Crossroad, by Helena Rho
Joseon, August 1961. She stood at the crossroad, crying. Not weeping, just a constant stream of tears. Dust from a passing car covered her face, her clothes despite her turning away, closing her eyes. She glanced down, brushed at the red-brown film blanketing and obscuring her yellow dress. It was useless. The relentless sun, the blazing blue sky, summer in the southern inland of Korea was unforgiving. The army barracks, still visible in the distance, seemed to undulate in the heat. Nothing marked the bus stop at the crossroad. No shelter, not even a bench. She stood under the withering sun and waited. Two small suitcases at her feet contained her worldly possessions. Tears created rivulets through her dirt-coated cheeks. Eight months pregnant, and she was returning to the home of her parents in disgrace.
A failure. The humiliation of crawling back to her father’s house pregnant, after a ruined marriage, was too much to bear. She squeezed her eyes shut. She never thought she would be in this position. At least her friends would be surprised. “Hyunsoon, the perfect princess” was their nickname for her. Not only did it speak to her privileged status, but it also described her single-minded personality. Her world was one of servants and gardeners and trips to the cinema for the latest American film. She sat many days, in a dark theater, mesmerized by larger-than-life images of glamorous American movie stars. She yearned to be the heroine.
But it all came to a stop with her marriage. The start of her husband’s obligation to the Army, as mandated by Korean law, marked the beginning of their life together. She, who had never seasoned soup because of the servants in her father’s employ, learned how to cook in one-room barracks. She never thought the sewing and knitting required of her, a good Korean daughter, would be used for practical things like maternity dresses and blankets. She hung her wash outside on a clothesline like a peasant in the lowest class.
Her husband was a doctor and a Yangban, the coveted aristocratic class of Korean society. His family lineage could be traced back to the daughter of an emperor of the Joseon Dynasty. Her ancestors were from the merchant class. Their marriage marked an elevation in status for her family. As befitting more modern times, their marriage was not arranged. Her cousin and his best friend engineered their “meeting,” which only occurred with the approval of both sets of parents. During their courtship, they had not been permitted to be alone. She remembered her trepidation during their meetings, stealing looks at him with her head bent and eyes lowered. Keungnae was handsome, a little too dark-skinned to be considered gorgeous, but still good-looking. He seemed to have a lively personality: out-going and warm, if only a little impulsive. He was a surgeon and dedicated to his work. She so admired passion and purpose; it was, after all, what eluded her. As a woman, she was not supposed to harbor ambition. She was supposed to marry, have children.
She knew he was the jangsohn, the oldest son of the oldest son, that all-important, highest-ranking male of his generation. A patriarchal line that stretched back five hundred years. His family expected her to have a boy to continue the succession. But she was not worried. Her mother had borne three sons. She was certain she would give birth to the next jangsohn, and when she had a son, she would become a beloved daughter-in-law.
Chaperoned by her family, they ate together, took tea together, and once went to the theater to watch An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. She loved the cinema and he seemed to share her enthusiasm. He had even said that their romance was just like the movie, but he smiled and added that it would not be a tragedy. That was the moment she fell in love.
Their courtship lasted several months. He was completing his medical training in Seoul, many miles from her family home, and visited on weekends. He seemed tired most times they were together, but he always asked about her interests: gardening, embroidery, books. She was too shy to tell him she wanted to write a novel. She remembered one particular encounter early in their courtship. She had been seated across from him at a low, black-lacquered table, offering him tea. His hands brushed against hers as he took the delicate celadon cup from her. Her skin tingled from his touch. He thanked her with a charming smile and said, “I hear you are a great reader of classics—Shakespeare and Hemingway. I admire intelligence in women. My mother loves to read, but alas, I am ignorant about literature. You must teach me to be smarter.” She had blushed. He was a doctor; she was only a teacher who studied English literature in college.
Perhaps it was not everything she had expected, and he was not really a fan of the cinema, but they had made a good life together in ten months of marriage. Until last night. She shook her head at the memory of the moment, feeling like Susan Hayward who closes her eyes when faced with blatant evidence of her lover’s duplicity in Backstreet.
She had been emptying his pockets as usual before washing his pants. She was smiling because he always kept the oddest things, not just cigarettes and change but torn pieces of paper, toothpicks, an ear piece to his stethoscope. She found something new: a handkerchief dirtied with red lipstick. She never wore red lipstick. Pink was more modest, more respectable for a married woman. Her chest tightened and compressed. She consciously drew in each breath, concentrating on pulling in air and then pushing it out. She felt ice cold in the suffocating heat. She dragged herself to their bed and lay down with the covers shrouding her head. She watched the light fade from the walls and found the dark comforting.
She heard the jangle of keys, the opening of the front door, the surprise of her husband as he stepped into an unlit house. Yet she did not move. He came into their tiny bedroom, barely fitting a double bed and dresser, solicitous about her health: did she feel all right? She answered that she had a migraine. He was aware of her infirmity. He asked if he could do anything for her. She curled her body away from him and said, no. She almost expected him to sense that something was terribly wrong. Cary Grant, in An Affair to Remember, realizes something is amiss when Deborah Kerr fails to stand up as he is leaving, so he returns to her, slowly removing the blanket, uncovering her useless legs. Then he knows.
