by Frank Ko
The street names up Vermont Avenue are numerical, decreasing accordingly: 9th, then 8th, and so on, all recognizable and universal, until a large street with foreign characters comes into view. The bus driver calls it out every time, so Mrs. Nam knows how to pronounce it: Wilshire. She cannot read it, though. She gets off at this stop with her son, Jino, who hangs onto her like a monkey off a branch. He is three, but he’s growing up faster than the days pass. There is not enough space where they are living now. In fact, it’s not their own apartment; it belongs to a friend, who still has unopened boxes in the living room where Mrs. Nam and her son sleep. Not a place for a growing boy or for a family of three. Mrs. Nam is married but her husband can’t be with her today. That is why she is looking for an apartment by herself. A two-bedroom apartment is ideal, but one large bedroom would do for now, as long as there is room for everything. She can buy a couch that folds out into a comfortable bed.
Yesterday, Mrs. Nam looked at an apartment south of Olympic Boulevard. The friend that she’s staying with accompanied her. Even from the outside Mrs. Nam knew she didn’t want it. To her friend she pointed at the steel bars on the windows. They’re for safety, her friend told her, but Mrs. Nam felt vulnerable looking at them. If the neighborhood’s safe, why would you need those bars? she thought. She never went inside. The rent, however, was very affordable.
There are many other places to look at, the ladies that she works with at the restaurant told her. They all wrote down addresses and phone numbers of apartments owned or managed by a friend of a relative of a friend. They sketched sparse grids of streets that seemed identical upside down or right-side up. Right now she is staring at the makeshift map. The journey laid out before her overwhelms her. It’s a chore, like motherhood can be sometimes. But she has to go on this apartment hunt just as she has been going on with her new life in California for the past couple of months. She studies the foreign street names she jotted down last night when she was taking notes on the cold, wooden living room floor, several guide maps of Koreatown sprawled around her. The directive notes she scribbled on the side are pointless without a sense of direction.
The sounds of car horns and rattling buses envelop her. Her son, whose hand she folds into hers, points at a helicopter whirling above. He tugs her arm and says something inaudible. Mrs. Nam focuses on the map: 525 South Westmoreland Avenue. She walks eastward, carving each character into her mind.
Don’t ever move east of Vermont, one of the ladies at the restaurant told her. The closer you are to downtown, the uglier. Two blocks east of Vermont is hardly downtown, but Mrs. Nam isn’t thinking about this. She’s standing in the hallway of a building she does not like. She doesn’t hate it, either. The floor is a rich chocolate brown, but it creaks with every step. The noise reminds her of the murmuring spirits from old folklore her grandmother used to tell.
The manager is a fidgety man. He fumbles with the keys and nudges the door open. When the three of them step in, the floor beneath their soles orchestrates a dirge. Mrs. Nam scans the musty living room. She notices the low, large window. But little sunlight comes through.
“Take a look around,” the man says, standing by the door.
Mrs. Nam doesn’t want to, but she feels obligated to seem interested. She and Jino explore the rest of the unit: the kitchen, the single bathroom. There is no bedroom.
“It’s a studio,” the man tells her.
“Oh, I see.”
“It’s big enough for you and your son.”
She nods slightly. Her first apartment with her husband was merely a squarish room, located outside of Seoul and much smaller than this studio. There were many times when her son, an infant then, would start crying for attention in the middle of the night. Mrs. Nam would wake up and hear him bawling, but she’d lie unwavering beneath the covers and stare at the ceiling in the dark. When she finally got up from her traditional floor mattress to check on Jino, she’d always snub her toe against a chair or stumble over the baby’s things. Sometimes she’d accidentally kick the crib, and he’d cry harder. Sometimes he wouldn’t stop. She’d be so tired and defeated that she’d start crying and screaming at Jino or at her husband who was never home, who was always working or drinking with colleagues, and both Mrs. Nam and Jino would continue howling through the night until one of them tired. Eventually, her husband relented and provided her with what she asked for, a bigger space, because that was his lot in life. The second apartment was roomier, she realized, due to a void: she lacked a husband to complete the family trinity. He was never there. That will never change, she tells herself nowadays. This studio is larger than those first and second apartments, larger than her friend’s living room, yet she is doing it again, wishing for more.
