In which the earliest memories document a farewell to innocence.
Memory May Reveal
In which the earliest memories document a farewell to innocence.
Someone grabbed my backpack from my back, dragging me with it.
I was crossing a large dirt field of a school in my school uniform, a poster-child for a first grader: clean uniform, light jacket, and a small yellow book bag. Maybe even a cap on my head. The morning light made shadows long but the sky was clear of clouds. The effervescence of light and dew taming the dusty dirt and the dirt’s glaring out-of-place-ness, contentedness abound. This was ordinary. And as with every morning, the first-grader had been walking alone when an eagle swooped down and grabbed him by his book bag.
The eagle was in his early twenties. Skinny but not lanky. I did not recognize him. Too startled, too paralyzed, and too small to effectively protest, I could barely keep myself from falling as I was being rushed by the pull. I did not dare to make much sound. Too frightened and disoriented, I just wanted to regain my balance.
Thrown into the toilet stall, a cold shiver surged through my bones. I had not known that the portable toilet was there. I did not know what was going on and what was going to happen to me, but I felt a terrible fate was to come. Being that this was a toilet, I thought I was going to be thrown down the hole. What did I do wrong? He climbed into the stall with me. A peep of a sound came out of me, but nothing more. There was much rustling as I tried to unlatch myself from the grip of his hand. My efforts were easily thwarted, although I did detect this reception of annoyance. My protests were weak, meager at best. A mouse pinned by an apex predator. Grabbing me with one hand or the other, but always one hand. It was not long, possibly matter of seconds, when he had his pants down to mid-thigh. Then he pinched my ear really hard, which had the effect of gripping my lungs when a moment ago I was panting. I cringed in hot pain, burning so badly that I thought my head would explode from the pressure. Adrenaline pumping, all cylinders firing, I felt motivated. I needed to do something. Even in my effort to get away, I kept staring at it. I did not want to get peed on. Being that I was six years old, getting peed on seemed lethal. Panic set in. My heart barely contained. I was being caged inside myself, sounds closing off as my pulse pumped louder. Why is he doing this to me? More I pulled away from him, more my ear felt the potential tearing dismemberment. He pinched harder in response. He was rubbing his penis, his hard, erect penis. I did not know what he was doing but I was terrified. He was taller than my father. I could never challenge my father, let alone this bigger man. I began to resign to my destiny, whatever it was. Scared stiff, my world went silent as I awaited my fate.
A minute, a very long minute passed when I looked up and found a face of painful despair. He was not enjoying this, torturing me, unlike the evil villains in cartoons. There was something about his expression that, in hindsight, I felt sympathy for. He had to do this, no choice about it.
Before anymore sympathy could wash over me, he began to pinch harder. Something was going to happen. My hearing was returning. My awareness was quickly coming back to this toilet stall, where this tall man with a distraught, shaking face was about to kill me. I do not know how, but he was. I felt sure of it. The strain on his face and the pinch to my ear became more intense and I looked away. I braced myself. I did not know what I was bracing myself for but I wanted it over with. And I knew it was going to be very painful because I saw the pain on his face. He was breathing harder, exerting great effort. In complete terror, panic took over me. I felt I was burning from the inside. I thought I could jump out of my skin, squeezing strained whimpers out with a clenched jaw, squirming in scorching anticipation. He was starting to make some strained noises. I had never heard someone make such noises. I did not know what kind of harm was going to come my way, but the noise only added to the burning anticipation, making me breakout in searing sweat. Then… a liquid squirted out of his penis. I flinched. He released my ear and clenched my shoulder so tightly that I thought he was going to crush it. More jelly-liquid squirted out. Again, I flinched, but this time with a gasp. Then more jelly-liquid squirted out, this time with less pressure. I flinched a little less, but the adrenaline was still coursing through my veins, burning every bit of my body. Everything seemed still, silent and I was terrified and curious all at once. The adrenaline burned my skin, making it itch from its hot pricks. This was not painful. It was supposed to be painful. It was supposed to kill me. The devastation I anticipated was anticlimactic. My shock was quickly deflating.
