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Happiness

I suppose it was in Korea where I learned to be alone, which was why during the second year at home, I went to the retreat house to return to aloneness there. The house was so cold on the first night that the bottle of olive oil in the kitchen cabinet...


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.

***

I suppose it was in Korea where I learned to be alone, which was why during the second year at home, I went to the retreat house to return to aloneness there. The house was so cold on the first night that the bottle of olive oil in the kitchen cabinet congealed. I turned the heater on, then set a heat lamp on the carpet in the living room. This was my mother’s home, I reminded myself, and I should not be afraid. On every wall and on every surface, the faces of angels and martyrs and saints lifted their eyes from dust-covered glass. I recognized a painting hung in a gold frame above the sofa, The Painting of Blessed Korean Martyrs, because my parents had hung this same painting in their shrine above the fireplace. 

The living room in the retreat house had windows facing west. It was spacious and connected to every room in the house. There were several armchairs and giant lamps. From the sofa I could keep both the sliding glass door and the front door in my field of vision, in case something came in from one and I needed to run out of the other. The kitchen cupped one end of the living room with two empty doorways. To the north was a wide hallway, with a china cabinet and an oak dining table, which led into the sitting room where a white statue of Mary rose from the corner, three feet tall. There were three sofas facing one another in this room, and many, many chairs stacked in neat rows.

The hallway stretching south from the living room led to a small bathroom on the left, a bedroom on the right, and a door to the master bedroom at the end of the corridor. The door opened in direct line to the foot of the large bed. The hallway light threw my shadow on the carpet thin and long. A crucifix hung in the center of the wall. There was a bureau and a keyboard and nothing else. I went into the smaller room. This crucifix I could see more clearly, Christ hanging emaciated from his hands, limbs as thin and frail as sticks. I climbed onto the bed and took it down. 

Down the hall and through all the rooms I took the statues and paintings and miniature figurines that scared me off the walls, and put them away. I turned them around, placed them in cabinet drawers, and apologized to each one and asked that they understand. I left the statue of Mary, because it was too large, the painting of martyrs, and whatever was left in the master bedroom because I did not want to go inside, farthest away from all the doors. 

I sat in front of the heat lamp with its face glowing red and took off all my clothes to change. I would sleep on the sofa that night with all the lights on. When I lived in Kangnam, all the people dressed up one summer as little devils with red horns and tails. They paraded at all hours through the downtown streets to watch the World Cup. Every night at ten, a young woman walked up and down the alleyways through the shops and apartments and businesses and screamed. I could only make out her long drones as Appa—“Father.” Glossy cards for prostitutes littered marble benches. Businessmen fell asleep in their suits on the street. The summer was humid and hot with monsoon rain, and on one of these nights in my apartment, the devil came into me. We spoke for some time about inevitable death, how I have always known that I would depart from this world by my own volition, it was just a matter of when. The time was not then and it left, and the next morning the sun came up and I walked to work and there was nothing to be afraid of anymore. I never met the devil that same way again. The face of the lamp glowed and warmed my chest.

For years I had nightmares about fucking and woke up sweating with my body tense and sore. 

***

The heater whirred on all night, and in the morning the house was warm. I opened all the blinds to let the sunlight shine through and the sky was warm and blue and welcoming. I put on my boots and crossed the street to the water meters, and the fourth box opened easily since the ice around it had melted. The bust beside the driveway looked smaller than it did before. The master bedroom had the only working shower, but was the only room still cold. I ran through and into the bathroom where I unwrapped a new block of lavender soap. There was a bathtub, and a high narrow window above it, where I could crawl out.

Ostensibly, I had come to the retreat house alone to sketch and write, and for the next week, I slept on the sofa and watched the light travel through the different windows from day into night. I spent the mornings at the oak table in front of a window facing east. I set a drafting board with a sketchbook on the table, and if I woke up before dawn I could watch the sun rise and change colors across the page. Then came that incredible sadness again, swelling out of me and into the sun. I remembered the things I wish I had never known, and the blue deepened near the horizon, and the light that saturated the clouds grew brighter.

If the past does not exist, where does it go? Does it absorb into us, into a place most human and veiled and difficult to touch? There was such a strangeness of remembering that I forced myself to look back and back and back again. I remembered the two weeks in spring when the cherry blossoms bloomed, how storms came and blew all the blossoms away in one afternoon. Snow piled onto the trees and fell that night from branches. By morning, spring returned, and before I began marking the paper with charcoal, I always liked to run my hand down and across the page, to feel the moment where emptiness starts.

