Kyungee Pak, Real­tor

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - San­dra K. Hong

Iwas sur­prised to come across your photo in The Ko­rea Daily. Star­tled, ac­tu­ally. It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other. You look youth­ful, ap­proach­able but se­ri­ous, with­out a trace of that naivety you once wore. Your ad is nice too. No gim­micks or slo­gans—mod­est, mat­ter-of-fact. Just your name and con­tact in­for­ma­tion. “Li­censed in DC, Mary­land, & Vir­ginia.” With of­fices in Po­tomac, you must han­dle lux­ury prop­er­ties. Your name was what threw me. Kyunghee Pak, Real­tor. For a mo­ment, I had the shiv­ery sen­sa­tion that I was re­mem­ber­ing a stranger or some­one dead. I had for­got­ten your name. To me, you were al­ways Eunsu’s mom—eunsu Umma. And I was Isa Umma. I cut the ad­ver­tise­ment out of the news­pa­per and mulled over it for days, re­turn­ing to the photo—stuck to the re­frig­er­a­tor—from time to time won­der­ing, Is this re­ally you? Your hair is the same, every smooth strand curl­ing in at your shoul­ders with that sheen I could see even in newsprint. Why haven’t I seen your ad­ver­tise­ments be­fore? When did you be­come a real es­tate agent? Did you know that the Korean Korner in Wheaton Plaza, where we first met, is gone now? All our old haunts. The ja­jangmyeon restau­rant, the bak­ery, the han­bok shop, re­placed by big­ger stores and the in­ter­net. There are so many Korean gro­ceries now. H-mart, Global Mart, Lotte. Of course, you must know that al­ready, be­ing a real es­tate agent. When the video rental went out of busi­ness, Isa set up a KORTV ac­count for me. I imag­ine your daugh­ters did the same for you. So many shows and movies. Hours and hours of en­ter­tain­ment. But I don’t use the KORTV ac­count. There are too many ads and in­struc­tions every time I turn on the com­puter: up­date this, click on this, click on that. I watch what­ever is on TV, tog­gling be­tween the three Korean channels. It’s enough for me these days. Isa must have been in school that day. Yes, be­cause she wasn’t with me. You looked like a child your­self, short and thin, your pants a lit­tle loose around your hips and thighs, your breasts al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble un­der your sweater. You were pinch­ing one bit­ter melon after an­other. Then you put one to your nose and sniffed the end like you’d do with a chamoe. “No, no,” I said. “This is how you pick one.” I have some knowl­edge of Chi­nese cui­sine. When we first ar­rived in the U.S., Isa’s fa­ther and I lived in Chi­na­town, DC. Our neigh­bor Mrs. Wing—a widow whose chil­dren and grand­chil­dren hardly vis­ited—

taught me a few dishes. Did I ever tell you about Mrs. Wing? She often cooked too much food and gave us ex­tra soup or stir-fry. Some of it was too oily for my taste. But she was kind and watched Isa while we worked. Isa Appa was strik­ing out on his own as a sub­con­trac­tor and couldn’t af­ford a crew. I tagged along to help. The en­ergy I had back then! From the part in my hair down to my toe­nails, every part of me was charged, pos­sessed even. I could hardly sleep at nights, cal­cu­lat­ing how long it would take to save for a car, a house in Mont­gomery County, dates and prices danced through my mind. When I think of those days, those mo­ments be­tween tasks—cook­ing, drop­ping off Isa at Mrs. Wing’s, work­ing, pick­ing up Isa, cook­ing, wash­ing dishes, wash­ing clothes—have dis­ap­peared. My mem­o­ries flit from scene to scene, los­ing de­tail and con­ti­nu­ity. Isa’s face, her hands, what did we eat? I re­mem­ber Isa crawl­ing one mo­ment, walk­ing the next. I re­mem­ber help­ing her fa­ther load and un­load those heavy lad­ders, steel pump jacks, poles, and an­chors. I picked up trash and alu­minum scraps. We car­ried heavy boxes of vinyl sid­ing from the truck to the house, one by one, each box bow­ing from the dead weight, the two of us jerk­ing back and forth like a bro­ken pen­du­lum, un­til we could let them drop from our sweaty, gloved hands. It was back­break­ing work. So I was grate­ful when Mrs. Wing gave us food. She made a bit­ter melon dish that I still love. The melon has to be boiled, briefly, to cook out that metal­lic taste, then sautéed with thinly sliced, par­boiled pork, gar­lic, and fer­mented black bean sauce. I told you bit­ter melon is ex­cel­lent for reg­u­lat­ing one’s blood sugar and di­ges­tion. Mrs. Wing taught me that. I gave you two ways to cook bit­ter melon: one Chi­nese and one Korean, my own recipe. I wrote them down on in­dex cards. Do you still have them? You had no con­fi­dence in your cook­ing, no sohn­mat, that in­stinct, the abil­ity to sea­son ev­ery­thing just right with­out mea­sur­ing. Recipes are help­ful, I sup­pose, but sohn­mat is ei­ther some­thing you have or some­thing you don’t. You told me you had re­cently moved to Mary­land, just be­hind the Korean Korner. Wheaton was not a good area back then. Ag­gres­sive kids on bikes hang­ing around the strip malls. And so many pot­holes on Viers Mill Road. But we all had to start some­where. You said you had two daugh­ters; Eunsu was ten, and Eun­y­oung was seven. The same age as Isa, I said. We had moved to North Po­tomac three years ago, and I ad­vised you to do the same as soon as you were able. “Be­fore the girls go to mid­dle school,” I said. You moved your cart against the bit­ter melon bin, took out a pen and a pocket-sized note­book, and eagerly wrote. North Po­tomac, I re­peated.