But then something else, something new to fear entered my thoughts. He was going to beat my up. He was going to beat me up and throw me down the toilet. My original fear was right. I was going to be thrown down the hole. He was going to hit me, punch me, or whip me with his penis while he was relieving himself of the pain that was contained in the liquid he expelled. I felt certain of it. But he just dripped a little more onto my jacket, on my shoulder. And his sigh of relief, which made me flinch, made him seem less dangerous all of the sudden. I was not frozen but I did not dare to breath. There was not anything I could do. He was finished with me and I was evidence he did not want around, to be discarded. But before this thought compelled me to rebel, he put his penis away, hiked up his pants and urgently stepped backwards out of the stall with a final look. I could not decipher the look. Appreciative? Satisfied? Relieved?
The door closed.
I was alone in the portable toilet, exhausted, my eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets, my skin sizzling, electric. The jelly-liquid was on my jacket shoulder. And the look was still on my mind. What did it mean? I did not know how long I stayed there. It felt like a very long contemplative hour. What just happened? I was too scared to leave, knowing he was somewhere out there. He could be waiting for me. I had to be careful.
Something had awakened. There are moments in one’s life when remembering and inhibiting impulses to avoid dangers keep a being alive. This was that moment. My instincts told me to flee, but knowing he was outside, I held back.
My memory of the event is not very clear. I cannot recall if it was spring or fall, though my feelings tell me it was April. I cannot confirm if the dirt field was a school field or some other random field with a school on the other side of it. My image of the young man is of someone in his mid-twenties, but that does not reconcile with any other Asian man in his mid-twenties from my experience since then; he seemed to have acted younger but looked older.
My memory also reveals things that may not have been.
Occurred during the event but only upon my reflection of it afterward, the young man grabbed me aggressively and he dragged me to the portable toilet, which lead me to believe I was in great physical danger, but I was not roughed up. Aside from the great pacifying ear pinch, I did not take any blows. Even the pinch, I do not remember clearly; I cannot even remember which ear was pinched. This and the look on his face, the look of despair, the look of I-am-sorry-that-I-have-to-do-this-to-you-but-I-cannot-help-it-I-swear-I-will-be-quick-and-will-not-hurt-you-just-bear-with-me-one-moment makes me sympathize. Not that I had ever felt that way before then, but even then I felt I shared with him the sentiment that there are things in life one cannot control. I would much rather remember him as an evil villain than to sympathize, but I would not be honest if I said so.
I am grateful that I was not physically harmed. But this did have two profound effects on my life.
I will forever know that men have the ability and the urge to take a person hostage. As with my tormentor I, now, as a grown man, have experienced situations where I could have been him. An urge or desperation, the release of some sort of explosion that, hopefully, would once and for all give me peace. And I have always imagined that if such a state overwhelmed me, there would be a victim and I would somehow communicate that I am sorry that I have to do this to you but I cannot help it; I swear I will be quick and will not hurt you; just bear with me one moment.
The other effect is one in which I will always remember the events of my life like episodes of a greater story. For this reason, I have been chronicling my life for great many years, seeking that great arc or theme or moral that drives any good story to its denouement. I want to know how I end. And it began with this awakening of my memory.
I did eventually leave the portable toilet. I had not heard anything, so, I felt safe enough to peek out. No one was there. I came out and no one was around. Seoul was one of the most populated cities in the world in 1986, and yet I cannot recall the presence of a single soul that morning. I do not recall seeing a single person, other than the eagle and his prey.
I ignored the shoulder, which was not too hard since the it was on the jacket and I did not feel anything. I crossed the field in a hurry. I walked into the school building and right into my classroom. Class had not yet started but the teacher was at the front of the class. I went to the bathroom to do something. I must have wanted to clean up, or check on the jacket, but I do not recall what I did. I came back to my desk, and the rest of the day was unremarkable.
