Taking the Wheel

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byJo Woori
My Girl and Girl Friends
Tr. Soeun Seo

Geumja was not what I expected. Her pixie hair was bleached blond in patches, she wore red skinny jeans and a white button-down shirt that emphasized the sharp curve of her waistline. Her accent made her Korean a bit unusual but it wasn’t as awkward as she said it was. She casually held out a hand. Cheon Geumja. A forty-year-old Chinese-born Korean who was good at cooking, enjoyed drinking alone, and liked flashy fashion. I erased the woman I had in mind before I met her and shook her hand.

“Let’s bring it on.”

We exchanged solemn glances as if we were about to speed down the autobahn. Mom laced her fingers to flex her wrists, Geumja did a full-body stretch, and I took a deep breath. The receptionist handed us the paperwork we needed to sign.

“Your license number, issue date, and length of actual driving experience, please.”

Mom and my licenses had been dormant for twenty-five and seven years, respectively. As for Geumja:

“I got mine last week.”

Geumja decided to get her driver’s license because of Mr. Choi at the employment agency. When they had to travel somewhere without public transportation or when they needed to bring in large cleaning equipment, they had to get in Mr. Choi’s van. He was so sensitive to sound that he would get annoyed by the unwrapping of a single candy. He would often get worked up by whispered conversations and faint laughs. He was especially cold towards Geumja. Even when she asked work-related questions like “How long till we get there?” or “Should we have brought a steam vacuum?” which wasn’t even small talk, he tsked and ignored her. If Geumja’s phone so much as vibrated, he turned around sharply to glare at her.

Mom found out about Mr. Choi’s mistreatment of Geumja much later. The air freshener in his car made her woozy so she had been traveling alone even if it was a little inconvenient or a little pricey. But that day, it rained heavily. They had promised to go eat clam kalguksu after they got their checks at the office, so Mom pinched her nose and hopped into Mr. Choi’s van. That’s when she found out that Geumja avoided speaking in front of strangers because of Mr. Choi. He stayed silent when Mom said, “Look at all this traffic. It’ll be well past dinner time when we get to the office,” but at Geumja’s short reply, “Looks like it,” he took in a forceful breath through his teeth. When Mom asked, “Do you like clam kalguksu? They have great seafood jeon, too,” and Geumja nodded, “I like it,” Mr. Choi rolled down the window and spat. It annoyed Mom to see Geumja correct her posture. “What the fuck is his problem?” She meant to say it in her head but it bolted out of her mouth.

“It was raining so hard and he just left us in the middle of the road. We didn’t even have umbrellas.”

Mom and Geumja were determined to drive. Mr. Choi’s van wasn’t even his, it belonged to the employment agency.

“Whatever, fuck him. We’ll get around on our own.”

“You did great. Go for it.”

Nodding, I cut away at the pork ribs on the grill with scissors and tongs. It was lunchtime when we finished registering at the driving school. Geumja suggested pork ribs to fuel our driving with meat. Mom and Geumja had some bokbunja wine and I had a Sprite. In the restaurant, everyone else was having the lunch specials, short rib soup or leaf wrap sets. Ours was the only table puffing up smoke from pork ribs on the grill. I liked that. Somehow, it was exciting.

“Why did you decide to drive, Yoonju?”

“I didn’t want to be alone.”

The truth came out of nowhere. I could’ve just said it was for work. I glanced at Mom. Luckily, she was busy making a wrap with red lettuce, a perilla leaf, and even water parsley.

“For me, it’s the opposite,” Geumja added after a glass of bokbunja wine. “If I can drive, I can really be alone.”

A server switched out the blackened grill. We waited for the new grill to heat up, then laid out the meat. Chhhh—white smoke bloomed from the sizzling meat.

“I don’t get a lot of chances to really be alone.”

Geumja continued, “And you, Yoonju . . . ” but stopped herself and looked at me. She must’ve picked up on how self-conscious I was around Mom. I always wanted to show Mom that I was doing well and only well. That I didn’t have worries that kept me up at night, concerns that weighed heavy on my heart, stress that suffocated me. That I only had trivial issues that would naturally resolve themselves over time. That I bickered with Sangmi about something petty, grew sour, and just hugged it out. There was no way Mom didn’t know this but I wanted to act like she didn’t anyway.

“Unni, have a drink.”

Geumja held up a glass. Mom poured into Geumja’s glass and Geumja poured into Mom’s. I held up my own glass of Sprite. The glasses made a clear sound as they clinked.

The driving instructor was a white-haired man. We met him early in the morning at the parking lot of the driving school. His hair was neatly combed back with pomade and he wore a well-ironed blue button-down, grey dress pants, and even white cotton gloves. I liked him. A properly dressed professional inspires trust.

“Good morning, students. I look forward to working with you today.”

He gave a polite bow of his neck. He outlined today’s route for us. We would exit the school and drive around downtown, enter Olympic Expressway, join Misa Road all the way to Paldang Dam and back. I took the driver’s seat for the first leg.

