Fiction / November 2011 (Issue 15)


Ah

by Genevieve Yim

Hae-Jung was fifteen when her father's business failed, when he claimed bankruptcy and moved them from an Apgujung high-rise apartment to a two-room brick villa in Chungdam. She was fifteen-and-a-half when he became a delivery driver, and when she turned sixteen, her mother divorced him, then moved to Daejun to be with a man who worked for the satellite industry.

She was eighteen and had finished high school when the landlord raised the key-money price of their two-room from twenty to thirty million won, and Hae-Jung, knowing that her father would leave soon, began counting each time she saw him—mornings when he loaded his motorbike while she sorted glass and paper products into green nets behind the villa, nights when he fell asleep just after dinner, rice and stew that she cooked with no recipe.

He disappeared two months after the announcement, unable to pay the new sum.

Six weeks later, Hae-Jung ran upstairs to the landlord, who knew from the two months of unpaid bills that she had been alone for some time. Standing outside the white door of the top-floor flat, Hae-Jung explained that it could all be paid back if only she could move into the one-room across the hallway.

"The key-money is less, isn't it? I can pay you with what we get back. And when I turn nineteen, I'll get a job, and won't miss any bills."

The landlord agreed, because Hae-Jung had the broadest, straightest shoulders he had ever seen on a Korean woman. Her skin was thick and pale, her ears too big for her face, but something about her was delectable: the shape of her upper body, her lips, hands and strong legs.

Her mother visited for the contract—for that one-room opposite their two-room. The ink smooth but her posture rigid, she sighed with resentment at her daughter who was an adult but legally still a minor. Hae-Jung placed her fingertip on her mother's signature, then traced an invisible line to her name stamp. When her finger stopped, she looked into her mother's eyes, and intently, smiled. Her mother scowled, disturbed by her daughter's wide frame and sensitive look.

"If they raise the key-money again, you'll have to move elsewhere."

Quiet, hesitation swum in her daughter's irises.

"I live in Daejun now, Hae-Jung-ah. Please don't put any burdens on me. I could have killed myself when your father failed."

The landlord sat opposite them, indifferent and fanning himself, saying nothing as his wife washed sesame leaves and placed them on a plate to dry. Hae-Jung looked only upon the hardness of her mother, the woman who had cradled her when rich, and taught her many games when poor, the games she was good at—Stop-Go and Changgi. She knew from her mother and father the worth of a quiet, resilient face when under pressure. Silent players won, they had always said.

They ate grilled fish and rice in silence, on the winding street nearby that led to Chungdam station, where her mother departed for the Express Bus Terminal.

Hae-Jung moved into the one-room on May fifteenth, and would wait four months until her birthday to get a job. Four months of silence—even if her father returned now, he would knock on the wrong door, and not wanting to risk embarrassment, would never ask the landlord for his daughter's whereabouts.

She paid every past due bill and had the landlord change the new ones to be delivered under his name; she would give him cash, directly, she said, not telling him she wanted to protect her minority and identity. She feared her relatives from Jinju would come searching for her someday, to put her to work in their small fields of potato and rice. She threw away her father's every belonging when she left the two-room, and with part of the key-money that was now hers, splurged on a rice-cooker, department-store seaweed and a yoh mat she would sleep on, under a new, peach-colored silken sheet.

***

The Catholic Church in Chungdam was huge, made of dark red brick, and for Hae-Jung had no connection to any memories of her parents—not even to her upbringing, to the faces of girls she went to school with. Hae-Jung had felt rich until long after her family's bankruptcy—she had smiled in spite of it and knew that her smile attracted friends to her. Only when they heard that she lived in a brick villa—a two-room—they eased away like quiet parents from a slumbering child. Friendless through high school, she carried hope with her, and the impression that she was a good girl—a good daughter, a good pupil and a good player for all that her family had been through—until the moment her mother had sighed and rejected her with eyes hard and shining.

Now she lived in a one-room, was entirely alone, and her only desires were to have a workplace and to go to the Catholic Church, places of neutrality.

