Ji Hyun Joo
I’m constantly surrounded by women.
Women who lead their lives shamelessly, women who dunk their bodies deep into shame, women who are suffocated, women who suffocate themselves, women who nurture, women who choose not to nurture, women who put their bodies up for sale, women who choose not to look at their own bodies in the mirror, or in the shower, or in the intimate act of changing their clothes. Sometimes all these women are rolled up into one beautiful, complex woman, and I want to be that woman.
I’m 17 years old.
Many people say that 17 is too young to be called a woman, but Min and I decided we were women when our chests started hurting and our moms made us wear bras with these huge cups that we couldn’t fill. And we felt the pain that real women feel from being stared at on the street after being thrust into a world with bras that don’t fit them, and chests that ache trying to fill them.
You’re not supposed to stand above the toilet long enough to see your reflection, according to my mom. The toilet is where all disease festers and if you stand above it long enough, it gives the disease a chance to crawl into your body, and a woman’s body is a place where everything flourishes, so we need to be extra careful.
Between my legs spread above the old-school Korean toilet shaped like a shoe in the center of the stall is the blurry reflection of my thighs and butt. I look down at the awkward strands of pubic hair sticking through the fabric of my cotton underwear.
“Am I supposed to take the hair off first?” I ask.
“You want to shave it?” Min asks from the other side of the bathroom door.
“I just feel like it’ll be easier to put in.”
A box of tampons sits balanced on top of a stack of toilet paper. I open the box: two rows of sticks neatly packaged. I stick my nose into the box and inhale deeply. It smells like a bouquet of tampons trying to be flowers.
“Where did you see it shaved? Some American porno?” asks Min.
“Americans aren’t the only ones that shave down there,” I respond defensively.
“Go to Gangnam and ask 50 women on the street whether they have hair down there or not and see what kind of response you get,” Min says. I grab a tampon from the box and slowly rip open the packaging. Min’s long black hair swoops down and I see a part of her forehead through the space between the bathroom door and floor.
“Bo Rum. Did you put it in yet?”
“I haven’t even taken my underwear off yet,” I say.
Min’s hair and forehead disappear as I hear her softly glide away from the door.
“You don’t have to try it if you don’t want to, Bo Rum,” Min says.
“I do. It’s just… my mom told me that a chunya shouldn’t be using tampons,” I whisper.
I met Min when we were both 7 years old. Her hair was always braided, spread along the length of her back, swishing powerfully as she skipped from one end of our block to the other. The ends of her braids were clamped with these little butterfly pins that would click clack against each other when she ran. She was always running. Even then, she had no place to go so she would just weave between alleyways searching for nothing. Her hands were clasped to her sides to keep her pants from falling from the weight of the coins she collected from her neighbors and strangers on the street.
“Don’t beg. Don’t taint our name,” Min’s mom used to say after snatching the coins Min had collected and throwing them in her purse.
Min’s mom claimed she didn’t know who her daughter’s father was so she gave Min her last name – Kim. Kim Min. If her name had to be Min, Min would’ve preferred her last name to be Lee or Choi. But we don’t have the luxury of choosing our parents or our last names, and Min understood that early on after she complained about her last name and got slapped in the face for being ungrateful because a girl without a father didn’t even need a last name, but her mother was kind enough to lend her hers.
Before I had the courage to approach Min, I used to watch her through the gates of my window. She would pose in the middle of the street, flipping her hair back, flirting with an imaginary photographer that was throwing imaginary directions her way, jutting her hips out left and right. I don’t know where she got her confidence from because my mom said that that type of confidence isn’t bred in broken homes like hers. She was carving her name into the wall of a building when she saw my head peak out from the side and motioned for me to come over. She pointed to her name sloppily sketched onto the side of the building.
“Kim Min,” I read.
She smiled and tilted her head as she observed me. She grabbed my hand and ran her fingers along the soft, squishy inner part of my arm.
“Why are you so pale?” she asked.
I shrugged. My pale skin used to get complimented endlessly. My mom would tell me I looked like snow after it had fallen overnight: clean and pure. My dad used to slather sunscreen on my arms and legs all four seasons so I could maintain my fair skin. An elderly woman on the street once grabbed me by the shoulders and told my mom, “She looks like a doll. Porcelain. The porcelain ones are expensive.”
I used to be told that I’m expensive, as if they were preparing to strip my skin off of me and hang it from hooks like the long bodies of cows at butcher shops. And I thought my pale skin would let me grow angel wings to lift me above, higher and higher.