A good value with good schools. Bethesda and Po­tomac, of course, were the best and most ex­pen­sive ar­eas with the top pub­lic and pri­vate schools in the county. Rockville and Ger­man­town, ac­cept­able. We ex­changed phone num­bers, and you thanked me pro­fusely. You didn’t know any­one yet, and your Eng­lish wasn’t as good as mine; like with your cook­ing, you had no con­fi­dence. If you speak loudly and con­fi­dently and throw in some com­mon phrases like “no prob­lem,” I find Amer­i­cans un­der­stand me, no prob­lem. Isa says my Eng­lish is bro­ken, but I get by. I of­fered to lend you my Chi­nese-korean cook­book. We met for cof­fee. We talked about our chil­dren. We talked about our hus­bands. Eunsu Appa did in­te­rior re­mod­el­ing, floor­ing, bath­rooms. “My hus­band, too,” I said, ex­cited. “Ex­te­rior re­mod­el­ing, win­dows, roof­ing, sid­ing.” I was glad to have met you. We ex­changed ban­chan recipes that would keep well in cool­ers, com­mis­er­ated over the tools and ma­te­ri­als our hus­bands kept at home, the piles of scraps. “Our neigh­bors must think we’re run­ning a junk yard,” you said. “Not that their yards would win any prizes for land­scap­ing.” I knew what you meant. Peo­ple at church owned their own busi­nesses—dry clean­ers, auto re­pair shops, liquor stores, news­stands in lux­ury malls. Some were real es­tate agents, in­sur­ance agents, even doc­tors and lawyers. Isa’s fa­ther al­ways felt out of place, a la­borer among mer­chants and pro­fes­sion­als. But we did our best to fit in, didn’t we? I ad­mit I may have felt con­nected to you for self­ish rea­sons. There were other church cou­ples whose hus­bands did sim­i­lar work, but they had their life­styles and rou­tines. The Kangs drank and smoke, which I did not—do not—ap­prove of. They lived in the coun­try, in Clarks­burg, where no­body had even heard of the schools. Their teenage sons were mo­rons and trou­ble­mak­ers. And they at­tended church spo­rad­i­cally. You re­mem­ber the Kims. The hus­band was a plumber. The wife a home­maker, like us. We should have been good friends, but we had noth­ing in com­mon. She wore un­flat­ter­ing trousers and but­ton­down blouses like a mail­man and was rather gruff. She never even tried to lose that weight. No sense of deco­rum. It’s no won­der she never fit in with the women at church. I re­mem­ber their older girl was smart. Last I heard, she had done well, a pro­fes­sor some­where in Bos­ton. The younger one, who dressed like a boy and did noth­ing but play bas­ket­ball, who knows what be­came of her? But you. You were like me. Shy and friend­less, ea­ger to do well by your chil­dren. In a way, I felt like I was guid­ing my younger self. You were more than a friend, a com­rade; you were like a do-over. You even looked like me. I had my hair permed and cut short at the time, eas­ier when Isa

was so young and needed me. You had the bob, the same one in your head­shot, chic then as it is now. But we had sim­i­larly long, oval faces, high cheek bones, cres­cent eyes when we smiled. Of course, you were shorter and thin­ner than me. It seems you haven’t gained weight over the years. You looked like a waif—es­pe­cially when we first met—but, de­ceiv­ingly sturdy, you hardly ever fell ill. Sales clerks and wait­resses used to ask whether we were re­lated, re­mem­ber? You’d say, “Why, is there a fam­ily rate?” It made me laugh and laugh. Every time. I in­vited you to our church. We soon dropped the for­mal­ity of speak­ing in jon­dae­mal. And just like that, we had a rou­tine, you and I. Church on Sun­days, cof­fee, shop­ping, er­rands dur­ing the week, din­ners at Ari­rang, fish­ing trips in the sum­mers. We were close, not like sib­lings (though I imag­ine if I had a sis­ter, the re­la­tion­ship would’ve been akin to ours), but like two women in the same boat. We were moth­ers, house­wives, mem­bers of our church; we were the same age, we had never fin­ished school, we were out­siders in our own way.

