My mother believed she would never escape our small apartment on the ground floor. We had a view of our parking spaces instead of the river that she always wanted. Whenever a car parked close to the windows, the headlights flooded our living room with a white glare. We didn’t move once. Not even when her sister, who was married to a prosecutor, offered us their prized downtown unit with a river view, all for nominal rent, while she and her husband went deep into the countryside, to breathe clean air and grow peppers and reconnect with nature and reverse the course of his stomach cancer. My mother pleaded for us to accept this arrangement, but my father instructed her to refuse. He distrusted prosecutors who traded their power for wealth. That’s what he said, but I knew his decision had nothing to do with justice. He needed to keep my mother far from her family, from her life before him. Soon, that prosecutor uncle had to be hospitalized after all, and so they returned to Seoul, and although my mother pleaded some more, she wasn’t given the money to buy presentable clothes and ride a taxi to join her sister for the long waits at the hospital. Nor did she get the money to send a crate of ginseng essence, or a crate of rare Japanese medicinal mushrooms, or some warm cotton slippers. When my uncle finally died, my mother confessed to me her regrets. That she had agonized over wearing the right clothes and showing up in the right kind of car, when she should have been there for her sister, even if that meant taking three buses in her usual discount dresses. She should have sold our crystal cocktail glasses, which we never touched anyway, and bought something that would prove useful at the hospital, anything at all. But when it came time for the uncle’s funeral, she kicked up the same dust again. She begged for new funeral clothes, it was really necessary this time, but my father reminded her bitterly that she was his wife and should get used to looking like his wife. She tried on a bunch of her old things, asking me to inspect them in sunlight with my sharp young eyes, but in the end she concluded there was nothing suitable. She skipped the funeral. All day she stayed in bed, and asked me to bring ice water, which I did, and that day the ice seemed to melt faster than ever in her glass. She apologized for making me freeze ice all day, exhausting my soft rice puppy hands, but I had to keep going because each time I refreshed her glass she sucked it all up in one breath. In the evening, the phone rang. We both knew it was my aunt. We didn’t pick up. After that, my aunt never called again. And my mother never spoke of her again – of her beauty, or her luck in marriage, or the birthmark they shared, a pale blue kiss on the shoulder. That’s the story of my childhood: my mother slowly surrendering hers. Maybe that was all her own doing. But it was my father who gained the most from her loss. He finally had her in total isolation, like the blankets he kicked around with his dirty sweaty feet while he played with his Game Boy until he passed out.
I fantasized about leaving home because it seemed like the kind of thing a smart child in my position would do. This child would be cold and self-serving. She would try her luck at fleeing her mother’s path. She would pack a bag and run to the central market and become a stowaway in a truckload of cabbages.
Some days these fantasies felt so good that I didn’t return from school until dark. Even my father noticed my lateness. What would happen if I really vanished? Would he throw her out, and order her to find me? Or would he just get rid of her too? Her weakness made me sad, and then it made me angry, and to my own surprise, it was the anger that always led me back home. That’s where my anger belonged, close to hers.
As much as I wandered in the afternoons, I couldn’t find enough distraction. I couldn’t buy cigarettes or alcohol. I couldn’t even buy movie tickets yet. But I could steal cheap earrings from the underground mall inside the train station. I never got caught. I took as many as I wanted, and sold them to classmates the very next day.
That’s how I met Yena. She appeared in my classroom, wanting to buy earrings. When she walked, her uniform swished against the back of her thighs. Her bangs fell over one eye. I thought she was the prettiest girl in our school. No one else seemed to think so. She didn’t have any friends.
I showed her the earrings I had left. She stroked the pink ones, long pointed spears. They were meant to look like stones, but only looked like painted plastic, which is exactly what they were. She weighed them in her palm. She parted her hair to hold the hooks against her ear, touching, or not quite. I saw both of her eyes for the first time. The plump fold of each lid.
You little bitch, she said. This shit is cheap as hell. You’re going to infect my ears.
Very cheap, I responded. Even cheaper than you.
She bought them anyway, because it was an emergency. She had a date, she explained, that very afternoon. I took her three weathered bills and wished her a good time. But after the final bell of the day I saw her walking alone, on a path that didn’t lead to anywhere worthy of a date, not a karaoke room, not a video-game room, not even a bakery. I followed her. She didn’t stop until she reached a phone booth. She went inside, picked up the receiver, but didn’t punch any numbers on the dial pad. After a few seconds, she began to talk. Her hands, her feet, her slinky bangs, her new dangling earrings: every part of her seemed animated by an urgent conversation. But she hadn’t fed any money into the phone.
