Rewind / Miriam
My mother looks so beautiful when she hasn’t yet birthed me. Despite the spotty glow of the traffic lights, her beauty is noticeable; she is still young and doesn’t know postpartum depression, sleepless nights shredded by my wails, white suburban mothers’ pursed red lips as she picks me up from school in her laundromat clothes.
She is so beautiful, refreshing, like cool water in parched summer heat. She is lovely, like dewdrops in early morning light. She is strong, like a waterfall in constant radiance. I lean against the bus-stop sign, watching her, waiting, aching. I want to touch her, the cuff of her work sleeve, the fifty-cent claw clip clasping her unruly hair, the solid warmth of her middle—hold her there, in the middle of the street, never let her go, Uhma I missed you, Uhma, it’s me, Miriam. I’m here to save you. Uhma.
It was rainy when she drove to pick me up from church. I had been behaving badly lately, sneaking out at night, drinking at parties, forgoing my homework, and it was showing under my eyes and on my report card. She caught me climbing back in through my window one morning and sentenced me to a month-long grounding and signed me up to volunteer at the Southern Virginia Korean Presbyterian Church fundraiser the following weekend. I was pretty sure she’d promised Moksanim my help anyway, and the punishment was just an easy excuse to force me into it.
I was on daycare duty in one of those tiny preschool rooms with bright Noah’s ark animals plastered on the walls so I wasn’t in the gymnasium, which was where it happened.
But it hasn’t happened yet; it won’t happen for seventeen more years. Right now, in the beforehand, when I don’t exist yet, she’s crossing the street to catch the bus home. She’s got a satchel that holds her sewing kit and an empty lunchbox. Her clothes are a baggy linen that falls limply on her thin figure, and her hands look ten years older than the rest of her. Seventeen years from now, when she walks into the church gymnasium, her face will have deeper lines and her cheeks will be sallow. The bags beneath her eyes will be on the front page of the national newspapers, which will be strewn across our kitchen table covering half-empty casserole dishes, and the inky print will be smeared with minutes-old tears.
But she doesn’t know that, not right now. She doesn’t know the man following her, who spends his nights browsing videos of Asian women with slim feet moaning about daddy. She doesn’t know that in five years he will be incarcerated for second-degree rape, but that will be too late for her and many other women. She will have a baby, mournfully, hatefully, lovefully. She will sing to the child and worry for the child’s safety, and the child will not care. She will hear a thump in the night as the child shimmies through the window, scantily clad and too drunk to know which way is up, and her heart will break in a thousand ways. She will look for her child at the fundraiser in the church gymnasium and instead find the barrel of a gun and the face of a man who has had a bad day.
I’m not supposed to be here, in this time, in the beforehand. The child doesn’t exist yet. But that man was not supposed to be in the church gymnasium, and this man is not supposed to follow my mother, and why are they allowed to exist?
I board the bus right behind her. I can feel the man’s presence behind me, his eyes shifting to me. I sit beside my mother, and she smiles politely at me, unable to make out in the darkness the contours of my cheeks or the roundness of my nose that the church aunties will say exactly matches hers. With tired creaks, the bus lurches into motion. I count the stops as she nods off. Her head bumps against my shoulder, and I straighten my torso so that her head shifts into the crook of my neck. I resist the urge to lean into her, even though every torn piece of me longs to draw closer.
When it happened, when we heard the gunshots and the yelling, we turned off the lights and hid under the tables. We told the preschoolers we were pretending to be David hiding from King Saul, and we had to be absolutely still. As we crouched in the dark, breaths low and level, I thought of my mother and how she said she’d pick me up. I thought, it’s too early for her to leave the laundromat. Then I remembered sometimes she leaves early on Saturdays. Another scream pierced the air, and I held a little girl close to me, her body soft and warm in my arms, and I remembered how my mother used to hold me this way. I told myself, Go find her, save her. But, I thought, I have to look after the kids. The girl was shaking, and as I pulled her closer, I realized I was the one who was shaking. I told myself she might be okay, she might not be here yet. She might be at the laundromat. God, I prayed, God, please let her be at the laundromat.
