Umma Starts Work

When I look into the mirror, I notice that I have boobs. I could have sworn they weren’t there before. My black Harry Potter shirt doesn’t fit correctly anymore. It looks like Harry Potter’s face is distorted, forcefully stretched over my small lumpy chest. I twist my waist from left to right. My face looks the same. It’s still shiny with one red pimple on the side of my forehead. I shake my bangs in front of my eyes so I can cover the angry red volcano. I lift my shirt up; yep, I’m definitely not imagining it. I hear Umma’s light footsteps dancing up the staircase. Immediately I pull my shirt down and grab my toothbrush to make it look like I’ve been brushing my teeth.

Umma comes into the bathroom, unannounced as usual. She looks at me brushing my teeth without toothpaste. She looks at Harry Potter’s suffocating taut face, and she starts to laugh. Hyena cackles begin to make their way up, piercing the stratosphere. Suddenly, I am fighting off the impulse to cry. Umma’s squawking makes my face turn bright red, blending in with the color of the angry volcano.

“Come down, Soojung.” She says as her hooting begins to quiet down, “Dinner ready.” She closes the door behind her, and I can hear her still chuckling as she makes her way down our narrow staircase. I hear hushed conversations between my parents, and my face flames up again.

I throw my toothbrush down in the middle of the sink. It clinks against the cold metal. I violently splash my face with water until it’s pale again.  

“Soojung?” I hear Umma’s voice call. I run down the stairs, and throw myself down in my seat in the kitchen. Umma is in her favorite big gray T-Shirt. It has Tom chasing Jerry with a hammer on it. She wears it only when she cooks. Her short black hair is put up in a messy ponytail, some of the hairs are falling out. Umma turns around, and flashes me a huge smile. Ahppa walks in. He’s smiling too.

“Tomorrow we buy bra.” Umma says as she brings over my favorite kimchi stew.

Dad tries to act like he hasn’t heard anything, but he starts laughing, and then mom’s laughing, and then even though it’s embarrassing I’m laughing. And just like that, all the tension is gone.

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“But do you have to go?” I ask. I know that my voice sounds like I’m whining, but I really don’t want her to go.

“We need money. Appa retire, you know because of his- sick.” Umma hesitates for a second, like saying the word “cancer” will make Dad’s come back. “Anyway, we don’t save enough before. All money gone for surgery. We need more money.” She has a skirt on with panty hose and a white blouse. Her whole body looks like it has been caught and trapped in a cage. This isn’t Umma. Umma is T- Shirts and experimental cooking, not blazers and pointy, black high heels.

She keeps staring into the mirror fixing her mascara. Her lashes are longer than I’ve ever seen them. I didn’t even know they existed before today, little spider legs crawling out of her eye sockets. She tousles her hair. She got it cut yesterday so that her bob would look cleaner. It shapes her face more. The person at the salon said it framed her face well as she handed Mom a large mirror. The woman said Umma looked younger. Dad said Umma looked prettier. I told her I hated it.

She puts on lipstick. It’s red, and bright, and looks like the blood my dog, Nala, kept on coughing up when she was sick. She turns around and picks up her purse from the floor. Yesterday night, I helped her clean it with a soft rag. We rubbed it till all the little scratches and stains were gone. She walks to the door, and turns around to look at me.

“You know where food is?”

“Yes.”

“You know how to walk to school?”

“Yes.”

“You know Appa needs to take his medication at-”

“9 p.m. I know.”

She looks down at me.

“Okay, wish me luck.”

I hug her. She feels tight and lonely.

“You look so pretty, Mom.”

I knew that comment would make her happy. That is why I say it. A smile stretches across her face, illuminating her bright white teeth. My tongue traces over the railroad tracks weaving through my mouth. Mom is so lucky; she didn’t even need braces to have a pretty smile. She kisses me on the cheek leaving a big red imprint. She opens the door and waves goodbye to me.

I see her walking up the road, wobbling in her black heels. How is she going to walk all the way to the bus station in that? I wait for her to look back at me, but she doesn’t.

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“Oh Appa what is that smell!” I scream as I rip open the doors of my room. A cloud of smoke blasts into my face as soon as I do. The smoke curls up my nostrils, and I put my sleeve up to my nose to try and stop my lungs from suffocating. I hear cluttering downstairs.

“Shit” I hear Dad mutter in Korean as he thunders around in the kitchen. I practically fall down the stairs as I rush to help him. He shouldn’t be running around so much. His doctors said stress was very bad for him. I see a pan with burnt meat, or at least I think it is meat. Gray smoke is radiating off of it. I run to the pan and pick it up with the tip of my fingers not to get burnt.  