We talked about our chil­dren mostly. We could hardly think about any­thing else. We were never more fer­vent than when we dis­cussed our chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. New to the area, you didn’t know much when we first met—gifted and tal­ented, mag­net, IB, Johns Hop­kins sum­mer pro­grams—but you were a quick study. As soon as I told you that chil­dren needed to test into those spe­cial­ized schools, you en­gaged that tu­tor I rec­om­mended, the one Isa was see­ing to im­prove her math. I told Isa Appa, “She has yok­shim.” I re­spected that. I rec­og­nized it. You were hun­gry too, striv­ing for more, for bet­ter. But you were a lit­tle funny about telling me things. Se­cre­tive, vague. You acted non­cha­lant or ob­tuse when I asked whether your girls were see­ing the tu­tor. You could have vol­un­teered this in­for­ma­tion, but you waited un­til I pulled it out of you. Re­mem­ber when we crossed paths at Mrs. Cho’s? She walked me to the door after Isa’s pi­ano les­son, thank­ing me for my re­fer­ral. What re­fer­ral? I won­dered. I was caught off guard, but what could I do ex­cept re­spond in kind? “You are an ex­cel­lent teacher,” I said. “Your rep­u­ta­tion pre­cedes you.” “You give me too much credit. Isa is a good stu­dent.” “She needs to prac­tice more,” I said. “She’s lucky to have a de­voted mother like you. You must be giv­ing out tips,” she said. “Mrs. Pak ob­serves her daugh­ters’ lessons as well.” When she opened the door, you were there, flanked by Eunsu and Eun­y­oung who stood solemnly, shoul­der­ing their tote bags of pi­ano books. You apol­o­gized and said, “Oh, we’re early,” clearly sur­prised to

run into me, though I can’t imag­ine why. Isa had been go­ing to Mrs. Cho for more than two years. “Mrs. Kwon,” you said to me. “Hello.” Then you reached for your daugh­ters’ hands as if you had to oc­cupy your own. You dipped your head in a quick bow. I bowed back and pulled Isa to­ward the car as she started talk­ing to Eunsu. “Hurry, we’re late,” I said. “Late for what?” Isa asked. I squeezed her arm, too hard. What could I say? As I drove home, I won­dered why you had acted so strangely, so cold and for­mal. I couldn’t un­der­stand why you didn’t tell me about Mrs. Cho. I thought our friend­ship was forged in our goals, that we would cel­e­brate our suc­cesses, com­fort one an­other in our fail­ures. Maybe she’s try­ing to pre­serve our friend­ship, I thought, to shield it from com­pe­ti­tion. Or per­haps you were em­bar­rassed by your am­bi­tions for your chil­dren. But on some level, I must have known. I would’ve acted the same way to­ward Mrs. Kang or Mrs. Kim. I wouldn’t have wanted to be as­so­ci­ated with them. See? We’ve al­ways un­der­stood each other.

Isa Appa and I liked the two of you. You and your hus­band made us laugh. Your wit could start a fire if the sparks fell the wrong way. Dan­ger was what made you so hi­lar­i­ous. We would gasp in re­lief as much as laugh­ter, as you edged close to a hard truth—eunsu Appa’s un­kempt ap­pear­ance, Isa Appa’s drink­ing—risk­ing bruised feel­ings or per­ma­nent scars. No one, noth­ing was safe. The fold­out ta­ble was bro­ken, and we were squat­ting around the camp stove cook­ing ramyeon, and I re­mem­ber think­ing how prim­i­tive we must’ve looked. The men fish­ing, the women cook­ing. Isa Appa got up to get an­other beer from the cooler. “I guess drink­ing just makes you thirstier,” you said, ad­just­ing your vi­sor while hold­ing chop­sticks. I laughed, un­com­fort­able that you had no­ticed. When Isa Appa didn’t re­spond, I couldn’t help count­ing the empty cans in the sand be­side his chair. The open mouths looked like dark ze­roes. Even your chil­dren weren’t spared. “Eunsu will have to sup­port us in our old age,” you once said, feign­ing ex­as­per­a­tion. “Not even a restau­rant would hire Eun­y­oung.” I was al­ways earnest when it came to Isa. I couldn’t joke about her fu­ture; my daugh­ter wasn’t des­tined to work in a restau­rant. But for you, noth­ing was too sa­cred. Maybe you were scared that it was true and needed a cleans­ing laugh. Or—did your stom­ach se­cretly flip at the thought that Eun­y­oung might ex­cel be­yond our imag­i­na­tions? It’s funny how our ex­pec­ta­tions change over time. Young peo­ple think they can do any­thing now. On TV, I see re­ports of Korean chefs, skate-

