Limits by Sung J. Woo


Sung J. Woo is a writer living in New Jersey (USA). Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in Pindeldyboz, KoreAm Journal, Storyglossia, Hyphen, and The New York Times Magazine. His debut novel, Everything Asian, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books in April 2009.

Notable Story - Million Writers Award
Editor's Choice - 2008 Raymond Carver Contest


In mathematics, the concept of a limit is used to describe the behavior of a function as its argument either gets close to some point or as it becomes arbitrarily large.

That’s what I was trying to understand back in 1990, my senior year of high school, sitting at the dining room table in the apartment that my parents and I called home. It was the middle of March, and though I was thoroughly confused, I was also laughing because an idea popped into my head.

My mom, who was sitting across from me with the day’s paper in hand, looked up from her bifocals to ask, “What’s so funny?”

She spoke in Korean because she didn’t speak English very well, and neither did my dad for that matter, but they didn’t need to because they owned a dry cleaning business. Next week. Stain not come out. Thank you, come again. Those and a few other catch phrases were all that they needed to know to get through a workday.

I hadn’t even realized I was laughing. “I was thinking of Chuck,” I told her.

Now I’m no dummy, but compared to my best friend Chuck Rifkin, I was a dummy. Chuck was numero uno, valedictorian of our class. He also played varsity basketball, a point guard with a deadly three-point shot from the corners. He had a girlfriend who was as sweet as she was pretty. And his dad was a doctor, and his mom was a lawyer.

But here’s the thing about Chuck: underneath that veneer of confidence was one insecure guy. I knew him well enough to know how much it scared him to be anything but the best. It was kind of funny if you thought about it, and that’s why I was laughing while I was in the middle of not understanding the concept of a limit, because I had a letter to write.

.  .  .

I was on my computer when dad came home, reeking of that familiar and sweet cologne of perc. That’s perchloroethylene, the chemical used for dry cleaning, and even though he took a long, hot shower after work every night, he still smelled of it. I never told him that, not wanting to embarrass him, but I wish I had because then maybe he would still be alive. For someone who never smoked, he died of lung cancer before he collected a single Social Security check. At some level, he must’ve known what the chemical was doing to his body, because he never let my mother work as close to the machines as did.

But back then, my father was healthy and strong and good, and he snuck up behind me to see what I was doing.

“Doing your homework like a good boy, right?”

“Of course,” I said.

He mussed my hair, sank into the couch, and turned on the TV. I went back to the task at hand.


CAMBRIDGE, MA 02139-4307

Dear Mr. Charles Rifkin:

Thank you for applying to the finest institution of higher learning in the known universe.


“Good to see you enjoying your school work,” my father said when he heard me giggle.

Even though you are an eminently qualified individual, I’m afraid you do not possess that certain, shall we say, je ne sais quoi, that we desire in an MIT student. Being valedictorian of your class is not enough. Earning your varsity letter is not enough. Scoring a perfect 800 in the mathematics section of the SAT is enough, but 780 in verbal, I’m sad to say, is not enough. You, Mr. Rifkin, are not enough. Not for MIT.

I apologize for being the bearer of such difficult news, but I must uphold the ideals of our founders. Simply put, we can’t just let anybody in, especially you.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Karl Hoaagland, Ph.D Emeritus

I waited until my father was done watching his Korean television show to print, because my printer back then was the dot-matrix kind and it sounded like a chainsaw ripping through wood. I read the letter again, chuckled again, and fed a #10 envelope into the printer and typed up the address of Charles Rifkin, my best friend, into my word processor.

.  .  .

It didn’t seem possible that Chuck and I shared the same zip code, but we did. My parents and I didn’t live with crack addicts or murderers or anything like that, but there were enough sketchy people around us in our apartment complex to keep us on our toes: men with tattoos, women with scars, kids with cigarettes dangling from their lips. But once you crossed the highway and drove past the cemetery and the A&P, the town of Oakridge changed. The space between houses widened, lawns became greener, and suddenly all the homes looked like Chuck’s, a living room with a cathedral ceiling, a two-car garage, a swimming pool that lit up at night and filled the back yard with its aquatic shimmers. For obvious reasons, when Chuck and I hung out, we did so at his house. He’d been over to my home a couple of times, but it didn’t make sense to spend time here. Not when it was just more pleasant, more beautiful, to be where he was.

So when I received the phone call from Chuck two days later, I could envision it to the last detail. Chuck pulling his Toyota Celica into the left bay of his garage. Walking past his mother’s herb garden and down the red-bricked pathway. Opening the wooden mailbox that looked like a miniature model of his house. Taking the letter out and looking at it, his hands shaking. He’d start reading with apprehension, but then would ball it up and call me to say what an utter asshole I was.

