Post Road Magazine #21

Touch

Eson Kim

During one of our church picnics, I stood by the field and watched some of the high school kids play Ultimate Frisbee. I admired the way they could catch and release so quickly, their precise wrist-snaps slicing the disc across the field. They would not let any of the younger kids join in. The game was too fast, too rough.

In my case, they had an excellent point. I seldom emerged from such games without injury. I was small for an eight-year-old, and I also had an inflated sense of my own speed and skill. My intentions were good, but I lacked even the most basic athletic ability. A key player usually ended up carrying me off the field in search of an ice bag. Although I never admitted it at the time, the sidelines were probably where I belonged.

I consoled myself by sitting among the coolers and drinking through an entire liter of grape soda. Deep purple rings stained the inside of my Styrofoam cup. As I reached into the cooler for more ice, I felt a slight tap on my shoulder. I turned and saw Anna, the new girl at church, standing next to me, holding out a fresh pack of sugar wafers. She didn't say hello and didn't introduce herself. She merely made her offering and waited.

I'd seen Anna a few times before, sitting alone on the cement steps of the rectory, daintily eating through a bag of crackers or a packet of sugar wafers—my favorite snack. Although it was the middle of summer, she always wore long-sleeved shirts and dark jeans. Her short-cropped hair and blunt bangs would have looked boyish on other girls. But her face was soft and feminine like the elves and fairies featured in my third-grade story books.

She must have caught me staring wistfully at the wafers at some point, and it was a little embarrassing to have my envy exposed in such a way. But I tentatively took the cookie pack, and before I thought to thank her, she had walked away as quietly as she'd appeared. Judging from her light touch and soft step, she probably weighed half as much as I did, even though she was only about a year or two younger. I watched her walk down the path and noticed that she took narrow strides and had a slight limp on her right side, something that should have made her clomp rather than float.

I ate the entire pack of wafers, one by one, watching the ants in the grass carry away the crumbs. And later I overcame my usual shyness to seek her out at the playground, where I joined her at the swings and the see-saw. We were inseparable for the rest of the year. She was extremely affectionate, holding my hand and looping her arm around mine at every opportunity. And although she was often hot in long sleeves and long pants, her hands always felt cool to the touch. She called me "Big Sister" in Korean. No one had ever called me that before. I was used to being the youngest, the one who was ordered around and told what to do. She made me feel grown up.

Despite Anna's excessive kindness and ever-positive mood, no one else played with her. I watched the other kids stare, but they seldom approached her. People seemed afraid of her frailty, most notably her grandmother who often stood watchful from a distance. I didn't think too hard about it, especially since I enjoyed keeping Anna to myself.

One Sunday afternoon, I persuaded her to ride the playground seesaw with me, promising to go slow. As I watched her straddle the other end of the plank, I noticed how her right leg didn't bend as easily as her left. We went up and down for a few turns, and she loosened up with each round. Instead of gripping the plank with both hands, she started to wave them in the air. On the fifth or sixth decent, Anna lost her balance and rolled back onto the sand pit in a daze. Panicked, I leaped off my end to go help, and her side of the plank dropped onto her right thigh.

For the first time, I saw Anna's serenity break as she cried out and clutched her leg. I hoisted up the plank and she scooted herself over, her small hands trembling. I was confused at the level of pain she seemed to be experiencing since the impact didn't appear severe enough to break any bones or cause more than a bad bruise. But the way she grabbed at her leg and curled up on the sand made the level of agony clear.

Her grandmother wasn't far away, and despite her stooped posture and old age, she ran toward us. Soon, a crowd of concerned mothers gathered around as Anna's grandmother scooped her up and headed to their car. We could hear Anna's steady moaning and sobbing for several minutes, and I wanted to clamp my hand against my ears.

My mother pressed a palm to her chest, as if she was holding something in. I asked, "Is Anna going to come back?"

My mother snapped to attention and dragged me by the arm to the back of one of the buildings. Before we were completely out of sight, she began hitting me on the backs of my thighs. She shouted that I had been careless and irresponsible. I played too rough. As the older child, I should have known better.

"What did I do?" I kept asking, as her hand whipped across my legs, leaving red lines. "What happened?"

