Fiction, Vol. 2.3, Sept. 2008
The trouble with the apartment began last Tuesday, when three men came to take the windows away. I peered around the metal door of my apartment and pretended to understand the tall one’s staccato words, which blurred in my ears. When he finally paused, and tugged on the bottom of his army-green utility vest, I bowed slightly into the small silence between us, frustrated that I didn’t know what he was saying. He pointed to the back of the apartment and walked past me through the kitchen to the living room. A musky industrial scent filled the air as the other two men followed him to the balcony.
Was it the gas meter? The water dispenser? Or the washer hook-ups? I didn’t know how to ask these things, so I gazed out the door past the other clusters of identical high rises into the hazy Bukhan Mountains. The early afternoon smelled like a construction site. I thought about all the people flocking north of the Han River for this air I could barely breathe; it always darkened the inside of my nose by the end of the day.
But then again, what exactly was I doing here in the northeast of Seoul? I had recently arrived with only a handful of Korean words left from my twenty-some years in the U.S. My aunt had never told me why I’d left Korea as a child to live with her in Chicago. She never spoke of my parents, as if my life had started with her. But I’d known for some time about my older brother, who’d arranged this apartment for me. I’d only recently met him and was hoping he could tell me more about our family. I wanted to write a script about them. I’d won an award at a film festival and had spent the cash on my passage back to Korea.
Walking to the large bedroom next to the living room, I sat on the floor cushion in front of the sutra table and continued working on my laptop.
Three men just came to my door, I wrote. They are on the balcony now, making a lot of noise. What should I do?
The shuffling and mumbling continued; then the front door slammed, leaving the apartment cold and breezy. When I stepped onto the balcony, the vertical blinds were flapping hard against the guardrail, the wind pulling me closer to the windowless edge.
How did they remove the glass panels from the sliding doors so quickly? And when would they bring them back?
I looked over the edge and felt like jumping. I saw myself tumbling forward and down through the crisp open space of autumn, disintegrating into pieces before I hit bottom. I saw my brother gazing up at me from the parking lot below with a cigarette in his mouth leaning against his SUV, smiling. He wouldn’t be in his grey robes, the ones I’d seen him wearing at the temple where I first met him. Instead, he’d be wearing black-and-white golf attire, light breezy slacks with a polo top. His thin lips would move, asking what I wanted to do, if I wanted to see the latest blockbuster film, if I’d eaten dinner yet.
I hadn’t gone to the balcony in a while because it smelled of fish. Twenty-five fish drying in wicker baskets, ripening in each day’s sun. My brother had brought them a couple of weeks earlier, saying he was worried about my stomach. “Sun-joo, you must increase your weight with meat,” he said.
The fish were alive, I thought. Their innards would burst out and beg me for their lives if I cooked them. Better off to let them sleep until death came.
Before the fish, a case of persimmons, a box of pears, a bushel of rice. “You must stay healthy,” he said. “Persimmons shine the pale skin, pears fatten the blood, fish grow muscle and bone.”
“Oppah, why did they take the windows away?” I wanted to yell to him now. “Did you ask those men to clean them?” But he wouldn’t understand; he doesn’t speak English. We’d been communicating with gestures and a dictionary.
A car sped out of the parking lot, and Oppah’s image faded in my mind.
When will I see you again, Oppah? I typed in my laptop.
I don’t like this not knowing. I don’t like this needing.
The last time I’d seen my brother, we’d fought about a boy. Oppah begged me not to see Ji-tae again.
“Not here in Korea,” he’d said. “In America, you can do as you wish. But please, not in Korea.”
As soon as he said this, I knew I would meet Ji-tae again.
Earlier that night, I had tried to avoid Ji-tae’s hand in the karaoke room while Oppah sang his favorite song deep and loud into the microphone. I’d met Ji-tae only once before. He’d arrived drunk, though I’d warned him about my brother. I knew Oppah wouldn’t like Ji-tae’s hand on mine. And I knew Ji-tae wanted my brother to see.
After too many drinks and songs, we stood outside the singing room on the sidewalk, which was still crowded.
