Winters by Marilyn Hope
Marilyn Hope’s “Winters” is the winner of the 2019 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.
“Winters” is in many ways a ruthless story—it’s about a daughter finally done with filial duty while her mother is in prison—but it’s also an astoundingly tender story, especially towards its perfectly drawn characters: Soo-Na, the dutiful main character; her confident and independent sister, Hee-Bon; their mother; and the “soft, ridiculous boy,” Milo Teagan, who says he and the mother are in love. This is a story of complicated emotion, layered, wrenching, clear-eyed and sympathetic, with knife-edge, startling language: concealer that is “moon-colored and intimate and comes in a miniature lachrymatory”; a boy “as seductive as a sneeze.” Everything about the story is surprising and deeply felt. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it.
“You’re a spring now,” says Hee-Bon, wintering Soo-Na’s complexion with a chilly setting powder. “Pink undertones, freckles—lot of sun in you. And I love your hair. Mom’s going to hate it. Why’d you dye it so bright?”
Because her soft, fashionable russet earned her a punch in the face last Friday. Rich bitch, the mugger observed, knuckle to the back of her head. Purse, phone, earrings. Nice and easy, Chinesey. But when Soo-Na reached for her pocket too fast, he spooked, struck her, and fled. She was only a block away from her mother’s apartment. That next morning, her left eye was swollen shut, and she stained her hair a deep, danger-red to match.
American, she can already hear her mother say. Chuhan. Ugly. Today, though, Soo-Na likes that. In the stark December of the Korean-owned beauty parlor, among all the pretty winters with their dark hair and snowy skin, Soo-Na feels like a signal flare, loud and high and hot.
“There. Shiner’s hidden,” says Hee-Bon, whisking Soo-Na’s eye socket with a makeup brush. She’s six years older and full of crisp, fetching elegances; she owns mint-colored perfume and lavender overcoats and long-handled spoons to stir iced tea. She pauses with her thumbs on Soo-Na’s cheeks, her eyes cutting. “Could kill the guy who decked you,” she says. “Could kill Mom for making you stay at that shithole apartment.”
“Wasn’t her fault,” says Soo-Na.
“Whose fault was it, then? Yours? Milo Teagan’s?” She winks, slow and sumptuous.
Soo-Na likes to imagine she’d be as vigorous and certain as her sister if she’d escaped Stirling, but Hee-Bon has always been a force, beautiful in all of the bossy, vivid ways Soo-Na isn’t. It incited their mother’s jealousy. She stopped funding Hee-Bon’s ballet lessons the year she’d learned to fouetté, began buying her daughter’s clothes four sizes up, used. Hee-Bon just safety-pinned them tight around her hips and stomach. She danced at school instead, using the chalk holders for her barre work, writing songs with the angles of her legs.
Most importantly, she had the foresight to leave before their mother could kick her out. One Sunday morning, she left for Fruita to see Mike the Headless Chicken with her boyfriend, Boom, and didn’t stop driving until she’d reached Napa. Returned a year later with a thinner, handsomer man named Xande, his smile soft and infrequent. They rent a place together in Ames now. Soo-Na has slept off tequila shots there twice and woken up both times on the fold-out couch, piled with Xande’s mom’s fake furs.
“You don’t have to stay there, you know,” says Hee-Bon. “Crash with us. Drop by the apartment twice a year to dust or whatever, or hire a maid to do it. You don’t need to keep house for her. God knows she didn’t do it for us.”
Living together in Stirling, Soo-Na and her mother ate cold bean sprouts in sesame oil, raw beef topped with uncooked egg yolk, honeyed pears, buckwheat noodles in chilly broths of sugar and vinegar. No microwave. No quick pot stickers, no scalding the closed heads of chrysanthemums open for tea with dinner. Even now, Soo-Na keeps the thermostat set to sixty. Everything cool and quiet. She likes to believe it’s a sign of loyalty. She tells Hee-Bon as much.
“Well, it’s not,” says Hee-Bon. “It’s a sign of stupidity.”
