One fact about my father—he wanted to live, and he didn’t mind killing. He knew silence, the way woods breathe. How to quiet his youngboy skin, enough to ease into a pond, snatch and skin frogs, and sell them to local farmers as chicken feed. Ten frogs for a handful of sugar balls. Exhilarating—the catch, the kill, the candy.
Maybe that energy drew my mother to him. She said he was a wild one: a runt with short, spiked hair and boulder-like thighs. Back in their home country he could do anything. Ram into startled chests yelling yah! jashiga while scrambling around a tackle; catch a torn, leather rugby ball thrown between two grown men; or fly weightless though the air. Tour with the Seoul national team, compete in China, Japan, and Korea.
My dad and his teammates sang hoarsely in Koryo University’s bar after a victory, way before karaoke, so the whole room joined in chorus. Way before stripping fish callused his hands, way before me. Through the drunken ruckus, dim lights, flicker of soju through shot glass, she saw him. His bright teeth, finely cut cheekbones, gold-flecked eyes. He saw her lit cigarette, unruly hair, and her wiry, wide smile.
This is the way I imagined it on nights when I was forgiving. I knew there must have been some wick lit, some smoke and burn, although neither of them will admit to it or pain themselves to remember. I clung to this because I knew she drank, she smoked, she was wire-thin, sarcastic, and stunning. He saw all this, and wanted it. Her rock-climbing hands. Her quick mind. Quicker mouth, so unlike the soft, mute girls trailing him from game to game. He sensed that she was a survivor, alone—so he bumped his way next to her at the bar, and she let him start their marriage with a joke.
* * *
The morning we ran away, Uma was lying flat on the mattressed floor. Her eyes were crusted shut. At some point, Apa opened the door and stood over her. Ya inyunah, he said. Bitch. He kicked her pillow with his brown workboot, but she wouldn’t look up. After a moment, I heard his footsteps fade into a jingle of keys and a hacking cough.
Uma and I lay in silence until the downstairs door slammed. We heard the van’s tires crush gravel as it rolled out of Whitestone to South Street Seaport, where Apa would buy fresh crates of lemon sole and mackerel from Fulton Fish Market. I imagined him in its green stink, turning up the Korean radio to drown out his thoughts, cutting off smaller cars in traffic.
Come on, get up, I snapped at my little brother Seung. He was ten, with a big watermelon head, and everything he did annoyed me. He lay in bed rattling an old man snore. By the time he woke up Uma had stretched her legs, smoked a Kent in the bathroom and showered. She toweled off facing the balcony. As I walked past, I saw a purple half-moon bruise on her upper back.
I went to my room and yanked my hair into a ponytail so hard my temples ached. A few moments later I found Uma in the kitchen, her curly hair dripping blue stains on her white blouse. She grabbed eight bundles of cash from the ramen box in the cabinet and zipped them into her flowered purse. Pack your clothes, ehdilah, she said. Just your favorites.
My heart hammered in my chest; I couldn’t believe we were leaving. Seung readied his things in neat, ordered rows. He packed two G.I. Joes, a Scarlet, a soldier with a silver face. I stuffed my bag with my whole top drawer, then dumped it out again. I threw in a bunch of T-shirts and underwear, and my only Guess jeans. Uma added my socks.
We rented apartment 1D down the hall from my cousins David and Gracie. Gracie, with her frizzy mess of hair, and David, our resident Nintendo master. Their mother worked in a nail salon in Manhattan and once painted Whitney Houston’s fingers. Their father owned Jewel Avenue Grocery. They lived in Dara Gardens their whole lives, a gated-in housing project in Flushing, Queens, that tried hard to maintain its dignity.
On our first night in Dara, we slept on a dirty gray carpet like three sardines, only a thin sheet to cover us. We bunched up our jackets and used them as pillows. My stomach felt as tight as a closed rosebud. We had only run away twice before, but with empty hands. I stared at the ceiling crack that looked like a crooked smile. We laughed, joked about our drunk uncle Youngwoo, did anything but complain. I watched the window of sky turn pink with dawn.
