“Beyond the mountains are more mountains.”
It was likely a symptom of aging, but lately Auntie found herself waking in the middle of the day. She wasn’t sleepwalking, exactly, but today she woke during an afternoon stroll, nearly tripping on the uneven sidewalk. Tree roots were slowly heaving up the concrete slabs, and she had to spread her arms for balance. She couldn’t recall the minute—or hour—before. The neighborhood was familiar, though, which meant she was near her apartment complex outside of Marietta. She was also clothed, which was a relief. It was only a matter of time, she told herself, before she emerged nude, in public, from a fugue state.
In her hand was an index card with a name and address written neatly in Hangul: her destination was a nearby bus stop. The occasion was a doctor’s appointment. She tucked the card into her pocket, embarrassed. As a child, she was so forgetful that her mother would safety pin homework and other important documents to the back of her shirts. Of course, no one who spotted her could have known that—and besides, she was alone. It was 7:14 a.m. according to her watch, and people in this neighborhood were only starting to stir in their squat brick houses. Each had a fussily maintained lawn; this put Auntie slightly at ease. She rarely walked outside anymore, and even in a neighborhood like this one, where houses sported eggshell-colored siding and Accords radiated aspirational blandness, she suspected people were drawn to their windows by the ripples of disharmony she sent out. It was clear from her face, from her age and uncertain stride, that she did not belong here. “This wasn’t my idea,” she wanted to yell—though to be honest, if it wasn’t her idea to cross through this all-white suburban paradise, whose was it?
Near the edge of the neighborhood was a small park. She was five foot even, the green hedge beside her tall enough that she couldn’t see over it. Somewhere a chain-link fence rattled—then a chuffing noise erupted as the hedge bulged toward her. Through the bushes came a musky animal smell. It reminded her of the horses she’d cared for in Korea as a child, but this smell was wilder, more acrid. As she quickened her pace, she glanced over her shoulder but couldn’t make out anything except this dark mass on the opposite side of the hedge, trailing her. Whatever it was, given her age, she wouldn’t outrun it once it broke through.
Someone brushed past her, shoving her forward, her heart churning so hard that her vision dimmed. Of course it was a boy—his neon-green backpack bounced as he ran the few yards to the end of the street. He faced the hedge and yelled, “Hey!” so loud that Auntie imagined windows rattling, birds scattering from tree branches. After peering through the hedge for a long moment, he nodded and turned to her.
“Auntie!” he said in Korean. From his voice alone—the American accent, amplified by boyish energy—she knew it was Lee, a boy who lived in her apartment building. He wasn’t her nephew, but she was pleased he’d retained enough of the culture to use the familiar term. She’d first met him with his mother a couple years before in the grimy basement laundromat. By that point, seeing another Korean in Georgia wasn’t rare, though it still felt like the blacks and whites took up most of the city’s light and air, everyone else wheezing as they scrambled for what was left. Lee’s mother, Hae-won, was young, early thirties. Auntie didn’t know what the woman did for a living, or whether she was a single mother (a charity case to be pitied from a mountaintop of moral superiority) or a widow (a charity case to be pitied, with the knowledge that misfortune is inescapable). After introducing herself, Hae-won asked to borrow seven dollars from Auntie, who would recognize the tactic later in panhandlers—the specificity of the amount was supposed to catch passersby off guard. Lee was nine at the time, and Auntie took in his wide, innocent face, his budget haircut and hand-me-down overalls, and fished the entire amount from her change purse. Lee often played alone in the lobby, though he’d always offer to help Auntie carry groceries or laundry up to her apartment. Hae-won never paid her back.
“Boy, that thing really wanted out,” Lee said in halting, bouncy Korean. It was clear he didn’t speak the language even at home. She felt heartened by the effort he was making on her behalf, charmed by his clumsiness with the language. “I thought we were together walking to the stop.”
