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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

My Brilliant Life

Ae-ran Kim; translated by Chi-Young Kim

Forge Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


My grandmother had six children: five sons and a daughter. Once I asked, “Mom, why did Grandmother and Grandfather have so many kids when they never got along?” “Well—she said they did it once in a blue moon and each time she got pregnant.” My mom was the baby of the family and was known in her childhood as Princess Fuck; having grown up around foulmouthed men, she dropped curse words at every opportunity. I feel close to my mom when I think about the small, adorable girl she would have been, wandering around the village, swearing. She’s still feisty, but she must have toned down her vocabulary when she got knocked up and got kicked out of school, or when my dad was beaten to a pulp by her five brothers over it. Or maybe it was when she had to stare at the hospital bills she couldn’t afford.

* * *

From the very beginning, my grandfather didn’t like his son-in-law. For one, my dad, a kid who was still wet behind the ears, had gone and made another kid who was soaked behind the ears. My dad also couldn’t eke out a living, though that wasn’t all that unusual for a sixteen-year-old high school student. At their first encounter, my grandfather launched into a sullen interrogation. “So what are you good at?”

This was after a hurricane of tears and screams that accompanied the news of my mom’s pregnancy had subsided.

Kneeling before my grandfather, my dad was at a loss. “I’m good at Tae Kwon Do, sir.”

My grandfather grunted disapprovingly. While my dad’s Tae Kwon Do skills had landed him in the largest athletic program in the province, that didn’t make money.

My dad was made anxious by my grandfather’s silence. “Would you like to see?” He balled his fists, as if he were going to throw a punch at my grandfather, who flinched involuntarily.

“Are you saying you can make money with your fists?”

“Um, well, when I graduate I can work at a Tae Kwon Do studio…” He trailed off, knowing there was no chance he would be able to finish school.

My grandfather tried to give him another chance. “What else are you good at?”

Thoughts flew through my dad’s head. I’m good at Street Fighter. He couldn’t say that; his new father-in-law might punch him in the face. I’m good at talking back to teachers.… Even he knew that these were not the answers his father-in-law wanted. What am I good at? A few minutes of agony later, he finally admitted, “I’m not sure, sir.”

That was when he realized it. Oh. I’m good at giving up.

* * *

Later, my grandfather said mockingly, “He can’t do anything other than breed.”

“Well, that’s certainly a talent, too,” grumbled my grandmother.

Without speaking, my mom sat primly nearby, her bangs flattened and secured to one side by a pin in the style of the day.

My grandfather looked into the distance. “A poor man should at least have some kind of bravado. I don’t know. He’s like an idiot.” He sounded more disappointed in his daughter’s taste than in her actions.

But my grandfather had failed to recognize who my dad really was. Sure, he was an idiot, but he was brash and adventurous, the most dangerous kind of idiot. That was why he got into a fistfight with the officiant at his wedding, then abandoned his new wife to hang out with his buddies. That was also why he dabbled disastrously in a variety of ventures on the foolish recommendation of his friends. On a trip to Bulguksa Temple, he’d had our family motto, “Trust Between Friends,” calligraphed and framed at a souvenir shop and hung it proudly in our house.

My grandfather urged my dad to graduate. Since he would get kicked out of his program for impregnating a girl, he could enroll in a nearby school and at the very least get a diploma. Unfortunately, rumor and gossip travel at lightning speed and no school was interested in taking him, claiming that a student like my dad would damage their reputation and set a bad example for the other kids. My grandfather, who assumed his recommendation as a village leader would prevail, was humiliated by the rejection and ended up suggesting working in construction while studying for the high school equivalency exam. Though construction work was ostensibly a way for my dad to support his growing family, there had to be a part of my grandfather that wanted to make the boy who dared touch his daughter suffer for a few months. As my dad’s family was poor and unable to support us, he had to heed his father-in-law’s wishes.

Around that time, the county began a push to bring in tourists with the slogan “Daeho, a fun-loving city.” The village economy experienced a short-lived boost. Excavators, concrete mixers, and trucks drove into our quiet village. Everything was soon covered in dust. The construction company gave out free supplies—stationery, ballpoint pens, correction ink, colorful sticky notes, mechanical pencil lead refills, all imprinted with the company logo—to all the schools that might be impacted by construction. The villagers received detergent, cookware, and kitchen tools. But as with all things that are free in this world, there was a whiff of something unpleasant about the transaction.

