Kyunghwan and I met where the farm fields ended and our refugee village began. I waited until my little brother was asleep, until I could count seven seconds between his uneasy inhales. I listened as Hyunki’s breath struggled through the thick scum in his lungs. If he coughed, I’d stay and take care of him. On those nights, I imagined Kyunghwan waiting for me by the lamppost with cigarette butts scattered in a halo around his feet.
Everyone in our village whispered what they wanted to believe: the war would end and we would return to our real homes soon. Mother and the other aunties chattered in the market. They had survived thirty-five years of Japanese rule and the Second World War. They had withstood the division of our Korea by foreign men. What was a little fighting amongst our own compared to past misfortune? We can stitch ourselves back together, Mother said. I believed her.
When Hyunki’s breathing was steady and slow, I slipped out through the kitchen entrance and went in search of Kyunghwan. He and I were celebrating. We celebrated every night.
A year ago, when the 6-2-5 war between the North and South began, everyone in my country fled, propelled by confusion and news in the form of unexpected sounds—bullets, airplanes, the cries of the dying.
The mothers, daughters, elders, and children of my hometown stampeded south, hitching ourselves onto trains, scrabbling up mountains, wading through paddies, and treading rivers. Mother, Hyunki, and I wore white and carried loads on our backs and on our heads. We walked until we reached the southeastern-most tip of our peninsula, where shelters gathered around markets and landmarks to form crude villages. All along the coast, people I knew from childhood lived crammed up against strangers. Most settled in the center of Busan, where houses and churches and schools and salvaged structures packed the streets. Refugees thronged together as tight as bean sprouts, as if closeness and the East Sea equaled protection.
Mother separated us from the others, planting us further out in the fields, away from the ocean and its currents. She said it was foolish to live so close together. “If the Reds come, they’ll be killed clean in one day. Swept into the sea like a pile of dead fish.”
She often spoke of luck and what happened in its absence. We were lucky to have been among the first wave of refugees. We were lucky her great-uncle died soon after our arrival, so we could claim his straw-roofed home as our own. It was small and timeworn, but less fortunate families sheltered beneath scraps of steel. We were lucky the others, displaced and adrift, had not dared to crowd us out—and lucky to have found this place where life persisted, where news of fighting arrived on leaflets but didn’t yet invade our days.
I felt lucky for nothing except my nightly distractions—for Kyunghwan, who I had known since childhood, and his desire to erase my fears, and for our secret hours together.
I arrived through the field to find Kyunghwan waiting. He blew a stream of smoke in my direction, and the clouds curled toward me, hazy and warm. I breathed in their bitter scent. “What took so long?” he asked.
“Hyunki’s sick again.” I grabbed the cigarette from his lips. “It took him a while to fall asleep.”
He nodded at the hanbok I wore. “You still want to go?”
“Would I chance coming out here for no reason?” I blew a smoke ring in the dim glow of the lamppost. His gaze lingered on my long, wraparound skirt and short jacket top. I shrugged, “I don’t want to wear the men’s pants anymore. We’ll be careful.”
“I don’t know.” He stared at the road connecting our market to the other makeshift villages. “What if someone catches us?”
“No one will hear us if we’re quiet.” I started toward his bicycle, partially hidden behind the thick barley. “Let’s go.”
“We’ll head east,” he said, catching up to me. “Found some extra money this time.”
“Can we can buy food? I’m so hungry I sucked on one of Hyunki’s tree roots today.”
Kyunghwan held the bicycle steady as I scooted onto the handlebars. “We’ll see.”“Mother separated us from the others, planting us further out in the fields, away from the ocean and its currents. She said it was foolish to live so close together. ‘If the Reds come, they’ll be killed clean in one day. Swept into the sea like a pile of dead fish.’”
I didn’t care where we went, if we only cycled around in the open air. But Kyunghwan liked to hunt for the hideaway bars rumored about amongst the men. These establishments moved from alley to alley, avoiding detection. Even when we found one, they rarely allowed two sixteen-year-olds like us in—so we’d beg drunkards and home-brewers to pity us a bowlful of makgeolli. We’d drink in fields and forests and behind buildings. On lucky nights, we’d find a bar and pretend we were wounded orphans.
As the dirt road raced toward us, I closed my eyes and listened to Kyunghwan’s steady breathing. “I’ve got you,” he whispered whenever he felt me tense. But when we were drunk and cycling back, I loosened and stared at the black sky, my hair whipping into his face—and he’d tell me to straighten up, that we’d fall into a ditch one day.
In the next village, everything looked the same as our own. Mud and grass-built quarters, an open road where a market built itself up every morning, scrap metal shelters scrounged together from what people could find. “We’ll cover the bicycle here and walk,” Kyunghwan whispered as we reached a standing tree.
At the first hideaway, the men joked that I was a poor man’s whore and refused our entry. Eventually, we found a narrow shack made of wooden planks and blankets cramped into a back alley. Kyunghwan wrapped his arm around my shoulders. When a man tried to stop us, I touched Kyunghwan’s cheek the way I thought a lover might.
“I got drafted. This is our last night together,” he said.
