A Temporary Marriage
Three years after her ex-husband and their daughter, Yuri, disappeared to California, Mrs. Shin designed clothes by day and sold handprinted scarves by night to save the necessary sum of money to depart Seoul and come to America. In order to find her daughter, she had assented to move into a stranger's two-bedroom condo on the fringes of Culver City - like two apartments! They would share the common space, nothing more. That had been the agreement.
But now that she had arrived, she saw that the living arrangements could be dangerous. The duplex was hot and cramped inside: a thready chintz sofa, the display cabinets heavy with souvenirs, the cumbersome oak table stained with the marks of sweating glasses, all seemed to touch one another. The kitchen faced the living room, and the living room, Mr. Rhee's bedroom. If he leaves the door open, she thought, we will see each other each time I look up from the cutting board. The lamp that Mr. Rhee switched on cast more shadows than light.
"Welcome to your new home." As Mr. Rhee spoke, his hands fluttered skittishly, batting at the air as if there were invisible mosquitoes. "Well, not really so new, but everything works well, well enough."
"Yes, it is a new home for me, isn't it?"
She did not want to look at him, understanding that she was aware of him as a man, and that gave him an immediate advantage over her. But she found herself looking. He was gangly and quick like a badminton player, unlike her ponderously built, strong ex-husband, and she disliked her disappointment. His doughy eyelids and sagging cheeks wore more sadness than she approved of, aging his face beyond his fifty years; his baggy peppermint-striped sweatpants smelled like a hospital gown and telegraphed his recent misfortunes. Even after the shame of her husband's departure five years ago, she had behaved like the fashion designer she was: she had never sanctioned mix-matching her bras and panties or privileged anyone to see her without an Hermès silk scarf, all efforts that gave her the appearance of confidence. Even after she lost her daughter, she had not allowed herself public displays of grief.
"I've left you the large room upstairs," he said. "I don't need a lot of space."
Mrs. Shin thanked him, all the time wondering if he was as innocuous as he looked.
"Well, shouldn't we document this - predicament?" she asked.
They needed photos to authenticate their engagement, then their marriage, to immigration.
"Predicament?" he said. "Well, yes, I suppose that's what it is."
She tolerated Mr. Rhee's arm around her shoulder, his parched white hair like the roots of spring onions, the dry-cleaning chemicals on his plaid shirt - a professional hazard of running Pearl Express, a dry-cleaning business. His garlicky breath scraped her nose. He, too, must have endured her stale travel smells.
After he set up his camera on the living room table, they both forced a smile until the timer clicked, the shutter snapped back, and she drew away. He continued to gaze. She said into the silence, "Is there a rice grain on my nose?"
She had chosen not to marry some lonely Korean widower in America the old-fashioned picture bride way. The K-fiancée visa, and the next step, the marriage visa, had cost her a tidy sum precisely so he would not confuse this "predicament" for love.
"You have such young skin," he said, admiring her smooth, round face, her eyes the shape of plumped kidney beans.
She said, "I'm not looking for a real husband. I thought that was clear."
She was tired and frightened, so her words clicked like stilettos on tile.
She added, "I prefer a world without men."
"Don't worry," he said, blushing, twisting bunches of his hair with his hand. "I live for my boys. If you had children, you would know what I mean."
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Drifting House by Krys Lee. Copyright © 2012 by Krys Lee.
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