But even if she’s a spring now, Soo-Na doesn’t know how to dance like her sister can, faraway and guiding, like a lodestar.
Her black eye is neatly hidden behind a film of concealer. Amande, it’s called. It’s moon-colored and intimate and comes in a miniature lacrymatory. Soo-Na purchases two bottles with Hee-Bon’s discount and places them in her glove compartment instead of her purse before she drives away. Liquids from the outside are prohibited in the prison.
Soo-Na took middle-school band with Milo Teagan. Back then, he was just a scrap of a child, scabby and tearful, as seductive as a sneeze. When the police knocked on her door seven years later, all Soo-Na could remember was his high, absurd voice. She was eighteen by then, and so was he, she supposed, but it didn’t much matter when she could still picture him sitting sloppy in his scuffed high-tops and orange cargos, squeaking out bad Shostakovich on the saxophone. He’d moved to a different school district early that summer, before band camp. The next time Soo-Na saw him, he was on the stand.
There were, her mother testified in her careful English, young and old sixteens. Young sixteens like Soo-Na applied gummy strips of eyelid tape every morning and scored poorly on verbal tests and binged and purged on patbingsu in the shower. Each of Soo-Na’s deficiencies presented as evidence in court. She felt on trial herself, her childish legs, her attempts toward makeup. Because old sixteens, like Milo, bagged groceries at Yes Foods with big, tender hands. Old sixteens escorted women through parking lots with their carts, cosseting their breakables in the backseat, like babies. Old sixteens knew how to sing. And kiss.
Soo-Na understands why. That American boy carrying her American food, his shine, the clarity of his want. Milo was pink-faced and blond with eyes like open windows. A summer. His parents had found the letters under his pillow, perfumed by his hair.
Soo-Na understands why, and it excuses nothing.
In court, Milo read her mother’s poems in his frail Korean. She’d called him jagiyah— ‘self,’ the sunlit half of her own soul. There was a word for Milo in Korean: aegyo. Erratically, calculatingly sweet, like the slivers of ginger atop a cucumber and ground-garlic salad. He wept when they read her sentence. “I’ll wait for you,” he called over his parents’ applause. “You’re my girl, Hyun-Ju! I love you!”
Her mother, then forty-one years old, kissed the tips of her fingers and spread her cuffed hands toward Milo, as if offering a gift. To Soo-Na, she said, “Don’t let the apartment get dusty.”
Soo-Na’s childhood home. That dark, arctic place, dents in the drywall concealed by china cabinets. Her mother shampooed the carpet four shades whiter than it had been when they moved in, and cut off the front covers of all of Soo-Na’s books that looked ‘borrowed.’
Even now, that dusty, someone-else scent makes Soo-Na think of mangled spines and vulnerable title pages read ragged. She has intact novels these days, stacked against the kitchen counters. She buys them at the thrift store and faces her favorite covers outward, like the members of an audience. But not a court. Not a court. Never again.
Laurie Zenk Correctional has half concrete, half redbrick facing, haphazard from decades of remodeling. Silently furious in the way of anything fenced in. Soo-Na strips herself of her only jewelry, the crystal teardrop earrings Hee-Bon bought her for her seventeenth birthday. Their mother despises them, of course. She herself gave Soo-Na a small, bruised melon. It was bitter. Soo-Na ate it anyway, flesh and rind and seeds.
She brings in only her car keys, her driver’s license, her approval letter, and two quarters for a locker. Her shoes and belt set off the metal detector. They have to wand her. In the cool, antiseptic blueness of the search room, Soo-Na raises her arms, opens and closes her mouth, lifts her new, spring-red hair away from her neck.
The guard sneers at her. “Didn’t think so,” he says. He shoves her belongings back at her in a plastic basket, and Soo-Na thinks of Friday-Man, his cruel, coward’s hands. Nice and easy, Chinesey. If they’d met on the streets, perhaps the guard would’ve fled, too.
