I arrived to my tutoring job five minutes, like I always did, after a ten-minute bike ride and my nose stung red with cold. I prepared the vocab and games and everything so the kid wouldn’t groan face down into the carpet again. Upon dismounting my bike, I received a call from the student’s mother, Tutor Mom. Tutor Mom spoke to me in Korean, and I matched it with my Konglish.
“Oh, Sunsengnim, are you already at the apartment?” Her voice was low. Someone died, maybe.
“Oh, I — yes.”
“Oh no,” she began. “I’m so sorry, Daniel is in the middle of some after-school event at school, so I don’t think we…”
“Yes, I’m so sorry.” Her voice sounded far away. It always did, and especially in person.
“It’s ok —”
“I think,” and I could hear her eyes squeeze shut, “we’ll have to cancel today’s lesson. You know with his kindergarten, all the extracurriculars…” She forced out several puffs of air — this was her laughter.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s…fine.”
“Yes.” I started to unlock my bike from the rack.
“I…have to ask you for one favor. Are you free…next Tuesday? At 10 AM? Do you have class?”
I checked my watch. Time was frozen at 3:59 PM. I began to think of all the places I could replace a watch battery. E-mart. Lotte Mart. And then I ran through every hour of my schedule for tomorrow. “No,” I said.
“Sunsengnim, you see,” her words narrowed to a whisper, “Daniel’s teacher is holding meetings with the parents.”
“Oh,” I said. I could hear a storm of children cheering behind her, wherever she was. Her breaths swirled in my ear, quick and cautious.
“Well…the thing is, Sunsengnim, you see last time, Daniel’s father was here.” She paused. “He did all the talking, you see. But he can’t come-this-time, and I’m no good at English you-know-me…”
I nodded. She heard.
“So I was wondering if you could help me…”
I frowned. Of course I would. I was afraid of getting fired. This was my only tutoring job and I had been let go from my other one for being too q u i e t.
“I can do it.”
Her eyes bent into little rainbows — I could hear. “Sunsengnim!” dripped out of her mouth like syrup. “Oh thank you! Thank you! I hope it’s not too much trouble. I’ll message you the details on Monday! Thank you!”
“Thank you again — “
“It’s fine — “
“You’re…wel — ”
The mother messaged me on Monday morning with the location and time. She revealed that the meeting was actually at 10:40AM, but she requested to meet forty minutes earlier, to chat: about my slow teaching pace, or my lack of discipline. Why I wore my yellow hot dog shirt three lessons in a row. Maybe one of my breasts had spilled out while the other deflated into a raisin, and the kid had noticed. Or I was too quiet.
Tutor Mom called me that evening to repeat her text.
“Hello Sunsengnim…were you sleeping?”
“No. I — “ I moved the phone away from my cheek to check the time: 9:15 PM. I could not tell if she was playing a game. I frowned at the oily cheek-print stamped onto my phone; I had no time for games. I had schoolwork and writing and needed the money to fund both.
I bowed my head the following morning when I saw Tutor Mom, fifty meters away from the school gates. I bowed again up close, and once more when I dismounted from my bike because my crumpled Korean allowed no alternative ways to greet. Tutor Mom wore a black trench coat with ruffles poking out from the sleeves, shoes that made no noise, and a ponytail that flattened the back of her head. She was clean and non-assuming as she shuffled onto campus. I followed from behind, not too far or close so I could pull on my sleeve to check the time.
“Thank you for coming, Sunsengnim. Maybe I’m the one that needs English lessons.” She puffed out a few breaths of laughter-air. “Coming here always gives me stress.” She crossed her arms and I could see her bird bones, her skin the color of raw macadamia .
“I — my mom was like this, too,” I replied. “I would help translate as a kid.”
We passed through a thin walkway lined with flag poles; every pronounceable country flapped violently against the sky. Tutor Kid went to an international school in Korea, because his father was a pilot, and he made up for his absence with money. As we walked past children on tricycles, motorized scooters, an Airwheel, I could not look away from the rusted bell tower in the center of all the buildings. It was the tallest monument on campus. The bell hung between two ladder-like slabs of concrete, every metallic ornament shiny except for the bell. It looked as though it hadn’t ever been rung and if it ever did, i was sure that the creaky ding-dings would pull all the students to its base like a magnet, only to fall and crush them all. From below, the bell tower resembled a guillotine.