Uma registered us at new schools: my brother enrolled at PS 365 with Gracie and David, while I walked alone to Parsons Junior High, rustling through a dry, brown piles of leaves. Parsons, a school whose super-super-seniors looked like linebackers; they were famous for daily beating the Jewish kids at the magnet high school across the street. I blended in quietly with the nerd class and made friends with my chubby desk neighbor Daphne.
I was fourteen, with braces, feathered hair, and a rash of small pimples that ran like a scar down my left cheek. Inside I held the capacity for so much love—a pure, yearning desire to reach out to others. But I traded that beauty for a type of fake beauty every time I laughed at Daphne’s jokes or smeared myself with 99-cent lipstick in the girls’ bathroom. My uma spent the days alone, scanning the classified sections of The New York Times. She circled ads and studied them like a test.
At Dara we ate Frosted Flakes and Doritos for breakfast. Uma smoked Kents, and I filled out an application for LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. We read different Faulkner novels that we would later trade while Donahue blared on the TV; her on the futon, me sprawled on the floor below, our shared books an invisible bond between us.
* * *
My mother was the biggest love of my life. Before I could speak English I’d curl into the pleats of her khakis. I’d hang up phones so that people wouldn’t wake her. I wedged my body between her and the pillow when my father once tried to smother her. All of my early discipline, I think, was born from an intense desire to please her. I held in my piss. Stopped wearing diapers. I twitched a shoulder-raising dance that made her laugh instead of scratching off my chicken pox.
Back in Korea she was best hiker, my aunt had said. She climb all the mountain, from the DMZ border to Chejudo. She drink soju like a fishie. I’d look at my mom for traces of this woman; a hard line around her mouth, a glint in the eyes. Sometimes she was there, blinding. But most of the time all I could see was a broken Uma and her cigarettes, which she smoked alone in our back bathroom, fanning out the smoke.
After my father beat her and retreated to the hot silence of his room, filled with the fuzz and glare of TV, I would sit near her in the kitchen corner. But not too close, I learned. Such times she’d flinch from my touch.
I knew her responsibilities intimately: after a full day’s work, she had to cook, clean, stay home, scrub tub, set table, make dinner, stay home, stay home, stay home. Once when I was in kindergarten, I sat through a children’s play about leprechauns with an audience full of other kids, my stomach tight with fear because it was 6:30 and cutting it close to dinner. The green felt costumes with sharp, pointed edges, the painted faces and frenetic children running on stage dizzied and terrified me. What time is it? Let’s go. Let’s go home.
Uma possessed that serrated, metal tinge that bared itself when he wore her down. His hisses and curses—shangnyunah, shibhalnyun!—left us lying on our sides like dull knives. Then she’d spit something harsh and exacting about his mother being a dog. His face would startle awake, a streak of hurt and shock across his cheeks before he pummeled into her. A rush of bile and water filled my belly. For her.
Funny, he’d never hit us, just lift and carry us by our pajamas, gently to the next room. Hit me, I’d cry. Hit me. My father looked at me with disgust and surprise before shaking his head and locking the door.
* * *
While the boys disappeared whole afternoons inside Dre’s comic-book store, Gracie introduced me to her Dara crew—Charvella and little gay Calvin. Charvella hid her smile when she laughed, but she had taut, shiny muscles that flexed every time she pumped on the swings. Three pumps and she was sky high. We’d play with them in Dara Park until their grandma ushered them upstairs.
One night, when Seung and I returned from our new lives, he confessed, I miss Apa. I wonder what he’s doing. I tossed a pillow up at the ceiling. Fuck him, I said. Who cares? But I couldn’t help imagining him then, clearing his throat, taking sudden whisks from his blue inhaler. Sometimes he’s fun, Seung countered. Like when we played frisbee in the park. I turned over, giving him my back. That’s your problem, I hissed. You can’t take sides. That’s why you suck at games—that’s why you suck. You suck, Nuna, he said.
