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from the June–July 2019 issue

About My Daughter

In this excerpt from a novel by Kim Hye-jin, a struggling daughter moves back home and brings her lover, forcing her widowed mother to face facts.
 

The waitress brings out two steaming bowls of udon noodles. My daughter’s face seems a little tired, a little gaunt, and a little aged as she rummages through the utensils box for spoons and chopsticks.

Didn’t you get my text message, Mom? she asks me.

I did. I kept telling myself I should call you but then I forgot.

That’s what I say to her, but I’m lying. I had thought about her so hard all weekend that I’m exhausted. But here I am, sitting with my daughter, with nothing to show for it, not a single plan or solution.

Did you go somewhere this weekend?

I make up some nonexistent lunch with a person she might remember me mentioning before. She looks as if she’s about to ask another question but only says, Oh.

Then, perhaps trying to be polite, she adds: I mean, maybe you should go outside now and then? Lots of festivals and things going on.

I don’t know. I’m just so tired.

I pick out a long, thick noodle and slurp it down. I used to like eating dishes like this when I was young. Of my three meals a day, one was always some noodle dish. I still like noodles, but now it’s the digestion part that bothers me. Things sure aren’t what they used to be in that department. I end up having to rub my tummy, pacing in my bedroom, and getting in and out of bed to keep it down. That’s what it’s about, giving up the things you used to enjoy one by one; that’s aging.

A group of college students enter the restaurant. A bunch of office workers finished with their meal are crowding the cashier. Lots of laughing and loud talking. There are young people everywhere now. Here I sit, my face covered in wrinkles and liver spots, my hair thinning, my back bent. I don’t belong here. I keep thinking that someone is going to be hostile to me at any moment. My eyes keep darting left and right. My daughter is quickly emptying her udon bowl. I keep sinking deeper into worry. Should I say what I really want to say? Would it be all right if I did? Was it wrong to say it? Despite these questions, there is only one thing I’m really afraid of.

The clapback from my refusal.

I finally open my mouth: As you know . . .

As you know. Can there be a clearer sign of refusal? My daughter knows this. Her eyes momentarily tremble with disappointment.

I know. I know you can’t afford it, Mom.

She’s still looking at me as if waiting for me to say something more. I can’t handle the soaring cost of housing in this country, an upward spiral that doesn’t stop even in my sleep. But I’ve long been shut out from the game of capturing a ride on this cresting wave.

Yes. Well, you know that house is all I have.

One house among many in a tiny alley, bunched up against one another like a set of rotting teeth. A two-story house with joints that are wearing down, bones crumbling, the whole thing beginning to lean forward. Just like its owner. A house that has nothing to do with an outside world that confidently makes itself anew every day. That house is the only thing my husband left me. The only thing in my possession I have control and ownership over.

I know. I really do, mumbles my daughter as she stirs the bowl with her chopsticks. But I really don’t have any other choice. Who else can I talk to about this but my mother?

Her voice goes back and forth between acceptance and expectation. She says one more thing. A proposal. If I loan her the money, she’ll pay me interest every month. What she means is the two families living on the second floor, in units with torn linoleum, ceilings stained from leaks, and windows where wind, dust, and noise constantly seep through. She means I should evict them and take in tenants that can pay a jeonsae lump sum up front instead of a monthly rent. And to lend her the jeonsae money.

But evicting them is easier said than done. Only yesterday, the young newlywed on the second floor came down to complain about the ceiling leaking over her sink. She said I should hire a professional this time, not the old man I normally use. She said this as her face showed with a face that betrayed irritation, sympathy, embarrassment, and hesitation.

All right. Let me see what I can do.

That was my reply, but I didn’t have a solution then, either. I didn’t have the means to get it repaired. Neither does the newlywed, who often comes down to beg and complain.

My daughter taps her feet underneath the table. The heels of her sneakers have been worn down at a slant. The trouser ends of her jeans are coming apart, the threads dragging on the ground and filthy. Does she really not understand that it’s little things like this that determine a good first impression? Her poverty, her laziness, her insensitivity, her inattention to detail—why does she give herself away so easily? Why does she allow people to misjudge her? Dignity and neatness, uprightness and cleanliness, why is she so quick to dismiss these qualities? I hold back the things I want to say.

Mom, are you listening to me?

I put down my chopsticks, wipe my mouth, and look her in the eye. I suppose this inconvenience is what family really means. And I’m this girl’s last remaining family. If only because of the fact that I have this house.

