Oct/Nov 2020  •   Fiction


by Sandra Florence

Public domain street art

Public domain street art

It's raining in this desert city as I walk to the Korean student's house, and when I get there, she greets me with, "I didn't like your English lesson today. Very boring." She looks disapproving. She waits for my response.

"Well, there's nothing I can do about that. I can't please you."

"Hum, maybe, maybe not."

I'm used to this; I've been coming here for three weeks. I remove my shoes. Once I'm inside and seated, she grabs my arm and tells me she's bored here in the states—her life on file and her voice played back to her in the classroom where she writes stories about crossing the great Southwest, losing her vacuum cleaner on the highway, and being embarrassed by her husband's poor English. I've heard this before, many times, and I understand how she must feel, living in a country that does not acknowledge her experience as a healer and teacher.

"Where did you say you were trained?" I ask, more as a joke than anything.

"I was trained by the great Buddhist wizard, Zuikan. And where did you study?"

"I studied Linguistics at MIT." Then we laugh together. We have these silly interchanges about each other's training and education, always a different school, a different wizard.

She sterilizes the tiny needles and puts 80 of them into my right hand. I grimace and squirm with the sting of each needle, and she tells me to think about those less fortunate than myself. I walk around her living room with the needles in my hand while she washes the plums in dish soap, dries them till they shine, then brings a bowl of them for us to eat. They are juicy and delicious, and I slurp the juice a little as she watches without comment.

"Why are you watching me? Stop watching me eat." Then she gives me a stern look.

"You a little bit sloppy." She laughs. I laugh.

Another woman arrives, bent over at the waist. She leaves 30 minutes later, upright and free of pain and, I notice, without paying. "Aren't you charging everyone for your services?" I ask. "I told you, Americans don't believe in it unless they have to pay for it."

She stares at me and then says, "You believe that, and that's why you pay."

This doesn't seem fair. "Why is it taking me so long?" I ask.

"Some are sicker than others," she replies in a sing-songy voice.

The needles in my hand throb a little. We go into one of the bedrooms, and she tells me to lie on my stomach on a blanket. She begins heating the ceramic cups over a flame and then puts them on my back. Sometimes she puts the hot cup on so fast, the flame licks my skin. The skin is instantly sucked into the cup. My whole back begins to ache with the fire and suction. The last time she did this, I had big, purple bruises on my back for a week.

She leaves me lying there and goes to the kitchen to tend the Korean noodle she insists I try when the treatment is finished. She tells me a story about her life: "...a Vietnamese woman runs through a burning field—her daughters carry baskets of fire to school past yards of distressed and tattered gowns—over and over like a number played perpetually in jukebox America, bomb, sand, tears exploding at dusk, a form of living that's gut-gnawing and..."

"But... you're not Vietnamese," I say, interrupting her monologue.

"Use your imagination," she says with frustration. Before all this started, she held my hand in hers, carefully examining the thumbnail, and said with some satisfaction, "You will have gall bladder problem. Too much fat in American diet."

She comes back into the room and starts removing the cups. It takes ten minutes. The cool air from a fan blows across my back, and I have a moment of relief from the hot, raw feeling inside me. Then suddenly, she rolls me over, unbuttons my jeans and pushes my pants down to expose my navel. Should I trust this woman? She puts medicine flower in my navel and lights it before I have a chance to stop her. It flames up, and I feel a piercing pain right through my navel and down into my rectum. I start to scream, but before I can, the flame dies out and a fragrant smell of herbs fills the room. I'm terrified now.

"My god, what are you doing?" I yell at her. "I want to go. Can I go now?"

She slaps my arm and says, "You have no courage—no courage and no imagination!" She gets up and goes back to the Korean noodle.

"Are you trying to torture me? Does this have anything to do with today's lesson?" She doesn't answer, but I hear her slamming cupboards and banging pots around. I feel I've offended her, been ungrateful. I want her to come back and talk to me, but the TV murmurs as she shuts me out... Junkie juveniles rake rainbows of pain from their hair and a wave of clean light falls off the hands of a woman high on decongestants.

"Kiko is going to demonstrate the Japanese Tea Ceremony for our class next week," I shout through the doorway, hoping to rouse her interest, hoping she'll come back. She comes in and looks at me, and I know I've said something wrong again. "The Japanese stole Tea Ceremony from Koreans. Korean is the oldest culture."

My navel is throbbing. My right hand is paralyzed. I wonder if she has any idea what she's doing besides causing me pain. Perhaps that's her only intention. Maybe I'm the object of some weird revenge because things aren't turning out like she planned. She's becoming a contortionist, an acrobat, folding herself into life in this country.

My rectum zings with pain. I'm relying on the good nature of the universe and this woman to pull me through. So far my healer hasn't shown much. I want to say, "I relate, I hear you, and I know a Japanese woman who keeps time to the music in her aerobics class, bouncing in a pink leotard fantasy—later she scrubs away the sweat, her body alleviated of the pain all foreign women who marry GIs have. But I'm not very good talking this professional jargon, this selfish, aristocratic gobbledygook. I need help. That's why I came here. Too much traffic in my blood. I need her to help shift the burdens around so they won't be so hard to carry.