Before her stop I pull the cord, pretending to accidentally jostle her, apologetically, and she lifts her head and squints at the LCD screen. I let her pass before me off the bus. As I descend, I feel his presence behind me once again, a shadow. The distance between my mother and me lengthens as she walks, her strides solid and brisk, and I force myself to shorten my steps, linger. His eyes scan my silhouette, head to toe to head, and I tell myself to breathe. I tell myself, Don’t let him look ahead. Don’t let him see Uhma. I tell myself, This time, I’ll save her. I walk slowly, steadily, one foot in front of the other, down the alley, killing time.
Under the table in the preschool room, my breath shallow, I’d thought, God, if you take her away, who will I have left?
If it works, I won’t exist anymore. Or maybe I will be here, stuck in this time, nameless. They will ask for my identification in the hospital, and I will think of my driver’s permit in my desk drawer, issued seventeen years from now, Miriam Lim, age sixteen, brown eyes, but I will say I do not know who I am. Maybe I never did. They’ll gaze down at me and murmur, She’s traumatized, poor thing. They’ll say to me, Listen, there are options. There’s abortion. But, obviously, we don’t encourage it.
If it works, she will move to California. She will get an email from Joonho, Joonho from high school: I have a job here, you can too, we can have a life together. She won’t say, I have a child. She won’t say, Your mom wouldn’t like it, me having a child. She won’t stare at the child reproachfully, uncertain whether to hate it or save it. She will move, and she’ll never walk into the Southern Virginia Korean Presbyterian Church gymnasium on that day.
She’d yelled at me when she caught me crawling through the window. You could have been killed, she’d said. You don’t know what kind of people are outside at this time. Do you know what could have happened to you?
She has almost reached the other end of the alley now, where there are lights and people. I slow my pace. She’s turned the corner now; I can’t see her anymore. I’ll never see her again.
I drop my keys, and they clatter loudly on the pavement. My heart thuds as his fingers close around the jangly ring. His breath is hot on my neck as he rises behind me. Then he’s right beside me, his shadow looming as he offers the keys. If I look up now, I will see his face.
“Did you drop these?” he says.
Repeat / Lina
When did I become a woman? I think if I had to pinpoint a day, it would be when Baba brought home the record player. That was when I understood my parents for the first time—or at least, the first time I realized I understood them. Now, six years later, I sometimes forget there was a time when I didn’t understand.
I slip through the apartment door and slide the lock. Without piano lessons, I have less to do on Saturdays than I did in middle school, even with work and scholarship essays. Mama is still in the restaurant, counting stock in the mid-afternoon lull, and Jean’s at her singing lesson. I drink a glass of water and stare at the record player. I walk up to it and brush away the thick layer of dust that has gathered on the platter. I draw a large paper square from my backpack and slide the record from its sleeve. I fit the record and set the needle.
I’ll meet you at skyward crossing
When you fall fast asleep
Baba loved to sing. After dinner, he’d change the channel from the news to Austin City Limits and sway along. His favorite band that played was the Coincidentals. When they came on, he lifted Jean into his arms and twirled her around until she couldn’t breathe from laughter and nausea, and Mama said, “Ya, get over here and do the dishes. You’re not the only one who works all day.” Then Baba took Mama by the hand and swung her around the living room until she couldn’t help but smile.
On that day, the day of the record player, I was helping Mama with dinner and Jean was doing her letters at the table when Baba burst into the kitchen. He said, “Lina, Jeanie, look what I got!”
Jean said, “Baba, look at my sentences.”
Baba read Jean’s sentences and said you’re so smart, Jeanie, these are perfect letters. He said, “Now look, look what I got from Mr. Koo.”
“What is it?” Jean asked. I was washing lettuce with Mama, and she shook the leaves violently, spraying the sink in a shower of angry water.
Baba set up the player and put on a record.
I’ll meet you at skyward crossing, a voice sang, when you fall fast asleep.
Baba hooked Jean by her tiny hands and waltzed her around the room, singing along in his strong tenor.
“How much did that cost you,” Mama demanded. “Hm?”
“Not much,” Baba said. “Koo was clearing out his storage. I promised him my xiaolongbao at his church fundraiser.”
“You’re not even Korean,” Mama said, chopping at an onion. “Or Christian.”
No one’s sad at skyward crossing
No one ever weeps
Now I stare at the spinning disk, shocked the record’s resurrection doesn’t correspond to my shattered world. I watch the disk turn round and round, easily, continuously. The needle pulls inward, tracing a path toward the center. When the song comes to an end I move the needle back to the start, trying to find something new in the words of the song, something old in the record’s grooves. Every moment, I think, is a moment that will never repeat itself.
