Permission to Marry

Fiction by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

March 11, 2015

Illustration by Janet Sung

Mr. and Mrs. Shin were discussing whether or not to obtain permission to cut a neighbor’s tree branch hanging over the property line when the gardener said, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” It was a novel thought, but they shrugged it off as one of those American sayings that did not pertain to them. Though they had lived in the United States for over 40 years, they never quite let go of all their Korean thoughts and feelings. Even their house, people said, smelled like Korea. When Mrs. Shin had asked what this Korea smelled like, her son Paul had sniffed the air and said, “Like mothballs and kimchi,” with the frankness of a small child. They had a good laugh over that.

In Mr. and Mrs. Shin’s world, it was better to ask for permission than to ask for forgiveness. Asking permission, the Shins thought, was what one always did before making a decision. What kind of person would make a decision on his own terms, especially the kind of decision that would affect the destinies of others? There was no forgiveness for such a thing.

So when their son came home and said, “I’m getting married to Cathy,” as casually as if announcing vacation plans, Mr. and Mrs. Shin were taken aback.

“No!” Mr. Shin replied. He meant no to his son’s flippant demeanor, to the decision his son had made without their consult and to the girl herself. He meant no to any request for forgiveness from his son and no to the marriage and no to America and no to lack of tradition and no to the girl, again.

It was a short conversation. “She’s Korean, as you wanted. You have to accept Cathy,” Paul said, his voice filled with bile.

“No,” Mr. Shin said. “You said you would never marry her. That’s what we decided!”

Paul left his parents’ house after saying, “Dad, Cathy and I have been together for nine years. You’ve known her for eight years. What did you expect?”

*

“Mom!”

Mrs. Shin had just 10 white hairs on her head when she met Cathy for the first time. She was also in the middle of a nap when she heard her son rapping on her bedroom door. She sat up in bed, the afternoon sunlight streaking her bedsheet. She wondered what the emergency could be and, in a panic, swung herself out of bed so fast that her vision swam. Her husband always criticized her for moving with such haste, but he had never worked in a hospital ICU as she had, where a second meant everything.

“Mom! I want you to meet Cathy!”

And, as she steadied herself by the headboard, she could hear her son knock again.

“Mom? Cathy’s here.”

“Paul? Mommy was sleeping! Wait!” This couldn’t possibly be the case, could it? That he had brought home a girl for her to meet? Without any formality? Mrs. Shin wondered how she could be presentable at all. She could see the impression the sheets had left on her face, like a map of rivers carved into her skin. She wished she hadn’t woken up. She wished she had an hour to get ready. She wished he had given a week’s notice. She wished the girl did not exist.

When Mrs. Shin opened the door and walked into the living room a few minutes later with the taste of toothpaste still in her mouth, Cathy was waiting with Paul on the sofa. Mrs. Shin caught them in mid-murmur. Cathy pointed to something in the room, and Mrs. Shin found herself tracing the line to the bookshelf. She wondered what Cathy saw — was it a book, a photograph, the sheaf of loose bills and envelopes or the mug filled with pens? Mrs. Shin paused. Perhaps the girl would explain.

The girl smiled. Her teeth were very small.

Mrs. Shin waited for the girl to stand, and it made for an awkward moment that Mrs. Shin broke by saying, “Hello, would you like some watermelon?” It was something she said to all of Paul’s friends. She regretted saying this the moment she said it aloud.

“Yes, thank you,” the girl said. She snuggled into Paul’s arm.

Mrs. Shin paused again, anticipating the girl’s offer to help. Instead of breaking the silence this time, Mrs. Shin gave up and walked out of the living room. She could hear the girl from the kitchen. Mrs. Shin thought Cathy’s voice sounded like the high pitch of a hungry mosquito.

*

Mr. Shin, who had been a little curious, asked his son after the relationship’s three-year mark, “Are you going to marry her?” Mr. Shin did not notice Paul’s hands curl up into fists in response to this question. Mr. Shin was too concerned with the answer at hand.

“No, Dad. No, I’m not going to marry her.”

Mr. Shin took this lighthearted statement as a promise. It was what he wanted to believe, and he chiseled the words into his mind and carried them with him as his son carried on this courtship. “He’s just having a little bit of fun right now,” Mr. Shin said, and he inquired after his friends’ eligible Ivy League graduate daughters. “I am looking for someone with whom my son can be committed.”