There are maybe a dozen people in the waiting room. The chair closest to the reception desk is occupied by a Black woman about Soo-Na’s age, but infinitely more adult, all long limbs and tidy lines of neck and shoulder. A summer, Hee-Bon would point out. Something masculine about the set of her mouth, her spread knees. She pulls her slender legs out of the way as Soo-Na passes. Soo-Na sits three chairs down.
Their eyes catch. The woman tips her chin minutely. ‘Sup. The nonchalance of that greeting; its simple certainty. Soo-Na returns a tiny, waist-level wave, like a kindergartener at a school play. Her cheeks tingle with embarrassment. She’s ridiculous. Didn’t think so.
“He’s a dick,” the woman says.
Soo-Na, already glancing toward the clock, turns back. “Sorry?”
“That new guard. Always got a comment.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Soo-Na resets her feet a little further apart to replicate the woman’s posture, strong and casual. “Imagine how he treats the prisoners.”
“Right? I’m visiting my mom.”
“Same.” She isn’t green enough to volunteer any additional information, and the woman isn’t crass enough to ask for any. It’s a language they both speak. Soo-Na studies the tiny curls around the woman’s hairline, ornamental in their beauty, and extends an arm. “I’m Soo-Na.”
“Wallis.” The woman has an unexpectedly insubstantial handshake, loose and circular, needing to prove nothing.
“I’ve never seen you before,” says Soo-Na.
“I usually come on Fridays, but today’s my mom’s birthday. My brother’s coming too. He’s late. Maybe he got buried alive in a vat of wasps.” Wallis has a way of talking that shows more bottom teeth than top; her full smile is antithetically soft, without cruelty, despite everything. “Just an idea.”
They can see the guards coming through the windowed hallway, stale and fatigued in their denim-colored uniforms. Two locked doors, three swipes of card keys. A corridor that might as well be the length of a cruise liner. Soo-Na and Wallis stand in unison, not looking at each other. No sentiment in the termination of their conversation. They’ll likely never see each other again, but having parents in prison has taught them when to say goodbye, and when not to.
The doorbell rang one week into her mother’s nine-year sentence. Soo-Na checked the smoke detector and the clothes dryer before she realized where the sound had come from—the only guests they ever received were a woman from church (flutter of knuckles against the door) and, infrequently, Hee-Bon (two sharp, grim raps). Soo-Na peeled aside a Thai takeout flyer to look through the peephole. It was Milo Teagan, all forehead through the fisheye lens.
“Hyun-Ju,” said Milo, “I know you’re there. I can see your aura.”
And what aura was that? Ice crystals, splintered wood, the ragged underside of a wire sponge? Soo-Na opened the door fast, disturbed that anyone could believe she and her mother had the same spiritual climate. Milo startled. He was wearing absurd peach-colored pants and a green scarf shot through with gold thread. His own aura was probably carnation pink.
“Sorry, I thought I felt her energy,” said Milo.
“She isn’t here,” said Soo-Na. “She went on Tuesday.”
“I see,” said Milo. His smile wobbled. He had wide, almost-straight teeth, still serrated at the ends, as if they’d only just grown in. “I missed her, then. I’m too late.”
“Sorry,” said Soo-Na, and took a nervous step backwards so the door could drift shut. After it clicked, she looked back through the peephole, holding her breath. Milo was crying. She’d never seen a man weep that way before, really giving himself up to it, all open-mouthed and indiscrete. His lips were shaking. She was both repulsed and charmed.
Why this soft, ridiculous boy? Would a Xande have done, wary and quiet and treacherous? Would her mother have invited home a Jew or a liberal or a man with a ponytail? No, Milo had been selected. His small hands, clean fingernails, the trickle of freckles down his nose. A too-tender handling of the peaches at Yes Foods, perhaps.
Soo-Na opened the door again. Milo was shorter than her by an inch. “Come in for a minute, Milo. She’s not here. It won’t do any harm for you to say goodbye.”
