Fiction from A.C. Koch
My Fire Still Burns
Until she found the right word, she couldn’t tell the story. Without exactly the right word, it would sound crass, or pathetic—the daydream of a delusional person. And although she could nearly taste the word, it wouldn’t come. Min-ji sipped her pineapple juice through a straw and pressed her lips together in the hopes that the missing word would dissolve on her tongue and slip out of her mouth.
Deborah laughed. “Earth to Min-ji! Are you there?”
Min-ji smiled. “Sorry. I just can’t find the word. It has the cat’s tongue.”
“You mean the tip of your tongue.” Deborah peered from under her lashes as she stirred sugar into her cappuccino as if checking to make sure she hadn’t flustered her with the correction.
Min-ji waved her hand. “Well, if it was on the tip of my tongue, it would be easy to find. So the cat must have it.” She tucked her hair behind her ears and softened her words with a smile.
Deborah gave a glittery laugh. It was nice, Min-ji thought, to have a teacher who laughed and smiled and acted like a fellow human being—not like her old professors at Pusan National University who insisted on one and only one interpretation of any given French Enlightenment poem. Min-ji let her eyes drift out the window where the intersection crawled with cars and pedestrians. Downtown Seattle. The glass facades of the buildings across the street cycled through the ice creamy light of neon signs that shifted and buzzed and strobed. Late afternoon drizzle stitched the tall café window with fine streaks that caught the lights.
“So,” Deborah said, placing her hands palms-down on the table in the way that signified the official beginning of their lesson, “tell me about your week.”
Min-ji gave a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Oh, I think this has been a very long week. But I brought something to show you.” She pulled an iPad out of her bag and set it on the table with the screen opened on a grid of photos.
“Oh! The trip! You brought your Saipan pictures!”
Min-ji nodded. She tapped a photo and began scrolling to the side. She knew Deborah would want to hear comments about each, so she tried narrating. “Here is at the swimming pool. This is on scenic overlook. This is Song-il with the man who drives the boat for the fishing expedition.”
Deborah smiled at each photo as she watched them slide by. Shots of Min-ji in a flowery blouse, squinting into the sun. Shots of her husband, in an open-collared Oxford, staring straight at the camera. Jagged volcanic landscape in the background, sparkling sea, leaning coconut trees. Min-ji noticed Deborah’s smile faltering about halfway through the photos, and she stopped scrolling. “Maybe this is so boring.”
Deborah waved her hands. “No, Min-ji, it’s not, it’s really not. This looks like such a beautiful place. It’s just that—well, I notice that neither of you are smiling in any of these pictures.”
Min-ji shook her head. “No, we don’t smile in pictures. This is Korean tradition, I think. We must be serious.”
“One day, our children may use our photos to put on the altar, when they honor us. We shouldn’t be…” Again, another word escaped her.
“Frivolous?” Deborah offered.
Min-ji clapped her hands and beamed. “Yes! We shouldn’t be frivolous.”
Deborah tilted her head and offered a tender smile. “But you know what, Min-ji? You’re so beautiful when you smile. Wouldn’t your kids want to see a picture of what you look like right now, with that smile on your face?”
Min-ji looked down at the photo on the screen. She and Song-il, standing stiffly side by side in front of the fountain in the hotel lobby. Her own face looked a lot like the photo of her mother that she set over the altar every year during Chusok: a straight line for the mouth, eyebrows like shallow parentheses over black eyes. “Well,” she said, “my children don’t exist yet, so I am not worried.” She could feel Deborah feeling sorry for her—for all Korean women—and the way their lives were supposedly so much more limited than the free spirit American girls who traveled the globe teaching English and sleeping with whomever they wanted and feeling no regrets.
It was like a hidden curriculum in their conversation lessons, a theme underlying everything they said. It made Min-ji want to say something snappy and decisive in her native tongue: We don’t choose who we are, we just live the lives we’re born into, and anyone who thinks differently is a privileged brat who has never heard the word ‘no.’ But Deborah wouldn’t understand a word of it, and if she said it in English it would come out slow and clumsy, without the snappiness, so why bother? She gave a rueful smile, and slid the iPad closer to Deborah so she could flick through the pictures at her own pace.
“You know,” Deborah said while scrolling, “they say a single moment of happiness or decisive action creates another, and another, and then what you might have been faking becomes real.” She looked up and grinned.
“Who said that?”
“Oh, you know, just like, collective wisdom.”
Min-ji made a thoughtful hum.
Deborah scrolled through a few more photos, then slid the device back across the table. “Saipan looks like a lovely place.”
“Yes, it is a lovely place.”
“So tell me, was it like a second honeymoon?”
