May 15, 2002
“Yoboseyo,” I answered the call as I opened my closet to look for a pair of black heels.
“Park Mi Sook-ssi?” The voice from the other line asked softly.
“Yes, this is she,” I answered as I picked out the pair that I wanted from the shelf. Simple black leather, with red patent soles. That’s what I was looking for, I thought as I placed it on the floor.
“This is Choi Min Hyun from the fraud department of KB Kookmin Bank,” the voice said. “Someone attempted to use your card this morning and we just wanted to verify the charge.”
“It was probably my husband,” I answered absently as I sat down and tried to pull my pantyhose over my legs. “He goes away on business trips quite often and he forgets which card is which. I believe he’s an authorized user.”
“We have to verify any international transactions, ma’am. Would you like us to allow the charge to go through?” She asked. “It’s for three million won.”
“That’s fine,” I said as I stood up and grabbed a piece of paper to write myself a note to check on my statement for the charge. My husband likes to stay at nice hotels when he’s away, and this doesn’t sound too far off from what he’s used to.
“Thank you for verifying, ma’am,” she said. “Have a…”
“Ah… Wait one second. Do you mind telling me where the charge was made?” I said. “Just so I know what to look for when my statement comes.”
“Hold on one second, please, while I access that information,” she said politely. After a few minutes I heard her get back on the line. “It’s for a three night stay at an executive suite with spa package at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, ma’am.”
My heart dropped when I heard her response, and I felt a nagging feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Chi Woong said he was going to Hong Kong. My husband and I barely speak during the day but I’m pretty positive the night before he left, over yet another tense meal, that he told me he was going to Hong Kong.
“… Ma’am?” The woman’s voice roused me from my reverie and I snapped back to the present. “Are you still on the line?”
“Ahh, yes…” I responded numbly.
“Was there anything else I can help you with?” She asked.
“No… Thank you,” I said quietly.
“Thank you for being a loyal customer, Ma’am. We hope you have a good rest of the day.”
I hung up the phone and stared at it for a good long while before I stood up from the bed. I went to my closet and pulled out a box from the top shelf. Bringing it to the vanity table, I started pulling out phone bill records and credit card statements. I lifted a sheet of paper out and looked at it, with one number highlighted… The same number appearing several times every day. For the past six months.
For one second I briefly considered calling the number, but I didn’t. Was I afraid of what I won’t find out… Or what I will? I placed the note I had written, now crumpled in my palm, quickly inside the box and shut the cover as if I had been burned. Standing on my tiptoes, I returned the box on the shelf and resolved not to look at it again before sitting myself down in front of my vanity to put my make up on.
I quickly patted my face with my foundation before applying my blusher in sure strokes. I lined my eyelids perfectly and applied a coat of mascara. It wasn’t until I was putting on my lipstick that I noticed my hands were shaking, and I placed one on top of the other to coerce it to stop. I looked at the reflection in the mirror and studied myself. An unlined face met me, my skin as smooth as it was in my thirties. Not bad for a forty nine year old ahjumma, I thought with pride. Almond shaped brown eyes that lifted at the corner slightly. A well proportioned nose. A stern mouth, not usually prone to smiling. Thick straight hair, now pulled into a tight chignon. Diamond stud earrings embellished my lobes, and a gold chain with a small locket encircled my neck. I looked like a refined woman. My students don’t call me the Ice Queen for nothing.
I stood up and straightened my dress. Tailored and simple, it fitted my slender body perfectly. The bateau neckline emphasized my slim shoulders and the three quarter length sleeves ended just past my elbows in an angle, with the back dipping into a slight v. The waist was nipped in before leading into a pencil cut skirt.
I looked in my purse for the invitation but couldn’t find it there. Thinking it may be in my briefcase from work, I walked back into my closet to fish it out. I turned the light back on and let myself enjoy the dazzling array of designer clothing that graced the space. Dresses, trousers, blouses in muted and neutral colors, just the way I preferred. I perused the rows of designer shoes along the back wall and allowed my fingers to touch them lightly. Purses and accessories in all shapes, colors and sizes occupied a full corner of my closet. My hands traveled leisurely over butter soft leather and silky scarves and I permitted myself a small smile.
I opened my briefcase and fished out the cream colored envelope containing the invitation to my only son’s engagement ceremony. After putting it in my clutch, I turned the light off in the closet before exiting the bedroom. As I stood at the entryway of the apartment, my eyes wandered over the expensive furnishings and furniture, along the modern appliances and art pieces that littered the space. The apartment seeped opulence and class from every corner. It looked like a showroom, and I had dictated its every single detail. It may look unlived in, but that had been the point. There were no happy memories here, but there were no sad ones either. This place is a beautiful shell, unadorned by emotions and untarnished by the past. Just the way I liked it. Just like me.
Who could have guessed? That Park Mi Sook, who grew up in the country, only to belong to the lower class part of Seoul, would own this place? No one. The taste of pleasure came then, pure and undiluted, at being able to prove everyone wrong. I have come so far.
Had it been it worth it? A little voice asked inside my head.