After school one April, I was watching television with my little brother. He was then four years old. He was a happy kid. Smiling all of the time, very bright, picked up on things and knew how to entertain adults. He and I sat on a couch, across from us was the television. Next to the television was the door to my parent’s bedroom. On this particular day, the door was closed. On the other side of the door were my parents. It was mid-afternoon. My father was a DJ, working evenings and weekends. So it was not unusual for him to be around during the day. All seemed in place. No one ever seemed to have noticed my jacket; as long as it stayed this way, everything was in its rightful place. I do not recall what we were watching but my brother, easily entertained, was clearly enjoying himself. My focus, though, was on the door. Not that a bedroom door being closed was odd, and I must have seen that door closed before, but sitting on the couch that day, I was watching the door, not the television. I thought I heard something through the door but I was not sure. My brother laughed as heartily as a four year old could.
“I should kill you!” he roared. The bedroom door blasted open. Omma shrieked in mortal fear and fled behind the couch. Appa jumped over the couch, flipping it over, and pounced on her, grabbing her throat. I cannot remember what he saying, but I am certain it was a lethal threat. She could not speak, air not flowing. Just when it seemed she was on the brink of collapse, he let go and stomped his way to the kitchen. She should not have been able to recover so quickly, but she did, and she grabbed my brother with one arm and darted out.
“Omma! Omma!” I cried after her.
Appa returned with a kitchen knife, the rage was dripping out of his pores. His focus was on his wife, and seeing that she was out and had taken the children with her, he chose to stay behind. He walked into his layer. He was facing a window, steaming. He did not seem to be looking at anything in particular, that is, if he could see straight. If he was looking at something, he would have been gazing out at the horizon interrupted by the adjacent building. He seemed to be seeing something beyond what was in front of him. The man standing there was a stranger to me. He was distant, preoccupied. As Appa, he was usually engaging, charming.
Then there was a change in him. He sensed a presence. He was not alone. He knew that his family was out and yet his knowledge failed him. Through the open door behind the upturned couch a young boy ducked his head. For a moment, he was puzzled. There was some calculation going on in his head that I was not privy to, at the end of which was a decision. He was deliberate, marching his way over to the couch, retracing his steps over it but this time less athletically, almost playfully. He grabbed his son’s hair.
“Ow, Appa! Please! What?! Appa, Appa! It hurts!” I grabbed his fist in hopes of loosening it while he dragged me around trying to figure out what to do with me. During this, I was staring at the weapon in the other hand. Death would not take much. Death would be quick. The dangerous practice I received the other day had not prepared me for staring at shining death in the face.
“You gotta go!” He dragged his son to the entry way.
“Appa, lemme have my shoes!”
“You gotta go!” He did not care about shoes.
Though I did not want to be any closer to the knife, suddenly it seemed very important to risk it all to have shoes. Such is the mind of a six year old. Even as though he was shoving me out of the door, limited by having something in his other hand, I stuck my foot out. But my bare foot was not enough for an authority three times my size. With a final shove, my butt hit the concrete stairs and the door slammed shut, echoes confirming.
“Appa! I’ll go. Lemme have the shoes! Appa!” I was pounding on the metal door. The hollow stairway repeating back to me the useless plea I kept making. “Appa! Please! Just the shoes! I’ll go with shoes!” I was answered with silence. Still I whaled in desperation, “Appaaaaa!”
I did not know how long I was pounding on the door but without shoes I had nowhere to go, so, there was nothing to do but to keep trying. And, as shy as I was, I was persistent. Still, with my hand painfully throbbing and my pleas sounding ever more meek, the futility in the stairwell embarrassed me. I resigned to my barefoot destiny.
I made my way outside at some point. I did not know what I was supposed to be doing. I wondered where Omma went, and why she did not take me with her. I could not figure out what Omma could have done to enrage him so. Omma was pretty and Appa was handsome. But in one moment, Omma was a shrieking for life and Appa was untamed. He was like an animal, completely out of control and a slave to instinct and reflex. He was visceral. He was out for blood.
Pondering passed the time. There was a small playground outside of the apartment building. I went down the three floors to the ground level. I made my way across the small parking lot with no cars to the playground gravel. I did not step in the gravel, I simply balanced on the ledge.
Some time passed. For a moment, I felt I was watching a movie. A boy stares up to an apartment. Around him is a crowd, an audience of townspeople, kept at bay by a few police officers. Soldiers were rappelling down the side of the building. It was cool. It was exciting.