All I could say to her is: All right. Let’s think of a way.

***

At some point, I stopped believing I could change things.

Even at this very moment, I feel that I’m being slowly pushed outside of time itself. If I want to change something, I have to be ready to make a colossal effort. And even if I make that effort, nothing really changes, for better or worse. The only thing you can do is accept the fact that everything that is you is your own fault. You made the choices that made the things that you are. That is the you of this moment. But most people realize this fact a little too late. Think of all the time they waste looking back to the past and forward into the future. Maybe regret is just for old people who don’t have a lot of time left.

I don’t know how to explain things like this. It’s difficult to understand something through words and not through your own experience. It might be especially difficult for my daughter, armed as she is with her youthful strength and headstrong attitude.

Mom, are you listening to me? Mom?

I nod to indicate that I am, indeed, listening to her, but I don’t look her in the eye. If I do as she says and change the rentals upstairs to jeonsae lump-sum depositors, how am I going to afford my monthly hospital bills, medicines, insurance, savings, and spending money? My daughter opens the creaking refrigerator door and pours herself a cup of cold water. It’s night but the air is still hot as ever. I swat away the mosquitos and turn the fan toward my daughter.

I’ll pay for the interest. I’ll give you an allowance. I’ll have more cash next semester when I teach more classes. I’m not going to ask you for money forever. I’m not a child.

I nod. But that doesn’t mean I consent. I’m just trying to be as understanding as I can of her situation. I don’t tell her to try to stand on her own two feet. I can’t say what my parents said to me, that I just have to keep working harder. I must not say that. I say something else.

Can’t you get your own loan for your down payment?

I hear loud talking outside the window accompanied by the noise of a passing motorbike. My daughter looks away from me as if irritated, inflating her cheeks with the cold water like a chipmunk’s. I go on.

I mean, they’re building all these subsidized rental units now. I know they’re a little farther out of the city, but isn’t it better to request one of those?

My daughter is unemployed. She works but is unemployed; it used to be one in ten, three in ten, but now it’s six or seven in ten. I already know such people are ineligible for subsidized rentals or bank loans for deposits.

But the fact that such people are the majority doesn’t make me feel better. It’s only shocking that my daughter should be one of these people. I keep feeling the same disappointment and guilt, every time I think of it. Maybe my daughter studied too much. Or I made her get too many degrees. Maybe she ended up learning to the point of learning what she didn’t need to learn, or what she shouldn’t have learned.

Like how to reject the world. Or how to be out of sync with reality.

Would I be here if I could do that? I’ve already looked into it, Mom. I have to be at work by 7:00 a.m. tomorrow. And I have to prepare for a morning class.

I hear a roar of laughter outside. Someone must have their television on. Anxiety, annoyance, and fatigue flare up on my daughter’s face.

Then sleep here tonight. You can go straight to work from here.

My daughter rubs her sleepy eyes. 

Mom, I’m really, really sorry, but this is the last time. The owner keeps asking me to decide before next week. I have no time to go look for something else anymore.

Why do her pleas sometimes sound like threats? Why is her teary-eyed expression always stronger than her being angry at me or shouting? Does my daughter know this? My daughter takes a call in the kitchen and I can hear her speak in a low voice. A friendly and soft voice. A secretive laugh. Her private life, which I try to ignore as much as I can.

She’s a money-sucking hippopotamus. My heart drops to the floor whenever she calls.

This was my late husband’s complaint about our daughter, but he was never so happy as when she came to see us. My daughter never talks about him anymore. Surviving from day to day is hard enough for her without having to look back.

I want to apologize to my daughter for the country’s increasing life expectancies. Maybe that will free me from this torture a bit. But no. There can never be an end to torture unless I lose this house, or die. Otherwise, I will never be free. I hear myself giving in.

Fine. I’ll go to the bank tomorrow and see what kind of loan I can get. I’ll use the house as collateral. And see how much the interest is.

Thanks, Mom.

At dawn, I creep into the room my daughter sleeps in and sit at the edge of her bed. I rub her white feet coming out of her pajama pants and stroke her leg. The healthy and strong body of a thirty-something. My daughter has no idea how wonderful it is to have such a thing.

When I was thirty, I married your father and gave birth to you the year after. I took a taxi by myself to the hospital the night you were born. It took fifteen days to contact your father, who was working in the middle of the desert. He had called me from a construction site in a faraway country. We decided your name then. I didn’t really like it, but I went along with it. Because I felt sorry for the man who had to go live in a lonely country to make our living. I wanted to give him the conviction that we were all within that single, tight fence of family.