“As you may know, training cars have dual brake pedals so don’t be anxious and drive calmly.”

Mom replied for me.

“Please take good care of my daughter and my little sister.”

Through the rear-view mirror, I could see Mom putting a hand around Geumja’s shoulders.

Recalling Sangmi’s movements, I adjusted the seat’s position and tilt angle, and the rearview and side mirrors. I buckled my seatbelt and released the hand brake. The instructor complimented me for the perfect setup. When I took my foot off the brake pedal, the wheels slowly started to turn.

Thankfully, downtown wasn’t crowded at all. I missed the turns onto Olympic Expressway so I had to make two U-turns but we made it safely to Misa Road. The instructor assured me that as long as I got a feel for the difference between the road and the car’s width, I’d be fine at driving.

“You keep sticking to the left but that’s only because you haven’t had enough practice. It scares you. You’ve got the basics down so you’ll get used to it soon.”

The late fall cosmos were in full bloom by the roadside on the way to the restaurant. Mom was giddy, saying it was like we were on a picnic. We had decided to have lunch at a leaf wrap spot recommended by the instructor.

There was a small garden at the restaurant’s entrance. An arched stone bridge hung over the artificial pond where red-and-black speckled koi fish waded about leisurely. Mom pulled on Geumja’s hand for a photo on the stone bridge.

“The daughter should be in the picture, too.”

The instructor took my phone. Standing between Mom and Geumja, I awkwardly made a “V” sign with my hand. Mom and Geumja posed effortlessly. Photos are the only things that last, they said, and fluttered about the entire garden, making a background out of all the flowers and every sculpture among them. The instructor humored them with dozens of shots.

The leaf wraps were good. Fresh greens were piled high in a basket and the gangdoenjang was generously filled with snails and pumpkin. The instructor meant to grab a table on his own but Mom insisted that he sit with us. The potato jeon was so good Mom asked for a refill twice. Geumja seemed to enjoy it too, as her rice bowl was soon emptied.

“Auntie, some water?”

Geumja held out her cup without reply. Only then did I realize that Geumja had been quiet this whole time. I remembered Mom saying that she saves her breath from the start to avoid getting picked on.

It wasn’t unusual for me to call Mom’s friends “aunties.” I had many aunties who weren’t blood relations, and “auntie” was just a word I used to express my intimacy with them. But this wasn’t the only reason I called Geumja “auntie.” Geumja must have known as well as I did. I filled her cup to the brim with cold barley tea. She spoke.


We went for dessert at a coffee shop near the lake. It was Mom’s turn to drive.

“I’m nervous,” she said as she put on her seatbelt.

“Just be calm. I’m right beside you, don’t worry.”

The instructor asked Mom if the side mirrors were all right, whether the steering wheel wasn’t too close. He suggested that we go around the parking lot a few times until she got used to it. Watching them from the back seat, I thought it’d be nice for Mom to date. For her to have someone to ask her, “Are you okay?”

Mom went heavy on the brakes but successfully made it to the coffee shop. It was a whole five-story building on top of a low hill that looked down on Paldang Dam. It was crowded for a weekday afternoon but there were plenty of seats so it didn’t feel too cramped.

The instructor wanted to walk off the lunch and asked to meet up again in an hour. There were white parasols and sunbeds on the coffee shop’s rooftop. Mom and I each lay down on a sunbed and Geumja leaned on the railing, looking down at Paldang Dam. The sun wasn’t too hot and there was a cool breeze. It was as if we were at a resort. Even if we couldn’t take a trip to another country, it would be nice to go to Jeju Island, at least. Go for drives and get a good rest, eat sashimi, look at the sea at night. I’ve never spent time with Mom like that. The car racing down a beachside road, Mom laughing gleefully, and me, watching her. And Sangmi in the driver’s seat. In this fleeting daydream I sat myself in the driver’s seat instead of Sangmi. The combination of Mom and Sangmi side by side in the back was so awkward it made me laugh just thinking about it.

“It’s really nice,” Geumja said, looking into the distance.

I decided to invite Geumja on my imagined drive. We’d take turns at the wheel and take a long drive down the road. It seemed like a pretty good idea.

The day we had pork ribs, Mom paused in front of the coffee vending machine at the entrance. She asked if I had 300 won. I rummaged through my bag but came up with only two 100-won coins.

“We need 300 won. There’s three of us.”

Drunk, Mom checked her pockets again and again as if she was certain there was a 100 won she missed.

“I’m good.”

“You’re not having coffee?”

“I don’t drink that kind of coffee.”

Geumja’s “that kind of coffee” was the instant kind that restaurants provide to its customers for 100 won.

The day Geumja came to Korea with a man who’d wooed her for half a year, crossing borders in and out of the country, they’d dropped off their luggage at the house they would build a life in and went to have pork ribs for dinner.

