Not Usual For Korean
When my mother called, she was using her pleasant telephone voice and speaking English. I knew bad news would follow. Behind her, I could hear my father yelling in Korean—a collection of hard, sharp syllables.
“Your brother Jin,” my mother said, “he get kicked out of school?” The way she said it made it seem like a question.
“He did? Why?”
“Ya. I don’t know why. Why don’t you call him? Then you call me back, okay?” And then she hung up.
These were the calls I dreaded. Where I was called upon to be the intermediary between Jin and my parents. It was really between my father and Jin. There wasn’t a wall between them so much as a gun-metal door whose locks had rusted from lack of use. The only feeling they ever claimed to share was disappointment.
Lately, things had grown worse. Jin was in some kind of trouble every other week, most of it having to do with gambling. My parents had begun receiving strange calls at night, voices demanding money. Then the next time my mother called, she’d ask me to call Jin and talk to him.
“Talk to him about what?” I’d ask.
“About responsibility!” she’d say. “You think me and daddy going to be around forever? You think we can support him forever? What’s gonna happen when we not around?”
I always got a vision of Jin sitting in a gutter when we got around to this part of the conversation. Sitting stoop-shouldered and dirty against a curb, his head down on his arms in shame. A wave of pity twisted inside me that felt wrong. Jin would always be my older brother.
I’d been sitting at my desk reading about Cézanne for my art history class but now I got up. The only problem was that there was nowhere to go. My room was unusually narrow, no bigger than a hallway. The walls were made of cinder blocks and painted over with a thick coat of white paint. But they were always cool to the touch and good to lean against when my face got hot from drinking. I’d covered one wall with a thin blanket, an Indian looking thing I’d bought from a girl down the hall when she went home from emotional exhaustion. I think they’d been exhausted by a boy named Chris.
I remembered how her parents drove down one Saturday from Maine and spent a couple of hours loading her things into their minivan. Brightly colored crates heavy with books and papers, suitcases and then bags of clothes. A reading lamp, a pink comforter, a small box refrigerator. Then last of all, they loaded Carly gently and carefully into the backseat. Her mother held the door open while her father nearly lifted her in. After she was safely in the car, they both bent down to kiss her before the door was securely closed. It was clear how much they loved her, but were also afraid. Not just about what would happen to her but of her it seemed.
I couldn’t imagine my parents ever being afraid of Jin or me.
I knew I should call Jin but I put my shoes on instead. I couldn’t help them anymore. I didn’t want to. I grabbed my winter coat. A week away from Easter and it had snowed. I shut the lights and locked the door.
Cézanne was terrified his whole life of his father.
Sometimes I’d call Jin and say, “Mom wants me to tell you that you’re irresponsible.”
“So they want you to be responsible.”
“I am responsible.”
“How? They want proof.”
“They’re crazy! Do you see how they are? Do you? See?”
Most times I didn’t call Jin. Even though he went to Bentley and Waltham was only twenty minutes away on the commuter rail. We never knew what to say to each other if we weren’t arguing over the TV. In fact, Jin didn’t like talking to anybody in the family. Since he’d gone off to school, he acted as though we were something to be endured during the holidays, on the holidays he actually showed up. Jin belonged to a frat stuffed with the sons of rich men and spent his vacations as a “guest” at various beach houses and ski chalets. I could always imagine the big smile on his face.
That’s because I’d seen the pictures. Jin with his arms around two or more buddies, all of them tanned and grinning like instant millionaires. Behind them glittered the warm Caribbean sun or snowy peaks stark white against a clean blue sky laid out like a napkin. I was happy for him. I wouldn’t say he was embarrassed by my parents but maybe he would. They weren’t rich, but with two gas stations my parents did well enough for us. Their greatest desire seemed to be that we not take over the business.
Jin had never been serious enough for my father. At ten, he made the mistake of announcing he wanted to grow up to be a magician. Then a comedian. He listened to Steve Martin records and practiced walking like a drunk in the living room while my parents were at work. He watched David Letterman religiously and learned to squirt milk out of his nose. He could flip both eyelids inside out.
When he was thirteen, he got caught standing next to the boy stealing. At sixteen, he was arrested for vandalizing the election signs of local politicians. He was voted Class Clown instead of Valedictorian. He spent too much time and money on his friends and too little on his schoolwork. He was always looking for the quick fix instead of working toward a long term solution. Then my parents would compare him to me: Look! Your sister can manage to get good grades and have friends. Moderation! Why can’t you be more like that?
Why can’t you be more serious?
And then Jin would turn that terrible blank expression on me, smiling a little, and I could see how easy it’d be to hate me.