I was thinking this when my daughter turned in her sleep. I looked up at the clock and steadied my breathing. I could let her sleep for a bit more.

At night, I would imagine as I held you that the house was growing around us. It felt as if a great silence was looking down at me, about to swallow me whole. This feeling was especially acute after the one or two times a year your father would come visit. You couldn’t recognize your own father until you were five. Whenever this man with the hairy legs and deep voice would approach you, you threw a tantrum. Then you would hide behind the sofa and peek out at him. And just when you got used to him enough to hold his hand, he had to leave us again, carrying luggage that was twice, three times your size.

I hear the sound of birds. The people on the second floor have opened their windows and are preparing to face the day. The young man in the single room is probably asleep, so the people busily moving about must be his next-door neighbors, the newlyweds. The sound of a child whining. The sound of a child being scolded.

What time is it?

My daughter’s eyes have cracked open. I tell her to get up, and I leave the room. I pour her a glass of milk at the sink and crack a couple of eggs into a frying pan. My daughter comes in and sits down at the table. The child that was so little and young. I’m imagining a time that my daughter doesn’t remember. Things from a long time ago. They’re still as vivid and fresh as ever to me. Like they happened yesterday.

My daughter breaks the yolk with her fork and sprinkles salt.

Why don’t you move in with me?

My suggestion is sudden. My daughter eats her egg as if she hadn’t heard me. Then she starts gathering up her yellow manila envelope and bundles of printouts.

I’ll discuss it. I can’t decide that on my own.

To avoid further discussion on the subject, I quickly go to the sink and turn on the water to full blast, pushing in the empty dishes and cups on the counter. The dishes clash irritatingly against one another.

My daughter doesn’t finish her milk as she gets up.

Anyway, Mom, please go to the bank. And tell me how it goes. I’ll wait.

I hear the sound of the front door slamming and the following words come out of my mouth.

That goddamn bitch.

***

My daughter emerged from my own life. She lived for a while under unconditional affection and care. But now she acts like she doesn’t have anything to do with me. She acts like she grew up on her own. She decides and judges everything on her own, and at some point began to inform me of her decisions instead of talking them out with me. Sometimes, she doesn’t do even do that. There are things that she doesn’t tell me but I know regardless. Things that flow between us every day, silent but clear as the blue sky.

She calls me that evening.

You didn’t call, Mom. Did you go to the bank or not?

I had just left work. I try to explain to her about credit lines, variable interest rates, and periods of deferment. This is why this is hard, that is why that is hard—I try to convey what the loan officer had explained to me that morning.

Oh. OK.

My ear burns hot against my cell phone. I keep getting distracted by the conversations of the people who have come out to this flashy street to avoid their overheated apartments. Young people wasting their vast reserves of time. I’m distracted by the sheer waste of their fresh, youthful evening on this heated pavement. I make a resigned suggestion.

Come live with me for a while.

Would that really be OK?

 Of course. You’re my daughter. Of course it’s OK, if it’s you.

I try to draw a line. My daughter realizes I am saying I will not accept anyone except her. She tries to say something to me. Her voice is low and calm.

Mom. OK. Then we’ll move in with you together. It’s really for just a short time. Just until we get some money together. We’ll pay taxes and rent and everything. Don’t worry about that. I have to go. I have another class to teach. Bye.

We? I couldn’t get a single word in before she hung up. I keep pressing the buttons on my screen, slippery from my own sweat, but she doesn’t answer.

***

When I return from work in the evening, I see a car parked out front. A small red car that looks as if it would burst if it held more than two people. The front gate of the house is half-open. As if unsure to be open or closed.

I push open the gate and see someone at the front door hastily get up. Because of a porchlight behind her, the person I’m seeing is like a dark void.

Good evening, ma’am.

It’s that child. Taller and more slender than my daughter. Small, pale face. Like a white foreigner: long limbs, small head. 

Green says she’s going to be late because of work. She told me to go on ahead. I got the key from her. But it didn’t feel right to just barge in.

The child stands, looking as if she isn’t sure what expression to make, what posture to take, or what words to say. I slam the front gate shut, walk up the three steps to the front door, and open it.

Leave your things outside.

I still haven’t decided what to do. I’m not ready to take into my house someone I don’t know anything about and don’t want to know anything about. Or I should say, I’ve decided long ago. I can’t change that. I can’t bring someone like that child into my house. I manage to say something else instead. 

Come in for a spell.

