Photo by John Oliver Hodges
John Oliver Hodges
Chungcha chased an idea through the falling snow. She chased it across the playground onto the path sidling the Nakdong where a blistery gust pressed into her face, cracking her lips, and her eyeballs felt layered with ice. The wind jostled her, and the elusive idea disappeared over the river. She would suffer, but Soonjae was not a good father. Soonjae did not talk to them. He made no effort to teach them. She would get the apartment. Soonjae would be lost for a few years, but God willing--no, she did not believe in God; he would have to move on through his own will!—he would be happier without her. Just why was he was so stolid, so infuriatingly taciturn? I will take my punishment, Chungcha thought, but he must never find out about Harry Washington.
Returning to the apartment Chungcha kicked off her boots and for the first time ever threw her wool coat on the floor. In the spare room she sat at the computer and saw that Soonjae had already responded to her email. Her heart rose to a new gallop. She did not think about this. She opened it. By its smallness she knew it was dismissive. She didn’t want to read it, so went to the kitchen, filled a wine glass with water. She stepped to the sliding glass door and looked out over the balcony at the white air slanted with snow falling faster now, and sipped. She thought of Harry, a kkamdoongi as her husband called such men. She wondered if Harry, who had traveled to Korea from a mysterious place named The Bronx, was working on his thesis. Chungcha hoped Harry was warm and fed and pictured him comfortable in his worn out couch reading one of his Philosophy hardbacks under the clamp-lamp she brought for him at Lotte, his multi-colored feet up on the tea table that came with his furnished apartment in Jinju City.
Chungcha pictured Harry pulling his book down to stare through the window at the falling snow. She hoped that she was in his mind, that he was distracted by her. She wanted Harry Washington to miss her, even if it was only her body. She hoped that Harry’s heart hurt when he thought of her. She wanted his to hurt as hers was hurting now.
Don’t think, Chungcha told herself, and yanked her head sideways, flung Harry Washington far off into the Milky Way. She hurried to the spare room with her wine glass of water, sat down, sipped, and read: “No matter what you feel there is nothing to be done.”
Worthless, like a worm in the roadside—that is how Chungcha felt, a worm you passed at 80 kilometers per hour on your way to buy a hand-phone. Overcome with anger she wrote, “I want a divorce,” and without hesitation pressed enter. Chungcha imagined the word flashing through the air like a bolt of lightning to penetrate the room where Soonjae worked. The word she had used, divorce, was such a horrible word, a feared word. There might even be a bling announcing its arrival in Soonjae’s office.
Soonjae picked the boys up from their hagweon on his way home from work. He entered the apartment at the usual time. Chungcha had a pot of creamy chicken soup on the stove. What she had told him in the email seemed to have had no effect. Soonjae gave her a slight nod as always, then went to change out of his work clothes. The boys came to her. She squatted and hugged them. She kissed each one on the ear, sent them off to change clothes and wash hands. Chungcha prepared her family’s plates. They ate. They watched Korea’s Got Talent. One act featured two women acting like country bumpkins while lip-syncing to strange music, pretending to play instruments that were only just tennis rackets. The children laughed. Soonjae read from his technical journal. He looked smug on the couch.
In the morning Chungcha fried eggs. Chungcha prepared banchan of rice and spicy spinach and her special sausage and shrimp soup. After breakfast Chungcha’s mother came and took the children. Chungcha was alone in the apartment with her husband, at the round kitchen table where he was reading his journal. He was not dressed for work. His casual shorts and button down shirt lent him, deceptive though it was, a free easy look that Chungcha liked. Like this, he was sexy. She had always liked the way his hair in front curled around like a James Dean style, very cute on a Korean hairline. She had not planned what to say. As she sat there feeling like a moron it came to her: “No matter what you feel, there is nothing to be done.”
Soonjae set his journal down. He stared into her eyes. He said, “You must ask my father.”
“We don’t need your father’s permission.”
“Not we,” Soonjae said.
“You don’t love me,” Chungcha said.
Soonjae tilted his head and closed his eyes and sighed.
“I am trying to talk to you. Why won’t you talk to me? You never say anything!”
