(Originally published as a Student of the Month feature in May, 2014.)
Shall Be As Wool
I knew it was time for my son to come home when the sun dipped low enough to peek right under the drapes and the neighbor’s dog starting yapping, demanding a walk. Soon his shoes would sound crisp taps against the newly painted porch and the door would creak open. I smoothed out the wrinkles in his bed sheet and tucked the new pair of cleats under his bed. I carefully placed a small portrait of us under the lamp, and smiled at his stiff expression.
The smell of burning pajeon wafted from the kitchen. I closed the door behind me and hurried down the stairs. The oil in the pan popped and cracked as I flipped the pajeon onto a plate. I broke off the small black bit and tossed it into the trash. The rest was a crunchy, golden-brown—just the way I was told he liked it.
I tried to catch my breath as I sunk into the couch, wanting to look as comfortable as possible. A hopeful smile wiggled on my lips as I stared out the window, waiting. In the corner of my eye, I noticed that the broken clock was still unfixed—its hands twitching in place. My heart thumped noisily against my chest as I held my breath, waiting for him to come in any moment.
Then I heard his footsteps halt at the door. The corners of my smile faltered for a second when he knocked. Nevertheless, I sprung out of my seat and threw the door open.
“Hi son,” I smiled. “How was school?”
He nodded quietly and brushed past me.
“I made your favorite food!” I chirped, taking his backpack from him.
“Thank you.” He offered a polite smile and headed up the steps to his bedroom. The door clicked behind him.
“Joseph, we’ve got to leave soon if you want to make it to practice on time!”
A few moments later, he emerged from his room, his white jersey fitting noticeably snugger around his shoulders. I remembered how frail and thin he had been when he first came home. Just a few months before, the agency had informed that his mother had abandoned him in an alley just after his birth. For the next thirteen years of life, he had been moved from home to home.
He hugged the new pair of bright red cleats against his chest. “Is this for me?”
I smiled and nodded, brushing his hair out of his eyes. He stared at me for a moment and then blinked. I imagined his eyes would turn into upside down crescent moons when he smiles. A thin scar rested on his cheekbone. He never told me how he got it, and I never asked. My eyes traced the sharp bridge of his nose and his cherry-shaped lips. Not a single feature resembled me, but when I looked straight into his eyes I felt l was looking at myself.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lee.”
It had been almost a year already, but I still hadn’t taught him how to say Umma. I did not know how either.
The car engine rumbled under our feet as I started the car. Just as I placed my hand on the wheel, my phone rang shrilly from my purse.
I cringed. A wave of nausea hit me as the name slithered into my ears. I rolled down the windows, desperate for fresh air. My knuckles tightened around the phone, and my free hand trembled. Joseph glanced at me through the front mirror.
“Hye-jin, Hye-jin? This is your Imo—”
I clenched my jaw tight enough to feel my teeth grinding. “Grace. My name is Grace now.”
My finger missed the END CALL button.
“Okay, okay! Stop, don’t hang up. Grace! Grace? You need to come now,” my Aunt urged.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I need to drop my son off to practice. Please don’t call me again.”
“Your mother,” she breathed, her voice cracking. “She passed away.”
All the passing cars, swaying trees, and walking pedestrians suddenly froze. For a moment, all I could hear was my breath. Even the falling leaves stopped mid-air. Then I noticed Joseph’s eyes still looking at me, and everything started moving again.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m busy.”
“Hye-jin, your Umma is dead!” she cried. “You need to stop acting like a child and get over it. It was more than twenty years ago, Hye-jin! Twenty years! She is your mother! Your mother! She can’t be at rest until you pay her a visit, so come. Now.”
She hung up and I tossed the phone to the side. After a deep breath, I rubbed my temples. Blood rushed to my face as I pulled the car out of the driveway.
With an uneasy expression, Joseph asked, “Is something wrong?”
I shook my head and continued driving. We passed by the small diner that boasted a sign that read, HOMEMADE SPAGHETTI. Even as a child, I detested the use of homemade as an adjective, as a word to describe something. I could never fathom what the word possibly meant. It was as if it was assumed that homemade was a universally understood term. As if I knew what homemade tasted like. Smelled like. Felt like.