“I’m gonna make you happy. From now on, you can depend on me. I love you, Cheon Geumja.”

The drunken confession of a man who had cleared two bottles of soju by himself made Geumja genuinely happy. He kept burrowing his face in her neck. His breath smelled like ripe persimmons. She thought that his hot, wet breath was sweet. She didn’t care how other people looked at them at all. That was probably why. That feeling, like a floating balloon. For the man who made her feel this way, Geumja had studied Korean, filled in the mountain of paperwork for marriage registration, left her homeland and come to this foreign country. Geumja laughed. She couldn’t help but laugh. Not until the man said “Wait,” and stopped abruptly.

He wanted to have a cup of coffee. He said in Korea, there’s a culture of drinking instant coffee after eating at a barbecue restaurant. He pointed to the vending machine at the entrance. A few people were standing around with paper cups in their hands. Geumja nodded compliantly. The drunk man stumbled to the machine and she followed. One hundred won for milk coffee, 100 won for black coffee. Geumja asked if the man had 200 won. If he had said no, she would’ve gone to the counter herself to exchange a bill for coins since the man was drunk. That’s why she asked. But his answer was unexpected.

“You don’t need money.”

What does that even mean? Geumja looked at the machine again, wondering if she had misread the Korean. But even if she had read the Korean wrong, she couldn’t have misread the Arabic numerals “100.” Neither could have the man.

“Coffee is 100 won.”

The man denied it.

“This is for the customers. It’s free. Free. Do you know how much I’ve spent for their meat and drinks? I don’t need to pay for this. Why would I pay?”

Despite Geumja’s protests, he went to the counter and got 200 won from the employee. He mumbled as he put in the coins, “Who pays for this kind of coffee? That’s just dumb.” When Geumja refused to drink it, the man stumbled ahead with a cup in each hand. Hot coffee spilled over onto his hands but it was as if he couldn’t even feel the burn. Geumja followed, wondering, “What’s happening? What in the world is happening?” She thought about it for a long time.

“That’s not the reason I got a divorce,” Geumja said matter-of-factly as she walked alongside Mom and I, each holding a cup of 100 won instant coffee. “It’s just that I never forgot.” His words, “depend on me,” and the moment she caught a glimpse of the world in which she depended on him.

Geumja was married to the man for two years before she got a divorce. Now, she earned her living expenses by taking care of her nephew who had come to study abroad at a Korean college. The check from China is generous but she still comes to the employment agency because she wants to travel the world.

“I want to go to all the places I know nothing about.”

Now that she has a driver’s license, she plans to go as far as she can drive herself. I imagined Geumja crossing a desert and riding down a canyon. It was a good look on her.

We said goodbye at the crosswalk. Geumja was taking the bus at the stop across the street and Mom and I stretched out our arms for a cab approaching from afar. Mom dozed off as soon as we got in. As the cab was crossing the Han River bridge, the streetlights’ reflection wavered on the river, and the radio played an old pop song I’ve never seen performed live, and I watched the driver from the back and thought of Sangmi.

Every single time Sangmi sat in the driver’s seat, she repeated the same movements as if she were performing a holy ritual. She adjusted the rearview and side mirrors, fastened and tugged on her seatbelt, tilted the seat forwards a little and tilted it back again to the original position. She was the only one who sat there but she did it anyways, every time. When would Sangmi feel safe? Would there be a day when she felt comfort just by sitting in the same seat she sat in before?



That day, as we were driving back home from the coffee shop we struggled to find but didn’t even enter, the silence in the car was palpably denser than before. Sangmi and I had been quietly busy making sure that we never had to face each other, whether we were in the elevator, at the entrance, or inside our small home. When we couldn’t avoid it any longer, we showed each other our blank faces, devoid of any expression. This wasn’t a fight. Each of us was just expressing our anger and punishing the other in our own way. Sangmi went to bed first and I joined her much later, lying with my back against her. And I cried a little. I tried not to heave or sniffle. The next morning, I left while Sangmi was taking a shower to get ready for work. There was only one place to go. I got the earliest train ticket to Seoul and went to Mom’s.

This could be the end for us, or we could make up as early as tomorrow. We could type in a new destination in the GPS as if nothing happened. But I couldn’t just sit around in a car Sangmi drove anymore. This thought flickered in my mind like a small, undying candlelight. I texted Sangmi that I’d registered for driving school. She replied much later.

“Be careful.”

But Sangmi, you’re the one who said you could be as careful as possible and still get into an accident. In the end, we could never be perfectly careful about anything. We’ll have to keep our heads up for the rest of our lives. It’s too much to be on the lookout alone. It’s hard and exhausting. Then taking turns at the wheel is all we can do, isn’t it? That should come first.

Author's Profile

Jo Woori kicked off her literary career in 2011 when she won the Daesan Literary Award for College Students. Last Love (2019) is her debut novel. She is also active as a movie marketer.