“Ah-” I say as I hold the pan away from me, “Dad! Get the windows before the alarm-” the alarm shrieks above us. We both look up.

“Oh, shit,” I hear Appa say again. The water begins to pour down on our heads. I hear a deep sigh from my right.

“We’re a mess,” I say under my breath. In a few minutes, we hear the fire truck sirens, and Dad has to go out and explain for the third time this week that there is no real fire.

I start gathering our throw pillows and clothes that were lying around, victims of the flood. I take them outside on the porch and let the crisp air do its job. Dad comes out too; he takes out a cigarette, his hands are still shaking and I know I shouldn’t, and I know its bad, but I walk over and light it for him. They say old habits die hard, and I guess that is applicable to both of us. He takes a long drag, looking at our four by four plot of yellowing backyard grass.

“You really should quit, Appa. The medicine won’t stop it from coming back.”

He chuckles to himself, disregarding my comment, “Make sure all of that dries up or Umma will be angry.” He motions to all of Umma’s precious throw pillows she has collected from each trip we have taken. She buys them at the most arbitrary places. Once, when we were visiting our cousins upstate, she went to the grocery store and didn’t come back for two hours. My cousin and I were practically starving, and when Mom finally came back we couldn’t wait for her to start cooking her spicy kimchi soup; but Mom was never like that. She never did things just to please people. She spent her sweet time, fluffing her newly bought pillows, and my cousin and I ended up helping her fluff them too just to quicken the process.

I look over at the throw pillows, and find the ones with the bears. The bears look like they are melting off of the pillow and seeping into the yellow grass.

Dad shakes his head as he walks back into the house.

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I can feel my flip flops sticking to my skin as I walk down the hot sidewalk. I put my shades over my eyes and begin to run faster down the street. I can feel the sweat starting to pool together right at the nape of my neck. A drip slowly sinks down from my scalp, making its way into my shirt, seeping into the back of my sports bra. Great.

When I walk into the corner store, I see Akram with his feet up on the counter, fanning himself with an old issue of Sports Illustrated. He is watching T.V from a mini television screen that is halfway across the store, but he has the volume on super high so that he doesn’t miss any of the words of whatever soap opera he has decided to watch that day. When he sees me walk in, he lowers the volume immediately and takes his feet off of the counter.

“Ah, little Miss Choi,” he says as he tosses me a stick of gum. I catch it with my left hand. “You are back again so early.”

I walk to the other end of the store, and look through the selections, even though it’s not like they magically changed from three hours ago. I open up my stick of gum. Strawberry, yum.

“What sounds better Akram? Chicken and peas or spaghetti and meatballs?”

“In the whole time I have worked here, I have seen nobody go near the chicken and peas. If it were me, I’d go with the spaghetti.”

I pick up three cold dinners and walk them over to the counter. I put down eight dollars, but Akram just shakes his head.

“On the house, Miss Choi,” he says as he chuckles beneath his breath. “You’ve already come here too many times this week. I would feel like I’m stealing from you!”

My face flames red, and I laugh, embarrassed. From the mirror that’s hanging behind Akram, I can finally see it from his point of view. There I am, a small frumpy Asian girl, sweating like a pig. No wonder Akram pities me.

Akram lets me buy a pack of cigarettes, and he tells me to tell my dad to quit. I say I will pass the message along. I stick my face next to the fan to try and cool myself down before I have to walk back out into the heat again.

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As I run up the brick steps, I cover my face down so that nobody can stop and talk to me. When I enter the bathroom, I lock the door immediately. I can feel the warmness spreading throughout my pants. I untie my shoes and kick them off my feet. I pull down my sweats. When I see myself in the mirror, I gag at my reflection.

There is red everywhere. My underwear is seeping with blood that is dripping all the way down to the middle of my thighs. I have no idea what I should do, but I figure that the best thing to do is to take my sweats off and attempt to wash them. I turn on the water. Usually I can wait until the water is warm enough before I touch it, but this time I don’t. I throw my pants into the brisk cold water and begin to scrub. The water is pink now, and my hands are blue.

For a second, I think that it is working. A smile begins to form. The goose bumps on my arm slowly ease up, but then I realize that I am actually making it worse. Instead of taking all of the blood stains out of my pants, I have just spread them out. I take my sweats out of water. Awesome. Now they are soaking wet as well.