There’s a rumor here that I’m missing you badly
It’s just a thing that I’ve heard
“Not even Korean,” Mama said again. “Not Christian. You care about Koo’s family more than your own.”
“It’s a coalition,” Baba insisted. “Asians help Asians. Besides, he gave me this beautiful record player. What do you think, Lina?” he asked me. “Good deal, no?”
I smiled. I wanted to dance too, but instead I salted the soup.
“It’s a fundraiser,” Baba said. “At his church—the Southern Virginia Korean Presbyterian Church or something like that. They’re helping children with AIDS in India. It’s for social good. How can I withhold my world-famous xiaolongbao for a cause so worthy?”
“We’re your family,” Mama said. “We’re worthy.”
“It’s kind of a sad song, isn’t it?” I asked Baba.
In response, Baba sang, “Ooooooooooo.”
Tears fall down but I’m falling up
Nowhere to go but skyward
They used to fight all the time. I would hear them after dinner while doing homework in my room, over the sounds of dishwashing. The waterlogged tones carried down the hall—they thought speaking in Chinese rendered them inaudible. At first I thought it was about the record player, but later, I knew it wasn’t.
“They have to go to college,” Mama said. “I want them to go to college.”
“They will go to college,” Baba replied.
“You’re spending money like we don’t need it. Why are you buying silly things?”
“It’s not silly,” Baba said. “It’s music. Jeanie loves it. And it’s good for them. Good for the brain. Lina’s only twelve—we’ll have plenty saved for her by the time she goes to college.”
“I want them to be safe. I want them to have everything.”
“They’ll be safe. They’ll have everything,” Baba said. “School, a house, a car, everything. Husband, dog, three-ply toilet paper, record player—”
There was a broken porcelain sound, and the tap stopped running. “Aiya,” I heard Baba say. “Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere?”
A long silence.
“I can’t get anything through to you.” Mama’s shrill voice broke the nighttime calm. “You don’t care at all! Not at all!” Another shattering noise, but not a dish.
When I left for school the next morning, I noticed a slice of record in the trash can that said Coinci and another that said dentals.
I’ve run out of words for loving you
Please kiss the kids for me
“The restaurant is going to be busy soon,” Mama tells me. “We have lots of people coming for prom night.”
“I’m coming.” I hang up and place the needle back on the record. I go to my room and put on black slacks and a black top. I pin my hair in a bun.
Words that trickle down windows like rain
Fracture the time so it moves quickly
I pulled out a chair beside her.
“There was a shooting,” she said.
I sat down hard.
When did I become a woman? 4:16 p.m. on a Friday in ninth grade, when I passed by Victoria’s Secret after school with my friend and she said, Let’s go in and get measured. And we did, and I was a 32C, but I didn’t buy any bras because I was saving for college, and the ones at Target fit me fine.
When did I become a woman? 10:47 p.m. on a Wednesday in seventh grade, when I sat on the toilet and clutched my lower abdomen and felt the blood slide out of me and wished that this pain was the only kind I’d ever known.
When did I become a woman? Sixth grade, right after the “tragedy” as the papers called it, but at the time it still felt like an impossibility. Mama wouldn’t leave her room, so I cradled Jean in my arms and said, “Mama isn’t feeling well right now,” and Jean, who’d just returned from her singing lesson and hadn’t heard yet, said, “Will she feel better soon?” And I said, “I hope so,” but I thought, maybe never. And Jean said, “Maybe she’ll feel better if she listens to music. Baba always feels better when he turns on music.” And I said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, not right now.”
Oh, silent woman, do not cry
Your grief won’t reach me
No one’s sad at skyward crossing
No one ever weeps
I’ll meet you at skyward crossing
When you fall fast asleep
“You can cut my piano lessons,” I said. “Just don’t cut Jean’s.”
Mama looked at me for a long time. She said you know what this means right? And I said yes. She said, “You need to get a scholarship.”
I didn’t say, Mom, I’m twelve. I didn’t say, What about the college fund? Instead, I stared at the record player on the coffee table. I bit my lip and said okay.
No one’s sad at skyward crossing
No one ever weeps
I think about Baba swinging Jean around. I think about them singing together, at the top of their lungs, to Bocelli, the most perfect duet. I think about Baba standing in the doorway at my piano recital, having raced over after the lunch rush. He’d brought me flowers and afterward said, “Is that my daughter? When did she learn to play so beautifully?” I grab an apron from the hooks on the back door of the restaurant.
