South Korea

A Normal Life

Hyun knew that since Chorong’s girlfriend Danbi left her that spring, she had woken up every morning and died again every night.


Wedding picture at a Catholic cathedral. Seoul. 1998. Photograph by A. Abbas. © Magnum Photos.

After Chorong’s colleagues had left for lunch, she took her second home pregnancy test and waited for the second strip of paper to change color. She looked up at the bathroom light the way she did when she was a child and imagined God’s enormous eye scrutinizing her from above. Knowing she wasn’t forgotten used to comfort her, until she realized that her first calling was women. She might sing hymns and take the wine and wafer on her tongue, but she never forgot I Cor 6:9: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals.” For years, she prayed she would change. Sometimes, she woke up thinking, “How little of me is left in God, how little of God is left in me.” The second set of results was the same.

Chorong took the elevator to the roof deck. It was a rare, unpolluted day in Seoul, and she had a clear view of the world. Behind the main commercial strip of Itaewon, there was Hooker Hill, a mosque, the gay bars where Chorong and Hyunmin, her husband, sometimes spent weekend evenings. Their home that wasn’t home. When she was born the last of three girls, her furious grandfather had checked her parts and taken his revenge: at the hospital, he christened her Chorong, a dog’s name. She had worked hard her whole life to prove her name wrong.

“What?” Hyun said when he answered her call.

“How’s work?”

“It’s just numbers. I’ve mastered doing this asleep.” Like her, her best friend Hyun was a lawyer. He was a successful and reserved gay man. When they announced their engagement, she was irritated by the universal reaction around her: How could someone as good-looking as Kwok Hyungmin want to be with you?

“Hyun, I’m in trouble.”

“Just tell me. Whatever it is.” He took her seriously immediately. She rarely asked for help.

“I’ve really done it this time. I’m pregnant.”

“What?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“That’s impossible.” He went silent. “Who’s the father?”

“If I knew …”

Hyun knew that since Chorong’s girlfriend Danbi left her that spring, she had woken up every morning and died again every night. Danbi had said many things when she left, but what Chorong remembered most was: “You’re not a risk taker.” “You lack courage.” “You’ll never change.” So Chorong took up skydiving. She went out every weekend with plans for anything but the predictable to happen. She went to unfamiliar clubs and slept with strange men as if each one would turn her into someone utterly different, someone who had not loved and lost Danbi.

She added, “Think of how happy you’ll make your parents. You’d have to do so little, and I’ll do all the work—”

Hyun sucked in his breath. They had agreed on announcing their infertility. There should be no question of what she had to do.

“My idea of hell is kindergarten. You know that was our agreement.” He became cautious, contrite. “I won’t be around to change diapers, but I support what matters to you. It’s your decision.”

It had started as a joke. Over beers, the two friends speculated that if they married, they could split the deposit on a spacious apartment, share cooking duties and, like heterosexual couples around them, save money and gain the legal rights denied them. What remained unspoken was how they were afraid as friends retreated into traditional marriage and left them behind. Afraid as public awareness grew and their community was baited in the military and hunted down at school. Afraid to be 50 years old and loving and losing love without an end or beginning in sight. Afraid, especially, of being outed and losing their jobs, their families. Last winter, Chorong caught her parents sifting through ancient photos albums and was struck by how much they had aged. The next week, she and Hyun had a long talk, and she told her parents that they were engaged to be married.

“Are you all right? You must be shocked…”

Hyun knew that since Chorong’s girlfriend Danbi left her that spring, she had woken up every morning and died again every night

Chorong didn’t feel anything yet; she was numb from feeling too much the past few months.

Keeping her eye on the door, she lit a cigarette. “Then I’ll need some phone numbers. Your doctor friends must have information about clinics…”

Hyun knew what she was hoping for, knew to see through her tactic. Luke 2:21. Hyun knew that her faith was her life, maybe her whole life, no matter how she tried to draw away from it. Chorong thought about the murder that abortion was. She weighed whether a woman like her would harm a baby’s soul, a concept that Hyun quietly considered a vestigial organ of her faith.

“I love you, and I’d do almost anything for you—but I won’t be pressured into being an abba.”

