Chapter One - New Neighbors
THROUGH OUR childhood, we were practically inseparable from the moment he moved into the apartment next door. I’d never liked the apartment complex we were in, but that was because I was the only kid. All of my siblings were older and in middle school but I was still in kindergarten. None of my sisters wanted to play with me, and I found the older people who lived in the apartments around us to be dull and only want to talk with my mother about tupperware. I had friends at school, but none who lived close enough to play on a regular basis. So, it was up to me to make my own fun on the playground in the middle of my complex or in my room with my dolls.
One morning while I was getting ready for school, putting on my uniform and packing my homework books into my backpack, there was a loud knock at the door. For some reason, I wasn’t curious, but that was probably because it was 6am and I had a long bus ride to school with my sisters ahead of me. Since they took turns keeping their headphones off to make sure I got off the bus and to school okay, I wasn’t enthusiastic about sitting with a reluctant older sister for half an hour. When I got to school, I’d have my friends to play with but the time it would take to get from my bedroom to the classroom would take forever.
In the background, I heard the front door open and a few loud greetings echoed through the house. A woman was talking to Mom and she said something about her son, Jongin and his new school. I wanted to stay in my room and wait out the visit for Mom, but my stomach growled loudly and my hand rubbed my aching tummy. It was hungry and I knew Mom had breakfast ready outside, so I grabbed my backpack and hurried out into the kitchen where my three sisters were already eating. The oldest sister, Ha Kyung, pulled the chair out next to her so I could climb on and hung my backpack next to hers on the chair. She smiled fondly as she put an egg on top of my rice.
“Seo Kyung,” my mother called from the door and my ears perked up, “Greet our guest.”
“Annyeonghaseyo.” I greeted, not turning to face her and instead inhaling the egg Ha Kyung unni had given me.
“Anyway,” Mom sighed, returning to her conversation, “That’s my youngest daughter, Seo Kyung. I think she’s Jongin’s age, actually.”
“Will they be in the same grade at school, then?” the stranger in our doorway inquired.
“Maybe. My Seo Kyung is five years old. How old are you, Jongin?”
“Five.” a small, high pitched voice answered.
“Ah, maybe you and Seo Kyung will be in the same class!” Mom exclaimed, “Seo Kyung-ah, come greet your classmate. You and your sisters are taking him to school today.”
“Just a second.” I managed around a mouthful of food. Mom always wanted me to greet someone at the worst times, and this one would turn out to be the most awkward. Once I swallowed, and Ha Kyung unni had cleared some food residue from my mouth, I hopped off the chair and went to stand near Mom.
A boy about my age wearing a uniform that went with my school stood behind his mother’s leg, peering around it at me. I looked up at my mother unsure of what to do with this shy kid who was going to be in my class. Mom encouraged me to greet him, so I bowed and repeated my hello. The kid repeated my greeting, except smaller and quieter.
“Seo Kyung-ah, this is Jongin. He lives a few doors down. He’ll be going to your school starting today.” Mom explained.
“Nice to meet you. Are you hungry?” I asked, wondering why he wasn’t eating this early in the morning. Hesitantly, he nodded and I grabbed his hand. “Let’s eat breakfast before we go to school.”
“Okay.” he said so quietly, I almost didn’t hear it. Ha Kyung unni was already out of her chair and she offered it to Jongin, who climbed up to sit next to me at the table.
“We have to go in about ten minutes if we want to catch the bus, okay?” Ha Kyung ruffled my hair and I dug back into breakfast.
“Have a good day at school, son.” his mother called from the door, “I love you!”
“Mm! Love you, too.” Jongin called to her with his mouth full and had to smile. I liked him already.
Once breakfast was over, Ha Kyung helped me on with my backpack, promising to help me with my hair on the bus. My other two sisters, Eun Kyung and Ae Kyung, already had their headphones already and were just along for the ride. I took Jongin’s hand, being the clueless five year old I was, and we walked to the bus station like that, all while I told him about the bus we rode and the stop that we had to get off at. Even though I didn’t know him, that didn’t stop me from rambling on and on about my morning routine. By the time the bus was pulling up, I was offering to ride with him to school every day and he was enthusiastically agreeing.
Even while Ha Kyung was braiding my hair into two pigtails, my attention was on Jongin, explaining things I thought he needed to know, like the old ladies who lived just to talk about kitchenware with my mother and the lack of children in our apartment complex. I told him about school and how my teacher, Miss Ki, was the best teacher in the world and I wished she would be my teacher all the way to college. I should have given Jongin room to talk, but since I was only five I was still learning to take turns it didn’t cross my mind to ask Jongin about anything.
Jongin didn’t seem to mind my chattering. In fact, it looked like he was enjoying listen to me ramble on and on about everything and nothing all at once. Ha Kyung made sure that Jongin and I got off the bus at the right stop and I took him to the office to get assigned to a class. I was about to leave him there, when he whispered, “Wait.” And like a fool, I did.
IT WAS EARLY in the afternoon when the first customers came in and I led them to one of the karaoke rooms and told them that the girls would attend to them soon. Later in the evening, one of the other girls would relieve me of my hostess duties and I would go on to change into something a little ier and go on to entertaining. Work was slow in the afternoons when I started by shift, but as work let out other places at five and six, then it got busy. So, for a good three or four hours I stood there in my unflattering hostess garb leading visitors to empty rooms.