When? In an unrepeatable moment.
Restore / Yuna
I saw Imo in a dream. I couldn’t really see her face, but I knew it was my aunt because she was smoking. The smoke flew out of her mouth in tiny streamers, and she said, “The thing I like about being dead is I can smoke without your mom nagging me.” When I woke up, it was 9:34 a.m.
I told Uhma about it while I was eating toast at 10:03 a.m. and she said, “You can’t smoke in Heaven.” My mom’s eyebrows were wrinkled up, and she was squinting at some papers in front of her, which meant she wasn’t actually listening very hard to me.
I asked her why not and she said God doesn’t condone smoking. She looked up from her papers and said that in Heaven, people are so happy they don’t need to smoke, and go get dressed, Yuna, we’re going to be late for the funeral.
I put on my black dress and sat on Yujun’s bed as he dressed. The clock on the bedside table said 10:21 a.m. I watched my brother button his shirt up and told him about what Uhma said. He said hmm and held out his cuff for me to button.
“Ohpa,” I said, pushing the button through the hole, and he said what. I said, “Does that mean Imo was unhappy?”
“I mean, yeah,” he said, reaching for his watch. It was real leather, and he was very proud of it. “Didn’t she always seem kind of unhappy?”
I leaned back on his bed and stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck on his ceiling.
“Maybe you didn’t notice because she was always so nice to you,” Yujun said. “Imo liked you a lot.”
“She didn’t like you?”
“Not as much. Pass me my tie?”
I picked his tie off the pillow and held it up in the air. “Uhma likes us the same.”
He took it. “That rule only applies for moms, not for aunts.”
I counted eight stars on his ceiling, one for each year I’ve been alive.
“Do you think it hurts?” I asked. “When you die?”
“If it did, I don’t think it lasted long,” Yujun said. I could hear the tightness in his voice that meant he was trying to tie his tie. “They said the shot was clean and quick.”
I sat back up. He was staring at his knot in the mirror. He looked up and met my eyes. “Anyway,” he said, “she’s all right now. She’s in Heaven.”
We left the house at 11:05 a.m. instead of 11:00 a.m. because Uhma took a long time getting ready. She kept checking and rechecking her purse for her wallet and phone and papers. When we got there, there were a bunch of people from church and a bunch of other people I didn’t recognize. I told Yujun I didn’t know that so many people knew Imo, and he said they didn’t, they just felt bad for us.
We looked at the casket before the ceremony. Imo’s face was pale and powdery. There were those angry-looking lines between her eyebrows, the same ones that Uhma had, but Imo’s were always there and Uhma’s only came out when she was concentrating. It was weird to see Imo lying so still because she had always been very shaky and jumpy. I thought maybe if I touched her she would start shaking and get out of the box, but when I touched her arm her skin was cold and I ran outside.
Imo told me once that God and Heaven were outside of time. That was when she still believed in God and Heaven and went to church with us every week. She told me this when I was flipping through my flashcards, the ones that had clock faces on them to help me learn to tell the time. She said, “Isn’t that cool? What do you think it’s like, outside of time?” I thought it was kind of scary, the idea of not having time to do anything, but now I think that maybe everything is still going on for Imo even though she looks stopped to us. Time has stopped for Imo, but that’s because now she’s outside of time.
I saw Imo again during the funeral, at 12:42 p.m. Uhma was giving a speech about her, and for some reason I started crying. A lot of strangers offered me tissues, and Yujun put his arm around me. Then Imo said in my ear, “What are you crying about, Yuna, hm? Nothing to cry about, okay? You’re what, eight years old now? Such a big girl, you can handle anything.” And she took my head in her arms and stroked my hair.
Then everyone got up and looked at Imo in the casket. Imo had left my side by then, and when we walked up to the box again, she was there, cold and still.
At 1:49 p.m. we left the funeral place and ate fried chicken. A lot of the people who had been at the funeral came and ate with us. The chicken was hot and crispy, and I ate a lot. I told Yujun that Imo came up to me during the funeral, but he was playing Candy Crush so all he said was, “That’s crazy, Yuna.”
