Fiction from NER 41.4 (2020)
Unbeknownst to Mother, I plan to live with her indefinitely. I moved in with her, occupying the futon in her newly purchased one-bedroom apartment, after my divorce was finalized a week ago. Of course, Mother doesn’t know about the divorce because she doesn’t know that I was married.
Before you envision a scrappy wedding at some chapel in Vegas with the names of the bride and groom written in chalk, I assure you that wasn’t the case at all. I married a man I had dated for two years in an intimate barn ceremony in New Jersey, surrounded by our friends and his family. We were married for six months before he filed for divorce. The reason I didn’t tell Mother about the marriage is simple: she is firmly against my marrying anyone who’s not Korean. Mother is narrow-minded in this way. During the course of the divorce, I lost the apartment, got fired from my copywriting job, had two bouts of the stomach flu, and accumulated a ghastly amount in overdraft fees. Eventually, I got my head together and decided to come back home to collect myself.
When I informed Mother I was going to be staying with her for a few weeks, she lingered in her silence for so long I had to ask if she was still on the line. Then she cleared her throat and stated that it’s been three years since I’d seen her or been back home. When she’s not playfully berating me, she lists facts. Mother speaks in code, a language I’ve studied arduously between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. It’s my job to read between the lines and find the messages hidden deep within these bare facts. In this case it meant that she welcomed me into her home with open arms.
The sudden announcement of my descent into Koreatown, Los Angeles, did raise two questions, “What about your job? Did something happen to your apartment?”
I reassured her that I’m simply using up my vacation days and that the apartment is in fine condition. I plan to take the next two weeks to come up with another lie to extend my stay. Mother is not one to fact-check. For the first four years after I moved across the country to New York for college, she took time out in her workday to call and ask if I’d eaten breakfast. She didn’t ask about any other aspects of my life, but I decoded that breakfast meant: how are you? I was accustomed to not revealing much information about myself to Mother, so I kept the conversations brief and to the point, “Yes, I had cereal.” As I remained many states away from her, visiting her less and less, she distanced herself, calling me once every other week to ask if I’d eaten breakfast.
Mother now lives on the second floor of a garden-style apartment complex. When I arrived, I was shocked at how pristine it was. Other than having her body scrubbed at the bathhouse on Saturday mornings, Mother rarely did anything nice for herself, so I assumed she had purchased a run-down property she would have to fix up. The bushes outside are manicured into perfect squares while vibrant tulips surround a welcome sign. There are bits of marble placed throughout the apartment to give it a touch of luxury.
Mother, however, has not changed. She still wears sweatpants that sag at the knees and a Cornell University sweater that’s severely frayed at the neck. I’ve told Mother that I would order another for her online if she threw that one out, but she stated it was the sole item she purchased that one time she visited me on the East Coast. My Ivy League education automatically makes me appear trustworthy and responsible. I’d like to think it balances out the sloppy mess I’m finding myself in now. If Mother knew the whole story, I’m almost sure she’d agree.
Mother is a creature of routine. Every morning, she lays out breakfast for both of us on her glass dining table. There’s rice, soup, a rolled egg omelette, and half a fillet of fish. Mother always pushes the fish toward my side, and I use my elbow to move it forward to the middle of the table again.
Mother has a habit of eating like she’s in a rush. She has one leg up on the edge of the chair as she shovels food into her mouth. Mother used to work as an editor for a Korean newspaper in Los Angeles. Her team was small and heavily burdened as they were expected to report on the chaos in both Korea and the US. She had to be out the door by 5:30 in the morning until she retired last year.
Today is my first Saturday with Mother in several years. Since I was a little girl, Mother has spent her Saturday mornings at Queen’s Luxury Spa, a public bathhouse located on the edge of Koreatown. Once she finishes her soup, she looks up at me.
“Why don’t you come to the spa with me today?”
“Umma, it’s not a spa. It’s a bathhouse.”
“There is no difference.”
“A spa is where you go to get pampered. You bathe yourself at the bathhouse.”
Mother snorts. “So Molly is no one then? Molly provides a service, rubbing people until they’re fresh and clean like at the spa.”
Molly’s real name is Eun-hi. She’s been working as the bathhouse’s main body scrubber since the early 2000s.