“I mean it. The clinic.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Just email me information, in case I need it.”

Before she hung up the phone, Hyun insisted they meet right away; work could wait. She said they would talk at home.

It was easier to regress into the routine of work than she had expected. For years, she had lived in two bodies, two universes. Pink Hole on Saturday night. Sacred Heart Church on Sunday. Bad girl on Saturday, good girl on Sunday. The two didn’t speak to each other, and over the years, the distances had grown. She wondered each time what would happen if she came out to her closest friends, or to Reverend Kim. Instead, she dreamed about living overseas, away from everyone who knew her. She dated foreign girls and fumbled through their languages. She drank Mai Tais, shimmied badly under the strobe lights, watched a woman with tattoos up both arms and cropped black hair looking at her. Danbi. Danbi liked Chorong’s black outfits and red shoes, how she was short but carried herself tall. There wasn’t anything about Danbi that Chorong didn’t like, from her keen puma’s gaze and her lazy fat-cat way of moving. A routine developed: Never sleep over at Danbi’s. Return home quietly. Wake up a few hours later to a strong coffee and go to church with the family. Volunteer to wash dishes after service or babysit the kids, occasionally sub at youth group. It was Chorong’s trade to appease the Higher Up.

Danbi had said she understood. Life was a secret for nearly everyone in their community, except for Danbi. Her mother, after all, was a programmer for the international women’s film festival, and her dad was a professor in Korea whose research interests included gender history. She had brought girlfriends home, attended an alternative art college with like-minded women and became a poet on a safe island of liberal sympathy.

And Chorong? She had faced weekly onslaughts of questions from all sides: Do you have a boyfriend? When are you getting married? Questions that Koreans asked tirelessly as if they were asking about the weather to any woman over 30. College friends and church members constantly subjected her to good Christian boys. She caught her mother crying as she prayed, asking God to let her live longer so she wouldn’t leave Chorong alone. She was tired of feeling guilty, gathering up courage every Sunday to enter the house of God. She was tired of being careful. How easy it looked for straight couples to appreciate and love each other freely. How exhausting, how demoralizing it felt to always be less.

Danbi said she understood the delicate situation, but deep into Chorong and Hyun’s engagement, she became more honest. Now Chorong wondered if Danbi had been testing whether she could live with lifelong dodging and deception. Testing what Chorong might risk in honor of their five years together. Danbi’s conclusion was another woman who went unmasked at Pride parades and pushed back at the Christian right shoving hate and hell placards in her face. She not only dated her, but moved in. Danbi had said, “The world—our world—has changed, but you haven’t,” then broke clean from Chorong as if she represented five years of her life best forgotten.

Chorong wasn’t like Danbi; she didn’t intervene when a man hit his wife in public; she avoided protests, activism and limited her risk to investing in a start-up. She did what she wanted on Saturday and hedged her bets with good deeds and prayer on Sunday. Danbi was an idealist, a fighter; “I was born saying ‘no,’” she admitted. But was it fair for courage to mean choosing between your family and job, and love?

• • •

Chorong knew that a baby’s heart began beating at 21 days and that the arms begin developing at that time. She told herself that a baby wasn’t a baby yet because it couldn’t feel.

The first time she went to one of the underground clinics, feeling brave and foolish for insisting on coming alone, she told the nurse, “I need to have it removed” and pointed at her stomach. She was told that she was only scheduled for a consultation.

She did what she wanted on Saturday and hedged her bets with good deeds and prayer on Sunday.

The second time, Chorong cleared her afternoon. The nurse in white helped her undress in the examining room. The oblong room was decorated with framed Van Gogh reproductions. Looking at her legs outstretched in stirrups under the fluorescent lights, she suddenly became nauseous with the enormity of what was at stake. It was just over six weeks; by now, the embryo had fingers. She asked to be taken down.

On the third appointment, she overslept and didn’t manage to arrive at the clinic.

• • •

The sisters, their husbands and children, and the grandparents just fit in their parents’ house. Every Sunday after church, the family gathered here in a routine that had become as natural as breathing. Two of Chorong’s sisters lived on the top and bottom floor of the house they had grown up in; Chorong was the only one who had moved out. She lived 20 minutes away. As soon as they entered, their mother gathered the sisters in the warmth of her arms as if she hadn’t just seen them. Reverend Kim’s last sermon was so astute: their lives had meaning because they were so loved. How could Chorong betray such love?

