She noticed it on the first day. The gilded grandfather clock in the guest room was lovely, but it startled Sujin out of her wits, at 10:30 in the morning, when the porcelain bird sprang out to chirp its twelve metallic notes. She quickly realized that it was not only the grandfather clock, but all the clocks in her parents’ apartment that were wrong: the metalwork clock with the ornate chimes in the entranceway, the heavy wooden one on the mantelpiece, and even the digital one by her parents’ bed.
“How do you know when to eat or sleep?” she teased her mother, while chopping cabbage for dinner. Her mother had hissed and clicked her tongue when she offered to help cook – she was a guest, it was her first day, she must be tired from the plane – but Sujin had taken up the knife anyway. Now, they cut vegetables in synchronized rhythm.
After a minute, her mother understood and laughed.
"I suppose they slowed down over time,” she admitted. “They’re all so old, and we would forget to set them right.” Her stout hands moved expertly, chopping and dicing with a speed and delicacy that Sujin couldn’t match, and they quickly fell out of sync.
Dinner was a soybean cabbage broth, with rice and a baked fish.
"It’s not much for your first day,” said her mother apologetically. “I’ll go to the market tomorrow, so we can have meat for dinner.” Sujin shook her head.
"This is exactly what I needed,” she insisted. She never made this soup back in Boston; it was difficult to find Napa cabbage in the American grocery closest to her home. When she did drive out to the Asian market, a good forty minutes away, it was for special occasions, ones that called for rice cakes, seaweed soup, or meat dishes, and not for such a plain and everyday recipe.
Sitting cross-legged on the same floor, at the same painted folding table, with the familiar food, was more disorienting than jetlag – it was as though the years in between had never been. The next few minutes were quiet but for the sound of clicking plates and chopsticks, their first meal together in nine years.
Seeing her parents at the airport, it had seemed that the years had escaped them; they’d looked the same, down to the clothing they were wearing. Her father had been in a suit she recognized from before his retirement, his tiger eyebrows as thick and fierce as she remembered, his hair not exactly black, but an even and handsome gunmetal grey. Her mother had worn an ivory wool jacket paired with strings of creamy pearls, as dainty and delicate as a soft wrinkled doll with a small painted red mouth. They’d looked like they were newly emerged from one of their old photos, posing at a company dinner or a presidential event.
Then her mother had come forward to embrace Sujin, her tiny frame barely reaching her daughter’s shoulders. As Sujin returned the embrace she’d seen the white roots, patches of soft pink scalp under the dyed black hair. She’d smelled flowery perfume, and under it the scent of mothballs and clotted dust.
In that split second a buried memory of her great aunt, the last time she had seen her, had come to mind. Sujin had only been a young girl, unsettled by the stuffiness and the cloying smell of death, and when her great aunt took her little clenched hand in her dry wrinkled one, she had pulled away crying, and been reprimanded sharply by her aunts as a result.
A few hours before dinner on the first day, her father disappeared into his room. She asked her mother and was told that he was napping, something she found uncharacteristic of her aggressively work-oriented father.
Of course, he no longer worked. When he emerged for dinner later, his suit replaced by a thin white undershirt, she noticed his sagging, liver-spotted skin.
It was no easy thing, to live life without clocks, she thought, alone in her old bedroom that night. It came with implications. To live untethered to the pull of time, in the heart of a city that was always moving. It seemed impossible, but perhaps that was what her parents had done, surrounded by artifacts of another time in a house of aimless clocks. They’d become anachronisms.
She sent her husband a message, before she went to bed. It’s good to be back. I miss you. She fell asleep counting cracks in the old plaster ceiling, listening to the ticking of the faulty clock.
On the second day, she went through the cabinets of her old room, and was surprised by how many things were in their old places; clothing and toys had been portioned off for cousins and nieces, but the stacks of yellowed diaries, the books and video tapes from her childhood, were preserved like precious artifacts. What was missing were some of the actual artifacts, the ones of real value. After every overseas business trip, every occasion that kept him away for weeks or months, her father had brought back memorabilia from all the different countries he’d visited. Her favorite had been the dolls – all handmade, all unique, all beautiful. Yellow-haired, blue-eyed twins from Germany, with soft plastic smiles and traditional outfits of real wool and wooden shoes. A painted woman from Japan, swallowed up in the folds of her embroidered kimono. A Singaporean girl with a straw hat and mischievous smile, carrying baskets on her shoulders. A jaunty Arabian magician with a dark, scheming look that labelled him as the villain in all of her games. At that time, she had never known how expensive they were to just be a child’s playthings.
Now, the dolls were nowhere to be found. She combed through the house, checking glass cabinets and ornate shelves displaying jade elephants and burnished teaspoons and gilded frames. Between the trinkets there were empty spots, negative spaces left in the dust.
She asked about it over breakfast, but her mother didn’t blink an eye.
“We gave them away,” she said. “It was too much clutter. I gifted the Wallace silverware and some other old things to some women at church. Mr. Byung Woo from 101B, his wife likes embroidery and doilies and pretty little things, so they got the dolls.” The idea of her mother finding their old keepsakes to be “too much clutter” was suspicious, but Sujin accepted it.
The dolls didn’t come back up in conversation until Kwon Byung Woo and his wife came upstairs to visit. Her mother was in the kitchen peeling fruit to serve and her father was napping in his room, so Sujin sat with them in the living space. After some small talk, she brought up the dolls.