Min-ji gave a vague nod that said yes and no at the same time. She was still thinking about the other story she wanted to tell, but now she wondered how Deborah would interpret it. Surely Deborah had drawn the conclusion that Min-ji and Song-il were an unhappy couple, standing in the tropics and scowling at the camera, shot after shot. What would she think then, if she told her about the old boyfriend she’d googled up and chatted with the other day? Deborah would surely leap at the chance to encourage her to betray her husband, throw herself into a sexual adventure, exercise her supposed freedom as a modern woman: all the stuff that Deborah herself would do, because her world contained no consequences. Min-ji inspected her nails and glanced out the window as horns brayed in the intersection. “Deborah, I need a word for a feeling. When you miss someone from a long time ago, but there is no way to go back and have what you had.”
“No, I thought of that one, but that’s not it. It’s a strange word, not so academic.”
Deborah puckered her lips in thought. “Melancholy?”
“I like that word, but that’s not it either.”
Deborah gave her a narrow-eyed smile. “Why don’t you tell me the story, and then maybe I can help you find the word.”
Min-ji shook her head. “Maybe it’s a stupid story. Much more boring than my Saipan pictures.”
“I didn’t think those were boring. In fact, I learned a lot about you from those pictures, and about Korean culture. I may be your English teacher, but you’re my Korean culture teacher.”
Min-ji nodded. She hadn’t thought about it that way before. Deborah had lived in Seoul for a year, but had never learned the language and only knew a little about the food and culture. As far as Min-ji could tell, she hadn’t interacted with anyone besides her fellow Westerners, and had returned to America with a vague sense of guilt over lost opportunities. The idea made her raise her chin and fold her hands on the table. “Okay, Deborah. Here is my story. I knew a boy when I was in high school. He was a crazy boy, with a strange haircut that no one else had. And he wrote me love letters and hid them in my lunch box so I can find them when I’m eating with my girlfriends. It was such a scandal every time—it made me turn red, and everyone wanted to see what he wrote. I had to run away and hide the notes. But I read them later. They were very beautiful, I think. Like little poems, about me.”
Deborah cupped her face in her hands and leaned forward with a grin. “Wow, romantic! Is this a story about how you met your husband?”
Min-ji shook her head. “Young-kwang never spoke to me. Only the notes, every day, all year long. And then we ended up going to university together, and we got to know each other.”
Deborah raised her eyebrows. “You ‘got to know each other’? Meaning?”
But Min-ji just went red. “I think you know what I mean.”
Deborah clapped her hands together, twice. “Min-ji! I love this story!”
“And then we graduated, and never saw each other again. I got married and forgot all about Young-kwang. The end.”
Deborah raised her hands. “Oh come on, that’s not the end. What else happened?” Outside, a volley of car horns bleated.
Min-ji shrugged. “Just that I feel this thing, sometimes. This word that I’m missing.”
Deborah narrowed her eyes across the table. “Okay, Min-ji, go ahead and milk the mystery if you want, but I think something else happened. Did he get in touch with you recently? A fresh love letter, maybe?”
She looked away to avoid Deborah’s eyes. Let her think what she wanted. She had no intention of sharing the rest of the story. How she’d typed his name into a search engine and discovered him on the staff page of an advertising agency in Vancouver, B.C., head shot and all. Spiky hair, goofy grin. The same boy she’d known, but filled out now, and with distinguished wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. The chat thread that had turned steamy. The way it had felt to touch her own skin as if it were his, silky and warm. The racy photo he’d sent, the familiar shape of his cock, and the words he’d typed. The sudden gust of desire and fear that moved her to her delete the thread, block his name.
Nothing good could come from more of that. She sipped her pineapple juice to take the edge off the heat in her face, the smoldering excitement of just thinking about it. Her reflection watched her in the window. Out in the intersection, a silver car was stopped on the crosswalk, ignoring a green light. The cars arrayed behind it blasted their horns. “No, Deborah, no more love letters.”
Deborah gazed out the window as well. “Well, I guess you do sometimes just start to think about somebody from your past, for no reason. There’s no harm in that, you know.”
Min-ji hummed instead of disagreeing. She could see a man behind the driver’s wheel in the silver car. His forearms bulged with veins as he gripped the steering wheel, and it looked like he was flexing his jaws in some spasm of anger. All at once he yelled something and punched the center of the wheel. The sound of his voice barely registered behind the cafe’s glass pane, but Min-ji jumped at the suddenness of the man’s anger. Had his car died?
Deborah hadn’t noticed; she was watching beads of rainwater slide diagonally across the window, steered by the wind. “The problem is when you start thinking the past was something perfect, when that was never true.”
Min-ji watched the man throw the car door open and stomp into the crosswalk. He wore the uniform of a security guard, with a utility belt and holster, and he kicked at a puddle sending a sheet of water arcing onto the sidewalk. This was met with a fresh barrage of car horns from behind, and he threw his hands up and screamed a curse. This time Min-ji could make out what he said: “You think I’m an idiot?”