The longer I watched, the more I liked her. And the more I liked her strange performance. When had it begun, talking into a phone by herself ? Did she imagine a real person on the other end? Was it the same person every time? Did she give this person a name, a body, a family? Was she in love? And what were the earrings for? Did she even want them? Or had she given me money just to talk to me?
By the time she hung up and stepped out of the booth, and wiped her hands on her uniform blazer, and tossed her new ugly earrings into a trash bin, I knew we would grow close. Close, the way any two girls around here grow close, because there isn’t much else to do, and anyone who makes you forget how little there is to do, anyone who makes your heart race, is someone you suddenly cannot live without.
How was your date, you slut? I asked her the next day.
Terrible, she said. He got shit-faced and kept trying to drag me to a love hotel.
Did you go?
Yeah, I just needed the money.
How much money did he give you?
She paused. I don’t know, she stammered. I spent it all.
The next time I saw her in the phone booth, I pressed my palm into the greasy glass door. She hung up and stepped outside.
Did you follow me here? Like a creepy whore?
Are you in love with me?
Want me to give you real money?
But Yena didn’t want cash. She wanted cans of hairspray and computer cleaner spray. She showed me how to huff them at the riverside. After a few cans, we bought cartons of coffee milk, strawberry milk, banana milk to soothe our coughs. We sat on dry grass. To watch a Seoul sunset, just some smog, scattered light in cream. The brown river lapped away with all kinds of trash, municipal signboards and bicycle seats.
We drifted under one of the seventeen bridges of our city, counted pigeons, huddled in the nooks, shivering, sleeping. We threw stones at them and watched them flee in panic. They beat their wings into thunder. We laughed. We began with pebbles but soon we hurled chunks of brick. We said it was the cans of fumes fucking us up, but we knew it wasn’t. The pigeons always came back. No matter how hard we threw, how often.
When the sprays hit us a little too hard, we dozed off by the levees. We learned to sleep outside without fear. We learned to sit with legs wide open. We learned how much we needed these small steps, that they felt colossal next to nothing.
Our arms and legs grew dark in the sun. We would wake up when cops came by, yelling at us to go home. Or when someone threw crap at us, like the older girls from our school, or passing cyclists. We cussed out the older girls. We cussed out the cyclists, too.
We cussed out our teachers. We cussed out botany, which we never understood because we had to learn it in a forgotten garden at the back of our school grounds.
And then we began to smoke with the older girls in the garden. We watched, as the older girls discarded their cigarette butts into a pile the size of a rat. They spat on the weeds. It didn’t matter how often they got caught and lashed for smoking. Or for skipping class. Or for talking out of turn. Or for reading comic books. Or for wearing makeup, for dyed hair, permed hair, any hair that extended more than three centimeters below the ears. They simply took their lashings in the front of the classroom. Sometimes they took them in the middle of the soccer field, so that every student in the building was forced to watch. The loud cracks echoed off the brick walls. Our teachers threatened them with more violence, expulsion and stories of fallen women they had witnessed over their careers.
Think you’re the first to feel invincible? They yelled while they beat the girls with wet towels and kendo swords. Aren’t you afraid of the sky? Think you’re the first to get beaten like this and never learn?
Yena never stole anything with me. Instead, she waited outside. She wore a backpack that looked exactly like mine. As soon as I exited the shop, we traded bags and walked fast without looking back. That way, even if the shopkeeper noticed me, or saw me on security footage, and chased me down, he would only find Yena’s things, her lip gloss, her face powder, her aerosols. But I never got stopped. Each time, the shopkeeper received my smile with the same nod. You dick, I thought, how does a slow sad dick like you get by?
We cut our hair in the school bathroom, trimming the ends to a perfect straight edge. The older girls laughed at us, but soon they asked to borrow our scissors. They worked with quiet concentration, to the thick sound of blunt blades scraping together. It spread like a disease, the pleasure of beautifying each other.
At the last minute, Yena grabbed the front of my hair and lopped off whatever didn’t fit into her fist. Now I had bangs too. She trimmed and shaped it into a leaf over my right eye.
What are you doing?
I’m giving you my look. Our look. Now no one else can have it.