Unwittingly a memory came back before I could hold it back. From a long distant past. In a tiny apartment barely bigger than my bedroom, lit only by some candles after yet another month we couldn’t pay our light bill and came home to find our electricity disconnected. Huddled inside a blanket. A face. A handsome face with the voice of angel, laughing at something I said and a rough hand touching my face. I had leaned my cheek into that palm. We didn’t have much, then. But we had been happy. The whisper of a name I have long ago stopped calling for. A beautiful child… with my face and his heart. “Omma,” I heard him call out as I allowed myself one last peek into a window of the family house, trying hard not to cry, my fingers holding on to the handle of my suitcase so tightly it felt like my whole hand was being torn into two.
I closed my eyes as the memory slammed me straight in the gut, and I had to make a conscious effort to not run to the bathroom and attempt to empty the regret out. I counted to ten, like I’ve done over the years, in many moments like this… And sure enough, when I opened my eyes I was back in my lavish apartment, brimming with beautiful things.
My mouth felt full from all the apologies I owed, and my body felt scarred from all I’ve had to sacrifice to get to where I am. Even so, after all those things, after all the mistakes, I am a self made woman. I put myself together again from all the pieces that were left after I gave up everything I ever loved. Including myself.
Has it been it worth it? The little voice repeated.
I hardened my gaze and lifted my chin. Whatever mistakes I’ve made, I’ve paid for in spades. The past is past. Whatever has happened cannot be undone. Whatever is, right now, will have to do.
Park Hyatt Hotel
May 15, 2002
“Attorney Han, what’s going on with the lease for the apartment in Gangnam?” I asked my former business partner. I sat back down on the bed to reach the telephone a little bit easier.
“If you actually answered your phone and checked your e-mail, maybe you would know,” Han Tae Jun replied drily. “And who the hell is Attorney Han?”
“Yah,” I said easily. “I am calling you right now in a business capacity and not as a friend.”
“Should you be using ‘yah’ then, Kim Kang Ho-ssi? Since I’m your lawyer, shouldn’t you be speaking formally to me?” He answered with a laugh and I looked at the phone in my hand. Wasn’t that how I started out speaking to the man? “But, since you asked… The lease is going to expire by the end of October. The tenants are moving back to America, so I will have the realtor put it back up for rent in September.”
“Okay,” I said. “That sounds good.” I fastened the cuffs on my shirtsleeves and picked up my watch from the bedside table. I heard my childhood friend muttering about the fact that some of my tenants emailed me a few months ago, and that he has tried to call me several times at home in Chungju and received no response. “If you’re just going to keep complaining, I’ll be going first.”
“Kang Ho-ah, you are the only person in Korea that doesn’t have a handphone. Do you know how much easier life would be, for you and me both, if you just became like a normal person and actually got one?” I shook my head at the familiar line of discussion.
“You know, it seems like I’m doing just fine without one until I speak to you,” I said. “Why do I need a handphone? I’m not married, so no wife needs to get in touch with me emergently, which is the only reason I can even think of having one on me all the time. Until recently, my son only called me once a year, and he always did it on my birthday, so I knew when to stay home and wait for him to call. I’ve already conceded to his request and got a voicemail set up. I live in a small village, where all my friends and my employees live so near they can just walk over if they need to speak to me that badly.”
“You may have a point there,” he conceded. “But what about me?”
“Are you my girlfriend or something?” I chuckled. “You know I’ll call you anyway. Haven’t I done so in the last seven years?”
“You only call me when you want to yell at someone,” he started with no hint of resentment. “Or you want to talk my wife into making you some of her rice cakes.”
“That’s not true,” I said defensively, looping a belt around my waistband.
“Oh yeah, you also call me when you want to complain about something. I swear, if we haven’t been friends since…” His voice drifted off. “Kang Ho-ah… I saw your Hyung a few days ago.”
I stayed silent as I buckled my belt and set a pair of my dress shoes next to the bed.
“Of course you did… He’s one of your clients. What about it?”
“He and your Noona want to know if you’re coming home anytime soon. They’re still waiting to hear what you want done with your parents’ will… You know they left all of you quite a bit of money, right?” When I didn’t respond, he continued. “You haven’t spoken to any of them in fifteen years. Maybe while you’re in Seoul, you can…”
“Tell them to split it between the two of them. Or don’t split it. I don’t care what they do with it,” I said curtly. “I don’t want any money from them.”
“Are you sure you want to do that? Joon is their family too… Don’t you want that for him? So that he can at least get something from his grandparents?” He asked. “I know things haven’t always been good in your family, but it’s his birthright. He’s as much a Kim as any of them.”
“I’ll talk to him about it at some point,” I said, not really wanting to open up that box of worms yet. “I’m running late. I have to go. I’m… We’re meeting his future-in-laws in half an hour.”
“Ah, that’s right,” I heard him say as I wiped my shoes clean before slipping my feet in them. “You’re finally meeting his fiancée’s parents. You’ve never even had a conversation with them, right?”
“No,” I answered. “But I’ve met Na Jeong and she’s a lovely girl. I know her father is a baseball coach and her mother manages a boarding house. Joon seems to have a great relationship with them so I’m sure they’re good people. I’m actually looking forward to meeting them, finally.”
“And what about Her?” He asked casually. “Are you looking forward to seeing your ex?”
I stayed quiet, focused on the view outside the floor to ceiling windows of my hotel room.
“… How long has it been since you last saw her? Almost twenty years?” He said. “I still can’t believe you got that woman to marry and to stay married to you. It was only seven years but still…”
“Yah. I was going to suggest seeing going out for a drink after this but if you keep talking like this, I won’t see you at all while I’m in Seoul,” I warned him. “It will be fine.”