Deborah saw him now. She pointed out at the intersection. “What’s this? Happy hour backfire for this guy?”
There was someone else in the car. From this angle, Min-ji could just make out the edge of a skirt of someone sitting in the passenger seat. And then, like a fleck of white adding depth to a still-life painting, she saw a baby’s foot bob in the air on the woman’s lap. The woman adjusted the baby on her legs and leaned over the gear shift to honk the horn. The man in the security guard uniform stood in front of the car, getting soaked, shouting and whipping his arms around in wild gestures. Min-ji heard the phrase again—“You think I’m an idiot?”—this time directed through the windshield at the woman with the baby.
Deborah muttered, “Jesus, dude. Take a valium.”
Min-ji found she couldn’t look away. The man’s rage was Jovian. His flung his arms about like he was tossing lightning bolts across the city. Then he jabbed one finger at the windshield where the woman sat hefting the baby in her lap, trying to soothe its crying. And over everything, the unending honking of the car horns.
A uniformed policeman on the other side of the intersection began making his way towards the man. The man spun, held one palm up to the cop and pulled something from the utility belt that dangled from his waist. Min-ji, who had never seen a gun brandished in real life, gasped and clapped one hand over her mouth. The man pointed his black pistol straight at the cop, who crouched and held his hands up.
“You think I’m a fucking idiot!? Do you?”
The cop retreated while still in his crouch, like a crab with its pincers in the air. The man with the gun stomped towards the cop, then spun and pointed the gun, straight-armed, at the windshield of his car where the woman hugged the baby to her chest.
Min-ji, separated from it all by the insulating pane of the café window, pressed her forehead to the glass. Her breath fogged her view and she had to move back. Meanwhile, news of the psycho in the intersection rippled from table to table. People slid out of their chairs and headed for the back wall. Deborah grabbed Min-ji’s elbow but she pulled away.
“Min-ji! Come on! Get away from the window!”
Min-ji could only shake her head. She stared at the man with the gun, the way his eyes bulged in his head and his veins throbbed in his neck. He stepped towards the car until his knees pressed against the front bumper. He brought up the other hand to hold the gun cupped in his palm. Min-ji stared at his trigger finger, just a flex away from firing. The cop now had his gun out and, still crouching, began moving into the intersection again.
“Min-ji! He’s crazy! Get down!”
The crazy man was going to shoot the woman in the car if the cop didn’t shoot him first. This was exactly the kind of thing people in Korea believed happened on a daily basis in the United States, and now it looked like they were right. “Don’t get shot by some crazy black-skin drug dealer,” her grandmother had warned her when she and Song-il had relocated to Seattle for his job. “Don’t go out after dark, and only shop at Korean businesses, where the people will respect you.” Min-ji had thought it was a ridiculous, racist attitude, but so far she hadn’t ventured very far into the city on her own. There were a lot of black people, but none of them looked very scary. The guy with the gun was a stringy-haired white guy, and right now he looked scarier than anyone she’d ever seen. Pointing a gun at his own family. Without knowing what she was doing, she started slapping her palms on the window. The glass warbled and rattled.
“Min-ji! You want him to shoot us?!”
The man turned his head. With the gun still pointing at the car’s windshield, his eyes swept across the sidewalk and fixed Min-ji where she stood on the other side of the café window. Her heart jumped when their eyes met. She imagined the feeling of a bullet plowing into her gut, tearing its way through her body to burst out of her back in a fountain of gore, mixed with the confetti of shattered glass. The cinema of it.
The man yelled something that she couldn’t make out. He tossed his chin and yelled louder, looking right at her. Pale eyes, deep set, with dark patches beneath them as if he hadn’t slept in days. Behind him, the cop crept closer, gun angled down and laced in both hands.
Min-ji made a gun shape with her thumb and forefinger. She touched her finger to her temple and held it there. The man cocked his head. A crooked smile appeared on his face. He mirrored Min-ji’s pose by putting his gun to his own temple. The cop, sensing the gunman’s distraction, quickened his step. Min-ji uttered a prayer under her breath, a phrase her grandmother used to chant when they bowed down before the golden Buddha at Pomo Temple. A plea for enlightenment before death. A moment of decisive action, to save a family in jeopardy. Then she snapped her gun-finger up, as if firing a bullet into her brain.
The man’s face got dark. He took a step forward with the gun still held to his head. The woman in the car was yelling one word over and over through the open driver’s window. The man never took his eyes off Min-ji. He squeezed the trigger and the sound was a small pop. His head snapped to the side and his legs went out beneath him. He dropped to the pavement.