“I am trying to read,” Soonjae said.
“No, I want you to listen.”
“Why must you continue to insult me?”
“Do you really want to know? I don’t feel together with you.”
Soonjae made no indication that he’d heard. His gaze settled on her shoulder for a moment then returned to his journal.
“I am not ugly, you know?” Chungcha said to the table. She did not recognize this person talking to him, and there was no evidence that he respected her. He was concentrating on his article. He was very interested in his article. He smiled a little as he read his article. He nodded his head in agreement with what his article was saying.
Weeks passed before she visited Soonjae’s father who during his thirty years in the Navy reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Retired now, Ki Haju spent his days lighting incense, drinking wine, reading history books, conversing with the village elders, respecting his Buddha, clipping his fingernails, watering his plants. When Chungcha called to request a visit, it was clear to her that Soonjae had told his father nothing of her desire for the divorce.
Haju lived in a cottage north of the Apricot Flower Village. The drive from Jinju was forty minutes. Chungcha arrived early. She drove past his place and parked in a gravel lot by a red tent from which soju and smoked snacks were sold. The freeze of a nearby stream had begun to melt. When Chungcha switched off the engine she heard ice chunks hitting lightly against each other, and the smoke from the chimney of the makeshift shop seemed to be getting sucked down to meet with the new flow of the stream. Water and smoke became as one in a journey toward Gwangyang Bay.
Chungcha cracked the window. She closed her eyes. She breathed in, filling her lungs with the cold countryside air. She let it out through her mouth. Breathed in again. Held her breath, exhaled. She needed a calm bearing for her meeting with Haju. He was strict. His wife died after Soonjae was born. He had not tried to remarry. Soonjae, early in their relationship, and during one of his rare talkative moods, told her stories about his abboji. One involved a Japanese spy captured while trying to enter the country in Pohang. The spy was taken to a cliff overlooking the East Sea. A rope was secured to this man’s neck. The other end of the rope was tied to a tree. The rope was very long, and tied in such a way that should they push him over his head would snap off like a pod when the slack was drawn. The ilbun wonsoongi revealed his Korean connections. That’s when Haju shot the man in his knee. Haju kicked the man over the cliff, but the man’s head did not snap off as they had hoped. They pulled the man’s body up to save the rope. The man’s body was held together by a wrinkly tube. Haju turned his back on the man, at which point some petty soldiers swung him over the cliff. Whenever Chungcha thought of this horrible story, she imagined the long neck and the head at the end of it flinging around haphazardly as the poor man’s body, amongst seagulls and a setting sun, fell to the sharp rocks below.
She started the car. She drove to Haju’s cottage. At ten fifty-eight she pulled up his drive and parked under the frosted plum tree. She walked up the garden path, stepped up his steps. She knocked. An ajhumma opened for her. Chungcha bowed, stepped out of her heels in the foyer and followed the woman to where her father in-law was seated in a couch upholstered in golden fabric of ornate design. Chungcha remembered this couch from the last time she was here with his grandchildren. He appeared relaxed then. He appeared relaxed now, as if he had been meditating for the last hour and a half, his face dewy, void of tension. Chungcha bowed, lowered to her knees, paid her respects. As is often the case with elderly people of repute, Haju said, “No, no, don’t,” but he loved it and the more he protested, the more Chungcha insisted, which also was expected. When alas she rose to sit in the wicker butterfly chair across from her husband’s father, she listened. She held her body still as he spoke of his life, apologizing in stride for the ajhumma, but even old men need friends, don’t they? The woman was not his servant, he said, after which he paused. He focused his eyes on Chungcha. Through a barely perceptible rotation of his face he gave her to understand that she was allowed to speak.
“I want to divorce,” she said, and looked away.
She waited. He said nothing. After some minutes he cleared his throat. Chungcha took this as a sign. She raised her eyes to him.
Haju said, “Stand.”
“Put your hands on your head,” Haju said.
“Do you want my son to suffer?”
“How much are you willing to pay to see my son suffer?”
“I’ve paid,” she answered.
“Did you pay enough?”
“Quiet!” he shouted.
