Kissuni batted her eyes. “Hanhee, do you know the English word for sex between a husband and wife?”
Seoul, 1957. The war ended four years ago, but it could have been yesterday. The mountains were still bald from bombs that left a ghostly landscape of hollow-eyed peasants, lepers and orphans; and Americans who made their presence known in the way of Army jeeps and pop music wafting from radios. Except for the small Korean yangban society set and the few who served them, the country was a portrait of poverty.
Two beautician friends were eating bowls of bingsoo, sweetened beans and strawberry syrup over crushed ice, at their table-for-two in The Sweet Place Bakery during a rare moment of calm at La Miss Korea Beauty Parlor – yangban women liked to be pampered. Kissuni took her spoon and licked it with a devilishness that always drew eyes.
“Love sex?” Hanhee replied.
Kissuni’s impressed nod belied her response: “No.” Between luscious crunches of bingsoo, she whispered three syllables – “Love-mak-ing.”
Kissuni teased her. “That is, until your husband takes a second wife, and then he’s making love to her and having sex with you.”
“Joe would never take a second wife.” Hanhee scoffed – why marry a man if you couldn’t trust him? But then: “He wouldn’t. Would he?”
“Joe? Your American Dreamboat who’s married to his typewriter?”
Kissuni’s lusty chuckle rippled through The Sweet Place Bakery where the loudest noises were hushed gossip and the clinking of spoons in teacups. In here, you could almost forget that you were alone in the world, that the war stole something from everyone. On the street, a beggar boy cupping his bandaged, bloodied hands, broke her heart. “Look out the window, Hanhee. Why did this happen to our country? Why do Koreans have such bad luck? I hear everyone in America has good fortune. What does Joe tell you?”
“Believe it or not, in America they stuff paper fortunes into cookies. And, yes, they always predict happiness.”
“Fortunes in cookies?” Kissuni laughed as if Americans were the most absurd creatures on earth. The laughter felt good. “I’m so glad we met, Hanhee. You’re the first person I’ve opened up to in a long time. Ever, I think.”
“I feel the same way, Kissuni. Of course, there’s Joe. But already you are like a sister to me.”
“When we’re together, I feel… rich.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I like the other girls but you and I share the same blood. We’re the only ones from the north, you know. We’re warmer-blooded creatures. Do you miss the cold winters?”
“Are you crazy?”
“I do. I miss ice skating on the Yalu River with my five brothers and feeling my eyes ice over, then racing to the chestnut stand and thawing out by the fire.”
“You can ice skate here,” Hanhee said. “We can go together! I love ice skating, too.”
“Where are they?”
“Your brothers. You never mentioned them before.”
“Because they’re gone.” With a blink, Kissuni dropped the subject. “You’re such a spoiled girl. Asking if Joe would ever leave you when you know perfectly well he would die for you.”
Hanhee had lost her whole family to the war, but when it came to love, it was true. Joe spoiled her. “Someone will spoil you someday, Kissuni. Don’t forget our song.”
And the two softly chorused:
“When you wish upon a star…”
What a joke! A stupid, silly American song!
Within the year, Kissuni was dead, struck down by a car. When they buried her, she went into the ground and never surfaced again except in Hanhee’s imagination. Yet over time the mind dramatizes: Hanhee always drummed up monsoon rains falling at her funeral. Yet it must’ve been a spring shower for Kissuni was buried in April, not summer monsoon season. Her grave was on a mountainside of many graves that resembled little mountains and you needed a walking stick, the sturdiest branch you could find, to help you there. Perhaps in death Kissuni joined her brothers whose fates were so unspeakable she once agreed to reveal them but slowly, one a year, or it would kill her, too. In this way, Hanhee learned of the eldest brother’s fate: Kidnapped by Japanese soldiers in World War II, never to be seen again.
With her great confidant gone, Hanhee granted Joe his wish: To move back to America.
Life halfway around the globe proved trying but at least Hanhee could float up to see her friend at their table-for-two at The Sweet Place Bakery, an ethereal version of it anyway, clouds and universes above the real world of halting English and disapproving housewives in Grand Union and a husband who seemed to be growing more distant by the day. Up here, half-moon rice cakes encased sweetened bean or seed paste and you could eat plates of them – no rules.
Kissuni’s sumptuous gifts startled her at first. Her eyelashes, darting this way and that, like black fans. Her lips, juicy as plums. It had been a long time; perhaps awkwardly long.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
“Me, too,” Kissuni said, soon distracted.
In nearby booths, yangban wives bit into sugar-crusted fried dough balls while lamenting over their husbands’ affairs. When Kissuni leaned forward, a strand of silky hair draped over one eye.
“You know, Hanhee, the more fried dough balls they eat…”
“The more mistresses there are.”
Kissuni, Kissuni… Such precocious charm didn’t grow on trees, and all at once, it was just like the old days. Hanhee bit into a pink rice cake with great chew, oblivious to the sesame seeds sticking between her teeth.
“I know you met a nice American neighbor.” Kissuni twitched. “She seems like a nice lady but…”
In life and death, her friend’s cheeky manner never ceased to be entertaining. “But what, Kissuni?”
“But she’s old. What will you talk about tomorrow, and the day after that? The weather? Surely not love-mak-ing.”
Like schoolgirls playing hooky, the two giggled so hard it hurt until a symphony of sad violins aged them. It seemed like the right time to ask Kissuni:
“Whatever happened to your second brother?”