I snort back. “At what point in Eun-hi’s life did she decide she’s Molly?”
“Early last year, she sat us all down with her yellow Gatorade and said she wants to be called Molly now. Her granddaughter named her Molly. She was reborn.”
Eun-hi talks so much that when she exhausts all the people around her she begins talking to inanimate objects. Mother would never admit this, but I know Eun-hi is her best friend. I’ve seen Mother talk to Eun-hi at the bathhouse in an easy way that she doesn’t have with anyone else.
“Umma, you know I don’t like it there. I’m very uncomfortable around mass nudity.”
Mother reaches across the table and grabs at the skin on my arm, trying to stretch it. “You’re not taking care of yourself. There’s no elasticity here. You see?”
She continues with the pulling to demonstrate until I slide my arm under the table.
“At thirty-two, there should still be some elasticity,” she says, leaning back into her chair. “When you’re stressed, your body produces unnecessary heat from the inside, and it sucks the nutrients out of your skin.”
Mother has her own understanding of how the body works. She makes connections, as if human anatomy is a simple linking of dots, to find some kind of reason for why I’m suffering or aging rapidly. The mention of stress is Mother’s way of wanting to know what happened in New York to make my cheeks sink in and all my fingernails crack at the ends.
“Maybe living with you for a while will stress me out so much, I’ll turn into a raisin,” I joke.
I have a secret rule when speaking to Mother: always include the element of playfulness. I do this purely for me. I’m frightened of what will come out of me if we were to maintain a serious conversation. Mother acts frustrated by what she calls my “infinite immaturity,” but I know she’s more comfortable this way too.
Mother laughs. “You plan to stay with me for that long? You must not want to return home.”
To imply that her home is not my home is Mother’s way of prying. I don’t blame her really. She has reason to worry. I will admit I look rather unhealthy. Maybe like a skeleton with a wig.
“This is home, Umma. Where you are is my home, isn’t it?”
I often say sweet things devoid of emotion to passive-aggressively express to Mother that the conversation must end here. The concept of home is tricky. I never felt California was my home, even though I was born and raised here. Maybe it’s because I rarely took advantage of all that California has to offer: the beaches, sun, surfer boys in tie-dye swim trunks. While Mother was at work, I spent most of my time reading on the couch, waiting for her to come back to our dark apartment.
I’m ashamed to admit that I dislike the public bathhouse because I’m scared of the women who go there. The women who frequent Queen’s Luxury Spa fit Mother’s demographic: middle-aged with bodies that look like gravity is pulling them down, down, down. Most of them have experienced the violence of childbirth, and some of them have endured the back-breaking labor of opening their own businesses. They are mostly friendly with each other, but sometimes fights break out between the strongest personalities.
Mother took me to the bathhouse for the first time when I was twelve years old. Queen’s Luxury Spa immediately betrayed its own name with its broken sign. The u’s didn’t light up any longer, and I would bet a hundred dollars I don’t have that Sue, the woman who owns the spa, still hasn’t fixed it.
When you walk in through the foggy sliding doors, you are met with a towering shoe rack to your left and a bar table used as a registration counter. Sue, with her jet black hair and defined wrinkles, puts up a number of fingers to guess how many are in your bathhouse party. After you pay Sue ($8.50 for adults, $5 for children under the age of twelve), she’ll hand you keys with red springy bracelets attached. Once you take your shoes off, you’ll step into the laminate flooring and through the corridor that leads to the locker rooms.
While you undress, you’re met with the feeling that everyone is looking at you, but once you glance up you realize the women are so busy taking off their own bras and panties, they could care less what stage of undressing you’re at. Through the back of the locker room is the glass door leading to the bathhouse. Once you enter, steam slaps you across the face and circles of perspiration instantly form across your body. There are two large pools of water—one hot and one cold, with individual showerheads at half-mast with stools under them, where you are meant to sit and bathe yourself—and a scrub station.
The first time I visited Queen’s Luxury Spa, the scrub station terrified me the most. Eun-hi, topless with leopard print pants hiked up to her exposed breasts, was using a loofah the length of my arm, scrubbing a woman’s back until eraser shaving–like rolls of skin peeled off of her. She then grabbed a blue bucket, which had been sitting under a running faucet, and poured a waterfall over the woman’s back. When she was done, she dunked the loofah underwater and smacked it against the empty massage table. The sounds of the heavy loofah hitting against the cushion echoed throughout the spacious bathhouse. When Eun-hi saw me staring at her, she winked and cackled, like she anticipated being in my nightmares that very night.