My godmother came around the corner and called out in Korean, "She doesn't know, Sister. Please calm down. How could she know?"

My mother stopped and straightened up. She pointed at me, and asked in Korean, "Will you be more careful from now on? Will you be more mindful and not act rough like some wild tomboy?"

"Yes," I said, nodding and crying.

She left me leaning against the stone wall, and she told my godmother to leave me alone to fully consider my wrongdoing. Godmother said she would be right there, and after a polite moment or two, she put her arm around me and handed me a tissue.

"Your friend will return next week," she said. "Do not worry any more about it." She then told me what everyone else already knew.

When Anna was six years old, she spent hours alone at home on weekends while her parents worked. She fended for herself quite well, until the day she tried to cook some instant noodles. The pot of water on the stove tipped over, spilling and splattering boiling water all over her. She was too young and panicked to give herself any kind of first aid. Instead, she hobbled over to the living room and passed out where her parents found her an hour later. When the emergency room doctors removed her pants, a great deal of her skin came off with the fabric. Her right leg had been the most severely damaged. After that, Anna's grandmother traveled from Korea to live with them, so Anna would never be alone again. But it was too late. Anna's wounds and scars had already ruined her marriage prospects. And according to Korean church standards, this was an ultimate pity, especially considering her beauty.

It took weeks for me to feel comfortable around her again. We played board games and walked around the church grounds as usual, but I made a habit of letting her win and pacing my steps to a slow shuffle. On outings, I kept her away from the playground, and while Anna worked hard to rekindle my carefree attitude, I diligently resisted.

One day, she pulled me over to the girls' restroom and asked, "Want to see?"

I knew exactly what she meant. My mouth went dry; I said nothing. But she didn't wait for an answer anyway. In the corner by the sinks, she unbuttoned her jeans and scooted them down. The skin on her right thigh was smooth with an uneven shade of red and pink. One area was covered by a huge, rectangular white bandage that extended from the top of the knee to the base of her hip. She pulled back the gauze, revealing a mottled, uneven swash of skin. The hues looked like the inside of someone's mouth, with specks of green for the veins and some bumpy, shiny patches of red.

"Touch," she said, pulling back the bandage a bit more. I shook my head.

She ran her own fingers up and down the waves of skin, showing that it was a little more resilient and dense than it appeared. Then she took my hand and guided my fingertips along the same route. We eased back and forth across the topography of her scars. And when she let go, I continued exploring on my own. Traveling each raised ridge and groove was like uncovering the intimate story of her wounds.

I remember sitting back on my heels and dropping my hands to the sides as she re-taped her bandage and lifted her pants. I knelt the whole time, thinking to get up only when she walked toward the door and said,

"Let's get some soda. I'm thirsty." Then she unexpectedly sprinted away, daring me to catch her and defying all concerns about her frailty. I caught up in four strides, occasionally running ahead but always making sure never to leave her too far behind.

*

At the end of September, the church celebrated the Autumn Festival—the last grand picnic of the season. The entire day was devoted to community games, and everyone participated, from the very young to the very old. It was one of my favorite times of the year. My parents always won the three-legged race in the parent category. I loved watching them jog down the field in perfect step, leaving behind the other parents who jostled and tripped over one another. Many hushed arguments cropped up after the race, with couples blaming one another for poor balance, rushed timing, and lack of communication. But my parents always came out laughing and patting one another on the back.

Because of the cooler weather Anna could cover up naturally and blend in. I looked forward to having her on my team. I didn't care that we probably wouldn't win because Anna couldn't run very fast.

Before the festival could begin, we had to endure a longer-thanusual Sunday service. At the end of the sermon, I perked up, ready to bolt the minute we said the final prayer. But Father Sung paused to make a special announcement. Anna and her family planned on returning to Korea. Life had been too hard here in America. They wanted to go back home to be near the support of family. Father Sung led the congregation in a prayer of good wishes and safe travels. Instead of joining in, I stared at my hands. I wondered how long everyone knew without bothering to tell me. Anna, of course, must have known in advance that she was leaving, and for this, I couldn't forgive her. Was she going to leave without saying goodbye?

Once the picnic started, I couldn't eat or participate in the games. Dozens of prizes were doled out to first and last place alike. It was Christmas in September, but I wasn't interested.