“Dad, I can choose my own girl,” Paul said when Mr. Shin mentioned these other girls. “Besides,” he added, “I’m not ready for anything serious right now.” That gave Mr. Shin further comfort.

“Ah, Paul is just messing with this girl.” Mr. Shin continued to look for a prospective daughter-in-law, or at the very least, a woman to wake up Paul’s sensibilities. Surely his son knew there were better fish in the sea?

In contrast to Mr. Shin’s prospects for Paul, Cathy had an atypical upbringing, no college degree and was wholly unattractive to Mr. Shin. She was diminutive in the way he thought unbecoming, like a limp houseplant. Mrs. Shin took it one step further and nicknamed her “The Mosquito.” What did their son see in her? If their son were to marry her, Paul was sure to end up divorced. There was no way their son could not see this future.

After three years, they suspected the two were living together, even having sex, but that was not the big concern. Mrs. Shin had found the girl’s underthings in Paul’s apartment when she had gone over with a basket of cleaning supplies on a regular Monday visit. As always, she had paused for a moment to breathe in the familiar odor of her son. When he was a child, he smelled sweet like spring grass. Now, she noted the layers of scent in him: the base note that smelled like fresh garden soil and the sharper accents that made her nose wrinkle. She had been feeling somewhat tired, but being in her son’s room energized her. She proceeded toward the bathroom.

There, on the tile, she saw a pile of clothes that were too dainty to be her son’s, let alone any boy’s. The clothes sat like mold on the bathroom floor. They had not been anything overt like lingerie, as she had feared for a split second; they were the girl’s socks and cardigan. But they produced the same effect; Mrs. Shin felt exhaustion weigh on her shoulders again. For years, she worked the most undesirable shifts as a nurse, saving as much as she could for her child’s education. Knowing she had been working for his future filled her with purpose and hope. But, there in the apartment of her bachelor son with its plain walls, rumpled gray bed sheets and oversized flat-panel television, she felt all the 60 years of her life. She felt her status as the oldest nurse on staff, and she felt like a tired old woman. Had she worked all her life for her son to marry The Mosquito Girl?

Mrs. Shin said to herself, “My son will not have a dirty bathroom, especially in front of this girl. He is much better than she is.” She wanted to intimidate the girl with cleanliness. Perhaps in such an antiseptic atmosphere, the girl herself would languish like so many of the germs that had been lingering in the crevices throughout the week. But, as she cleaned his bathroom, spraying the shower walls with Tilex and dousing the tub with bleach, it occurred to Mrs. Shin that she was now not only cleaning for her son but also for this girl. She stared at the toilet bowl with disgust, thinking about the girl’s naked bottom on the seat that she had just cleaned.

“How dare she not take care of him? She should be looking after his place,” she seethed. “What kind of girl leaves her clothes lying on the floor of a man’s house like that?”

*

Some of their American friends considered Mr. and Mrs. Shin an arranged marriage, but the Shins liked to emphasize that they still had a choice in their match. They liked to think that they had executed their courtship with courtesy and propriety.

They had been introduced to each other by Mrs. Shin’s sister. Mrs. Soo-Ja Shin had been young Miss Soo-Ja Park at the time, with glowing skin and symmetrical features in a perfect oval face. “Not beautiful,” Mr. Shin liked to say, “but very handsome and classic. Like Diane Sawyer!” No one knew what to say to Mr. Shin; everyone thought Mrs. Shin (and Diane Sawyer) was beautiful. What did he consider beautiful? “Oh, Elizabeth Taylor, but her beauty didn’t last,” Mr. Shin replied. So, while staring at her handsome, classic face, one he felt would withstand the ravages of time and marriage, Mr. Shin had fallen in love. In his recollection, he told people, “I liked her! She was from a good family, was classy looking and was smart — she’d make a good wife!” But, in reality, he had known she was the one. He had hidden his admiration behind his pragmatism.

In their case, they did not have to ask permission. Their families and the matchmaker had been asking them for permission. Who knows what they would have done if they had needed to ask? What would they have done if they had feared a denial? Would Mr. Shin have asked for forgiveness instead?

*

They had heard enough from Paul himself to make a judgment about the girl. Their son, in his naivete, told them Cathy’s history. In the early days of their courtship, there had been many quarrels, and Paul had slung insults at the girl eagerly. “Cathy’s mother is crazy; no wonder her husband left her.” The picture he had painted for his parents had not been flattering.