With her hands still on top of her head, Chungcha lowered onto her knees as he told her to do. He called in his friend, the ajhumma, who unzipped her dress in back. He left the room for a little bit. When he returned he told the ajhumma to leave. Once she was gone he paced the floor, then whipped her back with a length of fishing pole. She did not remove her hands from her head. Between strokes, he said: You used him to have your children! and Shameless! Bad! Paryomchihan!
Chungcha thought of the Japanese spy Haju shot in the knee. And of the boys. If the neighbors found out about a divorce, they would be horribly mistreated. “Is this what you want?” Haju asked her. Tears fell. Blood seeped from the cuts made by the metal eyeholes on the fishing pole. If she divorced his son, Haju said, she would be cursed by her forbears. He was old school, and believed in freewill. If she decided to divorce Soonjae, Haju was bound in principle to support her.
Harry Washington was divorced. Harry Washington was ilhonnam. She wanted to be ilhonnyo. Then they could be together as divorced people. Then he could make love to her in the middle of the day. There would be no reason to feel ashamed. People said black men were dirty. Chungcha wanted Harry’s dirt. He was younger by seven years. As Haju beat her, she imagined Harry Washington making her dirty. She thought of the neck. She thought of Harry. She thought of what it must feel like to be shot in the knee.
Chungcha drove back to Jinju. She continued her life. She was a housewife. Two weeks passed. She told Soonjae that his father agreed to the divorce—he’d left it up to her. Soonjae did not believe it. He called his father. His father told him to move out of the apartment immediately. Soonjae obeyed. Now on the weekends Chungcha’s mother visited the twins, freeing her up to spend time with Harry. She would go to his place and pull his wool socks off and squeeze his feet and kiss them. She was so happy. They drove to Busan and they drove to Gwangju where nobody knew them and they did not have to walk on opposite sides of the street. There they walked around holding hands, not caring who saw, let them.
And Harry was cute, with a large bottom lip with two very different colors on it, and a short streak of white in his hair. Whenever another woman looked at him for more than a few seconds, Chungcha glared at her, a habit Harry Washington took it as a sign of her passionate feelings. Harry encouraged her to get a job, which was a thing she hadn’t considered. What a great idea! She needed to be self-sufficient! When they weren’t together, Chungcha and Harry exchanged a lot of email!
Soonjae hacked Chungcha’s Gmail account. He read Harry’s letters. Though Soonjae’s English was poor, he discerned that Chungcha had been seeing Harry all along—the dates were there. Soonjae saw pictures Harry sent, like the one of himself bare-chested and glistening in a canoe in the middle of the Nakdong, a rainbow in the back. She had tried to position the rainbow so that it landed on Harry’s head, but the canoe would not stay still. They laughed so much on that day. On that day Harry did not say a single word about John Dewey, the dead philosopher that Chungcha had begun to hate. It was always John Dewey this, John Dewey that from Harry. According to Harry, the dead philosopher had written about manners in a way that even Koreans could appreciate. His thesis put forth the idea that a world steeped in the ethics of Dewey would be a more orderly place, a more peaceful place, a place, even, without war. It was driving him crazy, he said, because how could he expect to organize thoughts on manners in a country devoted exclusively to manners?
John Dewey sounded to her like a man with an impossible dream. The world could not be placed over a grid so that it could be understood through math. John Dewey seemed to think that emotions were less important than thoughts. All this she got through the mouth of Harry.
Chungcha wanted to remain friends with Soonjae. But they never had been friends. When the subject came up during one of their rare conversations regarding the divorce, Soonjae said that it was not normal for a man and wife to be friends. There was something wrong with her, he said, if she thought that not being friends with one’s husband was a good enough reason for divorce.
Soonjae became more vocal, using the word kkamdoongi in his regular speech whenever he picked up the boys. He was not happy, but seemed to have accepted the situation. He had done what his father told him to. But he spoke more to her now, more than before, mentioning small things about his work, or telling her of the buildings in his new neighborhood. Chungcha liked this, but he would not look at her. One day she said, “Soonjae, why don’t you look at me? Please look at me.” He said, “I can’t, I don’t know why. I just can’t. I have tried but I can’t.” But he looked at the boys. He spoke affectionately to the boys. In the past he spoke to them almost never.