board­ers, snow­board­ers, graf­fiti artists, even mar­i­juana farm­ers! I think it’s a good thing. These days, we don’t have to worry so much about what our chil­dren do as long as they are the best and happy, of course. I’m sure Eun­y­oung is happy. Your icy hu­mor was warmed by your hus­band’s jokes. A lit­tle sloppy and a lit­tle dopey, he had a laid-back at­ti­tude that put ev­ery­one at ease. He was a good friend to Isa Appa. Eunsu Appa’s ge­nial na­ture brought out a side to him I rarely saw. He be­came light­hearted, al­most boy­ish. They could gripe about work, about sub­con­tract­ing, their man­agers, their crews, the lan­guage bar­rier, picky home­own­ers. Re­mem­ber when Eunsu Appa hid fish guts in Isa Appa’s tackle box? That night we drove the four hours home from As­sateague, talk­ing about the aw­ful stench in the car. We even stopped once to in­ves­ti­gate the smell. The cooler was fine. Our fish, cleaned and scaled, lay on fresh ice we had pur­chased from the tackle shop. When Isa Appa dis­cov­ered the en­trails—de­com­pos­ing in a plas­tic bag—he yelled, “That son of a bitch!” He knocked his beer over, he was laugh­ing so hard, into the trays and com­part­ments, drench­ing spools of fish­ing line, drop shot weights, hooks, baits, and jigs in hiss­ing foam. I never shared this with you then, but I felt free on those trips, from all the cares and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties we had. I could re­lease the grip I had to main­tain on this fam­ily, let go of the bur­den of ev­ery­one’s needs. It was in­cred­i­ble, re­ally, the en­ergy you in­fused into our lives. Isa had ap­prox­i­ma­tions of sib­lings in your daugh­ters, I had a friend, and even Isa’s fa­ther seemed more present, less rest­less. As if he for­got he wanted to leave. Those were happy times. The hus­bands looked con­tent sit­ting on those cheap lawn chairs, drink­ing beers, star­ing at their fish­ing rods while we teased them and gos­siped. And the chil­dren. They were in their own world. A pack of cards oc­cu­pied them for hours. I thought they were gam­bling, but you ex­plained they were just play­ing games, that they were like hwatu cards. We let the chil­dren stay up late. They were stim­u­lated by the ocean breeze, the new shad­ows that danced on the tent walls, the un­even sand un­der their sleep­ing bags. They chased each other where our camp­site’s light faded into black or hud­dled around the twitch­ing flame of a gas lantern, ex­am­in­ing what, I don’t know, col­laps­ing into laugh­ter and squeals. Isa tells me her fa­ther has stopped drink­ing now. Eunsu Appa never re­ally was a drinker, was he? I know he drank with Isa Appa to be po­lite. I re­mem­ber how your hus­band’s face, so pale even in the sum­mer, would streak and blotch with pink. Noth­ing like Isa Appa’s card­board

brown face. I re­mem­ber how he’d stop when he caught your eyes. He was per­cep­tive, had that light­ning fast noonchi. Isa’s fa­ther is re­mar­ried now and an el­der at his church. Go fig­ure. After all the years I put up with his drink­ing.

Your suit looks very smart and ex­pen­sive, though I imag­ine you bought it on sale. You were so fru­gal back then, in ways that put my own fru­gal­ity to shame. You knew ex­actly how and when to spend. We went shop­ping often. Ex­er­cise, we called it, to let a lit­tle breeze tickle our nos­trils, as the say­ing goes. I’d buy a few things I needed un­til I no­ticed that you never bought a thing. I’d started wear­ing Estée Lauder night cream around the time we met. An in­dul­gence, I knew, but both Danny Umma and Mina Umma swore by it. They said their skin felt so mois­tur­ized and taut in the morn­ings. I al­ways waited un­til Macy’s of­fered a free gift with the pur­chase be­fore splurg­ing on a jar. I would of­fer to share the coupon with you, but you said you still used Pond’s cold cream, which I like to use now. I was leav­ing the house for Mont­gomery Mall when you called to meet for cof­fee. We met in the makeup de­part­ment at Macy’s. I never buy what I need right away. I make the sales woman wait on me, give me sam­ples, and a free makeover. You de­clined, and I watched you pick up the night cream while the sales woman ap­plied blush on me. You turned over the jar. You had glasses back then with thick lenses that made your eyes look small, al­most beady. It looks like you have con­tacts now. Or did you get that laser eye surgery ev­ery­one talks about these days? Well, they seemed to get even smaller when you saw the price. “So ex­pen­sive,” you said as you re­turned the jar to the dis­play tray. I don’t think you thought I heard, but I did. I was mor­ti­fied, of course. I wanted to stop the pur­chase. I was go­ing to come back and buy it on my own. But it was too late, the sales woman had al­ready rung up the box and the free gift—a makeup bag with sam­ples of eye­shadow, mas­cara, and foun­da­tion that would last me months. I took the bag and said, “That was all I needed,” linked arms with you, and guided you into the sun­lit atrium where it was less stuffy. While you were talk­ing, I was do­ing the math. I could have paid for two tu­tor­ing ses­sions for Isa or a pi­ano les­son with Mrs. Cho or gro­ceries. We wan­dered into the Coach store. How we used to covet Coach purses. I ended up buy­ing one years later. A gift to my­self. God knows Isa Appa never got me any­thing. We ad­mired the bags, stroking the smooth leather, ad­mir­ing the num­ber of com­part­ments, pock­ets, and zip­pers. We needed them to or­ga­nize all that we car­ried. We car­ried