Although I spent most of my energy hating Apa, when Seung got like that I knew why. That Sunday in Flushing Meadow Park, other apas played hat-toh on rice mats and drank OB beer; only our apa tired of it and grabbed the Frisbee. He spread us out over a field littered with dry goose droppings. Under a wide, cloud-specked sky, he threw the orange disc in a long arc. It soared. When our friends threw it back, he jumped, tumbled in the grass, dove to catch even the weakest throws.
I don’t care what you say, Nuna, my brother said. You’re not always right. I turned toward him, this big-headed boy curled on his side like a baby shrimp. Look at you. You think you’re a big shit now? I said, secretly impressed that he was talking smack to me. Hanging out with our cousin David had made him braver. No, I’m not a big shit, he conceded. That’s right, I snapped. You’re a little shit. A little shit. His ragged breathing was audible in the bedroom, so I took my book and headed for the kitchen.
Jackie the lesbian door guard had instructions not to let Apa through Dara’s gates, but he got through anyway. I had stopped to tie my Nike when I felt his hand on my shoulder. Hanah-ya, he said. You okay? I nodded. You staying here now? I shrugged. Apa’s jacket smelled like stale clams; it made my stomach turn. Tell Uma come outside. I wanna talking to her. It was Tuesday afternoon; he had ditched work to find us. She’s out, I said, automatically lying. He shook his head as if very tired. His skin looked dark and ashen around his eyes. Go. Please tell her. Now.
I ran to David and Gracie’s apartment and double-bolted the door, sat stiff on the couch like a small bomb ticking. I wanted to pretend he wasn’t there. Maybe he would get the hint and go away. After a half hour passed, he was banging and cursing outside, saying Hanah! Open up! Ya, shibhalyun! Enough. My mother stopped sifting the rice, her hands still wet. A thin, sharp smell rose from my armpits. Uma glared at me but didn’t move from the counter.
We stared at the shadow that marred the thin line of light under their door. The hinges shook throughout the whole Ricki Lake show. He talked with Lisandro’s father, who came out into the hallway from his apartment next door, concerned—no, my wife is in there. My wife. Gracie and I knelt beside the coffee table, the wood floor hard against our knees, holding our breath.
The next morning my mother said, pack your bags. We going to Florida. We piled into the Hyundai and hit the open road.
Uma drove all night through rain. We couldn’t afford to stop at a motel, and we were scared to park and sleep, so we kept on, country music blaring and windows slit open so flecks of hard water spit on our arms and hair. I scrunched in the backseat with a Jansport propped under my head. I could barely keep my eyelids open. All of a sudden, my little brother shrieked Uma! My mother swerved left, just missing an iron railing. We almost died, she whispered. Rain pounded the windshield. My brother repeated softly, we almost died?
I felt then as if we were the only three people left in a rain-sleek, abandoned world. We sat together in sheets of rain and darkness, headlights, highbeams, silence.
In Florida we stayed with my mom’s friend from Korea, Okja Emo. She lived with her family in a one-story house overlooking a golf course. Uma said, Okja’s strong lady. You like her. Okja is like the man, her husband is like wife; he raise kids, let her do anything. We laughed and lowered our windows. The air down here was cool, fresh, wide. My brother and I counted palm trees along the highway. Uma said, this is our vacation, okay? Let’s rest, get tan.
Okja’s son Scottie was half white and half Korean, but golden. Sixteen, with tight arms and curlicue hair. I was wearing a stupid purple snake T-shirt when we met, but he still gave me a quick up-down and grinned.
While he was out at the hoops, I counted all the basketball and tae kwon do awards lining his bureau (11) and noted the books he read on birds, basketball, and meditation. When he came back, damp with sweat, he asked, Why are you here? In Florida, I mean. . . . Because we hate my dad, I said. No we don’t, my brother said. I wanted to tell him to shut up, but I didn’t want to look like a tyrant in front of Scottie. Well, I do. I hate him. I stared at the silver angel trophy on his bureau and asked, who do you love more, your mom or your dad? My dad. He added, Don’t hate yours so much. You know he loves y’all. He tossed a foam ball into his wall-basket in a cool arc.