I hear the click of Min’s lipstick case close from the other side of the bathroom door.
“Do you remember that time you didn’t want to wear a pad and you thought you could control your body with your mind, but realized you couldn’t and had to miss history, science, and math class to wash the period stains out of your uniform? Do you remember that?” asked Min.
This had actually happened three times. It wasn’t that I thought I could control my body with my mind. That was just an old fantasy that I had. I did neglect my period from time to time because the pad chafes my upper thighs in the summer, so much so that my skin feels raw and I’d rather just ignore all of it.
“You don’t need to embarrass yourself like that anymore. You can put in a tampon, then forget about your period until you need to replace your tampon. You won’t feel it with every step you take like a pad,” Min continues.
I look into the barrel of the tampon.
“It looks like an open mouth full of teeth,” I say.
Min laughs. I hate that childish things like that just come out of my mouth so easily, as if childish thoughts are still the first things that pop into my mind.
I see Min hop on the edge of the sink through the crack on the bathroom stall.
“Chunya is an old term, Bo Rum. Our moms just don’t know how to throw old things out.”
“I don’t think our moms have used tampons before. Maybe there’s a reason for it,” I say.
“Because they saw their moms wash the blood out of their special period underwear every month. It’s because they’re archaic. And archaic people hold on to their ways because change is like that rude motherfucker that creeps up on you and rattles you like a helpless little tambourine,” says Min.
“Did your mom teach you how to use tampons?” I ask cautiously.
“She didn’t. And she doesn’t need to know about it either because she didn’t tell me what to do when I got my period. She told me I better not come home with a bloated stomach because bloated stomachs ruin lives, apparently.”
The ends of my toes are numb from holding the same stance above the toilet. I try to wiggle them around, but my big toe is the only one that squirms around in my socks. It’s winter. I let out a breath of air that materializes into a gust of fog that travels nowhere. I hold the tampon between the palm of my hand and bring it up to the warmth of my neck.
When I got my period, my mom got me a cupcake from the corner bakery, lit one candle, and brought it to my room after my dad had fallen asleep. She wanted to keep it a secret because it would make my dad wildly uncomfortable to know that his daughter got her period so he should just assume that I have one without me ever showing signs that I actually do bleed monthly. I thought everyone got a cupcake and this promise of secrecy and allegiance with a senior member of the period clan.
“I wish I didn’t have a period,” I say.
I see a sliver of Min swinging her legs back and forth on top of the sink.
“It reminds me to take care of myself every month,” Min says.
“I read that we have our periods because our bodies shed a layer of our uterus and it takes 28 days to repair itself. Then it sheds again and regenerates another lining. We just repeat that over and over again. It’s kind of nice knowing that we don’t need to fight to fix our bodies because it understands to do it on its own,” Min continues.
Min knows how to take care of herself. She reads science textbooks front to back so she knows about every inch of her body. Last week, she read about breast cancer and how the cancer forms in the cells of the breast and how sometimes the nipple retracts into itself. She then read an entire pamphlet on how to check yourself for lumps and she does it every time we walk home together after school. She teaches me everything she learns and makes sure I check for lumps too.
I slowly take off my polka dot underwear and squat down above the toilet. I navigate the tampon into the burrows of my thick, curly pubic hair and pull the plastic of the tampon out swiftly. I pull my underwear back up and hop to one side of the stall where my pants are hanging. The cold fabric clings to the hair on my legs as I fill up each loose pant leg.
I open the door of the stall. Min’s eyes wander away from her own reflection in the mirror to mine.
When we were thirteen our bodies began to change.
My hair is cut shorter than the boys in my high school. I devote a socially inappropriate number of hours to soccer and it shows on my tan skin. I break the school’s unspoken uniform policy and switch out my plaid skirt for a pair of slacks. My breasts are small and my mom tells me to stop playing sports because that’s what’s keeping them from growing to their full potential. The boys that used to profess their love to me ignore me in the hallways. My dad doesn’t put sunblock on my arms and legs anymore. No one grabs at my tanned skin to tell me how expensive I am.
