We could start the story here: Phillipa Pirrip at thirteen, walking into her eighth-grade dorm room for the first time. In the middle of this room stands Phillipa’s roommate—Minji—who introduces herself with a slight bow. Over the next five years, Minji will nickname Phillipa Pip, and she’ll pass Pip Korean lessons written on graph paper between bell rings in the main school building. At night in their room, Pip will teach Minji how to cornrow hair like Pip does for all of the other Black girls in their dorm, and Minji will cook Shin Ramyun on Pip’s desk as she grades those Korean lessons, gesturing with her chopsticks and splashing spicy, orange soup across Pip’s awkwardly scrawled Hangul letters. Here, on this campus, Pip and Minji will run through horse pastures in the black of November nights, warm their hands in each other’s pockets, and pantomime smoking with their ashy breaths. Perched on splintered, wooden fences, Minji will teach Pip the word for family, the word for death, the word for love, the word for ghost.
Then senior year hits like a flashbang. In the abandoned barn at the edge of campus, they will lie on sawdust floors. Watching the clouds of their breaths mushroom together, Pip will say in accented Korean, “I want to live in Seoul one day.”
Minji will hook arms with Pip and say, “Let’s do it! Let’s live there together.” And then six months after that December day, somewhere in the desolation of Delaware, Minji will die in a Dodge Durango. Three days after the memorial, Pip will sit on a stage in a cap and gown, feeling Minji’s absence in the empty seat next to her as hot as an open oven.
Or maybe we’ll begin here: Pip at twenty-two, running from security guards in France. Inside the Palais—the convention center at the heart of the Cannes Film Festival—Pip carries her screenplay in her hands. Surrounded by hi-tech booths for film distribution companies like Sony, Film4, and Lionsgate, Pip darts through the crowd in the Distributor’s Market. Her low-level festival pass swings from her neck, announcing to anyone who knows better that she is somewhere she does not belong. She catches her breath behind a white pillar that conceals her from the large men in khaki suits coming for her. If these men take away her badge, she will be barred from the remaining festival screenings. Already this deep in the Palais, escaping is not an option; she has to hide. Pip looks at the elaborate booths with their promo-playing television screens and the logos that she has only seen in theaters before movie trailers. Her gaze stops on the tri-colored logo for CJ Entertainment—a South Korean distribution company. At this booth, a young woman in an expensive suit organizes the flyers on the table, and a man in his fifties flips through an art book behind her.
It’s wild, but Pip has to give it a shot.
She peeks around the pillar to make sure the guards aren’t looking. Her heart beating in her throat, she walks up to the woman at the CJ Entertainment booth, bows, and says in the language she has been studying for the last ten years, “Annyeonghaseyo? I’m sorry to bother you. But there are bad people looking for me. May I hide here for just a minute?”
The woman’s mouth drops open, and the stack of flyers fall from her hands. Maybe that lie was a little too serious. Or maybe her shock came from the fact that she has never seen a Black person speak Korean as well as Pip does.
The woman doesn’t respond right away, but the man behind her walks over with his disheveled, curly hair and square, frameless glasses. “What’s going on?”
“She says she needs to hide from nappeun saramdeul,” the woman says.
“Nappeun saramdeul?” The man looks out at the crowd to find these “bad people,” and Pip follows his gaze to the security guards talking into their radios. He then glances down at Pip’s badge, and she covers it too late with her script. Laughing, he says in English, “So, by bad people you mean the men doing their jobs?”
Pip gives him a deflated smile and nods. “Ne, I’m sorry. I’ll leave.”
The man shakes his head. “Jamkkanman.” He waves her into the booth and gestures for her to hide under the table. “It’s okay. Come in.”
Pip bows again in thanks. “Gamsahabnida.” She crawls under the table and sits with her knees to her chest.
“How did you get in here without the proper badge?”
“I just walked in.”
“You just walked in?”
“Ne, if you pretend like you belong, people will think that you do.”
He laughs and says to himself, “Ah, this girl. Really?” He looks up and puts a finger to his lips.
In the shadows under the table, Pip hears one of the French guards say in uncertain English, “Pardon, have you seen a suspicious Black girl come by?”
