by Juli Min
In a white undershirt and khaki shorts that he pulled up and belted high on his waist above the little pouch of belly, Sung stood at the sink in the bathroom and twisted the water handle all the way to the left. Hot. He needed very hot. He waited patiently as the water turned, looking around at the floor of their bathroom as he did. It had grown dirty over the last two months, ever since Hanna had been too weak to clean. His eyes glazed over the tiles and the toilet seat with disgust. The toilet was stained with what he knew were drops of his dried, badly aimed urine, and the tiles surrounding it needed a good scouring. But he looked away so that the grime was out of his range of vision. It would get cleaned up somehow.
Issue #55 soundtrack: Ruin/Renewal "When I Return to the River"
He looked into the wide mirror that lined the bathroom wall and looked at his hair. It was almost all gone now, except for the two grey patches above his ears on both sides and the line of hair that grew around the back of his head like the rings of a planet. He picked at a large brown mole that had formed as if by magic one day last month. A long coarse black hair grew from it, and he took that between two fingers and pulled it straight out. He studied the hair for a second before flicking it away onto the floor.
The water was steaming, so he placed his hands under the stream and let them soak. The routine of washing his hands was not so bad. He quite liked the extreme heat. It woke him up four times a day. He pumped two spurts of antibiotic soap into his hands and scrubbed his palms, the backs of his hands, his fingernails, and his forearms. When he was done he washed everything in the steaming water and repeated the process twice. His wife was waiting in her bedroom, getting everything ready - the bags, the table, the tubing, the solution, and the clips.
Sung was finally getting the hang of the procedure. He was finally finding his own way of doing things. He first opened a new box of liquids and pouches. He gave those to Hanna to set on the table in an organized way: the empty pouch first then the pouch filled with liquid. He left her to set up the stand where the IV would attach to the tube in her stomach, and he went to the bathroom to wash his hands. By the time he was back, everything would be ready. He’d hang the empty bag on the stand, and Hanna would sit down on her bed, a Korean drama playing on the television.
He first had to clip closed the tube on her stomach so that when he opened the cap, the liquid from inside of her wouldn’t come gushing out. He’d once forgotten to do this early on, and a thick, green almost grey liquid had come gurgling slowly out of her body and onto the bedroom floor. He panicked, managed to screw on the cap to her tube, and cleaned the carpet with bleach. A lumpy white stain was all that remained. It was a constant reminder to always pinch the tube closed with a clip first. It was a mark of their permanent place for dialysis at home.
He clipped her tube shut and then screwed the cap carefully off. He opened the empty pouch that would receive all of her poisoned waste and connected it to the tube that connected her to the pouch. He hung it low on the metal rack they had like the ones that are in the hospital. He unclipped her tube, and the liquid came gurgling out of her, through the tubes, and into the empty pouch, filling it slowly. Hanna sighed and closed her eyes, as she always did at this part.
Hanna did look much better now that she was doing dialysis. She had regained the color in her skin, which had turned gradually over the past few years into a dark, ruddy color. This had been sad for both her and for Sung because both prided themselves mainly on her beauty. She was a very thin and good looking seventy-five-year-old woman. For the past fifteen years she visited the salon regularly to maintain her jet black hair, and she still applied dusty makeup on her soft eyes and red color to her lips. Whenever they met new people, at church or at the supermarket, people always commented on Hanna’s beauty and Sung’s luck at having married such a woman. And really, it had been her appearance and her lack of acute pain that had kept them from getting help for all those years.
It was only after the two emergency room visits just a few months ago and the extended two weeks in the hospital that they had come to accept that her kidney was dying. Hanna needed surgery right away to insert tubes into her stomach and neck for dialysis. There had been warnings, yes. There were the sometimes terrifyingly swollen ankles, the fatigue. But things had always generally been fine. Their daughter Gina was always bothering them about taking vitamins and medications. But who was she to tell them what to do? Sung knew what was best for him and for his wife. Gina listened to all the doctors and experts and thought she knew everything, when in fact she was only just a child in life.
Sung remembered vividly those hospital visits. Hanna was tied up to all sorts of tubes and wires. She looked horrible. The nurses would come in every few hours, wake her up from her sleep, and inject her with medicines and fill her with prescription pills. Her blood pressure was high; he understood that much. And her kidney was failing. They kept repeating that without surgery, she could go any second.