For four months while waiting for her nineteenth birthday, she slept deeply, twelve to sixteen hours a day, and when she woke up, walked slowly to the park behind her new church. She found a temple she liked, near Samsung station, and because of the calm it rushed up inside her, began considering Buddhism and Catholicism on even planes.

She showered and changed clothes on the fourth and seventh day of each week. The remains of the key-money were hidden about the one-room, and she did not pluck from them but for necessities.

On days she visited the temple grounds or lingered in her seat after church, she listened to many women's prayers for their children's education, for the health of their families, and she would pretend they belonged to her. Said in her name.

She began wearing a cap when she went out, and visibly moved her long hands, pressed together in a prayer, as often as she could in the company of others, or she pressed her shoulders down and back, far away from her face. This was her way of distracting others from her greasy hair and unseasonable clothing, and it became a game, more of the silent speaking her mother had taught her—her mother whose prayers Hae-Jung often now invented, as if she could be saying them, in another temple or church.

"I'm trying to save all that I have, and the hot water in my one-room doesn't work well. And I don't want to buy laundry powder for four more months," she wanted to tell people who stared at her appearance.

By the fourth month of waiting, Hae-Jung loved being alone and was proud that she had only spent seven hundred thousand won of the ten million she possessed after moving.

It was the "ah" at the end of her name that she missed. Someone who would speak to her in the familiar: "Hae-Jung-ah."

"Ah" was a sound full of warmth that she now starved for, more than for a change of clothes or warmer shower water.

The temple and the Catholic Church had become her places of prayer, and in her eavesdropping on the sounds of strangers' voices telling God their hearts' desires, she learned to mimic the act, one never openly practiced by her mother or father. She prayed to hear the sound "ah" at the end of her name again soon, and for the sound to protect her.

On September fifteenth, she turned nineteen and at seven o'clock, walked into the Coffee Bean, not far from the Catholic Church or her red brick villa, and asked for a job. She started September seventeenth, and learned from other, unprotected women, to make mass-produced coffee-drinks in under one minute.

Her third morning, wiping the silver part of the espresso machine, she heard a voice with passion in it, ordering an iced drink. She turned and looked at the man; he was a monk. Without his clothes, he could have been a well-aged actor. Some man from a drama. The manager, with eyes saying Start the machine, nodded to Hae-Jung.

The man—the monk, stayed at the shop front. From the milk she was pouring over cold drip-espresso, Hae-Jung looked at him again.

"I've not met you before, what's your name?"

As if he had spoken to someone other than her, she kept her eyes on what she was stirring, and said nothing. He repeated his question, his voice now one note gentler.

"What's your name?"

She turned to him. "Ahn Hae-Jung, Sir Client."

He stood as if rooted in the ground; his height and breadth must have been inherited, she thought or he had had, growing up, enough money to drink milk every day. In an unthreatening way, he told her, "Please call me 'Sir Monk.'"

Hae-Jung looked over his gray, thick linen robe, then his large, very Korean face and somewhat irreverent, curious smile.

"Sir Monk, my name is Ahn Hae-Jung. Your order will be ready in just a moment."

She touched the part of her wide lower lip that always chapped and let escape the hint of her smile she felt he had been digging for, only because this man now knew her first name, and she hoped he might someday call her by it, with the sound "ah" at the end.

He left the counter; she finished making his latte.

"Sir Monk," she said, looking at him, at the wicker and metal chair where he sat, his body loose and broad in it. "Your drink is ready."

Sir Monk came on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Hae-Jung suspected he belonged to the temple she attended. Why hadn't she seen him before, was he following her?

A month passed of his coming to the Coffee Bean, knowing Hae-Jung's name but never saying it. When her first payday arrived, she opened a bank account, deposited the key-money and with ten-thousand won of her Coffee Bean pay, bathed completely and fervently at the Chungdam women's sauna. She could afford bigger minuses now, and could leave the house for longer hours, not fearing the piles of cash in various spots of the kitchen vanishing. The remaining key-money now lived in the bank, and could be calm.