Anna was the only one who seemed to notice my disgruntled attitude. Everyone else was too busy refereeing games or distributing prizes. She and I were the only two on the sidelines who couldn't or wouldn't play.

We watched as they lined up four rows of children in size order for the grand finale Cookie Race. On the far side of the field, cookies hung from strings attached to clotheslines that swayed in the breeze. The object was to race down the field, bite into a swaying cookie—keeping your hands behind your back—then make your way back to tag the next runner. This was my least favorite game because those late in line had to bite into a cookie already bitten by several other kids—not the cleanest of activities. In past years, I had faked my way through, keeping my lips closed and making exaggerated chewing motions on my way down the field. If the referees ever noticed, they chose not to call my foul.

As the cycles of children looped down and back, it became clear that one of the lines was a child short. A church mother called over to me. I waved her off, shaking my head, but she continued to beckon for me. Somehow, my mother caught my eye and with a hard glare convinced me to take my place in line. Anna followed.

We still didn't know what to say to one another. She simply stood by my side as we inched forward in line. It was almost my turn, and it became clear that my newly appointed team was winning, and I had the anchor leg. I started to worry. Even though I didn't want to participate, I certainly didn't want to disappoint an entire team. And while everyone was guaranteed a prize, the winners always held special bragging rights.

Ruthie, the runner ahead of me, took off, leaving me exposed as the next person in line. Ruthie was the best runner of all the girls, and I knew she would give me a wider lead. In a blink, she was on her way back, pigtails flying behind her. I prepared for my sprint, scoping out the least molested cookies hanging from the line.

Anna clasped my hand in hers. "Can I go with you?" she asked. "We can go together."

"We're not allowed," I said, my eyes set on Ruthie who was speeding toward me.

"They won't mind," she said. "Other people are running with their little sisters."

She was right of course. In general, we weren't sticklers for the rules. The big kids ran with their younger siblings or cousins all the time. If there wasn't a game for the little ones, we found a way to blend them in.

Still feeling bitter, I realized what I was supposed to do. I could send Anna off in a glorious way. Each detail played out so crisply in my mind, every moment unfolding like a checklist that I could follow to make everything right.

She continued to look up at me, waiting to see if we would run together. She held my hand with both of hers, silently hoping. As tightly as she held on, I felt her slipping away, and it made me dizzy and short of breath.

Ruthie was steps away. I yanked my hand free from Anna and raised it high to receive the tag. I blew onto the field, taking long, bold strides. I ran faster than I had ever run before, faster than I needed to. While most of the other kids smiled and giggled their way down the field, I was all business, my hands clenched into fists that pumped through the air like I was boxing through invisible obstacles.

My team's lead was so vast that I could have jogged lightly and still secured victory, but I felt compelled to go faster than I could have with Anna limping alongside.

I finished the first leg and pushed my closed lips against one of the hanging cookies. As I turned around to make my way back, I saw the entire congregation crowded together at the edge of the quad. Halfway back, I scanned the masses but could not distinguish Anna or her grandmother. I slowed down, concentrating harder to pick them out from the throng, but they weren't there. Feeling a squeeze around my chest, I pushed through the last few yards to the finish.

I barely heard the cheers go up at the end of the game and the announcement of my winning team. Instead, I jogged through the cluster of people, past the playground, and into the parking lot. I circled the grounds at least twice, searching for any possible place where Anna might be waiting for me, but of course, she wasn't there. I had missed our goodbye. She was already gone, and the last image she would carry with her was the back of my shirt as I sprinted away.

After several more laps around the complex, I went to the girl's bathroom to splash water on my face until it soaked my bangs and the front of my shirt. Then I sat on the tiled floor beneath the windows until I heard my parents calling for me.

I didn't answer, even when their voices echoed with clipped annoyance. I knew Mom was getting angrier with every passing minute, but I no longer cared. Once she found me, I endured the punishment quietly, while she yelled about how I needed to be more mindful of the difficulty and pain I caused people.

She shook me one last time and asked, "Do you understand? Will you remember for next time?"

Wiping my eyes with my arm, I nodded. Yes, I would remember. Next time.




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