He gulped and nodded in gratitude, toeing off his sneakers at the door and placing them in line beside her mother’s house slippers. He walked directly to the living room and sat down on the ottoman accompanying her mother’s loveseat, now preserved in plastic. Pulled taut by the seat cover, the suede was pale and strained, like scar tissue. The room looked indecently bare. Soo-Na had stacked all of the throw pillows inside the front closet beside the steam cleaner and the area rugs, safe from dust.
“Do you want something to drink?” They didn’t have anything warm. They never had anything warm. “Soda, sikhye?”
“Thanks,” said Milo, and continued crying.
She took a cola in one hand and a stout can of sikhye in the other and offered him both. He blindly took the sikhye, opened it, and sipped, hiccupping. He resembled his beverage, luminous and translucent. He drank it as he would a steaming mug of tea, gripping it with both hands. Soo-Na felt suddenly adult by contrast. The part of her that didn’t want to kick the can from his hands wanted to drop a platonic kiss on his brow and arrange him beneath a quilt for naptime.
“This makes it real, seeing it like this,” said Milo. “It never used to change here.”
Soo-Na felt a twist of indignation, overexposure. “When were you over?”
His ears reddened at her tone. He fetched a coaster from beneath the coffee table and set his drink down so he could wave his hands in wide circles. “Not often! Not often at all. We mostly went to the botanical gardens and movies and aquarium and stuff.”
She’d never been to the aquarium. In seventh grade, she’d brought home a permission slip that her mother neglected to sign. She spent that school day washing beakers in the science room with Mr. Jefferson and Raff, the poor kid with the bad temper. Her mother hadn’t wanted to fork over the twelve dollars for student admission. “Why you want to see fish?” she’d demanded. “Fish, you eat. I’ll make maeuntang.” But they were out of red pepper paste. Instead they ate leftover corn chowder from a bistro takeout container in front of the television, taking turns with the same spoon.
“It wasn’t physical,” said Milo. “We’re in love. We’ve talked about getting married.”
“Sure, yeah,” said Soo-Na, angry. “You could have the ceremony during a school assembly. We could do a father-daughter dance.”
“Yeah,” said Milo wistfully.
He was the victim here. Sixteen was sixteen, and Milo hadn’t gotten much older since then. Her mother had suspended him in this fake, illegal time. Soo-Na should’ve pitied him. She shouldn’t have envied the intact thing in his eyes.
“You remind me of her, you know,” he said. “Kind of frail.”
“I’m not,” said Soo-Na. “Frail. Neither is she.”
“It’s not bad, to let things change you.”
“You just said change was bad!”
“I said change was real. Like, you know, sobering.”
But what would a kid, drunk on a middle-aged woman’s lawlessness and poorly-written love letters, know of sobriety? Nothing. Even less than a kid scrubbing test tubes in a lab while Mr. Jefferson sang in his good, rich voice about picnics and hand-holding, changing seasons, the taste of homemade food.
The first time Soo-Na visited her mother in prison, she hadn’t known what to bring, where to sit, how to hold her shoulders so the other girls her age didn’t smirk at each other in the visiting room, warming themselves beside her inadequacy. Four years of bimonthly visits have grated her to a flat, proficient sheen. Not hard, really, but brisk enough to fake it. She’s strong enough now to stand properly by her chair to wait, even though everyone else sits.
The women flow in, homogenized in their tan jumpsuits. Tearful greetings, frosty, complicated greetings. Soo-Na turns to watch Wallis lean across the table to receive a kiss on each cheek from her mother, her grip steely and secure even from across the room. She’s wearing a paper birthday crown. They scoff together about something, smile, hold hands across the table as they sit down. Soo-Na strokes one of her earlobes for comfort, forgetting she removed her jewelry.
Escorted by a sleepy-eyed guard, her mother arrives a few minutes late. Her firm skin, her thick, straight eyelashes. Her mouth is receding. Prison had bled her of her chin’s imperialistic incline, but the contempt is the same.
“Eomoni,” says Soo-Na, bowing.
