The Dry Cleaner's Wife
Mrs. Ahn turned away from her daughter. Grace, who turns sixteen this week, was trying on the white party dress her mother had spent all week sewing. Mrs. Ahn had stayed late at the dry cleaning shop every evening, staring out of the large plate glass window into the emptying parking lot as she worked the foot pedal of the sewing machine. It was fall in New England and there was snow in the forecast. But Mrs. Ahn had said she felt capable of driving home on her own and asked Mr. Ahn to go home, give dinner to their daughters, and supervise their homework. She enjoyed these silent nights by herself, alone with her thoughts and the hum of the sewing machine. She could dream freely without Mr. Ahn by her side. Last night she'd painstakingly sewed tiny silver sequins on the bodice of the sleeveless dress, picturing Grace sparkling as she twirled in it.
But unlike her mother, Grace was not made for dancing. Her shoulders were broad, her calves muscular from long afternoons on the lacrosse field. From behind the faded curtain that demarcated the changing area of her mother's sewing business, Grace shifted her weight and dug her large toes into the worn bathmat. Mrs. Ahn frowned at her daughter.
"Grace. Stop fidgeting so much. Don't you like your dress?"
The daughter's smile was dutiful. "Yes, umma."
"That doesn't sound very sincere. I spent five nights sewing this dress. The least you can do is be appreciative."
"No. I mean, yes. I really like it, umma. Thank you."
Grace's voice sounded hollow. She stared at an irregular brown rust stain on the mirror. Following her gaze, Mrs. Ahn's eyes fell instead upon her daughter's reflection. The rust mark blurred the left side of Grace's waist, half-obscuring the unflattering image behind it. The stiff fabric of the white dress folded into creases at the waist, bisecting Grace's soft belly in two. Grace's large thighs bulged against the back of the dress so that small stitches showed at the seams. In choosing the pattern, Mrs. Ahn had imagined a sophisticated sheath flowing over her daughter's curves, but she now saw it was the wrong choice. Her lips tightened. She moved her gaze to her daughter and began cataloguing her flaws. Grace's skin was coarse and dark. Her eyes were set too close together. Her lower lip was always wet and chapped from her habit of absentmindedly chewing on it. She wore her only asset, her thick wavy hair, in an unbecoming ponytail.
When Grace was born, Mrs. Ahn had named her Bo-ah—"refined jewel" in Korean. She had been surprised by the shining infant the postpartum nurse dropped into her lap. The baby had beamed up at her, and Jewel seemed the perfect name. But this name was the only thing Mr. Ahn had rejected about Grace prior to adopting her. He wanted to rename her "Grace" in keeping with his religion, and Mrs. Ahn was in no position to object. Thus Bo-ah became Grace, and a month after she came of age, Mrs. Ahn married Mr. Ahn and took his name. She hadn't heard anyone call her by her first name, Hye-bin, in fifteen years.
Other than her Korean name, Mr. Ahn had easily accepted everything else about Grace. This was in keeping with his placid nature; he approached customer complaints, broken equipment, and the rare racist insult with equanimity. Or servility, Mrs. Ahn sometimes thought to herself while she watched her elderly husband bowing as he handed change back to a surprised customer. In either case, she could not say the same of herself.
Grace was hopping from foot to foot. She searched for her mother's eyes in the mirror.
"Umma? I...um, kind of have to go to the bathroom?"
Mrs. Ahn sighed. She tucked an errant strand of hair behind her daughter's ear, letting her fingers brush against her daughter's cheek. Grace smiled at her mother, but Mrs. Ahn's eyes hardened as she looked down again at her daughter's figure.
"A-i-ssi! My god Grace, you've been eating too much of that American junk food. I measured you for this dress just last month, and you are already too fat to fit properly into it. What boy will ask you to the prom when you look like this?"
"But the prom isn't until..."
"Too late, too late. I have a rush order to finish tonight and won't have time to let out your dress. You'll have to diet before your party tomorrow. No dinner."
Grace chewed on her lip. Mrs. Ahn unzipped her.
"It's for your own good. Trust umma. Now go change. And be careful when you take the dress off. I don't want any burst seams."
Grace stepped behind the curtains with a slow nod. Mrs. Ahn sighed loudly and walked towards the front of the store, letting her hand trail idly through the sheaves of plastic-covered clothing that hung from the garment conveyor. A deep red dress caught her eye. She stopped in front of the clothes and began to flip through them more slowly, pausing here and there at the more expensive garments. She could feel the suppleness of the silk, the warm comfort of the fur coats through their covers. But, newly pristine, they were separated from her fingers by a cold plastic film that protected them from her rough callused hands and the invisible oils on her skin. Mrs. Ahn stared down at her hands, rubbing them against one another.