Min-ji sat down hard in her chair. A collective gasp went through the cafe, and then a taut silence as if everyone was waiting to breathe. The cop ran to the body, the woman sprang from the car, but Min-ji aimed her gaze into the tabletop. Wavy lines of polished woodgrain. Dull, interlocking rings of mug prints. Her body shook, her breathing sketchy. Deborah, hand clasped over her mouth, said, “Oh dear God,” over and over. Rain pattered on the glass.
Song-il would be expecting lunch within the hour, but Min-ji couldn’t leave. The cop who’d approached in the intersection came into the cafe as soon as additional police showed up, and he went straight to Min-ji and Deborah’s table to ask for a statement. He looked young enough to be a college kid, with a shaving nick on his neck and frantic eyes that reminded Min-ji of a fish on a bed of ice. “You ladies witnessed what happened, am I right?” he said, voice high and tense. “You saw that he shot himself, right? I’m going to need both of you to stick around and give me a statement, okay?”
Min-ji nodded. Her heart was thudding, her hands shaking, and she didn’t speak for fear of bursting into tears. The way the man had dropped like his puppet strings had been cut. Deborah had become a stream of babble and outbursts, which she directed mostly towards her phone—scrolling, scrolling, frantic for information. As more police arrived, the cafe transformed into an emergency response headquarters. The waiter started serving hot coffees to all the officials. The rain got heavier. EMTs covered the body and then shifted it into a bag and carted it away on a gurney, loading it into the back of a strobing ambulance. The intersection was shut down. Cops in ponchos gesticulated in the middle of traffic knots, horns bleating in chorus.
A spatter of rain fell on the table as two figures passed and Min-ji looked up. A female paramedic led the woman from the silver car to an empty table nearby. She was wrapped in a metallic blanket, bejeweled with rain droplets. The paramedic guided the woman into an open chair and then knelt to say soothing things amidst the clamor and walkie-talking bleeping of the cafe. The woman stared into her tabletop like Min-ji had done, cocooned in shock. Her knees bounced and Min-ji realized she was trying to soothe the baby she cradled within her silver wrapping. The woman was no longer yelling, no longer crying, just seeming to breathe deeply through her shivers. Meanwhile, Deborah sobbed openly, pressing a disintegrating napkin over her eyes.
The rain pounded. Through the speckled window, Min-ji watched policemen place small orange cones on the ground near where the man’s body had fallen. Evidence markers. An oily stain shone on the wet pavement.
The waiter approached the woman’s table and spoke quietly with her. Min-ji studied her face. She looked to be in her thirties, Latina, with black hair pulled back in an unraveling pony tail. Her eyes were large and hollowed-out looking, but she was no longer expressing any outward signs of anguish. Music played dimly, Min-ji noticed for the first time. Andrea Bocelli, crooning.
Deborah, face slick with tears, seemed not to notice that the woman from the car was sitting just behind her. “That poor woman,” Deborah moaned. “And her baby! Do you think the baby will remember what happened? My God.”
The waiter returned to the woman’s table and set a large mug of hot cocoa in front of her, topped with a swirl of whipped cream. The woman regarded it with that hollow expression, then slid the mug to the edge of the table and leaned down to sip it. Eyes closed. She sat back up with froth on her lip and a dab of whipped cream on the tip of her nose. Absently, she wiped it off. Then she swiped a finger through the remaining whipped cream and closed her eyes again as she slid her finger into her mouth.
Min-ji watched. The woman’s expression softened as she savored the taste. When she opened her eyes again, she was looking straight at Min-ji. They shared a glance, and the woman’s face resolved into something different. Not an expression of happiness, but a neutral look, offered to a stranger. A look that said, I’m fine, Everything’s fine. Min-ji reflected it back. Sometimes you lose something, she thought, and you’re better off for having lost it.
Look, he’d typed under the dick pic he’d sent as her heart raced and her finger moved to delete the thread. My fire still burns for you.
She could still taste him when she closed her eyes. “Bittersweet,” she said quietly. That was the missing word, but Deborah didn’t hear it. She was still talking, still processing, still shaking in her seat.
The ambulance departed with swirling lights but no siren. The oily stain went on bleeding into the wet pavement, becoming part of the street. Min-ji waved down the harried waiter, who paused with raised eyebrows.
She pointed at the woman’s hot chocolate with its melting cap of whipped cream. “Please, sir, I’d like one of those.”
A.C. Koch is a teacher, writer and musician whose work has been published in literary journals such as F(r)iction, Puerto del Sol, Sequestrum and forthcoming in Analog. After spending about fifteen years living and working overseas (France, South Korea, Mexico), Koch resides in Denver, Colorado, working with language learners and making music with Firstimers, a power-pop ensemble.