I still had nowhere to go. Naturally, I thought of Evan but we’d had a fight the night before. I went downstairs to the common room where the lights were out and a few people were watching Strangers on a Train. I stood in back and watched a fancy party in black and white. It was one of those sophisticated parties they were always having in old movies, where the men wore crisp tuxes and the women fat diamonds around their necks. Robert Walker was talking to a couple of matrons about the best way to murder someone.
Oh, one of them said in a high, cheerful voice, I know just the way I’d do it. And then conspiratorially, she whispered, Poison.
No, no, Robert Walker said. He looked down at his hands as though amazed by their sudden significance. If you’re going to murder someone, there’s only one way to. . . May I?
Oh, please, the matron said, offering him her neck. She gave an amused, girlish nod to her dowdy friend.
His hands went deep into the folds of her neck and he looked up to catch the eye of a girl across the room. It put him in a trance. He squeezed. Carnival music began to play sweetly in the background. His eyes turned deep and glassy and far away and he squeezed. You could see how good it felt. Even when they pulled him off and the matron was sobbing, he kept his hands gripped in a tight vise as if he meant to strangle the very air.
I left the dorm and went across the green to where Evan lived. It was so cold outside my ears hurt and then burned once I got inside. I could hear him from the stairwell, practicing on his viola. He played second chair in the school orchestra and then at night plugged it into an amp to play in a band called Electric Orch. I’d never seen anyone play the electric viola before.
Most people either loved or hated Evan. I could see why. He was always performing and calling attention to himself, but that’s what I liked about him. As long as I was with him, I was invisible. It was like sitting in the front row of a play. Most times I didn’t even have to talk. Although that’s what our fight the night before had been about. We’d been in Chinatown eating a late night dinner at one of the stalls when he accused me of being a cold fish.
“What do you mean a cold fish?”
“I mean, you hardly ever talk and then when you do I’m still not sure how you feel about something. Did she like it a little? A lot? Does she like me a little? A lot?” Evan’s voice grew louder.
“Well, I’m sorry.”
“For god’s sakes, don’t apologize. Fight back!”
“I don’t want to fight with you.”
“That’s just what I mean,” he said, looking disgusted, “a cold fish.”
Later, I wished I’d made a big dramatic exit and left him with noodles hanging out of his mouth, but then later was now.
He kept playing. A Brahms concerto. When I got to his floor, I saw his door was open. He followed me with his eyes until I sat down next to him. The bed was shaking a little from the force of his bowing. I wanted to tell Evan about my brother but then it made me tired. He would only be full of advice and how could he help me? His parents never raised their voice beyond a louder Please!
He finished with a headbanging flourish that threatened to cut through every horsehair and compelled a voice from down the hall to call, “Can that shit, you freak!”
“I’m sorry, friend!” Evan boomed back. Then he tucked his long hair behind his ears and sat looking at the ground. Turning to face me, he began to rub my elbows.
“I really am sorry,” he said.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said, though it wasn’t what I thought at all.
“Don’t let me tell you who you are!” he said. “Or anyone! You tell me who you are.
The next morning, my phone rang at 7:30. It was my mother.
“Why you never call me back?” she asked. Neither of my parents ever bothered with greetings if they didn’t have to.
“I have schoolwork—”
“You don’t care about your brother? Don’t care about family?” Then her voice dropped and she sounded depressed. “What we supposed to do about your brother? Why you think he have so many problems? Tell me.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“So you just tell me what you think. You young, about the same age. He the only brother you have. Only two of you in this world. If something happen to him, you all alone.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to him. Maybe if you trust him more, he’d grow up. I don’t know,” I said. What I wanted to say was that I was twenty and didn’t know any more about why a person did things than she did. But my mother seemed to believe that my brother’s trouble came from the environment, from growing up in America and since she hadn’t had that experience, there was something fundamental she didn’t understand about us children.
“Trust! Too late for trust! He already fail,” she said. I could tell she was irritated with me. “Listen, this what daddy and I want you to do. Call up dean, what-his-name, Dean Neisman and ask him if any way Jin can stay in school. Summer school, night class, whatever.”
“I can’t do that!” I said. “It doesn’t work that way. A decision’s already been made. He’s not going to tell me anything different from what he—”
“Be quiet!” she said. “Just do! I do it myself but my English no good. You think if my English like yours, I ask you? No, I don’t tell you nothing.” She huffed. Then her voice grew sweet. “Just do this one time, okay? Good girl. You always good girl.” Then she hung up.