When Scottie talked, my body loosened. I bet he made other girls feel that way too—soft enough to relax into themselves. He was gentle, suave, all the things Apa wasn’t, maybe things he used to be but lost before I was born. That night I brought him a mug of Pepsi and a plate of tortilla chips while he played Nintendo with my brother. He said thanks without taking his eyes off the game. My brother snored on a mess of blankets on his floor. I stayed awake in the bunk under Scottie, thinking all kinds of thoughts.
So this was the shape of our new life—slow and easy as a loose cotton dress. Days passing by in a haze of heat and calm white light. Maybe my mother would let us live down here, become neighbors with Scottie. Maybe that other life would fade away like an old stain, only a hint of what remained. Maybe my father would get on with his life and stop pretending we were still at home being a dutiful family until he sat alone with his pot of soggy ramen in the kitchen.
The next morning the smell of sizzling galbi woke me. I trudged into the kitchen where Okja wore a tight perm and a smile. Hey sleepy-ya, she said. She stood there in flip-flops and an orange silk blouse, cooking soy-sauced strips of raw beef. Eat anything, she said in her brassy voice. Look and take, Hanah. She continued gossiping in Korean with Uma.
After eating rice and banchan, I washed the oily dishes and sprawled on the rug by a dusty piano. Okja bought me pastels and watercolors from a local art-supply store. I used them to make my portfolio for LaGuardia High School.
Meanwhile, Uma and Okja made business plans at the table. I looked at their two permed heads under the light. No matter what box brands she tried, Uma’s hair always reflected purple-red highlights in the sun instead of traditional black. Next to Ojka’s stiffly coifed hair, Uma’s unkempt curls looked lovely around her face.
Their talk was punctuated by Okja’s loud exclamations. You beg, you no pick! She wanted Uma to live in Tampa and get a secretarial job at her Tampa Bay Korean Association. But Uma wasn’t having it. I’m not begging. I’m not pick. I don’t want to live here, Okja.
Why? Why? Okja harrassed. Uma switched to Korean. Florida is your home, not mine. I don’t know anyone here but you. I can’t just uproot! I just need some sun and smoke, Ojka-ya. Gimme a break. Plus, I already signed a six-month lease in that apartment. While they talked, I drew Okja’s red heels, then a pink cactus on their back porch. Got lost in pictures, shades of light, the edges of things.
You just like Apa, my mother said, as she settled into the sofa behind me. So much talent, no common sense. I laughed. My dad had spent hours hand-drawing all the lobster and Lemon Soul, Only $6.99!! signs decorating Utopia Fishery, but he had forbidden me to apply to LaGuardia High School because art is no good for life.
I wondered how he was functioning without Uma. Customers probably walked out in droves. Once an old lady had complained about a wormy flounder and he said, Hey, go fish yourself! What kind of mess was he making of the store? What kind of lies was he telling the Korean Fish Store Association husbands about us? I drew until the light faded, and Okja Emo shouted that dinner was ready.
That night Okja’s family sat and passed plates like the families on old fifties sitcoms. I tried not to stare at Scottie’s father, who looked like a giant white cowboy. This is good meat darlin, he said to Okja. Scottie cut the meat into small pieces and ate it like a gentleman. I chewed Okja’s galbi politely. It wasn’t even half as good as Uma’s, and I felt a small pang of jealousy. We never had a meal this laid-back. Ever.
Dinners were torture. After a day of arguing with Italian customers, Apa insulted my mother’s kimchee and slammed the table whenever we spoke English. This is a free country, Uma, I once whined while she chopped scallions. Why do we have to eat together? My mother put down the knife with a soft clatter against the plastic chopping board. Outside is free country, she said, but inside is Apa country.
One Sunday after dinner, Apa remembered his glory years in soccer. Rugby, he corrected. Rugby, soccer, same thing, I said. I was a king! he said, chest puffed out. All the town loving me. I rolled my eyes and left him with the Korean channel and the clatter of Uma washing dishes, ignoring him.
