SHORT STORY CONTEST
THE RED APRON IN HEAVEN
by Tammy Lee
The art of making kimbap was fairly simple. A wooden spatula would spread rice seasoned with vinegar and sugar on a piece of dried seaweed. Then came the insides: fried egg, Spam or grilled beef, cucumber, yellow radish and carrot, sliced and stacked on the sticky rice in a small pyramid. Hands covered in plastic gloves would then tightly roll the seaweed so that the rice and insides would stay intact. The kimbap could either be eaten in one long roll or be sliced into pieces, both forms eaten with one’s hands instead of chopsticks. Mari knew all of this because she ate a roll of kimbap almost every single day for lunch, and watched the same lady make it each time.
The restaurant was called Kimbap Cheonguk and was located on the first floor of Mari’s student officetel complex in Cheonho, Seoul. For 2,500 won she could eat a roll of kimbap of any flavor: fishcake, tuna and mayonnaise, spicy pepper, cheese, or the regular. It was the perfect food for lunch that left her mouth free from garlic or seeds and kept her full until she ended her classes. Her mother used to pack her kimbap when she went on school picnics, but eventually switched to ham sandwiches after Mari came home crying because the girls in Adelaide Primary wrinkled their noses at what was inside of her lunch box. It was strange how Mari could not remember what her mother’s rolls tasted like, and yet she had grown partial to the ones here.
After a month had passed of Mari coming into Kimbap Cheonguk during the weekdays to get her lunch before the next train came into Cheonho Station, the woman there had caught on to her schedule and had her kimbap freshly made and ready for her to take as soon as she got there. She noticed how Mari came into the restaurant already sweating from the humidity of the summer heat, and began including a small yogurt drink (with the English spelling “Yakult”) in the plastic bag along with her kimbap. Mari would bow and say the only three phrases she knew in Korean back then: “Hello, thank you so much, see you soon,” and the woman gave her a big, toothy grin in response while wiping her hands on her fraying red apron. She always froze the yogurt drink so Mari could drink it cold on the subway ride to school, and the bottle slightly melted from her palms so the yogurt was nice and slushy by the time she peeled the lid open.
“Eemo,” the lady told her to call her, for “Aunt.” Mari relished the idea but could never get the Korean e sound quite right, so she called her “Imo.” When the weather became colder in November, Imo traded the yogurts for hot packs so that Mari could put them in her coat pocket and keep her hands warm. She figured Imo must have snapped them open and shook the steel powder inside the packs half an hour beforehand, judging by how they were already warm by the time Mari came in for her lunches. The thought of Imo, the small, thin restaurant owner with a dimple on the left corner of her mouth that deepened just so whenever she smiled, taking the time to give the hot pack in her fraying red apron a good shake as she worked provided a different kind of warmth in itself. Mari kept the weathered hot packs with her at all times, until they grew hard and cold by the end of the day and she threw them away in the trash can in front of her building on her way in.
Before becoming an international student at Yonsei University, Mari had never been to Korea before. Both her mother and father’s sides of the family had immigrated to Australia and her parents had not visited the country since they left it over twenty years ago. As teenagers, Mari and her older brother Hojun preferred summer camps, soccer leagues, and part-time jobs scooping ice-cream to Taekwondo lessons or Korean language school. During Mari’s senior year of high school, she applied to three universities in South Korea with the hopes of moving somewhere far away. The moment she received her Yonsei acceptance letter, she and her parents packed her belongings and prepared to ship them to Seoul where her new life in Korea began.
She had adjusted to university life fairly well. Mari’s department was quite social and loved coordinating their matching royal blue Yonsei letterman jackets with their names stitched on the back in white on the days they had lectures together. They often met up in a college area called Hongdae where they shopped, ate chicken and beer, sang karaoke, went clubbing, and even organized huge group dates with students from other departments or universities. It was her accent in particular that made Mari popular with her friends. They wanted her to sit next to them, study with them, and order drinks for them so that the waiters could hear her speak and start long conversations about where they were all from, which usually ended with plates of appetizers on the house. Groups of office workers or older men from neighboring tables would exclaim about Elvis, Audrey Hepburn, and San Francisco and order another round of beers for them all so they could all clink glasses together. Taxi drivers listened to her give directions and sighed about how they were never able to send their kids abroad. Strangely enough, it was Imo who had treated her accent as if it was completely normal, although she had once asked about it out of her own curiosity.
“Why do you talk like that?” she asked Mari. “Like in London. But not.” Mari had widened her eyes at Imo’s English.
“I’m from Australia,” she answered, and Imo had nodded as if she understood everything.
“Ah yes. I know. Different,” Imo said, and handed her the plastic bag with her signature hot pack inside, this one in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Mari waved and Imo stood by the window, watching her and waving back until she was out of sight.
