Westwind

Soo

Hanbyul Chung

Her mother went to a fortune-teller before she gave birth.

“Soo Jeong,” said the old man. “Make sure you name her Soo Jeong.”

Soo Jeong recalled asking her mother why she consulted a fortune-teller about her name. Soo Jeong. It didn’t seem to have much significance.

“Look, you don’t have to remind me that we’re Catholic,” said her mother. Small rivers of wrinkles formed on her forehead. “I just wanted to go see him.” She flicked her hand in the air as if she was about to swat a pesky fly. A firm line glued her mother’s lips together. Soo Jeong knew that she couldn’t ask her any more questions.

She sat silently as the thought of that conversation with her mother rippled throughout her conscious and rushed throughout her body until it vibrated out of her small shaky hands. She held her phone, with her thumb hovering over the letters m-o-m. Her mother was only a push of a button away, but Soo Jeong carefully pondered. It was true that she missed her mother. She wanted to tell her that she felt lost, that she still couldn’t get used to the change. All she needed was her mother’s reassurance. She tried to remember what it felt like to be in her mother’s arms. She faintly recalled a musky scent that overwhelmed her; it made her sometimes struggle to breathe, but somehow she still felt safe and protected in her mother’s arms.

Her mother’s stinging tone when her dad passed over the phone to her last time shattered Soo Jeong’s daydream. “You’re the one who wanted to go there, to that college,” her mother reminded her. “You’re the one who didn’t listen to me.” The phone clicked.

Soo Jeong remained still and stared at the area code of her mother’s phone number. 949. M-o-m. The numbers and letters collapsed into each other and grew blurry. 949–where Culver Street connected Soo Jeong’s elementary school to her high school. 949–where the local malls were, the paradises that excited Soo Jeong and her friends, making them giddily skip from just the thought of going there after school. 949–where her home was, only a block away from St. Joseph Cathedral. Her mother led her along with her dad there, always. Every Sunday at nine in the morning. No questioning of it. Sundays were when Soo Jeong had a given formula in getting ready: she tied her hair back, slipped on white–not cream or beige–stockings, and put on black oxfords.

“The left hand goes over the right when you receive the body of Christ,” her mother would always say. She sternly reminded Soo Jeong every time as she smoothed out her daughter’s dress and left the aisle before her.

Her mind went back to the time when her mother bought her a white dress that was meant to wear only to mass. She looked at herself in the mirror as her mother stood behind her like a hovering shadow, zipping her dress.

“Never show your bare body to anyone. That is not what a proper lady does. You should be ashamed if you ever do,” declared her mother.

Her bare body. That’s where her shame lived, in the form of small brown spots right above her left knee. She would always stare at it, as it looked straight back at her, taunting her with its permanent imprint on her outer shell. No short dresses. No skirts. No shorts. She refused to wear anything that would reveal that hideous imperfection. Soo Jeong tried to focus on her studies to forget about its existence. But the more she planted her face in reading books, the further she drew herself away from introducing herself to others and meeting new people. She didn’t admit that a pang of loneliness seeped throughout her body.

The thought of calling her dad slowly rose in her mind. It was easy to talk to him. Her dad listened; her mother never did. But Soo Jeong also knew that he’d surely ask how she was doing and he’d somehow detect her silent tears and constant sniffling. She’d blurt about the sudden incessant pain in her lower back. She decided not to call him. She would just worry him. She already made herself worried earlier that day when she remained in the bathroom and stared at her ruined underwear. Dried droplets of blood left merciless stains. Her period was over two weeks ago; she knew something was wrong.

She immediately dismissed the thought of visiting a gynecologist. Even the slightest possibility of needing a pelvic exam was enough. Maybe Lauren, her roommate, could tell her what to do. No. She and Soo Jeong merely shared the usual “hey.” Soo Jeong decided to keep to herself and went to class, avoiding eye contact with any guys on the way.