At the same time, unsettling feeling was taking place. The rappellers were making their way to the balcony, to our balcony. And they had guns. One young solder landed on the balcony and looked through the bedroom window. Before the other one made it onto the balcony, the first one went through the sliding glass door. Was our door unlocked? My recollection is hazy.
Some more time passed, and Omma appeared onto the scene with my brother in her arms. She was talking to a police officer. The crowd was still staring at the balcony, awaiting some resolution. My mother had spoken to someone and gave me a pair of too-small girl’s plastic slippers to wear. I almost wanted to stay barefooted but we were going someplace and I could not possibly get very far without them.
Days passed. Bunch of aunts and uncles were sitting in our living-room. Only evidence of any of the previous events were on people’s faces. It was a meeting of the elders. Decisions were going to be made. The adults seem to be stressed, lots of chain smoking. Buried in smoke, they were nearly speaking another language in hushed tones. I am sure my mother was among them but I cannot place her in the scene.
A decision must have been made. The result was the cold shack on a hill, our new home. I do not even recall the bathroom being attached. I think we had to go outside to an outhouse. My mother was never around, always absent and supposedly busy. I took the remaining eggs and imitated adults cooking. I turned on the propane stove, put a pan on top and put the egg on the pan. Half of the egg remained stuck on the pan. I gave it to my brother. He seemed to be hungrier than I was. The one room shack with an unheated kitchen attached to it was very isolating. I was not really missing school but I was not okay with staying home, awaiting Omma’s return. Aside from constant hunger, my brother did not seem to mind being there. He still had television. He never seemed to mind anything. Nothing fazed him. And where Omma went was unclear.
There was a whole lot that was unclear. Why had not father allowed us back? What did the police say to him? What did Omma say that angered him so? How was it that my brother was so happy? Why was there no heat or hot water? Why was there no food? If we could not go back to the apartment then why can’t we live with Auntie Gomo? What happened and why did it come down to this, a cold house far from everyone, and with no directions back to anything I had ever known?
Seoulites who were poor lived high up on the hills, small mountains, really. Seoul was a city with many hills where their bald faces left homes to the elements. These hills were not always so bare. Most were simply not rejuvenated after the War. The desirable areas to live had been in the valleys. It had been this way for centuries. Away from the stresses of city life, universities set up shop up high. Other than these institutions of higher learning, people who could not afford to live among civilization lived on the hills.
I left the house to find food. I did not have any money. I had never bought anything before. Standing on the hill, I could see a good expanse of the city. I did not know that I lived with so many people. And I did not know any of them. I figured I could go down the hill and I would eventually get to somewhere I recognized. It was a sunny day, not too cold. At first it was easy. I just had to walk downhill. Then I found myself in a labyrinth of walls, walls of stone, walls of brick, walls of cinder-block. I could not recall how I got on the hill to begin with, so, there was no retracing my steps. Now I did not know how to get off of the hill. On the other side of the labyrinth were the city streets. Streets I could navigate. I tried this way and that. There never was a dead end. Sometimes I found myself at the same junction, which seemed completely ridiculous since I would have had to walk uphill at some point to make a circle. I had one hint that I was making progress: I was still descending.
I found streets with cars and actual traffic. I made it! Only, I did not know how. I also did not know where. And I only then realized that I had not seen any people on my way down. How was it possible that all those people lived on the hill and I would not meet or see any of them?
The problem with Seoul was that with few exceptions, everything looked familiar. Once lost, it was too easy to remain lost with the thought that the next corner will present something familiar. And that would be right. You would recognize it, whatever it was. But the thing you would recognize was actually a duplicate of whatever you used to find your bearings with: a convenience store, a dry cleaners, a bus stop. They all looked the same. I was a persistent boy. I was shy to ask for help but I was not about to give up. So, I kept walking. Here and there, I could see people doing their thing. There was a middle-aged fat man scratching his belly and singing. There was the truck with foodstuffs being unloaded by young men wearing gloves that were dipped in red rubber and older men giving orders while smoking bent cigarettes, bent from their sweaty pockets. Then there was the entrance to some high school. A young man on a scooter with a jjajangmyun noodle delivery container was talking to some pretty girl in uniform, who was clearly excited to see him. She wore a pretty ribbon in her hair. He was smoking. It had been a while since I left the house but it must have been lunch time by then, otherwise the girl could not possibly be allowed to leave school grounds. I was feeling light headed. I had to keep walking, otherwise it might be too late and Appa will have left to DJ at the cafe. It was not very long when I came across a section of the city completely different from what I had thought was there. I was expecting something else. I cannot remember what I was expecting but I do remember that I was expecting something and I saw something completely different. This meant my mental map had a gap. Worrisome. But I was not too surprised, since the trek was already much longer than I had expected. I decided to walk through this gap. Unlike the known sections of the city, populated with four story buildings with simple stores, food carts on the streets, and neon signs for noraebang song rooms, this section had tall buildings.