Had she invited him on this trip? She dismissed the notion with a wave of her hand. She avoided Hae-won—Auntie had a vision of the young mother inviting herself over for dinner, the evening ending with the single mother crying on Auntie’s couch, spilling her troubles into the air, where they’d hang like the smell of rancid oil. However, Auntie always checked for Lee when crossing the lobby. Occasionally, she’d bring him a box of Botan Rice Candy, which he’d snatch from her hand but would never eat in front of her. When Auntie was tired, the world fell away: chipped teacups and fraying towels and garlic bulbs sprouting in her cupboard—everything tumbled off the edge of her exhaustion except herself and Lee. She wanted to buy him clothes that fit better and scrape the rust off his Korean. In those moments of exhaustion, a long-lost maternal warmth welled up—even though he was way too young, she allowed herself to imagine him as the American son she might have had.
As Lee took slow, measured steps beside her, the aches in her knees receded and her heartbeat settled. Lee announced it was the last week of school. “All the teachers do is show movies.” Auntie had trouble believing such a thing. By the time they reached the bus stop, she still felt rattled. Her mind was calm but her body was still catching up. The muscles in her calves twitched and quivered, and her stomach spasmed. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait long. The bus arrived on schedule.
As she gripped the railing and pulled herself up the steps, a cluster of teens sitting at the front stood to move a few rows back. There were six of them, mostly Korean American—from their dark uniforms, they were students at a private high school. They leaned toward each other conspiratorially, continuing their conversation and ignoring their surroundings as they walked. The seats at the front faced each other and were reserved for the elderly and handicapped. Auntie didn’t consider herself either. It seemed rude for the teens to flee from an elder without even glancing at her, but it also seemed rude if Auntie didn’t fill the seat they’d vacated.
She turned to see Lee settling himself next to her. “Oh, I thought you were just walking me to the stop. You don’t have to come with me,” she said.
“Oh, Auntie,” he replied. Checking the index card, she realized she would arrive an hour early for the appointment. Her doctor in Atlanta was from Daegu. She liked him even though he stressed punctuality and his receptionist glowered at latecomers. Today, Auntie wouldn’t be among them, though she hated to take so much time out of Lee’s day.
She wanted nothing more than to close her eyes but knew she’d miss her stop and wake to discover the bus on a dilapidated stretch of MLK Drive, the engine silent, the driver gone, the door flung open. Luckily, Lee was there to bring her back to reality. He calmly watched the beige sound walls and pine forests speed by. Even though they were a few rows back, the teens’ conversation grew louder, occasionally cutting through the engine noise. They switched back and forth between Korean and English, though Auntie noted the Korean phrases were always quieter. By the time she’d translated shards of their conversation, they’d changed topics from their least favorite teacher to the fragility of sunglasses to something called a “slam book.” Auntie rubbed her eyes: when she was their age, she’d just immigrated to greater Atlanta from Busan, and the ability to speak English so effortlessly, without the stain of an accent, was every immigrant’s dream. And yet, there were unspoken rules about exposing one’s mother tongue in public: back then, even a quick Korean phrase would have drawn glares from whites and blacks alike. One quickly learned that Hanguk-mal was acceptable only at home, at Korean grocery stores, and church.
Before immigrating, she’d never thought so much about her mouth. She still remembers her first cheeseburger: the spongy texture of the bun and the unexpected pop of tomatoes and lettuce. Beef was an art form in Korean, but after the armistice, it was scarcer than fresh vegetables or clean clothes. In the aftermath of the war, there weren’t many qualified teachers, either, so instead of continuing her education, she lived with her parents and assisted with housework until she turned seventeen. She never fully believed the stories about America’s boundless prosperity, but she figured the country had to be less corrupt than Korea, which anyway felt more like a construction site than a country. One could barely move, barely breathe. Her decision to leave was hastened by her parents’ relentless campaign to marry her off.