“Soo-Na,” her mother says, and makes a low, hissing noise. “Your hair.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Her mother sits down, and Soo-Na follows suit. In Korean: “You look tired.”
“I feel tired.” She does. Even when she arrives with energy, the metal detector sucks it right out of her. Soo-Na switches to her bad Korean, trying not to tongue her words too fast, syllables toppling over each other, like she does when she’s nervous. “How have you been?”
“The same. It’s filthy here. The smell of so many feet—have you been washing your feet?”
“Women with disgusting feet. Women walking to the showers without sandals.” She leans forward and makes as if to clasp Soo-Na’s hands, folding her palms together at the last second. “Describe the apartment.”
She asks this every time.
“It’s exactly the same as it was the day you moved out.” They packed up together, made a week of it. Everything done to her mother’s specifications. Soo-Na hasn’t so much as rattled a clothes hanger since.
“And your sister?”
“She’s well. Someone tipped her seventy bucks on Monday. She’s still dating Xande.”
“Brazilian, oma. He speaks Portuguese.”
“Tch,” says her mother, making a desultory gesture, as if cleaning her hands. Soo-Na feels a hot prickle of anger that dissipates into apathy, exhaustion. Her mother needs so much correction that it feels futile, like chipping through a stone wall with a teaspoon. She changes the subject.
“How are the women treating you?”
“Fine.” Indifferent, no intimacy in it at all. Soo-Na knows there are four other Asian inmates: Samson, half-Chinese and not passing for white; Ishida and Carson, Japanese; Zhang, beautiful and white-faced with thin, cruel eyebrows. Soo-Na looked them up in the registry. She hoped exposure to them would reform her mother, but nothing has changed—she still talks poorly of them, curses them in slurs so heavy with unspeakable wartime histories that they have no satisfactory translations. Soo-Na can imagine them at lunch, segregated to their own half a table in the cafeteria, silently picking over trays laden with the same bland white-person food.
The door opens again. A handsome man with Wallis’s eyes dashes in, winded— “No running,” the guard says—and pulls up short when he sees Wallis. Without looking at him, Wallis stands up gracefully and says goodbye to her mother. She and her mother have the same laugh, huge and celebratory. She doesn’t look at her brother as they pass in the doorway. Soo-Na watches Wallis’s shoulder blades pulse as she walks, arms swinging, unsentimental.
What Soo-Na wouldn’t do for an ounce of that self-assurance. Hee-Bon is the same type, speaking casually into the silence between trailers at the theater, dancing publicly and beautifully, leaving exactly when she wants to be somewhere else. Soo-Na wishes she were in bed, asleep. She wishes she were anywhere but Laurie Zenk.
“I need more soap in your next package,” says her mother. “To wash myself. The good kind.”
“I remember,” says Soo-Na.
“And stamps,” says her mother, after a moment.
“Stamps.” Soo-Na echoes it before she hears it, has to backpedal: “Stamps?”
Soo-Na knows what stamps are for, just as she understands the functions of soap and how to wash her own feet. Her mother has this over her when they speak in Korean: an edge of condescension, seniority. Soo-Na lacks the words to challenge it. “You don’t write to me or Hee-Bon. Who is this for? Your case manager?”
Her mother brushes her hair back behind her ear on one side, then the other. It’s a young, self-conscious gesture, and Soo-Na sees her as a girl for just an instant, as flimsy and foolish as Soo-Na herself.
Sixteen is nothing. Sixteen is a child, a figure of cooling wax, runny and malleable and easy to dig too deep into. Her mother is wrong: there aren’t old sixteens and young ones, not to thirty-nine-year-olds. Sixteen is running away with boyfriends to see tourist traps, puking up ice cream, shyly bagging groceries and twisting your tongue around a language you haven’t yet learned. There’s no sixteen that kisses right.
Soo-Na stands up without waiting for her mother to do so first. She likes that, likes looking down at her mother’s head, where, she sees for the first time, gray roots are beginning to show.