I used to accompany Mother to Queen’s Luxury Spa once a month throughout high school. When she entered the bathhouse, Mother would become talkative. Even though she spoke rarely about herself, she would casually answer the questions Eun-hi and the other women asked about her week. One time, I could’ve sworn I heard Mother respond to a dirty joke Eun-hi made with an even dirtier joke, but my ears may have heard what they wanted to hear.
I cheated on my ex-husband. Multiple times. I never had the urge to while we were dating, but once we got married, I simply had to. The commitment didn’t feel real. Sometimes, I would wake up and forget that I was married. It sounds like I’m making excuses for myself, but I’m not. I’d only make excuses for myself if I felt what I did wasn’t wrong. I will fully accept Karma when she comes wielding her butcher knife at me.
I was successfully living a double life. My now-ex-husband believed me when I told him I had no family. With the exception of my college roommate, a fellow Korean girl who knew to keep her mouth shut on all family matters, all my friends in New York also believed I had no one. My worlds never mixed. Mother was much too cheap to travel across the country just to see me. As a single mom, she saved diligently to send me to college. She had only traveled to Cornell on move-in day at the dorms because I had never left the state before. She had to work during my graduation. On my phone, I saved Mother under her Korean name and told my husband she was a childhood friend. During my entire relationship with my husband, I didn’t return to California, telling Mother I had to work, just as she used to say to me.
It was the conversation I had with Mother a week after my marriage that planted the poisonous seed of guilt. Mother called me late in the afternoon on a Wednesday, which was odd for her.
“I was standing in a parking lot and a car ran over my foot,” she said.
“Oh my gosh, Umma, are you okay?”
“I’m fine. It happened last week.”
“Why didn’t you call me when it happened? Who took you to the hospital?”
“You’re busy. I’m fine. A couple broken toes. I’m fine. No death. Yet. But it made me think. We’ve always been such a small family of two.”
I should’ve offered to fly to California and check on the state of her toes, but my tongue remained stuck to the roof of my mouth.
“Two’s a good even number, Umma,” I said, steering the conversation toward our usual lightness.
“Eun-hi is so social. She knows so many more people than I do. She talks about eligible Korean men in LA. You know, when I go to the spa.”
“Are you looking to date?”
Mother, who is usually as enthusiastic about our banter as I am, was silent for a moment. Then, as if she knew of my secret, she said, “When your father and I got married, we dreamed of building a big, successful Korean family. After he passed, while raising you on my own, I wished many nights that you’ll find a nice husband. Someone you can laugh and cry with while you grow and grow.”
Mother had never used the word “wish” before. Mother didn’t wish or dream or hope.
With my husband’s face swimming circles in my mind, I said, “I mean, there are a lot of nice non-Korean guys in New York. So maybe soon.”
“He must be Korean. I’ve always told you this. Cultural differences are impossible to overcome. You’re already detached enough because of the language thing.”
Mother finds my inability to speak and understand Korean so shameful she addresses it only as “the language thing.” Mother claims that despite her numerous attempts to teach me Korean, I rejected the language. I don’t believe she put as much effort in as she says she did.
“You’re young. You don’t know yet. Your father would claw himself out of his grave.”
Although my father passed when I was four years old, his spirit was conjured in this way when Mother felt very strongly about something. That night, I couldn’t sleep, so I left my snoring husband and went to the bar downstairs. My guilt and the lifelong commitment I made sparred every minute of the day. I went to the bar often. I got into the habit of avoiding home. Maybe I shouldn’t call it a home, since I built it by stacking one lie on top of the other, like blocks of Jenga that must eventually be knocked down.
Mother still drives the burgundy Toyota Camry she’s had for fifteen years. I watch her pull into the parking lot of the apartment complex, the tires of the car squealing like they don’t want to live anymore. Her new place is the same ten-minute drive from the bathhouse that her old rented apartment was. She simply moved in the opposite direction.