It helps to remind myself that this is someone who helped my daughter move her things on such a hot and humid day. I bring her a glass of ice water and put it on the table before her. The ice cubes bump into each other in the glass, making loud clinking sounds. She’s wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and looks three or four years younger than my daughter. Her bangs are soaked from sweat and plastered on her forehead. Where did my daughter meet someone like her? How did it go so wrong with my daughter when everyone else is busy choosing a healthy and financially responsible husband?

Is that all your stuff?

We threw away our bookshelf because it was too old. We threw away almost all of our clothes and books. The refrigerator and washing machine came with the apartment so we left them there.

We don’t make eye contact as we mumble through our conversation. We run out of things to say and a heavy silence falls over us. I’m awash in a wave of fatigue. My eyes keep closing. I let them close and sit in silence. Tick tock tick tock. The second hand of the clock grows louder and louder.

I remember the time when we first met.

Who are you? I had asked. Did you hear me? Who are you?

My voice becomes louder. The child, leaning against the wall at the entrance to the hospital room, stands up straight, surprised. She tells me her name and explains why she’s here. The only thing I want from this stupid game of knowing each other but pretending not to is a promise. That she would never come see my daughter again, no matter what.

Thank you, but you don’t need to be here. This concerns only the family.

Having erected the high wall of family, I push her out of the ward. She nods as if to agree but doesn’t leave right away.

I only came because Green told me she was worried about him.

Green. I don’t like the way she calls my daughter that. Their ridiculous nicknames overwriting the perfectly good names their parents gave them. Her T-shirt is soaking wet. She must’ve been helping my bedridden husband. Despite this, I can’t bring myself to thank her.

Have a good day. Please don’t go through so much trouble next time.

I close the door in her face. Through the frosted glass, I see her silhouette hesitating in the corridor. I keep my anxious eyes on it. Presently, the door opens, and the child comes in again and picks up her bag on a windowsill. She tells me that my husband had two bananas and a yogurt an hour ago. I adjust the humidifier and use my palm to noisily wipe the chair she would’ve sat on. She leaves the room without a word of thanks or goodbye from me. There are a banana and yogurt on the side table. I toss them in the trash. This is not a dream. This is a memory.

That child, who is clearly my daughter’s partner.

That was already five years ago. Or three. I can’t quite remember. She came back to the hospital often enough. On the days she bumped into me, she would wordlessly pick up her bag and leave. On other days, she kept vigil by my husband’s bed either alone or with my daughter. The day we installed his cremated remains in the cemetery, she stood next to my daughter, right where I could see her.

That child. She sits before me now.

What are you doing for work these days?

Of course, it’s me who couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

I’m learning to cook. I work at a small restaurant. I write articles once in a while. And take pictures.

I can scarcely breathe. Surely not just because of the stuffy air in the room. Pretending to be hot, I open the window and turn on a fan.

Articles?

Just publicity, ma’am. Little snippets, restaurant recommendations.

Damp air rolls into the room, heralding a rainstorm.

Don’t you have any fixed income? How do you pay rent and expenses?

Her eyes, so reluctant to meet my gaze, finally connect with mine. Hesitation, as if trying to determine whether she should answer or not. Straining to find the right words. She then digs through her bag and takes out a book. The photo on the cover is full of brightly colored dishes and fresh cooking materials. She turns to the first page, writes on it, and places it before me.

To Green’s mother.

The page she has it opened to is filled with the names of the book’s authors. The letters are so tiny they’re like scattered grains of rice. I squint as I look for her name and biographical information.

Green said she had got your permission, which is the only reason I came. I’m sorry . . .

Look, my daughter’s name isn’t Green.

The child looks up at me.

I know. I’m just so used to calling her that.

I close the book and push it back to her.

She speaks again.

Green and I both put our money down for the jeonsae deposit for that house. And last year, Green said she really needed the money for something, so she took out the jeonsae deposit and switched it to a monthly rental. I really didn’t have a choice. If there was any other way, I wouldn’t be here now.

My mind is foggy with questions that rise up like smoke. Until this moment, I had no idea how they came to live in their last house. I had no idea how much they each paid into it or how they covered their expenses. I do know it includes a nest egg I’ve given to my daughter. I’d contributed to their living together, in other words. I don’t ask why my daughter borrowed the money or how much it was. I want to make it clear that I have no intention of assuming responsibility for such a thing.

Please, I’m not blaming Green. We’re going to find a way to be together no matter what. Even if it means getting rid of all those things outside.