I tried to go back to sleep but I was angry and awake. The room was so bright that behind my closed lids, everything looked red and useless. The night before, I’d taken down Carly’s purple blanket and stuffed it under my bed and now the sun streamed in with nothing to diffuse it. But the ancient radiator beneath my window knocked rhythmically like a single-minded kid with a drum and finally I fell back asleep. I dreamed, but later I could only remember one detail from it—a deep orange sky above the straight line of earth. And my arms. My arms were a mile long.
I awoke an hour later when Mina knocked on my door. She waited while I dressed and brushed my teeth and then we went down to breakfast. She’s Korean too and has an older brother so I thought about telling her about Jin. But I couldn’t. Before moving to Atlanta, my parents had belonged to the same church as Mina’s parents. I knew they’d be terrified of gossip.
After breakfast, I called Dean Neisman, a kind voice with no good news. He said Jin could reapply for next year but nothing could be done for him now. I even asked him if there wasn’t any way that Jin could stay on academic probation and go to summer school to make up his grades.
“I am sorry, Miss Chun,” he said, “but next time, it’d be better if your parents called me.”
Late that night, I heard from Jin.
“Did you call Dean Neisman? Why?”
“Because—because mom made me.”
“How could you do something like that? I told them what happened. What did they think your calling was going to do? You embarrassed me!”
“You’re the one who got kicked out of school! You’re the one who’s been spending all his time at Foxwoods!”
“Just—oh shut up!” he said. “Just help me!”
“Help you! I can’t help you! What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. Talk to them. Try to . . .”
A moment passed and my breathing calmed. Outside my dorm window, I saw two people chasing each other in the dark.
“Explain that it’s no big deal! I can go back next year. It’s easy. I know other people it’s happened to and they—most of them—came back.” He didn’t sound very certain. “They’re coming in tonight,” he said.
“Here! That’s why I’m calling. They’re on the last flight out of Atlanta. Will you please, please come and meet us there?”
“But I’ll be no good!”
“Please! Dad won’t go crazy if you’re there. He’ll listen to you.”
“Okay,” I said, “okay.”
I wrote down the flight information in the margins of a book I had opened on my desk. It was on the same page as a reproduction of Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory which, according to the book, was the prettiest Cézanne ever made his wife look in a portrait. I looked closer. But I didn’t think she looked pretty. In fact, she looked pained, her lips and hands locked tightly together.
Cézanne hated to be touched. The book said he flew into a rage if it happened but not how, so I imagined him breaking his paintbrushes over his knee and throwing his canvases about like a discus. Stamping and shouting with his voice and his hands until he was red all over from lack of breath. Afterwards, he was meek and mild and horribly sorry. “Could you but see inside me, the man within, you would be angry no longer. Do you not see to what a sad state I am reduced? Not master of myself, a man who does not exist . . .”
Once, he shouted to no one in particular, “I am every inch a painter all the same!”
I turned the pages slowly through the landscapes and still lives and portraits and watercolors, dutifully looking for what the book said was the indivisible mark of Cézanne’s work—that what appeared on his canvases were worlds both balanced and wild. The still lives were warm and deep, the landscapes cool and flat. He painted the Mont Sainte-Victoire more than sixty times. If the particulars of a painting were pointed out, I could see it, but not otherwise. The longer I stared at any one picture, the less I understood.
“There is only one painter in the world,” he said. “Myself.
Jin got to the airport before me. I saw him waiting in one of the back rows far from the gate. There were only a few other people there, a tired-looking woman flipping through a magazine and two teenaged boys. Jin was dressed in dark pants and a crisp white shirt and looked as though he was about to go to an interview. He kept checking his watch and adjusting his shoulders. When I sat next to him, he told me our parents’ flight was delayed by fifteen minutes.
“Lucky,” I said. All the way to the airport on the T, I thought of what to say to Jin. I couldn’t think of anything good. So, I told him he should leave the country and go to Europe by himself, traveling and working. Prove to them that he could take care of himself. It was just the kind of romantic gesture that might appeal to my father, who had come to America as a man in his forties with a young family and only five hundred dollars.
“No,” Jin said shaking his head, “they’ll never let me do that. They’re going to watch me like a hawk, make me work at the gas station.”
The woman with the magazine looked at her watch and yawned.
“They must be pretty angry if they’re flying up here,” Jin said. His leg was imperceptibly jiggling our row of seats. It was just like him to be afraid now, when there was nothing anybody could do. Jin had a way of ignoring the fact of the future and couldn’t see past one move.