The major project was enlarging the creek to enable sightseeing from a boat. Eventually, our village and a few neighboring ones would be submerged.

* * *

My grandfather, who had a head for numbers, built a small concrete-and-slate-roof house in their front yard for the workers who swarmed in from other towns. He gave one room to my parents, and though there wasn’t much of a kitchen to speak of, and it was far too small, my parents say they never complained because they were living there for free. My dad went to work in construction with the itinerant laborers who lived in the concrete house with us. He was teased but beloved at work, with everyone calling him Han the Married Man. The village elders patted him on the back, saying, “Around here, you’re an adult when you get married,” and joked, “The Chois got a son-in-law for free!” My dad was briefly satisfied with his work. He enjoyed the men’s earthy talk, and had turned respectable in his in-laws’ eyes. Even before he got my mom pregnant, he’d wanted to quit Tae Kwon Do; he was tired of being ordered around. Now that he was out in the real world, working alongside real men, he wanted to climb up a peak, rip open his shirt, and roar, “This is real life!” But in just a few days, he realized how backbreaking it was to use his hands to make a living.

* * *

My dad learned about me in a café frequented by students, near the intercity bus terminal in town. My mom had gone on a few group dates there. Once, she’d gone there on a blind date with a boy who was in a biker gang. Afterward, he drove his motorcycle to her school and did wheelies in the yard, shouting “Mira! I love you!” before roaring away in a cloud of dust. All the girls named Mira—Kim Mira, Park Mira, and my mom, Choi Mira—were questioned by the teacher.

The group dates usually started at that café and ended with karaoke. Awkward boys who didn’t say a word in the café became extroverted when they gripped a mic. They would shove all the tables to one side of the dark, dank room and dance violently to Seo Taiji or Deux, singing, “Time will never stop. Yo!” or “Now I have to be brave to be able to have you.” A girl would sing the first few measures of a duet before furtively putting the mic down on a table, and a boy who liked her would grab the mic and sing the next verse. Boys fell first for my mom’s beauty and then for her voice. When she put down the mic, several hands would shoot out to grab it. Although there were a number of boys’ high schools in the area, few boys interested her. The students who studied practical subjects like agriculture were more outgoing and spent more lavishly, but she liked how confident humanities students were. My dad was the first boy she ever met who was in an athletic program, and they met not on one of those dates but in an unexpected place, by chance. Anyway, my mom thought my dad had the self-esteem of a smart kid but also the inferiority of being an athlete in a society that held scholars in high regard.

On the day my dad learned about me, my parents were sitting in the fairly empty café. He glanced at her, wondered why she was wearing such a thoughtful expression, and worried that she wanted to break up again. They hadn’t seen each other in a while, and she suddenly looked mature to him. She sipped her lemonade and licked her lips before she spoke.

“Daesu, come here.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

He leaned across the table.

She whispered in his ear, one hand covering her mouth. Her soft breath tickled the fuzz on his earlobe. He grinned, not concentrating on her words. Soon, his face turned pale. “Why did you wait so long to tell me?” he nearly shouted.

People turned to look.

“Why are you yelling?” my mom snapped, her voice even louder than my dad’s. “I hate when people yell!”

“Sorry, sorry.”

They put their sixteen-year-old heads together for a solution, but came up with nothing.

Eyes downcast, my dad toyed with a small parasol planted in his parfait. “Mira, I—” he began, launching into how much of a loser he was, how he could never be a good father, how he had no money, how he was afraid of disappointing people, and how, now that he was thinking about it, there were people in his family tree who might have had cancer. He rambled on incoherently.

My mom listened quietly until he finished. Gently, she said, “Daesu.”

“Yeah?”

“There’s this bug that camouflages itself with shit so it won’t get eaten by a bird.”

“And?”

“That’s you.”

* * *

One day, Han Sumi came up to my mom. “Mira, what’s going on with you?”

“Hmm? What do you mean?”

“You’re always falling asleep in class. And you’re not as chatty as you usually are.” Sumi, the class president and my mom’s best friend, was tasked with writing down the names of people who talked during class, and for the first time my mom’s name wasn’t on her list.

“Nothing’s going on.” My mom averted her gaze.

Sumi narrowed her eyes, quick to catch on to lies. “Come on. Tell me.”

Shoving her hands into her pockets, my mom leaned back. “What’s with you?”

“If you’re hiding something, don’t make it so obvious.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Seriously? I always tell you all of my secrets.”

