In years to come, Honey, once Hanhee, would recall it as a Kodak moment circa 1960, that morning when they stood on the 500 block of Potomac Avenue facing a cluster of red brick apartments, their backs to Mount Vernon Boulevard and their only luggage, his gold-buckled black trunk, on the sidewalk, so jet lagged they were beyond sleep. Joe, her American husband, went to find the rental office to get their keys while she waited with the trunk.
Belle Gardens: Sprawling grounds, criss-crossing sidewalks, a green swing set, a swimming pool and a town clock. Identical brick buildings formed horseshoes that created courtyards over eight city blocks, four on each side of Mount Vernon Boulevard. Each horseshoe had six buildings, identified by letters A through F. The corner units had white-painted porches. Everything was wide open here, exposed to sky while monarch butterflies fluttered ceremoniously to the rooftops.
“Pomnabi,” Honey breathed.
They found Building C and dragged the trunk up three flights of stairs. Later she would break it to Joe that despite their travel fatigue, they would have to make love tonight if The Baby was ever going to turn from talk into flesh. Should he resist she would remind him why they left war torn Korea: For a new start, Joe.
On the second landing, Honey forsook her shoes – no need for glamour in a dingy stairwell – and peeked down the hallway. A metal box sat outside every door.
“What is it for, Joe?”
He explained that many Americans had milk delivered to their homes by men in white uniforms known as milkmen. He read the writing on one of the boxes.
Finally, they reached their destination: 303B. The smell of fresh paint from inside the unit reviving, Joe hunched over and embraced his wife.
“Here we are, Miss Song. Are you ready?”
“I am ready, Mr. Lipton.”
Joe unlocked the door.
The apartment was warm and stuffy from vacancy. Honey dropped her shoes like jacks, took a fan from her purse and began to explore, murmuring. Joe followed her from room to room. He used to say that language he could interpret, looks in the eyes, too, but murmuring remained foreign, wasn’t easily translated, could mean anything. Did she love it, did she hate it? His fretting and attentiveness was old hat to her and after three years of marriage, she knew what he was thinking half the time. The other half, never. That he was a man of mystique had dawned on her slowly and there were moments no matter how deeply she looked into his eyes, she would drown before seeing the blue bottom. Their early communications, their tentative smiles and grunts, seemed more intimate than their current full-length sentences strung together like pearls – too carefully, so carefully sometimes you stopped knowing each other. He probably assumed walking on carpet was a sensual experience for his wife, someone whose soles were hardened from a lifetime of walking barefoot on tile and concrete and ondal floors. Lucky Honey! In reality, the carpet beneath her feet felt weird and she hopped onto the kitchen floor to escape it like hot coals. So, here we are, the kitchen: Sized for Americans, so much out of reach. Star-level. She tiptoed to inspect the cupboards, the freezer, the silver GE emblem. Would she ever get used to this? Joe beckoned her with Fred Astaire flair back into the living room but Ginger Rogers wouldn’t budge.
“Rug stinks, Joe.”
He sniffed. “Like how?”
She ran to a window while Joe sank into his worst fears: Honey hated Belle Gardens, hated Belle Gardens, hated Belle Gardens…
“Window stuck!” she cried.
Joe tried to help but his heroic efforts failed him. “The damn paint glued it shut.” A crooked cigarette dangled from his lips. “Shit!”
Honey giggled. To hear Joe curse was a funny and rare sound, like a burp from a violin. His continuing struggle was pretty comical, too. “You need can of Popeye spinach.”
“Nope, I got it!” he yelled. “Fresh air! Let’s open them all.”
Window to window, Honey followed him with an optimistic trot. “Bad smell will fly out in pinch!”
Joe turned to her. Their bodies bumped and they laughed nervously, like strangers. Had everything changed now? No, no, it was just the newness of every corner, nothing more than chaos in the heart. Three years in Korea and each other’s presence, in flesh, shadow or memory, was their whole world. At times a formal one of bowing yet nothing could feel more natural. They never so much as spat or exchanged a cross look. Life was soft and lovely, morning light on a hillside. Now every corner was sharp and mean and strange. Why did a fancy light fixture called a chandelier adorn the dining room while only a miserable bare bulb hung from the ceiling in bedroom? Everywhere she looked made her want to cry. Were there mountains, she would stand atop the tallest one and not spot a single Oriental for miles.
“No manufactured answers,” he pleaded, “what do you think about the apartment?”
Honey tossed her fan on the floor. “We dance.”
As Joe twirled her around the living room mumbling something about buying a radio tomorrow so they could dance up a storm in their new home, Honey made a disturbing discovery: The vanishing of Old Spice. She sniffed behind one ear, then the other, his neck. Not a trace. In Seoul, surely she could follow his trail home on the streets blindfolded. Old Spice went up her nose and into her soul like some heavenly menthol. But here the heat and paint and rug and aromatic food in the hallway – all the American odors that insulted her Korean nostrils – were overwhelming, and suddenly her mood took a nosedive. What would she eat in this country? How would they prepare a pot of sea-smelling chigae without ingredients like bean paste and hot peppers and clear noodles? Pizza sounded like a bloody sanitary napkin – tomato sauce on bread and what on earth was this food called cheese? He said it was pungent like chigae and aged like tofu but the similarities ended there. Whatever cheese was, she hoped it was better than those coconut pineapple pancakes they had in Hawaii. Sure, she was smiling but frankly they looked like vomit, pressed and fried.