Her eyes did, however, study Eren. Eren rushed in during roll call. Her face was slightly flushed from running to class, but a soft pink hue around her sunken cheeks made her glow. She fanned herself and flipped her long wavy hair back as she silently mouthed “sorry” to the professor. Soo Jeong wanted to unwrap her as if she were a surprise present that had a pretty red bow.

“Sue?”

Soo Jeong flinched back to reality.

“Sue?” Professor Lacey called her name.

“Here,” Soo Jeong quietly answered. Her voice sounded like it was hardly uttered from deep inside a cave.

Class went by as usual, and when Professor Lacey finished lecturing, Soo Jeong crossed off “Eng. 255” on her agenda before she packed up and left. “Finish reading assigned chapter” was the next item on her list. She pushed open the door and was about to turn into the hallway when suddenly Eren stopped her.

“Hey! Remember me? We took Professor Gleaton’s class together last semester,” exclaimed Eren.

“I do. Hi,” said Soo Jeong.

“You know the exam that’s coming up for Lacey’s class? Do you want to study with me?”

Eren’s energy was like a crashing wave; it completely surrounded Soo Jeong, splashing her with vivacity, and then it sucked her back into its wild core. It was refreshing. Cooling. Addicting. Soo Jeong couldn’t resist Eren. She took one of Soo Jeong’s hands and insisted with a gleaming smile.

A week later, Soo Jeong found herself walking up to a study room in the library, where Eren waited for her with two drinks in her hands.

“I got one for you. I hope you like coffee,” said Eren.

“Oh. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it! So, are you enjoying Lacey’s class?”

“He seems like a good professor. I just don’t like how he calls me Sue.”

Eren chuckled. “Why?” she asked.

“My mom named me Soo Jeong. It’s disrespectful to call me anything else.”

“Oh, I see. Well, if it makes you feel any better, people say my name wrong all the time. It’s supposed to sound like Erin–you know, the generic name–but how I spell it throws people off. When I was little, I hated spelling my name with an ‘i’ so I started replacing it with an ‘e’. My mom yelled at me so much whenever she caught me doing that, but to this day I still spell my name that way.”

Eren roared a hearty laugh then immediately covered her mouth with her own hands when she remembered she was in a library. Soo Jeong laughed along with her. Eren was like a rare flower–those that bloom only once a year. Soo Jeong wanted to sink her face in her petals and inhale their sweet addictive scent forever.

The two studied for a while when Eren asked Soo Jeong if she wanted to take a break.

“I need a cigarette,” Eren groaned.

Soo Jeong hesitated to step outside with Eren; she wasn’t used to being around people who smoked. But when Soo Jeong noticed Eren rubbing her face with the palm of her hands, she pushed the door open for her study mate. Once outside, Soo Jeong folded her arms and tucked her hands under her elbows. She stood erect next to Eren who gently rocked her body back and forth while she sat on a bench.

“You know what this little thing reminds me of?” asked Eren with a blank stare.

Soo Jeong looked at the ignited cigarette.

“My ex-boyfriend. He used to smoke them all the time,” said Eren. “See this?” Eren turned her head to the side and swept her hair back. A faint red scar lay on the side of her neck.

“My ex did that,” said Eren. “He cut me one time with a piece of glass.”

A small hole formed between Soo Jeong’s lips as she raised her eyebrows.

“I only wore scarves for a year,” Eren continued. “I even wore turtlenecks in the summer, for God’s sake. I never wanted to reveal my scar. But you know, I just realized that me covering it only gives him power–it lets him have power over me. And he doesn’t control my life. I do.” Eren ran her fingers over her scar and smiled.

“How long did it take you to get over your scar?” Soo Jeong quietly asked.

“I definitely needed some time. But me taking the first step to choose to think about it differently matters more than time, I think.”