She brings me a bowl of noodle. I eat and don't have questions now, but I feel a small place inside me, very small like a tiny dot, beginning to open, and this makes me want to tell her one thing, to reveal something. Even if she's trying to poison me, I want her to know this. "I'm a lesbian," I say, "I want you to know."

"Okay," she nods, somewhat indifferently. I ignore her disinterest and ask, "Did you know any lesbians in Korea?" She looks pensive, even thoughtful for the first time today.

"Where I lived with my parents in Seoul, there were two women who lived next door to us. One dressed as a man, the other a woman. They were married, together a long time. Maybe you should get married."

"I don't want to marry. I was married once. That was enough."

She looks at me for a moment with an expression I can't read, then says, "My husband is studying for his doctorate in Computer Science. He never wants to make love anymore. He's too tired all the time. I tell him he has to try."

A really whacked out piece of music has been playing on someone's stereo upstairs, over and over until I notice I'm sitting here in this desert believing finally in the death of dreams. I look out at the reflection of sky and cloud, and it puts me in a peril of positive thinking higher than the machinations of computer screens screeching out a catechism of treachery and business incentives. I'm getting used to the sudden pain, the little aches and irritations of knowing this woman. And when she reaches over to push the hair away from my ear, to take the lobe in her fingers, to stroke it, her fingers are petal soft, and a shudder goes through my whole body. She finds the spot on my ear and burns it with medicine flower, screeching pain, and I almost cry out.

"You like to burn things don't you?" I'm holding my ear against my head to stop the throbbing.

"No remainder. I want you to be perfect when you leave." she says. And there's something inside me that wants to be, for her.

"Could you love a woman?" I ask stupidly.

"Yes, perhaps," she says, then turns away.

Her husband has returned home from the university. He peeks into the room, says hi, waves, then goes into the living room and begins dancing while she removes my needles. He wants her attention, and so he stumbles around the room, trying to make her laugh. I want to join him, make lots of noise, dancing, giggling like a disruptive, naughty child. A Korean talent show on the VCR catches my attention momentarily, but there are other things much more compelling than this, and much more profound. A screen of floating chrysanthemums makes me want to reach for her. I can see us hugging in a landscape of unfinished buildings and road construction—we can't drive more than five feet without running into a hole in the road—we share bread over a boundary of questions and talk into the blankets of the wildest mental condition—and all this talk of problems and pain has made me think of love—the kind of love that sears right through the physical body and down into the earth. Her husband is still dancing when I leave, and as she escorts me to the door, he does a backflip, shaking the apartment walls. We all laugh, and she says, "He's crazy."

"How will I feel a few days from now?"

"I can't tell you that, but you don't need to come anymore."

"Wait," I panic, "Why?"

"It's enough," she says softly and closes the door. The small space inside me feels much bigger now—big enough for the wind and rain to pass through, but the rain has stopped, and I walk back through the ruined paragraphs of the city to where the old trains flutter. Maybe she and her husband will get into bed together. She'll lie next to him, her hand on his naked thigh, waiting for him to return her touch.

Several days later, I am lying on my bed and my left leg opens. I can see sky and trees through it. Then my entire left side opens, and there is no boundary between what is me and what is not me. I feel my bones have been sunken and lifted and dreamed out into weeks of daylight. My heart, almost ready to die, has been found on a silly street where all the houses are painted pastels and people keep asking questions about station wagons pulling out of driveways. That's what love would be like with her—I feel I know. I feel I've been saved from making one more stab at love's angry telegrams, sucking love up my nose, feeling my brow disengage from all the dreaming adolescent girls get away with.

Days later, I am searching for my socks and bra, and I find them hanging in a tree, and I go into a drugstore to buy some lipstick—she had remarked on my lipstick as though it were some kind of funny war ritual—and everything is flying around—braids, French twists, combs, barrettes—and I turn suddenly, knocking a box of boutonnieres off a shelf, and a wall of lilies crashes to the floor. And just the act of walking takes on new dimensions, like every step has laughter in it, and the smell of lilac and fennel, and the aroma of old suitcases and long journeys where your hair comes down and no amount of fixing, tying, and pinning can help—you just have that look. I think of her dark eyes and translucent skin, and her quick anger—of her anger as saving me—and I think of the patio where she sometimes sits, missing the daughter she left behind in Korea.

It goes on like this for weeks, and I wonder about them. Did they examine the broken umbrella I left behind? Does he take slow flight inside her at night—his wings and mouth beating against her breast in a solitary dream of deliverance—and do the roses distill into a careful light only she would know what to do with—fingernails scratching his back, leaving marks in the bitterest earth, like furious ghosts tumbling through some exterminated time or village or dream they had once shared—that I never would?

And I wonder if she will return to class. Will she come back to write her stories about her husband, her father, and her in-laws who are disappointed because she had not yet given them a son?

And a foreign language scatters across the living room, the words like so many shoes—delicate shoes made of paper, and sometimes, when you get lucky, silk.