The man pauses as if to really consider the question. “Yes, I saw her. She went downstairs towards the exit.”
The man watches the guards walk away for a long minute before giving Pip the okay-sign. “Coast is clear,” he says in English and then in Korean: “You speak Korean well. How did you learn?”
This question—as it always does—lances through the scar tissue in Pip’s heart where all the memories of Minji live. “My roommate in boarding school taught me. And then I studied in college.”
He makes a sound like he finds this information interesting. “What’s this?” he asks, nodding to the script in her hands.
“My screenplay. I’m here to network.”
Pip hands him the script, and he flips through it. “You wrote this?” She nods. “It’s too bad I don’t read English well. What do you want to become?”
Pip translates this poorly in her head, and it takes her a second to understand that he is asking what she wants to be when she grows up. “I want to become a writer and director.”
“Geuraeyo? Do you have a demo reel?”
She pulls a silver flash drive out of her festival tote and hands it to him. He leads her to a table at the back of the booth where he sits and plugs the flash drive into a laptop. Pip guides him through the folders until a QuickTime Window pops up, and he presses play. There are a couple of shots that Pip could have color corrected better, but she is proud of her work and stands by it as a representation of what she can do, will do, as a filmmaker.
When the player stops and the screen goes black, the man sits in silence with his chin in his hand for the longest minute of Pip’s life. Pip, of course, expects nothing from this man; he has already shown her a great deal of kindness by letting her hide under his table, by lying to get the guards off her back. But still, to watch even a compilation of her films is to see inside her mind, deeper than she would ever consciously allow. There is a nakedness to sharing your art that is both frightening and addicting. No, Pip doesn’t need validation from a stranger, but she also doesn’t need cruelty from one either. Just when she is about to snatch back her flash drive and go about her day, the man looks up and says, “I’m impressed.”
“Ne, very impressed. How old are you?”
“Twenty-two American years.”
“Have you graduated from college?”
“Yes, two weeks ago.”
She shakes her head. “Anio. I haven’t found a job yet.”
“Good.” He takes a ticket and business card out of a messenger bag on the table and gives them to Pip. “My film premieres tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. You should come. I’ll bring a better badge for you.”
Pip runs her thumb over his name and title engraved on the business card: 배영철 감독. Bae Young-chul. Director.
Two days later, at a cafe overlooking the Bay of Cannes, Director Bae offers Pip a job. A week after the festival ends, Pip boards a plane to Seoul, thinking about Minji’s arm hooked in hers, and how—in this small way—she can keep the promise they made to each other.
Or start here: seven years later, on the precipice of a marriage proposal in an aquarium in Seoul. There, in Coex Aquarium, Pip follows Hong-gi into the tunnel where stingrays wide as cars glide over them in serene, simulated underwater silence. Then, standing in a black gallery before a theater of sharks and fish, Hong-gi laces his fingers in hers and says, “Let’s go to Busan tomorrow. I want you to meet our Umma.” Pip has lived in Korea long enough to know that meeting Hong-gi’s mother would be no ordinary meeting. The two of them had talked about marriage, and Pip—for the most part—was open to the idea. Although whenever Hong-gi wanted to talk specifics, talk timeline, talk concrete plans for the future, Pip always pushed off those conversations with sex as a distraction. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Hong-gi; she just loved her own dreams a little more.
When she first came to Korea all those years ago to crew on Director Bae’s film, she was twenty-two and couldn’t see that starting a film career in Korea, that working on eight films in five years, that forging a name for herself in this industry as the heukin—Black—camera director would delay the start of her film career in the US. After five years of hopping film to film and supplementing her income by tutoring outrageously wealthy children in Seoul, Pip grew tired of the hustle and job instability. In retrospect, this was when she should have gone back to the US. But what was waiting for her back in America? Two dead parents and a drunk sister meaner than a junkyard dog. As hard as it was to be a waygookin filmmaker in Korea, moving to LA with no connections, no prospects, no Director Bae to help her find her footing seemed all the more difficult. Just when Pip was about to give up and try her luck again in America, she met Hong-gi on the subway platform in Dogok, a place he would normally never be but his car happened to have broken down next to the station. On the train, they talked so long and enthusiastically about which Taika Waititi and Bong Joon Ho films were the best that she missed her chance to transfer at Yaksu and his at Jongno, and they have been inseparable ever since. And so Pip asked Director Bae for help finding more stable work, and he got her a job as a camera director on a Kpop group’s reality television show. Assigned to the maknae—the youngest member of the group—Pip has spent the last two years in Korea chasing a teenage boy around with a camera and occasionally joining the group on tour to document their backstage shenanigans for their cleverly named fanbase.