“Mrs. Lee, it’s okay if I’m a little late.” Joseph coughed, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
Once, when I was eleven, I had a dream that I killed my mother. I never told anyone. I woke up screaming, drenched in sweat, and crying hysterically. I did not know what frightened me more, the image of her beady eyes and black, endless pupils staring back at me as blood trickled down her cracked lips, or the fact that I was capable of dreaming such a thing.
The green light blinked. My eyes dashed back and forth across the street. Straight ahead, less than ten minutes away, was the soccer field. I focused, slowly pressing my foot on the accelerator. The car rolled forward. The truck behind me honked. Joseph met my eyes for a moment.
Rubber screeched as I yanked the wheel to the left.
“Sorry sweetie,” I whispered. “I-I just need to stop by somewhere real quick. I promise we won’t be late.”
Joseph nodded understandingly.
I shielded my eyes from the bright lights dangling from the ceiling. I held my breath, the smell of old people and medicine washing over me like a tidal wave. My fingers hovered over the metal doorknob.
“Who’s that?” Joseph whispered, peering into the window.
“. . . Someone I know,” I replied, guiding him to the seats in the hallway. “I’ll be right back.” The door clicked behind me and sent my heart racing. My hands curled up into fists as I approached my mother’s body. I did not bother to look for my father. He still wasn’t here. Nothing changed in the past twenty years.
My aunt rose from her seat. “Hye-jin—”
“. . . Grace, your mother loved you so much.” she hissed through clenched teeth.
I wanted to argue, like I have wanted to do for the past twenty years. However, I did not have any scars or bruises on my skin to prove otherwise. Apparently, if something could not be seen, it was not considered evidence.
My Aunt looked at me with a bitter expression before leaving the room. “So be a good daughter and ask for her forgiveness.”
My mother’s hand dangled limply from the bed. Sweat beaded on my hairline as I approached her. I had to reassure myself that dead bodies could not move, and that she could no longer turn her back at me. I had to reassure myself that dead bodies could not talk, and that her voice could no longer drive me into a corner and summon tears from my eyes. I had to reassure myself that dead bodies could not laugh, and that she could no longer humiliate me for my mistakes. I had to reassure myself that dead bodies couldn’t breathe, and that she could no longer exhale hot air down my neck, her dark eyes staring me down.
For so long I had resented her for driving me to hate the person I had yearned to love the most. She had planted the seed of resentment in my heart, but I was the one who fed it, let it grow. I let it flourish and thrive until all of its prickly vines twisted around my bones and climbed to my throat, suffocating me. It coursed through my body until the thorns released a toxin that slowly destroyed me, too.
I looked up and noticed the wooden cross dangling above her bed. I averted my eyes and looked at her face instead. When did her face become so carved with wrinkles? Her lips were slightly parted, her eyes gently closed. The crease in her brow that would appear whenever she looked at me was no longer visible. The lines on her lips that would appear whenever she scowled were gone. Lying before me like that, I would have never guessed she was my mother. My hand slowly reached for hers. My fingers inched closer and closer to hers.
I pulled away.
I convinced myself that it was just to check if her body was cold.
Joseph’s face appeared in the window. Suddenly, I remembered that we were running late so I walked out, closing the door behind me. My eyes stung, but it must have been from the dry air. Joseph’s eyes met mine. Without saying a word, he carefully held out his hand. I took it, and he led me down the narrow hallway, the portrait of Jesus staring down at us. My head itched to turn around, to look over my shoulder, just one more time. But I didn’t. The long hand of the clock struck five, and I had somewhere to go.
Jasmin Chang is currently a student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and is majoring in Social Work. She writes mostly as a hobby and is passionate about reading and writing about topics about underprivileged children, cultural differences, and social issues. She spends most of her time during breaks volunteering at orphanages overseas. She has not formally written or published any works, but aspires to one day publish a book narrating her experience volunteering abroad.