Hanna didn’t speak English; she never had. So Sung had to be there to translate whenever the doctors or nurses came to give new information or to question her. Sung had wanted so badly to go back at nights to their home to sleep. But Hanna wouldn’t let him. She put up a big fuss and yelled at him whenever he tried to leave. He couldn’t blame her. She was scared. So he stayed in the family lounge in the evenings and slept in the chair beside her bed during the day.
Before deciding to operate, Gina and Sung needed to explain everything to Hanna and get her permission. She was, after all, of sound mind. He and Gina explained in Korean what the procedure would be like. They would have to cut a few of her veins open and connect them to make one large vein that would be used for hemodialysis. Her blood would enter and exit through that large vein, going through a machine that would clean it and put it back into her body.
As she heard this news for the first time, she looked back and forth to her husband and then to her daughter. She couldn’t understand why they would do such a disgusting thing to her. They would open her veins and her blood would exit her body. It was not normal. She shook her head and said again and again, “No, no. I will not do it.” Gina spun extreme stories about death in a month’s time if she didn’t operate. When she said those things, even Sung, who had initially also been opposed, started to come around. But he still didn’t like the idea of someone foreign going into his wife’s body and mutilating it.
Hanna said for days on end, “Just let me go. Just let me die. God has a plan and maybe this is his plan for me. I’ve lived seventy-five years. I’ve lived long enough.” The words hurt him because Sung knew that if she ever left he would be alone. Alone to wash the dishes, alone to cook, alone to clean the house, alone to attend morning prayer services, and alone to die. He could not do any of those things on his own. He had never imagined that she would go first.
Sung headed into his bedroom to wait. It would take about ten minutes to finish filling the bag. His room was connected to his wife’s through the bathroom. He passed through the doors and was careful not to breathe in the growing stench of urine. Hanna had become complacent after her surgery and during her dialysis. He knew that she could cook and clean now. She was healthy and could move about. But she liked being treated like a princess. She had always been so spoiled.
He moved into his room. It looked like a small museum. It was filled with pieces of furniture he’d saved throughout the years, large pieces he’d moved into their small condo from the big house on Willow Drive that Hanna had loved so much. The dark wood furniture was much too big and tall for the smaller room. The cabinets and wall units towered above the bed, as though they might collapse onto it any second. Every other available empty space on the walls was plastered with framed photographs of the family. Sung loved those photographs. He dusted them every day.
At the entrance to his room above the doorpost were two portraits: one of himself and one of Hanna, right after they’d gotten married. The pictures were taken in the late 50’s, before their first child Dan was born. Hanna had been beautiful then, with her pearly clear skin and her delicate features. In that picture she was smiling ever so slightly. Next to her, he’d also been quite handsome himself. The face above his room was one of confidence and hope. His cheek bones protruded in a way that his parents had always said signaled confidence. His hair had been full and jet black, parted and gelled to the side. Hanna’s hair then was permed in a loose wave, much fuller and blacker than it was now. Her skin had since freckled and grown saggy, loose. He saw her sometimes in her room staring at the mirror. She would be pulling back the flaps of skin on her face, pulling everything up and taut, pursing her lips and sucking in her cheeks. He knew she wanted cosmetic surgery, but he did not have the money to get her a face lift. And if he thought about it realistically, what use would it do at her age?
He was surrounded by the smiling young faces of his children and grandchildren. Pictures of babies and children filled every crevice and corner of space in his room. They were crawling on floors, sitting on knees of family members, laughing, and sleeping. Small, medium, and large frames fit shoulder to shoulder on each shelf of his bookshelves, on each space on the walls. Every space was covered with pictures of his three children, Dan, Jason, and Gina; as well as his five grandchildren, Clem, Molly, Ari, Sam, and Kyle.
The largest picture in the room was a framed 8x11 color photo that sat on his dresser, leaning back on the mirror. It was a picture he and Hanna and their three grown kids had taken in 1984 in front of the big house on Willow Drive.