The women began preparing the weekly Sunday meal as the men returned from the cars with arms full of fruit and children. They cleared the living room of the massage chair, air purifier and other many unused gifts the couples bought for their parents, and watched the kids. “Where’s Seonhui?” the middle sister Hyekyo said suddenly, then upstairs to find her forgotten five-year old daughter waiting to be found in the poodle’s bed. Hyekyo and her husband were equally absent-minded, which had Chorong constantly holding back her criticism.

They blessed the meal and chatted over barbequed ribs, dried corvina, a dozen small plates of banchan, as they talked over each other. It had only been a week, but so much happened in a week. Since Danbi had left Chorong, food had lost its taste and time, its dynamic texture. She picked at the food but felt full with the dining table crowded with people she loved. By the time Chorong returned to the kitchen, Eunkyo was already doing the washing up. That was the way she was. Somehow, she managed to be a heart surgeon, a mother and every week, still wash a Mount Sinai of dishes at the speed of an industrial dishwasher and never once complained. Eunkyo was so good, so beautiful and so capable that she habitually outdid the other sisters. She seemed to set the bar for entering heaven. Competing with your sister was petty, so Chorong shifted leftovers into containers and prayed for better thoughts.

She watched herself, the other her, bring out two plates of sliced apples in her hands. They started on the sofa and the chairs that the men had dragged from the dining room, until their mother called out “My beautiful flowers” and urged her daughters to sit with her on the floor. Soon, the women ended up with skirts hitched to their knees, or socks off, heads on pillows as they talked over each other, then fell into long, easy silences. Eunkyo joined them, radiating pure energy and light, and resembling in every way Fra Angelico’s Virgin Mary. Chorong tried to imagine Eunkyo having sex with her husband and failed. She could only envisage another miraculous conception to explain their two marvelous children. “Share the joke with us,” said her father. “It’s nothing, nothing,” she said.

They didn’t do much, or say anything significant, but she sank into the conversation like a warm bath. The kids are getting sleepy… Daehyeop needs help in math… The best thing about Sunday is that it’s not Monday… You young people work too hard these days… Never trust stockbrokers… Your father keeps trying to teach me golf, he says it’s good for your health and I say what can I learn at this age, but that’s where our girls get their smarts… Fish cakes, I want fish cakes. Cold weather always makes me crave fishcakes. One of the husbands slipped out and surprised them with bags of fishcakes on a stick.

Sometimes, Chorong wished her family were less kind, less loving, less of everything they were. It would have been easier to deserve them.

Her mother said, “How about some music? No one plays the piano as well as Hyekyo,” which no one believed because every one of her daughters, even Hyekyo—who had skipped most of her college classes and made a career of nonspeaking theater roles—was the smartest, the most talented and her husband agreed because he thought his wife was perfect. They had never once resented the girls for not being boys.

Eunkyo’s baby boy, Shiwon, obliged. Each time he finished with “Amazing Grace” or “Faith Is the Victory,” the grandparents shouted, “Encore!” and because Shiwon loved to sing, he bowed and began again. Hyun clapped and smiled through the singing; next month, they would visit his family in rural Gyeongju.

Chorong’s eyes stayed on Shiwon—on his miniature fingers and toes, and his black, bright eyes as round as a baekwon coin. His eyes went in all directions as he wobbled to Chorong and toppled into her open arms, trusting her to catch him. And she did, but Eunkyo scooped him away, which made Chorong feel contagious. The ghost of her nephew’s grip was an ache in Chorong’s hand, and she felt jealous again of her sister with her husband, her son, the completeness of their love and faith that wasn’t a lie. There was so much love in the room, and Chorong was inside it but somehow not a part of it. She could not tell them about Danbi; she could not tell them about anything. Sometimes, the effort of existing was exhausting; she wanted to ask God, how much was enough.

Suddenly, Chorong stood up. Everyone was watching her.

“It’s finally happened,” she announced, and she patted her stomach. “We’re going to have a baby.”