Mrs. Nam walks around the unit. Something feels wrong. She pauses to listen. She can hear her own palpitations. What else would she hear? Jino runs his hand along the wall. He reaches for the closet doorknob and twists it several times. The door is resistant. Mrs. Nam sees his body practically hanging from his curious hands that are trying to jiggle the door open. She senses the door’s defiance, as if the reason it’s closed is because of something ominous waiting on the other side, hungry for young blood. She immediately runs over to her son and yells out Jino-yah! She grabs his hand and pulls him away.
“There is no parking,” the man says.
Mrs. Nam isn’t listening. She wants to leave. She says, Thank you, bows stiffly, and forces Jino to do the same. She leaves without an application and wanders west toward the Wilshire-Vermont bus stop, toward the sunlight.
The bus is full of men and women. It always is in the afternoons. Only late at night it’s full of men in soiled blue jeans and oversized sweaters. They sit with their arms crossed. Sometimes, they nod off. Mrs. Nam works late too, so she often rides with the tired men. Their fatigue hangs over her. She feels it on her shoulders because she knows the weight of it. Usually, the sleepy and tired are Hispanic men, the familiar men she sees hanging around the streets, always waiting for something, just smiling and laughing and chatting away. She used to think they were lazy or homeless, until one day she saw them storming after a U-Haul that rounded a corner. They were yelling things she didn’t comprehend, their faces grave. These men weren’t idly passing time on the streets; they were able workers seeking opportunities.
At the moment, Mrs. Nam is observing the solemn faces of the men on the bus. She sees her husband in them. She sees her husband running after trucks that pull into parking lots. She sees him kneeling on the street, having a cigarette as the sun sets and the prospect of a day’s work becomes dimmer. She sees him slumped over like the men around her. All men are the same when they are tired: overgrown infants that need to be cradled.
The second apartment Mrs. Nam looks at has a bedroom, and it’s west of Normandie on Serrano and 7th. The floor doesn’t creak, mainly because it’s carpeted. There is sunlight in the living room. The walls absorb and emit warmth. Even the old woman who is showing the apartment has a warm face.
“How much is the rent?” Mrs. Nam asks.
“It’s a thousand per month. Water’s included. No parking,” the old woman says.
“I don’t drive.”
“Just you two?” She smiles at Jino.
“No, there are three of us.”
“Where is your husband?”
Mrs. Nam tells her that he is working. She doesn’t mention that he’s in Texas working as a short order cook at a Chinese restaurant—or is he now doing construction? She wants to maintain the image of an inseparable, grounded unit. The old woman nods. She urges Mrs. Nam to walk around.
The windows aren’t high or big at all, nor are they romantically carved and framed like the ones belonging to the mansions on the west side of Wilton Place. West is good, one of the ladies at the restaurant said. But don’t go beyond Wilton—no, west of Wilton is very safe but very expensive.
Mrs. Nam remembers this to be true. The first day she arrived in Los Angeles, her friend and the friend’s husband gave her a quick tour of the surrounding areas of Koreatown. The east side was decrepit. She didn’t see what was so grand about old, disheveled hotels. But once past Wilton on 6th Street, she noticed the expansive manicured lawns and the two-story mansions row after row. As she stared out at the windows of the mansions, Mrs. Nam became curious about what the interior of an American house looked like. Probably full of Italian furniture, she thought.
Jino is running around in the bedroom closet. There is also another one in the living room. This is good. One can never have enough storage space. But Mrs. Nam surveys the kitchen, disappointed. It’s narrow; there isn’t enough room for a dining table. Where would we eat as a family? she thinks. She opens the cabinets and notices a layer of dust.
A loud, urgent noise interrupts her inspection. Mrs. Nam stands still and listens. Someone is yelling at the top of her lungs. Guttural at first, but the sound evaporates into a shrill pitch before it ceases and then starts again. It’s not a cry for help. It’s just a cry, and it’s coming from above and through the thin walls. Mrs. Nam is jolted back into motion, her legs carrying her body out of the kitchen, to the bedroom, where Jino is staring at the ceiling. She grabs him and rushes out to the living room. The old woman is looking up also. She glances at the two of them.