My mom snorted. “Are you kidding? Oh, are you talking about how upset you are that you got bumped down to number three instead of being number one in the class? Thank you so much for entrusting me with such a huge secret.”

Sumi bit her lip. “Being number three is no joke, Mira.”

My mom answered with the soft voice she used when she was irritated. “Hey, Sumi?”

“Yeah?”

“Get lost.”

* * *

Of course, she didn’t mean that. The two were incredibly close; they’d gone to the same schools, ate lunch together daily, and went on group dates together. My mom wanted to tell Sumi everything after she slept with my dad. It all felt surreal; she was floating on air. She sat in the back of the class, jiggling her leg, watching the other girls as they focused on their books. Could they tell I slept with someone? she wondered. Guilt and superiority clung together to create an odd pattern in her heart. She’d lost something enormous, but she felt triumphant, not ashamed. She felt out of place. She was the only person in the whole class living in a different dimension. A few days later, she called Sumi out to the back, near the trash cans. She wanted to tell her; it was her duty to share her secret with her best friend. But as she was about to utter my dad’s name, Sumi began to bawl about her grades. “I’m so stressed out,” Sumi sobbed. “I don’t want to live if I have grades like these.”

My mom knew everything about Sumi’s problem. As people working for the construction company came from larger cities, local classrooms had seen a major shift in class rankings. More students had transferred in, students who had been studying hard since they were young. While the school administration was thrilled that average scores were boosted, the number one student in the village dropped to number three and number ten sank to fifteen. The worst in the class was still the worst but she too felt miserable about it, because being the worst out of fifty was far worse than being the worst out of forty-five. Sumi, who had always been the brightest in their village, had been mortally wounded by the drop in her stature. They had often heard about the tragedy of a village genius realizing she was nothing special once she moved to the big city, but it was even more unfair that the brilliant students were dethroned by interlopers, while minding their own business in their hometowns. After she was knocked off her pedestal, Sumi studied even harder than before, and though her scores climbed her rank remained the same.

“Mira.”

“What?”

“If you don’t want to tell me…”

“Yeah?”

“You know you don’t have to.”

My mom didn’t reply.

“But let me tell you what I do when I’m dealing with something.”

“I’m going to kill you if you tell me again that I just have to do my best,” my mom warned fiercely.

“God, no. Listen. I know all about doing your best. That didn’t do much for me, did it?”

My mom blinked a few times before nodding in comprehension.

“Anyway, whenever I have a problem I make a list. Pros and cons. Sometimes that helps me see the answer. Try it.”

* * *

It was the middle of the day and my dad was lying on his back on the floor of his room. A yellowing world map was tacked on the ceiling. His father had hung it up there when he entered elementary school, telling him to dream big. My dad hadn’t asked my mom to do anything after they parted ways at the café. He didn’t have the confidence to tell her to have it or to get rid of it, and didn’t know what the right choice would be. What would his life turn out to be? What would be the fate of the baby in my mom’s belly? He had no idea about any of it. The only thing he could fathom, however faintly, was that his life would get immensely difficult. He wanted my mom to make the decision. Then he would say, “That’s exactly what I was thinking,” and give her a hug, creating a lifelong shield from any sort of criticism. The most urgent issue at hand was financial. Regardless of which avenue they took, they needed money. Should he get a newspaper route or work as a restaurant delivery boy? No matter what kind of job he could finagle, he would have to get an advance on his paycheck. And he didn’t even have a driver’s license. The most realistic solution was to borrow the money, but he didn’t know anyone with that kind of cash. One guy in his class wore Calvin Klein briefs but he was unfortunately known for being stingy.

My dad had no one to lean on. He should have stopped himself in the heat of the moment. He was concerned about the scandal that would spread through town. Staring up at the ceiling at the wrinkled world map, he gazed at the five oceans, six continents. Six billion people. How did the world grow to have so many people? Naturally his thoughts drifted to people dating, their sexual desires, and their sex lives. His pants bulged, expanding gradually until the fabric was taut and strained. He wanted to cry; his desire had bloomed without regard to his predicament. Perhaps he would be enslaved by this desire for the rest of his life. And since he and Mira were already in this situation, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to do it again.

* * *

At that very moment my mom was lying on her stomach in her bedroom, notebook open, gnawing on the end of a ballpoint pen. She resolutely drew a lone line down the middle of the page. The left column would be the downsides of having a baby and the right column the positives. She filled out the cons first.

