by Phillip Garland
Hae-won knows how to pour a glass. She sits two rows of glasses on the living room floor and walks between them, filling each glass three-quarters full of water without the slightest spill. She doesn’t bend an inch to ease the pour. The glass filling began two weeks ago upon hearing word she made the second round of interviews. What began as relevant training for her new career has veered into a meditative act, making each pour something like a leap of faith.
Each wall of her studio apartment is adorned with photos of Asiana Airlines stewardesses cut out from magazine advertisements. Hae-won studies the posture and knowing smile of the stewardess above her sink as she waits on her coffee machine each morning. She sleeps with a towel for a pillow, afraid too much cushion will corrupt her naturally good posture. The smile, that requires a bit more work of her. Since she was a child, her laughs rumbled from her stomach up to her mouth where they escaped through a wide and round grin that revealed her perfect set of white teeth. She tries to smarten her smile and show only the top row, and grimaces when remembering her first interview. In line with hundreds of other applicants waiting their turn for an interview, the woman in front of her turned around and made a joke about the absurd length of the line. Hae-won, already almost bursting into flames by sheer anxiety and anticipation, gave birth to one of the biggest laughs in her life, only to see the stranger draw back with a grimace and quickly turn away. She very nearly broke into a sobbing fit, but managed to stay composed by shutting her eyes and biting her lip until it bled.
Hae-won empties the glasses into the sink and replaces them on the floor. Brushing her teeth, Hae-won pushes her finger into the middle of her cheek and prays for the first signs of a dimple in the morning. Her cheek, smooth and pale, is really the least of her worries, but a dimple could be a real help in her next interview. She is not kind to herself in the mirror. To be true, she hardly notices herself, but examines the areas always under rigorous scrutiny: the perpetually dry skin above her right eyebrow, the small nick beneath her chin from falling out of a tree as a child, the almost droopy left eyelid. She hurries to bed after applying a clearing lotion to her face. When she closes her eyes, she sees only the tan fabric of the Asiana uniform. She imagines it blowing like a flag in the wind.
It is Hae-won’s second week at Family Mart. She works the late shift, and each night consists mostly of catching up on the dramas she’s missed or sending text messages to her best friend in Australia. It’s now February, and she dreams of the red sun, orange fields, and clear air she breathed during her two-week visit with her friend. She remembers the boat trip along the rocky seaside cliffs when she lost an earring in the choppy waves. And the squat, chubby kangaroo gnawing a bush that had grown up a rusty, old road sign. She remembers feeling her happiness would have no end. Departing from Melbourne airport, she was surprised to find the color had gone out of her life. There was nothing but to meet Jin-ho over coffee, tell him the past was forgotten, and marry. She couldn’t even recall his face. She passed an hour in the toilet weeping.
It’s when she left the bathroom that, as is said, her life was forever changed. Rolling her bag to the moving sidewalk, Hae-won noticed a group of six women striding alongside her, the martial click of their heels playing like a battle hymn. They glided past like a team of Viking ships, their slanted avian caps serving as rudders in the sea of travelers. Their hair tightly wound and bunned beneath the cap, the women seemed perfectly arranged, their suits without a speck of dust, their panty hose elegant and glistening in the sunlight angling down from the windows. They forged ahead, their bags trailing behind them, and soon they were out of sight.
Hae-won slept through the flight into Australia after finishing an exhausting twelve-hour shift at Family Mart just two hours before takeoff. On this flight, however, Hae-won, alert and clearing, watched the women move gracefully through the cabin. Their demure pouring of grape juice enchanted her. Watching them prepare drinks and methodically work their cart down the aisles with gentle grace, Hae-won began to feel the soporific effect of her newfound ecstasy which, along with the gentle thrums and shaking due to turbulence, brought her into a deep, dreamless sleep she didn’t wake from until landing in Seoul.