“Of course it will,” he said in a patronizing tone. “All the stuff happened almost two decades ago.”
“And this is about Joon, our son,” I reminded him. “And I’m going to be late. I’ll call you when it’s over. We’ll talk then.”
I hung up the call before he can say any more. I stood up and pulled my suit jacket out of the wardrobe and shrugged it on. When I was done dressing, I stood in front of the mirror and studied myself.
This, I thought, is why great suits cost a fortune. I haven’t worn a suit in almost seven years and haven’t bought one in even longer time, but this one didn’t look dated or ill fitting.
I’ve been out of the business world for almost ten years, but even as I put my old business clothes back on, it felt like I was slipping back into my old skin. I flicked away some unseen dust and lint off my suit and straightened my tie. I ran my fingers through my hair and spritzed on some cologne.
Looking at myself again I realized that the man in the mirror still looked like the man who used to work seventy hour work weeks. My hands may be more calloused now and my complexion darker, but I was still the same man. Albeit with a better relationship with my son.
Everything else was the same, but at the same time nothing was the same. My eyes held the same shadows as they did from when she left me, but I no longer carried it like a burden, instead that grief kept me anchored instead. Forever reminding me of how far I’ve come, how much pain I am capable of enduring.
Twenty years. It’s been twenty years. It has taken twenty years for the pain to dull. Feeling less like a knife to the heart, but more like a splinter glued onto skin instead. Not disappear altogether, but to at least dull it enough that I can function, and not in a way that was rooted in self destruction. I remembered the ten years after she left, in vivid colors, painting a picture of misery that I not only subjected myself to, but our child as well, and felt regretful and ashamed all at the same time. I have long since then forgiven myself, and hoped that Joon had forgiven me too.
I walked out of my hotel room calmly and took the elevator up to the restaurant where we were meeting. It’s been twenty years. There had been no part of me that stayed intact, that didn’t shatter when she walked away. There was nothing to worry about, for there is nothing left of me for her to break.
I thought I was going to be late. The traffic in Seoul, at its best, was congested. But in rush hour it was deplorable. When I finally parked my car in the parking deck of the Park Hyatt, I was relieved to see I still had ten minutes.
I can’t believe Jae Joon is about to get married, I thought, as I grabbed my purse and checked that my make-up didn’t smudge on my windscreen mirror. I made sure that not a hair was out of place before I grabbed the gifts for Na Jeong’s parents and stepped out of the car.
I walked quickly to the lobby of the hotel, following the arrows to the restaurant on the top floor. I heard the echo of my heels on the marble floor as I walked towards the elevator.
Waiting for the lift, I thanked God HE won’t be here. I had asked Joon a few days ago if his father would be present and he said he had called and left a voicemail but had been unable to get in touch with him. Joon also mentioned something about it being “in season” and though curious as to what that meant, I didn’t ask further. What his father does or does not do is none of my business. Unlike what my husband does.
I get the feeling I should be bothered by the almost definitive proof of something I had known for months, that I should be sad. But I’m not sad. I’m angry. But I will bide my time and make my plan. I no longer have the luxury of just reacting without thought. There are properties and financial assets at stake. I realize the fact that I thought of these things before I fully absorbed the fact that my husband is being unfaithful is worth examining, but not now. Another time. Now is a time to celebrate and I am happy to be seeing Na Jeong’s parents again.
Still, I knew when we got married that this was not a love match. But to use my card… I pursed my lips in irritation and tried to ignore the glances being directed my way by the suited men waiting for the elevator. I walked in and pressed the button to the top floor and stayed in the back, keeping my eyes straight ahead. For one second I wondered if Joon and Na Jeong were already here.
By the time the elevator reached my destination I was the only one left. I exited briskly and walked towards the restaurant before double checking the invitation. The maitre d’ greeted me with a smile.
“Did you have a reservation, madam?” He asked politely.
“I’m here for a private function,” I replied. “There is a reservation under Kim Jae Joon.”
“Ah yes,” he said as he closed the reservation log. “If you would please follow me, I will show you to the Opal Room.”
“No, please, I know the way,” I said. I walked a couple of steps and then turned back. “Is anyone here yet?”
“I believe Mr. Kim has arrived,” he said and I nodded with a smile. I’m glad my boy is punctual.
I walked towards the back of the restaurant, noting the guests that occupied their seats. Business professionals and tourists alike, I’m sure they’re enjoying the view as they dined on plates of aged steak and fresh seafood. The ambience was luxurious and yet intimate, and I was impressed that Joon and Na Jeong chose this place. When I reached the Opal Room, I stopped and took a deep breath. It’s not every day that my son is about to get married. This is really happening.
I noticed that the door was left ajar by an inch and I was hit by a sense of deja vu as I rested my hand on the doorknob. I shook the feeling off and pushed the door open slowly, the sound it made seemingly loud and inconspicuous.
I slowly walked into the room, with its gleaming wooden floors and wide glass windows that encompassed the space. There was a lone table in the middle, with crisp linen on top and chairs covered in matching covers. There were amnesia and artemis roses, scented cream freesia and wax flowers in muted pinks, coffee, taupe and mauve shades, embellished by antique cream lace stems and pearl pins in silver julep cups running the length of the table, alternating with votive candles. Fine china graced six settings, and the silverware was placed formally around each plate. Tasteful, I thought approvingly. I knew my future daughter-in-law had a great eye. I had been so intent on studying the table and leisurely taking in the room that I didn’t notice that the room was, in fact, occupied until it was too late.