Min struts through the halls of our six-story school with a uniform skirt that she cuts an inch off of every year. She is now so pale I sometimes stare at the blue and green veins intertwined underneath her transparent skin and I worry that if she were to bump into something sharp, it might slice through them so seamlessly. Her face is this delicate V-line that most Korean women need to crack and rebuild their jaws to achieve. The only thing that’s remained the same is her eyes: almond-shaped, sunken deep into her face, and mean. She sits at the corner of our school with one of her mom’s cigarettes in her mouth, her eyes darting manically, waiting for someone to look at her the wrong way.
Men shove their crotches and faces and hands (in that exact order) in our faces. I have no idea what to do with it. Min barks at them like a dog and they look at her like she’s deranged and run away. Then she cackles like she’s actually deranged until she decides to stop, and the muscles on her face rest, and her eyes hunt around for any other incoming threats.
She always holds my hand when we’re walking in the dark. I think she’s scared because we heard a story about a girl that walked into the wrong alleyway past 8 p.m. and a hand just reached out in the dark and grabbed her and the next time we saw her she was seven months pregnant, and she had no idea who had done that to her. One time I asked Min if she was scared of the same thing happening to us.
“We don’t need to be scared of anything. Because nothing bad should happen to us. Because we’re not bad people,” she said.
“But she’s not a bad person either,” I replied.
“And it shouldn’t have happened to her. Just like it shouldn’t happen to us. I don’t have to be scared and you don’t have to be either,” Min said as she gripped my hand tighter.
She gave birth to a girl. The next time we saw her, she was being taken away in an ambulance because she had tried to stab herself in the heart from the paranoia that what had happened to her would happen to her daughter. We watched the ambulance drive away and Min reached for my hand again in broad daylight.
“It must’ve hurt so much,” I said.
Min shook her head, “She’s been through worse.”
“Worse pain than stabbing herself? What’s worse than that?” I asked.
“Not knowing why it all happened to her. She drove herself crazy because bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people, and she just couldn’t make sense of why it happened to her. And there’s nothing worse than not knowing,” Min said.
I felt my hand getting damp with sweat from Min’s grip. It felt uncomfortable, but I left my fingers weaved into hers because sometimes she needs me more than I need her, and those moments are so rare that I’m okay being a little uncomfortable for her.
Min turns to look at me.
“I don’t feel anything,” I say.
“And doesn’t it feel amazing?”
I walk up to the sink and turn the water on, slipping my hand in and out of the waterfall as the temperature gets warmer.
“It kind of made me think about her,” I say.
Min adjusts her bangs in the mirror, “Who?”
“Where do you think she went after she left the hospital?”
Min’s chest rises and falls at a quicker pace, giving the two top buttons on her uniform a kind of nervous heartbeat.
A couple years ago we heard that she got out of the hospital after stabbing herself, but she didn’t return to our block, even though her daughter continues to grow up there under her grandmother. When rumor spread in the neighborhood that she was discharged from the hospital, groups of people went to her house. They didn’t hide that they were visiting out of pure curiosity, because people want to see a living miracle: what are the chances of surviving after you stab yourself in the heart? People often just want to see these miracles so they can gossip about it later and remind themselves that wondrous miracles do exist so a miracle will soon pop up in their lives, a miracle almost as monumental as life being gifted to someone who didn’t want to live.
“You shouldn’t think about her life. It’s not yours,” says Min.
“She just kind of walks through my head sometimes. Because I just think about how she must’ve hated her body while the baby grew inside of her. While it took nutrients from her and made her body swell and made her throw up her food. And I hate my body when I have my period because sometimes, just sometimes I feel like I lose a week of my time out of the month. And she lost so much time,” I say, taking a deep breath.
“And I find myself writing her life for her. Imagining her life for her even though I don’t know her and I haven’t seen her and she was just that girl that got raped in the neighborhood and I don’t want that to be her identity. I don’t want that to be her. So in my mind, I try to make it different for her. But it’ll never be different, right?”
I turn the sink off and dab my wet hands on my face.
“What are you going through?” asks Min, an odd smile spreading across her face.
Min and I stand a couple feet away from each other. She’s looking at me, but she’s simply looking because she’s talking to me and my eyes are the portal for her words. I worry that one day she’ll find out that I look at her like she’s talking to me long after her sentences have ended. I give her my full attention like she’s reading me a love poem, and by the end I find my eyes damp with tears because I haven’t blinked for so long and I always end up realizing it’s a poem meant for someone else. My best nights are when I stay up until 4 a.m. thinking about how I’ve fallen in love with my best friend, but they’re shortly followed by my worst of remembering who I am to her.