Yes, Pip put off marriage because she didn’t want to just be a camera operator; she wanted to direct her own films, write scripts, tear her hair out over plot holes and characters that wouldn’t behave the way she wanted them to. But now, seven years into a career in a foreign country, Pip can see that a dream could be a person, and in this person holding her hand in front of a menagerie of blue lit sand sharks and tiny, zippy fish, she believes she can find a reflection of happiness. She believes this because Hong-gi, with his whole-hearted love for life, for adventure, for Pip, represents the possibility for something Pip never had: family. With a mother dead after childbirth and a father blipped from this earth by a heart attack shortly thereafter, Pip has no family to speak of. Of course there is her much older sister, Josie. But the only thing Josie loves more than liquor is coke, and when Pip was young, Josie always made sure to beat Pip’s ass when she was lacking in either. Yes, Hong-gi is her family. Pip spent so much time curating found families in boarding school dorm rooms, in college common rooms, in the casts and crews of film projects.
Now, she has found one in Hong-gi, and for the first time, she isn’t worried he will drop dead like Mama, like Daddy, like Minji. Yes, Pip no longer needs fame and fortune; she doesn’t need anything as long as she has a family. The only obstacle now is his mother’s approval. And then, there, in the undulating light of the aquarium, as if waking from a nice dream, Pip realizes how large of an obstacle that would be.
The next day, Pip and Hong-gi take an early morning KTX train to Busan, make it to their beachside Airbnb by the afternoon, and walk along the warm, late spring water, swinging their held hands as if they had given each of their hearts to truly understand the others’. But there was hesitation in Pip’s giving because there is a question she needs to ask him, a question that once asked can never be unasked.
Pip waits until they’re back in the Airbnb, getting dressed for this first dinner with his mother. “Oppa, hok-si,” she says, fastening one of his cufflinks. “Does your mother know that I am heukin?”
Hong-gi fastens the cufflink resting on his prosthetic wrist and checks his slicked-back hair in the mirror. “She knows that you’re American.”
Good god, this man hasn’t told his mother he wants to marry a Black woman. Pip thinks back to the three people she dated seriously in college. Two were white and one was Cuban, and Pip’s Blackness was an issue for each of their families. It didn’t matter that Pip went to Johns Hopkins, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and spoke Korean. Nothing could impress a parent at a dinner table when all they saw was a Black person—someone they saw as less than human—sitting next to their child. Though the biggest shock was when Pip met Cecilia’s mother, who didn’t seem to mind that her daughter was queer but very much minded that she was dating a Black woman.
“Wae? Why haven’t you told her?” Pip asks even though she very well knows why. He knew it would be a problem. He didn’t tell her because he thought he could somehow ambush her, bully her into acceptance.
“Why does she need to know beforehand?” He is playing dumb now, avoiding the question the same way Pip avoided asking him in the first place. “I mean what’s the worst she can do? Disinherit me? She won’t do that. I already have Appa’s company.”
Hong-gi’s father was the founding CEO of a video gaming company until 2001, when he died in the car crash that took Hong-gi’s right arm. The accident killed both Hong-gi’s father and his twin brother when they were ten years old. His mother was also in the car, but she walked away with just a broken arm and a face full of glass. After the crash, Hong-gi’s uncle ran the company and groomed Hong-gi to take over once he finished university.