A man stood in front of the corner window, in a perfectly tailored suit. I noted short black hair, not quite perfectly done, as if this was a man who ran his fingers through his hair frequently. I silently asked myself if this was one of the hotel staff as I continued to study him.
As if feeling my eyes, he turned slightly and my breath caught. Time seemed to slow down as he turned his head towards his right shoulder, and then stopped altogether when he lifted his head and his eyes met mine. His mouth set in a hard line, impenetrable dark brown eyes bore through me. The all too familiar look made me reel back in shock. He said nothing, and yet those eyes spoke to me.
Between our gazes were memories of a long forgotten time, an image of the person I used to be. Before I changed. Before I was forced to change. Our eyes held an accounting of unspoken words and bittersweet memories, though more bitter or sweet, I wasn’t quite sure. Undesirous of them, I closed my own to escape the onslaught of emotion that were surely coming. Like some words are better left unsaid, the past should also be allowed to rest, perhaps not in peace, but far, far away from my present. A firm proponent of well executed plans based on months of preparation, I was nowhere near ready for this. I vaguely heard the sound that the bag I was carrying made as it fell to the floor. It didn’t register as distinctly as the sound my heart made. I would have said I heard it break, but that would be a lie… Because I could have sworn I heard it sigh.
March 5, 1973
I hurriedly walked into the building that housed my only Friday class, self consciously straightening my knee length skirt and making sure that my blouse was buttoned all the way up. My knee high boots squeaked on the linoleum floor and slowed myself down.
I glanced at the clock on the wall and noted with relief that I had thirty minutes before the class started. I leaned against the wall and opened my bag for my class schedule.
Introduction to Accounting 101. I balked when I was told by my advisor that though I was an Art major I needed the class to graduate next year. So close now. So so close. I was this close to accomplishing my goal. One year to go and I just needed to pass an accounting class. That will be taken care of. Nothing gets in Park Mi Sook’s way.
I’ve worked the whole time I was in university. Though I qualified for an academic scholarship it didn’t cover the household bills, and we needed to live. My sister and I. I thought of the small room we rented in Yongdapdong, with the bed that we shared, and the tiny bathroom. I thought of all our nights huddled in front of the portable stove eating ramyun, not being able to afford anything else, not even the pickled radish that went so well with it. I thought of my little sister in second hand clothing and working whenever she can to contribute as well.
I watched with only a little bit of resentment as some girls passed me by, with their shiny long black hair and perfectly round pink cheeks. The first week of college on campus is like a parade of new clothes and fashion. For everyone except for me.
I fingered the still wet braid that lay over one shoulder after having washed up after my shift at the nightclub before class. I worked only part time there during the day because I have courses to attend, but to also avoid the no good customers at night. It’s become apparent, however, as time went on that those same no gooders frequent that place during the day, too. Men in business suits, grabbing a drink in the middle of the day, grabbing on the waitresses even as their wedding rings glinted in the light.
I thought back on my shift and shuddered before realizing that I have more than likely, lost that job. Dammit. We really needed that money. Angry tears formed in my eyes and I bit my lip. I could handle the catcalls and the occasional groping. I was used to the behavior of randy young men about to go or just come back from the army. I know how to defend myself if I needed to. But today… Today…
I’ve noticed him come into the club every time I worked. He wasn’t dressed flashily, oftentimes dressed in trousers and a button down shirt. He had an average looking face and was polite, and always left generous tips. I had noticed that he always seemed to ask for me to be his server. I ignored the dirty looks sent my way by the other waitresses… I’ve heard whispers that my customer was a high roller, and realized how much of a luxury it must be to be serving someone who didn’t undress you with his eyes. He behaved like a gentleman, always asking about me… what I did, what I was studying. Even in the seediness of the place I worked, those conversations made me feel at least like a person. A real human being. Someone who had a mind and had a family and had a life, even if there wasn’t much of it to speak of. I knew I didn’t get that job on the back of my intellect and winning personality. I knew in my interview that they didn’t care about those things… just the fact that I had a pretty face and a decent body line.
I hid the fact from my sister, not wanting to let her know the depths I’ve gone down to support us. I don’t want her to think it was okay, because while I could handle it, I don’t want it for her. We talk to our parents every other weekend, and not wanting to worry them, I didn’t let them know how much harder life was in Seoul. No one told me when I was dreaming of going to the city it would be so hard to leave them behind. Even though I knew it was our only way up. My only way out. I didn’t want to be someone who stayed in the village all my life. I yearned to see the world… see what else was out there for me. That village was too small for my dreams, and I felt it suffocating me day by day. Seoul was where I needed to be.
When my customer had asked me to sit down I did so without hesitation. It took him a few minutes to get the conversation going and I had wondered for a brief minute whether he was about to ask me out. I felt flattered though I was not attracted to him. That emotion quickly transformed to anger and shame when the words came out of his mouth.
“How would you like to be taken care of?” He had asked. “To have a beautiful apartment, new clothes, your university tuition taken care of?”
I had looked at him disbelievingly before I responded. “Doesn’t everyone want that?”