From the comfort of the futon, I observe the new routine she’s created for herself upon returning from the bathhouse. Still in her sweatpants, Mother makes herself a cup of instant coffee. While she waits for it to cool, she rubs her arms with the opposite palms of her hands, which she’ll continue to do off and on for the rest of the day. I imagine she does this because she feels smooth and nubile. She’ll sometimes even rub at her chest like a young woman who just fell in love with her breasts.
Once the coffee reaches the temperature she desires, she drinks it standing, leaning against the kitchen counter. When she’s done with her coffee, she washes the mug right away and leaves it face down to dry on a towel. Then she rolls up her sleeves, brings out the vacuum, and begins cleaning the apartment. I watch her scurry from one end of the living room to the other, the vacuum massive in her hands. Upon finishing with the carpet, she pulls on pink latex gloves and wipes down all surfaces. She even runs a cloth along the wall near the futon.
I wonder what the mentality is behind cleaning what’s already clean. I wonder if Mother is simply so bored with her life that she needs to wipe down pristine white walls to give herself something to do.
“Umma, why don’t you own a television? What happened to our old one?”
Mother emerges from the kitchen, wiping her wet hands on the thighs of her sweatpants.
“I threw it out when I moved here. I don’t need a television.”
“Yes, you do. You’re cleaning too much.”
Mother sits on the edge of the futon beside me. “What are you going to do while you’re here? You have to make use of your time.”
I twist my body and fling my legs on top of the futon.
“Maybe I’ll rob a bank. Steal someone’s identity. Mug a runner on the beach.”
“Who do you think you are? Angelina Jolie?”
Mother saw a photo of Angelina Jolie getting a large tiger tattoo on her back on the cover of People magazine at the grocery store once and has since associated the actress with all kinds of debauchery. I smile at her until my cheeks hurt.
“Look at you. And your dimples. You can catch yourself a nice husband in one of those dimples,” she says.
Immediately, my stomach coils into knots. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I strongly believe loneliness is passed down generation to generation. Mother lost both her parents as a teenager and was raised by her grandmother, who has since passed. Loneliness is spotted all across her mind and body. Of course, I couldn’t avoid such a nasty disease.
“Umma, why do you always want to send me off to some man? Don’t you like that it’s just the two of us?”
“People are not meant to be alone. It’ll turn you into a psychopath.”
I open my eyes wide like I’m deranged and stick my face in hers. “Maybe I already am a psychopath.”
Mother smacks me on the arm and I lie back on the futon, pouting at her. Mother’s light smacks also took some time to decode. Mother and I rarely hug or kiss each other, so this is her version of both.
She leaves me on the futon and walks into her bedroom. Once I’m alone again, my mind returns to thoughts about my ex-husband. I wonder what he’s doing right now. I look at my watch. It’s 7:00 pm in New York. He’s still at work, probably. I wonder what he’s going to have for dinner. I wonder if he thinks about me. I wonder if he’ll be happy to hear my voice if I call him. I wonder if he’ll pick up. I wonder if he’s blocked my number. As I wonder about all the possibilities, I drift off to sleep.
When I wake up from my nap, it’s dark. I abruptly get off the futon and push the curtain aside. The streetlights brighten the sidewalk and spotlights illuminate the tulips.
I put on one of Mother’s cotton sweaters and walk out of the apartment in search of her. There are crickets chirping and the breeze carries the smell of grass. Normally, I would enjoy the tranquility of nature, but I scratch at my messy ponytail in irritation. I walk deeper into the apartment complex where I hear voices. Toward the back is a gated community garden, lit up with fairy lights. Inside stands Mother with her sun hat off, her gloves soiled with dirt, laughing with an older man. I stop to observe. A curtain of white hair surrounds a large bald spot in the middle of the man’s pink scalp. He’s wearing a worn black T-shirt and jeans covered with dirt at the knees.
After a fit of laughter, Mother gently places the side of her forearm next to the man’s and leaves it there for one, two, three, four, five seconds before bringing it back to her side.
I make my way toward the garden, retying my ponytail.
“Umma, I was looking for you.”
Through the gates, I see Mother turn, and immediately, a rosy pink creeps up from her neck to her face. Mother doesn’t say anything, so the man steps forward and opens the door to the garden. I ignore him and walk inside, sidestepping a stalk of cabbage.
“Umma, it’s late. Let’s go home.”