“Do you like her?” Oppah asked Ji-tae. Oppah’s back looked unnaturally straight as he stood in front of Ji-tae who was almost a foot taller.
I walked away from both of them through the heavy August air, amused by my brother’s tone. Was this how he usually acted?
“Maybe,” Ji-tae said.
“Will you take care of her?” Oppah asked.
At that, I turned toward them. Ji-tae pushed his floppy bangs away from his eyes with both hands. “I can only take care of myself,” he said.
“Then you will never see her again,” Oppah said, his voice shaking slightly.
Ji-tae walked away, grinning.
I marveled at his English when I called him later to apologize. He had studied in the U.S. and spoke remarkably well. He had already decided we wouldn’t see each other that night, as we’d previously planned. But he called the next evening, late, the languidness in his voice pulling me out of my half sleep. He told me he wanted to drive to my apartment; I told him to meet me in front of my favorite 7-11 in the Hae-hwa Rotary.
“I just ended it with my girlfriend,” he said as I sat next to him in his car. The dashboard glowed blue.
“I thought it was already ended,” I said.
He slouched. “It is final now.”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, pushing his hair from his eyes. “Where do you want to go?”
“Let’s go to your neighborhood,” I said, though I wanted to stay near my apartment.
He drove us to a small after-hours soju house—low lighting, rough floor, makeshift seating. It smelled warm and earthy. The ajumah fell asleep in her chair after serving us a scalding stew of hot red peppers and tofu along with the soju drinks.
“You are arrogant,” I told him when he asked why I liked him. “But it’s a malleable kind of arrogance.”
He laughed in a way that made me think he knew what malleable meant. It was easier to talk to him when he drank.
“Will you stay at my place?” he asked, and poured more soju for us.
I turned to the scribbled paper walls, then back to him. “Yes.”
“Will you sleep with me?”
I poured him another shot of soju. “Yes.”
“Really?” he asked through a big smile. I saw the gold fillings in his back teeth for the first time. “How do you know that?”
I knew we’d sleep together the first time I saw his face.
But that was the last time I saw him. He doesn’t answer my calls now.
The day after the windows were taken, the church ajumahs came to take me away. I opened the door to sweep out the foyer when two of them rounded the corner of the outside walk-up.
“Moshisseo,” the first one said through a gasp, putting her hand on my hair. “It’s so pretty.”
“Mmm,” the second one said. “Nice and long.”
The women were both short and round with frizzy short perms.
“But your eyes are small,” the first one said. “You should get the eye surgery.”
“Are you cleaning?” asked the second one, a little rounder through the middle.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m a little busy.”
“Only a few minutes,” they said as they pushed their way into the foyer.
I stepped up onto the kitchen floor and took my slippers off at the edge of the shallow step. Keeping the straw broom between us, I tried not to make eye contact.
“Please listen well,” the rounder one said in her shrill voice, and for the next minute the only word I understood was yae-su-nim.
“Come together for Jesus,” she continued, and the other one handed me a trifold brochure.
I tried to piece together words in Korean that never came out. How could I explain that I couldn’t go to their church?
“Buddhism,” I said finally, more softly than usual.
“Oooooh,” they said, their mouths perfect rounds of fuchsia.
At that point, I half expected my brother to climb over the side of the balcony in his grey cotton robes and walk into the kitchen for a cup of his favorite instant coffee. He’d be wearing a string of mahogany beads around his neck with a tiny carved Buddha dangling on the end.
He had taken me to his temple in the Bukhan mountains, where he’d been a Buddhist monk since he was a child. I’d been thrilled to see what he’d been doing for the last twenty years of our separation. He’d walked me through the front gates in his rough linen robe, his near-middle-aged body thick and stocky, his shaven head exposed. He’d shown me women bowing in lantern-lit rooms for a new year of good fortune, sweating into towels placed carefully over sturdy cushions. He smelled faintly of mothballs. And he gave me dduk guk—bowls and bowls of savory garlic sesame broth with thin ovals of chewy rice cakes and slivers of dried seaweed. It tasted so good, I thought it must be made with meat.
