By Shih-Li Kow
When customers come through the restaurant door, I say ‘annyeong haseyo’ and bow. Not too low because Minji says, You must know where to draw the line. Of all the lines to draw, this is the easiest.
I call our regulars by name and say ‘Would you like your usual?’ or ‘I love your hair today’. Minji likes that. She says they feel loved. In return, they tell me what they love: the bibimbap I recommended, their honeymoon in Jeju twenty years ago, a movie, the color of my contact lenses, my accent. Once, a woman declared that she adored our brass spoons. Love is everywhere for the taking.
There’s a man named Tony who never misses a Friday night with his friends. The corner with the floor cushions is theirs on Fridays. Tony is here, clearing his pockets as he always does before he lowers himself, cross-legged, on a cushion. His wallet comes out of one pocket, then his keys. Cellphone, a handful of loose change which he will leave as a tip, a pack of cigarettes, a lighter. He removes his gun from a holster above his left ankle and lays it on the tray that I hold out for him. I’ve done this often enough to know that his cellphone is a Samsung, the cigarettes are Marlboros and the gun is a Ruger.
Tony’s gun has a name like an emperor. Ruger LCP II. It’s embossed on the grip. I don’t know anything about guns, but tutorial videos are easy to find. I learn, for example, that at ten and a half ounces, this little emperor weighs the same as a can of soda. A woman in another video says, I love how this baby fits in my purse.
I’ve watched so many videos that when I close my eyes, I can visualize how the magazine clicks into place, the springy crunch when I pull the slide, how I steady it with both hands and brace my shoulders. I can imagine riddling six holes in the chest of a cardboard target, right in the heart where all that love is stored like a water balloon.
I arrange saucers of radish and cucumber pickles, spinach, bean sprouts, and kimchi on the table. I keep everything neat and tidy. I reach past their shoulders and serve tea without a sound. Let trivial objects fade into the background. Make space for conversations to bloom. Make space for joy, Minji says.
I feel much older than Minji when she talks this way. I could throw away every last mismatched sock and plastic fork in my house and not one grain of joy would find its way in, but Minji wouldn’t understand. When she changes the chrysanthemums in the restaurant, she sniffs them and sighs.
The one time I took a meal home from the restaurant, my mother spat out her first mouthful of kimchi stew. My mother lives off microwave pasta, canned beans, and the poison she gets from the parasites who feed her a little more every week but never enough to kill her. On my birthday, she pulled down her pants and flaunted her C-section scar as proof of love. Minji doesn’t want to know any of this.
Last night, my mother had hidden behind the door to hiss at me, They’re after me again. She said she was too scared to turn the lights on, but I’d seen this act of hers a dozen times. I punched the switches and the mess hit my eyes in full technicolor. Crusted dishes in the sink that I’d have to scrape with a wire brush. Food glops like vomit on the floor. Ketchup stains and spaghetti like blood and worms on the table.
She wanted to know if that Chinawoman had paid me. Minji’s not Chinese. She’s South Korean. I wanted to tell my mother that. I wanted to trace my trigger finger around borders on a map and show her how things must be organized, even enormous things like countries, but we couldn’t have a conversation, not when her eyes were wild and the only orderly thing was a line of ants on the wall.
Last night, I went outside to stand in the middle of the street where the air was clean enough to breathe. I held my arms out, hands clasped, two fingers pointing at my house. Cocked my head, closed my eyes and visualized the soda-can-weight Ruger in my hands.
When I open my eyes, pork is sizzling on the table grill and Minji is frowning at me. A crease cracks the space between her perfect eyebrows.
Let’s have something to drink, Minji says to Tony. I fetch the soju. I got totally wrecked on that once. We drank it warm from shot glasses and Minji watched me cry for an hour. Boy, did it feel good to let it all out and she never said a word about it after. She never gave me another drink again either. I understood; I had crossed a line.
She says, That will do for today. That means I should disappear. There are four unopened soju bottles on the table. I wish she had said my name.
Alright, Minji. Bye, Minji. She doesn’t hear me. Tony is flushed and he’s singing in her ear. Maybe he’s in love with her tonight. Minji laughs and her face splits open with joy or love or something false. I can’t tell the difference.
I eye the gun in the tray on the ledge next to Tony. I could bow a little and slide it under my shirt. Quick and easy. I’m already invisible. I imagine it pressing against my stomach. I could shoot a line across the belly of a target, make a perforated line as proof of love. My toes curl with temptation. They curl so tight my bones pop like tiny gunshots that no one hears.
Shih-Li Kow is the author of a novel The Sum of Our Follies and a short story collection Ripples and Other Stories. Her work has also been published in Quarterly West, Mud Season Review, Short Fiction Journal, Et Sequitur, and elsewhere. She lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Twitter: @shihlikow