Buildings with glass and shiny stone exteriors. These buildings were so tall, they created different times of the day below in their valleys. There were only a few signs. People were dressed in suits, walking briskly and with purpose. Then there were the store windows. On display were such things of beauty. I did not know what they were. I did not even know that they were stores; they could have been museums. There was one display that caught my eye. In it, there was another world built behind the glass. A plane hanging from a ceiling so high that I could not see where the string met the ceiling. A train passed by on a green carpet that was meant to resemble grass. The train moved on its own! There were plastic trees and cars and roads and things on trucks. There were smiling figurines: a doctor and a nurse, a fireman, a police officer and a dog. And the buildings were made with plastic bricks. One looked like a house. Another looked like a bridge. The train went by again. This time it had cargo: Little brown plastic cylindrical bricks that were supposed to be logs of wood. I walked slowly and stopped to admire one detail after another. I retraced my path to admire them again. I must have looked at every detail thrice or more when I came to a thick glass door I had not noticed earlier. A man and his son came out. The boy must have been about my age. He had a box with the picture of something that was on display. It was labeled LEGO. The father and son held hands. And I watched their backs walk away. Even their backs looked happy.
It hurt. The sight of him with his father, happy, holding onto his gift. I pained with envy. I couldn’t put it into words then, but I can now. The warmth I could feel between them at that moment was so strong, the envy has scorched its mark on me. Even to this day, recalling my little self standing there, watching them walk away, chokes me, burning my throat.
I looked into the window again. This time beyond the smiling doctor and his nurse was a scowling face. The face was looking at me. Suddenly the door opened and a woman about Omma’s age stuck her head out, “Little boy, you should not stand there so long. Other people need to see.” Still recovering from the awful effects of envy, I looked around, confused. There were men and women in suits walking by but no one was looking at the display, let alone appreciating its magnificence. “With your father come back soon. Ask him to buy you that fireman with his firetruck. Okay? Go on.”
I took some cautious steps back. I was hurt, and now I was embarrassed. I walked across the street when I could.
On the other side of the street there was a ramp. There were older kids going in and out of it. There was an old man at the street level in a booth, slumped. I walked right by him, unnoticed, or he had not cared. As I descended down the ramp, it was getting darker and louder. There were some teenagers walking up the ramp returning to the street, chit-chatting and generally having a good time. They did not mind me any attention, so, I kept going. Anxiety was building up inside me. Going deeper under ground in the dark I could not see where my feet touched the ground, even though there was light at the end of it all at the bottom. And I could begin to hear dancing music and people quealing. The squeals were getting happier as I approached. When I finally arrived, there were older boys and girls on shoes with wheels on them. They were going ’round in circles and spinning and falling and laughing and some were dancing to the beat of the music. And they were chasing each other. People were dancing, rolling their feet, hanging onto each other for support. Even when they fell, they seemed delighted by the fall. Everyone was much older than me.
I do not remember what happened after the dancing wheels. I do not remember how I got out. I do not remember where I went. Presumably, I continued my trek toward my former home and at some point gave up. I never reached Appa.
A stiff breeze was blowing across the street as I walked up the hill. Again, I noticed that the street was empty. I, finally, reached the shack. I could hear that Omma was back by the sound of the television. I pulled open the inner door and sitting on the floor pillows with partially eaten food was Omma and adorable little brother, who was standing and doing something entertaining. Was he dancing? Omma turned her head and was immediately furious. She grabbed me by the arm, pulled me in, and closed the door behind me.