“No meat here,” Oppah had assured me with his toothy smile. “No alcohol and no cigarettes either.”
Later, I felt the golden rice paper on the walls of his small rectangular room, a warm backdrop for the black electronics carefully arranged against the longest stretch of wall. Multiple layers of TVs, VCRs, stereo consoles, video projectors and DVD players stacked high on traditional low-lying Zelkova dressers.
When I asked him what he did at the temple, his body stiffened. “I am an official propagator of the Buddhist faith,” he said as if addressing a tour group.
“It’s okay,” the ajumahs said after their oooooooh. “You come to our church anyway. Together.”
Then they grabbed my arms and tried to muscle me into the elevator. Their faces crumpled when my feet didn’t move. They were strong, but I was stronger.
“Let’s go together,” they kept saying, the smaller one prying at me with swollen pink fingers.
“What are you doing?” I asked in my firm English.
“Oh,” they said, and released my arms. They were nearly out of breath.
I smoothed out the sleeves of my grey cotton hoodie. “I can’t go,” I said in Korean.
“Then we will call you later,” they said. “Please tell us your phone number.”
I copied down the number from the Chinese take-out sticker on the shoe bin next to me.
“Friday,” the rounder one said, forcing a smile. “Please come at noon. We will call you.”
By that hour, my brother would have finished his coffee and washed the mug in the sink.
The next day, two more ajumahs with curly perms came to take my money away. They banged on the door, yelling as if something were wrong. When I opened the door, the older one, out of breath, asked for water. I thought she might be the neighbor I always hear but never see. She followed me inside to the kitchen as if she knew me and drank a half-liter of bottled water.
Her voice growled with cigarettes and coffee; the two words I understood were children and money.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
She slumped down in the chair and began again in her gruff voice. She sounded as if she were repeating herself. The younger woman sat in the chair between us.
Her last sentence: “Do you have any money?”
“No,” I said. My prize money only covered the basics, and I had little cash on hand. Even the electric bill was overdue.
The older woman’s face twisted. “But how?” she asked leaning her elbow onto her knees. “This apartment is so nice. How do you pay for it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, still standing.
Her gaze scanned the space and landed on the balcony. “Then how do you pay for food?”
The younger one fidgeted in her chair.
“What’s this?” the older one asked, fingering some silver coins in a square basket on the shoe bin.
Her companion stood up. “Don’t,” she said.
The first one turned to me. “It’s okay, right?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
She slowly counted out the coins with her weathered fingers while the younger one shifted uncomfortably.
“One dollar fifty cents,” she announced. “Do you have an envelope?”
“We don’t need it,” the younger one said. Then she walked to the shoe bin and quickly scooped all the change into her purse. “I’m sorry,” she said as she pulled the older woman out of the apartment.
When I went to the door to make certain they were gone, I couldn’t open it. I pulled and pushed on the handle, then began pounding on the door. Did the ajumahs do this, or was it just broken? I looked for the apartment manager’s number but couldn’t find it anywhere.
Why do they keep coming to my door? I wrote in my computer.
Never let strangers in!
Today is Thursday. Oppah should be here by now.
That night, without windows, the cold bursts of wind entered me unapologetically, creeping in as far as the bone. My brother still didn’t answer his phone, didn’t respond to my repeated phone messages. Perhaps he was sleeping on his own mats underneath day-glo silk comforters on top of the heated floor. Perhaps he was sleeping with his girlfriend in a love motel. Or maybe he was eating kalbi and drinking soju with friends.
I curled up on piles of quilted cotton blankets arranged on the laminated paper floor and tried to summon the warmth. Drifting off into a half-sleep, I hoped the red would not come. Lately, it had drenched my sleep—first a pink rose, then deeper and deeper into scarlet. I needed all my energy to generate heat. But there it was again, the red entering me before I could fall into the other world.
This time, a woman’s voice shot out of the red, reminding me that I hadn’t seen her in many years. That I’d been here at the apartment for almost two months. Her voice was low, raspy, warm.
“I know, Omma,” I heard myself say into the scarlet. “I record each day on my computer. I remind myself every day.”
