By Caroline Kim
“Look, here’s one that’s half black, half white.” My daughter shows me one of my hairs on her finger. It’s trembling — the hair, not her finger. “I thought they grew in white from the start, not turned white, like someone afraid.”
I laugh. I’m lucky I have a daughter who makes me laugh. Even if she lives half a world away, even if I worry all the time that she’ll kill herself.
“Don’t go back,” I tell her. “Move in with me.” She’s sitting on the back of my chair in order to get a better purchase to pull out my white hairs. I told her at lunch I used to do this for my father. He was so vain about getting old. Now I reach out and caress her knee, look down at her feet where she badly needs a pedicure.
I blame myself for her rootlessness. She’s the product of a Korean mother and a German Jewish father with two sets of grandparents who fled a war. One before, one after. I thought she was removed from war but with her it’s scarier, it’s all internal.
She has one more week before she goes back to Seoul to continue teaching English to rich Koreans.
“I bet my Korean is better than yours,” she says.
“No fair,” I say. “I left when I was six. I’ll forever speak like a six year old.”
“It’s in your bones, though. It lives in your cells. I bet if you really had to, like if your life depended on it, Korean would come back to you.”
I wonder if that’s true. Wouldn’t that be nice? That the things we learn get imprinted on us physically, that even if we can’t access it, it lives within us?
“I like the sound of that,” I say. I rarely ask my daughter about the things I really want to know. Why does she want to hurt herself? Why does she want to die? I hate that I’ve thought about what it might feel like after, to be daughter-less. I hate knowing that I’d go on. It makes me feel like a monster.
“Are you thinking about it though? About coming back? You can’t live in Korea forev-er.”
She’s placing my hairs neatly on a tissue. It reminds me of seaweed set out in the sun to dry. There. A memory I didn’t know I had. With it comes a salty taste in my mouth — chewing on dry seaweed and dried cuttlefish. Doing that could keep hunger at bay for hours. My mother called it “fooling the stomach.”
“It won’t be forever. Another year or so. Then I’ll go to grad school.”
She knows what I want to hear so I can’t trust her. “In what?”
I feel her shrugging behind me. I wish I could look at her face but the feel of her fingers pulling at my scalp is something I don’t want to interrupt. I savor it, print it on my cells.
“Maybe I’ll become a therapist.”
“Listen to other people’s problems all day?”
“It’s good,” I say. “I think you’ll be good at it.”
“Because you care about people. You’re empathetic.”
“And because you’ve had a lot of experience with them.”
Through the opened sliding glass doors I see a hummingbird hovering near a rose bush. It darts from here to there like it can’t make up its mind what it wants.
“Do you . . . do you still want to hurt yourself?”
“Sure.” She sounds so cavalier, it makes me angry. It’s not just her life. It’s mine. She’s mine.
“But I don’t act on it. Anymore.”
“How do you stop yourself?”
“I distract myself. I live for the next moment. In the next moment I may feel differently.”
“And that works?”
She pulls on my shoulders, turns me around so I can see her face.
“I’m here, right?”
“You are,” I say. Her beauty surprises me every time.
“I think about you,” she says. “I think about how sad you’d be, and how you’d blame yourself even though it wouldn’t have anything to do with you.”
“I would,” I growl. “I’d never forgive myself.”
“But you can’t live for other people, you know.”
“Why not? People do it all the time.”
She laughs. “That’s true. But are they happy?”
“Happy?” I snort. I grew up with immigrant parents. Happy was too far up the food chain. Not that we were never happy, but that it was always a surprise.
“Yeah, I notice it’s not as big a thing in Korea. Not as much as duty and getting along. I don’t know. I’m somewhere in between.” She laughs again. “Makes sense, right? I was born in between, half this, half that.”
“I’ve always hated that. Why half? Why not a whole something new?”
“It’s a tribe thing. People always want to know what tribe you belong to.”
“How about the tribe of the human race?”
“Oh, mom, you’ve always been a dreamer.”
My daughter, the realist. My daughter, whose favorite food is popcorn, who gave away her allowance to the first homeless woman she saw when we took the train into the city, who in-sisted on riding her bike to school before I was ready, who was too shy to correct people when they mispronounced her name, who was raped by a friend, who cut herself when she couldn’t take the pain.
I want to fold her inside me, I want to keep her forever, I want her to marry and have children, a daughter who will pluck her white hairs and make her laugh. Sometimes at night I wake in a panic and can’t remember her face. I scroll through my phone, the blue light harsh in my eyes and stare at her pictures, willing her to live.
“I’m not afraid,” she says. “I’m not afraid of anything.”