“Where were you?! I have been waiting for you for hours! Your brother was hungry so I had to cook. Why were you not home?!” She started to slap my bottom with the palm of her hand. “Where were you? Where did you go? You should not go out! Do not go out again! Never!” She continued this for a minute. This was spanking. It did not really hurt physically. It hurt emotionally. I began to cry. Not a child’s whaling cry but a suffocated, stifled, weepy cry of a child with no self-esteem. The continual pain of Omma’s passionate disapproval welled up the tears. I clenched and contorted my face to prevent an explosion. Still, hot tears leaked, streaming down my cheeks, dripping below my chin, cold by then.
“Now, go over there,” she pointed to the other side of the table. There was a bowl of cold sick congealing. “Eat your noodle!” Noodles? The noodles must have been sitting there for a very long time. Their structural integrity was not credible. Now it looked half digested. “It’s cold because you were late. I bought you special ramyun for your birthday and now it is just cold. Eat it!” With her order, I looked at the empty bowls on the other side of the table and tried not to smell the noodle jelly soup in front of me. I put it in my mouth. It did not have the right texture. My gag reflexes activated and prevented me from getting any of it down. I bit off some of the noodles but I started dry heaving.
“It’s all your fault!”
It was sunny some day after my foray into the city in search of home. Omma was at the shack. She was readying herself for something. She had us prepare to go out. We were not dressed in our best but we were dressed better than we had in quite a while.
“Let’s go.” She hurried us out. She grabbed each of our hands and briskly led us down the hill. She clearly knew her way around. And this excursion was a first, or at least a first since our fatherless residence at the shack on the hill. “How about I take us someplace nice?” she said looking ahead.
I cannot find within me the seams that put this moment together with what I remember to be next. Blurry stream of buildings passing by through a window as the three of use were in the back seat of a taxi. The remarkable fact is that up to this point in my life I may have been in a car just a few times, let alone a taxi, which was prohibitively expensive. And, looking back on my six year old self, I was much more aware of money, or the lack of it, than I can recall of any other six year old. The rarity of the episode made me nervous, the strange smell of the seat cloth and the people who sat in the very same place prior to our occupancy. Omma seemed nervous as well. She had not been inside of a taxi in a long time either. My brother was… I think he was sleeping. Either way, he was playing yet another insignificant role in my memory, even though ever present.
My memories of Korea have very little of my brother. There are many reasons for this. My brother was a relatively happy and oblivious kid. He had these adorably sad eyes that no adult could resist. He was incredibly affectionate. He was very bright, though he still spoke with a child’s senselessness. I do not know which caused which: did his looks and nature gain the attention of adults causing them to teach him more things early in life, or was he more of a learner than I was and therefore adults taught him things? Either way, his happy, oblivious nature had him either on the sidelines, out of harms way, away from conflict and protected by someone who paid close attention, or he was an accessory, held onto by the main characters of scenes as a cute prop, something to provide a little distraction when things got too heated. In either case, his presence never contributed to any change in the tides.
Not that I played a significant role in anything that happened, either. I was merely observing, always trying to pay attention to what was going on, trying to get my bearings and prepare myself. What I was preparing for is beyond me. But there never seemed to be a moment’s rest, especially now that every little bit of information could help me get some much needed sustenance. And on that front, I had disregarded my brother’s ability to contribute, never an active part of any episode of our Korean life.
We arrived at our destination. I was not sure where we were.
And here my memory does this trick. I recall getting out of the taxi on top of a hill, next to a donut shop. But later I recall looking out through the window of the same donut stop at a flat city scene.
Whatever the scene, the three of us got out of the taxi and walked around a bit, I think. We were holding hands, I think. Omma was smiling, I think. I am not really remembering this “Walking around.” What I am really recalling is that Omma did not seem to know where we were going, though she seemed to have a destination in mind. And somehow we ended up back at the doughnut shop, back where we started, restarting this part of the plan. And there certainly seemed to be a plan.
It was not a fancy place, the doughnut shop, but I did recognize that the small shop had some seating next to the window and was successful enough to have an air of newness in that 1980s sort of way that most establishments in Korea did not.