Once the weather had gotten too cold for her to take the subway willingly for dinners out in Hongdae with her university friends, Mari sometimes went to Kimbap Cheonguk twice in one day. Imo would make lunch for her as usual and when she saw Mari walk into the door later at night wearing her glasses and sweatpants, she had a table in the back that was already set with silverware, napkins, and a water cup. A big plate of rice cakes and vegetables smothered in spicy red pepper sauce was ready for her in minutes. Imo would mostly leave her alone, but would occasionally saunter over and say things like, “In Korea glasses are cheap. 15,000 won. You should buy,” or “I saw a man fall on the snow. Too much soju!” and Mari listened and nodded as if it were the most fascinating story she had heard all day. Imo would give her two light taps on the shoulder after talking to her as if saying, “Good talk,” and went to tend to her other customers, the bun piled on the top of her head bouncing with each step she took.
Mari found Imo cute and endearing, and did not mind that one of the people she was starting to feel the closest to in Korea was a middle-aged woman, although she never mentioned Imo in her e-mails to her parents.
In February, after almost five months of Mari and Imo’s little routine, something different happened—Imo invited Mari to her apartment for Lunar New Year.
“It is the New Year,” Imo said while scribbling something on the back of a receipt. She handed it to her once she was done and Mari realized that it was Imo’s address. “You come and we will eat. Together. Not here.” She swept her arm at the restaurant.
“I would love to,” Mari replied.
She knew that it was in the Korean culture to bring a gift when going to another person’s house for the first time, but Imo had ended that thought with a firm “Just bring you.” And so Mari followed the Naver Maps app on her phone to Nobleheim Apartments door 625, a ten minute walk away from her own officetel.
A gust of hot air escaped through the door when Imo answered the doorbell, her face flushed and glowing from cooking indoors all day.
“Come in!” she said, and Mari took of her shoes in the entryway and followed her inside. Imo was not wearing her Kimbap Cheonguk apron today.
Inside, long lamps left shadows on Imo’s cream colored walls. The first thing she noticed was the rug, a colorful piece with paisley and lotus flowers printed as the design. The bookshelves, TV stand, and coffee table were made of a dark wood that was almost black, so the rug remained the only splash of color in the living room. There were a few picture frames on some of the bookshelves, but Imo kept walking, so they merely passed through to enter the kitchen.
The floor of the kitchen was covered in newspapers. There was a huge stainless steel basin along with two cutting boards, knives, pink rubber gloves, and aprons. Imo looked up and down at Mari’s old Fighting Panthers sweatshirt and Adidas soccer pants and nodded in approval. She motioned for Mari to sit down, and handed her an apron. It was rubbery and slick, the kind workers from the traditional fish markets wore.
Imo went to the sink and came back holding three white cabbages, cucumbers, and green onions in her arms. Mari was examining bottles of red plum extract and fish sauce that were already on the floor. She opened the cap of the plum extract and sniffed once, a sweet and almost soapy scent coming out of the cap.
“Korean New Year is called Seol-nal,” Imo said as she sat down next to Mari and put vegetables in the basin. “On Seol-nal you go home and eat your family kimchi. Each family is different taste.” Mari thought about what her mother’s kimchi tasted like with its spicy vegetables. She and her brother would never take it out of its glass container to eat with rice once they finished school like they were instructed to. Instead, they put the container in the back of the refrigerator where it was left forgotten and unopened so it fermented and became too ripe to eat. “Wine-chi,” Hojun called it, and their mother yelled at them for letting it go to waste. Their punishment for doing so was throwing it out themselves, and Mari would plug her nose and close her eyes as Hojun used a plastic glove to scoop out the now-white kimchi, the smell making both of them gag.
Imo sliced the cabbages into rectangles with crisp, clean cuts. She taught Mari how to mix minced garlic with pepper paste and the fish sauce, and together they dumped the liquids into the basin and rubbed the sauce thoroughly onto the cabbage leaves. There was a moment where Imo scooped a handful of cabbage and gently tossed it toward Mari’s gloves with a childish glint in her eyes. Mari briefly stopped and stared at Imo, who now had strands of hair coming loose from her bun and a dot of pepper paste on her cheek. As she watched Imo explain how the plum extract made the sauce less salty and poured the dark purple liquid over the mound, it struck her that the two of them had crossed into a relationship that surpassed that of a restaurant owner and customer. Imo picked up a piece of cucumber and a small square of the seasoned cabbage and held them toward Mari, and she automatically opened her mouth so Imo could put the salty kimchi on her tongue. She could not remember the last time she had let her own mother feed her like that.
Their job was finished. Imo brought out glass jars and made Mari fill the containers with their handiwork. Once they had been put away, Mari helped Imo take all of their things to the kitchen sink and left them in a giant pile at the mat near Imo’s feet. Imo happily took off her gloves and dropped them on top of the mess, the rubber landing on the basin with an audible slap. Mari did the same.
“Now we eat,” Imo announced.
Mari followed her into the dining room where there was a huge spread of food on the table. Imo had clearly outdone herself by preparing marinated beef ribs, grilled mackerel, and side dishes of pickled or fried vegetables. She must have been especially proud of the beef seeing how she placed it at the center of the table and put perilla leaves on the edges so that they would surround the meat as if it were a flower. Imo went back and forth for a while to reheat some of the things that had gone cold.