“Joe,” Chuck said, his voice tiny, almost unintelligible through the receiver. “Jesus, Joe, I got a letter from MIT.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. He was hamming this up. I sort of expected this. “You’re crushed.”

There was silence on the line for a good five seconds. I thought maybe we’d gotten disconnected, but then Chuck spoke again.

“Don’t fuck with me, Joe. Yeah, I’m crushed, I’m fucking crushed. I mean I’d heard these admissions officers at MIT were tough, but this letter…”

I covered the mouthpiece with my palm and howled. If this was anyone else but Chuck, I would’ve told them right then and there to read the letter, I mean really read it, but this was too rich. This was Chuck. I knew he would forgive me for torturing him.

“… not enough, that’s what this Dr. Hoaagland said. I mean I can sort of see that, I guess, because maybe I don’t have enough extra-curricular activities…”

I had to get myself under control. I thought of sad things—Ethiopian kids with distended stomachs picking through garbage, Debra Winger on her deathbed in Terms of Endearment, but in actuality, I didn’t have to go very far. I thought of my father’s eyes watering from the fumes expelled by the dry cleaning machine, my mother’s arthritic fingers working to let out a girl’s Easter dress.

“Look,” I said, “it’s not the end of the world. I mean you applied to eleven other schools, right?”

Again, silence.

“You know MIT was my first choice.”

How could anyone in their right mind think this letter was real? Not only was it written ridiculously, it didn’t bear the university’s official seal, nor was it on any form of MIT stationery, and later I would see that I had even forgotten to sign the damn thing because I’d been laughing too hard.

The only way someone could believe a document so patently fake was if they were expecting it, and suddenly I felt a terrible pity for my friend. He was capable of being anything—an astronaut, a brain surgeon, President of the United States, for God’s sake.

“Hey, Chuck,” I said, but he cut me off.

“Hold on. I’m getting another call.”

Chuck had call waiting and I didn’t. Chuck had a lot of things that I didn’t have. Was that the real reason for this little joke of mine, good old jealousy? Jealous of him, of his parents, of his house, of the fact that he would without question get into MIT and every other school he applied to, while I would be lucky enough to get waitlisted at Boston University?

I don’t know. I do know that while I listened to the quiet hum of the telephone line, I wasn’t thinking of any of these things. Because back then, I was a stupid teenager doing stupid things and not exactly into reflecting on matters as we tend to as we get older.

The phone clicked. “That was Josh,” Chuck said, his brother. Josh was a class ahead of us, and he was attending Harvard. “I gotta go. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Wait,” I said, but he was already gone. I dialed him again, but the phone kept ringing, meaning he was ignoring the call waiting signal.

I replaced the phone in its cradle. I thought about driving over to his house, but the idea of telling Chuck in person didn’t seem so hot. Not that he would lash out at me—or would he? No, never. Chuck was a kind soul. Even during the basketball game against Christian Brothers Academy this season, when it seemed like every other player was getting into a fight, Chuck stayed above it all, calming down his teammates to lead our team to victory.

Mom came home at six to make dinner. She caught me on the phone, dialing Chuck’s number again, which now picked up on the fourth ring. I’d already left three messages and didn’t want to leave another.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” I said, trying to act as even-keeled as possible, which probably made me sound a little frazzled.

She came over and touched my forehead.

“You sure you’re okay?”

I batted her hand away and got up. “Christ, Mom, I said I was!”

She shrugged and went back to the kitchen.

I ate. I waited. I called. At nine, I finally got through.


Chuck’s mother.

“Hi, Mrs. Rifkin—is Chuck around?”

“Hi, Joe. Sure, he’s in his room—I’ll bring the phone up.”

She usually picked up the phone in the kitchen, which meant she would walk by the grand piano in the family room, then the antique sideboard with the Hummels in the foyer.

“How’s it going with you, Joe?” she asked. I tried to figure out if Chuck had told her the news. It didn’t sound like it because she sounded chipper, but I wasn’t sure.

Up the main staircase of the Rifkin household, there were pictures of Chuck and Josh and their little sister Jody, photos of them as babies, their toddler years, the three kids playing and growing up together. What was it like to have siblings? I knew brothers and sisters fought, but I figured it must be nice, too, to have somebody other than your parents who knew you so well. It seemed like a luxury that I never had.

“I’m doing okay,” I told Mrs. Rifkin, then added, “How’s Chuck?” But she’d already uncoupled the phone from her ear, because I heard her speaking to Chuck in the background.