“Don’t mind the lady upstairs,” the old woman says. “Her husband left her recently. It wasn’t a happy marriage.”
“Is she all right?”
“She’s probably been drinking.” There is a final howl, then silence. “She just needed to let out her demons.”
Before leaving, Mrs. Nam asks for an application but doesn’t ask any follow-up questions. While walking toward the bus stop, she imagines standing in that kitchen, hearing that scream again. Over and over. Painful, yet familiar. How many families have fallen apart in that small, narrow kitchen? There’s no dining area, that’s why, she thinks.
On the bus, she folds the application and is about to put it away in her purse when Jino tells her that he wants to make a paper airplane.
Her husband left California five weeks ago, only two months after Mrs. Nam and Jino left Seoul to rejoin him in Los Angeles. He left to work in Texas, where a friend of a friend was able to get him several jobs. Odd jobs. Some days he put up drywall, other days he drove a truck, picking up workers along the streets. He had even worked as a cook for a short time. Mrs. Nam only knows that he is working. Every Tuesday, she gets a package from him in the mail. Recently, he sent Jino a model airplane kit with a note promising that they will build it together once he’s back in California.
Mrs. Nam knows that his back aches and his hands are sore, even though he never admits to having physical pain. Perhaps that is why her own shoulders ache and are heavy sometimes because she senses what he endures. She knows he is hurting because previously he never had to lift bags of cement mix on his shoulders. Back in Seoul, he had an office job at an insurance company. He wore crisp button-down shirts and ties, many of which she had purchased. This was before the Asian economy soured, and the company collapsed. They used up most of the money they had saved. They had a third mouth to feed, a third wheel who needed everything he couldn’t ask for.
The ladies Mrs. Nam works with can relate to a new and lonely start. They all endured the months or years of marriage through weekly phone calls. These women are part of an older generation that, like Mrs. Nam, had come to California for financial reasons. Although she is part of the next wave, the generation with more opportunities, Mrs. Nam is not as fortunate as the ones who are proficient in English and have moved to the U.S. because of a salary-based job.
“It will be difficult,” one of them told her. “But that’s life.”
“My son is an engineer,” another chimed in. “He makes good money. Ever since my husband died, I’ve been living with him and his wife in a nice condo.”
“It’s good to have a son,” they all agreed.
The previous generation knows there is pressure on Jino, but at the moment on the bus, he is content with his paper airplane. Mrs. Nam gazes at him as he waves his plane around. In couple of years he will begin his American education. He’ll learn basic English and parrot random phrases, like, “Naughty Elephants Squirt Water,” a mnemonic taught to schoolchildren about the cardinal points of geography. Eventually, he’ll surpass her and her husband. He’ll graduate from an American college and become successful. Make money, get married, have kids. His lot in life.
She continues gazing at her son the way she used to when he was an infant. Momentarily, his presence soothes her.
Mrs. Nam and Jino are walking westbound on 4th Street to look at another apartment. To the north she sees the green hills against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. For a mid-November day, the weather is mild. She likes it. It’s the only positive thing about living in Los Angeles. Eventually, she wants to get out of the city and see the rest of California. Her husband promised to take her to Palm Springs to a hot spring resort once he gets back and they are settled in their new apartment. He’s promised many things in the past few weeks, most likely using these promises as a device to maneuver away from talking about Mrs. Nam’s growing unease. The last time Mrs. Nam talked to her husband, she yelled at him, releasing her demons out of her body. It was late at night, and she had come home to her friend’s living room and collapsed on the couch, which felt harder than the wooden floor. Jino was asleep already on a cot. She picked up the phone and dialed. She hadn’t spoken to her husband in weeks. He was half-awake when he answered.
“Don’t ignore me,” Mrs. Nam said.
“It will only be a few more months.”
“Jino’s father, please—”
“It’s late. Get some rest.”
“Listen to me—”
Before he could hang up, she said: “If only you could feel what I feel, you’d understand.”
