A short story about a family sacrifice made for memories to relive in others' lives.
Summer is my favorite season in Korea.
Temperatures in our village rise so high that standing out on the porch gives me an instant sunburn. Except for Haewon. She is pretty much going to stay pale for the rest of her life.
With palms sweaty and sticky like durian rice, most of my days are spent gripping my chipped wooden pencil with a faint replica of The Starry Night Haewon drew with her highlighters. It’s just me most of the time, my little pencil furiously scribbling away on the slick sheets of math homework until dawn.
Then the sun’s hot rays would come as early as six, and Appa’s alarm would wake us all up like a rooster’s crow. If only a rooster could survive the weather.
I ignored Yongchul’s call and kept my eyes on the mound of beansprouts. I could feel his impatient look burning the back of my head.
He scoffed and sat next to Haewon, who had been folding paper cranes since she came home from school.
“You guys are so boring. Just wait until winter comes, and you’ll be the ones begging me to play with you.”
He was right. Yongchul was immensely popular because of his expertise in ice hockey and skating. Haewon and I were constantly approached by younger schoolmates asking us to introduce them to him, and it seemed that was the only way to become known throughout campus.
Haewon glared at him from her fort of paper cranes surrounding her. “Chamna! As if.”
The two began bickering as I sucked my bleeding hangnail from trimming the beans. The heat had given me a pounding headache ever since morning, and my body ached from dehydration and soreness.
No wonder I’m always asked to do everything. Yongchul and Haewon don’t have a single seed in their brain to listen to anyone.
I got up and carried my bucket of beansprouts to the dining room while Yongchul stepped on Haewon’s cranes behind me.
When I was six, Umma showed me how to chop strawberries. I had no experience with kitchen tools, but she somehow trusted me with the shiny sharp knife that split the juicy red fruits in two. I learned to skin apples, chop onions, and boil a pot of water by the end of elementary school, and by then, most of the cooking chores went to me.
I learned that strawberries were the sweetest in the summertime. They always seemed colder, juicier, and sweeter than the dry ones Appa brought in during Autumn.
Summer strawberries were the best for dipping in condensed milk as an afternoon snack while the weather outside our windows rose to triple digits. After a long day of school, my siblings and I would sit alone around the mahogany tea table, biting into the fruits while red juice slipped down our chins.
Sometimes one of us had a bad day. No one acknowledged it. Perhaps one of us would pull out the ragged Monopoly board, and we’d play silently while Umma and Appa came home from work.
It’s been years since any of us ever spent one of those summer afternoons together.
Haewon slowly walked beside me as we made our way to school for the day. Her pencils clinked together in her water bottle pockets as she focused on her sketch of the blonde manga girl from Candy Candy.
She was obsessed with everything related to art. We all knew how she dreamed of going to school in America to study at an art college. By all means, she was one of the best artists I knew. On the other hand, I didn’t ever want her to leave.
“Oppa, do you have an internship today?” she asked. Her eyes remained glued to her page.
“Yes, I get to visit a film set and volunteer to help a producer.”
She looked up and smiled. “Daebak! Following your dream, huh?”
I looked at the floor. It didn’t seem fair that everyone else in the family had a dream career that seemed to fit them. I fell short of the “big goal” my siblings had. I wouldn’t be brave enough to tell Appa anyway.
“Sure, Haewon. Well, I’ll see you this afternoon.”
She gave me an OK sign with her fingers and ran off to the bus stop where one of her friends was waiting. I waved, and continued walking along the dirt path to school.
Dreary and exhausted, a moist patch of sweat soaked my back from the pounding heat. I felt lightheaded and dizzy, and could almost picture the steam from our local sauna clouding the air around me.
I kicked my school shoes off and dunked my head into a bucket of sink water. The living room door was cracked open, and I could hear a distant conversation between Haewon and Appa.
I tiptoed down the hallway, but their voices grew louder and louder until I could hear every word escaping their hushed lips.
With my back against the wall and ear pressed on the door, my heart sank lower as the conversation went on and echoed through the room. Before I could realize it, my streams of sweat dripping down my cheeks were tears that fell like rocks in a lake.
A room door slammed. I sat unfazed, my eyes drifting and bouncing from left to right until I shut them with an enormous exhale that almost had me caught listening. Though Appa probably knows I had been. It’s not like he would care anyway.
Haewon’s footsteps tapped down the hall, and the faint sniffles of her tears made my heart break into shards of sadness.
I heard her stop at the hallway where I sat. I turned my head away. She choked back more tears and stepped out the door where the sun had just begun to set over the city buildings.
The last time I spoke with Yongchul was a year after I moved to America. I sent him a painting of a spring waterfall, the one that supplied the water for our winter ice skating rink. He did not respond, and as much as that hurt, he must have taken it as a goodbye for the two of us. How could I face him now?
As for Minchul, I still talk with him over the phone. We haven’t seen each other in over twenty years, and I’m sure he has changed. He has become colder than ever is what Umma says, but who’s to say he shouldn’t? A crushed dream, a distant relationship with siblings, and a father who is a vegetable. But he still perseveres.
The end of summer will mark my twenty-first year in America. Twenty-one years ago, I left Seoul to come here and pursue what I wanted to do. I knew from the start what it would do to the three of us siblings, but I could never have imagined how much Minchul had to sacrifice just for me to set a single foot here.
I sometimes wonder if he has had any children. He would be such a spectacular father if he had the chance. He would pick up his little son or daughter and play board games with them, or slide a plate of his strawberries drizzled with sweet, creamy sauce to cheer them up. Just like he did for me.
From time to time, I think of that day where I argued with Appa. Who is going to pay for your debts? And as right as he was, it didn’t cause me to skip a single step while on my way here. I could care less about how much he believed in me. But some part of me wished that Minchul hadn’t been the one who did.
Sometimes I wish I could turn back time and get him off the floor after he listened to our conversation, but I had nothing in my heart to help him up. It seems like to this day, it’s still the same for everyone.
I could see him in my little girl. She was born left-handed, just like Minchul, and loves warm days more than anything. When I look at her, I’m reminded of my days with my family. Her cherry red lips as sweet as strawberries and glistening light hair like the rays of the morning sun. I’m sure if Minchul gets to meet her, I wouldn’t have to apologize for everything he has had to go through for our family.