Mother looks up at me and nods then turns to the man. “Oh, Charlie, this is my daughter. She’s visiting from New York.”
Charlie’s white moustache moves into a smile as he extends his hand. “So nice to meet you. Mae hadn’t mentioned she has a daughter.”
I shake his hand lightly, like I would catch a virus of some sort if I really committed to shaking it properly. The fact that she hasn’t mentioned my existence to someone she’s comfortable enough to bump forearms with cuts at my self-esteem.
“Who’s Mae?” I ask, knowing fully well who Mae is.
Mother interjects. “You know my Korean name is so difficult to pronounce.”
She looks at Charlie as she says this, not me. Mother pulls back a strand of her hair, smudging dirt from her glove on the side of her face. I examine them, and decide they’re standing too close together, like they don’t wish to let the air circulate between them. I try to maintain my composure.
“So do you live around here?” I direct the question to Charlie without really looking at him.
“I do. 1c.”
The apartment right beneath Mother’s.
He glances over at her, eyes smiling. While she accepts this gesture with a brief smile of her own, I can sense Mother’s extreme discomfort. She steps away from Charlie and grabs a small wicker basket filled with cabbage leaves. She steps out of the aisles of vegetables and herds me toward the exit before I can ask any more questions.
“It was nice to meet you! Good night, Mae,” Charlie calls out as Mother and I make our way out of the gates.
Mother half-turns to wave at him. She speed walks ahead of me. I follow, my brain coming undone of its wrinkles as it balloons, so overwhelmed by what I’ve just witnessed.
Mother is an ambitious woman. She moved to California on her own in 1980. Mother doesn’t talk about the specifics of how she got here. All I know is that she was twenty-two years old, fresh out of college. She had no one in Korea, as her grandmother had passed before her twenty-first birthday. I asked about Mother’s story countless times as a teenager, but she’s loyal to her secrets.
“So, did you just sprout from the earth, then?”
Mother would smirk and nod when I used to say this. Maybe she liked the image of herself as a young woman, puncturing through the earth like a tree stalk. As I got older, I stopped asking her because I decoded that Mother must be ashamed of what she did to get here, or maybe she doesn’t like to admit that, even though she left her country, there was no one to miss her.
The only details she revealed to me about her past were in relation to my dad, but even those were fact-based. The time and location of their first date, the time and location they had their first fight, the time and location of their marriage. There is no love story. Sometimes, with her, I feel there is no story at all. She’s like a mysterious sea creature, constantly emptying itself of ocean water.
That night, Mother prepares dinner as if nothing has happened. Very much like at breakfast, she puts out rice, soup, a rolled egg omelette, and beef to replace the fish.
While we eat dinner, I get a better look at her. She’s still in the capris and T-shirt she wore out to the garden. Mother’s permed hair is pinned back away from her face. Her skin is free of makeup, lines creasing near her mouth. I have no way to identify change in Mother. There are no telltale signs I can grasp. She could be having sordid affairs with four men at once, and I would have no idea.
Between Mother and me, silence is awkward and abnormal. Even when I’m hiding secrets of an enormous weight from Mother, a stream of nonsense passes back and forth between us. As a teenager, I always feared that my own silence would be an indicator that I was trying to hide something. Talking and talking and talking was my way of showing Mother that if there was anything she shouldn’t know it would have just spilled out of me. When Mother has a secret—how many more she has I’ll never know—she closes her mind and mouth completely. That’s the difference between Mother and me.
I assume a position of authority in the best way I can. I lean back, cross my legs, and squint, as if she’s getting smaller and smaller and I must adjust my eyes to see her clearly.
“So that guy outside. He’s a catch. Maybe I should, you know,” I start, adding a wink.
Mother slowly gnaws at a piece of beef, making sure it doesn’t split apart too quickly so she can give her mouth something to do.
“I’m into bald guys. You know that, right?” I add.
As soon as the beef disappears into her mouth, she places a roll of egg up to her lips.
“He had strong hands. I can really appreciate that quality in a man. Regardless of age.”
Mother puts the egg in her mouth. I watch her chew for a moment before continuing.
“If you’re friends with him, you should set me up. You’re always wanting me to find someone.”
Without letting go of her chopsticks, Mother brings her soup bowl up to her mouth, covering half of her face.