Sung remembered that time as he now remembered most of his life: bittersweet. They were all living together again because Gina had returned from her husband in Korea to discuss a possible divorce. She had left their daughter Clem behind. She ran out of the house and straight to the airport after he had beat her for needlessly turning on the air conditioning.
For the two months Gina was back, she argued with Dan and Jason constantly. Her brothers had both graduated from Rutgers, but they had no jobs. Gina yelled at them for being lazy, irresponsible, and living at home. She told them to get out of the house or to help out at the cleaners. Sung thought with regret about all the times he’d defended his sons, how he’d shout at Gina instead for creating drama and for leaving her own life and daughter behind in Korea. Hanna would always leave the conversation to sleep upstairs.
During those two months, Gina helped out at the cleaners like she had throughout high school and college. It worked out well because Gina could man the front counter and Sung didn’t always have to stop his work to greet customers and take orders. Hanna worked in the back, as always, running the steam machines, tailoring, and dealing with stains.
They had taken that photograph on a warm fall day. Everyone was in a good mood because Sung and Hanna had just announced that they would fund new businesses for their sons. Finally Dan and Jason would be independent, running their own lives. Gina had made some good points, and it was time the boys started getting serious about their futures.
Dan and Jason were to open film development studios in neighboring towns. Everyone agreed this was a great idea. After all, everyone took pictures, loved pictures, and needed to develop pictures. The time was right. After his sons established themselves, they would get married and live on their own. Sung and Hanna would retire shortly thereafter.
But of course nothing had happened the way he’d wanted. Gina returned to Korea only to give birth to Molly and come back for good three years later as a divorcee with two daughters. Digital cameras exploded onto the photography scene, and Dan and Jason’s studios folded in a matter of six years. Dan and Jason never found stable work after that. Sung and Hanna kept working at the cleaners for ten more years instead of planning their early retirement. They bought houses for their sons, but by then it was too late. All the money was gone and nobody could sustain the properties.
Sung looked at the photograph in front of him. The old house had been so beautiful. It was a large brick colonial settled on two acres in the nice part of town. Four large pillars stood in the front of the house, and the long front yard had been landscaped with trees, flowers, and plants by Hanna throughout the years. They’d had to sell it to finance their sons’ wedding gifts and homes.
He looked up at the clock. A baby picture of Molly was taped to its left and a baby picture of Clem was tacked to its right. Ten minutes had passed on the dot. He left his room and went back to Hanna. After years of measuring ten minutes here and there, he could feel time, knew what ten minutes was worth. Hanna sat reclining on her bed, watching the drama with all her attention. Nowadays, she only liked the dramas involving extremely wealthy Korean families who lived in mansions and paid off illegitimate children. She required that the dramas also feature an old matriarch of the house, an elderly grandmother or widow who made the important decisions.
Not a lot of liquid had come out of her stomach. Or, technically, wherever that tube was inserted into her. Some days more liquid came out and some days it was less. He clipped her tube, cleaned the opening, and capped it. He sealed the bag that was half full with her waste, and he put it into the trash. He set up the bag filled with solution that would then enter into her through her same tube. Hanna liked this part less, getting filled with solution. But she sat silently while Sung worked, her eyes glued to the television drama.
There was a flashback on the screen. A cast of young characters had come out to replace the cast of older characters who had just been on the TV. A young woman was embracing a young soldier who was leaving for military duty. She was visibly pregnant and distraught.
Sung left the room and thought about going into the attic later that afternoon. He felt like going through his early documents and photos but didn’t know whether or not the attic could handle another visit. He looked up at the ceiling from the hall. Was the bulge sinking?
The last time he’d pulled down the hatch door and gone up to the attic was probably a couple of months ago. The attic was a pyramid shaped room above their second floor condo that he’d filled with storage that was important to him and his family. There were boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings, old pieces of used furniture, awards, trophies, and certificates from his children and grandchildren, even old kid’s bikes with dusty pink streamers that had once belonged in turn to Clem, Molly, then Ari.
He had to be careful when walking up there because the storage was so heavy. The floor might give way at any moment if he didn’t take careful steps to walk around the weak areas. Last month, the ceiling had begun to crack right above their dining room table. Sung had fixed the problem by buying long strips of plastic and stapling together the cracks with an industrial sized stapler. Their dining room looked like it had just endured invasive surgery and was healing from the stitches. It would hold, but Sung hadn’t risked going up there since.