1. Get in trouble with my parents.

2. Get kicked out of school.

3. People gossiping about me.

4. No money.

5. Can’t make money.

6. Get fat and ugly.

7. Get some disease during pregnancy and die.

8. Can’t do anything else for a few years.

9. Don’t know what Daesu wants.

10. His life will be ruined. And mine.

11. Won’t be happy.

The list was spiraling in an extremely negative direction. My mom imagined herself crying her eyes out in a bleak, destitute household with an alcoholic husband and a rebellious kid. There was her answer. Not wanting to be hasty, she decided she would fill out the right-hand column, to be thorough. But she couldn’t think of anything positive. This made her panic. People were probably enthusiastically breeding right at that moment, and she had nothing positive to say about having a baby. Of course, my mom had heard about the beauty of childbirth, having gleaned things from TV and school, such as “every life is precious” and “everyone should take responsibility for their actions.” None of those phrases felt true to her, though. She wanted to write something she could affirm wholeheartedly, something she believed deep down. She looked at the stark contrast between the pros and cons, terrified. Her fear was rooted in something else, and in that instant she didn’t know what it was. But what she was truly afraid of turned out to be the premonition that she would be head over heels in love with another being, the anxiety that came with that kind of love lurking in the shadows. She didn’t know if this sensation was good or bad, and therefore didn’t know which list to place it in.

While she was at it she decided to make a list about Daesu. That was easier than she expected.

Pros: He’s nice.

Cons: He’s too nice.

Again, unsure if that was good or bad, she stared at the paper for a long time.

* * *

I don’t know who had a bigger impact on my being born, my dad or my mom. All I know is that neither was decisive. Sometimes in life, the answer we search for so avidly reveals itself elsewhere, and the question we ask is born from a context that has nothing to do with the answer.

A few days after their initial conversation, my parents took the bus to a far-flung city they had never been to before, conscious of being seen by their neighbors. They walked into a small obstetrician’s office.

“There’s protein in your urine,” the doctor informed my mom.

“What do you mean?” my mom asked.

“Do you normally have high blood pressure?”

“My father does, but I didn’t think I do,” my mom said, more politely than usual.

According to the doctor she had preeclampsia, and if her symptoms grew worse, the damage to her organs could be irreversible. In the worst-case scenario, both her life and that of her fetus could be threatened.

“Doctor, what are we supposed to do?” my dad asked, on the verge of tears.

My mom waited for the doctor’s advice anxiously. The doctor gazed stoically at this nervous teenage couple, and said, “Let’s wait and see. If it gets worse, there is treatment, but—”

“What is it?” my mom interrupted.

The doctor hesitated.

“Please tell us, please!” begged my dad.

“The best treatment—”

“Yes?” they replied at the same time.

“At that point,” the doctor said, and paused to look down at the chart. “The only treatment would be to give birth.”

* * *

Even after that, my mom couldn’t make up her mind. She vacillated several times a day as time flew by. I continued to grow in her womb, surrounded by an unrelenting thumping. I heard it not with my ears but with my entire body. I tried to determine the true nature of this vibration, as though I were a soldier attempting to crack a code in an underground bunker. Pitpat … pitpat … pitpat …

It could also be described as banging, as drums being struck from far away, or as heavy rumbling footsteps caused by a giant striding toward me. The sound made me want to retreat but also made me want to dance, dance to my mom’s heartbeat laid over mine. Boom thump thump. Boom thump thump. Boom boom thump. Boom thump. My mom’s boom set the tone while my thump hit the offbeat. I concentrated on the sound, tethered to the long umbilical cord. My mom’s heart, floating above my head somewhere like a plump moon, spread beats all around, drop by drop, the way a tree blooms in green. Bits and beats scattered life throughout my body, sending me important orders, making me want to become something, to act. My organs sprouted and expanded, my liver swelling and my kidneys ripening. My bones formed. I grew rapidly. In my dreams I met my mom’s dreams for rambling conversations.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Mom?”

“Yes.”

“I’m nervous. My heart is pounding. I feel like I can’t breathe.”

“Baby?”

“Yes?”

“I feel that way, too. My heart keeps pounding. So much so that it hurts.”