Hong-gi walks over to Pip now and kisses her on the forehead. “I love you. Don’t worry. Okay? Oppa will take care of it.” And then something like the sudden realization of a thing he had always known to be true settles on his face. “She won’t disown me anyway. I’m all she has left.” He says this sadly, matter-of-factly because it is a sad, matter of fact. In this moment, Pip squeezes his hand and bears both his loss and her own, for her parents, for Minji.
“Have you told your uncle?”
“Ne, he said that I’ve had a hard life and I should be able to marry who I want.”
“What about your mother’s side of the family?”
“Our grandparents died before we were born. She has no siblings.” Even though he hasn’t been a twin in almost two decades, he still speaks as if he were one. Hong-gi slips his hand out of hers and walks to the foyer when he says, “It was her fault, you know. She picked a fight with Appa over something stupid and they were arguing. She wasn’t paying attention to the road when the truck swerved into our lane and she turned the car to protect our side while Appa and Hong-joo took the hit.” This is new information to Pip; he had never told her the specifics of the accident. Only the details of his amputation, which bones his mother had broken, and the fact that his father and brother lost more than that. No, he had never told her that—all these years later—he still blames his mother.
Hong-gi puts on his shoes, looks up at Pip, and says, “Are you ready?”
Hong-gi’s family home is a modern, multi-million dollar monstrosity shaped into a rectangular concrete prism with smooth, sterile curves. This place looks more like a prison than a home. The house’s gray exterior has an aura so cold, it reminds Pip of walking barefoot on winter sidewalks, of stepping in silvery seafoam on off-season shores, of watching muted rain through a clean window. Pip stands in front of a black, slatted gate, her hand in Hong-gi’s. The sea laps at the docks behind them, and private CCTV cameras glare down from above. Pip looks up past the cameras at the third-floor balcony set deep into the concrete structure of the house. The windows of a house always remind Pip of eyes; this house’s eyes are empty and dead.
Hong-gi lets go of her hand to ring the doorbell.
“Ah, Mr. President. Please come in,” a woman, presumably the housekeeper says, almost teasing.
Pip pokes him in the side and teases him too. “Mr. President,” she says. She is used to hearing people—his colleagues, his employees, and sometimes his friends as a joke—call him Daepyonim, Mr. President, but since she rarely sees him in a professional capacity, there is something hilarious about this goofy person she loves being addressed so formally.
A buzz sounds, and the black gates yawn open.
Inside, the house maintains its drab color scheme of slate and gray with occasional pops of dark wood. Everything about the minimalist interior design is just as disinviting as the exterior. This house has the same energy as a museum, an energy that tells you to whisper, to walk quietly, to keep your hands to yourself or it’ll cost you something dear. Though Pip has never experienced a great deal of wealth herself, between attending a rich-ass boarding school on scholarship and filming the lives of worldwide famous Kpop stars, the wealth of others no longer intimidates her, but there are small moments like this one when she wonders: What is it like to have a housekeeper? To grow up more than comfortable?
The housekeeper greets Pip and Hong-gi at the door. She looks at Pip and does her best to control the surprise on her face. Hong-gi gestures to Pip. “Ms. Han, this is Pip.”
“Pip?” she says, her voice high with surprise.
“Ne, bangabseubnida,” Pip says with a bow.
“It’s nice to meet you too.”
Hong-gi leans over to Pip and says as if it’s a big secret, “Ms. Han has been with our family since I was in high school.”
Pip smiles at Ms. Han. “Geuraeyo? Then I bet you can tell me all of the embarrassing stories about Hong-gi ssi.”
Ms. Han laughs. “So many embarrassing stories! Let’s see, where should I start—”
A door upstairs closes, and Ms. Han stops talking mid-sentence, almost as if the sound—or more specifically whoever made it—has startled her. They all turn towards the staircase, a strange, jailed thing with thin, floor-to-ceiling balustrades lining the steps like cell bars. Hong-gi’s mother appears in the cage at the top of the steps, and Hong-gi noticeably stiffens beside Pip. Pip tries to read the profile of his face for any clues of what to expect, and it occurs to her that he’s told her very little about his mother. An orphan herself, Pip didn’t think anything of it before because the absence of her own parents is both something that she constantly thinks of and seldom discusses. But that is because their deaths haunt her. Could someone be haunted in the same way by the living? Watching him watch his mother descend the steps, she can’t tell what he is thinking the way she usually can.