“I feel he lingered when he shook my hand. He left his middle finger against my middle finger a second longer than he had to. Did you see that?”
Mother stacks her empty soup bowl on top of her rice bowl and walks to the kitchen. As always, she does her dishes immediately after eating.
As I lie on the futon, I look through my photo album. I have an album dedicated to my ex-husband. I scroll through the pictures nonchalantly. When we were together, I never looked at pictures of him because I felt the photos didn’t do him justice. The camera distorted his face: made his nose crooked, elongated his chin, shortened his forehead. Looking through them now, my memory is fighting to tell me that what I’m seeing is not really him. My mind is scattered puzzle pieces dumped into a cardboard box.
I’ve always had difficulty resenting Mother. We are one person. Mother and I don’t have people to root us into the earth. Secretly, it’s our dream to have that security, but we would never admit such a thing to each other. To Mother, her culture and her language ground her and remind her who she is, where she came from, and I assume she feels she’s the most authentic version of herself at the bathhouse. I hide information from Mother, but that’s only because I understand her. Mother is fragile and avoidant. If I’m not who she thinks I am, she will run away.
I think about the scene at the garden: Mother’s forearm rubbing on the forearm of a Colonel Sanders type. To think that I’ve come here because I have nowhere else to go makes me so nauseous, I let my phone fall to the carpet and bury my face in my pillow.
For the next week, Mother avoids me and I allow it.
On Saturday, she comes out of the bathroom with the lime green basket that holds her travel size shampoo, conditioner, and the thin neon loofah Eun-hi will use to rub her body until it turns red as a ripe tomato. I rise from the futon, a Ziploc bag with used bar soap tucked under my arm. I follow Mother to the front door.
“I want to go to the bathhouse with you today.”
Mother turns and looks at my denim shorts and striped T-shirt. For the first time in days, she makes eye contact. Her face, unlike mine, remains unchanged. She studies me, as if to bore a hole into my mind and peer into my thoughts, then looks away.
“I haven’t been feeling well. I need a bath,” I add.
I walk down the stairs toward Mother’s car, while she closes the apartment door. I hear a moment of hesitation before the keys jingle and the satisfying click of the lock sounds.
On the drive to the bathhouse, I watch Mother fidget in her seat, lifting one thigh then the other, leaning back then leaning forward. I find myself secretly excited by her discomfort. Feeling powerful, I lean back and cross my legs, the way I did at dinner a few days ago.
As Mother pulls into the parking lot, I notice that the sign for Queen’s Luxury Spa has further deteriorated with the e’s and Q no longer lighting up. Mother exits the car with her lime green basket slung on her forearm. I grab my Ziploc bag, letting it roll out to reveal the pathetic, crushed bar of soap I plan to wash myself with.
I follow her through the sliding doors, where Sue, her hair still dyed jet black, looks up at us. Mother nods in her direction before slipping off her flip-flops and depositing them on the shoe rack. Sue smiles at me, her only way of acknowledging my presence, and raises two fingers. Mother nods again. When Sue extends two keys with the springy bracelets, Mother takes only one and walks off. I place my Keds on the top shelf of the metal rack and grab the remaining key from Sue.
In the locker rooms, I undress beside Mother. While I’m slowly peeling off my bra, cupping my breasts in my hands, glancing around self-consciously, Mother’s already locked her clothes away and is walking toward the door leading to the bathing area. I release my breasts from the warmth of my hands and quickly take off my shorts and underwear. I shake my arms and legs out to get comfortable with my own naked body. A middle-aged woman, freshly bathed and preparing to get dressed, watches my process. I don’t stop. I continue to shake more violently like I’ve been possessed. When I’m done, the woman is still watching, absolutely expressionless.
I enter the bathing area where the sound of water splashing echoes against the tiled walls. I spot Mother in the hot pool, her face floating above steaming water. Eun-hi, or Molly, wipes down her station on the opposite end. Molly is the only one who seems to have aged along with the exterior of the building. She’s still in her uniform: topless with high-waisted leopard print pants. But her breasts are no longer taut and her once muscular stature looks shrunken. She must’ve stopped dying her hair recently. An inch of white hair spreads down from the roots, while the rest remains black from the last DIY dyeing session.
