Paola Paterlini’s short story, “Bloodlines,” is the winner of Lawyerist’s fourth annual short-fiction contest.
More than fourteen years passed since my mother heard from my aunt. Eommaga jug-eo gagoissda, was the first thing she said, her voice clear through the phone’s speakers. From then on it was all a blur. Mom ended the call and ordered everyone to start packing. Tae-hee stuffed the biggest suitcase she could find with her best clothes. Dad booked a last-minute flight from San Diego to San Francisco, then a 13 hour connecting flight to Seoul, before mom could even say “No, Tae-hyung, you’re not packing your Weird Al t-shirt.” I rushed upstairs to my bedroom and leaned over the balcony to knock on Brett’s window.
“I’m going to Seoul for a few days,” I told him as soon as he slid it open. “My grandmother’s dying.”
“Shit, I’m sorry.” Our balconies were so close together, I could basically lean on his. He moved closer to me until his arms laid on my railing. His blue eyes, only a few inches from mine, showed how much he really meant it. Brett never lied, not to me. “Are you going to be ok?”
I shrugged. “I haven’t seen her since I was three. Mom has beef with her family.”
He nodded. He didn’t seem too happy.
“Hey,” I said, bumping his arm with mine. “I’ll be back in no time, alright? You know how to reach me.”
Brett gave me a pat on the shoulder, the awkward teen equivalent of a hug, and told me to call him if things got rough. He knew mom’s family didn’t like us, and they especially hated dad, but he forgot we were going to Korea, the land of the emotionally constipated. We were going to be fine. Mom was a big girl.
We were in San Fran a couple of hours later, then on the long flight over the Pacific. This was the trip of a lifetime for my sister who, the whole way there, listened to EXO or BTS or some other shitty three-lettered boy band. In her mind, she could very well stumble upon the set of some equally terrible Korean TV series, or meet Youngjae at the supermarket around the corner, and she’ll become the most envied fourteen-year-old Korean-American (who can’t even speak Korean) in all of Seoul. She didn’t know that, if grandma did die, for the four days we were in Seoul three would be spent at the funeral. I heard my aunt say “heart” and “hospital” on the phone, but I couldn’t understand much else. My Spanish had always been better than my Korean, and I really only knew how to cuss in the former. I looked over to the seat in front of us, and saw mom leaning on dad. I laid back in my seat and slept under the gelid air conditioning, already missing the California sun.
When we arrived in Seoul, we all trembled in the horrid 32 degrees outside of the airport. My aunt and her husband were waiting for us at the gate. I could only recognize them by the few pictures dad had hidden in the thousands of photo albums back home. She and my mom looked like twins. Now, she stared at us with the contempt only a sister who was left behind could master. Even when she said their mother passed away, her words dripped with bitterness rather than sorrow.
We followed her as she and my mom engaged in small talk. Her husband helped us with the suitcases, but when I told him gomapseumnida, he smiled at me with the uncomfortable smile people have when they don’t understand what a foreigner said. After another half an hour or so, we reached what I assumed to be my grandparents’ place. Besides the dozens of Koreans and the smell of fried beef in hot pepper paste, it looked like any other western house. White exterior, hardwood floor, and a coffin pushed against the wall, hidden by white curtains. Grandma’s picture sat on it, the face of a stranger surrounded by flowers.
As soon as we went in, mom was ushered to the kitchen. There was nothing to do but sit down and drink, which is what most people there were doing anyway. Most men, I should say. When I walked to the kitchen to see how mom was doing, I realized all the women were cooking food in some way or another. Mom looked absolutely helpless. It reminded me of the time when she tried making breakfast for dad, and she ended up burning coffee and setting the eggs on fire. Dad woke up to the blaring of the smoke alarm and a figurative heart attack.
Her sister yelled at her to chop something or whatever. I was about to enter the kitchen to help her out, but dad stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. Tae-hee was behind him, looking just as worried as I was.
“Don’t. It’s disrespectful.”
“It’s not like they’ve been particularly welcoming either.” I replied with irritation.
“We’re not in the states anymore. They do things differently than we do.”
I sighed. It annoyed me, but I knew he was right. I saw the women cooking in the kitchen and the men drinking in the living room. It was a different culture, one that I couldn’t understand.
“I’ll take her place,” Tae-hee offered. She wasn’t a great cook either, but better than mom for sure. “Why didn’t they get me to help?”
“They probably felt uncomfortable talking to a foreigner,” dad said. “I don’t think they speak English very well.”
“Dad, we have to do something,” I whispered back. “Mom looks miserable.”