I ate lunch and rested, then took walks in the warmest part of the afternoon beside the highway and ranches. There were lumps of snow huddled where the shadows were. Cars sped along the roads and I loved how ugly the Joshua trees were with their hairy trunks and prickly limbs, and how they all seemed to grasp at the sky. There had been a voice going around in a circle in my head that turned into pictures before I fell asleep at night. I could see my body cut up into a thousand perfect squares. Each night the picture sharpened and came more into focus—I could see the cubes of my breasts gelatinous, with red beads of fat tissue spilling out from formless skin.

A friend of mine from college had two handguns—he had shown them to me one night when we were drinking on the back porch near the avocado tree in his uncle’s house downtown. One was a Glock and the other a small revolver. He took them out of their cases and told me the three rules of safety, which I cannot recall now. He loaded the revolver and laid it down flat on my lap so I could feel its weight. I held it for a few seconds, and he took it quickly back from me and unloaded the bullets. I remembered that weight as a reality materializing on my lap, a similar feeling of power I had when shooting a rifle at a range in Vietnam. The soldier there had clasped a pair of broken headphones around my head to protect my ears, but with each shot a high-pitched wail broke through my hearing, and this friend with the handguns was always good to me and gave me the revolver when I said I wanted to go shooting in the desert with my brother.

I felt obsessed and powerful and half crazed with excitement when I thought about the gun, just as I did when I thought about the blood squares. Two dogs barked and followed me up the path where I stood watching a man throwing wood into his truck down near the gorges below. The truck was playing country music and the man was singing, and the dogs licked my hands and their fur was short and stiff like hair. I arrived back onto my feet again, felt the way the dirt rolled and crunched under my shoes, how hot the sun was beaming down on my hair. I lost that powerful feeling, the one that could take me out of the rules of this reality if I wanted it to, and instead came grounded again, in the same way I would when I worked or talked to my friends. I made my way down the path to the house, the dogs racing ahead, then back behind my legs. 

***

My father took a trip to Pyongyang once. He had asked if I wanted to come and I said yes, but he was the president of some kind of association that arranged the trip with the South Korean government, so I doubt that he was ever serious about my coming along. He returned with enormous painted scrolls of the landscape—tiny huts set high in the mountains with roaring waterfalls. He said the trip was very nice and that everyone had been very kind. They had toured around Pyongyang and went to a ceremony where the North Korean and South Korean governments reunited families for one dinner, once a year. I mentioned to a friend from Daegu how sad it was that the country was still split in two, and she said she never thought about it and didn’t really care. “It’s been so long,” she said. “They feel like different people.” My father hung one of the scrolls above the sofa in his office where he liked to take naps after lunch. He hung the other in the dining room in our house, and the painting bothered me very much because the waterfall in the center shot out flat and stiff like sticks with no rocks beneath it, not even imagined, to hold the water up. 

When I came home from Korea I watched my family wring their hands about money quite tensely for months. They actually had been wringing their hands for years, but for much of that time I did not see it, and then I went away. All at once I worried that the business would go bankrupt and we would have to sell everything and lose the house. Three hundred invitations were sent out for the wedding, which soon became five. Most of these guests were for my family, so my father sold their office building to pay for the wedding and moved into a smaller office they rented on Wilshire. The ceilings were low and the walls were salmon pink. On my first visit my mother sat with me and said, “God is with us so everything OK.” 

“I feel sick,” I said.

“Your head hurts?”

“No, I just feel not good. Sad.”

“What do you have to be sad about? You have no mortgage, no big worries. Enjoy your time, rest.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

She held my hand. “Then go to Jesus,” she said. “Put your worries and problems in a bag, and give them to Him, and He will hold you.” She clasped her hands on the top of my head and spoke in tongues. I asked what she was saying. “Just whatever,” she shrugged.

I had to go to confession because I had to be able to take Communion at my brother’s wedding, and I hadn’t gone in more than seven years. I went to a youth Mass on a Saturday evening with old friends and then knelt alone in an unlit booth beside a priest whose face was shielded by a screen. When I came out I sat on the pews and imagined how lovely it would be for the statued angels bursting from the rafters to come help me. 

I had learned many stories of sleep from church. When I was growing up, we had our own satellite chapel with priests sent from a South Korean diocese, and the kids and parents went to two separate Masses—English in the morning, Korean in the afternoon. It was during these waiting times I learned that the space between waking and sleep was the most dangerous, the time when our spirits were in between places and most vulnerable to what our bodies had done.

