Mr. Sohn, a slender, ginger-breathy old man who lived on the next block, said they were here to take Korea away from us. He died within the first month.
Mother told me to put less garlic with the cabbage, because they didn’t like the smell.
But I didn’t mind them, the new soldier patrol on our block, the American men in pairs with tall dusty boots, their steps heavy like the fresh tar they kept laying down in the fields, replacing everything Japanese.
I tried to curl my hair, but Mother stopped me before I left the house. I washed the curls out defiantly, the coarse strands tangling together.
“I don’t want you out alone after school anymore,” she said to me after, while we picked over leftover rice and vegetables that had been boiled down to sogginess to accommodate my older brother’s chipped tooth. It was only chipped because he’d stumbled while trying to read at the same time as walking—he’d always been the ultimate obedient son. Girls at school called him the weak pig, since he always made this little snuffling sound.
But I vowed I would never let the same thing be said about me, would never let myself be called the weak pig’s little sister. Even if it meant I was that loud girl, as my father would say. That girl from the back alley.
“You come straight home. Walk with Young-hee,” Mother said, tapping her chopsticks against the tabletop.
I hated walking with Young-hee. She walked too slow, and slumped too much—and she made us look like old-fashioned peasants with her clothes, which looked like they belonged to an obese aunt. Her feet smelled like goose shit, too. “I don’t see why. They said it’s over, and Father said the Japanese are—”
“I talked to your father.” She rinsed off the chopsticks in a cup of water, swishing them back and forth, then stirring, her voice growing harder. “These soldiers, I tell you—hardly better than the Japanese.”
“You’re fifteen. You don’t know anything.”
She placed the chopsticks on the table. Their blue flower patterns were flaking off, making the wood look patched and dirty, like some sort of fungus was growing on it.
The radio knew more than a frumpy countrywoman like Mother, who always fumbled with the on button and was still stuck in the war scare.
That night, I gathered my damp hair—black, shiny, ordinary—and twisted it around a hot, burned chopstick that I’d warmed over the stove.
I went out the back door so she wouldn’t see me, down the street, where I could let the curls set. I sat in the grass, leaning against a tree, crumpling its fallen leaves in my hands. I remembered walking home from school a year and a half ago and seeing my father doing the same thing, after his friend got taken by the Japanese. I’d gone over and sat by him. The leaves had been green then.
But now, in the dark, I wasn’t alone. Two soldiers strolled past, shouting at each other in English with its sharp accents and edges. They smelled like smoke and salt, coffee-bitter.
I waited, not even daring to move. Perfect silence. Perfect respect. Looking down, I saw the rough pebbles splayed out across the uneven edge of the road, where the Jeeps had kicked them.
When I was little we used to go to the coast in the summer, stepping gingerly on the smoother pebbles in the soupy water, and I used to collect them and pretend they were coins. One time my baby cousin swallowed one, and my aunt said he would die, but he didn’t.
The next two soldiers that passed were different, quieter, and they stopped when they saw me. One looked like the sun had peeled his skin like a potato, leaving lumpy dark knots scattered across his face in the dim light.
They stared at my face and then down at the rest of me, then said something that was too stilted to be real Korean—“Drink?”—and I said yes, thank you, because even though they always handed out free chocolate bars, a soda pop was rare.
The soldier with the peeled-potato face grabbed my arm.
Drink. Where was the drink?
No, he couldn’t have meant a bar. If they were asking someone to go with them, they would have asked the Japanese girl. Her father was the traitor, not mine. Mine had been loyal to the Americans, always.
Maybe that was exactly why they wanted me. Maybe they could see it dripping from the ends of my new curls.
Peeled-potato-face walked me down the street. I felt the warmth of his hand wrapped around my arm as he pulled me away.
They drove me to a bar, a half hour’s drive away, in a Jeep that made too much noise and had carpeting of cigarette stubs and ash. “What name is yours?” one of them said. “Meeting you is nice.”
I said nothing, twisting my hands around each other and tapping one foot with my legs crossed, tightly wrapped.
Would they shoot me if I said no, if I took back the yes I’d said before? They could if they wanted to—at least that was what the war-whispers said.
When we got there, a stream of soldiers pushed and shoved their way out the door as the soldiers from my town tried to get in. Inside, there was almost no one in the entire bar.
They left me there after only a few minutes to go off with another group of Americans. The one with the spots on his face glanced back as they got up, but didn’t stop the others or pull me along. I sat at the table, alone, watching their still-full soju cups. The whole place smelled like spit, and even the chair I was sitting on felt like it was smeared with something sticky.
So this was what a bar was like. It didn’t feel that dangerous, really, just dirty.
I could feel one of the bartenders watching me as he stacked some glasses on the counter. They were cheap, the kind that would break when they were slammed on the tables.
I didn’t have money to buy my way home.
Mrs. Kim, a woman in her thirties with an eastern-province accent, said that she could give me a day or two of work until I could pay someone to drive me back.
I needed that day or two anyway. I didn’t want to face my mother just yet. Listen to the soldiers, she used to say—but I was sure she wouldn’t be happy that I’d done just that.