Hae-won measures herself regularly. By the narrow window looking down ten stories at the alley that winds past a small college up to Moraksan, a hazy, minor mountain covered with wind-twisted pines, Hae-won pencils in her height each day to assure herself she has stopped growing. This morning, she is 170 centimeters tall, and she likes the finality of such a round number. Hae-won studies her body in the mirror before a shower. Investigating each crevice and maneuvering her body to explore the areas mostly hidden from her view, Hae-won finds pleasure in the design of her body—her cup of breast hidden in the palm of her hand, her thin, delicate fingers dabbed with crème at their tips, her round, modest buttocks finely jutting out above the smooth, wiry legs she inherited from her father.
Hae-won rides the subway. She practices posture, her back straight and neck tilting with each emphasis, her smile warm but not overbearing. She is a listener, but truly, she is training to perform and perform well. An interview is an opportunity to bear oneself, if one is ready, she thinks. Her new self is a siren, well-clad and airborne. To articulate this requires not only language of the mind and body, but a life to fill the two. Time disappears in the subway car as she practices signing her name on a yellow notepad.
Jin-ho is waving to her from a table at their coffee shop. His face is hard to read, but he does wear a smile. Given her habit of staring at the piece of air above his head when they are together, noticing his features is an altogether new experience—the diminutive brow, the dyed-red hair slicked to the side, the slantwise smile. She remembers the smile at least and how unsettled it makes her. Hae-won extends her hand and Jin-ho, overacting a surprise, quickly stands to shake it. She is pleased at her cool, professional entrance.
Jin-ho calls over the waiter and orders two coffees. He recounts the daily goings-on at the telephone shop where he works. The ridiculous customers, the incompetent management, the new SG model. For several minutes, he explains several new apps to her. Hae-won keeps her smile, maintains posture and eye contact.
The coffee arrives, which gives Hae-won’s hands something to do. It takes effort not to stare into the steaming black liquid. She tells herself “Focus!” and listens to Jin-ho talk. He has now switched the topic to their future. Pulling a small stack of papers from his bag, he spreads them across the table in front of Hae-won and explains that he has been looking at apartments in his free time. She scans the papers, the layout, the pictures, the square meters.
They could move in by the middle of May, he says, if the wedding went as planned. Hae-won has trouble responding. Her heart leaps into her throat, her temples pound, and her eyes drift toward the calm surface of her coffee. She slides down in her seat and bites her lower lip. Jin-ho hurriedly turns through the papers to find an apartment, holds it up to Hae-won, and puts a trembling finger to a picture of a balcony view. She is failing, she thinks. The clarity of the last month is fading along with the ghostly warmth that followed her from Australia. She imagines her lost earring creeping across the ocean floor like the claws in Eliot’s poem. She’s fallen overboard to pursue it, and leaves their conversation drifting above.
Jin-ho pulls her out with a tug on her jacket, and Hae-won must grab the corner of the table to reset the scene. Jin-ho is ugly to her, she realizes now, but only as a distant nephew or niece is ugly. She pities him and watches the confused worry spread across his face. She assures Jin-ho she is fine—the words tumble out without her permission, but for the first time she knows their weight and volume, the real scale of the phrase, and the tiny promise that she makes to herself when she says it. I am fine.
Jin-ho rests his head on his fist, watching as Hae-won puts on her coat to leave. He stirs the last of his coffee and knows they will never meet again.
Hae-won signs in at a small desk in the hotel lobby. She sits in a chair and waits for her name to be called. Her back is straight against the cool leather cushion. She has prepared well for the interview. She closes her eyes and recites a sonnet she memorized for her university entrance exam. By leaning forward and lifting up her head, she hopes to see over a stone wall in her mind and know what comes next.
Phillip Garland was born and raised in East Tennessee, where he studied Literature, Writing, and Geography. He now lives in Gyeonggi-do, Korea and teaches English. He will be returning to America to pursue his MFA degree.
Artwork by Margarita Korol.
Sitting at the computer after a hot, humid day in Brooklyn, I find reading your prose a pure delight.
Right on, Judith, right on!
goddamn this guy is good!
Sitting alone in a room, not an airplane, after reading this story, I feel I am on board, on a flight. Perhaps desiring very much to be a woman.
Bah humbag w/ all this uncritically rapt tail-wagging: That Prufrock allusion was pure fatuousness: Like a young Korean maiden would have an invertebrate from one of Eliot’s poems crawling across her cerebral cortex.