“Really, they’re beautiful,” gushed Mrs. Kwon. “I would have paid far more for that kind of craftsmanship. But your mother insisted, what with our history.”
The confusion only showed on Sujin’s face for a second, before she rearranged it into a smile. The Kwons didn’t seem to notice, and a few moments later her mother came into the room with a tray of fruit.
The dolls – her artifacts – had been sold. Later that night, she lay awake in the room from her childhood, staring up at the same ceiling and listening to the ticking clock, feeling detached from time and space: not back to being a child, not entirely an adult, drifting in the vacuum of half-dark and the white noise of wailing cicadas.
One day while her mother and father slept, she found herself standing in the dining room of the grand apartment, feeling restless, feeling that it was uncomfortably empty. It was a large apartment, twice as big as most in Seoul and twice as old. Too big for a small couple, too big for so many empty spots on the shelves and hollows in the dust.
In the days that followed, she spent most of her time outside.
The city itself was a return to home. She went out at night after the rain, picked crowded streets and walked, walked for hours until they became empty and quiet, and she was alone with the neon signs and the oil-slicked puddles of reflected color. She chose little street vendors draped in blue plastic sheets and sat there to eat spicy rice cakes from styrofoam cups, remembering the long-lost feeling of being invisible, dissociating into the static on the radio and the roar of the electric fan, into the large but familiar city. Her city.
There were hundreds of little details she had been longing for without realizing her own thirst. She drank them in now. The cry of cicadas. The rows of earthen pots under clay rooftops. A plastic sheet piled with peppers laid to dry in a backyard, guarded by a sleeping dog on a chain. The musical notes of a jingle that her ears recognized but her mind couldn’t place. A ginko tree with butter-yellow leaves.
There was more, much more that she had forgotten to not miss. Motorcycles roared past her on the sidewalk and old people, drunks, shoved callously past her at night. The people on the street, whom she remembered with a warm anonymity as kindly old aunts and paternal uncles, were only strangers, cold and distant as any in the US. When she did speak to them, she struggled to keep up – there was a native jargon that had developed over the years. Sometimes she felt out-of-place, sometimes even alien. Even when walking she lost her way several times – her own foolish mistake, expecting the paths to have been left unchanged.
The thoughts came to her, slowly, melancholically, before she could recognize them and brush them away. Home was not entirely home, or, not entirely her memory of it. Strangers were strangers, no matter the country. Time went on, and streets didn’t stay the same.
And in her parent’s house, there were hollows where there used to be mementos.
On the second to last night of her visit, she called her husband and went out on the balcony to talk to him quietly. The next morning, as her father napped and she helped her mother do laundry, Sujin put a yellow envelope on her lap.
Her mother opened it, then put it down as quickly as if it had burned her.
“No.” Her tone was flat.
“Changmin wanted to do it. Just as a gift,” Sujin said. As her mother sullenly returned to folding clothing, Sujin changed her tone. “As compensation then, for my stay.” She realized, too late, that was even worse.
“What mother would charge her child for every visit?” her mother asked shortly. “We don’t need this. Don’t patronize your father like this.”
“That’s not what I--!”
“Quiet now,” her mother said, and Sujin closed her mouth, only now realizing how loud she had gotten. The two paused, listening for her father’s rumbling snores from the next room.
“Mom,” Sujin continued, trying to keep her voice level, though there was an uncontrollable tremor that betrayed her. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
“Why did you sell the dolls?”
“We gifted them.” Her mother’s voice was so resolute that Sujin almost wondered if she believed it, if she had selectively removed the memory of money from her mind.
“Will you sell the apartment?” Sujin asked.
“Never,” her mother said, in the same flat tone. “Sujin, we’ve lived here for fifty years.” Whether the answer was reassuring or worrying, Sujin couldn’t tell.
From the other room, she heard the sudden call of the cuckoo clock, twelve artificial chirps. Wrong, all wrong.
“Are you sure you and Dad are alright?” she asked when they returned to silence.
“Then it shouldn’t matter,” she said, begging. “Just take it. Please, take it.”
She pushed it forward a second time, and this time her mother let it stay. They continued folding clothing, feeling more strongly than ever that they were two adult women, not just mother and child.
When they were finished, Sujin stood first. She took her clothing and left, knowing that would make it easier.
The next morning, she sat down with her parents for rice and sweet beans and brown eggs, and washed dishes with her mother for the last time. Her bags were packed, three times heavier than before. Her mother had insisted that she take back all the things she couldn’t get in the US – an assortment of bitter black teas and dried medicinal roots in a handsome painted box, vacuum sealed packages of dried anchovies and sweet potato, bagfuls of ginger, cracked beans and salted seaweed. She realized that her mother didn’t believe her when she said that there were Asian groceries in the US – or if she did believe her, she didn’t trust them. How separated, how alienated her mother must think she was. She accepted the stockpile.
At the airport, her parents accompanied her to the departure gate. She embraced her father, careful of his shoulders, which were thin and angular beneath the pads of his suit. She embraced her mother, breathing in the now-familiar scent that, in its inexplicable strangeness, had terrified her as a child.
As she left them behind she checked her purse for her travel documents and found the yellow envelope tucked into her passport.
She only hesitated for a moment. Then she swallowed back the pain in her throat and handed her ticket to the attendee. Only when she was past the gate did she look back, just once, to their tiny forms – her father in his ancient suit, her mother in her ancient pearls, twin dolls, as tranquil and solid as if they could stand there forever, unbowed by the pressure of time.