The doorbell chimed. It was Mr. Newman, a businessman who seemed to Mrs. Ahn too glamorous for their small northeastern town. He brought in Italian suits and English shirts almost every week. One night Mrs. Ahn had examined the labels and understood his clothing was custom made. Mr. Newman now sauntered towards her, his fair skin bright against his dark wavy hair. His blonde wife sometimes came in with a cashmere sweater or a velvet holiday dress for their young daughter, but usually Mr. Newman came in by himself in the mid-afternoon drag. "Coffee and dry cleaning," he liked to joke, "my afternoon treat." There was something about the way he said the word "treat" that made Mrs. Ahn blush and look down.
* * *
She remembered this feeling from years ago, when she was fifteen and a sophomore at the Sookmyung Girls' High School. It was a prestigious private school in Seoul and Mrs. Ahn — Hye to her friends back then — the star student. Her friends' fathers were lawyers, businessmen, doctors. Hye's father worked at an international accounting firm and regularly traveled abroad, bringing back treats like scented tea from London or tinned chocolates from Paris. Hye's friends had looked at her with envy.
At school Hye and her friends wore schoolgirl uniforms: starched white cotton blouse, tartan skirt, navy knee socks. Their maids polished their Mary Janes each day after school. In the mornings, Hye liked to brush her sleek hair for exactly ten minutes to bring out its shine. Makeup was forbidden, but she hid a powder compact in her backpack with which she dusted her small heart-shaped face throughout the day. The rice powder blended easily into her pale skin.
Before every economics class Hye would pinch her cheeks and bite her lips, then, lips swollen, slowly saunter past the new seonsang-nim Mr. Pak, trailing her fingers on his desk. He had started teaching economics that fall and attracted some attention for his unusual height, thick hair, and the way he curved his upper lip when he smiled. When Mr. Pak smiled at Hye his eyes lingered on her small breasts and made their way down almost to her pale knees, which flashed white between her pleated skirt and her dark knee-high socks. Hye would quickly look down, but when she lifted her eyes again he would still be looking at her. At first she was flattered, but then she noticed he looked at other girls this way too.
The economics lectures Mr. Pak gave were simplistic and somewhat labored. Hye almost always understood his point before he reached it. Some of the other girls pretended to need help to get extra attention, but Hye knew that was not the way. She started dropping by Mr. Pak's classroom after school.
"Seonsang-nim. Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon, Hye. Great work on your exam last week."
"Thank you, Seonsang-nim." Hye paused and nibbled on her lower lip. She smiled up at her teacher. "I am lucky. My father works at Deloitte. He helps me understand the difficult subjects."
"Your father must be very intelligent."
"He is. He is a senior partner."
"Ah. Then I respect him. He is a successful man. I am only an economics teacher."
"He always says he is looking for good people to join his team. I can put in a good word for you."
"Really? Then I am in your debt. But how do you know I am a good person?"
Though her heart was pounding, Hye looked down demurely. She was enjoying this game.
"My father is easy to convince. I am his favorite. I can get almost anything I want from him, if I ask the right way."
Mr. Pak smiled then, his lips curving into a dimple. "How does he like to be asked?"
Hye smiled too. "I have my ways."
* * *
The small house smelled of garlic and frying oil. Grace had requested her father make her favorite Korean foods for her birthday, and the dining table was now laden with spicy napa cabbage, dried sardines, seaweed salad, sesame-flecked bean sprouts, pickled ramps, stir-fried rice cakes, grilled beef skewers, blackened nori crisps, and a host of other savory dishes. Mrs. Ahn shook her head at the gluttony of it all. Other than their small family—Grace, her younger sister Mary, Mrs. Ahn, and Mr. Ahn—only three of Grace's friends from her lacrosse team would be joining them for dinner. Grace wasn't the social butterfly Mrs. Ahn had been.
Mrs. Ahn walked into the kitchen, where Mr. Ahn was frying a batch of crispy dumplings. "A-i-ssi! How much food are you making? This is too much."
Mr. Ahn smiled placidly at his wife. "It's all right. Tonight is Grace's night. I want her to be happy."
"She can't eat, you know. She barely fits into her dress as it is."
Mr. Ahn smiled again. "Don't worry. Grace told me about the dress, and I had it let out. She can eat as much as she likes tonight."
Mrs. Ahn's color rose. "Where did you take the dress? It was a rush order, right? One-day turnaround. How much did it cost? I could have done it. Why didn't you discuss this with me?"