She came back online. “Here he is.”

“Thank you,” I said.

I heard the door close.

“Hey, man,” Chuck said.

I’d never heard him sound so low. I didn’t waste any time. “Chuck, buddy, please don’t hate me. Please, please, please don’t hate me.”

“What the hell are you going on about?”

“The letter. The envelope. Look at the envelope, Chuck. Look where the stamp was cancelled, where it was mailed from.”

I thought it would be better if Chuck was able to draw his own conclusion. At least that’s what I told myself.

“I dialed you right after you hung up. You must’ve heard the call waiting, but you were talking with Josh. Then I called you again, like a thousand times, I swear, you got those messages I left you, right? I left you like three messages, but don’t you guys also have caller ID? Can’t you see that I called you like a million times? Chuck? Chuck? Are you there? Chuck?”

My friend—if I could still call him that—cleared his throat. I waited. And waited and waited and waited for Chuck to speak, and if he wanted to keep me there all night, I would’ve done it.

But I didn’t have to wait long at all, because this is what he said before hanging up on me:

“You. You’re dead. I’m gonna fucking kill you.”

.  .  .

Instead of killing me, Chuck had downgraded his threat to a punch on my arm. I was to stand still while he readied himself. We were at our lockers, right before my pre-calc class.

“This is gonna hurt,” Chuck said.

Chuck wasn’t tall, but he had hands large enough to easily palm a basketball. So when he made a fist, it was like a boulder.

He wound up. It would hurt, but the way I figured it, I was getting off easy.


The damage had been minimal, according to Chuck. He only told Josh of the letter, so his parents weren’t aware of my shenanigans, which relieved me hugely. They’d always liked me, and I always felt privileged that they accepted me for who I was and where I came from.

“Okay,” I said, bracing myself for the impact.

The fist flew straight, the fist flew true. It did hurt, but not as much as I thought it would… or it should? I didn’t know. Guilt has a way of distorting other feelings, so maybe it was a fitting punishment after all.

Days passed. Chuck didn’t mention my fake letter to the rest of our friends, which was fine with me, and a week later, it turned out that he got the last laugh, as he showed me the official letter of acceptance from MIT.

“You didn’t write this one, too, did you?” he asked.

“I knew I wouldn’t have to,” I said.

“How’s it going with your letters?” he asked.

For me, the rejections were piling up. Boston University didn’t even bother to waitlist me, University of Virginia wished me much luck with my future endeavors, none of the better schools I’d reached for felt the need to open their doors to me.

“I think it’ll be Rutgers for me,” I said.

“It’s a fine school.”

Which was true. But it had been my “safety” school, and I couldn’t help but feel like a failure.

After school that Friday, Chuck and I and a bunch of our friends drove to Point Pleasant Beach to hang out. For being the end of March, it was surprisingly warm, and we roamed the boardwalk and goofed around, munching on cotton candy, getting our fortunes told by a robot psychic, tossing brass rings toward the necks of white bottles to win stuffed animals we never wanted in the first place.

Around five, we decided we had enough and headed back to the parking lot.

“You wanna come over later?” Chuck asked. “My dad fixed the ping pong table, so if you’re up for it…”

“Name a time, man, and I’ll be there,” I said. Ping pong was about the only game where I had a chance against Chuck.

I got in my Chevy Chevette and cranked the engine. It sputtered but wouldn’t catch. I waited a minute and tried again, but still nothing.

All the cars were gone except for Chuck’s, which was about to pull away. I jumped out of my shitty, broken car and hailed him.

.  .  .

Sitting next to him in his Celica that still smelled brand new, I said nothing as Chuck got on Route 35 north. He knew as well as I did that this was not the way to go home.

Chuck signaled left and ramped up to the Garden State Parkway, again heading north. We drove for another half hour until I spoke.

“So you haven’t forgiven me,” I said.

“Nope,” Chuck said and smiled. “But I will. When we’re done.”

“Can I ask where we’re going?”


“Where are we going?”


“Are you really going to kill me?”

His smile got wider.

“Nope,” Chuck said. “What I will do, though, is buy you dinner.”

An hour later, we stopped at a town called New Belleville in upstate New York. The sky had turned a deep purple, a thin band of pink left on the horizon . We pulled up to a gleaming eyesore called Joe’s Diner.

“Love the name,” I said.

“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” he asked. It was, actually. The diner was at the top of a hill, and below us, the lights of the city twinkled like Christmas lights.

“Come on, Joe,” Chuck said, getting out of the car. “Let’s get some grub.”

Despite being kidnapped, my appetite was in full force. I ordered the turkey plate special, with dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, the works. We each had dessert, a peach cobbler that was to die for.

