BY: CHRISTY KIM
She thinks, as her fingers tremble around the cigarette and feels Dong-hee’s scrutiny, that in that moment, no one could’ve possibly hated her more than herself.
Dive straight into the lz, fix that blackbox, fatigued in fatigues and passing around pills that’ll do the magic, keep you up and awake for an enemy that never shows – all that’s just talk. No amount of talking can – although there’s a sick fascination with it, yes? That he’ll become a man, finally see what that ruckus is about but becoming a man can’t be this utter bewilderment, can’t be hopping into a trap with fancy promises and all that jazz for Queen and Country, what they don’t tell you is that he’ll feel it after, when the adrenaline subsides from a flood to a roar.
He’ll tell others afterward that he felt sick, nauseous, etc. Words. In that moment, though, it’s indescribable, something that can never be put into words and therefore can’t be crossed by another person and he becomes his own island. Each of them, like the kid next to him crouching over his calf-less kneecap with belabored breaths, realizes what kind of searing lobotomy they’ve performed upon themselves, to imagine that they could commit an act and still live in the same skin, knowing how to act and breathe.
Now he knows why they swear, under their breath, “ohJesusohJesus pleaseletmelive.”
Someone rounds the corner in the middle of her exhale. Eun-Ji’s posture straightens when she identifies it as Dong-hee’s. She quirks an eyebrow when Dong-hee casts a glance at the teacher’s windows barely around the corner, aiming to share a silent laugh. Eun-Ji withholds her smile and waits for Dong-hee to come around. She won’t be easy. After Dong-hee shifts in discomfort, Eun-Ji lifts the cig in a casual offer.
Dong-hee, smart girl, doesn’t jump for a smoke – some kids made that mistake, for their first taste, and Eun-Ji had laughed at them afterward with Minwhan and Saeyon – nor does she recoil. Instead she casually bats, “You know I’m not here for that.”
Eun Ji shrugs a shoulder and says, “We want more time.”
Dong-hee slyly peers at her to say, “It can’t be you. Everyone knows you’re the most talented, prepared singer around here.”
“Wanna butter up my throat, too?”
Dong-hee snorts despite herself. “Well, if Minwhan can’t hurry up then some other group plays.”
Eun Ji prevents her body posture from freezing into shock, but Dong-hee might’ve caught her eyes widen for she grins. “Later.”
She waits for Dong-hee to disappear around the corner before she withdraws one deep drag from her cigarette and hears Minwhan’s breath caught in his throat, the first time when he whispered that she sounded like a songbird and why didn’t everyone know? And she’d thought, but my ex-friends at church knew how I sing and they told me to please be quiet; I sound like a strangled bird.
Not man enough, he’d sometimes roar. Too foreign, is this his own boy? Flay into all of those loose limbs and unnatural ears and skin dark like those people strewn across the blast zone. Pretend, too, that they aren’t his wife’s hands wrenching him away, because she’s supposed to be on his side to understand, why won’t anyone understand, will he be misunderstood forever?
It’s night in Daechi-dong. The older men with their pot bellies slink out of the woodwork and gravitate to the stink of meat and beer. Eun-Ji and her band – hers, she though viciously – have also staggered their way towards a restaurant, working off the practice-induced delirium. She crosses her fingers and hopes that for every incriminating glance, she had batted her eyelashes coyly enough and forced out her voice just so, played that act of the debutante lead singer well enough that all of her idiot boys couldn’t help but give in.
Minwhan had winced today, but from more than the news of the subtly veiled threat. Eun-Ji saw it in his minced walk and to alleviate his mood she mentions the bunch of geeky-dressed girls that had been walking out of the studio when they arrived for their reservation.
“Hmph. Did you see that white fat girl? Bet they haven’t played at a real venue yet.” She snorts. “Foreigners.”
Oddly, Minwhan seems to seize up at the last part.
“Come on, Minwhan,” Guntae says, jarring his elbow, “You know Eun-Ji’s trying to loosen you up.”
“I don’t understand,” Minwhan rasps, “Why Eun-Ji crits us so when no one’s allowed to crit her voice.”
The barbecue’s sizzling drowns in the silence. Saeyon and Guntae exchange glances over the table, jarred by the change in dynamic.
“You saying something about my technique?” She tries to sound arch and amused, but Minwhan seems strangely upset.