“Daniel! Dah-nee-ell.” Tutor mom cupped her mouth with her bird hands, bending over the concrete platform to shout at her son at the playground. Her eyelids were heavy as she called him; he was her best friend. She wasn’t calling loud enough, I thought, but maybe she knew this. Daniel didn’t hear. He weaved around the swing set with two other children. All of them were sweating, their heads swollen compared to their sprout bodies.
We began walking to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee before the meeting and an excuse to do something. I snuck a glance at my watch and counted thirty minutes left. I had to pee, and the dryness in my throat stretched upwards to mangle my head. But I decided to order a latte and cross my legs, and endure. We changed tables after finding ours coated with a sticky-something.
“Oh my,” she said, her face smiley and blank.
I watched her shoes clack-clack on the tiles and thought it strange to see her walking when I was used to her floating around the house, opening the door, and disappearing somewhere with the same thin ponytail. Sometimes I would hear her counting to three, then a flush after Daniel excused himself from the lesson to the bathroom. I knew exactly how she closed her bedroom door and what her face looked like without makeup. I did not know her name. Maybe this is why she asked to meet me forty minutes in advance; she would fire me, then squeeze my remains in the meeting. I pretended my coffee was water and drank half the cup.
“Sunsengnim, where in America did you say you lived again?” Tutor Mom sipped at her bottled corn tea.
“New Jersey,” I swallowed. “Do you know where that is?”
“Of course I know it! I used to go there after landing at JFK. New York was too expensive to stay in.”
“I’m not…in trouble?”
“What did you say?”
“Why New Jersey?” I finished my coffee and propped my chin against my palms.
“Ah, Sunsengnim, I used to be a flight attendant.”
“Oh. Wow,” I said.
“I did it for ten years, you know.”
“Oh wow.” I crunched an ice block in my mouth. “So, that’s how you met your husband?”
She laughed. “That’s right, I suppose.”
“For what airline?” I looked at her eyes. They were present.
“Asiana, Sunsengnim. Have you ridden Asiana?”
“They have the best food. It doesn’t taste like plastic,” but I didn’t actually say that. My Korean only allowed a “Yes. I like that.” after a long, heavily pregnant pause. I imagined her walking down the aisle of a double-decker plane. Suddenly I wanted to make her laugh.
And Tutor mom did laugh, her mouth tight. It never widened past the width of her nose. She slapped me on the shoulder and suddenly my scalp was hot with the thrill of knowing her. I wanted to slap her back. I wanted to kiss her and maybe tell her to leave her husband, because she had entrusted me with a streak of intimacy and a break from school and writing. This shadow-husband only came home once a month anyway, and who knew what he was doing in his second home, in Osaka, wherever that was. I knew where it was, but it existed outside of this cafeteria, this temporary bubble of the world. Surely even as a pilot, he could visit at least twice a month. I wondered if her hands were warm, if she walked with her eyes fastened onto the ground, but had blistering, hot palms that yearned to melt something. I wanted to sit in the aisle seat of an Asiana plane and watch her wheel a snack cart down. Would she twitch her lip if a fat-mouthed man complained that his beer was too warm? Maybe she would smile at him with the same knitted smile now. I wanted to sit on the floor of a hotel room with her, with a bounty of chips and beer from the Japanese convenience store downstairs. She did this, she said, when she visited Osaka.
“Do you like Songdo?” I blurted. This was the city-district where we lived.
Tutor Mom bowed her head and looked into my eyes, her bangs crashing inwards like stage curtains. “No,” she shook her head and started to shrivel. The flight attendant hid back into her throat and down her gullet, into the cave it had plowed in her lowermost spinal disk.
“It’s lonely, Sunsengnim.”
“Oh,” I said. She leaned in and I traced the faint creases against her eyes. “It is?”
“Yes. And I don’t have any friends.”
Her fac began to lose shape and she no longer carried the conversation. I felt betrayed, and responsible.
“What, uh, what about groups?” I searched the Songdo Community Facebook group in my head for recent events and activity listings.
“For hobbies. Do you have…hobbies?”
“Not really,” she shrugged. “I like to listen to music. I like jazz.”
“Well, what do you do when Daniel goes to school?”
Her lips puckered and disappeared into her milk face. “I…go to the supermarket. And I cook.” She looked at me for an answer and I could not tell if she was tolerant or miserable.
“Do you like pets?”
“Oh no,” she shook her head.