“Tae-hyung,” he looked just as pained as I was, but turned me around and urged both of us to go sit somewhere. “I know you want to help, but this will just make things harder for her.”
The day passed in a haze. Maybe it was because of the jet-lag. Maybe because, as expected from a day like this, it started raining sometime around midday. Maybe it was because it seemed like all men could do in this household was drink and laugh and sometimes wail in unison. I didn’t understand. I bore more resemblance to them than I did to my dad, and the thought was exasperating. Mom had told me many times that I looked more like “the asshole that got me pregnant” than I did to her, but I always found that hard to believe. Maybe because I knew that I might have turned out like him, if mom hadn’t left for the states when she did. My chest cramped painfully.
Dad booked a hotel room for us, but mom decided to stay for the night. They still had a lot of food to prepare, or some bullshit. I was too irritated to object, and the blaring headache I got that morning had only worsened throughout the day. When we reached our room, Tae-hee collapsed in her bed. I followed dad to the balcony.
“Are you worried?” I asked him.
He smiled at me, looking over the bright streets of the city. The psychedelic lights of restaurants and karaoke bars blared through the night. At 2 am everything was still vibrant with life, which was pretty ironic for us.
“Your mom lived with her family for more than twenty years, before moving to San Diego with you. She worked hard. She found a job so she could save up for law school and follow her dreams while raising two fantastic children.” He scooted over closer to me, trying to warm up. His eyes were soft, his thoughts kind. “If you think that she’s her toughest when in court ….”
“She looked … tired.” I told him.
He took a long breath, jaw clenched. “The only thing we can do right now is to be there for her. She wouldn’t want us meddling.”
I bumped my arm into his. It was my only, awkward way to express affection. He smiled back, landing his warm hand on my shoulder for a quick, reassuring hug.
I walked back into the room and dropped just as unceremoniously as my sister. As soon as I flipped out my phone to set an alarm, I was bombarded with texts. They were all from Brett, obviously, each one of them more baffling and hysterical than the other. He had rambled on for more than seventy messages. His last one said, “Imagine if pigeons took planes to migrate.”
For a second I could almost hear the faint Minecraft soundtrack playing, and instinctively looked over to the window. There was no stupid blonde kid knocking on it. What did I expect? We were almost 7,000 miles away from home. If Brett was on our hotel balcony, I’d be shitting South Korean bricks. Still, that unbelievable thought left me feeling empty, and suddenly my head wasn’t the only thing who felt like it received a beating. Behind the clear glass, dad was still looking over the city’s pulsing lights. I wondered if he was thinking of his wife, how long it must’ve been since the last night they’ve spent apart.
How long had it been since the room next door had been locked? I don’t remember. I don’t even remember a time in which Brett wasn’t in my room, with his stupid textbooks and his ridiculous puzzle videogames. We’d only known each other for three months, and still it felt like a lifetime, like I already knew everything about him. The darkness from the balcony did nothing to still my thoughts.
I shook my head. Something in Seoul’s air was obviously affecting me. I grabbed my phone and read through his messages one more time. If I tuned out the car sounds and Tae-hee’s snoring, I could almost pretend I was in my bedroom, listening to Brett’s endless chatting.
That night I fell asleep on my phone, a smile plastered on my face. It was the first time I had smiled that day.
The next day was even more of a blur, but I’m pretty sure that’s because the old men at the ceremony kept pouring me soju. In Korea, the second day of mourning is spent entirely by the side of the deceased by eating and paying homage to them. Of course, that didn’t mean taking the dead out of their coffin and going to karaoke bars. People that used to know the departed would come over to bow to the coffin, leave some money for the family, then join the rest of the guests nearby for a giant, homemade meal.
On the way back to my grandparents’ place, dad and I stopped at this place near the hospital that you could define as a “funeral hotel”. Essentially, if one of your relatives dies in the hospital, they’d take care of the mummifying and the food prepping business for you, in an incredible two-for-one deal. Today, however, it turned out pretty useful because neither of us had black suits for the funeral. The only thing mom specified was that we absolutely needed black socks.
When we reached the wake, Tae-hee was shuffled to another room, where one of our cousins quickly dressed her up in my aunt’s old hanbok. When she came out, she looked like an overstuffed bird.
“I look like a fat, burnt pigeon,” she said as soon as she reached me. I grinned at her. She truly was my sister, even if we shared only mom’s DNA.