Her sister gasped. Hyun’s ears and neck turned pink at her announcement. Their mother took her hand. Her hand was pale and thin, as if it would break if it were squeezed. “My child, has it been three months?”

“Mother, it hasn’t. Only two.”

“The Lord will protect your child. Remember to sleep with a pillow under your hips, so the baby stays in place. And Hyun, please keep your wife supplied with the best herbal medicines. I’ll order some myself.”

Her mother kissed Hyun on both cheeks. He looked cheerful, but Chorong wasn’t surprised when he whispered in her ear, “You didn’t even consult me” as he excused himself to the bathroom. He made sure to give her stomach a loving pat.

She sat quietly as her mother called for a prayer of thanks. Shiwon banged on a toy drum, confused at no longer being the center of attention. Her whole life, she had been a guest in the family. Eunkyo was the first and only person in the family whom Chorong had come out to. She had cried and made them pray together, then said, “If you tell mom and dad, you’ll kill them.” She added, “You’re ill. It’s not your fault.”

 

Hyun was good at keeping his word. He always was. “I need time to think,” he said the day he moved out. They had pushed each other to the breaking point, knowing that whoever gave in too early or yielded too much would be at a disadvantage. Both were the youngest child in their families, both were people who liked to win. “Take your time,” she said, “Take all the time you want,” then changed the door code after he left. He wasn’t being unkind or cruel, he was only making his boundaries clear to her: he would not be forced into unconditional fatherhood. She sucked on a whole jalapeño pepper to comfort herself. I don’t need him, she thought. I don’t need anyone. For a time, she was right.

She had cried and made them pray together, then said, “If you tell mom and dad, you’ll kill them.”

Things were happening. Her stomach rose and her breasts swelled. She could feel movement in her stomach. Touching herself when she was alone, feeling for changes, became a habit. In public, she had to stop herself from reaching for her breasts, her hips. She had none of the morning sickness that her mother worried about. She started up yoga again before work and remembered to water her dying snake plants. She hadn’t realized that snake plants could die. She began praying again every evening. And when she felt hungry for the first time in months, she wept because then she knew that some distant day she might hear Danbi’s name and feel nothing at all.

She wept because then she knew that some distant day she might hear Danbi’s name and feel nothing at all.

She found sites on birthing, feeding, names, prenatal pills. She had her first sonogram. She was told the baby looked like a boy, which she accepted, though they usually said this to protect unwanted baby girls. Preparations were more complicated than any math problem she had ever encountered; it was thrilling. She began secretly taking notes when colleagues rattled on about their children. It suddenly seemed so important: which brand of diaper was less irritating, how you made a baby burp, what kind of music to play against your stomach. Labor didn’t frighten her, but the possibility of being a bad mother did. She purchased books and read them on the subway. She worked, and when she wasn’t working, she slept for two. She had no time or energy to think about anything else, which was what she wanted. She began to understand that motherhood gave you a special status. It protected you from yourself.

• • •

One late spring morning, at the cusp of four months, her temperature rose. There was blood. She took a taxi to the emergency room as her cramps increased in intensity with each breath. Doctors told Chorong that the risks in the first trimester were higher at her age, but she hadn’t worried. There had been no signs to worry her. The resident doctor said there was nothing they could do except alleviate the pain. She elevated her hips as high as they would go and repeated a prayer that was a last shot at bargaining: Lord, if you save my child, I will never look at another woman.

There was no mercy. Soon after, the baby was lost.

 

As soon as she took off her shoes, she laid down on the floor. It took another hour for her to make it to the sofa. She was a mother for a few months, and a few months only. Her body was joints and jelly and she, a woman who ran marathons, barely managed to stay upright. She only seemed to manage one action an hour: go to the bathroom, get a glass of orange juice. She looked for signs, but there were no signs.

The next morning, she woke up feverish. After making an ice pack, she called in sick. In bed, she tried not to think about the blood, the baby the size of a palm, with all his full features that she insisted on seeing. Again and again, all she heard was I Corinthians 3:16-17: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” She resorted to morphine tablets reserved for her menstrual cramps. Another hour: She called Reverend Kim, the resident pastor at Sacred Heart. As soon as she heard Reverend Kim’s voice, she felt herself breathing again. It was unfashionable to be Christian. Computers, biometrics and Jacob’s ladder; she could see the absurdity in it. There was little room left for faith and the unknown, but she had grown up with God in the voice of a bell. At last, she asked him what happened to babies that weren’t baptized.