Ms. Shim enters the foyer wearing a gray dress with a severe, boxy silhouette that matches the house in both color and warmth. Even though Ms. Shim’s face is meticulously made up, Pip can see deep divots in the skin, what Pip assumes are scars from the car accident. Ms. Shim smiles widely at her son, but the corners of her mouth dip when she sees Pip. She collects her composure with a dead-eyed smile, and Pip greets her with a deep bow.
“Annyeonghaseyo. My name is Pip. It is such a pleasure to meet you.”
“Pip the American?” she says, looking at Hong-gi like he has lied to her. She looks at Pip again, her mouth tight, the wrinkles around it straining as she holds back whatever she really wants to say. Pip swallows hard to steel herself for the night to come and offers Ms. Shim a tense smile.
Aggressively civil, Ms. Shim turns to the housekeeper and says, “Is dinner ready?”
One wall in the dining room is a giant window that overlooks the water and the flamed sun sinking behind hills and skyscrapers. The three of them sit at one end of a long, fourteen-person table. Leaving the head of the table open, Ms. Shim sits across from Pip and Hong-gi. Plates filled with tteok kalbi and banchan fill the table between them. There is an awkward silence that Hong-gi doesn’t jump to fill, and Pip decides it’s best to keep her mouth shut until she’s spoken to.
“Pip ssi,” Ms. Shim says, and Pip does her best not to flinch at the sound of her own name. “Our Hong-gi hasn’t told me much about you. He said that you work in the film industry?”
“Ne, I am a camera director on a Kpop group’s show.”
Pip tells her, and Hong-gi sings a line from their most popular song to jog her memory.
“Wow, that’s a famous group. Very impressive.” Pip and Hong-gi smile at each other in this small victory, and she wonders if she is worried for nothing. Ms. Shim continues, “They must travel a lot. Do you travel with them?”
“Yes. Not always. But often.” Pip fills Ms. Shim’s water glass and then Hong-gi’s.
Ms. Shim frowns and says, “All that traveling must be very hard on you. It’s difficult to be a good wife if you travel a lot.” She side eyes Hong-gi as if she has made a great point, and something folds deep within Pip, just like it did when she was the only Black kid in her class and picked last for everything, just like it did when her class studied the Civil Rights movement and everyone turned to her for answers, just like it did when she first arrived in Seoul and people on the street would stop to take photos of her without asking. For Pip, to be Black is to fight the constant urge to shrink into yourself until you disappear.
Hong-gi speaks up now. “Umma, I’m not a child. I’m not looking for a babysitter. We’re partners. Equal partners.”
Ms. Shim breaks off a piece of her tteok kalbi with her chopsticks and changes the subject. “You speak Korean incredibly well. How long have you been living here?”
“Seven years! Wow, when do you plan to move back to America?”
“I don’t plan to. I like it here. I’m very happy here.” Pip and Hong-gi share another smile.
“Don’t your parents miss you?”
Hong-gi holds his breath, but Pip smiles that I’m-totally-okay smile she has rehearsed since childhood. “They passed away when I was a kid.”
This shakes Ms. Shim because she hesitates with her chopsticks at her mouth, sets the food down, and looks at Pip like she’s really seeing her for the first time, like they have something common to share, even if that common thing is pain. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Gwaenchanhayo. It was a long time ago.”
“Do you have any brothers? Sisters?”
“Anio,” she lies. Josie isn’t worth mentioning. They haven’t spoken to each other in seven years.
Ms. Shim sighs, staring down at her plate. “You poor thing. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have our Hong-gi. You see, family is very important to me, to us.” She looks at Hong-gi for him to back her up, but he just narrows his eyes at her. Where is she going with this? “Family is water. Family is air. It nurtures us. How is family important to you?”
“Umma,” Hong-gi warns, hearing the same question under the question that Pip does: how can you join a family if you’ve never been in one?
“What? It’s a fair question. Family is a priority to us. I want to hear how it’s a priority to Pip ssi.”