Her husband ate, showered, and went to sleep next to her with only a brief squeeze of her arm. He snored peacefully. She wept next to him. In the morning, with her eyes puffy, she told him she was sick. He put on his uniform and left for the Army hospital as usual, not sensing anything awry. As she lay in bed staring at the wall, imagining it imprinted with red lipstick marks, the heat of rage flared in her chest and consumed her. It did not matter that she was pregnant and cumbersome. She refused to be humiliated this way.
Although she worshipped her beloved father, she had witnessed her mother’s anguish in the face of his infidelity. And she had sworn never to let it happen to her. Standing at the door with her suitcases in hand, she looked back at the sparsely furnished and starkly decorated house: cement floors, gray concrete walls, rectangular windows covered with simple white curtains. All part of standard Army-issue housing, but this had been her home for the past year. Some of her defiance left her and her shoulders sagged. Still, she picked up her bags and walked to the crossroad.
She waited. Sometimes, soldiers passing by in Jeeps would ask if they could take her somewhere. She just shook her head. No one could take her back to her life. To before. The exact moment she pulled that handkerchief from his pocket repeated over and over in slow motion. Like the scene from Backstreet, when Susan Hayward discovers that her lover John Gavin is married and, ironically, has been unfaithful, not to his wife but to her.
She was jolted back to her life by the insistent sound of blaring horns and shouting voices. Certain that someone of low class, surely a peasant, was exhibiting this unseemly behavior, she was taken aback at the sight of her husband frantically waving his arm. He came to a screeching halt, jumped out, and ran to her. He pulled her into his arms. She let herself feel the warmth of security, the renewal of hope. Then she remembered. A chill swept into her body. Her head reared back. She pulled out of his embrace. She resisted the temptation to pretend that this was the final scene in An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in each other’s arms.
“I came home to check on you and you were gone! The woman next door said she saw you leave with luggage. What happened?” His words tumbled out in a torrent.
“I decided to leave,” she said, turning away from him.
“What kind of answer is that?” He grabbed her arm. “I am your husband! I demand an explanation!”
She felt frozen in ice, unable to summon any of the emotions of yesterday. An absence of feeling. She wondered if this was what death felt like.
“Yeubo,” he pleaded.
Yeubo was what he called her, and what she called him in return. It implied intimacy. A word reserved for only one other person in the world. She used to take pride in that word, evidence that they belonged together.
“Is it something I did? Is it something I said?” he persisted.
She stared at stones with dust veneers by the side of the road, willing him to stop. Their marriage was over.
“Please tell me what’s wrong. I love you,” he said, anguish in his voice, his brows furrowed, his hands haphazardly running through his thick dark hair.
She flinched. A dam burst inside of her. “I can’t stand the lies! You don’t love me, you never did!” Scorched by the flame of anger, she sobbed. She did not resist when he took her in his arms again. With her face buried in his chest, she whispered, “I found it. I found the lipstick on your handkerchief.”
“What are you talking about?” He pulled out a folded linen square, clean and white.
She pushed him away. “I mean the one I found in your pocket yesterday.”
He did not hesitate. He flashed a smile, his teeth white and even. “That wasn’t mine. A friend was afraid to take it home so I told him I would wash it for him. I forgot to tell you.”
She looked at him, wary. But his face was open and guileless; his lips smooth and curved. His long fingers caressed her face, his touch warm and light against her cheeks.
“You are imagining things.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and guided her to the Jeep.
She wanted to believe him. In her favorite movies, heartbreak was always averted at the last possible moment. Susan Hayward in Backstreet chooses moral ambiguity and remains with John Gavin, even though he is married, because she loves him. Cary Grant stays with Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, despite the fact that she is confined to a wheelchair because he loves her. Her husband loved her. Why else would he chase after her, like Cary Grant pursued Deborah Kerr?
But the whisper of doubt would not go away.
This is the way I pictured the story my mother told me for the first time when I was ten-years-old and repeated many times since. The image still sears my heart: the heat, the dust, the deserted bus stop. My pregnant mother crying, my desperate father begging. Perhaps the end of their marriage was inevitable, regardless of the fact that they would have three more children, including me, after that day. Perhaps the journey across continents and oceans, further and further away from their homeland, ripped the fabric of their marriage beyond repair.
My mother told me the story again while my parents were divorcing, over thirty years after that day at the crossroad. She described the scene: she is glancing back at the crossroad, as my father is tugging her away, when the bus finally arrives. One lone woman gets out. The driver waits for what seems to her an eternity, then shuts the door. As she watches, the bus lurches away in a cloud of dust. Her chance evaporates in the heat of in-land summer. The look in her eyes, as she told me her story, was one of infinite regret.
And I could not stop myself from asking, “Why did you stay?”
Helena Rho, a former assistant professor of pediatrics, has practiced and taught at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Slate, Crab Orchard Review, Entropy, Sycamore Review, Solstice, and Fourth Genre. In 2019, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Xiao Faria da Cunha is a watercolor artist based in the Kansas City, Missouri area. Her works include illustrations, paintings and manga strips. Faria da Cunha is proud of her profound cultural heritage. Her artworks relate to Asian legends and mythology, delicately reflecting her perspectives and sensations. She combines traditional eastern and contemporary western painting techniques and creates unique textures in her works. Her paintings consist of layers of subtle colors and hidden symbols and will only unfold in front of a dedicated audience their true beauties.