He had given me a sickeningly kind smile before he continued. “I can make that happen for you,” he said as he pulled a card out and handed it to me. “You’re a beautiful woman, and that beauty should be put to good use.”
I looked at his card and read the information quickly. “What is this?” I asked, as I tried to give his card back with shaky hands. “You’re joking, right?”
His eyes lost the kind light and he studied me instead calculatingly. “Beggars cannot be choosers. I’ve watched you come in for your shift, always wearing drab ill fitting clothes. And I’ve seen you leave in those same clothes as well. How old are you? 20? Perfect age. A womanly body still fresh with the blush of youth.” I watched as he took a swallow of his drink. I was about to ask him to stop when he continued. “I see no need to mince words, so I will be frank instead. You can finish school, but you still won’t amount to much, my dear. Not without the right connections. If you take my offer, you will have everything you want very quickly. Our customers are discerning, and very wealthy. All they ask,” he said as his eyes drifted over me, “is the pleasure of your company and of course, your discretion.”
“The pleasure of my company meaning sleep with me, right?” I had asked quietly, my hands folded together to keep myself from doing something that will get me fired.
He raised his eyebrows questioningly. “What you do behind closed doors is none of my concern. I only wish to facilitate such arrangements.”
“You mean you want to be my pimp,” I said, as I stood up. “No amount of fancy words will cover up the fact that you think I am a commodity that can be bought. Since I wish to keep my job, I will pretend this conversation never happened. Can I get you another drink?” When he gave me no response, I picked up the tray that I had been carrying and turned around to leave.
“You really should consider my offer, Mi Sook-ssi,if that is your real name,” I heard him say quietly. “Your youth and your beauty will not last forever. Take advantage of it while you can. Do you know how many girls from the country come to Seoul with big dreams and end up successful? Not many. You know why? Because there are girls who grow up here competing for the same jobs and the same men. But unlike you, they have rich daddies who can pay off other people to make their dreams come true. Do you know what becomes of the girls like you? They end up coming to me… Not wanting to go back to where they came from, and not having any other choice. You will, too, once your eyes open up to how soulless this city is. I’m merely giving you a headstart.”
One of my hands balled at my side while I felt the other gripping the tray I had been holding. Feeling an angry flush creep up my neck, I turned around and addressed him. “I may be poor, but I still have principles. I may not have much, but I still have some pride.”
He lit a cigarette and took a swallow of his drink before he looked at me. When he said nothing else I started making my way to the door. I had just placed my hand on the handle when I heard his voice again.
“Pride will not feed you, and neither will principle. You look like an intelligent woman. Surely you must know that.” He took a long drag of his cigarette before he continued. “How about this, then, since you’re so opposed to that… How much for one night with you?”
I marched over to him and turned his drink over his head before I could even think about what I was doing. I watched as he sputtered and wiped a napkin over his face. “You bitch!” He said, his tone steely. “Who do you think you are?”
“Who do YOU think you are?” I countered back. “You may not see me as someone who is worth much, but I am someone’s daughter. I am someone’s sister. You may be right, but I can still try to improve my situation. Dreaming doesn’t cost a damn thing. Neither does believing. Shame on you for thinking a person’s virtue can be bought.”
“Is that why you’re working here wearing a short skirt, completely dependent on tips and the goodwill of your customers? Wake up…” He sneered. “Everyone can be bought.” He stood up then walked towards the door. “Let’s see how high and mighty you are when you lose this job.”
Though my pride was seething, I thought of the rent that we still had nowhere near enough money to pay. I thought of my sister, who walked everywhere because she wanted to save as much money as she could. I thought of our parents, still working hard on the little land we had in the village. I bit my tongue from saying any more and resisted the urge to do more damage than I had already done. He stopped in front of me and lifted a hand towards me, and for one second I thought I was going to be hit. But instead he ran a hand over my face, down my neck, and over my collarbone instead, lightly lifting the gold chain that I wore, and I wanted to scream at him. Don’t touch that, I wanted to yell. That had been my Omma’s, gifted to me before I left. I turned my face away in disgust and he clucked his tongue as he finally took his hands off me.
“I’ll see you again soon,” he said in a low voice, amused. “Your beauty up close is even more remarkable. It’s too bad you have a nasty attitude.” I didn’t meet his eyes. “Now… where can I find your manager? I’m sure they would love to hear how badly I was treated here and that because of you, I will now be taking my money elsewhere.” He looked at me smugly one more time and then left.
It wasn’t until I heard the door close that I felt my shoulders sag. I glanced at the mirror on the wall and saw my face, all made up and my hair brushed out. I studied the shirt that felt too tight and the skirt that was too short, and realized with shame that he was right. I lifted a shaky hand over my mouth as bile rose up. It felt like the walls were closing in on me and I needed to get some fresh air before I passed out. Tears formed in my eyes and I shut them to keep them from falling. My mind drifted for a minute, thinking of my father’s weather beaten skin, hands roughened by years of backbreaking work, and my mother’s kind eyes and my heart beat painfully inside my chest. What would they think if they knew how I was living my life?
I left the room, my knees weak and without acknowledging the curious looks from the other girls, went to the back room to grab my purse and my school bag and then straight to the exit. The sky was gray, the rain looming in the air and the clouds. I saw people talking and laughing, blissfully ignorant of how me and the other half live in Seoul, and somewhere inside me, bitterness made itself known.