When she gets up to leave, the sky rips into a squall. I can hear the children living upstairs shout for their mother.

Fine, I say to her as she puts on her shoes in the foyer. Let’s bring your things in. At least stay here until the rain stops.

The child doesn’t say anything as she grabs her bags in the middle of our yard and brings them in. She seems enraged and relieved at the same time. She’s soaked within seconds. I find her a dry towel.

Foolishly borrowing someone else’s money when you can’t even pay it back.

My daughter’s mistake is my own as well. That’s one thought. Another is that they’re both adults over thirty, they ought to figure things out on their own. All sorts of different thoughts noisily clash in my mind.

My migraine stretches its arms and gets up from its bed.

***

These kids could be just clever, fancy thugs. They might teach you how to be one in college, encouraging you to use something stronger than fists. Which is why you get victims like me, clueless as to whether she was robbed until it’s too late.

Would you like some coffee?

I have to bump into that child in the kitchen every morning. Her nickname is Rain. Not that I have ever called her that out loud.

I think it would be a good idea if we saw as little as possible of each other. Especially in the morning.

That was the first thing I said to her since agreeing to let her stay. That was a few days ago, right in this spot. The kitchen had been dreamlike with the toasted smell of coffee. She looked at me for a moment before concentrating again on pouring the hot water over the grounds. It took her a while to pour enough for two mugs. She set one down on the table.

I have to go to work by ten, so this is when I get up. And I have to have my coffee in the morning. As you know, I pay my share of the rent and expenses. We’ve even given you four months of rent in advance. I understand it’s an inconvenience for you, so we’ll be as careful as possible. But I think you should know that we have rights, too.

What really silenced me wasn’t this bold statement or her bad manners. It was the fact that she had a point. I had nothing to say to that.

When she left the kitchen, I practically ran back to my room. I sat on the edge of my bed and thought about what she said. Rent, expenses, rights, money that I received in exchange for my entitlement as a parent. The shame and insult that made my heart pound. The spaces in which I can feel safe keep shrinking, like a piece of paper folded in half and again in half. Then, eventually, they’ll see I’ve disappeared altogether. But I’m not the one disappearing, it’s the ground I stand on. Not that they’ll realize even that.

After that morning I stopped eating breakfast. 

Sometimes, I don’t remember why I’m in the kitchen. Until the child offers me coffee and apple slices. Then goes back to reading whatever is on her sheets of paper.

I know what they talk about at night. The things they say when they think I’m sleeping (or when they’re treating me like I don’t exist), as they sit on the sofa in the living room, talking in low voices. Clinking together cups that I’m sure contain beer.

Shall we go up there again? asks my daughter.

Let’s wait a bit longer.

What do you think of what that asshole said? Domestic dispute. Telling us to mind our own business. What an asshole! No one said anything about him, even those cops! When they knew what was going on. They think the way to solve something is to ignore it. How dare he say we should shut up.

They’re talking about the man on the second floor. The couple upstairs began fighting early in the evening, and soon it got so loud that we could hear every word. I told her it was nothing, but my daughter shook me off and went upstairs. The child went up after her.

Who the hell are you! Shut the door! Get out!

I came out to the yard when I heard the man shouting. I called up to the second floor.

She’s my daughter! I’ll tell her to come down. And please don’t shout so much when everyone else is so quiet. Dear, come downstairs now.

There was a brief silence.

Look, young lady, this is a domestic dispute. It’s none of your goddamn business. 

I could hear the barely contained rage in his voice. My daughter jumped right back in. 

Sir, your children are watching. This goes way beyond being a domestic dispute, hitting people is a crime! Domestic violence is against the law! Someone, please call the police! Don’t just stand around looking, call the police! All of you! Do something for once!

The police took a long time coming. The police car flashed its lights and woke up the whole neighborhood while my daughter got into yet another argument with the police. She really lost it when they told her that they didn’t want to intervene in a domestic dispute and that the children’s mother did not want to press charges.

What kind of a person would want to press charges when the perpetrator is standing right in front of her? Don’t just stand there with your hands tied, do something! At least pretend to find out what happened, goddammit!

This is a small neighborhood. I really wish they wouldn’t attract attention to themselves like this. I really wish they could just ignore what was going on with that married couple and their kids. Those two, they have no idea how hard it is to be married and have a family. They’re not even ashamed of not knowing. They’re not even thinking who should really be ashamed here. I caught a glimpse of the crowd gathering outside our gate and went back to my room, shut the door, and lay down.