Cathy had been conceived two weeks after an arranged marriage. The groom abandoned the marriage after a honeymoon that had proved amorous enough to produce a child. For weeks, the community gossiped about the husband who left his wife in the wake of their honeymoon. It had been an outrageous act that implied a scandalous cause. “Maybe she had a penis!” had been the wildest conjecture neighbors often made over glasses of soju late at night as they wondered about the cause for the departure. There had been something not quite right about the bride, whose parents sequestered her in their home as if she were a shameful secret. She ventured through the courtyard of her home, pale from her seclusion and disheveled in her heartbreak.

After some time, the community had been given something new to gossip about: The bride had become pregnant. The rumors about her sexual organs had died down as the people cast lascivious looks toward the wooden gates of the bride’s family home. “Eh! There were clearly no problems in the bedroom! Maybe she tired him out!” They wondered now if she had not been a virgin bride, or worse, if she had mental problems or was possibly a witch. These were the same kind of questions that Mr. and Mrs. Shin now had about her daughter. What awful secret did the woman have that would cause a man to flee his obligations?

And what of the groom, now an ex-husband and a father? He was living a new life, carving a new destiny. He never came back to meet his daughter or to raise her. His simple response about his behavior to anyone who asked was, “That woman was crazy.” He considered himself excused from his marriage and his obligations forever.

During the pregnancy, Cathy’s mother had grown frail under the strain of gossip and judgment. Days and months went by behind the gates of her family home as she trudged from the weight she carried. During this period, a cousin had been found in America. For a sum, he was willing to invite Cathy’s mother to America and provide her with an immigration visa. That was where the woman had fled after giving birth to Cathy in a local Korean hospital. The newborn girl had been remarkably quiet on the plane, only a slight comfort to her mother, who had been attempting to flee her destiny.

In America, the woman raised her daughter to be her handmaid, as only a woman with a weak mind and no other companion could venture to do. Shortly after her daughter left for college, the mother told Cathy, “I need you. Come home. Stay in this house and take care of me.” The girl wondered about her future, but felt the tug of her mother’s destiny and had fallen into its gaping, hungry maw. That was the destiny she brought to the Shin household, where it was not welcome at all.

“We’re thinking about having the wedding in six months,” Paul said as he took a bite of short rib.

Mr. and Mrs. Shin eyed each other in silence. They did not have to change their facial expressions to communicate their panic about such a short engagement. “Didn’t you just get engaged last week? There is no rush.”

“If you only knew her, you would like her,” Paul said.

“We know her,” Mr. and Mrs. Shin said.  

*

Mr. Shin, somewhere near 70 years of age, felt he had discovered wisdom. It was, he said, as if he could read minds. “I just look at someone, and I know what their life course is going to be like.” He was surprised when he discovered this ability but embraced it wholeheartedly as a trade-off for the waning energy of old age. He did not have the energy to wonder about people’s intentions or track down their actions and found his sharpened judgment both comforting and useful.

And so it was when he met Cathy. He walked into the house wondering whether or not the fertilizer he bought would revive the roses when he saw a girl he had never seen before sitting on his couch and eating watermelon with his son. Mrs. Shin looked furious. Also, her hair was dented on one side from sleep.

“Uh, hi Dad. This is Cathy. Cathy Kim.”

A proper Korean girl, thought Mr. Shin, would have stood up and said hello in the most formal of phrasing. A proper Korean girl, thought Mr. Shin, would have done so with urgency, bowing her head in apology for adopting such a casual demeanor in her boyfriend’s home in front of her boyfriend’s parents. A proper Korean girl, thought Mr. Shin, would have placed her shoes in neat order by the front door instead of scattering them atop her boyfriend’s parents’ shoes. But mostly, he could see her past and future in her face — the way the history of her emotions was mapped out in her facial expression, in the steel of her eyes, in the way her lips curled up, in the arch of her eyebrows, in the way she hid the shortcomings of her life behind a pink polka-dot blouse with a Peter Pan collar, in the way she looked at his son and in the way she examined her surroundings when her son glanced away.

Mr. Shin saw all of this.

But, it was hard for him to explain things; for how can you tell someone, “I just know,” and make them believe you? The youthful, his son in particular, especially questioned his judgment.

“I want proof,” Paul always insisted.

But, Mr. Shin had no proof; he only had his wisdom. The questioning angered him. Though he had always wanted a more informal relationship with his son than he had had with his own father, he had never expected to be questioned in his old age by Paul. Perhaps by others in America, he could be ridiculed and mocked, but what could he do about that? He had always thought that in his own home, he would be a respected man, but he felt his power eroding in recent days. It was these moments that made him yearn to return to Seoul, where he felt he could be recognized and respected.