The porcelain on the table clatters as Hong-gi slams down his metal chopsticks and stands. “Umma, we need to talk.”
Ms. Shim shakes her head. “Don’t be rude. We’re still eating.” She nods to his chair. “Anja.”
“No. Now.” Hong-gi says, his voice colored with a scary seriousness that Pip hasn’t heard before.
Hong-gi leaves the room, and his mother puts her napkin on the table and follows.
Alone at this enormous mahogany table, Pip dabs at her eyes. She feels her soul suck into itself, crumpling like paper in a fist. God, she loves this man more than anything she could want or dream for herself, and if it comes to it, she doesn’t want to be the thing that breaks him apart from his mother. Yes, if it comes to it Pip will lose everything to stop herself from taking the one thing from Hong-gi that she never had—a parent to fight with, a parent to love, a parent to hate, a parent to unfold you from within yourself and iron you out until you’re new again, until you’re you again.
At the thought of losing Hong-gi, Pip doubles over, about to retch. She’s crying now, hard, and scrambles to her feet, feeling her shrinky dink soul rattle within her like change in a tin can. Pip starts down a hallway in this titanic house, the concrete walls towering over her, threatening to fall. The hallway is dark. She cannot find a light switch, and so she runs a hand along the wall to support herself, to guide her to a bathroom where she can sit in a corner with her shrinky dink soul and wish for the nth time that no one would ever see her again.
Then in that dark hallway, she hears Hong-gi’s voice rise above the chaos of her own mind: “I love her. I’m going to marry her. Please accept this.”
Pip stops in her tracks and covers her mouth to mute the sound of her own breath raking up and down her throat. She should go back to the dining room or try another hallway for a bathroom in this stupidly large house. She knows this. But for the same reasons you pick at a scab or chew your cuticles bloody raw, she stays in the shadow of the hall to wound herself.
“Aren’t you worried that your children won’t look Korean?” Ms. Shim says.
“I don’t care about that. They will look like us, and that’s what matters.”
“Don’t you know how hard it is for biracial children to grow up in this country? Don’t you worry that they’ll be bullied? That they won’t have friends? That they won’t be happy?”
“Pip and I have discussed this. Our children will go to school in America.”
Ms. Shim gasps. “You’re moving to America?”
“Ani, they will go to boarding school. They will stay here long enough to learn Korean and then they will go to boarding school like Pip did.”
“Hong-gi, this is a bad idea. I won’t let you do this. I forbid you from doing this.”
Christ, Pip can barely stand.
“You forbid me? Umma, this is ridiculous. Pip is—”
“What would your father think?”
Hong-gi spits his response back to her with palpable venom. “Well, he’s not here, is he?”
A long beat of hostile silence sits in the air stagnant like standing water until Ms. Shim says, “I won’t speak to you ever again if you do this.”
“Jinjjayo? You won’t speak to me.”
“No. I won’t.”
Pip hears her own breathing loud like gunshots.
“Fine,” Hong-gi says. “I don’t need you.” And then he pauses to consider his next few words before he says them like he means it: “At least she won’t make our son lose his arm.”
Truly believing she is going to vomit, Pip staggers away from the sound of their voices into another dark hallway. There, in the shadows, she feels the weight of the blackness the way she feels the weight of her own Blackness. There were few times in her life where it felt this heavy, where she thought it might crush her. Before now, that weight was at its heaviest when she was a junior at Hopkins, watching the coverage of the 2015 Baltimore Protests in her best friend’s apartment. As Pip and Jamie watched the news, Pip’s pulse choked her with its throat-high beating, and for the first time in her life, she felt true, unadulterated fear. Jamie—who was white—must have seen it on Pip’s face because she put her arms around Pip, and they just sat there on the couch as two people who knew exactly where one of their experiences began and the other’s ended.
Now, in the love of her life’s family home, she feels just as small and alone. Finally finding a bathroom, she locks herself in it and crawls into a marbled corner to quietly feel this horrible monster of humiliation, of hurt, of spurn, of anger—she cannot find the right name for this pain, this slight, this smart—god knows what its name is. She leans her head against the wall, craving a cry, but there is a heat to all that she feels, one that makes her stamp her feet, hit the wall, and take a hard twist of her hair, so bitter are her feelings and so sharp is this unnamed smart that makes her feel so small in her Blackness.