“I’ve been working on this since that night,” Chuck said. “That night you called.”

“And what exactly is this?” I asked.

Chuck took a long slurp of his soda. He belched.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” he said.

We left at eight. At nine-thirty, we were back in Point Pleasant. Chuck popped the trunk of my Chevette and held his little flashlight between his teeth. I watched as he reconnected a couple of wires.

I cranked, it started.

“Tomorrow,” Chuck said, leaning into my window and pointing at his right arm, “you can punch me right here.”

.  .  .


That was what was waiting for me at home.

In Korean, certain English consonants don’t exist, like V or R. And sometimes two syllables elongate to three. So that’s how Harvard becomes hah-bah-deuh.

It was an overnight delivery from UPS. Because Chuck had wanted to make sure it came on this day, while I was out, so my parents would see it. And would open it, since it was addressed to them.

It was from Cambridge. Which was possible because of Josh. I’d been double teamed, and never had I felt a greater pang of sadness for being an only child.

The letter itself was on a thick, fibrous blend that felt almost like cloth.

Unlike my half-assed forgery attempt, this letter from Harvard, this letter that Chuck had crafted, was undeniably real. The crest—was there actually gold paint around the crest? My goodness, there was. And inside the crest were three little open books with the letters VE, RI, and TAS inscribed inside them, veritas, meaning truth.

Which was ironic, because this was not a letter of rejection but of acceptance.

My parents, their faces. I always thought that the phrase “their faces lit up” was a figure of speech, but no, it wasn’t a figure of speech at all but a physical manifestation. These faces were three-hundred-watt flood lamps, their eyes like beacons, their noses pyramids of luminescence, their teeth bright white billboards of bliss.

Chuck, you fuck, you fucking fuck.

How could anyone in their right mind think I would apply to Harvard, let alone be accepted?

The only way somebody could believe a story so patently ridiculous was if they were expecting it. And my parents, in their poor, innocent heart of hearts, in their hopeful dream of dreams, had been expecting it.

Dad recounted how it happened. How he came home from work, and my mother showed him the envelope. Even they, with their limited English vocabulary, recognized the universal symbol of academic triumph, those seven heavenly letters emblazoned on the return address label, HARVARD.

“We waited, but you were gone and we didn’t know when you’d be back. I asked Mr. Reed from downstairs to explain the letter to us,” my father said. “Oh, my son, my smart, smart son, you… you…”

He couldn’t finish. I’d never seen him cry so hard. It was frightening to see him lose control like this.

“How come you didn’t tell us you were applying there?” my mother asked. “Did you want to surprise us, was that it? Oh… oh!”

They held each other’s hands, and they wept, and I didn’t know what to say.

.  .  .

I continued not to know what to say as they made one call after another to Korea to spread my amazing news to relatives I didn’t even know I had. They told every customer who came into the dry cleaners. They told everyone in their church. Apparently I was the only student from their congregation to have the honor of attending the finest institution of higher learning in the known universe.

Everyone wanted to see the letter. They wanted to hold it, bask in its glow, run their fingers over the gold outline of the crest, touch its magic. A week later, the letter had festered to tragic proportions.

“You have to tell them,” Chuck said, guilt having replaced any satisfaction he’d gleaned from his countermove.

We were in his room, and he was pacing while I sat slumped on his bed.

 “Why don’t you?” I asked.

Chuck threw his hands up in the air. “We’re back to this?”

He was right. We were like an old married couple, bitching about the same thing over and over again: you wrote the letter, I wrote it first, your fake was worse, I started it, etc.

“I’m gonna call Josh.”

“Why?” I asked. “So you guys can have one final laugh together?”

“No,” Chuck said. “I think he can help.”

He dialed, and Josh picked up on the second ring. He sounded distracted, but not for long.

“WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING?” Every word made the speakerphone vibrate on the desk.

“You’ve implicated me in this sick, puerile thing. What are you, twelve? And you Joe, you’re not exempt from anything, because you initiated this asinine enterprise.”

There had been no double teaming after all. Chuck had lied to Josh about the contents of the envelope he’d sent from Cambridge, leading his brother to believe that he was partaking in an experiment for an economics project that compared the delivery efficiency between UPS, FedEx, and Airborne.

“He actually fell for that?” I asked Chuck after Josh had hung up in disgust.

He shrugged. “Yeah, and he’s a Harvard man. You sure you wanna go there?”

I couldn’t help but laugh, and so did Chuck. It was a relief to laugh, even if everything was going to hell.