“Didn’t you know what was going to happen to you?” I asked. “Jesus, Jin. Dean Neisman said you’d stopped going to classes. You’ve been on academic probation for an entire year. What in the world did you think would happen if you stopped going to classes? That they’d award you some prize? It’s your friends, isn’t it? Stupid does as stupid says?”
“You sound like an old lady!” Jin said.
“Maybe you should act older! Why do you have to be so . . . so stupid!”
“I am not stupid!” Jin yelled. The woman looked over her magazine at us with interest. “I am not stupid.” Jin said. “And it’s not my friends. At least I have friends.”
“I have friends.”
“Who? That loser boyfriend with the long hair? The one that plays the electric viola? He’s a laugh, that guy. Ha!” Jin gave a hollow laugh. He got up and walked over to the monitors.
I’d never known before what Jin thought of Evan. We didn’t talk about things like that. Jin never talked with people—he told funny stories.
The two teenaged boys went to the window. Beyond them I could see lights taking off instead of planes. “Here it comes!” one of them said.
“Hey, will you talk to dad for me?” Jin asked, returning to stand over me. “Explain how I can reapply next year and all that. I would but I don’t think he’s going to give me the chance.”
“Maybe they’re not that upset,” I said. “You know, Ed Kim got kicked out of Cornell and I think it made mom feel a little better to hear that.”
When I said that, I actually believed it, that instead of fighting and shouting, we’d talk and remain seated in our chairs. But then someone came and opened the gate door and soon people began to emerge. Jin and I got up and moved closer.
“Well, it’s too late now,” he said.
I could see my father spitting a light spray as he talked fiercely to my mother walking down the brightly lit hallway. His eyes looked round and glassy and his face was red as though he’d had a beer or two on the plane. My mother was leaning in toward him, trying to shush him and keep his voice down, her body bent toward him as though weighted. But when she looked up, she smiled happily at us. It passed quickly. My father refused to stop or even look at us when my mother paused to give us a quick hug. He simply walked on ahead toward the escalators and rental cars, so sure we’d follow he never looked back.
My mother sent me to stand in line with my father while she took Jin aside. I heard her tell him how difficult it had been to find someone to watch the gas stations while they were gone. He looked like he might cry. My father was already in line between the ropes, arms folded, staring straight ahead. His presence had always seemed huge—if he was happy or sad, everybody knew it—but now it was a black hole collapsed in on itself. I worried that if I got too close, I might be sucked in.
But then he did something that surprised me. He turned around and said, “It’s my fault.”
I’d never heard him apologize or assume fault before.
Then: “I spoiled him.”
“It’s not so bad,” I said, “he can go back next year. Lots of people take time off—It’s really not so unusual—”
“Not usual for Korean,” he said. “You think we move here and work hard so he can take time off? What he need time off from? Let me ask you, you think he crazy?”
“No! I don’t think he’s crazy.” I said. “Dad, sometimes I think you’re the crazy one—it’s his friends. He doesn’t have very good friends.”
My father nodded.
“Just try to understand Jin,” I said, “And . . . don’t get so mad all the time. It’s hard to talk to you when you get so angry.”
He nodded again but not to what I was saying.
We walked out into the parking lot, my father ten feet ahead of us. It was cold and a little icy. The rest of us stepped carefully behind, my mother still whispering to Jin about responsibility and getting his head together. Jin looked at his feet as he walked, nodding and repeating, I know, I know. It was missing his usual note of impatience. Up ahead, my father passed a young couple who were loaded down with heavy shoulder bags.
He stopped at a white Taurus and stood by the trunk until we reached him. Then in a swift and sudden movement, he hit Jin on the ear with a closed fist. Jin gave a surprised shout and fell down. My mother stepped between them and grabbing my father’s sleeves said, “Yobo! Yobo! What’s the matter with you? Have you lost your mind?”
The young couple had passed us by then but not far enough to miss what had happened. The woman looked back and caught my eye and in her confusion, she gave me a quick smile. Then she turned back around in a hurry.
My mother was still speaking, “Can’t you see there are people here? What’s the matter with you anyway? . . . What a dirty temper you have!”
My father stood rigid, not looking away from Jin. “Get in the car,” he said.
Jin stood up, still holding his ear, looking helpless and afraid. I hated my father for that.
I sat behind my father. Jin sat stiffly next to me, a hand over the right side of his face.
“You all right?” I asked. Jin gave me a quick, dirty look and didn’t answer. My parents were staying at a hotel in Waltham, close by Jin and I felt how long the thirty minutes in the car would be. Like having a warm sweater wrapped over your face.
As we left the parking lot, my mother said as if to herself, “How can you blame the son of a man like that? A vicious, dirty temper. Beating his kids in public like animals. I’ve never been so humiliated.”