Kissuni grew still as a doll. Powder white. “One night during the war he treated me to dinner. Afterwards, we parted ways on the streets of Seoul, and he was never heard from again. Rumor had it that he was kidnapped by North Korean soldiers on the way home and…”
“Oma,” Hanhee whispered, refraining from asking about the other brothers.
With nothing more to say tonight, the two friends sang a sad Korean song:
“Mul mang cho…”
By now, much time had passed but Hanhee’s exciting news transported her to her best friend who could always be found on her mystical perch in The Sweet Place Bakery. Lush, wide-eyed, expectant – Kissuni! Their meetings were as sacred as North and South Korea reuniting, if only for a fleeting five minutes.
“Have you been here long?”
“Since last I saw you,” Kissuni said, ever so clipped. Hurt, even. “But I understand. I don’t have the freedom you do. For all I know, I’ll be sitting alone at this table-for-two for eternity.”
“I’m sorry, Kissuni. But you know something?”
Hushed: “Your accident killed a part of me, too.”
“I know,” Kissuni murmured, peering outside as if she could see the living world on the streets below. “Tell me, where did Dreamboat Joe go?”
Hanhee shrugged. “That’s not an easy question to answer.”
“He is missing from your life…”
Yes and no, but The Sweet Place Bakery was Hanhee’s great escape where, frankly, she’d rather not talk about Joe.
“… as my brothers were missing from mine.”
“Kissuni… whatever happened to your third brother?”
Unable to speak, Kissuni bowed her head instead. Finally: “He died in a massacre in a village in China. His village was raided during the Chinese Civil War.”
“Why was he in China?”
“Well, why are you in America, Hanhee?”
“You left me…”
“Okay, okay. All I know is that my brother was a businessman, and there was more business in China.”
“… I never left you.”
The bakery went dark until a plate of fried honey cakes appeared before them. Both women leaned forward, hungrily feasting on their chrysanthemum-shapes. Needless to say, their moods improved.
“Imagine if we were pregnant together,” Hanhee nibbled, “Oh, Kissuni, wouldn’t that be a dream come true?”
Her saucy friend nibbled back. “Yes, and we could have a contest every week to see whose stomach was bigger!”
“And give birth side by side!” Pause. “You know something?”
“I was wrong when I thought it was just a silly song.”
“What was a silly song?”
“When You Wish Upon a Star. Kissuni – I have news.”
“Yes – I am going to have a baby!”
The two friends clasped hands and crooned:
“When you wish upon a star…”
At their table-for-two, she found Kissuni weeping.
Good-bye? No more rendezvous at The Sweet Place Bakery? Granted, it had been awhile since they met, but Hanhee took comfort in knowing Kissuni would wait for her forever, if need be. Up here was heaven; down there could be hell. By now, Joe had left her, and she had a new life. But of course Kissuni already knew that.
“It’s been two years, Hanhee.”
“I’ve… been busy.”
As if she had an engagement elsewhere, Kissuni fluffed out her hair for a fuller bouffant. “And meanwhile I’m supposed to sit around and wait for the juicy details of your life to unfold?”
With profuse apology, Hanhee took her hand, squeezed it. “I’m so sorry, Kissuni. It’s not fair you were cheated out of life!”
“The truth is you don’t need me anymore, Hanhee.” Her voice dipped to a whisper. “And I couldn’t be happier for you.”
“But, Kissuni, what about you?”
“What about me? I’m as dead as all my brothers.”
Hanhee’s sigh was crippling. Oma, it was true, it was true, it was true – damn it! “Kissuni, will you tell me how your fourth brother died?”
“Like you and me, he survived the war – the bombs, the hunger, the disease – but in a cruel twist of fate, soon afterwards he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side. He couldn’t speak without difficulty or eat without help. He drooled all day and his wife, that homely flat-faced witch, despised him for that. Unbeknownst to me, she took off one day with their two sons, leaving him to fend for himself. Weeks later, I found him – decomposing.”
Kissuni’s nod was grim. “Yes.”
If Hanhee didn’t ask now, she would never know: “Whatever happened to your fifth and final brother?”
“I will save that story for when we meet again. And guess what?”
“By then all the sadness will be gone. We’ll be laughing together in heaven.”
From every angle that statement both depressed and comforted Hanhee; its image as far off as the furthest constellation: two great friends laughing in heaven. But until then, no more songs? No more Kissuni?
Magically, instead of a Korean delicacy, a fortune cookie appeared on the table.
“Hanhee, is this what I think it is?”
“Yes. Go ahead,” Hanhee urged her. As unbearable as the thought, if indeed this was their last night together, let it end on a good note. “Read your fortune, Kissuni. Please.”
Like an obedient schoolgirl, Kissuni cracked open the cookie and retrieved the slip of paper on which the future was inked. As she read it, tragedy crossed her face like a beautiful stark-white moon. “This is your fortune, not mine, Hanhee.”
“Why? What does it say?”
“Your life is going to be wonderful.”
Frances Park is the author or co-author of ten novels, memoirs, and children’s books highly praised by The Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, NPR, Radio Free Asia, and Voice of America. Her titles include To Swim Across the World (Hyperion), My Freedom Trip: A Child’s Escape from North Korea (Boyds Mills Press) and Good-bye, 382 Shin Dang Dong (National Geographic Books). Her forthcoming memoir THAT LONELY SPELL: Stories of Family, Friends & Love (Heliotrope Books 2022) deals with love and loss against the backdrop of her unique Korean American experience.