Mari’s spoon remained still above her rice bowl, unsure of where to begin. Imo went straight for the mackerel with her chopsticks and sliced it open. Her hands, usually hidden behind the plastic gloves she wore to roll kimbap, were now removing the spine of the fish so she could set the mackerel free from bones onto Mari’s bowl with her bare fingers.
“I cook with kiwi and Cola,” Imo said as she pointed to the beef. “Soft and tender.” Mari’s gaze went from the fish on her bowl to the meat at the center of the table.
“Soft and tender,” she repeated. Mari had actually heard those exact words before, but not from Imo. She remembered walking to the foreign food mart past Cheonho toward a different neighborhood, and as she turned the corner of the children’s park, she had seen a group of men smoking cigarettes near the playground who had said—
“What is your name?” Imo interrupted. “The family name.”
“Baek. Baek Ma-ri,” Mari answered, and Imo smiled.
“Ah it is old Korean word meaning ‘mountain top.’ It fit you,” she said sagely. Mari coughed from embarrassment.
Once their meal was over, Imo sent her into the living room so she could wrap the leftover dishes and put them away in the refrigerator. Mari was left to examine the picture frames she had passed by earlier. She picked one up that had Imo beaming at the camera, wearing a graduation cap that belonged to the girl she was hugging in the photograph. All of the frames contained the same girl with long hair and a shy, round face.
“My daughter Haerin,” Imo said as she walked over to where Mari was standing. “She went to London School of Economics and works at a Swiss bank,” she proudly declared. “Haerin is good at English, like you.”
“She must be very smart,” Mari said to be polite. Imo patted her gently on the back in her usual way, two taps on the left shoulder. Mari wondered whether she was being insensitive by holding the picture frame so she put it back down on the table, her fingertips free from dust.
She suddenly understood why Imo had been so kind to her after all this time. By packing her lunch with extra care and buying hot packs during the winter and yogurt drinks during the summer, Imo doted on Mari, hoping with all of her heart that somewhere in London, someone would be doing the same to Haerin.
“Why did you name your restaurant Kimbap Cheonguk?” Mari asked to change the topic, realizing she had wanted to know the answer for a long while. The thin lady sitting on her sofa in her dark living room was still staring at Haerin’s picture.
“Cheonguk,” she replied, smiling. “Heaven.” They started laughing together, chuckling at first and then louder and louder so they could be heard in the apartment hallway that was empty of residents who had gone home to spend the New Year with their loved ones.
After the holidays, Imo started opening up to Mari more and more each day. Mari knew that Imo woke up at four in the morning and took a bus to Myeong-Sang Church for early morning prayer before she came into the restaurant. Her favorite fruit was honeydew, and she shopped for produce not at the E-mart or HomePlus in Cheonho, but in the traditional outdoor marketplace one block over in Amsa. She loved sending Mari off to school and then talking to her again when she came back, asking her if the cafeteria food at Yonsei was really better than home-cooked meals and whether she thought the boys in her major were good looking. Mari discovered that Imo had learned English through private academy lessons at an adult school and wanted to impress Haerin by being able to order from a menu by herself if she had the opportunity to visit.
“Your English is getting better,” Mari would say occasionally in encouragement, and Imo would cover her mouth with both hands and laugh her girlish laugh, pleased from the compliment.
During midterm season at Yonsei, Mari was presented with something that broke her regular routine. She was studying with a group of friends at the library when her phone vibrated in her pocket, and so she knotted her scarf tightly at the neck and went outside to the library steps. Yonsei was famous for the dark ivy that covered the buildings until the original red brick exteriors were no longer visible, but the crawling vines had the tendency to make the campus look eerie at night. Mari turned her back to the library and called Imo at the restaurant’s phone number.
“Mari-ya. A boy here. He ask me where you are!” Imo said loudly enough where Mari could picture a few customers turning around to stare at Imo curiously. She checked her watch. It was half past ten.
“The kimchi one?” she guessed. For the past two weeks, there had been a young man with more piercings in his ears than Mari had who came into the restaurant around the same time every night. He had a regular table in the back where the water dispenser was, but what was unusual about him was how he was always staring at Imo, watching her carry out trays from the kitchen or fold plastic take-out bags at the front. Before he paid he would take out a small plastic container from his backpack and ask Imo if she had any leftover kimchi or yellow radishes he could take home with him. Imo filled it up to the lid without fail, and Mari scolded her once he left saying that he was using her for free side dishes. Mari also voiced that she thought he was extremely strange, but Imo told her that her cooking probably reminded him of his own mother’s and that many single men did the same thing at their neighborhood restaurants.
“Yes! Yes, him! I told him you were at Yonsei,” Imo said.
“Is he still there?” she asked. She could hear the crinkle of Imo shaking her head on the receiver.