I walk over to her, waving midway as she squints to get a better look at me. Molly, loofah in hand, claps in recognition and beckons for me to walk over faster. When I reach her, she cups my face and rubs my cheeks.
“Your umma said you’re in town! So grown now. Coming to spa with your umma.”
I glance over at Mother, who’s now moved over to the cold pool, farther away. Her eyes are closed as she bobs up and down in the water.
I gesture to the massage table and smile. “I’d like a scrub.”
Molly leans back dramatically. “You hate scrub! So scared of loofah! Remember?!”
She tilts her head back and marks the air with her signature cackle. I sit on the edge of the table and swing my legs over. Molly wets her loofah in a bucket of water and grabs a large bar soap the size of my hand. She rubs the bar onto the length of the loofah until the neon yellow is completely covered by white soap. She gestures for me to flip over.
I rest my left cheek on the table and lie on my stomach. Without warning, the loofah scratches the length of my back. I’m eye level with Molly’s stomach, covered with leopard print. Wincing through the pain as bits of skin roll off me, I direct a question at her midriff, hoping it’ll reach her ears.
“So how is my umma doing?”
“Bored. Sometimes, she comes here all the time. No more just Saturdays.”
I watch Molly stretch her body across to grab the bucket spilling with water. She picks it up, and I feel a warm waterfall hit my back. I briefly raise my head. Long rolls of skin speckle the floor below, left behind while the water flows down the drain. Molly turns my head and rests my left cheek back on the table.
“You have lot of dead skin,” she says, as she goes for round two on my back.
The second time hurts far worse than the first. My eyes water.
“I didn’t know that. How often does she come?”
“One week, she come four, five times. Always want scrub on extra days.”
I give myself a moment to process this information as I try to ignore the pain of the loofah scraping against my thighs. Molly moves down to my calves. She’s positioned herself at an angle, rooting herself to the floor to maximize her strength.
“I wonder why she comes so often. Maybe she wants to look good for someone.”
Molly doesn’t answer. I repeat myself, in case she didn’t hear me. “Maybe she wants to look good for someone. Maybe a namja.”
Namja and yeoja, man and woman, are two of the few Korean words I know. Molly shifts her body back to the faucet and throws the water at an angle so it splashes against my back down to my calves. She coils my wet hair into a bun very gently, drastically changing the tone of her work before loofah-ing my shoulders violently.
For a few minutes, she doesn’t answer me. I wonder if I’ve overstepped. Molly’s loyalty lies with Mother. To think Molly would provide me with any information was much too naïve on my part. Another splash of water hits me, this time on my shoulders and down my neck.
“Next, stomach,” says Molly, as she walks over to the faucet and dunks the loofah under the water.
I flip over onto my back. As she did before, Molly runs soap over the length of the loofah before returning to me. She positions herself in the opposite direction this time so her face is closer to mine. The tender flesh of my stomach screams red as she works her way up and down.
“I just hope she’s not lonely. Being alone is a bad habit,” I say.
Molly takes a moment to take flecks of dead skin out of my belly button. Molly has four adult children of her own. She can become motherly without really thinking about it.
“Maybe she’s making friends. Who cares, namja or yeoja,” she says, before splashing water onto my stomach.
The reason Molly and Mother are able to maintain a friendship for this long is because they each have their own way of speaking in code. Even though it appears Molly has no filter, she knows how to strip the fat off a sentence so an active listener, like myself, can run off with the meat of what’s actually being said. Only those that have really experienced the depths of communicating with people who speak in the form of misdirection are able to decode what the hell it is Mother and Molly are saying. For Molly to say so casually, “Who cares whether your mom is friends with a man or woman,” is her way of suggesting that I shouldn’t care if Mother’s gotten closer with a man, because the point here is that she might have someone that’s making her less lonely.
I wait until Molly is finished with my legs, breasts, and clavicles, ruminating on my confirmation that Mother has indeed been seeing Charlie. Molly pours water on my neck all the way down to my toes, as if to bless me. She taps the balls of my feet to indicate she’s finished.
I get off the massage table and look down at my body. Red all over but squeaky clean. I bow to Molly and thank her. She smiles and nods, unaware of the weight of the information she’s given me. She playfully shoos me away as she turns to clean up her station.