Ojka’s family had gone to sleep hours ago. I stayed up reading Alice Walker’s essay on loving nature; her story of an old man who went around hugging trees. I slid open the back door and slipped out. Earlier I had seen a broadleaf tree by the wall: small, with a thin, round trunk and dark, wet-looking leaves. I wondered whether it could feel me breathe. I stroked a leaf with my eyes closed. It felt cool against my palm, like a frond of water. Then I hugged it briefly, bark against my cheek. It felt like a small grandfather. Patient and a little shaken. I hugged it again, longer, and took a few full breaths into the deep night. A handful of stars above the golf course. Silhouettes of sleeping houses and trees, whose tops swayed lightly.
I slipped back into Scottie’s house and crept into bed. I wanted to laugh out loud at myself, the craziness of it, but knew I had shared a small moment with the night that was mine alone. I nestled into the blanket and stared at the speckled ceiling.
* * *
My life seemed so wide open, but my mother’s life seemed like a series of flights, leaving one unbearably lonely situation for another. When she could no longer bear the sloppy nights at the Koryo bar with her cragged mountain friends, she decided to get married.
She was 31. Ripe. But she found out he was cheating and had gotten a poor Yuhju girl pregnant. My mother, woman of orange blossoms and steel, wept. She hurled words like open scissors at my father. He swore that if she left, he’d become a monk; a husk of a man. So in every wedding picture, Apa stands stoic next to Uma, wearing a wig to cover his bald head.
* * *
My mother had been spending money she didn’t have to try to keep us happy in Florida. After two weeks, only three bundles of cash were left in her purse. And my brother, for all his whining, was decked out in blue Orka gear. T-shirt, cap, and waterproof slippers. When we ate lunch at a Hard Rock Cafe in Disneyworld later that week, three hamburgers and Cokes came out to $45. I gasped. Even Uma couldn’t hide her dismay. Forget it! Let’s not pay, I suggested. I looked around at the studded Elvis jumpsuit, the purple guitar behind plastic casing, and all of a sudden it felt so tacky. Okay, let’s go, I said loudly. Disneyworld my ass.
We drove back up to Dara during the first snowstorm of the year, the air getting colder and colder. But before we left, Scottie kissed me on the cheek and said, take care girl, love ya. And though I had heard him whisper this casually to many different girls on the phone before bed, I swooned at him saying it to me. I wrote Scottie’s name on the misted car window and watched the highway signs pass by in a blur.
After we passed a few New York signs, I started playing with my window button, nervous that Uma might veer off the Van Wyck and go to our old Whitestone house instead of Dara Gardens. Take Jewel Avenue, I said. Take Jewel, Uma.
We finally arrived at Dara, our blue Hyundai streaked with slush and dirt. Yo, I never thought I’d be so happy to see our projects. Little Calvin rolled his eyes when he saw me. He sucked his teeth and said, don’t tell me you back already. Uma complained about the curry smells in our building hallway, but she still insisted that she liked New York better. Too hot down there.
Yeah right, I said. You just didn’t like sleeping on Okja’s couch. Because Uma had pride like she had cigarettes. In her 20-some years with Apa, she never once told her brothers or sisters about the crazy fights. Even the time we spent the weekend at my cousins’, I remember she joked it off. He wants break, we give him break.
At Dara, the ice crusted shut our window and we had to bang the bathroom pipe to make the heater work. My mother started combing the classifieds again, this time in the Korea Times and even the Post. She looked so studious with her big T-shirt, her bifocals and Post-It notes. I spent my time scribbling Scottie’s name in my binder, measuring red beakers in chemistry class, lending out my homework generously to be copied.
Uma now prepared for interviews with a new fervor. I don’t know what she applied for: secretary, post-office jobs. But she left the apartment in tweedy jackets with big shoulder pads and blue eye shadow. Stretch nylons, an immaculately pressed collar. Every morning we parted on 73rd Street. Once I watched her walk away, her back getting smaller and smaller. I prayed she wouldn’t slip in her low heels on the ice-slick sidewalk. But she came home wilted, collar loose and messy around her neck. She reminded me of the blue-purple irises drooping on my eighth-grade homeroom windowsill.