It wasn’t the best job in the world, but it was the only place that would hire me and the only reason they even took a second look at my resume was because my old classmate was the manager. I wanted to work as much as possible right off the bat, but they only had me working three days a week right up until last month when they said they were short a hostess for the weekends, so I took the opportunity to hostess in the afternoons and entertain in the evenings.
Entertaining was easy. I had to dress up in something y and sit in karaoke rooms with men getting progressively more and more drunk. Usually I sat there under the arm of someone drunk and I offered them food and drinks regularly, having one myself now and again. Often, I’d sing karaoke with whoever offered and usually they ignored my terrible singing voice to stare at my legs. Sometimes they would kiss me and they would make it impossible for me to pull away, so I’d go with it until they drunkenly passed out. Rarely, I’d sleep with a customer. This only happened twice the three years I worked there. The first time, I was just as intoxicated as the man who had locked the door to the bathroom and the second time it had been someone I was attracted to before he’d ever come in. I didn’t care to dwell on those times much.
This job was great fun, there was always singing, dancing, food and alcohol and often times I wouldn’t get home until three in the morning. The pay wasn’t great, but most of the money went to my mother’s hospital bills and saving up so all of my sisters and I could go to school at some point. All of us had at least two jobs, aside from me who was still searching for job number 2.
Ever since Mom was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, my sisters and I have been doing everything in our power to make sure we could afford hospital trips and her surgery. Only in the past few months, Mom had been admitted to the hospital when the doctors discovered that the cancer was spreading and they needed to do the surgery immediately or she would die within the next few days. My sisters and I had run around gathering bank statements and doing research to see what we could keep and what we had to drop.
The surgery was expensive and we still had to pay for school, the apartment and all the bills that were building up. It was no-brainer. We had to drop school to pay for the surgery, so we did that first thing and Mom had her surgery and came out cancer-free. She still has to go into the hospital every month to make sure there’s no more cancer, and each appointment costs a fortune. It takes all four girls to get enough money to pay for Mom’s hospital visits, the apartment and all the bills that go with it. Ha Kyung used to be a bright, sparkling girl with a fool-proof future until Mom got cancer, and it was even more hopeless with Mom back in the hospital with some other cancer. Now she dedicates all of her time to taking care of our mother and working.
There were perks to this job, that I didn’t expect when I first started. The other girls who worked there took me in right away and made me their friend. I had something in common with every single one of them, even if it was just a book or a TV show we’ve both seen. Of course, there were a few girls who I was closer to, but each girl who worked on my days got to be good friends of mine. I supposed friendships were hard to come by when it came to this job because you have to work all night and sleep all day so any new faces are more than welcome.
Now and again some famous politician, singer or actor would come in and sit with their friends and talk about things that we had to keep an absolute secret, though it was difficult to keep quiet when I politician talked about an affair he was having or the secret plans he was attempting to carry out. Usually it took a few drinks to get them talking about anything other than work anyway, but it’s not like I was after any of this information. I was just a young girl trying to keep my mother alive for as long as possible, and if this was the way to do it then so be it.
“Seo Kyung-ah!” A voice called from inside and I turned to see an excitedly frazzled coworker running towards me as fast as her short legs could carry her, “Kang Seo Kyung!”
“What, Min Ah-yah?” I exclaimed, catching her in my arms so she wouldn’t run past me.
“It happened!” she squealed, pulling out of my grasp and lifting her hands to her face to scream into them, “After all this time, it finally happened.”
“What?” I laughed as the other hostess fanned her face, “They had a comeback. Their album just dropped. I’m going to die.”
“I doubt that.” I grinned, “Who had their comeback.”
“Exo!” she exclaimed half-exasperatedly, “I’ve only been talking about it for weeks now.”
“Ahh, that’s right! I forgot. You’ll have to come over this week and I’ll watch it with you.” I offered, despite not really having time to listen to music for my own pleasure. At least no time to discover new music. Not these days.
“Now all that’s left is for BtoB to have their comeback next month.” Min Ah mused, leaning on the podium the hostesses kept the menus and seating charts, “How’s your mom?”
“She’s improved these last couple of days. She’s fighting really hard.”
“Your mom is amazing.” Min Ah nodded knowingly, “I don’t know how she does it.”
“How are your parents?” I inquired.
As Min Ah rambled on about her parents and how they were doing living in Japan for the year, my mind wandered. I knew it was rude to drift off, but Min Ah had mentioned my mother and now I was thinking about money. Right about now Ha Kyung would be getting off work at the supermarket and was on her way home to change before going to the fish market in Incheon. Eun Kyung was right in the middle of her shift at one of the posh restaurants in Downtown Seoul and would get off in two hours before hurrying to the bar two blocks over to work until midnight. Ae Kyung was just clocking in at the movie theater near our apartment and would be working until 1am. Fridays were always the latest day for all of us, which always left Mom alone at the hospital, which we hated, but we had no other choice. We had to pay for the hospital bill and this was the only way to do it.
I hoped that one day she would forgive us.