I walk around the spacious bathhouse, looking for Mother. Usually when I’m angry my face turns a bright red. I can’t hide my emotions as well as Mother can. I’m bold and reckless, but she’s confident and calm. When I find Mother at the individual showering station and sit on the stool beside her, my own mirror in front of me, I’m surprised to find that I’m a pale face resting on a tomato red body.
“Umma, you’re seeing that man from the garden.”
Mother rests the shower head against her clavicle and turns to me. A stream of water flows down her breast, stomach, left leg, reaching her toes. Physically, Mother is much stronger than me. With the weight I’ve lost in New York, my ribs protrude when I sit, while muscles line her side and back. I don’t know how she got these muscles. She’s always had them.
“For a few months now, yes.”
I’m so stunned by Mother’s free divulgence of her secret that I feel my heart punch my chest as it beats harder and harder.
“But he’s white. You always told me to marry Korean. Why are you dating someone who’s not?”
“Do you think I’ll get married to this man?”
“Well, how fucked up would it be if you get to marry whoever you want and I can’t?”
Mother turns the water off and plants the shower head back on its bracket. She points her index finger at me.
“Don’t use the f-word with me.”
“How fucked would that be, really, Umma?”
“At my age, I won’t get married or have kids. It doesn’t matter who I see. I don’t have a long future left in front of me. You do. You have much to build.”
I want to tell her about the divorce and how, without knowing or intending to, she infected my marriage.
“It must’ve worked to your advantage, not telling him anything about yourself. You must’ve felt free as a bird. You didn’t even tell him you have a daughter.”
“Why does he have to know about you when he’s not important enough?”
There’s another code here. Mother is telling me that I’m too sacred and precious to be mentioned to those who don’t matter. But I don’t feel sacred and precious. Again, Mother and I are misaligned.
“Wouldn’t Dad claw his way out of his grave if he knew you were rubbing up against an old white guy? Who, by the way, doesn’t even have decent features, Umma—”
“Why are we taking the time to talk about him when the fact is that he’s not important?”
“Because you’re a fucking hypocrite!”
Mother reaches out and grabs my wrist, applying pressure. Her nails dig into my flesh.
“I said don’t use the f-word with me.”
I’m suddenly aware of how busy the bathhouse has gotten. From the corner of my eye, blurs of naked female bodies move behind us. No one pays attention to us. When Mother lets go, an outline of her fingers leaves a white mark on my red skin along with four indents from her nails.
As my eyes water, I get up from the stool and return to the locker room. I slide past a row of women undressing and rush to my locker. Once I’ve put my clothes on, I leave my key on the bar table and hand Sue five dollars before leaving Queen’s Luxury Spa.
I stand on the curb outside the parking lot and realize I have no place to go. I walk back to Mother’s apartment, my clean body sticky and sweaty again.
The outline of Mother’s fingers on my wrist is gone, but I feel an imaginary pulsing under the skin surrounding it. The marks from her fingernails remain, like the bites from an animal. I want to call my ex-husband and tell him what happened. He would reassure me that everything will be okay. He won’t say how, but his saying it would be enough.
I sit on the futon until the light between the window shades disappears. In the darkness, I roll up the sleeves of my T-shirt and rub my arms. There’s a softness I had lost. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it left me, but I know it was long before I moved to New York. I continue rubbing the length of my arms. The smoothness, the change in the texture, lifts my mood. I rub more vigorously, hoping to continue to trick my mind in this way. I hear the keys jingling, the click of the lock, the door opening.
Mother turns the light on in the living room. I place my hands on my lap, refusing to look at her. She walks over and sits on the other end of the futon.
“I have a lot of time here by myself,” she says.
Even though I don’t want to, my mind automatically decodes this to mean that she will continue to see Charlie. We sit in silence for a while after that. Mother reaches over and gently places her hand on my wrist, lightly tracing the marks she made with her fingernails. I want to tell her about my ex-husband. The reasons why I fell in love, got married, got divorced without telling her.
But our relationship is not built on honesty. We must hide parts of ourselves to protect one another. I pull my arm away from her and begin rubbing my body to feel good about myself again. Mother gets up and moves on with her routine. She begins making dinner. Occasionally, I glance over at Mother from the futon. I imagine if we were to sit side by side and touch each other’s arms, we would feel exactly the same.