Happiness

By Hannah H. Kim


Photos by Sorryimworking

M

y mother bought a house with her prayer group. The house was built in the early 1980s, a spacious single story with a wraparound porch. The prayer group hung a banner over the railing that read, HOLY MOTHER RETREAT HOUSE, and underneath,성모 피정의 집. The man who had lived in the house prior was elderly, and his children had been eager to sell for a reduced price because of how long it had been on the market. They left all the furniture and dishes and curtains inside. The family had a carpentry business, and the dining table in particular was especially beautiful—inlaid with strips of oak and sturdy and light. 

My mother envisioned this house as just the beginning of a larger dream she shared with Father Park, a Jesuit priest and scholar—her spiritual counselor. They had organized five other families to purchase the property the week before it was taken off the market, and my mother spoke about it dazzled with all they had planned. It was just a regular house now, she said, but it also came with a separate guesthouse, though without water or heat, and X acres of property that they could build on and develop. My family’s business was in construction and property development. They had built schools and senior centers and apartment buildings all throughout greater Los Angeles and had most recently finished a Korean-style gazebo next to a park on Olympic. The company made its fortune the years before the recession, which it had since been struggling to maintain.

After the house was purchased, the Society of Jesus notified Father Park that he was to return to Sogang University in Seoul. The news was sudden. The prayer group and my mother, especially, were heartbroken. After his departure, the group proceeded as planned, spending every other weekend at the retreat house where they would pray and attend Mass at the church called Our Lady of the Snows half an hour away, up the mountain roads. They rented the house to other church groups for a flat rate each night. 

A few months after the purchase, my mother began to speak of how difficult the house was to maintain, how frustrating it was to distribute work and responsibility among other community members. She spoke about how the water bill was higher than the mortgage, and the land, though in close proximity to the hiking trails and ski resort, was itself essentially landlocked in an unnavigable desert of Joshua trees because of the highway and fenced-off ranches all around. The developments on the property would have to wait for an indefinite number of years, because of a lack of resources. She began considering whether another group of Jesuits could live at the property.

I heard this change in my mother’s enthusiasm during the time I spent living in South Korea. Everything seemed so far away there and then, hearing about all the difficulties over the phone and through a screen, not only of my family, but of my friends, who could not find jobs, the decline and near ruin of the art museum where I had worked, the financial straits everyone seemed to be sagging beneath. When I came back, I noticed how tired the familiar faces had become from maintaining.

I made the mistake of arriving at the retreat house at night. It was winter then, and all through the afternoon, I had driven straight toward the setting sun. I stopped to eat a hamburger and put gas in the truck. When I turned off the highway and trundled up the switchback, darkness fell thick around the beams of headlights. 

The first thing I had to do, as instructed, was to turn on the water meter located beneath a low wooden fence across the street. I opened a garbage bin in the garage shelter and found a flashlight and two metal tools for the job—a short handle to open the lid of the water meter, and a long stick with a claw to turn the valve. The street I had to cross was a shapeless dirt road with a signpost that crossed Twin Pines with Skyridge. There were four boxes where the water meters were located. I opened three; the fourth was frozen shut and bent the short tool until the metal bit splintered from the plastic. I used the claw to turn all the valves, and the pressure gauges looked like clocks and did not move. In one box the arrow did move, though slowly, but when I went into the house the toilet tanks and sinks remained dry. I could not remember how to turn the valve back, and imagined that I would be responsible for making the neighbor’s pipes freeze and explode.

That first night, I walked back and forth from the water meters to the house, each time facing a bust of Christ weeping near the dirt. The statue was small and bleached white, mounted where the cement porch led to the garage shelter and catching the beam of the flashlight each time it swung across the neutral colors of shrubs and dirt. I stood near the sliding doors that led to the kitchen and waited for the bust to look over its shoulder, to turn around with its crown of thorns and head twisted to one side.

There had been a time when I was not able to sit in the quiet and stillness of night. Before I went abroad, I woke up one dusk from a deep nap and saw the sun set red. I was afraid. In the desert, in its endless night, the winter air was silent and cold, and I could look up straight into the stars, and into the past. If there was no God, I wondered who was watching, what my conscious was speaking for. 

***

I moved to Korea alone when I was 21 and lived there for two years. The first city I found a job in was Yeonsu-gu, Incheon. There was a long lit-up bridge that connected the international airport to this factory town that sat on the coast of the Yellow Sea. We could not see the water, though we could smell the salt. I taught English at a terrible school and could have found a much better placement had I not been desperate to leave the States when I did. I stayed for seven months, then quit shortly before the school went bankrupt and moved to the Kangnam district in Seoul for the next year.

When I recount this time in my life abroad, it is difficult for me to remember without anger, and for years after I returned, I was unable to do so without my mind coiling around itself for what had happened there. When I came back, I drank from morning to night the day my brother’s friends and I threw an engagement party for him in our backyard. I found a job faster than I expected when the best man offered to put me in touch with his sister who worked at a newspaper in Koreatown. My brother had his big shotgun wedding at the cathedral, and I lived in my family’s house working and walking the dog and sketching nudes at a night class in the community college. 

Of course, I did not realize then that my heart had closed. I did not know yet the extent of the repair I would have to undergo, or who Jacob would become to me after we met my first day at the paper. The headquarters was based in Seoul, and he and I were among the only four English speakers at the branch in LA. In the beginning he often asked me to translate, and I said I couldn’t. I barely spoke Korean. We had meetings on the roof and sat on cinder blocks in the shade and watched the afternoon haze settle over the Hollywood sign we could see in tiny white letters lining the hills farther away. He told me about a friend coming back from Afghanistan. All he wanted to do, for months, he said, was take a walk through flat fields. I said he should go to Mongolia. It would be very beautiful, but there would be much sadness in the sky.

Comments