What is Expected of Us

Copy Paper: Ream 1, Eunsong Kim
The Flying Object, 2015
Available on the Quaint website.
Copy Paper: Ream 1, Eunsong Kim
The first time I tried to read Copy Paper: Ream 1, a slim pamphlet of poetic prose by Eunsong Kim, I was sitting on the toilet (lid closed) as my kids took a bath. I should have known better than to trust two-year-old Willa and four-year-old Emmett to entertain themselves peacefully. Just a few pages into my reading, I heard screaming and looked up to see Willa shoving her two index fingers into Emmett’s two nostrils. Like, shoving them hard and knuckle-deep up his nose.

Presumably, Emmett thought this was a fun game until Willa started hurting him. By the time I got her fingers out and sent the two of them to opposite sides of the tub, Emmett’s nose was bleeding freely and he was well and truly done with this game. I suspect Emmett would recognize the dilemma faced by the “clients” who populate Copy Paper: Ream 1, men (and at least one woman) who hire actresses to play games—“Maid? Funeral Home? Space Robot?”—with them and discover that some of the actresses are changing the rules midgame.

Copy Paper: Ream 1 opens with one such actress “who begins understanding what is expected of her.” And in the slightly shifted universe of Copy Paper, what is expected of her is not just starring in a television show but also

She is to save the dry cleaning for her manager to give to her assistant, eat slower, drink as though watched, and frequent the hotel rooms of politicians the like.

After she “has an idea to be something more than a sad statistic,” the actress goes to a hotel room to meet a client, undresses him, puts his clothes on herself, and then wraps him up in sheets and writes demeaning words all over him. “It is after this that she begins to document. No longer amused he asks her to stop.” No longer amused, indeed. The game is fun until it is clear that the client is no longer in charge. Until it is clear that the actress is the author and that she is documenting the scene.

Other actresses join in, taking advantage of their clients when they are vulnerable, when they are naked. The actresses continue to document, with cameras and notes, their actions. They do not do what is expected of them. Unsurprisingly, “[t]he injured protest and point to fading bruises, bandages freshly aroused. How much more are you willing to risk, they repeat.” But the other clients just can’t “let go of so many beautiful things at one time.”

Copy Paper: Ream 1 is filled with such perfect observations. Every time I read it again, I notice another detail about this fictional world that is so real as to belie the very idea that the work is fiction. After the media outlets finally respond to the actresses’ transgressions, the actresses send “boxes of cash” to the police stations:

A note is included, it reads:

What we were paid (hoping this could be included as evidence in the trial)

The actresses know, of course, there will never be a trial. The clients themselves are behaving abominably, using the actresses as disposable dolls. They can hardly press charges against those same actresses without exposing themselves for what they are. The courts and police here are as useless as they are in ourworld.

In another note, the actresses warn, “Do not be confused . . . we are not all together. So many of us look alike so you’ll never believe it.” I often feel like this world treats my friends and me as interchangeable widgets, as little more than pretty or useful depending on how old we are. But most discouragingly of all, Copy Paper observes that the games the actresses play are “a lot of trouble for such small shocks. . . . But this is what our free time allows.” Reading the text is like peering through the looking glass, seeing the world I know refracted and bent but undeniably recognizable.

Neither of those worlds—our own broken and patriarchal system or the warped universe where actresses wrap clients in saran wrap—is the world I want Emmett and Willa to grow up in. Of course, I want to teach Emmett that he can say NO when the game stops being fun. But I worry most about Willa. I worry about how the world will respond to a girl who does not do what is expected of her, who shoves her fingers up the nose of the patriarchy.

I worry that if Willa is as outspoken as I am, if she believes she can change the world, the world will step in and remind her what she is expected to do. And oh, how I do not want her to know what it feels like to be put in her place, to be told to shut her goddamn mouth—or worse, to shut her pretty little mouth. Hopefully, Willa will never “disappear for this,” as the manager threatens the actress in Copy Paper, as I have been threatened myself by men (and women) with the weight of the system behind them. Hopefully, as Eunsong Kim imagines, my daughter “next time will be a jaguar/and eat them all alive!”


Sarah B. Boyle is a poet, mother and essayist. Find her online at impolitelines.com.