* * *

This was around the time my mom began to bind her belly; she still hadn’t settled on a decision. As each day passed, the pressure exerted by the band grew and she had a hard time breathing. Sometimes she breathed so rapidly and shallowly that I couldn’t match her beat. She still went to school as though everything were normal. One morning, when she couldn’t fasten the buttons on her uniform, she slid down onto the floor, her backpack in her arms, and sobbed.

The news sped through our village. My dad came clean to his own father, who returned home drunk in the middle of the day to pummel him. Still, my dad didn’t show remorse. A similar scene unfolded at my mom’s house. His face harsh, my grandfather spewed all kinds of awful curses. Nobody took my mom’s side, and everyone avoided meeting her eyes as they criticized her poor choices. In a fit of rage, my grandfather grabbed a broom and was about to strike his daughter with all his might when he paused, trembling, the broom hovering in the air. Anger and sorrow had overcome him, observing his youngest child crouched over, shielding not her head but her belly.

My parents set up house the following spring. Making the decision to have me was the hard part; once it was a done deal, the rest followed easily. My dad got acclimated to living with his in-laws, though he still looked stunned. My mom beamed and glowed. She pored over pictures of movie stars and instructed me in who they were. “Look, baby. It’s Jung Woo-sung. Isn’t he so hot? And this is Kim Hee-sun. Let’s see, who else do we have here?” This was how my mom put into zany practice the common advice to show only beautiful things to the fetus. She was serious about prenatal care and ate only healthful foods, and selected only perfectly shaped vegetables and fruit. She gazed only at beautiful scenery and tried only to have positive thoughts, and was even picky about the design of maternity clothes and baby gear. She didn’t feel any of the humiliation or shame of a teenage mother. Vowing to be brazen in times like these, she became even more confident. According to her, others would look down on her even more if she acted as though she had done something wrong. “Let’s see who’ll be happier in ten years,” she promised, as though she believed I would be the bearer of her happiness. As for books—well, she tried to read more but soon gave up, not wanting to do anything that would unduly stress the fetus.

* * *

Sometimes the young couple carried on a whispered conversation at night, so that their neighbors couldn’t overhear.

“Daesu, are you asleep?”

“No.”

“It’s hard making a living, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you miss your parents?”

“Nah. I’ve lived in dorms farther away from home.”

“Let’s save up as fast as we can so we can get our own place.”

“Yeah.”

“And we’ll finish raising the baby while everyone else is still in school, so that when they are in the workforce all we have to do is hang out and have the kid support us.”

“Right on.”

* * *

“Daesu, are you asleep?”

“No.”

“What kind of kid do you want the baby to be?”

“Um. A cute kid?”

“No, I mean the baby’s personality or its future or that kind of thing.”

My dad hesitated. He wasn’t certain that he was allowed to have those kinds of hopes when he, the baby’s father, didn’t know what he wanted to do with his own life. So he said what he wanted to tell himself. “Well—I guess I want him to have hopes and dreams. What about you?”

My mom’s gentle eyes brimmed with hope. “Me? Um—I want him to be loved by everyone.”

“That’s not that easy,” he said.

“Why not? That’s got to be the easiest thing for a baby. He’s going to be so lovable.”

My dad turned over to face her, whom he still thought of as his girlfriend rather than his wife. He rubbed her belly and whispered, shadows crossing his face, “Do you think the baby will like us?”

My mom laid her hand over his. “I hope so.”

“Do you think we could give him everything he wants?”

“I hope so.”

They stared into the darkness for a long time. Outside, the sleeping trees sighed deeply and the plants rustled in the wind, nestled among the dreams being dreamt by the hills. They could hear their next-door neighbor’s faint snores from the other side of the cement wall, which was pasted over with cheap wallpaper.

“On second thought,” my dad said.

“Yeah?”

“I don’t care if he’s not good at anything.”

“Yeah?”

“I just want him to be healthy.”

My mom thought for a long time, then said in a quiet, almost sad voice, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

* * *

The villagers predicted I would be strong and healthy. They said a young mother is likely to have a smart child and teased my parents to have another one right after me. After all, they reasoned, back in the day everyone had kids at my mom’s age. Even people who had been scandalized when the news broke became nice, telling my mom that not enough babies were being born in our village these days. They were eager to be near a soft, bright, brand-new life. My mom exuded the self-confidence and pride of a youthful, fertile being.

* * *

One day a gaggle of girls in school uniforms came over to our house. My mom’s best friend, Sumi, had organized the visit. They had pooled a few thousand won each to buy a pair of adorable baby shoes, and they hugged my mom, shrieking, “This is so crazy!” They huddled in my parents’ tiny room to eat junk food and gossip about teachers and celebrities, but my mom was definitely the center of attention.