ad­dress books brim­ming with busi­ness cards, date­books with the chil­dren’s ap­point­ments and lessons, check­books, wal­lets thick with coupons, nail clip­pers, cof­fee candy, mints for car sick­ness, gum for cof­fee breath, Advil, Tylenol, nap­kins, sugar pack­ets, ketchup pack­ets, soy sauce pack­ets, in­di­vid­u­ally wrapped tooth­picks, lip­sticks, tis­sues, glasses cases, and clean­ing cloths. I re­al­ized Isa was no longer a child when she be­came hor­ri­fied by my purse. She was eleven, and we stopped at a Roy Rogers to use the bath­room. I reached for the nap­kin dis­penser, and she grabbed my hand and said “Umma” in a snarl that I had never heard be­fore. You thought Isa was so well-be­haved. She was, for the most part, only be­com­ing dif­fi­cult as a teenager. Did your chil­dren give you grief when they were teenagers? You picked up a cross-body bag, peb­bly black leather with tan trim, drap­ing the strap over your shoul­der and chest like a sash, hold­ing it against your hip. “This won’t show dirt,” you said. “How much is it?” “I’m just try­ing it on,” you said. At the Christ­mas Eve ser­vice that year, you wore a beau­ti­ful dou­ble­breasted, black vel­vet jacket with gold but­tons. The Coach purse hung off your shoul­der. Did you sense then that we were not on the same path?

You fol­lowed my ad­vice and moved your fam­ily to Po­tomac two years after we met, the sum­mer be­fore Eunsu en­tered mid­dle school. You men­tioned that Eunsu Appa’s busi­ness was tak­ing off. I know you saved and sac­ri­ficed to buy that house. I did the same for ours in North Po­tomac. You in­vited us over for a house­warm­ing. We were fa­mil­iar with the area. On Sun­day af­ter­noons after church, I used to make Isa Appa take us there for a drive. Eye shop­ping, I called it. I had wanted to buy a house there, but North Po­tomac was a bet­ter value when we were look­ing. He didn’t un­der­stand why we needed to leave our old split-level in Rockville. I imag­ined church gath­er­ings, Christ­mas par­ties, and grand­chil­dren. A space for our ex­pan­sive life. When I was a child, my mother was a wealthy landowner. She lost her for­tune after the war, but I re­mem­ber our lav­ish New Year’s cel­e­bra­tions. I re­mem­ber feel­ing the envy of the town. Isa Appa al­ways lacked imag­i­na­tion. When we toured Po­tomac, we’d hear shrieks from the back­seat, star­tling us, caus­ing me to turn and Isa Appa to look at the rearview mir­ror. We’d joke, “Isa, when you grow up and make lots of money, you’ll buy Umma and Appa a big house, right?” Isa would point to a house,

one with a foun­tain, wrought-iron gates, ten­nis courts, or a pool. “That one?” she’d ask. “Too small,” we’d say. You moved very close to Mrs. Cho. Her hus­band was some kind of at­tor­ney in DC, but she also made a tidy in­come off her pi­ano lessons. She was so par­tic­u­lar about her place. When we ar­rived for Isa’s first les­son, I made the mis­take of knock­ing on her front door. A Korean woman wear­ing an apron an­swered, and be­fore she could ask us to come in, Mrs. Cho ap­peared and said she thought she had men­tioned the side en­trance over the phone. She looked un­com­fort­able for a mo­ment then in­vited us in. We got a brief tour that day: a glimpse of the kitchen and liv­ing room as she led us to the sun­room with the sep­a­rate en­trance, where she taught pi­ano. A glossy con­cert grand was the cen­ter­piece in the liv­ing room, which must have had twenty-foot ceil­ings. And a fire­place in the kitchen, what a novel idea. The green-brown car­pet in our liv­ing room and hall­way seemed old-fash­ioned com­pared to her pol­ished wood floor­ing. And the used up­right we bought for Isa, shabby and dull. I won­der, if we had bought a new, shiny pi­ano, would Isa have taken prac­tice more se­ri­ously? Mrs. Cho’s el­dest—the boy—is a con­cert pi­anist now. Her house re­sem­bled the pic­tures of celebrity homes in Ceci. And a Korean house­keeper! Can you imag­ine? “Oh my God,” Isa said when we ar­rived. We didn’t say much as we drove up your drive­way. I didn’t know that your prop­erty was on that end of River Road. Our voices echoed in the foyer. I al­most walked into your house with my shoes on. I had for­got­ten—mo­men­tar­ily—what to do, how to act. Your daugh­ters ap­peared at the top of the stairs. “Come on, Isa,” they said. Isa ran up those wind­ing steps and dis­ap­peared into a bed­room. I was hold­ing a box of de­ter­gent. “We brought you de­ter­gent,” I said. I had meant to get you the big box of Tide, but they were out of the large sizes at the store. “You didn’t have to bring any­thing, thanks,” you said as we walked to your kitchen. “Eunsu Appa!” He dou­ble stepped to us and du­ti­fully took the box from my hands. He opened a closet door in the hall­way. Stacked on its shelves were in­dus­trial-sized boxes of de­ter­gent, bulk packs of Charmin Ul­tra, and Bounty pa­per tow­els. It looked like an aisle at Costco. You must have seen me star­ing. “The church mem­bers in the area have been drop­ping by with gifts,” you said. “When Je­sus comes and we all shit our pants, we’ll have enough toi­let pa­per for ev­ery­one to wipe them­selves.” You opened a door off the kitchen area.