I nodded to fill the silence.
“Did you have a dream as a…when you were young? When you were a child?”
“Oh,” Tutor Mom gazed at the ceiling. “No,” she huffed. Images of the bell tower slipped into my head. I drank the remaining grit on the bottom of my coffee cup and gripped at the metal sides of the chair.
“Does Daniel look like his dad?” I asked.
She sat up. “He looks exactly like his dad. Would you like to see?”
She took her phone out and showed me a slideshow of photos — the pilot and Daniel behind a sand castle at the beach, the pilot and Daniel sitting in business class, head in each other’s shoulders. She swiped at each photo with slow, practiced movements. As the last photo slid into black, she threw her finger threw off the screen and stared at the table with a careful smile. “Done!”
We sat silently for a few minutes more before it was 10:35 AM. I rummaged my dry head for conversation topics, but excused myself to the bathroom instead, emotionally spent and brimming with urine.
I returned to Tutor Mom browsing on her phone, unimpressed. I wanted to help her and never see her again afterwards.
“What to do…when Songdo is no fun, right?” I joked.
She shrugged her shoulders. “It should be okay.” And then gasped. “Do you know what “yohtt” is, Sunsengnim?”
“The boat, you know — “
“Yacht! I know. I know it. It’s expensive?”
“Oh well, not in Korea. You can rent one for the whole day for only two-hundred-thousand won!”
“Right!” I realized then how wealthy her family was. “Are you interested in yachting?”
“Oh me? No, no. I was thinking of getting Daniel to do it. He has so much energy.”
I counted yachting alongside Daniel’s in-line skating, drum, swimming, and English lessons. I wondered if she would perish if she ever lived alone.
A bearded man motioned for us to enter the room around the corner.
The actual meeting was only twenty minutes long, with a few minutes of translation and questions. We sat around a knee-high wooden table in a room full of easels and soft blocks. The Hungarian homeroom teacher murmured about responsibility and quiet-time while Tutor Mom nodded to her own rhythm. Her hands were bundled tight on her lap, rolling around as if they were wrestling.
“Sunsengnim, what was she saying?” she asked as we left into the hallway.
“But you were nodding the whole time.”
“That’s all I could do,” she said.
I explained to her the gist of the meeting as she led me back to my bike. Tutor Mom nodded again, and then looked at the ground with her arms crossed, again.
“Do you think it’s okay that Daniel plays so much?”
“I think…it’s good for his character?” I wanted to leave.
“In Korea, if your son doesn’t stay still and study, it means there’s something wrong.”
“The Korean education system is always like that,” I said. I started to unlock my bike and thought of the two, three essays in my to-do list. “ Kids learn and learn and when they finish school, they don’t know who they really are.”
“Yes,” the mother brooded, and then snapped her head up with a smile. I could no longer tell if it was real or practiced. “Well, what are you going to do now?” she asked.
We walked toward the school gates to the rhythmic clicking of my bike chain.
“Hmm,” I copied the mother — a perfect smile, and then eyebrows to the sky. “I guess I’ll go home, eat something real quick, and then finish my essay.”
“Ah, I see.” I was afraid to ask what her plans were, because I could not help her, and we both knew she would say nothing. “Sunsengnim, I know I cancelled Daniel’s lesson last Friday, so I want to count this as a make-up.”
“No, it’s really okay. Please don’t do that.”
“No, no, I ins — “
“You don’t need — “
We looked at each other without speaking, and then I led her gaze to the bell tower. We both squinted against the harsh reflection of the sun, and the ugly rust of the bell until the wind was too cold against our skin.
“Sunsengnim, my car is just around the corner. I’ll see you this Friday. Thank you for coming with me today.” Then she whispered, “really,” and I felt prickly with this unwanted secret.
I bowed too quickly and mounted my bike. “Goodbye!” And I pedaled, wondering why she drove when her apartment was one block away.
At home I sent Tutor Mom a link to a jazz concert and didn’t see her again for two weeks, both lessons cancelled because of sudden after-school events. I came back the following Friday, ruffled from the November wind, ready to switch off my mind. She opened the door with a toothy smile that quickly snapped into a postcard grin once I took off my shoes. So I shuffled into Daniel’s room, with the false comfort of knowing his mother’s favorite brand of sweatpants and dipping only halfway into her fears. Then I opened up my notebook full of the vocab, games and everything I had prepared.