There was a grave pause. Reverend Kim said, “That’s an important question. I’m afraid that all the unbaptized go to hell. That’s why our missionary work is so important.”

“Do babies go to hell, even if they’re born in a country where Christianity doesn’t exist yet? It seems so unfair. They didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Chorong, is there something you want to tell me? I’m here anytime you need to talk.”

There was nothing to tell because her heart had already been read by God.

She didn’t leave the house because she couldn’t. On Sunday, she skipped church for the first time in decades. She told her mother she had a major project due. “But Sabbath is the day of rest,” her mother said. “You can’t work all the time.” Chorong said, “Try convincing my company.” She wanted to confess, as she always had. How could she tell them that her baby knew what his mother really was and rejected her?

The baby room would have to be stripped of its wallpaper; it was better to be busy than to think. She ground up vitamins in the garbage disposal and poured the packets of herbal medicines down the drain. The books, pamphlets and toys would have to be thrown into garbage sacks for recycling. Who would use these things now? To think that, despite death, life continued. She needed to eat in order to clean, but when she opened the fridge, she saw her baby snuggled between the dwenjang paste and soy sauce. A sign. She closed her eyes, then opened them. Still there on the second shelf. If she touched him, he would be as hard as bone. She shut the door and threw up.

Eventually, she left the apartment. In the last hour of Sunday, she found herself facing a small neighborhood church. Glowing red neon crosses dotted the Seoul skyline. The door was unlocked, she was certain of it, but she stood there, maybe for an hour, or a week, until she woke up in bed. The only interruption to her grief was a German set of wooden blocks from Hyun. His olive branch, but it felt like a taunt. She took more pills but couldn’t eat anything. How could she, when her baby would never eat again?

The baby room would have to be stripped of its wallpaper; it was better to be busy than to think.

It was day, it was night. It was day, it was night again. Liters of water bottles grew on the bed. She was too afraid to pray. Messages went unanswered; to her mother and Hyun, she texted, “It’s been so busy, I’ll call later.” The phone seemed to ring endlessly. Once, she picked up, and a woman asked her if she had come to a decision. It was the clinic. Decision. Had she ever had a choice? She asked her, “How can you be so unkind?” and unplugged the phone.

Maybe it was morning when she woke up; it was difficult to know. She had lost many days. She crawled out of bed. Water was leaking into the apartment through the front door, but initially, she didn’t think much of it. She must have tracked water in. She hadn’t even noticed it was raining. It was harder not to notice the next day. She was knee-high in water. By the time she charged her phone and looked up plumbers in her neighborhood, she was so exhausted that when a man said, “Hello? Hello?” scratchy sounds that mimicked words emerged from her throat, so she hung up. It’ll stop, she thought. It can’t leak forever. She was wrong. The next morning, her bed was floating, solitary, a raft in an ocean of water. It was the beginning or the end of the world. The water was murky with the calling of the dead and the living. She shut her eyes tight, willed the sounds to go away. They didn’t. She couldn’t get up; she couldn’t get out. She didn’t need to be afraid of hell any longer; she was already in hell. Above the other sounds came a great keening. She clutched at her heart, then froze when she realized what it was: a wailing. A wailing baby.

She clamped her hands over her ears, hummed to herself, tried to hear anything but the baby.

A hand rustled against her blanket. She listened more carefully this time. It was what she had been waiting for, what she had expected maybe her whole life. It was no baby; it was the Devil using her baby’s voice. “This isn’t real, I’m not here, it’s impossible,” she told herself inwardly, then later, out loud.

She didn’t dare leave the bed.

He said he would come back every night. He had finally come to take her. She whispered, “I’m not ready to go; we haven’t finished negotiating yet.”


Contributor

Krys Lee

Krys Lee is the author of Drifting House and How I Became a North Korean. She is a Granta New Voice and the recipient of the Rome Prize and the Story Prize Spotlight Award. She teaches at Underwood International College in Seoul.

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