Because she was obliged to wear a cap at work, Sir Monk could not notice that Hae-Jung had begun washing her hair regularly, that she had stopped wearing a hat on her daily walks. This became her second prayer, at the temple where she guessed he went, but where she had never seen him. On her free afternoons, listening to people count beads, read from prayer books and before their God take one hundred and eight bows, she hid her prayers within theirs: to be called "Hae-Jung-ah" and to have her freshly washed hair be seen by Sir Monk, the only person she now respected in the world.

On Sundays in the Catholic Church, she sat reserved, her body straight and proper, her eyes downward-looking on the pool of her long hands, held one on top of the other in her lap like a quiet Buddha. On a white, rectangular cushion in the temple, she held herself in the same way, only with more passion in her face, more easiness in her muscles. At the Coffee Bean, she made no distracting bodily gestures to customers, though when she conversed with Sir Monk, she used the tilt of her shoulders and her noticeably long hands to show affection. In her one-room, she felt stiff, often reminded of her family by each smell and sound she had known across the hall the last four years of her life.

Her yoh mat was the place where she lay relaxed and unbound by the meaning of body language, with no reason to hold herself in any way but how she wanted.

Her applications to universities distracted her, for some time that fall, from her prayers. Sir Monk became invisible to her, mostly, though she sensed that her physical prompts had worked; he observed her closely when she delivered his unbefitting drinks, but she began treating him as she did other customers, slender women in expensive outfits—who the other girls called skirt-wind—or aging, rich couples out for a morning talk about the sweet-potatoes they would buy that day, then the kimchi they would want to go with the taste.

A women's college accepted her for spring entrance, and she chose to study Japanese. Perhaps Japan would be more of the same, she thought, but it would be different enough; it could strip the shame from her life, and coat her with anonymity.

Her hair and face washed with new soaps and ginseng shampoo, she bought a new pair of black tennis shoes and a dress printed in flowers. Some evenings, she walked through neighborhoods in Chungdam she had never known, on the other side of the intersection, nearing Apgujung and the Han River. She had returned twice to the expensive women's sauna, to sit in the green tea and red earth waters, soaking away the scent of coffee and sugar from work.

Many women with augmented breasts and chins shaped by plastic surgery into soft letter U's attended this sauna; Hae-Jung watched them, knowing she would never have their life, their kind of confidence and ease. But as she studied them and felt nothing but curiosity at their voices and ways of moving. She might imitate them to coerce Sir Monk, someday, into saying "Hae-Jung-ah," she thought.

***

"Are you Buddhist?" he asked her, on a Tuesday morning in late October.

"No, Catholic," she replied.

"Hmmm."

"Why?" she asked, stretching the word out reluctantly. To ask Sir Monk a question, her elder and her customer, was very brash, she knew.

"I just wonder because a scholar from America is visiting my home soon. We'll be listening to a talk about American Zen Buddhism."

Sir Monk paused, and smiled. His teeth were wide and strong and had gaps between some of them, making him even more attractive. He added sugar water to his iced Americano, and sighed barely, not losing his smile.

"Something about you seemed like a Buddhist," he said, not turning his head to acknowledge the waiting customers, a woman with a grumpy-faced son.

"It's on November the twenty-eighth. Plenty of time to think about it. Enjoy today," he told her, then moved from the counter.

His eyes sat in her for days, the way they had discovered her. There was no way she could know if what he had said came from seeing her sit in prayer rooms among the other Buddhists at Bongeun Temple. His invitation and his eyes, his smile, confused Hae-Jung, who then did not wash her hair for a week, and felt inclined to eat only seaweed and rice again, feeling poor of spirit and lacking in answers in everything life seemed to offer her customers at the Coffee Bean, and the worshipers at church and the temple.

***

On the first morning that no longer felt like fall but the transition into winter, Sir Monk stood sugaring his drink, which someone else had served him. Hae-Jung was partly bent over a broken-grinder on the floor behind the counter.