Omma told us to pick out what looked good.
Being a donut shop was already exotic. Western food was expensive and donuts were no exception. Heightening the exoticism of the donuts on our plates, we were give Western utensils. My brother and I sat facing Omma. Omma was not having anything. She smiled and told us to enjoy it. And I did enjoy it. My brother clearly enjoyed it. I can still hear the echoes of his bliss.
For all the times I was envious of my brother being better looking, smarter and more popular, I still saw him as my little brother. I forced myself to learn to cook so he could eat. I dared myself to venture out into a world I did not know how to navigate so that we could see our father. And even when I sat on the sidelines, watching relatives play with him, often tickling his feet, I took pleasure in his laughter too. He had never caused me any pain. It was not really my little brother I was jealous of, although I had convinced myself of that then. It was everyone else I faulted for seeing through me. It was my fault for being so invisible. And, I feel, I must have known that somehow, even at six.
When I looked up at Omma, she was looking out of the window, far off some place, concerned. She was rubbing her middle finger with her thumb. That was where I held my pencil. That was where Omma held her dambae cigarettes. Reflexively, she looked at my brother and caught my eyes in the process, looking back at her. For a moment, she was a very pretty girl.
It was not long ago when she was hanging around my father’s cafe in her school uniform with her classmates waiting for him to park his motorcycle and walk into do his session. My father was a popular DJ. In Korea, disc-jockeys who did not work at radio stations worked at cafes. There was a glassed-in booth setup with a turntable, a microphone and shelf full of records, much like a radio station. The DJ introduced songs, talked about things that went on in the neighborhood, and played requests for boys and girls who had the guts to stand at the booth in front of their classmates to do it. DJ’s were usually good looking, had good voices, and would often bring in a significant portion of a cafe’s business during their sessions. And Omma hung around to exchange a word or two with the DJ, perhaps. And completely astounding her friends, she caught his eye. Their innocent courtship did not last long. They were probably all over each other in back alleys or behind the high school, like teenagers. Or at least that is how I imagine my parents before I came along.
My mother was a teenager, seventeen years old. She would have been in the middle of her senior year when she figured out that all the sneaking around had gotten her pregnant. She would have been able to graduate high school unscathed if she was carefully dressed since she probably did not show much, if at all, even during the finals month. My parents were married on April 30th. Strangely, the beautiful couple held their two week old son after the ceremony.
Omma still had eyes of a teenager, though the rest of her face was worn with the stresses of whatever it was that stressed her. Some of her classmates were only just getting married and there she was, twenty-four, sitting across from her were not one but two sons, the younger cute as a button and resembling her and the older being mini-Appa.
A very strange thing was taking place: we spent money on a taxi to go someplace we had never been before, I had an expensive Western delicacy in my mouth, nearly jabbing myself with the metal things Americans jabbed their food with. And though she was smiling, it was off somehow. Riding a taxi was off. Eating doughnuts was off. Her face was tight, she was nervous.
“I need to make a phone call.”
The shop was small enough that the middle-aged owner-lady behind the counter overheard and offered, “You can use our phone.” This gesture was significant because each call had a cost.
“No, no. Thank you, but I couldn’t do that. I will go out and make a call on the pay-phone (like everyone else).”
“Your little kids are right there. It’s okay. I won’t charge you for it.”
“Really, I do not want to be a bother so…” Her back was facing us as she spoke with the lady. Even her back was tense. It may have been shivering. She had her purse with her, her hand in it as though she was ready to take out some change for the pay-phone.
“It’s no bother. Come on. It’ll give me a chance to show off this thing,” the shopkeeper said, raising a phone.
“Thank you, but I will go to the pay-phone.” With this, the lady gave Omma the “suit yourself” look.
Omma had rejected the offer three times. She started to step back toward the door. She turned to me, or it seemed it was to me and not to my brother. “I’m going to call a friend at the pay-phone. I won’t be long. You be good. I’ll just be right there.” She fished for something in her purse, but pulled out her empty hand and closed it. “Challin-a, take care of your brother.”
Using the weight of her body, as though she had to exert great effort, she heaved the gate open. Then she ran away. Her mane flew behind.