We played hoops that evening. Basketball was my worst sport and it was Chuck’s best, so there was never any threat of competition. We took turns shooting baskets, and at one point, Chuck made twenty-two free throws in a row. It would’ve been twenty-three, except we heard the phone ring and it messed up his timing.

It was Josh.

“I don’t like this. It’s wrong, it’s probably idiotic, but it also may be the right thing to do under the circumstances. Joe, you said your parents don’t speak English very well. We can use that to our advantage. Next year, I’m going to be heading the freshman orientation committee. So here’s my plan. Listen up, you imbeciles.”

.  .  .

August 28, 1990. My Chevette was loaded up with books, suitcases, a lamp, my computer, all of my essential belongings stuffed behind me and crammed beside me. I glanced at my rearview mirror, and though most of my back window was occluded, there was a sliver of space between the drying rack and the baseball mitt, and through it, I saw my father and my mother sitting in their station wagon, waiting to follow me to Cambridge. To Harvard.

Josh had called the night before to assure me that everything was set. I was to meet him at Canaday Hall five hours from now, and he would show me to my room. My parents would see me unpack, they would take pictures, they would kiss me goodbye, and then I would pack up and drive another six hours to my actual destination, Ithaca College, in upstate New York. As luck would have it, Ithaca had their orientation on the same day, and I would arrive by nightfall.

I can do this, I thought. I’ve lied to them for the last five months, and I can lie to them for the next four years.

As I sat there, my engine idling, peering at the eager faces of my parents—my extremely well-dressed parents, my mother in an expensive burgundy dress, my father in a triple-breasted suit—I knew I was at a crucial juncture on the road of my life. I had a choice, and the accretion of these choices, both good and bad, would make me the person I’d grow up to be.

Is this how I wanted my life to play out? Really?

I didn’t have air conditioning, and it was already scorching at eight in the morning. The forecast had called for rain, but not here, and not in Cambridge, but in Ithaca. It would rain in Ithaca, and I would be feeling those raindrops not at night but sooner than that.

I got out of my car.

My father rolled down his window. The week before, he had the A/C fixed in his car just for this drive.

“Dad,” I said. “I’m not going to Harvard, and neither are you.”

.  .  .

But no, that’s not true at all.

I didn’t say that to my father. I didn’t even get out of car, because I drove. I drove to Cambridge and my parents followed. I met with Josh, and with a smile on his face, he moved me into my dorm. I took the hands of my parents and we walked through Harvard Yard and paused in front of the statue of John Harvard, which I explained was also known as the statue of three lies. Its inscription read “John Harvard, Founder, 1638.” In actuality, the statue was not modeled after John Harvard, Harvard did not found the university, and the founding was in 1636.

“I don’t care,” Dad said, gazing at the sitting bronzed figure. “He’s beautiful.”

And then they were gone. Josh helped with the repacking, and I drove to Ithaca, where there was indeed rain, days and days of rain.

That freshman year was the hardest year of my life. Not only did I have to deal with new surroundings, new friends, new everything on a daily basis, I also had to motor to Cambridge twice, in the fall for Parents’ Weekend, and in the spring for graduation. I tried to talk my parents out of coming in May, but they wanted a taste of what they would see four years later, and I couldn’t refuse.

I worked my ass off that year, mostly because I wanted to transfer to Boston University. It was fifteen minutes instead of five hours from Harvard, and it was within the realm of possibility for someone of my academic prowess.

It took me another semester, but by the middle of my sophomore year, I was at BU. The novelty of their son attending Harvard had waned by junior year, so they only visited me for Parents’ Weekend, but now that the dry cleaning business was doing well, they also got caller ID on their phone, so it was a good thing I was now ringing them from the same area code as Cambridge.

I had two graduations the following year, thanks to Josh. He knew enough people to make it happen, and really, it wasn’t that difficult. I rented a cap and gown, stood in line, and told my parents that I didn’t receive my diploma that day due to my unpaid library fines.

A week later, I had my own graduation, and both Chuck and Josh were there to congratulate me.

And now it’s eighteen years later, and I’m married to a woman who has come to understand my strange story, who’s willing to play along for my mother, who’s going to be here any minute now.

Dayna unhooks my BU diploma and replaces it with the Harvard knockoff, a color-copy creation based on Josh’s.

“Is it straight, or is it hanging crooked?” she asks.

In mathematics, the concept of a limit is used to describe the behavior of a function as its argument either gets close to some point or as it becomes arbitrarily large. I didn’t understand it then, but I think I understand it now. The function is me, the argument is my lie, and the limit is this life I lead.

The diploma looks perfect, and that’s what I tell my wife.