"Please don't fight. It is Grace's birthday. You've made a beautiful dress, but you had the rush order last night. I didn't want you to stay up late. Please don't worry. It wasn't too expensive."
"How do you even know what is expensive or not?" Mrs. Ahn was surprised by the vehemence in her own voice. "Not you. You're not smart enough." She held up her hand. "Look at my fingers. See these calluses? I've been sewing every single night this week. You think you're the only one who wants Grace to be happy?" She swiped at a plate on the counter. Squares of sour radish kimchi flew towards the ground, bouncing off of the cabinets before landing in red splatters on the linoleum floor.
They stared at the mess.
"See what you made me do?"
"I will clean it up. Go get changed please. Quickly. Let me do this before the kids see it." Mr. Ahn smiled with his eyes on the floor. " Let me take care of it. Everything will be okay. "
Mrs. Ahn turned and walked into the dining room, where Grace and Mary were setting the table in silence. Grace wore her white dress, which now skimmed smoothly over her body. Her hair was neatly pinned back and fell in glossy waves upon her shoulders. She'd powdered her nose and colored her lips a pale pink. Two years younger, Mary wasn't yet allowed to wear make-up, but Mrs. Ahn detected powder on her pale face as well.
"Mary! What do you have on your face!" Mrs. Ahn walked up to her daughter and swiped a finger on her cheek. She rubbed her fingers together. "You know you're not allowed to wear make-up."
Mary kept polishing the utensils. Grace set down a glass and walked over. "Umma, I just put a bit of powder on Mary's cheeks. That's all."
"You know it's against the rules. Mary is too young for make-up."
"But it's hardly make-up! And we're at home, it's not like she's secretly doing this behind your back."
"Rules are rules! I make the rules because I know what's good for you. I'm doing this for your own good and you argue with me?" Grace and Mary listened silently, their hands still. "Mary. Go wash your face!"
Mary set down the rag in her hand and turned to walk upstairs. Grace followed her. Mrs. Ahn stared at their retreating backs. She'd had high hopes for her daughters when they first came into the world, with their pert noses and their soft lips like shining petals. But she had been disappointed. Both girls had grown thick and stocky during adolescence. Mary had inherited Mr. Ahn's bulbous nose and fleshy lips. Meanwhile, Grace, whose slender body had always brought a smile of recognition to Mrs. Ahn's lips, had expanded in recent years as though willing itself to favor her adoptive father and half-sister. The three also resembled each other in spirit. They were openly satisfied with their low, quiet lives; a religious man, Mr. Ahn encouraged his daughters to be happy with little, and they accepted his teachings. Mrs. Ahn felt this as a rebuke to her own nature. Sometimes she noticed her daughters blinking slowly at her, as if willing her to complacency.
"Grace!" Mrs. Ahn yelled towards the stairs, loud enough for Mr. Ahn to hear from the kitchen. "Your dad told me about the dress. Don't use this as an excuse to over eat tonight. You're still too fat. You have to learn to think about your future. Someday I won't be here to do it for you."
Without turning to look at her mother, Grace nodded her head as she continued up the stairs.
* * *
The intense hunger was the first indication something was wrong. Hye had never been a big eater, preferring to pick her way through the piquant banchan which accompanied Korean meals instead of eating much rice or meat. She had started watching her weight in elementary school after hearing her father complain about how off-putting he found heavy women. So she was surprised that spring when she found herself craving hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes, greasy yet bland western food she normally stayed away from.
As the trees began to bud and cherry blossoms began to appear in the flower arrangements the florist delivered to their high-rise each week, Hye gave in to her cravings. Her body began to bloat. Her normally small face grew puffy. Her hands, usually cold, became hot and inflamed. She gave off a steamy scent, like the wheat buns that street vendors sold from bamboo steamers during the long Korean winter. When her uniform no longer buttoned around her waist, she stepped into Mr. Pak's classroom.
"Seonsang-nim. Good afternoon."
Mr. Pak glanced up briefly.
"Hye. I'm very busy today."
"Yes, I know. But I cannot keep this secret anymore."
Mr. Pak's eyes remained on the sheaf of papers in his hands.
"I do not have any secrets with you."
Hye bowed deeply. "Seonsang-nim. Please listen. I don't know what to do."
Mr. Pak shuffled his papers noisily. "Silly girl. What do you want from me? I had fun but you are not for me. Now go. I need time to grade these exams. If I do not have enough time to grade these exams, I may make a mistake when I grade yours."
Hye bit down on her bottom lip, her small white teeth flashing.
"Seonsang-nim. Please don't make me go away."