“Yobo,” my father said warningly.
“I can talk if I want to!” my mother said. “You think I’m going to take orders from a brute like you? How low do you think I’m willing to go? You think you can kill someone’s spirit?”
Jin was slouched against his window, his shoulders shaking.
We sat silent as my father drove away from the airport and toward the highway. At the tollbooth, he said, “Sank you,” and I thought of the times Jin and I would make fun of him, fun of them both for their bad English. Sank you bery much—no, sank you bery much. That seemed another world.
I stared at the back of my father’s head. It shook a little.
A strange huffing noise began to come from him. I saw my mother look over at him with concern.
“When haven’t they gotten what they’ve wanted? When have I denied them anything? You son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted at Jin.
“Shush,” my mother said. “Let’s talk when we get to the hotel. Don’t bring it up now.”
My father calmed down a little. “Just like my father spoiled me. I used to be the richest boy in school and now all my friends are senators or big executives. Remember Hwangju? That skinny boy with the bad teeth? His parents didn’t have a nickel to their plate and now he’s a Senator. Everybody’s somebody big now. Everybody who stayed in Korea.”
“Be quiet,” she said. “What’s Hwanju got to do with us? Don’t start feeling bad for yourself now. You’re not alone, you know.”
“Are you really blaming me?”
“Exit! Exit!” my mother said pointing to a sign going by. “Nobody’s blaming anybody. Don’t you know by now that—”
“Was I the one who—”
“Shush!” my mother said.
We got off the exit and followed the sign pointing to Waltham. It led to a dimly lit two-lane road. We passed dark Puritan houses shaped like the hotels from a Monopoly set, flat and without decoration, most of them with the lights out. Every so often, we passed under small stone bridges that had been built in the 1600’s.
“Yobo,” my mother said, “slow down. You think we’re still on the highway?”
“Sixteen years in America,” my father said, making a gesture of counting with his fingers. “Sixteen years of working ten, twelve hours . . And your mother!” His voice grew louder. “Your mother used to be a beauty but look at her now! . . . Don’t you see how tired she is?”
“They know, they know,” my mother said impatiently. “Just slow down. Tired or beautiful what do they care, I’m just their mother.”
“That’s what I’m saying!” my father shouted. The car was weaving slightly as though in emphasis to his words. The houses were going by faster though it was hard to tell in the dark. “What have we worked for . . . to come to this . . . this disgrace!”
“Always exaggerating,” my mother said with disgust. “Speak calmly, reasonably. Then maybe someone will listen to you.”
“Shut up!” he said. “It’s your fault too! . . . You and me and our two measly stores . . . What do you think we’ve been scrimping and saving for? To feed and clothe these two idiots we have for children?”
The numbers on the digital speedometer sped up and down between 70 and 80 m.p.h. I thought I saw in the headlights the white stones of a bridge.
My mother stopped speaking and sat facing my father a little, but looking through the windshield, the tips of one hand against the dashboard.
“Dad . . .” I said.
“You son-of-a-bitch! You’ve shamed us for the last time! I ought to hit that bridge!” he nearly screamed. And then he leaned his body onto the pedal.
“I’m sorry!” Jin cried out.
The bridge appeared like a great white monument and then flashed by like a hot spot. I’d been sure we’d hit it. I was sure he wanted to. But after we passed it, he slowed down and slumped his shoulders over the wheel. He said in English, “I don’t understand . . .”
Beside him, I heard my mother let her breath out very slowly.
When we got to the hotel, I helped my father unpack the car. My mother and Jin had gone ahead—the right side of Jin’s face had started to swell. After he slammed the trunk, I said suddenly, “Promise me that you won’t hit him, okay, dad? Will you promise me, dad?”
There was a hard sliver of a moon that shed almost no light on his face. Beyond the line of tall trees the hotel had planted, I could hear the highway smooth as glass.
I am the only painter in the world, Cézanne had said.
He stared at me for a long time though it was so dark I could only feel it. “Ya,” he said. He nodded his head. “Okay. Because you my daughter and because you ask me. Okay.”
He said, “You know, sometime—you see when you—not everything—”
Abruptly, he bent down for the two overnight bags and walked away toward the yellow light of the building.
The farther away he got, the smaller he grew. Just a trick of perspective.
I followed so he wouldn’t disappear.
Caroline Kim was born in Busan, South Korea, but moved to America at a young age. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in MANOA, MQR, Meridian, Jellyfish Review, Faultline, Five on the Fifth, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Asian American writers collective, Seventeen Syllables. She currently lives with her family in northern California. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.com.