People had told Mr. Shin, “Sometimes you have to let people make mistakes.”

To Mr. Shin, that was also a very American thought. Wasn’t it better not to make any mistakes at all? If you knew a mistake was about to be made, was it not your responsibility to stop it from happening? Mr. Shin had survived famine, the Korean War, military service in Vietnam and immigration to America and had somehow built up a life for his family. He had overcome his own past — his son’s Eagle Scout badge and diploma from Harvard were proof of that. His son had not made any mistakes thus far, so what was the good of making one now?

Despite their protests over the next two months, Paul stayed resolute. Cathy had already bought the dress, he said. They were looking at florists and tasting cake. A wedding photographer had been chosen. It was only a matter of weeks before the wedding invitations would be sent out.

“This marriage cannot happen,” Mr. Shin said.  He made plans to do ban-dae. No one would ignore parents who ban-dae, or took a stance so strongly against something that a child who ignored it would sever family bonds. It was, to him, a crusade. He was saving his son’s life.

Mr. and Mrs. Shin pondered the ways in which they could protest over dinner. The meal was simple: their usual rice, kimchi, tofu and greens, the fernbracken competing with the curlicue design on their Corelle plates.

“Maybe we could pay her off,” they wondered aloud. “How much money would the girl take?” They counted up their cash savings, which totaled $60,000. They were relying on that money for their retirement. It was too much to give.

“I could go on a hunger strike. I’ve lost my appetite anyway,” Mr. Shin said, setting down his chopsticks.

*

Mrs. Shin did not want to lose her son to her husband’s flawed antics. Paul, she thought, was not a match for The Mosquito, but her husband could not punish Paul for this choice. A woman had to manipulate the situation.

She arranged secret meetings with her son, who blamed the whole situation on his father.

“Dad’s just having his usual temper tantrum, except this time he’s ruining my life,” Paul said.

Mrs. Shin was not surprised at her son’s venom. She had spent many years now negotiating between the dueling men in her household. Though she was unsettled inside, Mrs. Shin chose her words carefully.

“Well, we don’t think this girl is good enough for you.”

“But she is good enough for me, Mom.”

Mrs. Shin calmed the butterflies inside her and forced the words out of her mouth in even notes. “I don’t believe it, Paul.” She leaned over to him and put her hand on the back of his neck, just as she had when he had been a baby and then when he had been a little boy. “You’re my beautiful son,” she said, feeling Paul’s neck muscles relax until he felt pliable. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

He looked up at her, and for a split second, she saw her baby son in his 35-year-old face.

“You’re my beautiful son,” she said.

*

Mrs. Shin wiped her hands and arms on a towel and looked at her husband, who was now on his second day without food, his breath growing more putrid by the minute. It was as if he had gone totally senile. She often worried about this, sometimes regretting her agreement to marry a man 10 years her senior, though he had come on good recommendation by her family and she had finally fallen in love with him in their third year of marriage. Now, in the late bloom of life, she felt herself gaining the upper hand and facing the real possibility that she might spend the last years of her life nursing him toward an inevitable death. She counted the ways in which he could die: the illnesses like Alzheimer’s or cancer that would last for years and lash her to a sinking stone or the sudden heart attack that could leave her abandoned. In that split second, the sum of her feelings was sorrow for herself. However, it would be she who died first in a car accident, her last thought full of sorrow that she had abandoned her husband and son.

The look on Mrs. Shin’s face irritated Mr. Shin because the message was not lost on him, her spouse of more than 30 years. “I’m not crazy! Stop looking at me! You’re crazy!” he snarled. “I’m saying we can stop the marriage!”

Mrs. Shin knew that Mr. Shin’s determination was beyond compare, so she braced herself.

“Ban-dae!” It sounded like a victory chant because it was so close to the word Mansei.

What?

“Ban-dae, ban-dae, ban-dae!” Mr. Shin was now standing, fist clenched in the air.

Her facial expression did not change. Was he serious? She looked at his plump froglike body and wondered how much longer he could bear a hunger strike. She had never seen him miss a meal in his entire life. He had missed too many meals as a small child during the war to bear any more hunger.

Mrs. Shin regretted that she had not taught Paul about his parents’ hardship. She wondered how it was that her son did not understand. And she wondered how she could make it right.