“Thank you,” I said to Mrs. Kim.
“I’ll get you a uniform,” she said. “Come with me. You can change back here.” As she opened a door in the back corner, I could see a dim hallway filled with hazy purple light.
She held the door for me. When I walked through, I could hear the voices for the first time.
It turned out that Mrs. Kim was in charge of all the others. She told us which “room” to go to—but they weren’t rooms, they were more like stalls, market stalls with goods inside, with girls shelved on tired-out beds. Stalls with big American men clomping in, with strange hair and eyes and voices. The official Japanese-run places that Mother had always worried about were gone, but Mrs. Kim had found a new market—this one was off the books, just cash being dropped into an old jar.
I couldn’t hide my shaking. Crying gave way to dry eyes within the first week. One of them actually scowled and spat on the floor on the way out. I threw up afterwards. Small, maggot-like rice grains splashed in the pot, and one of the ugly girls—fat face, crooked eyes—picked it up and carried it off with a sniffle.
“I want to leave,” I said to Mrs. Kim.
“You didn’t make enough. You wanted to go home, right? That costs money.”
I didn’t eat for days, but the faint feeling was now welcome.
I wasn’t going home. But maybe I could fade, shrivel until I was one of the girls who only had to carry the pots.
“Not diseased,” the doctor said. “But worse.”
“But she’s only been here for eight weeks. Most of them don’t have the Problem until much later,” Mrs. Kim said. “And we don’t have the money to deal with this. Can’t we just put her in with the rest?”
“Their supplies are low right now,” the doctor said dismissively, nervously pulling at his baseball cap. The bastard was barely Korean anymore, would never be a real doctor even when he left his twenties, just a pimp doctor for the places that served the Americans. “If you can’t afford to pay for it yourselves, then don’t keep her.”
Mrs. Kim turned to me and reached out to fix a clip that had slid down towards my ear, pinning my hair back like a little girl’s. “She has such nice hair,” she said. Her pity seemed to be growing like a zit into her roughly set face.
I inched back a little bit on the bed. “What’s the Problem?” I said.
The doctor laughed, his twenty-something skin crinkling into wrinkles. Closing his bag with a definitive click, he said, “She’ll get it eventually.”
“Go home,” Mrs. Kim said. “He’ll drive you there.”
The doctor had a little busted-up car that was too warm, with three of his stray beer cans rolling around my bare feet and ankles. He had a pair of glasses sitting in the ashtray, and he put them on while he drove.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t need to see. In half an hour I would no longer be a back alley girl. I would be home, tucked in under some covers in a long, thick nightgown, and I would sleep.
As we drove closer to the town, I saw the schoolteacher’s house, leaking water into the ditch on the side of the road. He was gone now, with the rest of the Japanese, but still, I turned my face away from the window and tried not to look at the doctor.
I had him drop me off on the far side of town.
“Is this your house?” he asked, pointing to a falling-down house with six or seven kids tripping in circles near the door. The dirt in front of their house was browned-over, shaken up.
“Where?” He looked confused, like my grandfather used to, in the year before he died—even though this man was only twenty, maybe. His thin shirt sagged around his thinner shoulders.
“Down the street.”
“Walk,” he said, and leaned over me to push the door open.
I didn’t answer. I climbed out of the car, walking slouched and crossing my arms to cover the parts that the shirt refused to.
I walked behind a stranger’s house and waited, tucked against the back wall, until I heard the doctor’s car drive away.
It was a long, looping walk, avoiding the center of town, cutting across fields instead of using the roads.
My hair was still pinned up, but the little clips were sliding down over my ears, almost falling out. I yanked them off, dropping them into the shattered dirt, and pulled myself tighter together, hiding as much as I could from the fields.
I ran through the last two streets, where all the people I knew were. The girls who used to sit near me at lunch could not see this. I ran up to the door and hit it as hard as I could, over and over, looking around hastily even though the only sounds were tree branches swaying.
Mother opened the door for me, but her face quickly shriveled. “We’ve been looking for you,” she said, looking down. “Your brother’s gone to the capital for you.”
“Of course he would do that,” I said. I tried to say it casually, the way I used to, but the words clunked against each other inside my mouth.
“We didn’t know,” she added.
I said nothing.
She shifted her arms, looking about ready to point to my slippers and order me to take them off. But the feet were already bare, and I tried to look at the kitchen instead of the sickeningly pink polish Mrs. Kim had put on my toes, in a cheap imitation of something American. “Never mind,” my mother said. “Go around the house.”
I leaned one hand against the side of the house and traced a line all the way around as I walked to the back, scraping my hand against the wood.
Mother poured scalding water into the wooden tub out back and dropped a lumpy bar of gritty soap on the ground beside it, along with old clothes. When she went back to the kitchen, I could hear her furiously scrubbing her hands, like she usually did after cleaning chickens. Like I was a slimy corpse about to have its feathers discarded.
The water was heated to the point of pain, but I kept my back straight. I was stiff now, unmovable. The feeling would pass, it would pass, I was safe.
I closed my eyes and sank deeper into the water, feeling clothed for the first time.