The man let us in with a warning. “Don’t bring attention to yourselves.”
A few men looked up as we ducked under the blanket entrance. The makeshift bar was composed of makeshift objects. Upended tin drums were packed tightly together to form tables. A plank bolstered by metal dowels acted as a serving area at one end. Crates, bricks, and the ground were used as seats. We wove through the unwashed bodies to a corner spot with two crates. I tried not to look at the others, to feel the heat of their gaze. I hoped it was too dim or too late in the night for them to care that I was a girl.
Once we were seated, it was too dark to make out Kyunghwan’s face, only the shadow of his thick, straight nose and thin lips. I liked it this way. I knew him already—the smooth arc of his forehead, the turn of his wrists, the freckles along his right arm, and how, when traced to his elbow, they formed an ocean’s wave. His face was beautiful when he wasn’t using it to charm others. He closed his eyes; he knew me, too.
We listened to the sound of bowls hitting drums. We sipped cloudy-white makgeolli until our eyes adjusted to the dark, and talked about the drunks all around us. A lonely grandfather with drawings of women and children lining his table—his family perhaps. Another man with a jagged scar running across his face. In the flickering candlelight, it shone like a streak of fat.
“What do you think her story is?” Kyunghwan nodded at the only other woman in the bar. She was older and wore a short hanbok top that exposed her breasts. I watched Kyunghwan’s gaze sweep over her body. Her companion reached out a hand, but I couldn’t tell if he meant to touch her or cover her up.
“She’s clearly not his mother.” I glanced at my own hanbok top, my hidden chest. “She has nice breasts.”
“Big though,” I said.
Kyunghwan turned back to me with a wide grin. I stood, “I want food. The alcohol’s hitting me too fast.” I hadn’t eaten since morning and knew he probably hadn’t either. We were stupid, wasting money like this, but I didn’t care. I placed a hand on his shoulder when he tried to stand. “Stay. Pour us another bowl.”
I ordered arrowroot porridge and fried anchovies, a small lick of red pepper paste. The barman squinted at me from across the wooden stand. “Your father know you’re here with a man? How old are you?”
“Old enough.” I tapped my knuckles against the scrap of wood that separated us and tried to look as if I didn’t care.
“You shouldn’t be in a place like this.”
“I already paid.” I jutted out my chin. “The porridge, please?”
He shook his head. “Wait here.”
When he returned, I told him. “He’s leaving for Seoul. He’s drafted.”
The man bent over and sunk a bottle into a large pot of makgeolli. Milky clouds swirled through pale moony liquid. After he filled the bottle, he wiped it with a brown rag. “Here,” he said. “I don’t understand this war, this fighting our own.”“But when we were drunk and cycling back, I loosened and stared at the black sky, my hair whipping into his face—and he’d tell me to straighten up, that we’d fall into a ditch one day.”
I dropped the makgeolli on our tin drum and held out a plate piled high with small fried fish. Kyunghwan pinched one by the tail and sucked it down. “Got thirsty on your way back?”
“The barman took pity on us. Can you get the other dish?”
Kyunghwan brought over the porridge and raised his eyebrows. “Who orders mush?”
I shrugged. “Steal more money next time.”
“You know what the barman said? To take good care of you tonight.” Kyunghwan grinned. “Now I feel bad for lying.”
“Me too. We shouldn’t joke about that.”
He scooted closer. I watched his hands and mouth. How he only dipped a drop of pepper paste into a spoonful of porridge.
“What if you are drafted?” I asked.
“What does it matter?” He sipped, smacked his lips. When he exhaled, I smelled the spice and fish collecting on his tongue. “The man’s watching. Let’s act like a couple.”
I let Kyunghwan feed me an anchovy but made a face when the barman looked away. “That’s not what couples do. And what do you mean it doesn’t matter?”
He wouldn’t answer. I let it go.
We poured each other bowls the formal way, with bowed heads and both hands. We talked in old drunken men accents until our stomachs hurt with laughter. He recalled our hometown and our grade school teacher, the one with the cluster of moles on his cheek. How we two had been the clever ones, yet only Kyunghwan was ever praised. I asked if he remembered how Teacher Kim had made the girls wash the floors with rags that rubbed the skin from our fingers. Kyunghwan reminded me that even if I hated him, Teacher Kim was dead, so we sipped makgeolli in his honor. We quieted until Kyunghwan no longer liked our wistfulness, until he tried to get me to raise my top like the lady in the corner. We drank until it was hard not to touch each other. Then, he answered me.
“It doesn’t matter if I get drafted or if I don’t show up tomorrow night because you’re letting Jisoo court you. He told me.”
“That’s not true.” I pushed my bowl against his until our rims touched.
“He’s my cousin.”
“Your fathers are cousins,” I said. “And that doesn’t make what he says true.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
I had forgotten about Jisoo. I didn’t want him in the room with us—not even the mention of him. I looked up. I could use my face to charm, too. “Pour, Kyunghwan.”
He sighed and filled my bowl.
From If You Leave Me. Used with permission of William Morrow and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Crystal Hana Kim.