The train to my hometown felt longer than usual. Maybe I find myself in a book or in a case file or simply just sleeping the whole way through, but this time is different. This time, I’m sitting in my seat, bouncing my leg, not knowing how the weekend at my family’s house will turn out. I want to say it will be like any other time; sitting with my mom, Mina, and Lia around the table, eating an amazing home-cooked meal after what seems like decades, laughing, feeling like I’m a little kid again.
But I know it will be different. This time is different.
The bare trees past by as the train goes, the city streets quickly turn into fields covered in snow. With the lack of sleep I had the previous night, I began to doze off in my seat, hoping to give my mind some peace before I see my family.
The light is hitting my face, the sun warming my skin. I opened my eyes slowly, quickly covering my face from the light from my sun. I get up from my bed, throw on my robe, and head on out to the kitchen.
I turn on the coffee machine after preparing the pot. Walking back to my bedroom to grab my phone from the charger, I shove it in my pocket and return back to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee. I place the phone on the counter next to my mug. Pour. Stir. Taste. I lean against the counter and sip on my coffee. I look at my phone and nearly spill the coffee on the counter. A voicemail notification from Grace. I placed the phone against my ear to listen to the message.
“Please come home to me, Jamie.”
I jolted out of my light sleep after the train makes a sudden stop. I look outside, immediately noticing this is my stop. I grabbed my bags and got off the train.
My mother likes to rotate the pictures from the wall every 6 months. The last time I came to visit my mother was a couple of weeks before I left for my business trip to America. Pictures of her grandchildren from Mina, pictures from graduations of her children all posted together in a row. Lia’s accomplishments in photo frames next to the picture taken with her holding said award. Everything would change besides one photo on the wall: the family portrait we took a couple of months before my father passed away. I was still in law school when that picture was taken. Dark hair, thick glasses, sweater vest; and acne. Man, that acne took forever to finally clear up.
This time was no different. New pictures of Mina’s children all grown up, newer accomplishments of Lia’s work, and even a picture of me siting in the middle of both of my sisters from the beginning of last year. Alas, our family portrait, still at the center of the living room, surrounded by the other new pictures.
My mom came into the living room and placed a teapot and a couple of cups on a tray. Mina walked into the house with her two kids. Before I even said hi to Mina, my niece and nephew ran over to me to greet me.
“Uncle Jaeho!” they hug my legs as I stood up, smiling down at them. I really did miss these little beans. Little bean…
Mina came over to hug me. “It’s about time you showed up here!” I smiled at Mina’s banter. She was always the one that tried to keep us all together once our dad passed away.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Lie. I smiled through the interaction. The kids decided to play in the other room while Mina joined me in the living room to catch up. She asked me about my time in America, what I’ve been up to lately, and other things about being back and the people we knew. She told me about the kids, she told me about Lia dating a man that might be the one she ends up marrying. She told me about mom and her new hobbies she had. Sometimes I will guilty for not knowing these things about my family. Sometimes I feel like I’m truly the something that’s missing in that family portrait. I feel more so an outsider looking in than actually being a part of this family.
Shortly after, Mina and I go into the kitchen and help her get dinner together. I help the women carry the heavy dishes onto the dining room table and help clean up whenever the women are done with a certain area of the kitchen. Sooner than later, we all sat down at the dining room table, like a family, like old times.
Mina starts the conversation by asking Mom about something that they clearly spoke about recently. Mina and Lia were always checking up on Mom, and I know Mom doesn’t worry too much about me checking in every now and then, but still, it doesn’t make it feel any less guilty for not belonging.
“Jaeho-ga,” Mina looked at me and spoke. I stepped out of my thought, my attention was immediately on her. “We were thinking about going to visit Jeju Island for the summer, get the family together for one big celebration.” I smiled, attempting to get the attention off of me.
“Yeah, sounds good.” I looked down and continued to eat my food. The women in my family were not pleased with my behavior.
“Ya,” Mina sternly said. I looked up to cock my eyebrow up, unbothered by the tone even though I know she was upset.
“Are you willing to make some time out of your schedule to make it?” Mina always had a way to knowing that I would only be able to do something family related if she guilt-tripped me in front of our mom.
“I will, okay?” I answered back a little bit too annoyed at Mina, in which my mother scolded me for talking back to her like that. 28-years-old and my mom still scolds me like I’m like a child. Some things never change.
The dinner table was quiet once again, something that I got used to every now and then when the women are not talking among each other. This time, Lia asked me a question to break the tension at the dining room table.
“So Jaeho, did you do anything exciting while you were in America?” Lia started up the conversation. She only does that when she feels like there’s tension in between the siblings. She knows she would rather diffuse the tension than our mom catching one and doing it herself.
“I, uhh, went to see the big Christmas tree in New York City.” smiled at the memory, remembering holding Grace’s hand while staring up at all the colorful Christmas lights.
“Oh, like the one in the movies?” Lia asked, intrigued by the thought. It didn’t cross my mind that we only did know about that tree through western Christmas movies we watched when we were kids.
“Yeah, it’s really beautiful up close and in person.” I played around with my food on the pate for a bit, trying to not allow the memory of Grace show on my face. I did not want to have the conversation with my family about how I fell in love with an American girl in the time span of five months. After what felt like forever talking about my time in America, Mina interrupts me. Noona, why.
“So that’s why you didn’t call us to wish us Merry Christmas that day.” I had to think back to what she meant by that. Fuck, the time zones.