*

In his leather armchair, Mr. Shin sat watching ESPN, wondering about his son during McDonald’s commercials. At first, his thoughts were curious — what was Paul doing? Where would he be? He remembered his child’s early years with fondness for the way his son had run out to him when he got home after a long day at the dry cleaning shop. Mr. Shin loved that moment of the day the most, and he responded by running to his son in return, meeting up at the stepping stones by the rhododendron bush in the front yard. He remembered the time his son had fallen off the fence as a boy and how his son had not started to cry until Paul had removed his hand from the back of his head and had seen the blood. Mr. Shin had wanted to trade places with his son at that moment and had bitten back his own fear so that the yelp that had been on its way out of his throat came out as a cough instead. On the way to the emergency room, he told his sobbing son, “When you get to the hospital, ask the doctor about all those watermelon seeds you’ve swallowed. You know how you think they might sprout in your stomach? Ask him.” Paul had stopped crying then, and Mr. Shin felt a great wave of relief for this child that he had promised to protect.

Those days were now long gone, and Mr. Shin’s thoughts turned bitter as he gripped the hobnailed arms of his chair. The only conversations he and his son could carry out with any civility were those about sports. The only activity they could engage in together was watching ESPN. Mr. Shin got up for a Heineken, only to remember he was on a hunger strike.

When Mr. Shin had first come to the United States, he discovered that if he knew enough about football, basketball and baseball, he could have common ground with Americans. He became a sports fanatic, further strengthening the bridge by adding tennis, golf and soccer to his repertoire and, thus, to his conversation topics. When had his son become American?

Paul’s silence wore down Mr. Shin, who saw it as a death wish. “He would rather his father die of starvation,” Mr. Shin spat during the food commercials.

The last time Mr. Shin had gone hungry for any number of days had been in his childhood, a time of life highlighted by hunger. In those days, he was lucky to have had one meal a day. A bowl of rice porridge or greens picked by the side of the road would suffice — the kind of greens that Mrs. Shin remarked on with an oddly fond nostalgia, fingering the leaves of such plants whenever they went on hikes or visits to the mountains. They were the kind of greens that his neighbors saw as weeds. How could she find the memories so pleasant to remember?

“They saved my life!” she had once protested.

“Dung can save your life if you use it to burn as fuel — but you don’t see me pointing to every piece of shit and cooing over it!”

“That!” this wife of his said, “is the difference between you and me! Now let me have my good memories.”

He guffawed. “My good memory is the plate of beef yesterday for dinner — now that’s a good memory.”

“Gather the money,” Mr. Shin said when he could no longer bear the hunger. It had been four days.

Mrs. Shin pursed her lips.

Mr. Shin sat in his chair wounded and tender to the bone, his heart aching for his loss of resolve; there had been a time when he could have pulled this off. Turning 70 had its disadvantages.

*    

Mrs. Shin was the one who turned the girl away. Someone had to do it. After a lifetime of living in her husband’s shadow — of being mistaken for a second wife because of their 12-year age difference — she felt the shift of power. She took things into her own hands.

“My husband and I will never accept you,” she said after the waitress set down their order of tea and rice cakes. In the background, the air-conditioning hummed.

The girl’s face froze. Mrs. Shin had never understood when her husband talked about his ability to see people’s lives stretched out before them through their faces, but now she understood. She could see the girl’s coldness — saw the girl’s shoulders sag and then bolster and rise. She and her husband had been right about this matter, but it disgusted her to see it. She had expected the girl to soften and beg in despair, but there was no hint of a need for permission in this girl’s voice. “It’s none of your business.”

In the girl’s sentence, Mrs. Shin recognized the words that had come out of her son’s mouth in recent years and discovered the source of his malcontent. Mrs. Shin crossed her stockinged legs and took a bite of her red bean cake. Then, she sipped her ginseng tea. It shocked her how powerful she felt and how cold she could be. Over 10 seconds passed before she gave a bulging white envelope to the girl.

It was much simpler than she’d thought it would be.

 

Read more from Issue 28: The R/Evolution Issue, available now. Subscribe to Hyphen or pick up a copy at a newsstand near you.

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Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee is the Fiction Editor at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as Zyzzyva, Guernica, The Rumpus, and Men Undressed. She was awarded a residency at Hedgebrook and her stories have also placed in competitions by Poets and Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest, Glimmer Train, and others. She has a novel in progress and can be found on twitter @xtinehlee.

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