There was a pause. Mrs. Nam had the opportunity to hang up, to let her words ferment in his mind until their next conversation. But she didn’t seize it. She pressed her ear to the phone and listened to him breathe. As if he were next to her.
“If only you could go through what I go through,” he began, “you’d understand.” He repeated the words once more before the line went dead.
Reflecting back on that night, Mrs. Nam remembers lying on the stale couch, unable to sleep. She wanted to say that she missed her old apartment that belonged to her and that she hated being alone in California, but she didn’t know exactly how much of what she felt was pure discontent and how much was ill will. As she pulled the covers to her chin, her back succumbing to the rigid, uneven springs of the couch, Mrs. Nam had an epiphany: she had come to California for a change, and she was sleeping on it, and it was hard as a rock.
Mrs. Nam has looked at another unit. It’s perfect. The floor doesn’t creak, the ceiling doesn’t weep, and there is enough sunlight. The kitchen is roomy enough for a circular table for three. It has two bedrooms. She likes the new smell of the prospective apartment. It’s on St. Andrew’s Place and 4th Street, farther north (but not above Beverly Boulevard) and west of where she is staying now. But west is good.
The manager of the apartment is Ms. Kim. She never smiles, not even at Jino. She is dressed in a grey suit and is heavily made-up. Mrs. Nam can’t guess how old she is. Mrs. Nam is in her early thirties, but she looks older, even older than Ms. Kim.
“So, you liked the unit?”
“It’s very lovely.”
Ms. Kim hands her an application and continues talking about some of the amenities. The price is fair, $1,200. She imagines the white lacquered cabinets in the kitchen. Enough space for her own dishes. The manager mentions that the deposit depends on the credit history. Ms. Nam has none. She hesitates before informing Ms. Kim of this.
“How about your husband?” the manager asks. She looks over at Jino, then at Mrs. Nam and adds: “Or you can get a co-signer.”
Mrs. Nam feels the weight on her shoulders, but this apartment is too perfect to let go. She will make it work somehow.
As the two women talk about the lease, Jino becomes restless and jumps off his chair. From the corner of her eye, Mrs. Nam sees him galloping around, making engine noises. She is both listening to the manager and observing her son in his frenzy. She calls out to him twice, interrupting Ms. Kim in the middle of her thought. He runs back and forth, ignoring Mrs. Nam. He stomps his feet on the spotless carpet, lifts up his paper airplane and swooshes it down, until he knocks over a potted plant. The manager yells, Careful! but it’s too late. Mrs. Nam is already on her knees picking up the dirt with her bare hands.
“I’m very sorry,” Mrs. Nam says, bowing as she scoops up a handful.
Ms. Kim only says, “Keep an eye on your child.”
Five minutes later, they are back on the street. That last thing Ms. Kim said to her echoes in her mind. Even if her application is approved, her security deposit would be doubled because of what she lacks. She walks quickly, her face hot, even against the slight breeze. She tells Jino how he shouldn’t misbehave, how he should respect other people’s properties. She tells him he is bad. He makes a face, a pinched expression. She doesn’t look at him.
They walk to the nearest bus stop on Western. The walk back seems longer, the hills less vividly green. Just as she turns the corner, the bus at the stop closes its doors and departs. She runs after it, dragging Jino along. She waves frantically with her free arm and yells Stop! in English, but it rattles away. She stands amid the noise of Western Avenue.
The ladies she works with told her this:
Don’t move north of Beverly because you’ll be among strangers.
Don’t move east of Vermont because the apartments are ugly and dirty.
Don’t move south of Olympic because it’s dangerous.
Don’t move west of Wilton because the rent is expensive.
This is the mantra Mrs. Nam is marching to as the sunlight begins to slide down the right side of her face.
After waiting for another bus for fifteen minutes, Mrs. Nam decides to walk. She heads south on Western with Jino holding onto her hand. She pushes onward but feels his weight on her thin wrist.
“Hurry, hurry,” she says as they rush through the crosswalk, the signal counting down from nine. She has one more place to see before she has to go to work. She wants to look at as many as she can today. There may be a perfect apartment somewhere.