“So are you having a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t know,” my mom said, “but the nurses said I should buy blue clothes.”

“Oh, my god! It’s a boy! She’s having a boy!”

“I bet he’ll be tall like Daesu,” another girl said.

“Oh yeah,” another chimed in. “He’s just average in looks but he does have a smoking body.”

“Which is why he knocked her up,” interjected a third.

“Oh my god, you guys!” the girls screamed, their peals of laughter containing shame and joy in equal measure.

Buoyed by their high-pitched chatter and giggles, I moved more vigorously than usual.

“You know what my sister says?” one of the girls said secretively. “They cut you down there when you’re giving birth.”

“What? Where?”

“There. Down there.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s true! They take a blade and cut you just a little bit. But you don’t even feel it because you’re in so much pain already.”

“Oh my god. That’s terrifying.”

“I’m never having a baby.”

“Let’s see if you still think that after you get married.”

“Hey Mira, your boobs are huge!”

“Yeah, that’s about the only thing that’s good about being pregnant,” my mom remarked.

“Do you have any stretch marks?”

“No, I’ve been moisturizing a lot. But I look like a tadpole or something.” My mom massaged her lower back, looking shy.

“No! You look so good.”

“Yeah, right,” my mom retorted. “But you know, since I got pregnant I keep getting weird stuff on my underwear.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. This really gross stuff keeps coming out.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s like I’m an animal or something.”

“Oh my god.”

My mom’s friends kept nattering on about facts and anecdotes about childbirth, digging up everything they’d heard. They would burst out laughing over something that wasn’t even funny, some of them grabbing on to the girl next to them, then they would all be giddy. It made me feel faint. I turned my head toward one of their voices and then toward another, wondering, Is this what being a woman is like? They’re so noisy and sparkly …

“Mira?” Sumi said cautiously.

“Yeah?”

“Um … can I feel it?”

“Sure,” my mom said flippantly, as if she fielded this request all the time.

The girls gathered around her, glancing at each other meaningfully, as if sharing in some secret ritual. Eventually five soft, pale hands were spread over my mom’s round belly like starfish, quietly feeling my presence. I didn’t move, sensing their warmth above my head. A short stillness passed between us, me and those five girls. My mom’s belly was a round universe embracing me, and their five hands were constellations spread out across the celestial sphere. Gentle, warm, living stars. Her friends looked at one another, amazed, then smiled softly, all at the same time.

Despite their efforts to dissuade her, my mom waddled to the bus stop to see her friends off. The girls talked about how envious they were of her, how brave she was, how amazing this all was. As they waited for the bus, they giggled about a new male apprentice teacher. Not knowing what they were talking about, my mom laughed awkwardly along. All of a sudden, she realized that her friends had been unusually nice to her. She cocked her head, puzzled, but quickly moved on. I thought I knew why. Vivaciousness and kindness emerge when one prepares to say farewell; they must have sensed that they wouldn’t be able to see their expelled friend as often as before. Time would flow by as they prepared for their midterms, their finals, and their college entrance exams. It would soon be a new year. They would have less and less to talk about with someone who was married and had a child. They would pretend that nothing had changed, all the while feeling the awkwardness as the gap widened between them. They must have sensed that when that time came, they would need to rely more on white lies and kindness. Of course, neither my mom nor her friends had fully realized all of that yet. The girls said their goodbyes and got on the bus. My mom waved, gazing at the bus until it became a dot and disappeared. A heavy silence descended on our small village along with the sunset. This quiet had always seemed ever present, but that day, for the very first time, my mom found it unbearable.

* * *

A few underclassmen from my dad’s old middle school Tae Kwon Do team stopped by for a visit, too. These hulking young men comported themselves like gangsters, but when they laughed they covered their mouths bashfully with a hand. They tried their best to maintain etiquette and loyalty toward an upperclassman who had dropped out of school.

“The gym feels really empty without you, sir.”

“Don’t grovel, fucker,” my dad said.

His cursing took my mom by surprise. Men become another species entirely when they are among their own, and true enough Daesu was different from the way he behaved when they were alone. She thought it was hilarious how formal these boys were when they were only a year or two younger, but she daintily turned her gaze down as she peeled apples for them.

“It’s true, sir!”