Unable to contain the bubbles of hate forming just underneath the surface of skin, I started walking towards somewhere, I wasn’t really sure. I just continued walking, my steps getting quicker and quicker as I took in big gulps of air into my lungs. My whole body felt as if it was covered in grime and dirt, and I needed to get it off. It wasn’t until I reached the jimjilbang in my neighborhood that I finally allowed myself to stop.
Opening the door, I ignored the way the ahjumma looked me up and down, no doubt taking note of the way I was dressed. I put my money on the counter and quietly asked for some scouring pads. Once she had handed them to me, I quickly made my way to the changing room, then took off the clothes I had been wearing and dropped them in the garbage can. It wasn’t until I was wrapped in a towel and was walking to the enormous bathtub that I gingerly picked the clothes back out. I had to hold myself back from emitting a bitter laugh, even as I folded the clothes that I never want to put on again but cannot throw out because I can’t afford to be wasteful. Maybe that man had been right about that. Principles won’t keep me warm, and they won’t feed me either. But I can still have it. I can still hold onto it. My parents taught me that.
I took a scouring pad and ran it across my skin, repeating it multiple times, repeating it painfully, over and over again. Trying to scrub off the shame that I felt. Trying to get rid of the sheen of poverty that I wore like a second skin. When I dunked my head underwater, I sent a silent prayer for a different life. A different me. I wished not for a life of luxury, but one unhindered by my class to determine how far I will go in life.
Putting my school clothes on quickly I exited the jimjilbang and walked to university. My face bare now, I looked even younger than my twenty years. I stood still for one second, surrounded by people, all walking briskly around me and past me, without anyone acknowledging my presence. No glances were spared my way. I might as well have been invisible. It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders and I was bending from the weight of it all. All of a sudden I felt exhausted and very very lonely. It took everything in me at that moment not to break down in the middle of the street and cry. It took all the determination In me to keep walking until I reached the university.
The sound of laughter brought me back from my reverie, only to see a group of girls looking at me. The tallest of the girls narrowed her eyes before whispering to the others with her. I could feel their derision and judgment wash over me and I stayed in place, while fighting the urge to ask them what the hell they were looking at. Before long, i heard their giggles as they walked away from me quickly. Any other day, i would have asked them to mind their own business and continue living their grand little lives. But today, I just don’t have the strength. I felt beaten down and lost.
I quickly darted to the women’s bathroom to compose myself before class. Locking myself in the toilet, I sat down and put my face in hands. “You can do this, Park Mi Sook, ” I told myself. “One more year, and you will be done. You can do this.” I repeated the encouragement to myself as many times as I could, until it felt like I can almost believe it. I then stood up and straightened my clothes.
It wasn’t until I was looking in the mirror as I washed my face that I began to tear up. Not for the first time in the last three years I longed to see my father’s smile and feel my mother’s touch. I wished I could see my little sister’s face, though I’m sure if I showed up at her job she will worry. Between the two of us, I was the one who was never supposed to fall apart. It had been my dreams that brought both of us to Seoul, and I owed it to her to make something good happen.
I walked out of the bathroom and as I walked to my class, couldn’t help but watch the couple walking in front of me. I saw the way the boy leaned his head down towards the girl’s, the way he smiled at her with his eyes. She took his hand, shyly at first, but then he wrapped his fingers around hers. He lifted a hand and tenderly brushed her hair back and she smiled at him, talking in soft tones, unaware that they had an audience. I looked at my hand and for the first time in a long time, I wished for a hand to hold mine, to encourage and support me.
I’ve loved before, a few years ago, with someone I had grown up with, before I left for Seoul. He had promised me the moon and the stars, and I had believed him, until he left for the military. I had held on as long as I could, remembering his promise to take care of me and give me a happy life, until he came back two years later and told me he had fallen in love with someone else and that they will be getting married. Just like that my innocent dreams vanished and in that moment I realized I can only rely on myself. At the memory I was reminded that I am the only one accountable for my life and my happiness. I can do it.
I stopped walking and leaned against a doorway. I can do it on my own, I kept repeating to myself, like a mantra, even as my eyes welled up with lonely, angry tears. I wonder what that felt like, though, to have someone look at me like that. To have someone speak to me for the sheer purpose of making me smile. A big part of me wished someone would just tell me it will be okay. How I wished someone will tell me to keep my chin up, that brighter days are coming. Useless wishing, I scolded myself. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
The sound of music playing made me open my eyes. I heard someone clear his throat and I just now realized that the door to the music room had been left ajar by about an inch. Unable to help myself, I placed my hand on the handle and leaned my head more closely to listen. I heard a male voice say words of encouragement to himself, and even through the haze of tears I felt a small smile form on my face. My curiosity piqued, I peeked my head in and saw a man sitting on a chair, his back to me.
His hands were thrumming a familiar melody on the guitar. From this view I could only see shoulder length hair and arms covered by the long sleeves on his shirt. Once again he cleared his throat before he began to sing. I was about to turn away, to let him have his privacy, when I heard his voice.
“When you’re weary, and feeling small,” his strong, clear voice began. “When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all…” He was singing in English and for the first time, I was grateful that I had started taking some classes as soon as I started university. “I’m on your side, oooh, when times are rough… And friends just can’t, can’t be found…”
I kept my hand on the doorway at first, but something in his voice had beckoned to me. The air around me thickened, and I felt my heart beating fast in my chest as I debated opening the door. Before I knew it, my feet had led me into the room, just a few feet from his back as he launched into the second verse.