When I glance back up at the mirror, I realize that I have been crying the whole time. I don’t even know why, and I didn’t even notice.

When I walk through the door, I expect to see Mom, moving around the kitchen and humming something, like she usually does. Instead, the house feels cold and empty and I remember: Mom doesn’t get home until ten.

“Dad?” I call. I hear footsteps shuffling against the wooden floor. He pokes his head around the corner.

“Yes?” he looks at me slightly annoyed. Then he looks down. “Oh,” he says quietly. He looks uncomfortable, awkward. “I think maybe you tell Umma.” Then he shuffles back toward the TV in the other room.

Kicking off my shoes, I climb the stairs to my room. I need this day to be over, I say in my head. All the red color I decorated my room with now seems invasive. I know that some of the other girls in my grade have gotten their periods. They giggle and talk about it all the time. They steal their mother’s peach schnapp and kiss boys behind the school bleachers, but that’s not me. I mean that has never been me. Does this mean that has to be me now? I don’t know. I put my head on my pillow and my eyes dizzy out as I fall asleep.

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Umma has a liveliness to her. Now when she comes into any room, she does so by swinging open the door and almost skipping into the house. Her eyes shine like obsidian every night she comes back. She looks sleeker, younger.

At night I hear Umma and Appa whispering to each other.

“I want you to experience everything I got to experience.” Appa says as Umma laughs.

“If I had known it would be this exciting, I would. ”

Mom looks New York.  Mom is New York. Our small Jersey house suddenly seems too small for her. It’s as if a crippled bird has suddenly gotten the wingspan and strength of a Lockheed jet.

Every day she comes home, she has changed just slightly. Something about her is always altered. Today, it’s her hair. Her long black hair used to go down to her waist, curling around her arms as she walked around. Sometimes when I would lie down next to her, I would be able to smell her herbal shampoo as we fell asleep. Today, though, it’s all gone. Chop. It’s a bob now. It’s dark and short and it has highlights. Appa loves it; he told her she was sexy and gave her the biggest hug when she stepped into the kitchen. He sloppily gives her a kiss on the cheek, and I cringed away from them. I told her she looked beautiful, and when she was turned around I smelt it. It smells like money.

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I set up the plates for another microwave dinner. Dad puts down the forks and the knives. We gave up on actual home cooked meals. Akram at the corner store was getting way too much extra income, and we don’t have that type of money to splurge. We look up at the clock together, 8:30. Umma should be coming home anytime now. We keep looking at the front door, waiting for it to open.

The ticking of the clock gets louder and louder as the minutes begin to slip by. I’m hungry, but I know I can’t pick up my chopsticks until Appa does, so I just sit there waiting by my cold food. When an hour passes, Dad gets up and walks over to our home phone and dials Umma’s cell. She doesn’t pick up.

Dad pulls out a cigarette from his front pocket and lights it. He begins to take long drags as he fidgets around with his phone book directory. He punches in some numbers into the phone and dials.

I wait apprehensively, but he just slams down the phone and begins to shift through his directory to find another number. I lean back on my chair, and try to balance on one leg.

“Appa you really shouldn’t smoke,” I say as I see his cigarette getting smaller and smaller with each puff, “You know the doctors say your sickness could come back any time, right?” He waves my concern away as he takes an even longer drag this time.

“Start cleaning the plates up, Soojung. We go out to find Umma.”

It is only then then I become worried. What if Mom got into an accident? What if she didn’t stop at the lights like she usually does and got in trouble? What if she got mugged on her way to her car? I can feel the sweat starting to build up in the creases of my palms. I grab our dinners and put them in saran wrap. Dad points to the refrigerator, and I put all three dinners in on the top shelf.

We walk to our front door. Appa hands me my coat as I begin to tie my converse. He reaches for the door, when it opens in a swoosh and narrowly misses his face.

“Oh!” Umma says as she reaches towards Appa. He looks irritated, but I can tell he is happy she’s safe.

Where were you? I want to ask her, as she walks into the kitchen and shakes off her new sleek coat. Why didn’t you call? I want to know, as she pulls out her cellphone and begins to punch in a memo for herself. Don’t you worry about us any more? I almost ask.

But I don’t, and Dad doesn’t either. She looks happy, so happy.

Umma begins to tell us stories about how the landlord tried to raise the rent, and she drove all the way to Brooklyn and told him off. Appa pulls the meals out of the fridge and I microwave them. We all listen to her story, and laugh in the places we are supposed to.

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