“No, he go away,” Imo replied, and Mari wiped her running nose on her scarf and said, “He’ll probably be back tomorrow.” Imo giggled.
“Maybe he like you!” she said. Mari rolled her eyes. Imo was still talking and Mari tried to listen, but it wasn’t about the man anymore. “…onion pancake…rice…in a box. I will have ready for you.”
Mari smiled, pleased even though she had been standing outside of the library for fifteen minutes in thirty-nine degree weather.
The next day was a Friday, so Mari sat at her usual spot in the restaurant with a mug of honey citron tea, her plate of spicy rice cake empty and pushed to the side. The clock across the wall from her said it was ten. Surely enough, twenty minutes later, the bells attached to the door jingled as the man came in. He took off his gloves and bowed to Imo, and Mari watched them speak in Korean. Imo laughed at something he said before gesturing to his table. It was unnerving how many times Imo turned to look at Mari in the most obvious of ways.
The man did not sit by the water dispenser, but at the empty table next to hers. Mari stiffened. She waited for him to say something, but the man opened the foil of his kimbap and wolfed down the rolls instead.
Just then, she could hear Imo’s raised voice across the restaurant, and she turned and smiled a little while watching Imo scold a few high schoolers as she wagged her wooden spoon at them. They were probably goading her for soju, or dumplings on the house.
“I’m Yeong,” a voice said. Mari took her eyes off of the high schoolers who were now counting their dollar bills on the table and turned to look at him. The dark circles under his eyes were a startling shade of blue, almost green against his fair skin tone. He was leaning toward her, close enough where she could count his earrings. Seven in total, all crosses of black or silver.
“You seem very close,” he continued in a pleasant voice. “With the eemo here.” He cocked his head to the side and smiled again, his white teeth free from any particles of tuna.
“We are,” she said. Yeong was studying her with his eyes but resorted to a friendly smile again at her response.
“Must be nice.” He leaned away from her and took out his plastic container from his backpack. Imo had been watching the two of them talk, and came over the moment she saw his container. She took it from him without a word, but winked at Mari before walking off. Yeong started to zip up his backpack and put on his black LG Twins jacket. Mari wondered if he was going to leave without saying anything else. He went to retrieve his kimchi from Imo, and then came back to her table.
“I would love to take you out sometime,” he said, and she felt her heartbeat quicken as an immediate response. “Could I get your Kakao Talk ID?”
“Sure,” she breathed, surprising herself. Yeong waved good-bye after they had exchanged numbers, and Imo pounced on her as soon as he was gone.
“Well? Well?” she demanded. “You will meet him?”
Mari stared at the door, still in a bit of a daze. She nodded and Imo put her hands on Mari’s shoulders, shaking her gently.
“Who knew!” she said giggling. “You date in heaven!”
They had agreed to meet somewhere around the area for the following day. There was a famous street in the neighborhood called Rodeo, a long street that served as the busiest shopping plaza for the people who lived in eastern Seoul. Families and children roamed around the small shops and cafés during the daytime while college students and groups of adults came to Rodeo to eat and relax at restaurants, bars, and arcades that were open all throughout the night. Yeong sent her a location of a restaurant for dinner, and so at five o’clock Mari started getting ready for their meeting.
She paid careful attention to what she wore so that she would leave a good first impression. She had heard from her friends at school that the outfit was the most important factor in the outcome of a first date. If she dressed too nicely, the other person would assume she was high-maintenance or burdensome. If she dressed too plainly, the date would lose interest. Mari decided on a nice sweater and a wool, plaid-printed skirt along with her coat. Her legs would be cold even if she wore leggings, but she looked at herself in her floor length mirror and felt satisfied nonetheless. She grabbed her purse and took the elevator down to the lobby. Mari couldn’t resist—she opened the door of Kimbap Cheonguk so that Imo could see her off.
“Aigoo you will be cold!” Imo scolded lightly as she smoothed the collar of Mari’s coat so that it looked even on both sides. “But Mari-ya…you look beautiful.”
The weather today was gray as usual, but Rodeo began with a huge sign toward the beginning of the sidewalk that blinked in all sorts of colors, making the street look bright and lively. High school students and couples wearing matching scarves walked under the glow of the lanterns that were still strung above their heads on street lamps even after the Lunar New Year was over. Mari arrived at the restaurant they had agreed on and went up the stairs. As she approached the doorway, she could see Yeong sitting at a table in a far corner by the window. He had his head on the table, the curve of his back sloped in a way that looked as if he were sleeping. She was slightly confused. She sent him a message on Kakao that she had arrived, and by the time she had opened the glass door and came inside, he was sitting upright and waving from their table. She could not shake the strange feeling that he was not as excited as she was, the posture he had a moment ago not being one of someone who was happily waiting for her.
Yeong stood up and pulled out her chair. When she sat down he requested something to the waiter in a low voice, and the waiter came back and handed him what looked like a child’s blanket. Yeong gave it to Mari and told her it was so that she could place it on her lap and keep her legs warm. She was surprised at the thoughtful gesture, and they exchanged shy smiles before turning to their menus. Once the waiter had taken their orders, Yeong put both of his elbows on the table and leaned in to look at her.