“When you’re down and out… When you’re on the street, when evening falls so hard… I will comfort you,” he paused and I wondered if he knew I was in the room listening to him. Feeling like a voyeur intruding on someone’s very private moment, I was tempted to make my presence known when he started again. I felt rooted to the spot where I was standing as I realized the message in the song he was singing. For one second it felt like it had been serendipity that brought me here, having just wished to hear these words moments ago. My eyes were still wet with tears and part of me wished I could see his face. His voice sounded sure and confident, and something about it seemed familiar somewhat. But how? I have never met him before.
“I’ll take your part… When darkness comes. And pain is all around… Like a blidge over troubled water, I will lay me down,” he sang and I smiled. Sure that he had just mispronounced the word, I waited for the line to be repeated as I bit my bottom lip and wiped the corner of my eyes. “Like a blidge over troubled water, I will -“
A giggle escaped my throat before I could stop myself, even as I covered my mouth with my palm. Within a few seconds he was standing up to face me, his forgotten guitar making a loud noise as it fell onto the linoleum floor of the music room.
“It’s bridge. Not blidge,” I said, as I looked at the floor, unable to look at his face. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have barged in.”
I could feel his eyes on me even as as he said nothing. Maybe I should not have corrected him, I thought. There goes my mouth, getting the best of me again. While I waited for his response, I let my eyes travel over his shoes, plain and black. He was wearing bell bottom corduroy brown pants, with a tear on the left knee. I fixated my gaze on the tear, even as the silence in the room deepened. Seeing that he wasn’t going to answer, I turned on my heels and was leaving the room when I heard his voice.
“Stop, please,” I heard him say and I turned around. A button down shirt in powder blue covered his broad shoulders, and still unwilling to meet his eyes, I looked at his hands, instead. Big hands with lean fingers, a leather bracelet on one wrist. His hands reminded me of my father’s… They looked like hands that should be doing menial work rather than strumming a guitar gently. They looked strong and steady, the hands of a trustworthy man. “What did you say?”
His question forced me to look at his face, and I had to stop my mouth from opening as I perused his face. Intelligent brown eyes studied me quietly, a nose perfectly positioned on his face. Long silken hair framed his almost too angular face. Others may think his face too harsh to be handsome, but not me. I studied the firm line of his jaw and his high cheekbones. His eyebrows were furrowed in confusion even as the warmth from his gaze suffused every cell in my body. A blush spread to my cheeks even without warning, and I kept my hands together in front of me, fighting the desire to cross them over my chest in a defensive posture.
“It’s bridge,” I repeated. “Not blidge.”
He looked as though he was thinking, then nodded in understanding. As if just now realizing that I was still standing in front of him, he turned his eyes back to mine and I was once again conscious of how dated I must look. Not again, I thought. No one else gets to make me feel like shit again today. I hardened my eyes and met his challengingly, fully expecting to see derision and ridicule in them.
I had not been prepared to see him looking at me intently and appreciatively. The unabashed curiosity in his eyes made me feel warm. His perfectly shaped lips were slightly open, and I should have felt violated, knowing his gaze would soon wander down my body, as all the men I have ever met do. But his eyes stayed firmly on my face, blinking only a couple of times, not saying any more. There was something intimate in the way he looked at me, like he knew me, and I felt lightheaded. I chalked it up to how emotional this day was, that I felt a connection with this stranger. It sounds crazy, but just in the way he was looking at me, I felt seen. Like I was someone who mattered. I am not a woman who becomes unsettled quickly, yet at this moment in time I felt imbalanced. I fiddled with the chain around my neck, as was my nervous habit, and debated whether I should stay here, or to flee.
The chiming of the clock alerted me to the time and the fact that I still had to go to class. When he turned his face to look at the clock on the wall, I took the opportunity to leave the room. Once in the hallway, I leaned my back against the wall, and put a calming hand to my chest, where my heart was beating rapidly. Foolish girl, I scolded myself. Foolish, foolish girl. You’re here to make your dreams come true, not fall in love. Love is only an emotion only the privileged can afford. Right, I thought as I shook my head to get my bearings back, of course.
But as I walked towards class, I still couldn’t help but look back behind me towards the music room, my heart half hoping to see a glimpse of him once more. After all, it seemed very unlikely we would meet again. Alas, fate couldn’t even give me that, as I entered my class without seeing him again. Even then I knew that those kind and gentle brown eyes would haunt me all my life, and would forever remind me of the first time I felt like I actually, truly existed. In this life, and in this world.
Park Hyatt Hotel
May 15, 2002
It’s those same brown eyes that brought me back to this place, at this time, and for a few beats I struggled to remember where I was and what I was doing here. What I saw in his eyes though reminded me quite abruptly that it’s no longer 1973 but 2002. Almost thirty years since I saw him for the first time. Almost twenty years since I saw him last. Our son is getting married next week. I’m at his engagement party. My ex husband is looking at me. The years between what we were and what we are now has never been painted more clearly than at this moment.
If the lines around his eyes didn’t convince me of this chasm, the wariness in them did. The eyes that once looked at me so familiarly, so intimately, so knowingly, even when we had never met, now looked at me like I was a stranger, though we had spent almost a decade together. I opened my mouth to say something, but no sound would come out.