“It really is, sir. You were so good to us. We miss you, sir.”

The boys all covered their mouths shyly and laughed.

“Oh, and this…” An enormous young man with the most intimidating face pulled out a bib with a cute rabbit cross-stitched on it.

One of them attempted to be charming, saying, “You’re so beautiful, ma’am. In another life I would be in love with you.”

They all laughed shyly again.

“Oh, and sir, you know that ref who made the unfair call? Last year?”

“Yeah,” said my dad.

“Sir, he was arrested on corruption charges.”

My dad flinched. That referee had given him a warning and penalty points during a competition—which my dad considered undeserved—and my dad had drop-kicked him, which was why he had been suspended from school. That was when he met my mom and fell for her.

After a while, the boys got up. They had a long way back to school. From our house they had to take a thirty-minute bus ride to the intercity bus terminal, which was another two hours from school. One of them slipped my dad an envelope of cash; it wasn’t much, the boy said apologetically, but they’d collected funds among themselves. Though he didn’t show it, my dad was touched by the gesture. With a benevolent expression, he forced some money on them for their travel expenses. Somehow, somewhere, he’d learned the proper thing to do as an elder, and had been clandestinely saving up ever since he heard the boys were coming for a visit. The boys declined a few times before finally accepting. Their bus left behind a cloud of exhaust as it climbed up the hill. Shading his eyes, he watched it disappear. He stood rooted in place and unconsciously balled his fists, the way he would for Tae Kwon Do, the sport he’d so wanted to quit.

* * *

My mom knew that a new life wasn’t so much born as it burst. She’d always known this. After all, she was a country girl. All the flowers, animals, and insects ripped through an opening smaller than themselves, exploding like a firecracker as if they had waited forever, as if they couldn’t wait another second. They burst into life like laughter, like jeers, like applause. Boom! Boom! Their bodies were fully formed; when you looked at the discarded shell, you marveled at how those large wings and legs and other parts had been packed so compactly inside.

In late spring, my mom gave birth to me after all kinds of agony. Unusual for a preemie, I burst out ferociously, confidently. To lessen the impact of that rupture I instinctively understood that I had to cry very loudly. But I didn’t know what it meant to cry, and I didn’t know what I had to do in order to cry. A hot, pliable something surged from inside me, but I felt nauseated and dizzy. I couldn’t make a peep. I had been breathing through my umbilical cord and now I was forced to use my lungs for the very first time. A tense silence hung in the delivery room. The doctor scooped me up and slapped my bottom. It hurt. I wanted to rage! But instead I burst into tears.

“Good, good,” the heartless doctor soothed. “He’s crying!” He brought me to my mom’s breast. She must have been so looking forward to that moment of introduction, but I was mortified that I was covered in all sorts of fluids. Like all newborns, I could barely see, but as soon as I nestled against her and felt her heartbeat, I relaxed. I knew that sound.

Mom looked solemnly down at me and made a strange noise out of her mouth. “Areum, I’m your mom.” Then she began to bawl. Later, she told me that she didn’t know why she was sobbing, only that she was suddenly feeling every human emotion all at the same time—sorrow and joy, pride and shame, relief and hurt, hollowness and satisfaction—the full range and force of which she had never experienced before. She wasn’t self-conscious; she no longer cared how she would be seen by anyone else. She simply disintegrated, like the controlled collapse of a high-rise.

I imagine there are only one or two times in a person’s lifetime that one cries like that, when one’s child is born and when one’s child dies. I felt relieved as I listened to my mom keen like an animal. I was born to people who cry like me. I made my mother feel something, and though I didn’t fully understand it, her tears told me that I wasn’t a completely worthless presence.

The family had been worried sick because of my mom’s preeclampsia, and when they heard the word “healthy” everyone was overjoyed. My grandmother collapsed, wiping her eyes, and my grandfather and dad, who had never before touched each other, embraced, swept up in the moment. The wailing that started with me before moving over to my mom passed through my grandfather and sank into my dad, until we were all crying. Even though they weren’t the ones who were just born, they bawled loudly, as if they knew that crying signified that they were alive, as if they wanted to live even though they were already alive. Among them all, my dad was the one who cried the hardest as he held me for the first time, his hands trembling. He wept twice as loud and three times as long as anyone else, deeply ashamed that he had been secretly praying that he wouldn’t be made a father, so much so that the nurses rolled their eyes.


Copyright © 2011 by Ae-ran Kim