“Does Seoul feel like home to you?” he asked as she reached for her water glass. This was the first time she had heard such a question. She was glad that Yeong had brought up the topic as a conversation starter. It was almost as if he understood.
“It does and then it doesn’t,” she said. Yeong nodded as if he felt the same way. “Home” was the word that triggered the rest of their conversation over dinner. She found out that Yeong had lived in Korea until he graduated high school, when he went abroad to study photography. He was currently doing an apprenticeship under a photographer who owned a studio located in the Sinsa district, where all the rich and famous lived. Mari said she had never been to Sinsa before, and Yeong laughed and told her he would take her portraits for free.
By the time dessert came, Mari had completely forgotten about how Yeong had started their date with his head in his arms in a tired slump and was in the middle of describing how she and her friends would visit the huge fields behind their school to catch fireflies with milk cartons in the summertime. Yeong smiled when she explained how the fireflies never made it through the morning as they suffocated in her jam jars. He seemed the most interested when Mari shared how Imo did not believe that insects could emit light from their bodies, and asked him if it was true that there were fireflies at the green tea plantations in Boseong.
“I haven’t been there yet,” he said. “Maybe you should take her there and bring some back. I heard it’s very scenic.” The waiter came with their check just then, and Mari realized that they had been talking for quite a long time. They put on their coats and once they were outside, Yeong suggested they grab a drink at a nearby bar so they could talk some more. The protocol after a dinner was usually coffee, but she readily agreed and Yeong led her through Rodeo to a bar located on the third floor of a big building. It was called God Bar, of all names, with a huge purple banner printed with a tiger below the English letters of “God.” They went inside the bar together, where a bartender behind the counter smiled at Yeong as if they were old friends. Yeong ordered a bottle of peach soju and they sat down at a table.
After they clinked their glasses and had already taken two shots together, Yeong stared at her in a way that made her nervous. She knocked over the emerald bottle of soju as she reached for a napkin, but Yeong held out his hand and caught it before it touched the table.
“I have to ask you something,” he started in a low voice. She blushed and looked down at her folded hands.
“The woman at Kimbap Cheonguk,” Yeong continued, and Mari looked up in surprise. “Do you know if—does she have a daughter?”
“Yes,” she said, confused. “How did you know that?” He was now staring at the bartender who was looking through playlists on his laptop over by the register.
“I know her,” he said slowly. “The daughter. Does the mother talk about her at all?”
“Of course.” Mari wondered where this was going. She felt an instinctive, almost territorial tug to defend Imo. “Her daughter is in London. She misses her so much.”
“She’s not in London,” he said. “She’s here. In Cheonho.” No, that was impossible, Mari thought. Imo hummed while making kimbap and kept her English study workbook in her purse, dreaming of meeting Haerin at a fancy restaurant where she would order a steak and a glass of wine for herself. There was no way that she and her daughter were not oceans apart, possibly separated by only a few streets. But something in Yeong’s expression made it seem as if it were true.
“I can tell you,” Yeong said gently, and everything that Mari had come to know at this point ended as Yeong’s story of Imo’s daughter began.
Haerin had come back from London during the previous summer after getting involved with a Korean businessman she had met while she was there, who convinced her to fly back to Seoul with him. The man provided her with a furnished apartment in Sinsa, invited her to formal dinners with important celebrity clientele in attendance, and took her with him on lavish trips to Bali, Dubai, Phuket, Tokyo, and Jeju. Afraid that she was not in the same place of society as he was as the daughter of a single mother who made kimbap for a living, she tried to catch a big break. Having no college degree or money of her own, she had decided to enter the entertainment industry with the help of her partner. She was terribly plain in the eyes of the producers, her face was too round to be on camera. After failing to be cast in even the smallest of background roles, the man offered to introduce her to some connections he had in the industry. He took her to casinos, nightclubs, and massage parlors to meet the media moguls who had partnerships with his company. The real people in power, as Yeong described them. Haerin feared her man would leave her at any time since she had nothing to offer, so she followed him everywhere and listened to him dutifully. His true intentions had shone through from his suggestions that she spend the night with a few of his partners, and by doing so, she could sign a contract under their agencies within the following month.
It was during this time that Haerin tried reaching out to a few of her high school friends who were still around in Seoul, which is how she came to be in contact with Yeong. If that were the case Imo should have recognized him, Mari interjected, but Yeong shook his head and explained that during their high school years, their group of friends spent hours studying at school and took the bus home together at midnight, and went to their separate homes to sleep and repeat the same cycle each morning. There was no way for Imo to have met him, although he had seen her for the first time at their graduation. Mari remembered the picture frame in Imo’s apartment with Haerin in her graduation gown.