"Hae-Jung-ah," Sir Monk said. He said it without looking at her. She stood at attention, and held at her smile.

"Are you coming tomorrow? Did you think about it?"

"Oh, yes, I would like to come. Where is it?"

"Shindang-dong," he said, looking at her knowingly, as if psychic to the potion of one syllable he had attached to her name, while attaching a lid to his hot coffee. She forgot, momentarily, how she liked using her shoulders to catch Sir Monk's eye. She could feel them tensing, drawing in to her neck space, and then remembered and pushed them into relaxation. She answered quietly. "If you write down the address and time, I'll try to go. Thank you," she said, and nervous, added again, "Thank you."

Sir Monk now held his head to the side, seeing Hae-Jung's embarrassment. He turned, heading to a window seat. She took orders from three more customers before he had finished his drink and brought it back to her, a card sitting underneath it.

The card said that Han Jin-Ok was Sir Monk's name, and that he was a professor at a Buddhist university in Seoul. As he left the Coffee Bean, she stared at his robe that had become thicker, cotton-padded like a quilt. His face turned and he blinked his eyes once, firmly, light seeming to open them up from the insides.

On her silken sheet that night, chilled in spite of the floor heating, she realized she would soon need a thicker blanket and a winter coat. She thought of her family's possessions, the never-spoken rage with which she had thrown out each one, and she remembered the blanket-like clothes Sir Monk wore.

"I could become a monk," she thought. "Then I would never have to wash my hair, and I could use the same clothes every season, just of different thicknesses."

***

Getting from Chungdam-dong to Shindang-dong was complicated. Not far across the river for those with a car, but with the subway or bus, it took transfers and knowledge of the bridges. Hae-Jung never left Chungdam; the furthest she went was Samsung-dong, to the temple, which was still close enough to be considered part of the neighborhood.

For this meeting of monks, she tried everything that could make her look austere—her new, dark jeans, a thick cardigan and her now semi-new black tennis shoes, how she fixed her hair—but her features did not want to be austere, she realized. Nothing could bind her femininity now.

Sir Monk lived in a newly built villa on the fourth floor, second to the top. The building was so close to Nam Mountain that it seemed to hang on to it, a scared or unwanted acquaintance.

As Hae-Jung rang the doorbell, the elevator door sounded. A young monk exited, his face dark with a sheen of sweat. He was thin and his eyes seemed more serious than Sir Monk's. She bowed, but lacked the words to greet him; they floated around in her mouth and oesophagus like baby ghosts.

"Have you rung?" asked the young monk whose voice, irritated, exuded richness and lust.

"No," said Hae-Jung, in the most polite form.

He sighed and stepped in front of her, the shadow of his circular head on the white door. Hae-Jung remembered her mother's sigh, just before she had signed the contract for the one-room, releasing the key-money and Hae-Jung into unguided and free life.

Five people sat on the floor in Sir Monk's two-room, three on floor-chairs and two on pillows. The young monk who had opened the door smiled at Sir Monk, who beamed back at him; Hae-Jung behind, his faced turned, interested.

"Hae-Jung-ah, you came," he said, standing, holding his hands together, comforting one with the firmness and softness of the other.

She smiled at the warm sound of his voice, at the "ah" she loved most. She bowed to the people on the floor, joining them. No western faces sat in the circle of gray-clothed adults; she wondered who the American would be and feared it could be the man who had let her in.

But the American monk was a woman—a nun—a Korean-American from Colorado, somewhere Hae-Jung had heard of, she thought, and told herself she would find later, in her memories of Geography lessons.

When the woman's reading began, Hae-Jung wanted to hide, to run inside the closet she saw in what appeared to be Sir Monk's bedroom. The nun spoke with a ceaseless smile, her knees never lifting from their cross-legged position. Hae-Jung decided, spontaneously, to swipe her long bangs to the side, to show her forehead.