“We agreed not to amp up on the smoking. You’ve been smoking twice, thrice the recommended amount of cigs and sometimes your voice croaks-”
Minhwan plows on, ignoring Saeyon, “And it doesn’t matter how good your technique is when you’re starting to sound like a frog, doesn’t it?”
Eun-Ji retorts, “Don’t you dare try to blame the extension needed for practice on me, you know that Dong-hee knew that you or whatever you get up to your spare time was holding us back-”
She hears a slap before she feels it.
Guntae rubs her arm and guides her away from the table, but not before she notices Minhwan curling up on himself, his horrified expression as unsightly as the bruises briefly revealed by his sleeves rucked upward.
“Minhwan didn’t mean it.”
She glares at Gun-tae, and he says, “Eun-ji, darling, please don’t cry,” which exacerbates her self-loathing for crying and makes her sobs gaspier: she’d promised herself that she’d stop crying after that last time when people teased her voice. She hears a barely audible, “Oh God I can’t handle crying girls, he’sgonnakillme” before he says, “Minhwan’s been having a hard time. At home. Dad thinks he’s a bastard or something.”
Her tears cease somewhat, winded by the information.
“You know his dad, back from the war. His mother – you should hear it from him, but he’s. It’s hard.”
“But he shouldn’t have taken it out on me!” She sobs harder, and Gun-tae nods his agreement and gives an arm-hug. Offers her a cig, which elicits fiercer sobs and she pushes it away.
Eun-Ji remembers the pivotal point when her unanswered questions ceased inspiring and became frustrating.
“If the battle’s been won, why do we still have to fight? If we were redeemed, why do we still need to overcome? Why is everything so hard?”
A look of unease passed over her so-called close church buddy. “I don’t know, Eun-Ji, I don’t know.”
Dong-hee watches her warily as the venue finishes. “Come, there’s someone I want you to meet. A good friend of mine.”
The performance must’ve been really mediocre when no one wants to joke about it. Bitterness soaks her memory of the performance, strips it of its glam lights: without her music, she is nothing.
What she sees makes her stop. It’s the youth pastor. Of her former church. As a patron of a bar. She’s caught mid-drag, and glee wars with caution. She searches for a glint of recognition and reminds herself that she’s a far cry from a measly, tinny-voiced girl with a bowlcut who smiled too little and tagged along too much.
She raises her so-called potent eyebrow to convey her idea of friend, when the man says, “Eun-Ji! Good to see you. Many of your friends miss you.”
The eyebrow goes up again.
“You at a bar? Aren’t you s’posed to be, dunno, righteous?” She finishes her drag when it seems like the man won’t stop with that half-pitying, half-inscrutable stare.
“You used to be good at your theory.”
That draws her up short. She didn’t think people like him noticed. “Hmph, stopped caring. I see a hecka lotta people who need saving, and they sure aren’t.”
Maybe she sounded too flippant over the saving; her throat catches the same way it did when she heard it recorded, and she grasps that maybe yes, the huskiness might be fading into croakiness.
“Look, I’m not even worth your time. Go bother someone else.” She turns her eyes, the cherry drooping in what seems like covert shame, but the pastor comes around again, in her field of vision.
“You’re worth it.”
Pause. A squeak of an amp signals the start of the next set.
“The smoking. Do you wanna stop?”
“Yes.” The answer is unexpected. “No, yes, I don’t know. I know that I can’t. I can’t.”
“You care, but you can’t.”
It’s a close call to cursing the pastor for stripping her raw and ugly, but she walks away, flinging over her shoulder, “If you save Minwhan, then I’ll believe.”
A few hours later, a teary and terrified man lapses out of a dream and stumbles to the kitchen to run into Minwhan’s collapsed form on the sofa. When his son – strange, did he miss the transition from babyish eyes to almost-fey eyelashes? – jerks awake and freezes, as if he’ll secure his fate as prey by running away, the man clutches the worn fabric instead.
Odd. The boy smells like the smoke in one of the rare lulls, with his men, laughing and exchanging dirty songs around the torchlight. Reluctant warmth embraces a shoulder, and the boy hums a soft melody. It coaxes him to sleep.
“Dong-hee, who’s the Minwhan she was talking about?”
“I see him at school, could bring him to church. She hasn’t repented yet?”
The pastor sighs at her impatience. “It will take time. Let’s pray, once again.”
Their hands clasped in prayer. A switch flicked, unseen, in another part of that web that they glimpsed through Eun-Ji to continue the cascade of events flickering in and out of their respective spheres.