In 1973, the last stamp kissed her paperwork: moving was easier since Auntie’s sister had recently relocated to Georgia. Auntie decided she liked the name: the way the soft vowel sounds dropped and bounced, “Jeaw-ja” like a nostalgic sigh. Or a pickup’s gate lowering, overripe peaches bouncing into a basket. Much like a peach pit, English felt strange in her mouth. Four decades later, Georgia would boast the largest surge of Korean immigrants, but in the seventies, Asians were a rarity. When Auntie left her apartment, her exoticness was displayed for public judgment and comment. It often felt like keeping her mouth closed was the only power she had, so she used it.
After she’d been in the States for a month, her parents passed away—since Auntie had already spent so much on airfare, her sister returned to Busan to handle the estate. Auntie felt doubly stranded, but what could she do? Learning English quickly was her only option.
As the bus crossed into Fulton County, Auntie tried to determine whether the teens had learned Korean or English first. How far have we come—enough to pass as American? Lee had clearly allowed English vowels to crowd out the Korean ones. It would be easy to blame his mother, but were there other Koreans at school he could talk to? Come to think of it, he always seemed alone—there was a separateness about him even when he accompanied his mother.
At least Auntie had the local Korean Presbyterian Church, which offered free English lessons. She purchased a pair of elegant-looking glasses with gold-colored rims, starched her shirts, and pulled her hair into a modest bun. She wore her usual long pleated skirts and polyester blouses. During conversation exercises, her classmates always complimented her. This continued after she graduated and started a career as a nursing assistant, even though her coworkers, often black and rarely praised, were equally capable.
Auntie’s sister remained in Korea for six more months to help “reduce the family’s sorrow,” then extended her stay another six months. In the end, she never returned to America, though her name was still on the apartment’s lease.
Due to her impeccable appearance and serviceable language skills, Auntie started a new career in patient intake and spent most of her days directing phone calls and filling out forms instead of changing diapers and spooning oatmeal into elderly mouths. She’d always known the value of education, but some knowledge is instinctual: you feel in your finger bones. Following that instinct, she ruthlessly sharpened her English. ESL class was a public affair: students repeated words and phrases as a group and traded partners for conversation drills. Stationed by herself in a back office with only an ugly gray word processor and an office phone to keep her company, Auntie could better focus on pronunciation. Here, she didn’t have to worry about spitting or drooling. She could obsess over the position of her tongue, how it moved, what it was or wasn’t touching. Between calls, she warped the patients’ words, growling and swelling them so she could bend them back to normal: “ArrRe you A rrresident of DeKalb County?” “MediCAY-tion.” “ImPARErrments.” “Nor-MULL.” When she ran out of work-related phrases, she repeated sentences from the ESL workbook: “I think the smooth red ball is for the party.”
Doctors passing her office were shocked to hear the pleasant “American” voice from the phone coming from an “Oriental” face. In a matter of months, her voice was free of the friction and stutter of any accent. The teens on the bus would no doubt scowl and cry racism, but Auntie basked in her colleagues’ compliments and praise. It was a big step toward fitting in, toward counting as normal.
It was increasingly hard to listen to the teens and keep track of Lee, who kept glancing, wide-eyed, down the aisle, which drew a few friendly waves. The teens, though, were immune to his cuteness. He wasn’t the type to wander off, but Auntie still kept an eye on him. Did she have her insurance card? The doctor would no doubt ask how long she’d been having these fugues. Even as she scolded herself for not knowing—and not returning Lee to his mother the minute she saw him walking alone down the street—her energy dwindled. At least she took some pride in remembering to schedule this appointment, even if this was just a routine checkup. It is just a routine checkup, right? she asked herself.
Auntie pictured the teens’ words as a string of gems rising into the clouds, or a trail of breadcrumbs out of a forest. Being American-born and fluent inspired confidence, which showed in their attitudes and movements. The result was that no one, save Auntie, seemed to even notice them.