***

I came back from my walk that afternoon, the voice saying in a circle how I should get the revolver from the car and come back and drink a lot. I didn’t have to do anything. I could just sit with it, it with me, here. It was Thursday and a little past three. I went into the kitchen and turned on the radio attached to the coffee pot. Every week Jacob went on air to talk about the Clippers on ESPN. I didn’t follow basketball and never knew what they were talking about, but he and his co-host laughed and debated and fought, and his voice filled the room with that life in him and felt close to me again. They ran through a play-by-play of a game while I opened the windows and cleaned the dust from the tables and lampshades and blinds. A weight from the house lifted. I felt better. 

It had been months since I was fired from the paper. An argument had escalated over a Valentine’s Day issue I wrote for the children’s section, and when I packed up my desk and walked to my car, Jacob asked why I’d done it in the first place—why I would write about murders and massacres and ancient festivities of boys picking girls’ names from a jar and then whipping them with strips of animal hide dipped in blood. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I got sick of writing about penguins and good citizens and crafts and shit.” 

“I think you could have saved yourself even after that,” he said. “What did you in was calling ____ a cunt.”

We slept together shortly afterward and then stopped speaking for months because there were voices again, saying I had done a bad thing and changing the shape of his face. 

I stopped cleaning when his segment was ending and didn’t want him to go and leave me alone again. That is the time when loneliness strikes deepest, the moment right after the voices leave. The night after the wedding, the bridesmaids shared a room in the hotel, and I woke up to find water in the night and walked through the corridors empty and quiet. Jacob kept coming back to me in dreams. I remembered the morning the sun rose from behind the buildings and blinded our eyes. I wrote him letters when I could not sleep, asking if it was difficult for him to live inside himself, if he heard something else speaking to him in silent hours at night. “I have never felt any presence ‘inside me,’” he wrote. “Sometimes I don’t even feel me.”

At four I watched the sky darken from the westward window, and in autumn when the afternoon turned to night, the sun set long and slow for hours, but in winter, the sky darkened quickly, as if someone had blown out a light. There was a chill settling in the outside air again without the sun, and I could feel it begin to settle into the house. I drew all the shades closed and sat back down on the couch. “Dear Jacob,” I wrote. “If you were to guess that I’m writing you from an old house in the middle of nowhere, I’d say you were exactly right. You’d like it here. Come visit. ____ Twin Pine Road Wrightwood 92397.”

***

On the first morning I woke up in my apartment in Incheon, I met a new co-worker and her friend for coffee. The co-worker became a good friend of mine, but she is not important here because it was her friend who told us about the little girl found that morning under a bridge with her innards pulled out. We argued that it was impossible, that even if she were small, the force of sex was not enough to pull her intestines out between her legs. Later, the co-worker apologized to me for that news on my first day. I said I wasn’t worried. She said what had happened was that the rapist used a plunger to extract his semen, which was how the girl’s innards came out. 

***

I received a message from Jacob the next morning. “If you want, I can come tonight.”

To prepare, I would need to leave the house to go to the store and buy things like firewood and wine and good things to eat. I stood in the kitchen, by the long window above the sink. It seemed unbearable, to go out and drive down the switchbacks and through the roads where other people would be. At a distance, up the hill, dogs stood guarding the neighbor’s door. The master bedroom had the only bed large enough to fit us both. The room would be cold. My menstrual cycle had started the day before, which meant that if we were to strip naked, and I was certain we would, then blood would cover the sheets and our thighs. 

“Yes, I’ll be here,” I wrote back. 

I already missed the dawn and sat down at the table without opening the blinds to look at the work I had done.

My mother called Father Park her soul mate. There was a time when she fasted and only wore a brown dress and meditated on the sofa for hours at night. My father said he felt her drifting apart and away from him. He wanted to go to association dinners and play golf and watch movies together. She said she could feel it as well, how she could almost float out of herself. Maybe, she said, she could lift away and never come back.

When we drew figures in class, the bodies were beautiful. For years I could not speak in a way for others to understand. I wanted to reach out a hand and touch all the models—each had to be built from the inside. The next morning at the retreat house, I woke up and saw how one of the walls in the master bedroom was bright. There was a sliding glass door behind ivory curtains I had not paid enough attention to see. I remembered writhing beneath a body with fear like flames. But this room was quiet, and Jacob was asleep. For a long time I watched the way sunlight pooled into shadows and held onto our skin. 

More from this year's Fiction Issue:

The Mare

Jailbait

Miami