The entire family was to stand on the right side of the coffin. I stood there for more than an hour watching people bow to the coffin, then bow to my grandfather, then offer what I could only assume were condolences for our family. Mom’s sisters and their various husbands and kids all cried at some point or another, but she remained as stoic as ever. I wondered if they were looking down on her for that. I heard from some drunk dude the day before that it’s good when the family wails, that they’re supposed to. For some reason, it reminded me of Brett. I imagined him turning around and ever so subtly whispering to me, “Do Koreans believe in a Korean Jesus?” I would’ve laughed right there and then, but I pinched the skin on my wrist to stop myself. I didn’t want to be lynched by a hoard of ferocious Korean Jesus worshippers.
When everybody arrived, mom and her sisters finally brought out the food. It was the customary spicy beef soup, kimchi, sweet and sour boiled pork, rice, rice cakes, and of course dozens of bottles of soju and beer. But, something was off about it. The kimchi was too spicy, even for me; the beef was too savory, the rice too sticky. It was nothing like my dad’s. Everybody was being overwhelmingly loud. Some were laughing, others sobbing, but there was no in between. I kept being poured beer, and every time, I dumped it in dad’s glass. Despite my efforts, somehow it was refilled just as fast as it had disappeared. My sister was on her phone, oblivious to anything being said. She opted to sit next to me because, besides mom, I was her only hope at understanding what Korean men drunkenly babbled to her. Dad just looked sad, seeing that his wife was sitting several steps away. I had taken to drinking some of the beer in my cup due to sheer exasperation. It was the most boring day of my life.
I left for the bathroom but ended up sitting outside, on the steps that lead up to the house. I turned around to look at how mom was doing through the living room windows, and saw her with the most professional look that she had ever sported. Perhaps it was the beer, or what dad had told me the day before, but something about her just wasn’t right. She seemed oddly fragile.
I looked down at my phone to distract myself. Brett had sent another twenty-five messages since that morning. The last he’d sent was just a couple of minutes ago, something about a dream he had of a stark-naked man covered in tapioca pudding. I did the math in my head, and realized he was awake at two in the morning.
“Ffs, go to bed already.” I texted him. The reply was nearly instantaneous.
“IF YOU’RE READING THE TEXTS ANSWER TO THEM I THOUGHT YOU DIED.”
“You thought I died and still sent me a text about a naked man covered in tapioca?”
“I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“No, I don’t. Come back soon.”
I sighed in relief. That text carried me through the rest of the evening.
The third day was burying time. Our grandfather was leading the train of people to the burial grounds with a picture of grandma in his hands. Only then somebody asked dad for help, because he was considerably larger than the other men of the family, courtesy of his freakishly tall American genes. Mom had moved behind her sisters to join me and Tae-hee, and put her arm around my shoulders. It was the first time she’d been that close to us since we stepped off the plane.
They began another ritual as dad and the others took the wrapped body out of the coffin and lowered it down into the grave, so she could join her ancestors. There was a certain beauty to it, I thought. I had read the night before that the reason why everybody was so loud, was so the dead wouldn’t feel alone. There was this belief that the spirit stayed inside the body until properly saluted. I wasn’t sure what mom’s stance on this was until her grip on both of us hardened. Her expression was still impassable, but her hand was tight and warm on my shoulder. I leaned my head into the crook of her neck, my arm around her waist. Dad returned to our side and put his arm around Tae-hee, mom leaning back against him.
As I looked up to the sunny sky, I saw blue eyes.
Our plane had been delayed several hours, which meant my sister got to visit nearly all the music stores in town with an almost as enthusiastic partner in crime, aka dad. I decided to stay with mom in case she needed me, but as her actions were directed by her sisters, I prepared myself for another day of sitting on the steps outside the house and staring aimlessly at nothing. Some people were still inside drinking and eating, the coffin a couple of feet away from them, while continuous clangs and clatter rang out from the kitchen. I figured it was nice to have noise in the house, for a while longer. Sometimes the living can feel just as lonely as the dead.
Mom joined me some time later. We had a few hours left until we had to be at the airport, but she always prepared years in advance.
“You got everything from the hotel this morning?”
“I didn’t bring anything to the hotel, mom.” I say, uncommitted. I wore my regular clothes only on the first day, and my suit was rolled inside dad’s overstuffed backpack with his. The one who brought the entire house with her was Tae-hee.
She sat down next to me, sighing, and took a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket. “Don’t tell your dad about this.”
“I won’t tell if you give me one.”
“Nice try. This is exactly why my sisters don’t think I’m a good mother.”
“You’re a better one than they are, that’s for fucking sure.”
“Language.” She lit up the cigarette and took a long drag. I hadn’t seen her smoke in years, not since she was fired from that one firm that refused to pay her as much as their other lawyers.