To keep herself awake and to distract Lee, she taught him how to play I Spy. It was clear he knew it was a little kids’ game and played along just to humor her. She thought of word games she could play, especially Korean ones. Even after all these years, English wore on Auntie with its immense vocabulary and slippery articles and the verbs forever stuck in the wrong place. On long days like today, she imagined herself as a thick earthen dam holding back a sea of broken English. Every possible mistake churned on the other side and heaved itself against her, and it was all she could do to keep ugly, malformed words from leaking out.
She woke with a snort and a wild flutter in her chest. She was still on the bus, but how many stops had she missed? She half expected Lee to be gone, replaced by her own handbag or a homeless man with leaves in his beard. Instead, the boy was staring out the window, gripping its edge as if trying to push himself through the frame. His shoulder blades strained against his white T-shirt. Auntie noticed a dime-sized hole in a sleeve. The highway broadened: she was always a little stunned by the number of lanes on 75. More often now, rising above the forest was a new hotel complex or crane. The bus sped past T-shaped supports for a future overpass. She only visited Atlanta a few times a year, but it seemed like a new city each time. It was hard to reconcile the expensive parks and fountains downtown with the gravel-strewn maze of warehouses her sister had nervously sped through all those years ago after she picked up Auntie from the airport.
The bus stopped. Its doors opened and a stout African American woman heaved herself up the steps, her son in tow. She nodded at the driver but, Auntie noticed, didn’t seem to pay. The woman was middle-aged and wore a floral-print jumper dress. On her head was a Braves cap—although Auntie was wearing the same hat, she wouldn’t have recognized it as such. She had no idea who the Braves were, had bought the hat at a flea market because she liked the color scheme (red bill, black crown) and price. The plan was to turn it into a visor, but she found she liked the mesh back panel and suspected the airflow somehow prevented her hair from thinning further. Auntie had dressed up for the doctor, donning a pink polyester blouse with a rolled collar and wide-leg slacks. The African American woman lowered herself into the seat across from Auntie, who became aware that she’d been staring and looked away. The woman’s son sat facing Lee. The door closed and the bus engine made a grinding rumble as they inched uphill.
“Joyce Peterson,” the woman said. Auntie looked up: Joyce held her cell phone like a microphone and repeated her name, then mashed the phone against her ear. She repeated her name a few times, then overenunciated her date of birth and passcode (“Freck-les”) into the phone. Although Auntie was done eavesdropping on the teenagers, she noted with irritation that she couldn’t hear them now.
Either Joyce lost reception or, Auntie thought with a tinge of victory, this uncouth woman felt Auntie’s micro-waves of disapproval and decided to make such a call in private. Into her gigantic denim purse went the phone. “They can put a man on the moon, but you can’t get a signal,” Joyce muttered.
Her son had a primitive cigarette in his mouth—or a joint. Auntie was close enough to catch a whiff of cinnamon but didn’t make the connection. She was worried he was going to light it, perhaps blow smoke rings at Lee, who was no longer staring out the window but stalwartly facing the opposite seat. His hands were neatly folded on his lap as he leaned his head and shoulder into Auntie. She accepted the warmth of his touch and let some of her weight rest against him. How quickly he reached for his Korean-ness, wrapped it around himself like a blanket when the air on the bus thickened and charged. She didn’t mind.
And anyway, they were only a few stops from the doctor’s office. In the silence that Joyce allowed, Auntie remembered she was arriving an hour early and pictured Lee sitting in the grimy reception room—calm at first, but how long until he lost interest in that germy issue of Highlights? Bad news would blare through the cheap television bolted to the wall, and they probably wouldn’t let her change it to cartoons or whatever Lee watched. How long until he regretted his decision to accompany her?