Jino groans. He tells Mrs. Nam that his feet hurt. His laces are untied. He wants to be carried, but Mrs. Nam half-listens. She focuses on the map while her body navigates around other pedestrians. She only tells him to stop whining. He can barely keep up with her pace. He’s tiptoeing, practically air-born like his paper plane, which flies out of his hand.
When she no longer feels the pull of his weight, she cranes her neck around. He’s slipped out of her grip and is now running after the airplane that’s flying toward the middle of Western Avenue. She shifts her body to run as he enters into traffic. People remain planted where they are. Some point, some yell, but no one chases after her son. His arms are stretched out reaching for the plane, as are her arms for him. She can’t get to him quickly enough. He’s too fast, or her legs are stunted and confused about the sudden change of direction. She sees a car approach. She opens her mouth, but her throat gasps air, not his name. Where is everyone else? She pushes her torso forward while her legs kick and flounder like a newborn’s. The car isn’t slowing, and neither is Mrs Nam, whose stomach tightens like her calf muscles. She’ll dive in front of the car if she has to. Her eyes are wide open. She dares not close them now; she dares not look away ever again. In the last critical second, the car swerves around Jino as he bends over, the airplane triumphantly snatched between his fingers. Her arms devour him when she finally reaches him. She doesn’t stop—she won’t. With Jino in her embrace, she reverses her heaving momentum and catapults back onto the sidewalk, her knees rubbery, her muscles strained.
“Why are you acting stupid? Why?” she shouts, kneeling before him, gripping his elbows. Her face is red.
Before he can show his triumph—the airplane in his hand—she slaps the back of his thigh twice and demands shrilly once more: “Why? Why?” She shakes him and hits him again. “I’m going crazy to death,” she says, “because of you—crazy to death!”
Both are screaming over the noise on Western, one in tears, the other possessed. Everyone is looking. No one asks if everything is all right because this scene is familiar: a child being a child, a mother being scared.
Her neck is moist. Mrs. Nam is carrying Jino on her back, her jacket wrapped around him and tied to her waist, since his legs are wobbly. She carries him as she had during those nights when he was an infant. He’s heavier now, but at least she can take normal strides. His arms criss-cross and hang off her shoulders, the nape of her neck pillowing his face. His cheek is slick and warm.
It’s the best I can do right now, she tells herself. Continue apartment hunting. It isn’t the only thing she can do: she can give up and retreat to her friend’s living room. She can sit on the sofa or lie still, but the last thing she wants is time to herself. Thinking leads her back to the same place—nowhere. Nothing will get done if she is immobilized. There will be nowhere to call home. So she doesn’t look back, just marches on, as if what happened moments ago never had.
She knows where she is, but she doesn’t know where to go. She stands still on 7th between two perpendicular streets, Gramercy Drive and Gramercy Place. The address one of the ladies jotted down is no help because neither Dr nor Pl is noted. But the actual problem is that the number is incorrect: 739 is nowhere to be found. A hot, heavy sensation springs up against Mrs. Nam’s spine, constricting her torso and neck. Today hasn’t been productive. Miles walked without an apartment found. Not even a prospect. Nothing to relay to the ladies, who will interrogate. And what will she tell her husband? Jino shifts his head. The tingly coolness of his other cheek pushes down on the coiling heat. Mrs. Nam stares at the buildings on the immediate corners of Drive and Place. She inhales and exhales again and makes her way back to Western Avenue.
Jino almost died—that’s what Mrs. Nam can say to her husband and the ladies. No, Jino almost got hit by a car. The latter doesn’t sound any better than the former. Neither is something good. Neither evokes sympathy. A tsk-tsk pity from the ladies and from her husband a loud reprimand or a loud silence. It just happened is no excuse. Aren’t you his mother?
She has set her son down and is holding his hand as they wait for the bus on 7th and Western. The front bumper spared them a few inches. At the time she was too shaken to do anything other than ensure that he was conscious. His eyes were open; he didn’t even cry. By bedtime, he will have forgotten today’s ordeal.