Sir Monk watched her, without a smile. On the precipice of a decision.

He served tea after the talk. Hae-Jung had understood little of it, the nun's Korean thick with accent and full of a distracting, happy tone that carried away Hae-Jung's attention like music, not like the stuff of concentration or austerity.

"Do you practice, young lady?" the nun asked Hae-Jung, a small, gray and brown cup at her face, in her hands.

"Practice what?" asked Hae-Jung. The nun smiled and rocked, once, back and forth on her legs.

"Do you practice meditation?"

Hae-Jung shook her head and looked at Sir Monk, then at the young man whose eyes disapproved of her again and again.

"I like to sit and listen to services at Bongeun Temple, sometimes," she said. "It's near my house."

"Mmm," replied the nun, her smile growing bigger, her eyes smaller.

Hae-Jung wished that Sir Monk would mention their connection of the coffee shop, the diligence with which she prepared his drinks. But he didn't, and in the still night, she soon was leaving, avoiding the eyes of the young monk who drove away in an imported, shiny car.

A hill brought her down to the subway; she rode five stations further from Chungdam to the Express Bus Terminal, where she bought two winter blankets, a dark green jacket and new jeans, hair ties.

"I might as well be a monk," she thought, seeing the nakedness of her one-room that night, the simplicity of her life. The talk at Sir Monk's had meant nothing to her, only that she wanted Sir Monk to hold her as tightly as now, in a bundle of cotton warmth, she held herself, the wounds of her father and mother and no single regret.

***

December, then January came and Sir Monk now wore a hat on his first visit to the Coffee Bean that week, this new year.

"Thank you for the invitation," Hae-Jung told him, handing him blue, thousand won bills as change.

"I thought you hated it. You were so quiet."

"No," she said, not permitting herself to say that she was just younger, not interested in institutionalized Buddhism and felt she had nothing to contribute.

What she longed to ask him was why there were two beds in his house, a small one in the office, covered in robes and two wooden-bead necklaces, then a large one in the bedroom. Both were Western style, and Hae-Jung had been wondering if Sir Monk had ever been to Colorado, and if that was where he had grown to love and need a mattress atop four legs.

After she served Sir Monk, the cold brought in more customers than she could handle, without becoming flustered. She wanted to avoid Sir Monk's company now, with the chaos of too many clients, but all she saw was him, sitting at his drink, watching her with half of his smile, still not having made up his mind.

When the line had cleared, and traces of the snow's moisture shone on the floor still, Sir Monk approached Hae-Jung.

"Why don't you leave work right now and come with me?" Her eyes widened and she smiled.

"I can't, Sir Monk, I would be fired. I need my job."

"It would be good if you could come with me." She laughed, and covered her mouth with a hand almost too long for the proportions of her body. His eyes stopped and she saw him notice how completely oval her nails were. Free of white flecks.

"Thank you, Sir Monk."

"Hae-Jung-ah, you have my card. Call me when you've finished the day. Then we'll know what now means."

A group of students giggled from behind Sir Monk; he pulled on his expensive-looking knit hat, a darker gray than his robe, close to black. He smiled, showing Hae-Jung the gap between his front teeth and the strength of his build, his arms still adjusting his hat to his scalp.

Hae-Jung took the students' order, wanting to mouth different words than the ones she had to use now.

Why do you drink coffee near me, she wanted to ask, but tea near the monks? What are you hiding? Why are you not as serious as them?

***

Hae-Jung had no phone but that afternoon used the pay phone near a wooden gazebo where smokers sat and watched her run to work on mornings she was late. She had used it to call her mother in Daejun, to plead for her signature. She had called the university from it, to ask questions about tuition and orientation at the end of January.

And now her hand pressed the buttons with her whole fingertips, reminding her of her unscrupulous decision. But she longed for the warmth of Sir Monk's words, in a time and place where she wouldn't feel the shame of her Coffee Bean nametag and polo shirt, or hide the beauty of her hair, which she now parted at the side, under a demeaning cap used for hygiene.