Haerin called Yeong needing someone to rely on, and Yeong spent many nights at the convenience store in front of her apartment complex, where they sat at plastic tables and he listened to her worries over bowls of instant ramen. “Leave him,” Yeong told her. “Leave him before he leaves you.” But Haerin, tearful and afraid, told him that she couldn’t bring herself to because she loved him.
It was only a matter of time before the man had moved on, and Haerin stopped answering Yeong’s calls. When he came to her apartment and rang the doorbell, a new tenant answered the door. Fearing the worst, Yeong started putting time aside to find her. He found her mother’s restaurant first because he had remembered its unique name, but there was no reason for her to be there seeing how she did not tell Imo that she was in the country. He came to this bar next, a place where they had spent the entire summer after their graduation drinking until it was time to go their separate ways for college. The bartender here was their school sunbae, an upperclassman who had stayed a good friend to their entire group even after he graduated before them. He told Yeong that Haerin came in alone a few times within the past month, but was never there when Yeong came looking for her. The bartender did not tell him more, left all of Yeong’s questions unanswered every time, until one day he asked for kimchi.
“Kimchi?” Mari exploded. “For Haerin,” Yeong replied.
Haerin knew Yeong was looking for her but told the bartender that she did not want to see him because she was embarrassed. Of what, Yeong wasn’t sure since he knew the majority of what she was going through, but Haerin did not want to meet him. She did let him know that she was okay by telling the bartender that she craved kimchi, specifically the kind her mother made. Once the bartender relayed the message, Yeong went to Kimbap Cheonguk and asked Imo if he could bring some of her kimchi home. He went straight to the bar afterwards, and within the next week, the bartender had given him back the container that had been emptied and washed. And so Yeong went to Kimbap Cheonguk every free night he could, to continue the smallest connection he had left with Haerin. But knowing that she was close by, close enough for them to share a plastic container was not enough. He wanted to know where she was, if she was safe, and he needed Mari’s help in doing so.
Mari could not speak. In the span of thirty minutes, she learned that she had been lied to and manipulated into Yeong’s search and rescue party for Imo’s daughter. If only she had said no to dinner, she could have been at Kimbap Cheonguk with Imo right now where the two of them could believe that Haerin was still in London working at a Swiss bank. She could pretend to picture Haerin sitting at a café with a pretty terrace instead of facing the reality that she was eating Imo’s leftover kimchi out of a plastic container at God Bar.
“You love her,” Yeong whispered. “You said you would even go all the way to Boseong to let her see fireflies. Help me so that you can let her see her daughter instead.” Mari closed her eyes. She thought about the dead fireflies in her jar and how she had to pinch their wings from where they lay at the bottom in order to throw them away. They provided only a temporary kind of comfort at night, left for dead in the morning. She thought about Imo’s yogurt drinks and hot packs, and the way her rubber gloves felt as they spun the kimchi around the basin during Lunar New Year. She opened her eyes and nodded. What else could she do?
Yeong called the bartender over to their table so that he could sit and drink with them. The moment Yeong said that he had to step outside to make a phone call, Mari moved so she could sit closer to the bartender. She offered him another shot and they clinked glasses, and as Mari turned her head away to drink as a gesture of etiquette, he introduced himself as Wook.
She asked him careful questions about his upbringing in Seoul and how long he had been working at the bar. She covered her mouth with her hand while she laughed and nodded when he thought he was saying something interesting. She asked him how long he had been friends with Yeong, and Wook launched into stories of how he would make Yeong buy him bread at the snack shop during breaks or how they snuck out of their cabins on an overnight trip to spy on the girls from different schools. It was after this story where Mari asked for the name of his high school.
“Myeongil High,” Wook answered. Mari widened her eyes as if it were a mere coincidence and said she knew someone who went there. Wook asked for the name.
“Haerin. Park Haerin,” she said. He paused, an uncertain half-smile on his face.
“Yeong asked you for a favor,” he guessed.
“I’m her family,” she said, all pretenses dropped. Wook tried to pour the rest of the bottle in his glass, and then shook it once he realized it was empty.
“Do you know where she lives?” Mari asked. He shook his head.
“How would I know her exact address? She probably lives in Cheonho because she meets me back by the kitchen door to get her kimchi every few days. Loves the stuff, but afraid of seeing her mother.”
Speaking of her mother, Imo was probably in bed by now. Mari had promised her that she would come straight to the restaurant once her date was over so that she could tell Imo everything about Yeong, but that seemed like ages ago. She wondered if Imo waited in the restaurant even after it was closed, in case Mari came for her. Wook saw the expression on Mari’s face, and scratched the back of his head. He leaned in toward her.
“She doesn’t want to be found,” he said gently. “For good reason. You won’t want to go to where she is.”
“But do you know?” Mari pressed. She pulled out a pen from her jacket pocket and slid it with a dry napkin toward him. Wook picked up the pen and scribbled two words on the napkin. He rolled it up and put it in her hand. Mari stood up and reached for her coat. Thank you, she mouthed as Wook started to gather their empty glasses and bottles to clear the table. He shrugged in response. It took all that she had not to run out of the bar and down the stairs. Yeong, who had seen her through the window of Tom N Tom’s Coffee on the first floor, pushed through the door.