From the bus stop, she can see the site of the incident. The light on Western and Wilshire turns green, and traffic heads southbound in a scattered rush. She listens to the tires rolling over potholes and road reflectors as the cars rush through before the light turns red. Mrs. Nam squints. The faint silhouettes of a boy and a woman emerges from the headlights of an approaching car. The woman’s legs jerk like they’re about to snap off. Before she can reach him, the silhouettes and the speeding car disappear. Mrs. Nam blinks. Instead, the woman is on the sidewalk, kneeling in front of the boy, a wild look on her face. She’s shaking and smacking him, and he makes that expression. Mrs. Nam closes her eyes completely, but the afterimage burns through her eyelids.
Jino hasn’t made a single sound since the incident. He is holding onto her hand and his airplane. He looks straight ahead. Mrs. Nam wants to say something, but what can she say? He’s stoic, like his father, she thinks. Struggling to find the right words, she chooses: “Are you hungry?”
He doesn’t respond.
“What should we eat? Anything you want.” She squeezes his hand.
He finally looks up at her, blank-faced. His airplane points at the golden arches behind them. Normally, she wouldn’t feed him junk food, but she doesn’t want to end the day like this.
The fluorescent light is bright, and the smell of frying oil clings to Mrs. Nam’s clothes. They are sitting at a table at McDonald’s. He must be hungry because he hasn’t eaten anything since early afternoon. She has ordered a Happy Meal for him, nothing for herself. Mrs. Nam may be void of a husband at the moment, but she knows the absence can be much larger. A life without her husband she can live—I’m living it right now, she tells herself—but a life without her son? She shakes her head.
On Western Avenue, after the incident, after her heart stopped pounding and her hands stopped trembling, Mrs. Nam felt the same exhaustion from years ago during the screaming battles with Jino. During those nights, after the frustration subsided and her cheeks paled, she would gaze down at him until he quieted. She’d forget why she was shouting at her son, who was only calling out to her. She would put him back in his crib and observe his small, calm face.
Mrs. Nam notices the crust forming around her son’s nostril. She takes a napkin and swipes his runny nose. Jino is too busy savoring a sour pickle to notice her stealing one of his golden fries. She puts it in her mouth and chews pensively, as if it’s her first fry. It tastes different. Since she has spent the past hour acknowledging her faults, she admits as well how good fried potatoes are in Los Angeles.
From where Mrs. Nam sits on the bus, the sun is a thumbnail-distance away from the horizon. Jino is asleep. There are mostly women and children on this bus. No one speaks or cries.
She stares at the westbound traffic, all those people in their cars heading toward their mansions. Mrs. Nam shifts her eyes onto the creased piece of paper she’s been carrying around with her all day. The makeshift map with her notes. The streets of Koreatown confined to lines, matrices, and the four cardinal points: north, east, south, west. The ancient Chinese would say there is a fifth point, the center, which Mrs. Nam doesn’t recognize on her map. She believes in a sixth: the point where she is. She is not located anywhere on paper. She isn’t anywhere describable or tangible. She only knows she is heading east on Olympic Boulevard toward her friend’s cramped living room, that impossible couch.
Jino has his hand around Mrs. Nam’s thumb. She holds onto it. They’ve had a long day. She has one more thought in mind, this time about the immediate aftermath: the moment she grabbed Jino from the street was the moment she felt her heart beat against her ribs, not because of adrenaline but, for the first time in a long time, because of relief. That relief, brief and undetected, is now a permanent part of her. It has turned into physical sensations: the aching of her legs and arms. Her whole body is taut. She hopes her husband can feel her pain in his shoulders and knees right now. She hopes he will feel it continuously, because tomorrow she will be back on this bus and other buses. During the miles she will walk to wherever she needs to go, her feet will hurt because of the distance she walked and ran today. Tomorrow she will be less apologetic and ask more questions and have fewer qualms. But tonight, before going to work, she will call her husband and tell him what she’s endured.
What “Cardinal Points” doesn’t say, about Mrs. Nam’s search for a place she can afford (metaphysically as well as economically), is touching and absorbing. Ko writes with care and economy, and his story rewards a careful reading."
—C. Michael Curtis