“The base­ment is un­fin­ished, but when Eunsu Appa puts in floor­ing and light­ing, we can hold our cell group meet­ings here. You won’t have to host so many church gath­er­ings now.” You sighed. “It takes a long time to clean the house though.” “I can imag­ine,” I said.

I didn’t know you were plan­ning on work­ing. I ran into Danny Umma years ago, when Isa was away at col­lege. She men­tioned that you had got­ten your real es­tate li­cense. I won­dered whether Eunsu Appa was mak­ing you work, or was it some­thing else? She didn’t men­tion whether there was any trou­ble at home. We never talked much about our mar­riages, did we? We kept that part of our lives close to our chests. Once you slipped and said that Eunsu Appa was easy­go­ing with a nearly in­fi­nite sup­ply of pa­tience un­til he ran out and he was not. You be­came quiet after that, know­ing—i think— that you had bro­ken some un­spo­ken rule be­tween us. You must have stud­ied hard to get your li­cense, to learn all those terms and laws. You were al­ways clever. I re­mem­ber—early in our friend­ship—you asked what I thought about pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Kim Young-sam’s cam­paign plat­form. I said I was too busy to fol­low elec­tions in a coun­try where I no longer lived. “I’m glad he’s run­ning again,” you said. “Oth­er­wise, Hong Sookja’s sac­ri­fice back in ’87 would’ve been for noth­ing.” Who was Hong Sookja? I won­dered. “Yes, well, I hardly have time to read the news let alone opin­ion pieces,” I said. You looked dis­ap­pointed. In 1987, Eunsu Umma, I was mak­ing ends meet. Isa was three, and Isa Appa had no work crew. Look­ing back, I re­al­ize we had never talked about whether you had gone to col­lege. It just didn’t come up. But, of course, you had. I asked if your daugh­ters were par­tic­i­pat­ing in Mrs. Cho’s up­com­ing recital. “Oh yes,” you said. “Eunsu is per­form­ing a dif­fi­cult Chopin Noc­turne.” Eunsu was the more mu­si­cally gifted of the two, I think. Also, I would tell you now what a shame it is that Park Geun-hye made such a mess of her op­por­tu­nity as the first fe­male pres­i­dent. It’s funny that you’re work­ing now. I al­ways talked about go­ing back to work, re­mem­ber? Learn a skill or start a busi­ness of my own. Isa Appa had al­ways wanted me to work. As though I did noth­ing for the fam­ily. He never wanted to shoul­der the fi­nan­cial bur­den by him­self. In fact, he wanted to move to a smaller house, save money, and re­tire as soon as pos­si­ble. So, move back­wards? I’d say. He wanted to leave sid­ing. He