“Do you miss her? Grandma, I mean,” I suddenly asked. It wasn’t like me to ask such questions, but Mom, unlike dad and Brett, was nearly impossible to read. Dad once told me that she had a harsh upbringing. Her parents were pretty strict, especially her mother. Mom had become an artist at concealing her true feelings so that she could be the perfect daughter- and the perfect lawyer.
“Sometimes,” she replied, exhaling with a puff of smoke. She smiled a tired smile at me. “Are you doing that thing your father does?”
“What thing?” I ask, faking obliviousness. Dad did that to me all the time, asking me questions so that he would get me to open up. Little did he know, I had the emotional depth of a toilet brush. It almost never worked on me, so I didn’t think it would have any effect on mom.
She just shook her head, still smiling. “I miss her sometimes. When you’ve lived away from home for such a long time, you don’t really remember the bad things. Not really.” She laughed, reminiscing something. “I remember when she thought I had stolen 1’000 wons from her purse, and made me kneel in the corner with a bucket on my head for days.”
“How’s that a good memory?”
“Because later, she discovered my sister used it to buy some stupid vinyl she wanted. Grandma made her hold two buckets on her head because she stayed silent while I was being punished.”
I laughed with her. “Serves her right.”
“Don’t talk like that about your aunt.” She bumps her arm with mine. “She’s a good person, in her own way. She’s family.”
“Mom, she hasn’t called you in, like, a decade.”
“Family is family.” She shrugged. “It’s not like I’ve called her either.”
I sighed, breathing in the smoke from her cigarette. It reminded me of San Diego.
“Mom, why do you say that? She yelled at you as soon as you got off the plane. She made you cook.”
“Sometimes, family’s complicated. Here, it’s everything. Parents, children, cousins, aunts … It’s painful when somebody leaves.” She sighed again. It was almost as if we were competing with one another. “When I left for San Diego, I felt as if I was doing something rash and stupid. My parents already shunned me for divorcing your real father- not dad, the semen donor. I decided to leave because I had nowhere left to go, so I got on a plane and flew away as far as I could with a three-year-old child in tow. Two months later, I met your father. The rest is history.”
I grinned at her. “Almost makes you believe in true love, doesn’t it?”
“It does.” She smiled back. “The point is, your father … I chose him. Blood doesn’t unite us, and doesn’t have to unite you and him. We’re still a family, we still love each other. I mean, look at you and Tae-hee. My sisters can’t even look at me in the eye. If it wasn’t for you guys … I don’t know if I would’ve been able to come back here.”
It was the first time I’d been able to see something transpire beneath the carefully constructed exterior mom had worked so hard to maintain in these last few days. There were many times when dad would lose himself talking about how they met, or how awkward he was during their first dates, or how once he bought a bouquet to woo her and she deadpanned white flowers are used for funerals in Korea. It was rare to see how deeply mom cared about him, but when she did, you’d be left wondering how you didn’t notice before.
My phone buzzed.
“How’s Brett doing?” she asked.
“How do you know it’s Brett?”
“Who else texts you?”
“Touché.” I unlocked my phone. Brett sent me another one of his brilliant epiphanies. “He says that Velcro wallets are a slippery slope that leads to a wallet chained to your jeans loop at forty years old.”
Mom laughed so hard tears came to her eyes. “You have got to invite that kid over when we get back home. I want to have another Pictionary night.”
I smiled at her, thinking about back home. Dad, who remembered how we all liked our bibimbap, mine with chili paste and raw egg, Tae-hee with disgusting ketchup on the beef, mom’s with as much gochujang as humanly digestible. He even remembered that Brett hated chili paste, but had grown fond of kimchi on his. Mom, who worked so hard to achieve her dreams without ignoring her children, who sometimes grabbed a can of mint chocolate ice-cream on her way back from work because that’s the one flavor we all liked, then sent me up to my room to invite Brett over for game night.
Brett. My breath hitched in my throat, my heart echoing in my ears, his snorting laugh resonating in the air. It took me only a bunch of crumpled burrito wrappers and a Mountain Dew to introduce myself to Brett when he moved into the house next to us three months ago. Family didn’t have to be complicated, unless I made it so.
My phone buzzed again. “I miss your stupid face.”
“Mom,” I turn to her. “I think I’m in love with Brett.”
“Tell me something that somebody between here and San Diego doesn’t know.” She grinned, and I mimicked her. Our grins were identical, and I recognized that with pride.
I looked back up at the blue sky, then down at my phone.
“I’ll be home soon.”