I watched her coming and going from a distance. A small, wild current ran through my veins in Dara. Like firewater. After school I raced in Dara Park with Lisa and Charvella, playing freeze tag and other games years too young for me. Meanwhile Seung set stink bombs in the hallway with David and collected Marvel comic books using wrinkled dollars from Uma’s purse. We still left rusted forks in the sink, moldy peaches in the refrigerator, and rumpled underwear behind the bathroom door. She complained that I wasn’t helping her enough, but I was busy living my new Apa-free life. I was reading about Malcolm X and revolution. I couldn’t be bothered with chores like housekeeping.
One Saturday at the end of February, she called me to sit on the edge of our futon. I passed the telephone interview yesterday, she said. Oh, that’s what it was, I thought. I had been scared to go into the living room while she was pressing the phone all afternoon; I thought she had gone a bit crazy. You know how crazy people do repetitive things to calm themselves into gentle psychosis. They have benefits, she said, With Northwestern, Pacific. Medicare. Health aid, travel discounts, frequent flier. And through a small haze, I heard her oh nyah Daegu laughter, smelled her cold fish and freezer air, saw her bent back straightening off the floor, her wet hair. Her pale moon bruise. When I came back, she was asking me, with her hands pressed in her lap, I have second interview in person. What you think? Should I take? And I was caught by the light in her eyes, those beautiful, watchful eyes that had been missing my eyes for too long, and I said, God, Uma, Take it, take it. Take it.
Sometimes, like Seung, I missed our house in Whitestone. I would never tell her, but I did. It was a chocolate brown condo that rested atop a private hill. When we first moved there, my brother and I raced around the rooms, calling it our mansion. It had a dogwood tree in front that scattered white flowers by the entrance, so for a whole week in June we walked on petals. And I missed my room. The walls taped with heavy metal posters, my easel, all my books and my black double cassette radio. I missed crunching up on my own bed and writing furiously.
But I’d stiffen remembering why we left. When Apa had kicked the pillow the next morning, he put a lid on her decision. It was a hot Thursday near the end of August; the sun was a blazing white eye. The back of my cotton shirt stuck to me as I trudged home from summer school. When I finally reached the living room, I saw chapters, torn pages, and the ripped white spine of my mother’s latest book scattered across the floor. I had given her The Color Purple, half hopeful, half afraid of her reaction. But she had left it on the couch and said, ya, you read too many black people. She finally started reading it because it was the only thing on the coffee table. I picked up the hardcover and the shreds. I opened the hallway closet to hang up my jacket and my stomach tightened. Uma sat inside, staring up at me.
A mess of glowing red hair. Her body tightly folded by the vacuum cleaner. The wool coats draped around her gave off a furry, fishy stink.
For a second I froze and thought, maybe this isn’t happening. Maybe this is some weird, bad dream. Or maybe she corrected him in front of a customer. Or the bathtub wasn’t cleaned, dinner not ready by the time he got home. Maybe he found her asleep with a book over her face on the sofa instead of cleaning. Maybe he was homesick for his country and the hero he used to be, and had nowhere else to release his grief. I never knew why, but no reason could be enough.
That night I snuck into the kitchen and hid a knife under my pajama shirt. The blade felt cold against my fingers. In bed I held it between my palms like a steel prayer. I crept into his room and stood above him, his snores, his garlic sleep breath. My whole body tingled. But the knife remained slack beside my thigh; I didn’t have the strength to lift it. My breaths shallow, I stood there shaking. Then I crept back into my room, and curled up holding the knife. Muffling my mouth with the pillow, I cried.
* * *
Koreans have a word—han. There is no equivalent in English, but imagine a woman striking her chest with her own fist. It’s a pent-up historical and personal anguish that wracks your insides like fire. All Koreans feel it, Uma says, because our country has always had to shut up and listen to bigger countries—Japan, Russia, America. And because of the war that split brother from sister and left everyone’s family missing or dead. People burying jewels, kimchee, neighbors. My parents and their friends, these aging grocers and laundromat owners in Queens, storing losses in their rusted iron hearts.