“Lately, I wish we could just speak things into existence. I wish things were easy like that,” I say.
“It is for some people, but that’s the type of thing you’re born into. Ease,” says Min, leaning her back against the sink.
“But we were born in the wrong place at the wrong time to the wrong people for things to be easy. Sometimes, when my mom comes home from work in the mornings, she kneels by my bedside thinking I’m sleeping and talks about everything she wishes I could have in my next life. Sometimes she prays for me to be born with a golden spoon in my mouth, rose gold preferably, so I can live with ease.”
“I wish that for you too,” I blurt out.
“Would we meet in our next life?,” Min asks.
“Not if you were rich and I was poor.”
“But you would still want me to be born rich?”
For a moment, I feel like she knows. She knows that if she were rich and I were poor I would cheat, lie, and steal my way to the top to get to her, and she would have no idea where I came from or what I did just to sit at the same table as her, but it would all be worth it. My secret grew legs and crossed territory into that type of secret: the kind that only two people know about because they’ve shared the same breath and have responded to the world in the same way.
I find myself leaning into her space as she props up against the sink. I close my eyes and I feel the heat of her face so close to mine when she cries out.
I open my eyes as she gently pushes me away from her. She turns her back towards me and points to the middle of her skirt drenched in water that was lingering on the counter of the sink. I step away from her as she rushes into a stall, bringing out a roll of toilet paper with her.
She doesn’t address that my face had inched so close to hers that I smelled scents of hers that I’ve never smelled before. She doesn’t address that I just professed everything to her, that she looked deep inside of me without doing anything.
She starts dabbing her skirt aggressively, desperately trying to seep up the water. I wrap my arms around my chest protectively as Min dramatically pulls strings of toilet paper and presses them against her skirt.
Like this, we spend time, and usually time pushes us to move on, but the seconds go by, and the moment lingers thick in the air. I feel water rising between us, but it’s the type of water that’s so incredibly blue I can’t tell what’s living in it, how deep it is, or whether it’s safe to cross over to her side.
Min looks up at me.
“What?” she asks.
She throws tattered pieces of damp toilet paper into the trash and adjusts her skirt. It took her years to look like this. She had to bury the loneliness of sleeping in an empty home as a child. She had to stop running around in the streets and falling asleep on rooftops in the summer. She had to listen to her mother, who told her that a woman is her body and nothing else.
Min checks the back of her skirt and sighs deeply.
“I don’t want to catch hypothermia because my ass got wet in the winter. Could you imagine how humiliating that would be?”
She tilts her head back and laughs that laugh that she does when the world overwhelms her and she wants to scream, but she can’t, so she laughs instead. She clears her throat.
“Hypothermia is when the body temperature drops below 35.0 °C because your body stupidly let go of more heat than it can absorb. The first stage of hypothermia is mental confusion. The second stage is even more confusion. The third and last stage is cardiac arrest.”
“So you’re basically losing your mind until your body gives out and dies,” I say.
“Unless you have something warm,” she responds.
She grabs my hand and places it on the damp back of her skirt.
“So much better!” she shouts, then tilts her head back again and laughs.
I drop my hand away from her skirt and put it in my pocket.
The school bell rings – the melody of our childhood sounds throughout the empty hallways. Students spill out of the classrooms.
Someone jiggles the door to the bathroom then knocks rapidly against the metal frame.
I shift awkwardly towards the door when Min grabs me. She turns my body to face hers again and places her hands on my cheeks. I flinch from the cold tips of her fingers resting on my cheekbones. She wraps her hands around her neck as if to choke herself. Then she gently cups my face again. I feel the warmth of her fingertips fighting against the cold resting layers underneath my skin.
Her hands remain on the edge of my face, perfectly situated as if she were preparing to catch my head if I were to get decapitated.
In this moment, with groups of people now banging on the door, shouting obscenities that echo violently against the walls of the bathroom, I close my eyes and imagine what it would be like to be separated from my body: if it would make existing easier to take up even less space than I do now. I imagine all my feelings wandering desperately with no place to settle in, causing them to jumble tightly into a ball and fly up into the air as ashes.
I flutter my eyelids open and all I see are Min’s eyes. They say everything about her. Maybe that’s why they’re the one thing that refuses to change.
We blink together. Then again. Then again.
Ji Hyun Joo is a writer from South Korea based in Brooklyn, NY. She graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a B.F.A in Dramatic Writing.