“Did you—did he say?” He started before Mari handed him the crumpled napkin.
“Jesus Christ,” he breathed. Mari looked at his hand. Wook had written “Pink rooms.”
The pink rooms translated to the red-light district, Mari found out as Yeong led her through the back end of Rodeo. The largest red-light district in all of South Korea was located in Amsa, just a block away from where they were in Cheonho. Mari followed Yeong as they moved through the crowds of people blocking the sidewalk, and together they left the lively Rodeo Street behind them.
Yeong had shook with anger as he crumpled the napkin in his fist before deciding to leave right away to see if the information Wook had given them was true. Mari asked him how he knew where the red-light district was.
“Every man in Korea knows where it is,” he said. “Whether they’ve been there or not.”
They left the main sidewalk and turned into an alley, which led into another alley, and then another. They passed a group of men who were patting their friend on the back as he retched, and a few couples who embraced each other fiercely in the dark. The pathways in the alleys were jagged from the cracks and rocks that stood in their path, and the only sources of light came from the signs of convenience stores or love motels that were wedged in between old brick houses. The streets smelled of vomit, urine and the food trash bags tenants left in the front of their buildings where they spoiled in the sun. Mari pinched her nose over the collar of her sweater, but Yeong wove through the streets as if he could not smell a thing. He eventually led them back on an open street with a huge play structure and basketball hoops in view, and the cement sign told them that they had reached Amsa Children’s Park.
“Soft and tender,” she whispered to herself as she stopped and stared at the playground. She remembered the men who were standing in a circle by the bushes that day and how they laughed and nudged each other while smoking their cigarettes. There was no way for her to have known back then that they were visitors of the pink rooms. Yeong looked over his shoulder to see if Mari was still following him, and she hurried to where he was. They walked through one final alley of old brick houses before Mari could see a glowing pink light coming out of the end of the path. Somewhere in the dark, Yeong’s hand had found hers and held on tightly before they came to the opening of the red-light district.
It was a small intersection, and both sides of the street were lined with shops that had huge glass windows and pulsing pink light bulbs that shone onto the sidewalks. Every windowpane showcased women who were sitting on what appeared to be beauty salon chairs, also painted hot pink in color. Mari felt like she was looking at the Barbie dollhouse she had begged her mother to buy for her when she was in the second grade.
In one shop, the women were standing up from their chairs and wearing skintight maid outfits. They used the feather dusters in their hands to tap on the window and smile at the men that were in front of Mari and Yeong. In another shop, the women were wearing lacy lingerie but had their legs covered with fleece blankets, looking bored as they sat staring at their phones. Two girls had come out of their beauty salon set-ups and were standing in front of the front door to their shop, teetering in their platform high heels as they held onto the door handle.
Yeong put Mari’s hand in his coat pocket and together they slowly walked down the street to look through every window. Mari made eye contact with one of the girls, a woman who looked like she could have been in her forties. Her face was painted with several layers of makeup, and the color of her foundation did not match the skin of her slender body. Her nose was long and straight, but it somehow did not seem natural with the way her cheeks sagged beneath her makeup. The woman next to her had a nose that looked identical in shape, and it occurred to Mari that these women’s features were perfect in the way the natural noses of Korean women never were with the help of multiple procedures. She tried to look away, but the woman continued to give her a long, disdainful stare.
The madams of these stores were all middle-aged women who were a stark contrast to their girls they had on display. Most of them were overweight, unsmiling, and sported short, permed bobs, making their girls look even more glamorous in comparison. When Yeong came to their shops, the madams opened their doors and yelled at him in Korean while waving him to come inside. Yeong asked them if they had a worker named Haerin, and then bowed good-bye once they told him no. The madams tsk-ed in annoyance and then started calling to the men behind them on the sidewalk. One of the girls wearing a maid outfit looked especially disappointed as Yeong left and a pot-bellied man with gray hair came to the front steps as soon as they walked away.
They had walked back and forth to both sides of each street, but no one knew who Haerin was. There were some women who looked at Mari and Yeong’s linked hands curiously, as if wondering why the two had come together. Mari hoped Yeong was not paying attention to their stares because she felt as if she could not walk by herself if they were not physically connected. Her legs were now numb to the cold wind that blew past them, and she remembered how Imo had fretted about her skirt and leggings hours earlier, before the sun had gone down.
At the second to last store, Yeong had asked a madam who was holding a wooden back scratcher if she had a worker named Haerin, and the woman paused.
“Haerin-ah!” she called toward the back. Mari gasped. She was secretly praying that they would not be able to find Haerin, that Wook had been mistaken and Haerin was not in a place that tainted the knowledge of the city Mari had grown to call home.