Korean women suffer from it the most because they carry the added burden of their men. When it loosens, they say han ee pulluhjusuh. Uma talked about han as if I didn’t know what it was, but living in that house, with frustrations stacking up like unpaid bills, it built up in me steadily. Even though I was young, it gathered in my bones, curled my back, made my clothes wilt on my frame. But moving to Dara, it felt like someone took the loose end of my hem and pulled. I unraveled beautifully, crazily, loving the bright, hard nights that glittered like asphalt, exhilarated by the free fall and confident that there would be hands, waiting.
But Uma’s han was too heavy. She had an immovable, centuries-old Korean woman han; the kind you get from raising six orphaned brothers and sisters after the war. My uma died so young, she said, I’m just trying. I want you go to good school, marry rich, she said. Don’t live like this. She motioned to the nothing in our apartment, the brick wall outside our kitchen window. Above all, she was practical, organizing store checks while wearing bifocals, making neat grocery lists on index cards with small print, chopping onions into perfect square bits. Her wild flights amazed me, but after a spell, they faded.
* * *
We had lived in Dara for exactly seven months when I entered the apartment and found my mother leaning against the wall with one leg up, newspapers spread in a disorganized fan around her. Early March; the biting air had just begun to thaw. Something in her eyes made me drop the bag and say in a flat voice, what. She twisted the phone cord coiled around her arm like a tan snake.
I knew she had been talking to him because of her dull look. Hanah, she said, the store is going down. Losing customers. So what? I said. And? It needs me. she said. It was true; old customers entered the fish store asking for her by name—Hey, Sue! Where’s Sue? She shook their liver-spotted hands and expertly cut Mrs. D’Angelo’s half pound of salmon without asking. She patted Louie and Chino on the back, padding their weekly pay when Apa yelled at them for no reason. She closed out the register and sat up at night with all the checks. That dingy green hallway of a store was collapsing without her. But I need you more, I said. Me. I stared her down through a wounded distance. It sizzled between us. I’m not going back, I said. I’m not. If there was a door to slam I’d have slammed it.
I sat down on the floor. What happened to that telemarketing job? With benefits, the Medicare. She shrugged and smiled a weird smile that made her mouth a tight line. I don’t know, she said. I go in there and smile. When I leave, I smile. But when I start to talking, their face fall down, die. My hand rubbed my chest where it started to burn.
To me, Uma’s English echoed her lilting Daegu accent; it had the singsong quality of a small river, and it hurt me to think that most ears only heard broken English, that her voice was another thing she might consider broken about her. I wanted to rip these employers out of their bland suits, yank their hair, bring them close to my mother’s eyes and say, fuck you. See her. She’s worth more than all of you.
My mother looked up from knitting the phone cord and said, Hanah, you can’t see. Not everything so easy, like in a book. Not everything is happy ending. Apa sad, store is failing, I’m shame. Who’s happy? Only you. No, I said, tears hot in my throat. No. She shook her head. Come here, she said, and even though I was 14, I fell into her lap.
She talked about family, how important it is to keep it together. That’s the only way you survive, she said, or you die. I sucked my teeth and stood up. This is not wartime Korea. I said. Still, she said. Family has to stick together. Fuck family! Don’t curse! We shouted until she threw the Korea Times at me. All the circled want ads, crossed out. It fluttered in my face like the wing of a crazed bird, and she screamed, leave me alone! I can’t do it. Yes you can I stuttered. No I can’t. I think she was crying. All I can do is be fishwoman—a fish man’s wife. My brother came out of the bedroom then, as she ripped the papers. I looked at the torn sheets, the twisting phone cord and felt myself spiraling smaller and smaller into a nothing. That’s not true, I mumbled. We’re going home, she said, and turned.
I stood speechless for a moment, then pushed past her toward the door. She grabbed me. Her nails dug small crescents into my wrist. Her eyes cut into me. I didn’t know where to go—maybe Kissena Farms supermarket, maybe Sal’s pizzeria—nowhere permanent. But I wanted, for a moment, to be brave enough to choose the unknown; go reckless toward it. Jewel Avenue lay open, like two palms waiting.
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.