“I don’t want to maintain the apartment anymore. You can clean it yourself when you get out. Don’t worry, I haven’t touched a thing. The thermostat is still set to sixty.”
“Soo-Na, it will get dusty,” says her mother, standing too.
“I’m not your groundskeeper,” says Soo-Na. “I’m your daughter.” She pushes in her chair, unhurried. “Goodbye, oma. I’ll get you your goddamn stamps.”
There’s no cloud cover by the time Soo-Na retrieves her keys from the locker. She staggers into the punch of heat as she yanks her car door open and sits down in the front seat, wrenching open her glove compartment to retrieve her earrings. They’re hot enough to make her fingertips sting. She stabs them in one at a time. She’s reaching for her purse when she sees the bottles of concealer. Amande. You’re a spring now, Hee-Bon said, Hee-Bon of the eternal summer, and Soo-Na thinks of their mother the winter, spiked with hoarfrost, even after all this time.
Soo-Na scoops one of the vials into her hand and stares at it for a long time before she stands and hurls it across the parking lot. It hits the chain-link fence and shatters, snowy pale liquor in the cream of June. The other bottle she crushes underfoot. It makes a crisp snapping noise beneath her pump. Then she reaches into her backseat and retrieves a bottle of water.
It’s hot, and she likes that. She pours some into a cupped palm and splashes her face clean, baring her new, freckled complexion, and her black eye sings with pain and she likes that too. Color runs down her cheeks, drips from her chin. She swipes it away with her forearm and tilts her head toward the sun, eyes shut.
For just a moment, it feels miraculous. Then she’s just standing there in a flesh-colored puddle, feeling soft, stupid, impotent.
“Wow,” says someone to her left.
Soo-Na turns. Wallis is tilted against the open door of a battered sedan smoking a cigarette, watching with an affected but uninvolved interest, like a white boy watching a documentary on a race riot. The part of Soo-Na that doesn’t flush with humiliation feels a small sense of pride in being interesting to someone she admires so casually, in becoming a story.
“The hell was that?” asks Wallis.
Soo-Na doesn’t know. She makes a loose gesture with one hand.
“Well, you’d better take this,” says Wallis seriously, handing her the cigarette.
Soo-Na doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t pretend to, but she holds it anyway, trying it out. They stand there leaning against their cars and staring out across the parking lot. Asphalt bisected by bleak three o’clock, nothing to look at but each other. Wallis smiles. Soo-Na smiles back, her bruised eye socket throbbing.
“I love my mother,” says Soo-Na at last.
“Sure you do. It’s complicated. What did she do?”
Soo-Na shrugs. That’s something she has never known.
Hee-Bon doesn’t pick up her cell, so Soo-Na calls the landline and gets Xande, clearly in the process of brushing his teeth. “Hi,” says Soo-Na. “It’s Soo-Na. Is she there?”
Soft rush of water as Xande spits and rinses. “She’s at work,” he says.
“Okay. You think I could stay with you guys for a bit? I just—I need to be out of here. This space, Mom’s space, it’s—”
“Yeah,” says Xande. “Come over.”
“It might be for a while.”
“You need help moving?”
“No, I don’t have much stuff. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, always. Hee-Bon will be thrilled. I’ll come get you in a half hour.”
Soo-Na packs her favorite clothes, her work uniforms, her toiletries. Her books. She needs a whole suitcase for her books, and she tucks them reverently away one after the other, stroking the covers. She takes one last circuit around the apartment, proud of herself for suspending it so flawlessly in this quiet, dead time, not a fiber out of place. Her mother will be happy. Nothing of Soo-Na imposed here, no art on the massive face of the refrigerator, no shampoo of her own. Three pairs of shoes and a toothbrush.
While Soo-Na waits for Xande to arrive, she opens a window to let in some heat.
MARILYN HOPE is a writer and visual artist who studied English literature at the University of Denver, where she was a recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her watercolor and oil portraits were featured in Chapiteux’s 2016 Winter Solstice Art Showcase, and she is currently working on a novel and short story collection. “Winters” is her first published work.