I examined myself in the mirror. My right eye was gone, buried. Only my left eye remained to take in the entirety of the world. It looked bigger on its own. Bigger, and even brave. I thought of my mother, and the sister she no longer saw. I had always taken after both of them. Even my father had commented on our likeness. But now, with only half of my face on display, the resemblance was also halved. I thought I looked smarter than either of them, with my own slimy secret tucked under my hair. I decided I would keep this look, our look, for the rest of my life.
Some of the older girls tried to discourage me from continuing my friendship with Yena.
We know you love her, they said in between their endless puffs in the garden. And we feel a little shitty maybe for what we’re about to say. But basically it’s this. She’s not someone you want to take care of.
So stop it. She’s pretty but that just hides the problem.
And what’s her problem? I asked. I heard a wavering in my voice I didn’t recognize. I tried to swallow it, but it wouldn’t budge. What problem is she hiding?
Look she’s creepy as shit and it’s not okay. She doesn’t look right. She doesn’t talk right. She lies. She’s untethered. She’s rotting inside. And if you take all those things they add up into a big fucking problem. She’s the kind of girl who’s going to snap one day. The kind of girl they make all those psycho schoolgirl horror movies about. You’re not listening to any of this, are you? You don’t see it? At all?
Well there’s plenty wrong with me too, I said. And with all of us.
But one afternoon, I woke up on the bank of the river, alone, surrounded by our used and unused cans. I called out for Yena, but she didn’t answer. Had she stumbled home? The afternoon traffic remained quiet and easy on the bridge. It couldn’t have been that long. She had to be somewhere close by.
I found her in the phone booth. She wasn’t talking into the receiver. She was just curled up on the floor of the booth, leaning against the glass. I banged on the door with a fist.
Get up you dirtbag.
She looked up. You need to help me, she said.
She moved her legs so I could join her inside. She raised her arms to show me a pigeon tucked behind her, into a grimy corner of the booth. There was a gash on its head.
I did this, she confessed. I’m a cruel piece of shit.
I pulled her up, and she stepped outside of the booth to keep watch. I knelt by the pigeon to examine its condition. I looked into its wet red eyes. When I leaned closer, an odd smell made me recoil.
Hey, we heard someone shout from the footpath. He looked like somebody’s father. He was dressed in a helmet and cycling spandex but we didn’t see a bike.
Hey, you girls okay? What’s going on here?
We ignored him and he slunk away again.
What’s wrong with me? Yena asked. Why did I do this?
I tried to reassure her. Come on. We throw shit at them all the time. Everyone does.
She squinted up at the gray clouds.
Dogs, she said. They’ll eat it up, won’t they? They’ll go nuts. Let’s put it in the river.
She was afraid to touch it by herself, so we did it together. We rolled the pigeon into the open face of my geography textbook. I touched its head, a warm acorn. I couldn’t tell if it was breathing anymore. We carried the book to the river and released it onto the waves like a barge. The book sank almost immediately, but the bird floated away, swept up by the current. I watched it become the size of a fist, then a finger, then a fingernail, until it disappeared.
Why did I do that? Yena asked again.
Don’t worry about it, I said. I reminded her of how dirty this river already was. From all the crap we kicked into it. Broken bottles, leftover noodles and, according to the news, the occasional human life heaved over the edge in despair. In comparison, a bird seemed clean and uncomplicated. We washed our hands at the fountain and walked home.
Before we parted, I gave her my uniform blazer so that I could take her bloodstained one. It was a barely noticeable mark, it even looked ornamental, like a stamp, but I wanted Yena to forget today as quickly as possible. We squeezed into each other’s clothes. She finally broke into a smile.
You’re never getting this back, she said. Yours is so much warmer.
They’re the exact same.
Yeah but you take good care of yours. You know how to make this last. Not another useless cunt after all.
That night, when the apartment fell quiet, I took Yena’s blazer into the bathroom. Once I unfolded it, alone, I noticed all kinds of stains and spills on the fabric. Today’s blood would come out easy. But the other stains looked deep. It looked like she hadn’t washed it since the beginning of the school year.
I filled the bathtub with cold water. I submerged the blazer, then rolled up my pajama legs to stand in the tub. I stepped on it. Left, right, together, right, left, together, the way my mother stepped on mine, while she kept my underwear boiling in a pot on the stove.
The splashes woke my mother. She tried the knob on the door.
What are you doing in there?
I’m washing my feet, I said.
Is the water warm?
Can I wash them for you?
It’s okay. Just go back to sleep.
Let me see your little feet. I haven’t seen them in such a long time.
I’ll show you later.