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FICTION

Concerning My Daughter

  • onJuly 1, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • byKim Hye-jin
Concerning My Daughter
Tr. Jamie Chang
2022

Still. Maybe.

Perhaps my daughter is mistaken. A misunderstanding between two girls who are still foolish and naive? A few days, a few months from now, it’ll be as if none of this has happened? I can take this sight before me, crumple it up, squash it into a tiny thing, and toss it far away. If I tell myself that it isn’t true and pretend I don’t know, this will be easier for a while. Things I wish I didn’t know. Things that I could believe so easily and naturally when I was oblivious extend claws and reveal their true colors when you really get to know them. Truth and reality. It is the nature of the self-evident to be poised to attack us at any moment.

 

Photograph by An Woong Chul

 

My daughter’s calf is slipped between the girl’s legs. Skin on skin and breathing as one, they draw themselves together and end up looking like one body. Blood rushes to my face. I struggle with the urge to wake them up immediately and separate them, and then carefully leave the room. There are two rooms in the house besides mine. Two fans. Two desk lamps. Two desks. They spend the day in separate rooms, so why sleep in one bed at night? What more do they think they can do besides sleeping with their bare flesh touching?

I can’t say I’m not afraid of the things I’ll see while living with the girls. Here’s what concerns me: moments and scenes that appear before my eyes without warning. Having no choice but to see them. Looking directly at the things I only imagined and assumed, and seeing them for what they are. Things that might be far more awful and scarier than I am prepared for.

The moment will come when things that ought to be hidden will be revealed and I will witness them. Why me? Some might think that there’s a reason for it. People might joke in hushed voices. But I haven’t found any reason, cause, or mistake that led to this. Maybe that’s why I’m being tortured with sights I’d rather not see forced upon me.

One Sunday morning, my daughter leaves the house and the girl leaves, too, before noon. With the excuse of cleaning the house, I open all the doors and windows, and go into my daughter’s room. I put her light summer blanket and dirty clothes in the washer and tidy up her desk that’s a mess of books and documents.

Petition to Withdraw Dismissal of Lecturers

I find a clear folder of documents. I fetch my reading glasses and peruse the first page. There is a large, square stamp by the university’s name. The color is vivid, deep and red; a fresh stamp. I gingerly turn the pages. I sink into thought as I look down at the angry words my daughter or that girl wrote, or somebody wrote, and leave the room.

Isn’t it time you started looking for a proper job?

The wording I decide on after many revisions is no stronger than this. But even this I cannot say out loud. Because of money. I know that all of it was precipitated by money. If I hadn’t accepted the rent from the girls. If I hadn’t taken the extra cash they gave me for tax and shared household expenses. If I could get my daughter a place on the condition that she breaks up with that girl. If I could pay off the money my daughter owes and tell the girl to leave the house right now. I could pressure her to tell me what’s going on and dispense warnings and advice with a stern face.

The way things are now, I don’t have the right to do that. There was a time when I held that right just by virtue of having brought her into the world. The conditions of qualification are continuously renewed, and I don’t have the ability or energy to keep up with it. Same goes for the girls. If they offered me a jaw-dropping amount of money and demanded that I accepted them, how should I react? Money alone can’t balance this matter, I know, but I can’t stop thinking about money.

Is something going on? A few mornings later, I manage this much cautiously, nervously. I make sure the girl is out of the house before I bring up the subject. My daughter, who was nodding off on the sofa, looks up at me. She came home past midnight last night. It’s like this every night. She sometimes stumbles home after sunrise, pale as a ghost.

Ma, I’m tired. Let’s talk later.

I’m about to walk away when something catches my eye and startles me. There’s a bruise extending down from her temple. Scratches on her nose that look like nail marks, and her shoulders and upper arms are swollen red.

Good god, what’s all this? I raise my voice. She shakes off my grip as if she can’t be bothered and rolls over. I sit her up and ask firmly, I said what’s all this?

I fell down, she says. It was just a fall. Ma, just leave me alone, her voice breaks.

My voice keeps rising and I try to wrestle her up. She catches me on the verge of tears.

I don’t know what I did to deserve this, I say. I don’t know where you started to go wrong. A girl of over thirty with no job, no plans for marriage, who brings home some strange girl, and now she’s out there getting into fights. How can you do this unless you’re out to make me suffer? You don’t care even the tiniest bit what your old mother thinks, now, do you?

Oh, don’t start. It’s nothing. Don’t say that.

She looks up and meets my eyes for a moment. Her eyes are bloodshot with fine, red blood vessels. My emotions carry me away to a place of no return. Instantly. I close the wide-open window and lower my voice.

That brilliant education of yours, I say. What was it all for? Ignoring your parents and being insufferable and superior around other people? Is that what you learned?

She sits up. Since when do you care about my education? she asks. When have you ever listened to me? You listen to everything other people say, but never, ever what I say.

I’ve heard plenty of your nonsense, I lower my voice and respond flatly. I don’t know what else you have left to say to break my heart, but I deserve better. I have earned the right to see the child, whom I went to such pains to raise, live an ordinary, decent life.

What’s an ordinary, decent life? What’s wrong with how I live? she shouts. I grab her wrist to calm her down.

What’s wrong with how you live? I reproach her. Are you kidding me?

Ma, don’t you think you’ve done enough? How much longer? We’ve already settled that issue.

Memories of the rawest scene always return. Things I can’t come to terms with, accept. Things that opened up and will not close all the way again, that go on inflaming and irritating. The lid flies open again. There, down the dark, narrow alley, I see my daughter walking toward me. I’d waited for her all day. Pacing in front of the building where my daughter got herself a studio on her own after she left home, I watched the close of day. She returned late at night. She opened the front door to reveal a small, dark room. A futon and a throw blanket. A small floor table and a desk lamp. That was all the furniture she had. No sunlight filtered into the room, day or night. She brought me water in a paper cup. I silently stared down at the paper cup on the floor and left the place. I couldn’t swallow so much as a sip of water.

And came the harrowing realization.

If I keep pulling my daughter toward me, this taut, tenuous tie between us will snap. I will lose her.

But that doesn’t mean I understand. Or that I approve. I only gave her more leeway. I permitted her to move farther away. Giving up on expectations, ambitions, and something else, I kept taking steps away from her. How difficult that was. Does she really not know? Or is she pretending? Or would she prefer not to know?

Settled? I say now. What’s been settled? Have you ever thought about what it must be like for me, seeing you live like this every day? Have you ever thought about what it must be like to see your grownup child live this abnormal life?

She stares blankly up at the ceiling. She sighs, gets dressed, and opens the front door to head out. I think she’s turned in my direction to say something, but she leaves without a word. My racing heart calms down and a sigh of something like relief slips through my lips.

I am a good person.

I tried all my life to be good. A good child. A good sibling. A good wife. A good parent. A good neighbor. And another life ago, a good teacher.

That must have been tough.

I am a sympathetic person.

You tried your best. That’s what matters.

I am a supportive person.

I understand completely. Of course, I do.

I am an insightful person.

Perhaps not. Maybe I am a frightened person. A person who doesn’t want to hear anything. Doesn’t want to get involved. Doesn’t want to get entangled. Doesn’t want to get dirt on my clothes and my body. I stand on the sideline. I say pleasant things, make pleasant faces and slowly back away when no one’s looking. Do I still want to be a good person? But what can I do to be a good person to my daughter at this point?

A dark silence flows between my daughter and me for a few days.

 

Translated by Jamie Chang

Copyright © 2017 by Kim Hye-jin
Translation copyright © 2022 by Jamie Chang
Published with permission from Picador