Soo Jeong glanced down and rubbed her left knee. She wore jeans, but she felt like she could see her birthmark through them. “I don’t know if I can ever get over scars. I feel like they stay with you forever,” she whispered.

“What do you mean?” Eren scooted closer to where Soo Jeong stood.

“Scars–they’re forever there. You can’t forget them. They’re always there, and I feel like I can’t be perfect if I have them.” Soo Jeong’s eyes began to swell with tears.

“Hey.” Eren gently pulled Soo Jeong’s hand and sat her down.

“Hiding them is the best thing to do. Never show anyone, I’ve always been told.” Soo Jeong wept.

Eren wrapped her arms around this girl who just unraveled and quietly held her. A sweet floral scent suffocated Soo Jeong, but she wanted it to linger forever.

***

Soo Jeong sat in the bathroom and stared at her own blood. It was happening again. Taking the first step. The voice rang in her ears. She grabbed her phone before she could even think and called the student medical center to see a gynecologist. She dialed her dad after the doctor’s visit.

“Dad?”

“Hey, I haven’t talked to you in a while. Why haven’t you called lately? Are you doing ok? How are your classes?”

Soo Jeong squeezed her eyes shut. “Dad, I went to see a women’s practitioner today.” She paused then exhaled. “I’ve been having a bit of pain lately. I’m going to go see the doctor again after she gets back the test results. I should be fine, though.” Suddenly she felt like she was rolling down a hill. She tumbled down faster and faster until she gained enough momentum and asked, “Dad, we don’t have any odd health complications that run in our family, right? The doctor asked about my family’s medical history.”

The other end of the line grew silent.

“Hello?” Soo Jeong asked.

“Are you sure you’re ok? Since when have you had this pain? Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Are you eating well?” Her dad’s voice began to quiver.

“Dad, you don’t have to worry. See your daughter, Soo Jeong? I’m here. I’m fine.”

“I need you to be ok. I don’t want you to ever go through what your mom had to endure. You won’t. You’ll be fine, and don’t worry.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh-I-I-she…”

“Dad, what’s wrong? Tell me what?”

“Well,” he sighed. “I-I think it’s important for you to know that your mother had a miscarriage before we had you. I know that she never told you about it herself. I remember she felt so guilty, like your sister’s death was all because of her fault.”

“I would’ve had a sister?”

“Her name was Soo Yeong. Your mother wanted to name you after your sister. When she got pregnant with you, she was scared it’d happen again. That’s why she saw a fortune-teller. He insisted that it was bad luck to give you your sister’s name. So she named you Soo Jeong.”

Soo Jeong assured her dad that she was fine and hung up. Suddenly all she could think about was her birthmark. She rolled up her pants and revealed the despised imprint. The same brown dots were there just as always, but Soo Jeong pictured her sister giggling as she scattered the spots all over her knee. Soo Yeong. Her sister smirked then disappeared. Soo Jeong shivered. Soo Jeong never met her sister–she didn’t know her sister–but she was afraid of her. Soo Jeong felt like a paralyzed puppet that couldn’t do anything until it was given orders.

Sunday mass. White stockings. Left hand over the right.

A lifeless, mute puppet.

***

Eren insisted that Soo Jeong meet her friend.

“Come on, he’s really nice. I’m sure you’d like him,” said Eren.

Soo Jeong stared at Eren’s eyes. She could easily let herself fall into them, but she couldn’t do the same when it came to men. She never even started a conversation with a guy before.

“I’m shy. Can I just please meet him next time?” asked Soo Jeong.

“Oh all right.” Eren pouted. “But you have to promise me that you’ll–Oh my God, Alex! You’re finally here! What took you so long?”

Eren’s friend walked over and gave her a hug.

“Sorry I’m late,” said Alex. He noticed Soo Jeong and offered her a handshake. “Eren has told me a lot about you. It’s nice to finally meet you. From what I recall, is your name Soo J-”

“Soo.” Soo Jeong smiled. “My name is Soo.”

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