said it was hard—the hours too long, the sun too hot in the sum­mers, the cold too bru­tal in the win­ters. I knew it was hard. I was there, I helped him. But what else could he do? He couldn’t start his own busi­ness; we had no cap­i­tal for that. I couldn’t go back to work. Who would have cooked for him? Cleaned the house? Looked after Isa’s school­work, pi­ano prac­tices, driven her to lessons and recitals? It was im­pos­si­ble. That’s why I went to you. I asked if you could put in a good word for Isa Appa to your hus­band. I thought he might hire him as an ap­pren­tice. Per­haps he could give him ex­tra work if busi­ness was good. You said you would ask. Days later, you said he was fully staffed and didn’t have any work. I ran into your hus­band at the store. Did he tell you? “Eunsu Appa, hello. What are you do­ing here?” I asked. Isa Appa never set foot in gro­cery stores. He did help carry bags into the house now and then. Some­times I’d leave a fifty-pound sack of rice in the car to see whether he would bring it in when I asked. Eunsu Appa said you weren’t feel­ing well. He was pick­ing up boyak from the apothe­cary. “That’s so good of you,” I said. “I hope our fa­vor wasn’t too much of an im­po­si­tion.” “Fa­vor?” he said. “I asked Eunsu Umma if you had any spare work. Sid­ing has been so hard on Isa Appa, I thought he could try floor­ing.” He re­sponded po­litely enough, tried to cover for you, that good­na­tured hus­band of yours. But he had no idea what I was talk­ing about. I knew you had never men­tioned it. “Red gin­seng!” I said. I took a box off the near­est shelf. “This brand is the best, and you must get some for Eunsu Umma.” I dis­played the box like a TV pre­sen­ter. Your hus­band took the box from me, bowed, and re­turned to the regis­ter. I left my cart. Was I so fool­ish then? We saw less and less of each other. Isa was in mid­dle school and often missed her 6:30 a.m. bus. I had to shut­tle her across the county so she wouldn’t be late for school. Such a long com­mute! That was one of the down­sides of the mag­net pro­gram. You’re lucky your girls at­tended their home mid­dle school. We were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly oc­cu­pied with the chil­dren’s grow­ing sched­ules; it was an im­por­tant time. Every de­ci­sion, every year counted then. It was all worth it when Isa re­ceived her ac­cep­tance let­ter from Cor­nell. I’m sure you felt the same way when your girls were ac­cepted to col­lege. I dropped to my knees and thanked the Lord for her schol­ar­ship. What pains me is that Isa did ex­actly as she was raised to do, ex­actly what we wanted her to ac­com­plish. But her fa­ther and I didn’t main­tain

our part of the bar­gain. We failed to pro­vide the sta­bil­ity she de­served. If there’s any­thing I re­gret deeply, it’s this. She’s mar­ried now, which is a bless­ing. The hus­band is Amer­i­can, white, an ar­chi­tect, and they seem happy. When I first met him, I wor­ried that there were far too many cul­tural dif­fer­ences. He comes from a wealthy, up­per-class fam­ily in Con­necti­cut. But I trust Isa to make sound de­ci­sions, after all, she has sur­vived with­out my ad­vice for a long time. There is one topic on which I can­not hold my tongue: they speak about hav­ing chil­dren as some sort of op­tion. They say they have to weigh all the fac­tors, con­sider their ca­reers. Do your chil­dren speak this way? Is this a com­mon phe­nom­e­non with young cou­ples to­day? If you don’t have chil­dren, then what do you live for? I was sure you had heard the ru­mors. You didn’t know how to re­act to the news of our di­vorce. Even your hu­mor failed you. The sum­mer be­fore Isa started high school, she and I moved to a de­cent two-bed­room be­hind the Bed Bath & Be­yond on Rockville Pike. I never did get to re­place that aw­ful car­pet­ing in our old house. And you never asked for my new ad­dress. You never even asked why we were no longer at church. You kept your dis­tance out of fear my life might be catch­ing. One’s health comes first, of course. After Isa and I moved, I still went to the H-mart near our old house, out of habit. I saw you once in the park­ing lot. Eunsu Appa’s com­pany must have been do­ing very well, I thought. The Mercedes sedan suited you. I sup­pose that old Camry you used to drive would’ve been an eye­sore in Po­tomac. Also, I thought: dark sil­ver was a good choice. Doesn’t show dirt. See­ing you run er­rands, I won­dered if you were also meet­ing Danny Umma or Mina Umma for cof­fee. I had al­ways made sure you were in­cluded in our lunches. After we moved to Rockville, I went back to work as well. I worked at KFC. My plan was to learn the busi­ness, work my way up to man­ager, and buy a fran­chise. But I couldn’t get used to it again; I was no longer young. You see, I had worked in fast food years ago, when I first ar­rived in the U.S.—I never told you much about those days. The grease, Eunsu Umma. The smell of boil­ing grease and cooked chicken flesh and dull spices stays in your hair. I could smell it long after a shower, after mul­ti­ple sham­poos, on my days off. And you make the same things, day, after day, after day. A menu six-feet long, eight value meals, four fam­ily meals, thigh, breast, drum­stick, any sides? Bis­cuit with that? Soda? No soda? Mas­sive, poor, tired Amer­i­cans count­ing out their change, teenagers who looked past you as they or­dered, the oc­ca­sional Korean fam­ily who looked around you with pity and shame. It was ex­cit­ing at first, I ad­mit. The free chicken. But months in, I craved noth­ing more than