"There is nothing else I can do for you, Hye." Mr. Pak finally looked into her eyes. "You said you wanted to, remember. You can't take that back. Now leave me be."
The students of the Sookmyung Girls' High School were surprised one afternoon a few weeks later when they went to change for gym class. In the back corner of the girls' changing room, under a bench on which the girls sat as they pulled on their gym shorts, they found a bright red pool of paint. It was red tempura paint, the kind that neatly lined the shelves of the art room in plastic squeeze bottles. The puddle had an untidy but determined look, as if a kindergartener had been tasked with squeezing out a perfect red circle. A message written in cursive on a scrap of paper next to the paint explained the vandalism: "Here is where Mr. Pak spilled my virgin blood on November 29, 2001, at 6:23pm." It was signed Hye-bin Kim.
Of course there had been a scandal, though through the efforts of the school administrators and parent community the news had not spread outside of the school. Mr. Pak had been speedily removed from his post. The students were cautioned never to speak of Hye's transgression lest her shame rub off on their own good names. Hye was also removed from school. Her parents sent her to stay with poor relations in a suburb outside of Ulsan. Hye was allowed to bring one suitcase with her. Her parents had confiscated her cell phone and deleted her email account. She felt forsaken as she walked through the living room towards the waiting driver. Though her mother had embraced her at the door, her father hadn't looked up from his newspaper.
Hye gave birth that fall. She had been nervous, but Bo-ah came into the world easily, virtually slipping out of her body. Having never had to manage any affairs other than her schoolwork, Hye was surprised by the number of forms she had to fill out. She stared at the birth certificate for a long time before finally writing Bo-ah Kim under "Name." Bo-ah was the name of a popular Korean actress, and Hye suspected naming a child after an actress might be seen as gauche. But she had no one to turn to for advice, and the baby really seemed so perfect, like a polished gemstone.
Hye remembered the first moments after meeting her daughter in the sterile suite of the private hospital. She stroked the baby's tiny hand and marveled at her neat features. She wished she could tell someone about the surprising pride she felt, but no one was there to share it with. Her parents had paid for her hospital stay but were too ashamed of their daughter to visit. She had not seen them in five months.
One afternoon a few months later, Hye was breastfeeding Bo-ah when her aunt handed her the phone. Her aunt treated her cordially because Hye's parents sent her money each month to host Hye and her child. But she did not seem happy to have Hye in her house. Hye's mother had not kept in touch with her sister after her marriage, and the coolness between the sisters had seeped between aunt and niece as well. Prior to giving birth, Hye sometimes caught her aunt frowning at her protruding belly as if in fear it would bring misfortune into her own small world.
Hye's mother's voice sounded cool over the phone line.
"Hye. You have a second cousin in America. Connecticut. He is older, but he has a steady business and wants to have a wife. He is a good man. He will accept you and your child. We think it is a good proposal. The flight is next week. We will send your auntie the information."
Hye listened to her mother quietly, feeling a loosening in her chest as her daughter suckled at her breast. She enjoyed breastfeeding, particularly the softening that happens when the milk let down. Today she imagined the tears that wouldn't rise to her eyes instead flowing downwards, through her breasts, and into the mouth of her shining daughter. Hye's mother waited for her response. The line was silent. Hye closed her eyes.
"Yes, umma. I will go."
* * *
To Hye's surprise Mr. Ahn was indeed a good man. He brought flowers when he picked them up at the airport and carefully fastened Bo-ah into her new infant carseat. His Hyundai was old but well maintained. Their daughter Mary was born two years later. Hye had never seen Mr. Ahn treat the girls any differently or give any indication that one of them was not his biological child. He often expressed his gratitude for their presence in his life. His love was simple, unconditional.
Mr. Ahn was now painting snowflakes upon the plate glass window at the front of the store, his back bowed in concentration. Mrs. Ahn stared at her husband's broad back, the sparse white hair that flared around his balding head. She looked around the dry cleaning shop. The spotlessly clean glass which Mr. Ahn squeegeed each morning. The faded scrolled lettering on the glass: "Ahn's Dry Cleaning. 7 Days a Week. Good Price." She picked at a chip in the worn linoleum-lined counter.
The doorbell chimed. Mr. Newman walked through the doorway. Dust motes danced around him in the afternoon sun. He walked towards her with an even white smile. Mrs. Ahn felt rising behind her the accumulated resentment of the garments hanging from their rotating machine. They shimmered silently in their plastic sheaths like the ghosts of a future she couldn't know. She looked directly into Mr. Newman's eyes.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Newman." Mrs. Ahn bit her lower lip. Her fingers brushed against Mr. Newman's as she took his claim ticket. "In for your afternoon treat?