Honey broke away from Joe and pretended to dance her way to the window. She leaned forward, not wanting her husband to see her face. Soon he scooted next to her as if they were on a boat looking out. “Tomorrow we’ll go to the Great American Department Store,” he announced.
Honey, half-heartedly: “Sears & Roebuck!”
“You know,” he expressed to an imaginary horizon, “I always loved the open air markets in Korea. God, they were spectacular. Their distinct aromas. Bamboo, lacquer, rubber, dried fish. And the buzz! It was like being in a foreign movie.” His reminiscing confirmed that they were never going back. “Before we met, I would wander around them like I was lost in heaven.”
Lost in heaven. She too knew the feeling; that is, once she met Joe. Before that, it was just she and her mother at the markets. Her arms began to ache from the memory of how heavy that basket got but that was the fate of the middle child. Correction, privilege.
“Just to warn you, Honey, Sears & Roebuck is the polar opposite of those markets: It’s pure Americana.”
“You mean American?”
“No, Americana. God, how do I explain it?”
“Try, Joe.” After all, she was here to stay; editing by whims was no longer an option.
“Okay. It’s more American than American.” His eyes fluttered and gave up. “You know what, darling? You’ll just have to experience it.”
“Americana,” Honey repeated. Mysterious how the mind could sometimes hear what the ear couldn’t. “American with extra a added to the end. Like flag with fifty-one star?”
“Like apple pie…”
“… a la mode.”
“I’m impressed! But, Honey…”
“I love it here,” she reassured him.
Joe was lost in heaven in the open air markets before they met. But what about afterwards? Why couldn’t he add that strolling around the markets with her made the experience twice as nice? A sweet little rhyme might change her whole perspective right now.
She was just tired. A need not met could be a dangerous thing. Whenever the almond cookies were gone, her little sister would get angry at her when in fact Honey, then Hanhee, never touched Jahee’s favorites. Wouldn’t dare! Oh, the pout from that mole-kissed lip! More than once, Jahee bit her on the arm but kissed it the moment their mother presented her sister with a plate of sweet bean snacks that was almost as good.
Hanhee always forgave. The middle child kept the peace. Her gifted siblings had special rights: Little sister Jahee could act up and elder brother Hyonghee was to be served. But she was glad she forgave; a small bite on the arm was nothing. A kiss compared to Jahee’s fate. Damn war.
Yes, exhaustion. Worries wore you down, too. Plus there was the time difference – noon here but one in the morning in Seoul. And then from having to say, “Yes, I love it here,” every time Joe’s desperate eyes met hers.
Draining, so draining. Her lips were beginning to feel rubbery as a fish’s blowing bubbles all day – I love it here, I love it here.
Granted, the apartment was Buckingham Palace compared to their flat in Seoul. Still… Honey was expecting more in the grand style of the apartments in the American movies with their sweeping brocade curtains and tall stone fireplaces. Not a stitch of finery here, just those ugly so-called Venetian blinds and radiators. Now she believed what Joe had repeatedly told her: Not everyone in America was rich and lived like kings. What crazy myths flew into the ears of foreigners like her! Honey’s impression so far: fly-free, for the most part. Breathtaking in spots. Squeaky clean – war hadn’t blown it up and exposed the maggots and polluted the water. A middle-class country with little deviation; no one here was yangban material. The ladies in San Francisco looked expensive but underneath their silk shifts, they probably wore graying girdles and safety-pinned slips.
“Wall-to-wall carpet. Pretty luxurious, huh, Honey?”
Sometimes she thought Joe mistook how he found her for how she lived her whole life. She wasn’t always poor and at the mercy of Americans. After all, her father wasn’t a fisherman but a teacher of mathematics whose love of knowledge stretched as far as a rainbow. Philosophy, religion, history, poetry, doll-making. Each subject was a colorful band of light to him.
And Joe knew she came from a nice home in what was now North Korea – far nicer than any of the cottages on the Potomac River; and far nicer than this place, by the way. Here the rug was already growing more comfortable on her feet, but not exactly sanitary and that made her cringe. Jumpy. You couldn’t see the dust and dirt but it was there, embedded deep in the fibers forever, especially since Americans wore their shoes inside the house.
No, Joe never pictured her in her family’s stone home with a stone well that kept the round watermelons cooled until cracking time. Intellectually he had recorded it, but somehow his mind, which was a very brilliant mind that had memorize the tooth count of every vendor in every open air market, would not place her there. His picture of Honey had nothing to do with that spot, or her Korean heart.