fiction by Rachel Kim
“Where do you want to go?” he asks, passing me the ice cream.
“I don’t know. This is your country, so you tell me.”
Across from us is the Lotte Department Store. A large banner hangs over the building, advertising the latest Samsung Galaxy. The sidewalks are lined with short trees as frail as toothpicks. There are so few cicadas here that I can distinguish the individual cries of the ones closest to us. It sounds as though they’re singing in rounds, layering that same grating cry of maem maem maem maem maaaaeeem.
I look down when I feel something cold trailing down my hand. The ice cream is dripping. Sung-Min hands me napkins. He laughs hoarsely.
“Stupid,” he says, and then, when I’ve finished the ice cream cone, “There’s a multibang in Shinchon. Do you want to go?”
We spend two hours in the multibang—a private multimedia room. I get off the couch, peeling myself away from Sung-Min. The room is dark, save for the TV. I pull on my shirt by the light of Wall-E playing on the screen. I throw Sung-Min his clothes.
“I’m heading down to Busan tomorrow to see my grandparents,” I tell him, “I probably won’t be able to call you until I get back.”
“Fine.” Sung-Min pouts and pulls me back down to him. “I love you,” he whispers, stroking my hair.
“Yeah… me too.”
On the train, there’s a middle-aged man who won’t shut up. He’s sitting with three young men, doling out advice on used cars. Words are spewing out of his mouth but none of them mean anything and the boys are nodding indifferently. I try to drown him out with music. My mother makes disgruntled faces as she tries to fall asleep, until she finally snaps.
“Can you please be quiet?” she says, “You’ve been saying the same things for the past hour. It’s driving me crazy!”
She says the last sentence in English and the man stutters to a halt. He meekly apologizes. He leaves his seat after a few minutes and doesn’t come back until the train reaches his stop an hour and a half later.
He’s silent when he does return, shoulders hunched. His wrinkled beige windbreaker and dress pants seem loose on his frame. I watch his scuffed sneakers shuffle across the floor as he exits the train. I can’t help but hope he had found some other people to speak to. People who were willing to listen.
Before I was born, my grandmother suffered a stroke that left her right arm crippled and her speech indistinct. Understanding her is hard. When I was younger, I’d get away with answering ‘yes’ to anything she said when she called. Nowadays, I shake my head and run to my room before my mother has the chance to pass the phone to me.
Here in Busan, there’s nowhere to run. I’m sitting at the edge of the sofa, tensed. Beside me, my grandmother sits folded in on herself in her wheelchair. The usual exchanges about my studies dried up a while ago with nothing else to fill the silence. Sometimes I doubt she even knows my voice.
I can hear my mother and my aunt bustling in the kitchen, cutting fruit for dessert.
“How’s Mom?” asks my mother. “She looks tired.”
My aunt sighs. “We took her to the doctor a few days ago. They think she has Alzheimer’s.”
I hear a few dishes clatter into the sink. “What?”
“They gave us a prescription, but there’s not much they can do. You know, our dear brother’s wife was supposed to take her, but she says she forgot! I’m telling you, we have to get rid of her. Lately, she’s been coming in at eleven at night, leaving Mom to fend for herself for hours…”
A soft, garbled word behind me interrupts my eavesdropping. I turn around and my grandmother is gesturing and speaking.
“Do you…need help getting to your room?” I ask, hazarding a guess. She nods and I wheel her to her room. I’m a little nervous about knocking the chair into a wall, but we make it in fine. I push the chair up next to the bed and watch my grandmother maneuver herself onto it. She speaks again but I don’t know what she’s saying.
“A blanket? Water? No…? Okay…”
She’s getting a little frustrated but I can’t do a thing. I’m standing at a distance, fidgeting with my hands. My muscles contract—I’m ready to bolt. I force myself to stay smiling, even as a knot in my throat is choking off my words.
“Mom?” I call and my mother comes in, all smiles and bright eyes. She hardly looks at me.
“Hi, Mom,” she says, sitting on the bed. “Do you need help with something?”
My grandmother says something and I don’t understand what she wanted because my mother simply sits there, chatting away and spreading a blanket over both their legs.
Luckily, we can’t stay overnight. As my aunt and mother are saying their goodbyes, my grandmother wheels herself slowly out of the room. My aunt goes to help her the rest of the way.
“I’m leaving now,” says my mother, “but I’ll be back soon, okay, Mom?”
My grandmother stutters a few words.
“I’m going home, Mom.”
“Where are you going?” my grandmother says, a little more clearly.
“I’m going back to Seoul. I live in Korea now, isn’t that great?”
“Are you Hye-Jin?” she asks.
My mother laughs. Her eyes are watery. “No, it’s Hye-Mi, Mom. I’ll be back soon.”
“Where are you going?”
“They’re going home,” says my aunt.
“I miss you already. But now I can come see you more.” My mother hugs my grandmother. “I love you.”
I say goodbye and bow, and we make our way to the elevator. I turn around once before the door closes and see my grandmother in her wheelchair. She’s smaller than I remember and her bones are almost collapsed into themselves as she sits there. She’s too far from the door; I can barely make out her expression.
“Where are you going?” she asks again.
“They’ll be back soon,” says my aunt.
It strikes me, as we step into the elevator, that the last picture I took with my grandmother was ten years ago.
Outside, the night is warm and the cicadas aren’t yet asleep. There’s almost a forest of trees (tall, solid) clustered together beside my grandmother’s apartment and the cicadas are shrieking for a mate. There are too many all at once and the noise blends into a single wailing drone. Maem maem maem maem maaaaeeem.
I think about texting Sung-Min. I have my phone out, unlocked, but I put it away again. He’s probably at a club tonight; he won’t hear his phone ring.
I wonder if the cicadas ache for a reply. I wonder if they’re calling blindly into the unknown or if they’re calling a name. Are they calling their own name? How afraid they must be of dying alone that they’ll scream away the last month of their life. Maem maem maem maem maaaaeeem. It’s deafening.