Joyce frowned—or, more precisely, frowned back. Auntie exhaled slowly through her nose. It wasn’t her fault the seats made them face these people. Joyce’s frown—reproachful, full-mouthed—hung in Auntie’s mind, the upside-down version of the Cheshire cat’s smile. There was a word for how Auntie felt, but she couldn’t remember it, even after trawling her Korean vocabulary. There were probably a number of pidgin English words, but she refused to consider them. She wasn’t that kind of woman.
What kind of woman was she? The kind who handled things. “We may be at the hospital a while,” she told Lee, who was watching Joyce’s son, probably checking the teen’s waistband for a gun. An inquisitive grunt erupted from Auntie: the bus’s rocking must have brought it forth. She twisted her mouth shut, but Lee still didn’t respond. “If you want, I can call your mother, have her pick you up.” She knew how to explain things to Hae-won in Korean: the honorifics simplified the discussion, made it clear Hae-won should defer to her elder, but the English version was complicated. “Your son skipped school because we . . . had an agreement.” The dynamic between Auntie and Hae-won changed as the moral high ground shifted.
The bus slowed a little, and Auntie swayed with it. If the moon raised and lowered water, what affected the tides of language that pulled and pushed on her? Not knowing a word or being unable to recover some essential flavor lost in translation—no matter how long she stayed in this country, this difficulty would circle her always.
Without changing her expression, Joyce stared at the window past Auntie, making a show of not looking at her. “I just don’t want you bored or grumpy,” Auntie offered.
“Oh, I’m happy to spend the time with you.” That’s what she expected Lee to say, but he didn’t respond. Joyce’s son had pulled out a handheld video game and jabbed at the buttons, the volume on full blast. A fuzzy melody and cartoon sound effects sprinkled into the air. “Jealous” wasn’t the right word—it was like every part of Lee except his hands reached out toward that shiny plastic toy.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Auntie ran her fingers through Lee’s hair, feeling an illicit thrill, as if she’d kidnapped him and made him her own. The bus stopped for an elderly man wearing a gray tracksuit. A white gauze bandage covered one eye. The bandaged man paused hopefully near the front row, but Joyce’s son was engrossed in his video game—or pretended to be, and Joyce certainly wasn’t moving.
Lee vacated his seat. Auntie scooched over to make room for the elderly man and directed a scowl toward Joyce’s son. She hated his jeans, which were comically tight, and his ugly green sneakers. Ultimately, though, his lack of consideration was his mother’s fault. The bus suddenly braked, pressing Auntie into the man with the bandage.
“Whoa, sorry. I don’t take the bus often,” she said to her surprisingly bony neighbor, who didn’t respond. Something caught the attention of their fellow passengers: a few stood and pointed toward the windshield. Auntie heard the word “biker” but couldn’t see anything. She started to stand—the bus braked again, hard, and a man pitched down the bus aisle, raising his hands defensively right before his face slammed off the windshield with a thud Auntie felt in her chest. “He-a crash! Go light . . .” Auntie realized she was standing, that the bus’s momentum had pulled her to her feet, that a spray of pidgin English had burst from somewhere inside her. The impact seemed to vibrate in her spine and belly, and her entire body cringed.
The bus coasted toward the curb, and now Joyce was standing, too. Auntie turned to Lee, who was crouched in the aisle. They made eye contact, and she quickly turned to Joyce. “Went. He went . . . right down the aisle,” Auntie said flatly, as if Joyce were the one who needed correcting. Even though all eyes were on the driver as he radioed into dispatch, Auntie felt the passengers’ scrutiny rest on her. She was suddenly nineteen again, the phrase “He-a crash!” echoing though the bus. She blushed so hard her glasses fogged up and pinpricks of heat pierced her scalp. Through the windshield, the passengers watched as a cyclist carrying a shiny orange messenger bag weaved through traffic without looking back.