What he had the urge to see and feel were his certificate papers from the 40s. He’d entered the military then, served with distinction, and had been awarded a medal of honor from the Korean government. Sung had seen two wars, lived in Japan, spoke three languages, and had headed the labor union of factory workers. He could map in his mind exactly where his boxes were upstairs - the ones that held photos with his union leader friends, his diaries from his trip to India, the velvet box that held his medal. He could see them lying quietly in the far corner. To get to them he would have to walk along the weak parts of the cracked ceiling and risk having everything collapse. He imagined the decades-old boxes and furniture and photo albums and stacks of loose newspaper tumbling down onto the dining room table and into the hallway. He imagined them disintegrating immediately upon contact with sunlight. He closed his eyes and slowly made a mental trip around the attic. It was almost as satisfying as going up there, being amongst his things, and touching them in the dark.
As a labor union leader after the Korean War, he had been on track to a promising political career. His family was moving up in the ranks, and in their neighborhood they were the first to own a color TV. But they’d been forced to move to the States because of political blackmail and threats. When he came to the States, he wasn’t qualified for anything. Instead, he worked in a dry cleaners for the rest of his life. He was a great man born under the wrong circumstances. He knew it, but no one else did. To them, he was just the balding Asian man behind the counter who took their expensive soiled shirts and said Thank You with an accent and a pathetic smile.
He thought about Clem and Molly and how they would restore his family to greatness. His eldest granddaughters were the smartest and most capable and ambitious of all his five grandchildren. He had given up long ago on his own sons. Yes, the girls would restore to his family name the glory it deserves.
Sung felt the sudden spasming of his bladder and walked back to the toilet. He pulled the door shut and for some reason, locked it firmly. The stench of the small bathroom rose up in his nostrils, and he felt the hint of a vigor returning to him. He opened his legs in front of the toilet without lifting the seat, pulled out his penis, and looked around him. The tiles were old and off white, the beginnings of mildew forming in the bathtub. He looked into the mirror at himself. He was still alive. Still healthy. How much longer would he live this life?
Sung squinted his eyes and aimed for the sink, for the mirror, and then even for the tub further away. He grunted as he felt the release, flailing his penis around, wetting everything around him with his bright yellow urine. It was on the floor, on the walls, and on his clothing.
He finished, zipped up his pants, and took a deep breath. It smelled wretched but fresh. He called out to Hanna, “Hanna, come here. The bathroom is dirty! It must be cleaned!” But there was no response, just the sounds of the television and the music from her dramas. He knew she was ignoring him, that she was hooked up to the tube that was filling her with dialysis liquid.
He stood still in front of the mirror for a long while, looking himself in the eye. His chest was heaving slightly. Finally, he looked away. He bent to open the cabinet beneath the sink. He gathered the Clorox, a sponge, and rubber gloves. He spilled some bleach onto the sponge, got down on his knees, and began to wipe it all away.
Juli Min is a graduate student at Columbia University studying modern Korean literature. She is based in New York but is currently away in Seoul practicing literary translation. She also keeps a photo blog of her travels in Korea at ennuianddecadence.tumblr.com.
Jen May's art has been featured in two-person shows at Rock Paper Scissors in Oakland, CA, The Dirt Palace in Providence, RI, and Ghost Gallery in Seattle, WA. Her work has also been featured in group shows in NYC, including shows at Brooklyn Arts Council and Little Cakes Gallery (RIP). Currently she is working on Strawberry Fields Whatever, a collaborative book about feeling feelings and embroidery about Mary Todd Lincoln's despondency. Visit Jen online at jenjmay.tumblr.com.
Ruin/Renewal is the Boston-based music project of twin brothers Joshua and John Pritchard. Where Ruin/Renewal's debut EP is a guitar and drum work, their follow-up Chess Club EP (May 2012) trades in similar mood swings using more eclectic and orchestral currencies. Bass player Rob Ignazio joined the band in April 2012. Ruin/Renewal will release its full-length debut in 2013, and play a CMJ 2012 showcase October 19th at the Rock Shop in Brooklyn. For more, visit the band online at ruinrenewal.com.