For the first time since the move with her parents from Apgujung to Chungdam, Hae-Jung rode in a taxi, the street of luxury stores passing her by, the driver never looking past the work-clothes she hadn't taken off. Time was everything to Sir Monk, and she knew that he saw behind her uniform, her lack of expensive make-up. His robe had never hidden his allure or compulsion for her, though she hoped it was out of his character to inexplicably fall in love.

At the villa, there was no young monk, no nun to stop them from transcending known and unknown identities; they laughed at how easily they had come together and wanted no knowledge of the other's past.

Hae-Jung felt the thickness of the quilt on Jin-Ok's bed after he'd carried her to it, and undid her clothing; she smiled her widest smile, pulling the sash of his robe, revealing thick, white undergarments.

They met every Thursday afternoon. But it was not only sex that brought them together, washing away Hae-Jung's embedded coffee aroma, turning Sir Monk's face serious though everyone knew him only to smile and laugh. It was also their names that they repeated to one another, both fascinated by the sound of the other's, and the boundary they had crossed, the simple sound "ah."

"Hae-Jung-ah, Hae-Jung-ah, Hae-Jung-ah…"

"Jin-Ok-ah, Jin-Ok-ah."

Younger women called older boyfriends by their first name and then "older brother"—"oppah!" But Hae-Jung broke this rule as she longed to say the sound she herself loved hearing.

Sir Monk was twenty-seven years older than Hae-Jung and had seldom had relations with women. Hae-Jung accepted his invitation to live together, after her studies began, soon before she would have to renew the contract for her one-room. Soon, too, Sir Monk's two-room contract would end, and when two real estate brokers wanted to bring the first clients, he rescheduled the appointment three times, not knowing what to tell Hae-Jung.

"Hide in the closet, please," he told her, an early-March afternoon, when she had come home from class.

"What?"

"What will people think of us?"

"I should have stayed in my one-room," said Hae-Jung forcefully, pushing her body against Sir Monk's robes and her clothes, mingled behind her. Feeling the return of her breath from the closet door, Hae-Jung focused not on the voices of the young couple who had just entered, but on her confusion and the image of her bank passbook, the key-money that would soon need to be woken again.

How could Sir Monk, Jin-Ok-ah, have kept the move from her? Where was he going?

When the guests had gone she pushed open the door.

"Jin-Ok-oppa-yah."

He stared at her, felt her voice and knew she could see his fear, fear not customary to his beliefs, beliefs he had cultivated and let swirl through his consciousness for years now. In his fear he wanted to look good in a younger person's clothes; he wanted to consume things—make-up and fine clothes for Hae-Jung; he would free her from the Coffee Bean and make her a queen. He wanted to act like other men, to blossom out of austerity.

"Why didn't you tell me you're moving?"

"We are moving, together. Or am I wrong?"

***

Hae-Jung pulled away. The sound of her name from his mouth now made her feel that her life was a secret again, like her mother had made her everyone's secret. Like her father who had buzzed away on his one-man motorbike, reaching for the secret of his daughter at times, instead of a cigarette.

She never asked him again, but she knew that Sir Monk would have his good reasons. It could be his wealthy mother in Chungdam, whom he visited on the days she worked. It could be the mean-looking young monk or the nun from Colorado, who would take him away from their two-room in Shindang-dong.

Hae-Jung used part of the saved away key-money and flew to Fukuoka for three weeks. When she returned, she stopped working at the Coffee Bean and took up waitressing at a small Japanese restaurant. The clients liked her, yet none of them ever asked for her name.

A man whose movements felt like children's whispers sat next to her one day, in prayer at Bongeun Temple. He had never been there before, and as if to calm his nervousness, slid his hands down the tops of his legs.

"I just want to watch you, with better eyes," he told her, when she lifted her head from a bow.

Though neither said a word, they could hear the echo of their names in one another's thoughts.

Hae-Jung-ah.

Jin-Ok-ah.

 
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2014
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.