see her at all.
“You are the man who lives on other side of Mike.” She spoke with a Russian accent.
“I see you,” she said, then corrected herself. “I saw you. You saw us, but I saw you, too.”
I opened up my hands, palm sides up.
“It is okay,” she said. “You have eyes, you see what you want to see.”
I waited for a few seconds, and thinking she was done with me, I was about to walk back to my car.
“Why did you take my suitcase?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It was raining, it was there, I have no job, I was curious, I’m weird, I’m stupid.”
The flood lights went out, and now I could see her silhouette.
“All good answers, they are,” she said.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out her face. It was a sweet face, a caring face.
“Mother,” I said. I had only meant to think it, but there it was, the uttered word between us.
She tilted her head slightly to one side, then nodded, as if she’d figured something out.
“Za rodinu,” she said.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Mother,” she said, then added, “land.”
“This is home, yes.” She tapped her fingernails against the doorframe. “But is not motherland.”
She pulled the suitcase toward her. She pushed the handle down, and it disappeared into the cradle with an audible pop.
I stood where I stood, and she stood where she stood.
I waited, and she waited.
For what? We did not know. But it felt okay to wait, maybe even better than okay, for whatever came next.