rice and ripe kim­chi, you know the kind. The kind that’s weak­ened by fer­men­ta­tion but still makes an au­di­ble crunch when you bite down on the pale, ribbed squares. Gar­licky, sour, and sweet. A taste that’s alive and fights back. Dur­ing the slow­est hours, I fan­ta­sized about kim­chi, the sheer va­ri­ety, the names. Win­ter sol­stice kim­chi, bach­e­lor kim­chi, even the lit­eral names, white, green, dice dice, rough chop, salt-wilted—all be­came po­etry. I thought of our poor an­ces­tors whose kim­chi was dressed in only salt and fer­mented fish. No gar­lic or chili pep­pers. How de­prived they were. And I was grate­ful that I could go home to my pun­gent kim­chi, spicy and pow­er­ful. Two years I toiled at KFC, the one on Ge­or­gia Av­enue, be­fore quit­ting. I found work at a dry cleaner, iden­ti­fy­ing stains, tag­ging clothes, op­er­at­ing the con­veyor, watch­ing jack­ets and dresses sway and bump into one an­other like wed­ding guests in a conga line. Then I worked at a hair and beauty sup­ply shop. My job was to take in­ven­tory of the hair ac­ces­sories. I spent hours sort­ing claws, clips, hair­brushes, hair ties, hair bands. That’s where I got the idea to work at a sa­lon. I washed hair for a year at Prism Sa­lon in White Flint Mall. An as­sis­tant, I re­stocked sup­plies and swept the floors. I ob­served the busi­ness, you see. I learned to spot the gen­er­ous tip­pers. The women with coiffed hair, ex­pen­sive shoes or purses, you can de­pend on them for a dol­lar or two. But the women who come in with knots, the women whose out­fits don’t match, whose makeup jobs are hap­haz­ard, who look stressed and tired: they’re grate­ful. They’re the best tip­pers—four dol­lars, some­times five. A Korean stylist worked there, Mrs. Min. I tried to learn from her, but she was so cold. She guarded ev­ery­thing closely, from her lunch to her brushes. She seemed sus­pi­cious of ev­ery­one. Isn’t that sad? Be­tween you and me, I think she was jeal­ous. I think she knew that I would move on to start my own busi­ness. When Isa left for col­lege, I en­rolled in bar­ber school. The Academy of Pro­fes­sional Bar­bers. It’s a very good one, in Rockville. There were too many prod­ucts and chem­i­cals in women’s hair, I quickly learned. Men’s hair is sim­ple. No pro­cess­ing, no col­or­ing, no perming. Men who want any of that go to a sa­lon. Yes, you don’t make as much per cus­tomer, but cuts and a shave are faster than most women’s styles. Plus, the over­head costs are much lower. You only need chairs and mir­rors, and bar­bers pur­chase their own sup­plies. It’d be a good in­vest­ment, I thought. I took the test over Isa’s fresh­man year win­ter break at Cor­nell. I told them I needed a trans­la­tor, and she helped me with the ques­tions. She trans­lated, and I an­swered with my stud­ies and my work ex­pe­ri­ence.

Did Eunsu or Eun­y­oung help you? I’m sure your Eng­lish has im­proved over the years, but I’ve heard the real es­tate li­cense exam is very dif­fi­cult, that one has to study long hours. I worked at a bar­ber shop in Wheaton Plaza, where you used to live, re­mem­ber? I sup­pose you don’t visit that area very often. It’s changed. It’s quite nice now, with re­spectable busi­nesses, many Korean owned. I go to the big, shiny H-mart there be­cause I’m quite pos­i­tive they get seafood and pro­duce ship­ments more often. Very fresh. I don’t work as much now on ac­count of my hands. The doc­tors say it’s arthri­tis, my fingers have thick­ened and gnarled over the years like bur­dock roots. I can’t fit my scis­sors over my knuck­les or hold clip­pers for long on bad days. Such a shame. I feel so young; I still have my am­bi­tions and plans to open my own shop, but my body con­tin­ues to be­tray me as I near sev­enty. You must be feel­ing the aches and pains of aging too. I still go to work a few times a week for my reg­u­lar cus­tomers. The boys at the shop call me Grandma. They’re id­iots and jokesters, trou­ble­some chil­dren. Isa tells me I should stop work­ing, that it’s a waste of my time. She says I should live with her. She’s in New York and works in fi­nance at a big bank. But I think I’d just be a bur­den. I have a feel­ing that her in­vi­ta­tion is out of some obli­ga­tion, the way you and I were raised to take care of our par­ents-in-law. Thank God we were mar­ried in Amer­ica. I tell her no be­cause we’ll nee­dle and ir­ri­tate each other the way moth­ers and daugh­ters do. Be­sides, I need to stay. I have my li­cense here and my clients who rely on me. I sup­pose I should re­tire soon. Though I sus­pect Isa asks out of obli­ga­tion, it’s a com­fort to have a daugh­ter who calls and vis­its and ag­gra­vates me. At our age, wouldn’t life be so lonely with­out our chil­dren to bother us? I’m sure your daugh­ters are look­ing after you and Eunsu Appa. They were good girls, and you raised them to be suc­cess­ful. To­day I threw away the ad; my fridge was get­ting so clut­tered. It was nice to see your face again, but I don’t need a real­tor any time soon. I hope you are healthy and happy. I hope your busi­ness pros­pers.

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