I got bored after a while, so Uhma gave us money to get ice cream at the store next door. The clock in the store said 2:54 p.m. I sat on the curb of the parking lot with Yujun and licked my cookies n’ cream and thought about Imo. She was really pretty, like Uhma, but in a different way. They had the same eyes, large and warm, but Imo had a pointy chin and thin cheeks, and Uhma had a rounder face. They were like that as people, too. I said that to Yujun, and he said he always thought Imo seemed “harsher.”
I remembered the last time that Imo and Uhma fought. They fought a lot. This time it had been about Imo living with us. They were out on the deck where they thought we couldn’t hear them, but they left the sliding door open, and I could hear some through the screen door. Imo was smoking, and Uhma was speaking Korean words. She also said “job security” and “seminary,” which was how I knew she was saying how useless Imo’s college education was. Imo shook her head and blew out smoke and said something short.
“You should try, at least,” Uhma said.
“You know I don’t believe that stuff anymore,” Imo said. “It’s all to keep women down. They don’t let you become a real pastor, you know that.”
Uhma launched into a long stream of words then. She grabbed Imo’s pack of cigarettes from the deck railing, and I thought she was going to throw them, but instead she shook one out and took the lighter and started smoking. “You’re basically saying I’m hopeless,” she said, puffing on her cigarette. “You know how much I put up with? I don’t even get paid as much as them.”
“I told you you should ask for more,” Imo said.
“I’ll ask if you do.”
Imo shook her head and laughed. “I’m not like you, Uhni,” she said. Whenever she said the Korean word for older sister, Imo’s voice went soft at the edges, like the harshness had been sucked out of her. “I’ll never be like you.”
Uhma looked at Imo for a long time, and I knew her face had gone soft in the same way Imo’s voice had. She blew out a long line of smoke, and when she spoke again her voice was softer too. She said something with “fundraiser” in it. She said “volunteer.” She said, “Show them you’re dedicated.” Then she flung her cigarette on the ground. “And quit smoking.”
Imo shook her head again. But on Saturday, she’d put on a dress and gone to the Southern Virginia Korean Presbyterian Church.
My ice cream was melting fast. Yujun had run out of lives and was reading something about a new Nintendo game. “Do you think Uhma feels bad?” I asked him.
Yujun looked at me, but I didn’t know what his face was saying. He looked back down at his phone. “Of course she does. She doesn’t sleep anymore, you know.”
I ate the last bite of my cone and wiped my sticky hands on the skirt of my dress. “How do you know?”
“I woke up to pee one time and I saw her in the kitchen. I think she was praying.” He opened Candy Crush again. “Like, really praying. She was rocking a lot, and she kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’”
“Maybe she was talking to Imo.”
Yujun shrugged. “Maybe.”
“What did you like most about Imo?” I asked him.
Yujun paused mid-swipe. Then he said, “One time, I failed my math test. Remember?”
I nodded. “Uhma yelled at you so much. She grounded you for a month and took away your allowance.”
Yujun glared at me. “Anyway, after that, Imo came into my room and said it was okay. She said it was just a test, and there were other things that mattered more. She said I was smart and would do well in life, but I had a good heart, and that mattered more.”
“She probably just said it all to make you feel better,” I said. “She tells me I’m smart all the time.”
Yujun shrugged. “Maybe.” Then he said, “What about you?”
Imo did flashcards with me after school. She cut up Asian pears and fed me slices and asked me about the times on the clock faces on the flashcards. If I got enough of them right, we got to eat ice cream after dinner. Imo always made sure we had cookies n’ cream in the freezer, which is the best flavor. She read with me before bed, and she let me read to her and helped me sound out the hard words. Whenever I got a hard word right, she said, “Yes! That’s my girl.”
“She gave really good hugs,” I said.
“She hardly ever gave hugs.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but maybe that’s why they were so good.”
I see Imo again three years later. Yujun is leaving for college, and I lean against the doorframe of his bedroom, looking at the empty spaces where his things used to be. I follow him outside as he carries the last box to the car, which he’s driving with his friend. Uhma looks at him worriedly, or maybe it’s just the wrinkle that has settled forever between her eyebrows. She goes up to him and tells him something, and that’s when Imo shows up. She pulls me into her side, and although I’m taller now, I fit exactly right in the dip of her waist like I always did. She kisses the top of my head and says, “It’s just you and your Uhma now—you know that, right? Will you take care of her?”
I turn my face into her stomach and inhale her scent. I wrap my arms around her and hug her for the last time.