It was the first time my mother had come to me in my sleep.
“Do what your Oppah says,” she told me. “He’s older than you.”
“Do you know where he is?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, he’ll be there soon,” she said. “Remember not to wear your tennis shoes when you walk on the treadmill,” she added. “The ajumahs don’t like that here.”
“Why did they get so angry?”
“Don’t ask for the tofu stew mild,” she continued. “You will learn to love the red hot peppers. It will make your stagnant blood flow again.”
The next night, I was still locked inside the apartment. Neither my brother nor Ji-tae had called. I was twenty stories high in the northeast of Seoul with no one else to call.
Inside the scarlet red of my sleep, I saw the living room floor buckle with small waves of simulated wood linoleum. The waves slowly cracked open like paint peeling in the sun; then a blood-red tree pushed its way through the cracks. It grew a massive trunk of thick gnarled bark and branches that stretched to the ceiling and into all four corners of the room. The lush flowering of leaves floated precariously, each leaf like a scarlet moth. Smooth, acorn-sized nuts fell onto the floor, now torn apart by a growing network of roots. They smelled pungent, foul.
Inside the tree, I saw Omma among the leaves, her hair a curly bouquet of dazzling crimson, her eyes soft crescents. Had she really turned into the bloody colors of autumn, the last day Oppah saw her? He told me he’d forgotten to buy clementines for her that day, the juicy ones she loved. I’d lined the apartment with cases of them, keeping them until I could no longer stand the smell of rotting citrus flesh.
Her face in the tree was smoother than I’d imagined, a creamy oval of beige. One dark mole in the middle of her left cheek; unkempt eyebrows, a generous span of brow, blurry brick-red lips.
Not long after I met Oppah, he and I had tried to lure her back on her birthday. I’d arranged all the red globe grapes and the softball-sized pears, along with the clementines, on the black persimmon altar. I’d put the steamy dduk guk, prepared vegetables and five-grain rice on the bottom. We’d opened the door after lighting the candles and burned the special paper and incense. Although the candles had flickered a bit, she never came; she stayed wherever it was she’d gone.
Since then I had felt Omma inhabit my body occasionally, especially at night when I forgot to wear my mouth guard. I had been grinding my teeth for years, sharpening them into little daggers. (The Korean doctor I’d seen back in the States had told me that soon, I might not have any teeth at all. “Koreans are grinders,” he’d said when I asked why. “It runs in the blood.”) I felt dangerous during the night without the plastic guard molded to my upper incisors, as if the serrated edges of enamel might injure someone. I always woke with a throbbing pain in my jaw.
“You were my flower, and that’s why they sent you away,” Omma said from the tree. “And the fortune teller told me to send your brother to temple.”
Her face faded back into the leaves. I tossed and turned in bed, but the voices kept coming. “Sun-joo,” Ji-tae’s voice said from the tree. “I’m afraid of your brother.”
The next morning, the front door slammed open. I heard a man’s voice yell.
Lying on the mats spread on the floor, I was trapped in the space between sleeping and waking.
“Oppah?” I wanted to yell back, but nothing came out.
“Sun-joo, are you in there? What happened to the door?” he asked as he entered the room.
“Where were you?” I asked. “Where have you been?”
He looked toward the balcony. “Why did you let them take the windows away?”
“I’m running out of persimmons, and the fish have rotted,” I said.
“Those idiots,” he said, turning away. “I made the payment on time.”
I tried to sit up.
“Do strangers always come to the door here?” I wanted to ask. “Do they always take things away?”
“Here,” he said as he handed me spiced cinnamon water in my favorite cup. “You’ll be okay.”
“That’s what you always say,” I wanted to tell him. But I drank the water instead.
“Did a fortune teller really send you away?” I asked. “That’s what Omma said.”
“Sun-joo,” he said. “You are my sister. I’ve brought more persimmons for you. If you cook those fish, they will be fine. And stay away from that boy,” he continued, walking away from me. “I can still see him in your eyes.”
All I was seeing, though, was the scarlet of the tree and the brick red of Omma’s mouth.