“I was quite busy that day running errands and working, it didn’t cross my mind at midnight on Christmas Eve that it was already Christmas Day here.” I was getting annoyed with Mina and how pushy she’s been with me today. Does she know more than I’m leading on?
“I’m sorry that you don’t think of your family on one of the most important holidays of the year,” Mina hissed. I glanced at Lia as she face-palmed to herself. My mother finally chimed in and told Mina that enough was enough. Mina stared at me across the table, visibly upset. Once the table is quiet again, Lia asked me how work has been going for me. From the look on my face, she instantly asks me if I still like doing what I do.
The truth of the matter is I do, but I feel the burnout slowly creeping in me. I’ve been working for 3 years straight; no breaks, no time in between cases. I found myself constantly taking on cases because it was the only thing I felt like I was needed in. My family, to say the least, live a life outside of me. They all keep in touch with each other and carry on with their lives while I’m working or traveling. I love my family, but they make me feel like I don’t exist. I know they would be fine without me here.
“I enjoy traveling, I mean my trip in New York City was really one that–” I stopped myself. You know it was because of Grace. I cleared my throat and drank from my cup. “I like being able to travel. I think I wouldn’t mind living in America for a while, experience life outside of my job. All of the women at the table stopped what they were doing to look up at me.
“Are you being serious?” Lia asked me, concerned present in her face. I can’t lie and say that I didn’t want to go back. The past couple of months, America felt more like home to me than being here has felt in a really long time. Grace made me feel like I belonged in New York City, that I could become a “New Yorker” if I knew all the best places like she did. She included me in her everyday life, coming to my apartment to tell me about her day, her friends and family, almost about everything that made me feel included. Being with her and little bean–little bean–I missed her immensely. I miss her laugh and her crawling around Grace’s apartment on a mission to find anything and everything she could get her hands on. It always stressed Grace out but it made me laugh; I can only imagine this is how Grace was when she was a baby. Like mother, like daughter.
Mina dropped her fork on her plate and excused herself from the table. I watched her walk out of the dining room to the front door, grabbing her jacket in the progress.
“Excuse me for a moment,” I calmly said and got up from the table to grab my coat and meet Mina outside. I walked out to find Mina taking a drag out of a lit cigarette. Noona, what the fuck?
“Mina,” She looks at me and instantly puts out the cigarette. “What’s going on?”
“For you to just say that in front of Mom and Lia without thinking is really baffling. Do you know how selfish that would be?” I looked at Mina; I couldn’t hide the absolute shock I was in hearing Mina say what she said.
“Selfish? Mina, everything I do is for you guys. I do what I do to make mom proud. I come around as much as I can for mom, for Lia, for you and the kids. I do what I do because all I ever did was try to be the best for you guys. How about me? When was the last time I did something for myself?”
It’s true. Everything I’ve done to this point was for my family. Be the best for them, do the best for them. I’m 28-years-old with nothing to show for my accomplishments besides the sleep deprived face I wear on most days. I live my life day-by-day without anything to come home to, anyone to come home to.
Mina finally turns around to face me. “Mom doesn’t have dad anymore. Mom doesn’t have someone to help her do the tough tasks. All that mom deserves is for all of her children to still come and see her, no matter how busy or no matter how much we can’t fit it in our schedules. We do this for mom.”
“But when it’s time to finally tell yourself that you have to live your own life? When is it time to finally come to terms with the fact that your time is ticking and you need to start making moves before you regret the life you live? Mina, I need to live my life. My life doesn’t feel like it’s confined in here anymore, I–“
“Did you meet someone in America?” Mina bluntly asks. I’m taken back by the question, how the hell would Noona know? I looked at her, completely puzzled, not sure how to respond back. I think she knows the answer the longer I take to respond. She shakes her head and smiles in disbelief.
“You know someone for a couple of months, think you know them, and decide to move your entire life to a new country–“
“What life?” I interrupted, now annoyed. “I’m telling you, Mina, sometimes I feel like I’m the one that’s gone. I feel like dad is here more than I am. Dad gets to see you, Lia, and Mom while sitting in that portrait every time you are all together. I feel like I’m the one that’s missing. Gone. Not here anymore. I’m tired of feeling like I don’t belong anymore.”
“You are family, Jaeho.” Mina pleaded. “You picking up your life to move across the world is going to devastate us.”
I looked at Mina, remembering how close we were when we were kids. Mina, although was the oldest and looked after Lia and I, always spent time with me whenever mom and dad were at work. She took me to school in the mornings, picked me up in the afternoon. She would sometimes buy tteokbokki for Lia and I whenever she would get paid from her part-time job. Mina looked after us, and I will always be grateful for her being selfless enough to do that; because that’s just who she was: selfless. Years later, even after dad’s death and the fact that we all are grown ups, she still takes that role on. She feels like she has to keep everything together. I admire her for it, but I know I can’t live my life the way she does. Not after what these last couple of months have been like for me.
Maybe Mina will grow to like Grace. They are both mothers, they both know the importance of putting the ones you love ahead of their own basic needs. If anyone could understand Mina best, I believe it would be Grace.
“Please come home to me, Jamie.”
“The life I left behind in the states is devastating me, Mina.” Mina’s face softens. She takes in a deep breath and walks past me to head back inside the house. I stand outside by myself, seeing the sun set across town. I close my eyes for a brief moment and I see Grace. I see her holding little bean, smiling at me, to me. Her freckle are out, her skin is flushed pink, her curly red hair is flowing around her small, petite body. I see her in New York City. I see my life waiting for me.
I walked back into the house after opening my eyes.