A young woman wearing a small blanket around her shoulders came to the doorway, with a dried piece of seaweed in one hand. Her hair was curled and pinned to one side of her face, and her eyes were heavily lined in a liner and eyeshadow that matched the navy blue bustier that accentuated what little cleavage she had. She had a round face that did not match her tall, thin frame and a dimple under the lower left corner of her mouth that Mari had seen so many times before. Haerin looked down at Yeong and Mari who were on the bottom steps and her hand fluttered to her mouth.
Mari did not remember taking off her shoes and coming into the shop. She did not glance at the platform by the window that was decorated for life-sized Barbie dolls with its pink striped wallpaper, vanity mirrors, and salon chairs, where two other women were chatting as they stared at their reflections. She now sat in a room that was hidden behind the beauty parlor in the front, which seemed more of a storage closet of boxes that were piled along every flat surface of the walls than a living room. There was a small lap table on the floor that was set for a modest dinner consisting of rice, fried eggs, and fermented bean soup. Imo’s kimchi was in its plastic tub at the center of the table.
The women who were currently working would take their customers to one of the five rooms upstairs, the madam explained. Her workers began by offering to scrub down their customers in the shower and then led them to a massage table to lie down on their backs while the girls—
“Stop,” Haerin told her. “Go outside.” The madam scoffed but got up and walked away. Yeong, Mari, and Haerin sat in the cramped living room, the three of them staring at anything but each other. Yeong looked as if he was about to open his mouth to say something, but he turned his head toward the door at the sound of the madam’s yells.
“Too big! Too big!” She was yelling at three foreigners who stopped at her front door and waved the back scratcher in the air as if to tell them to move along. “No thank you, too big!” Yeong covered his face with his hands and Haerin stared at him sadly.
“You won’t want to go where she is,” Wook had warned Mari an hour ago. It was not a matter of Haerin not wanting to be found. Wook knew that Mari and Yeong would not have wanted to find her where she was. Where the three of them were, together.
Haerin’s fingers tried to pull up her top to no avail, and she reached for a small cotton mat that was used for sitting to cover her crotch area. Mari tried not to look at Imo’s daughter staring at Yeong, and to distract herself she reached out to touch one of the bowls of the bean soup. It was cold.
“Who—?” Haerin broke the silence by addressing her. Mari’s cheeks burned. She was sitting in a living room at the heart of the red-light district with a complete stranger. Two complete strangers, as she glanced at Yeong. The biggest regret of her life had now changed to the moment she asked him about the green-tea plantations in Boseong.
“I’m no one,” Mari answered, and she stood up and walked to the doorway where her shoes were. She shoved her feet into them and stood outside, and the two strangers who were still indoors made no sounds of coming after her.
“A baby,” a voice said, and she was startled to find the madam standing next to her. She took out a box of Raisons and held it out to Mari who shook her head, and the madam put a cigarette in her mouth and lit it herself. A wave of smoke with hints of vanilla wafted above them.
“A baby,” the woman continued. “Only want to eat kimchi.” She jerked her head once toward the front door of the house, and Mari understood.
The woman squinted at the store across from her where a foreigner from earlier was laughing as one of the shop girls swatted her feather duster at him, her madam standing by the door looking conflicted whether to let him in or not. She tapped on her cigarette so that the ashes could fall and then spat on the asphalt, straight in between her slippers. The woman started heading back toward her shop.
“You should go,” she said in parting. “Bad place.” The pink lightbulbs turned off moments later, and Mari was left alone in the dark. She took a step forward, and then ran down to the intersection. She did not stop, she forced herself to keep running through the jagged streets where she passed the Amsa Children’s Park, until she found herself at the back end of Rodeo once again.
What had once been a bustling, loud street was now quiet except for the electronic fanfare of audience cheers that came from the claw machines outside a few karaoke buildings. A street clock dangling from the hood of a closed coffee shop read that it was almost five o’clock in the morning.
Mari had found her way to the sidewalk across the street from her apartment complex. The lights inside Kimbap Cheonguk were still turned off, but she knew it would only be a matter of time until a woman would get off at the bus stop and come to the doors after early morning prayer. All she had to do was wait. Mari stayed where she was on the other side until she saw Imo walk into the building and bow to the security guard at the front desk of the lobby. She took out a key to open the doors of the restaurant and turned on the lights once she was inside.
Cheonguk. Heaven, she named the place. Would she have known that heaven and hell were this close in proximity to each other, at most only two blocks away? Mari watched Imo trade her coat for the fraying red apron on the hook by the doors. The first of many tears from the night slipped down the side of Mari’s face for everything she now knew. And the woman from heaven put on her plastic gloves to make the first kimbap before the sun rose for the start of a new day.
Tammy Lee is an aspiring Korean-American writer from Vacaville, California. After working as a journalist with local newspapers and as an editorial assistant for various internet media companies, she decided to pursue her passion for reverse immigrant narratives and move to East Asia to write about the people and places she would encounter there. Tammy is currently writing a collection of short stories that will explore and introduce new aspects of today’s modern Asian culture. She is a first year MFA student at the University of San Francisco.