Growing up Black made Pip both hard and sensitive—hard to the small injustices you face and sensitive in the moments you face them. Yes, you are small, and the world is small, but you cannot let this small world make you smaller, make you shrinky dink, make you blip away like they want you to. Packing away her injured feelings for the time, Pip stands and wipes her eyes. At the sink, she splashes water on her face. She looks at herself in the mirror, forces a smile, and holds it until the second wind of that smart without a name blows past. Then she opens the door.
In the unlit hall, a warm, yellow light spills out from a doorway. Pip approaches the door. Inside the room—a beautiful study mismatched to the rest of the house with its classic, dark wood shelves and inviting leather armchairs—Ms. Shim paces with a glass of whiskey in her hand. “He doesn’t need me?” she mutters to herself. “That ungrateful little shit.” In her pacing, she steps hard and angry, her upright, dignified posture replaced with a mean slouch. “He doesn’t need me?” She scoffs and pauses in her pacing. Pip takes a step back, but from the hallway, she can still see the profile of Ms. Shim’s face, the ghostly remnants of her scars, the way the ire on her face relaxes into something else—something new that Pip can’t quite make out. Ms. Shim scoffs again, not with spite but with epiphany. She steps backward, blindly, into an armchair and collapses—the whiskey in her hands sloshing but never spilling. Ms. Shim stares into the middle distance between her and Pip, and her face softens—Pip can see it now—with pain, with devastation, with clarity. “He doesn’t need me,” she says again, the words a soft breath quietly punched out of her. A single tear streaks her cheek, and her grip on the glass goes slack. The tumbler falls from her hand. Pip closes her eyes, expecting it to shatter, but the glass clacks against the hardwood floor without breaking. Ms. Shim sniffs and wipes her face with the heels of her palm. When she stands and walks toward the door, Pip sprints back to the bathroom.
Pip leans against the closed bathroom door, her heart thudding in her ears. She counts to fifty to calm herself, to prepare herself to find Hong-gi, to come to terms with letting him go. Taking a deep breath to still her heart, she opens the door again.
Ms. Shim is standing on the other side and startles Pip. “I’m sorry. I was about to knock,” she says, the wounded look on her face speaking volume to the rest of the conversation Pip didn’t overhear. She then adds with a sad smile: “Will you walk with me?”
Ms. Shim leads Pip through the barren house to the balcony. Outside, the night air cools whatever frustration still simmers in Pip, and she follows Ms. Shim up to the glass barrier. They both rest their hands on the railing and look out at the water. Night has fallen on the cove, and moonlight shimmers on the restless water below.
“It’s a nice night, isn’t it?” Ms. Shim says this like an offering, like an olive branch, like a kind of treaty to be signed between them.
Pip accepts this kindness for what it is: Ms. Shim trying. “It is. Busan is one of my favorite places in the world.”
“Ne, I always wanted to live here, but it never worked out with my work.”
“You said you’ve been here seven years?” Pip nods. “Such a long time. Don’t you miss America?”
“No, I don’t.” Pip reads her face, trying to judge the moment, trying to judge how honest she can be, how honest Ms. Shim wants her to be. “There’s nothing there for me.”
Ms. Shim stares out at the water and Pip does the same, the silence rooting between them so long that it becomes almost comfortable. “It never goes away, does it? The missing.”
An image of Minji sitting in a desk chair as Pip cornrows her hair comes to mind, and that missing Ms. Shim speaks of blooms in Pip’s chest. “No, I don’t think it does.”
“I just thought our lives would play out differently.”
Pip does her best to sidestep the hurt of her implication, that if the dead weren’t dead, Hong-gi and Pip would have never met, but Pip understands. Her life is a dark road lit by headlights that only show her so much of where she is heading. The two of them look at one another sadly enough, but there is hope—for in this blue moonlight, Ms. Shim’s face and her voice give Pip the assurance that the cause of each of their suffering will not be each other.