And after all that hullaballoo, there they sat drilling into my fragile sleep with their whispering voices.

It’s easy to just ignore it. So easy. All you have to do is say you didn’t know.

Right? God, I hate people. People are the worst. That couple should know better, but they don’t. Couldn’t they hear their own kids crying? Couldn’t they dial it down, just for the sake of the kids? And what’s up with the people in this neighborhood? Do they think it’s all a soap opera or something? They’re listening, they know what’s going on. God, these people.

Lower your voice. You’ll wake your mother.

My daughter’s voice is heated, and the child’s voice is somewhat cool. What’s cool settles, what’s hot rises. Two arcs forming a circle. If mixed, they just might reach the right temperature.

What on earth do they think this world is about? Do they really believe it’s something grand and wonderful like something out of a book? That it’s something that can be easily turned over if only a few people got together and lifted it together?

I hear a cell phone alarm go off. My daughter appears in the kitchen.

I’m the last to get up again. Hey Mom, are you leaving already? This early? What the hell, you guys had coffee together without me.

My daughter gives me a look before giving the child a one-armed hug around her shoulders. I instinctively look away and try not to seem disgusted.

I’m going to church before work, I say, taking calming breaths. Don’t mind me. 

Like an idiot, I’m talking to the fridge.

My daughter sits down at the table, hugging one of her knees, grumbling about something.

I’ve never missed church, except when I’m sick.

I say this resolutely but it’s a lie. I turn my back on my daughter who is fiddling with the toes of the leg she is hugging. I leave the kitchen. When I’m putting on my shoes in the foyer, the child comes up to me and hands me a large thermos and a little medicine case.

This is coffee. And this is for your medicine. The lids have different days of the week on them. So you can keep track.

She must’ve noticed me mumbling about whether I’ve had my pills or not. Cornered, I take the things without a word and leave the house. The thermos has a nice solid feel and beautiful color. So does the plastic medicine case with its different compartments. I wipe them down with my handkerchief as I walk to church. They’re too good to throw away. If I do, I’ll have to get new ones, anyway.

There’s a group of people standing outside the church and talking. I wait for them to go in before entering.

***

I hear your daughter moved in! How nice.

Despite my hiding in the back pews, there are always people who find me out.

How lovely! Your daughter must’ve got them for you.

They immediately ferret out any little changes. There I sit, holding a long and shining thermos instead of a plastic water bottle. And my small and light umbrella, my cute little handbag. My brooch with the lace flowers. My cell phone with its wallpaper, a photo of me and my daughter.

Your daughter is a college professor, right?

Really? What a good job you did raising her. What a blessing. There’s no greater blessing than a child’s success.

You do know that the deaconess here used to be a teacher herself. She spared no expense educating her daughter. But isn’t it worth it, to have such a return on investment.

It’s like someone pressed a button and they can’t stop talking, exaggerating the facts of my life. Have they read my mind and realized I wasn’t really here to pray? Were they trying to prevent me from putting my hands together, closing my eyes, and lamenting to the Lord, asking why he gave me such a great burden?

I almost blurt out that my daughter fills her heavy bags with books and printouts filled with bizarre words, setting off across the country like an itinerant salesman. That she’s a pitiful girl who eats a meal in her tiny car after class, takes a cramped nap, and comes back home to immerse herself in books and writing again until she falls asleep. These unspoken words pound me in the chest like an assault. And now here she was, paying me a rent that was more of a bribe, having barged in with some strange girl and shaming her parents. The words are about to leak out of my mouth.

Amid their chatter, I sneak a look at the altar.

When I learned that the person my daughter wrote letters to and talked to on the phone every night was a girl, I left her alone. Because that kind of thing happens among young girls. When she entered college and started living on her own, I detected something strange but tried my hardest to ignore the signs, to stay away. Maybe that’s when my daughter became so distanced from me that I couldn’t do anything about it later on. Maybe, like a fool, I had lost the chance to do something about it.

All I did back then was to sit here where I could see the altar and guard my silence, carefully getting a handle on the words that the other people sitting here might overhear. Words I wanted to say, that I couldn’t say, that I shouldn’t say. Now words had no meaning for me. Who could I say these words to? Who would listen? Words I couldn’t say or listen to. Words that belong to no one.
 

From 딸에 대하여 ("About My Daughter"). © 2017 by 김혜진 (Hyejin Kim). First published in Korea in 2017 by Minumsa Publishing Co., Ltd. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved. 

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