Chungcha felt anxious. Her husband had read personal letters directed to her, ones with mentions of sex. Worse were the letters she sent Harry. She felt exposed. The magic that had sustained her for seven months had been yanked into the open. Seen in this light it looked very immature. Her feelings for Harry changed a little. She didn’t trust them. Had Harry ever said anything about them living together in some far off corner of the country where nobody knew them? And what of the boys? For the first time ever Chungcha didn’t know her own mind, but she saw Harry whenever she could. Through Harry’s encouragement she applied for a job as a curator’s assistant at the Imjinwaeran museum. How surprising that they took her! Chungcha had a degree in Library Science. They were impressed by her skills in English. Chungcha loved her new job.
While working at the museum Chungcha imagined her day of happiness. That’s all she desired. She needed it. She could feel it. It was close. Then she opened an email Harry sent. In it he explained that he did not like the setup—it had changed. He did not want to meet her children. He said she had presumed a lot. He said he had never wanted her to divorce her husband, especially not for him. He was not a reliable person—he said this about himself! He had always felt strange about dating a married woman, he wrote, and wrote that he had issues with his mother. He had never before, not until he met her, he said, been intimate with a woman who’d had children. He didn’t want to see her anymore. He suggested heavily that he was going to kill himself.
Chungcha drove to Baskin Robbins. She licked a pralines and cream and crunched on the sugar cone. Kkamdoongi, she thought. His letter was a suicide, you couldn’t get around it. He said he was unhappy with John Dewey. He had always been unhappy with John Dewey, but his professors in Boston wanted him to be their doll. He hated life, he said. She had given him a momentary sense of life and light and living, but he hated life. “I am depressed. When I was with you I hid it, but I have always been oo oolhan.” Harry did that, mixed English with Korean, spoke Konglanese, a real Konglanite, Harry.
From Baskin Robbins Chungcha drove to Harry’s. Chungcha looked through Harry’s window. Chungcha saw Harry’s worn out couch—they had snuggled on it. It was there, but his stuff was gone. All he’d left was the clamp lamp she bought for him at Lotte. That pissed her off. She suspected Harry of lying, of pretending suicide. Why else would he take his things? Wouldn’t he just hang himself? Was she such a fool that she could be lied to so easily? It was shitty to clear out this way, telling a story like that—“I’m going to commit suicide!”—not in those words, but he might as well have said it. Really? Why don’t you show me the body!
How it happened Chungcha could not say, for she was confused, her thoughts enveloped in white smoke. Just one day when the twins were in school Soonjae came over. He wanted to talk, a miracle! She let him in. He hugged her in the kitchen. “Liar,” he said, and squeezed her. Chungcha thought he’d gone crazy. He said “liar” five or six times while hugging her. She heard a sniffle. Chungcha put hands in his hair. She told him that the man he hated disappeared from the earth. A sob came out of him then. It was the first time she’d seen him express emotion like this, and his hands were feeling her. “My liar,” he said, and yanked her shorts down. He pressed her body against the sink. She did not look back. After awhile she tried to turn around to face him, but he wouldn’t let her.
Soonjae stayed after that. The divorce was not yet official. They were married still. Life became as it was before she’d heard Harry Washington’s name. Soonjae talked more. Soonjae listened more. Sometimes Soonjae pretended to listen. Chungcha knew it, she could tell. As for Harry Washington who killed himself, Chungcha thought not. Chungcha fried eggs for Soonjae. She did not think of The Bronx, or John Dewey. What a horrible sick man. How was it possible that she did not know this about him from the start, that moment when she first saw him in Starbuck’s? How could she have missed it? Haju had called her selfish, but Chungcha fried eggs for Soonjae. Soonjae ate every grain of rice and scrap from his plate.
About the author:
John Oliver Hodges lives in Brooklyn and spends his summers in South Korea. He has authored a collection of short stories entitled The Love Box, published by Livingston Press in 2013. His short stories have appeared in over eighty journals. As a graduate of the MFA program at Ole Miss, he teaches writing at Montclair State University and the Gotham Writers' Workshop.