Someone on the bus angrily narrated into her phone, “Some dickhead on a bike cut us off, and when our driver hit the brakes, this poor bastard lost his balance. Flew down the aisle into the windshield.” Auntie expected a Rorschach pattern of blood on the windshield, but there was only the driver out of his seat, leaning over a man in a blue windbreaker sitting on the steps, his face in his hands. Passersby on the street and passengers alike had their phones out to document the scene—although, she noticed, neither Joyce nor her son were among them. She couldn’t explain the feeling, but a new thrill gripped Auntie: it could have been her sailing toward the windshield. A sense of kinship extended toward her fellow survivors in the front row—except Auntie’s fish-scented howl was also part of the public record. She imagined the teens mouthing it to each other between giggles. Lee clung so tightly to her arm that it was almost numb, but she couldn’t face him. Not knowing what else to do, she sat. “He slide down bus, bang off-a bus into window,” she said loudly, exaggerating the accent as if to exorcise it.
“Lawdy!” Joyce said, her eyes gleaming and an odd smile stretching her face. Her eyebrow shot up, as if to say, How about that, when you bury something but it springs back like a weed? For some of us, her expression said, language and shame are universal. She raised her voice. “What to do, what to do?”
“His face red cara but he okay.” Picture a pair of boxers leaning into each other near the end of a long bout, one spitting out a mouthguard to whisper to his opponent. Auntie felt tears of gratitude welling but forced them down. She wasn’t that kind of woman, either.
Joyce drawled out a sentence that sounded like a single word and ended with “waffalouse.” In between, Auntie recognized “bet” and “awl” and could only blink in response. Backpedaling, Joyce twitched her shoulders and said, “Ain’t it a shame. Lawd-all-mighty.” Her son continued to play his video game.
“Someday, you bit traffic, someday it bit you! I try to say Norma Lee,” Auntie said, shaking her head.
“Sure do,” Joyce said, pronouncing it “shore.” “These kids on bikes got no sense. I got places to be,” she said, sincerity returning in the last few syllables.
“I’ll be late for the pardy, I might as well work there.” Other ESL practice sentences swooped in from the past: The red ball is the star of the party. I walk to work. Run a red light and be sorry. A police cruiser slowed beside the bus and an officer emerged. Sensing an end to their game, Auntie tightened her throat and in the most exaggerated pidgin she could muster, yowled, “Lain in sbane falls mainly in the prain.”
Joyce leaned back, taking in Auntie’s face and hat before donning a somber, inquisitive expression, one eyebrow leaping up. With the flourish of a chef yanking a cover off a platter, she said, “But . . . let me axe you.” Auntie laughed along—regardless of what she understood, she recognized the hooded expression that passed over Joyce’s face with those last three words, the delight that followed. The teens in the middle of the bus tore their gaze from the cop shining his flashlight in the injured man’s eyes and stared at the two ladies, each wearing the same ill-fitting Braves hat, cackling so hard they nearly doubled over. The teens’ faces were black as rice cakes, and Lee was downright confused, which somehow made everything funnier.
Later that day, Auntie filled out paperwork while Lee stood enchanted by the enormous fish tank in the doctor’s office. He’d jogged to it without hesitation, taking his place next to the two white kids—brothers, probably—and struck up a conversation with them. Whatever allowed him to be this comfortably American, it was a blessing, one she’d never understand or possess.
It occurred to her that Joyce never finished her last question. What if she really had something to ask? Auntie set down the clipboard and turned to Lee, who was running his finger along the glass, tracing the path of a blue-and-yellow tang. She thought of the sentence she’d repeated thousands of times her first few years in America: “Walk to work, arrive, party hard like a rock star.” The ESL teacher at the church was a young American-born Korean with dyed blonde hair who said “Wow” a lot. Auntie had dutifully wrapped her own ambition around the sentence, accepted it as a familiar nemesis. Today had peeled itself away to reveal something to Auntie, and the blonde teacher’s mantra sped through the years to accompany it. This wasn’t the party Auntie expected, but watching Lee’s content, steady reflection in the cloudy water, she suspected the long, difficult work to be worth it.