I never thought this day would ever come, when Kim Kang Ho would leave me speechless once more. How cruel the fates are, I thought. How so very cruel. Just when I believed that I was no longer capable of being reminded of my past, when I had convinced myself I no longer had the ability to feel, I was proven wrong once again, and by the same man who made me wish for those things in the first place.
I had been lost in my thoughts when she came into the room. Looking out at the landscape that I used to see whenever I sat down in my office, the grayness and largeness of Seoul right outside my windows, it’s rhythm right at my fingertips. I could feel the city’s life pulsing through me. I love this city, but it always reminded me of her at every turn, which is why I left it all behind. We already shared a son… We didn’t need to share a city too, especially once I heard she had remarried.
I knew it was going to happen, of course, almost as soon as I received the divorce papers. She had never been one to dwell. It’s part of what I lo-, had loved about her. I have never met anyone else who landed on their feet as squarely as she did, or bounced back as quickly. She had a stronger spine than most men of my acquaintance, with the intelligence to match. It had been for the best, really, that we parted when we did… Or so I keep telling myself.
How can she still look the same after all these years? My eyes took in her slender form, covered in somber black fabric, and her elegant shoes, before traveling back up to her incredible face. The light brown eyes that met mine were sharp, unafraid. She wore her makeup like an armor and the traitorous part of me wondered if she still looked as lovely without it.
Still, after all this time… Her beauty has grown more prominent since I saw her last. Her demeanor bespoke of confidence, a million miles away from the shy girl I first met. The way she carried herself was unapologetic… This was a woman who was proud of herself and her life.
I anticipated to feel a burst of anger at how easy it had been for her to walk away from me and our son, almost twenty years ago. I prayed for bitterness, that she could look so put together, when I had traveled the depths of hell to even survive. I wished for resentment, for having been left behind, for having been the one who had to remind myself to breathe in and out every second of every day the first few weeks after I realized she was not coming back. I wanted to hurt her, for making me tell our son alone that his mother no longer needed, or wanted either one of us.
But, I felt none of those things.
No matter how much I wished I could hate her for her ability to be so cool and composed even as I was reliving the last twenty years in my mind, what I felt instead was relief. That she’s living well. That it seemed she had managed to make her dreams come true, something she once claimed she would never be able to achieve if she stayed by my side. I’m glad, if for nothing else, then for that at least. All of our suffering had not been for nothing.
She looked like the Park Mi Sook I knew. If I were to come closer, I’d know if she still carried with her the sharp scent of lemon and the sweet, slightly herbaceous fragrance of bergamot that she wore all the years I loved her. If she opened her mouth, it would be my Mi Sook’s voice I would hear. If I held her hand, her skin would be just as soft as my wife’s had been.
My feet traveled to where she was standing until I was right in front of her. The scent of Chanel Cristalle assaulted me and I could not help but breathe her in. I was right, she still wore the same perfume. It had been my engagement gift to her, and I involuntarily recalled how her face broke out into a surprised smile when she unwrapped the sleek bottle from its wrapper, how her eyes filled with joy.
Those eyes were fixed on mine now, watching closely without saying a word. I felt like I was outside of myself, unable to control what I was doing. I felt hypnotized by this moment and by the fact that she was finally back in front of me. My mind was clouded with memories of the past, of all the days we’ve ever shared and all the promises we’ve ever made. It was blessedly suffocating, and I struggled to breathe. It feels like the numbness that I have lived with since she left was being thawed out, little by little, and I almost cried at the feeling of being able to feel again.
I watched as she lifted her left hand to smooth her chignon before turning her gaze away from mine. Her cool facade dropped for one second and I saw her as she was a lifetime ago. The hand that fixed her hair now rested on her collarbone, fingering her necklace, the same necklace she wore a million years ago, and my eyes narrowed when they landed on the locket that hung from it.
There was a subtle trembling in her delicate hands and only then did I notice that the bag I assume she had been carrying was now on the floor, its gaily wrapped presents scattered around it. The feeling of satisfaction coursed through me at the thought that she may not be as unaffected as she wanted to appear. Good. Even if her face showed nothing, her hands, at least, still knew how to be honest.
The tension between us was mounting, the silence like a heavy blanket. I saw her take a sharp intake of breath and watched with fascination as she closed her eyes, her long lashes kissing the top of her cheekbones. How strange it is, really, to look at the woman who-looked-like-my-wife-who-wasn’t-my-wife. So many years and silent words hung between us, and I wondered for one brief moment, if I reached my hand out to her, if that would be enough to lessen the distance between what had been and what is now.
The band on her left hand glinted in the light, just a small glint really, but it blinded me. And just like that the moment passed, and she was a stranger once more, a stranger who had the face of the only woman I’ve ever loved. That little sparkle was what broke through my consciousness, and I retreated a few steps back. Coldness seeped back into my heart, as I remembered the heartless way she left and the callous words she spewed the last night we had shared as man and wife. It felt like I had woken up from an illusion and I breathed a sigh of relief, the air feeling like a healing salve. Reality reared its ugly head once more and I was grateful. It may be cruel, but at least it was true.
She may look like my Mi Sook, but she wasn’t her. The woman in front of me is a stranger and someone else’s wife. The past is dead. She is someone else’s wife.