I am eight when I am taught to keep secrets. My mother holds my crying face with both hands, and looks me straight in the eyes. The skin of her hands is cold enough to burn against my skin. It takes her a minute before she says something.
“What did I say last time?”
Upon coming up the stairs, the first thing she had done was yell at me to stop screaming like a banshee. But then, I’d pointed my fingers at my brother’s door and at my scratched arm, at once accusing and pleading with my mother for sympathy. She looked at the scratches, her face melting into one of disappointment.
“Alice,” she chided, “It’s not even that bad.”
“It hurts,” I whined.
“You can’t scream like that for something so little,” she said. “You’ll scare people.”
I nodded, confused. I had been wronged – ten minutes ago, I’d been the one my brother had wrestled with over the television remote, the one who’d gotten a claw to her right arm for refusing to hand it over. But my mother’s face assured me that these would be unproductive points to bring up.
“Your dad’s coming home soon,” she said, removing her hands from my face. Even without her pressing against me, I could feel the imprints of her body against mine, the air skimming the skin that she’d touched and cooling it down even further.
She motioned for me to follow her to her restroom, where she sat me down on the side of the sink and helped wash the puffiness from my face. By the time she was done, the redness around my eyes had disappeared, and I could no longer differentiate the parts of me that had been touched by her and by the water.
I’d been rubbed clean.
“You’ll be good, right?” she asked me in Korean. I nodded.
“When daddy comes home for dinner, are you going to cry again?”
I shook my head.
My mom gave me a small smile before rustling my hair.
“우리 착한 딸,” she says. My good daughter.
I beam back at her, happy to do the right thing.
The day of my middle school graduation, nobody speaks at dinner. When I’d left the house in the morning, I had been floating, giddy in my new dress, the first really expensive piece of clothing I’d ever bought. It was pale yellow with cap sleeves, and I loved the way the skirt bounced and rippled as I moved, seemingly defying gravity. It made me feel like Belle.
Sitting inside the restaurant though, the dress’s heavy fabric only serves to heighten my discomfort, making me hyper-aware of my body. My skin tingles in all the places the fabric touches, triggered by the heat of the Korean barbeque and the tension growing at the table.
Ten minutes ago, the table had been filled with the clatter of plates being filled, the sizzle of meat placed on a smoking grill, and loud conversations about who got to eat what. Five minutes ago, I’d been engaged in a heated argument with my brother about who got to eat the last and largest mushroom.
Now we all sit paralyzed. My brother stares at my father with daggers in his eyes, and my mother stares at both with worry in hers. I watch as she opens her mouth, leaving it gaping with the words that she’d lost along the way. The silence grows.
“여보,” my mom finally says. “It’s not a big deal.”
“He’s supposed to set an example! It’s her day, and he’s still pulling this shit?” My dad says it in English to make sure my brother understands him. His accent, perfected by decades of mimicking NPR, is crisp and nearly American, but he still stumbles over the curse word, something he hasn’t taught himself to use. His choice to speak in our native language, rather than his, gives his words less impact. He sounds like an actor, rehearsing a speech, and I see my brother reel with this inch of power he’s been granted.
“I didn’t do anything! I just wanted one goddamn mushroom!”
“Did you just curse at me?”
I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to block out both my embarrassment and my mounting terror. At fourteen, I am old enough to be conscious of the other tables staring at us.
“아빠,” I try. “It’s fine. I don’t really like mushrooms that much anyway.”
My dad whips to me, the fury still glowing in his eyes.
He growls in Korean. “Stay out of this. This isn’t about you.”
Isn’t it though? I nearly scream in frustration. Isn’t that how this all started?
My mom now looks at me from across the table, reminded of my presence. She narrows her eyes at me, and I can see the accusation in that moment.
If you hadn’t fought with your brother about the mushrooms, your dad wouldn’t be acting like this. We could have had a nice dinner for once, but you just couldn’t let it go.
That’s the word she would’ve used.
I stab the piece of meat on my plate, watching the blood flow out as I do exactly what she wants. I stay quiet.
That night when I pass by my brother’s closed bedroom door, I hear the sound of wood shipping bare skin, my brother’s muffled sobs.
This is as much as I gather before I hurry back to my own room.
Write “I’m sorry” 500 times.
This letter is not for me. Even though all of this started because of my mushrooms, I know from experience that my brother’s jagged handwriting will be tossed in the trash before I ever see it. It’s not about the apology. It’s about discipline. At least, this is what I gather from the outside.
I feel guilt rise from my stomach, pushing against my throat, suffocating me.
I should have stayed quiet.
When I am eighteen, every dinner seems to last forever. I stare at the plate of food in front of me, steaming and aromatic, and all I can think about is how to make it go away. My parents are talking with each other, smiling over their food. My brother laughs from across the table at something they say. It’s been four years since he was last hit. It’s been four years since my mother finally screamed loud enough to make my father listen to her.
I pick at the food with my chopstick. I smile at the appropriate times, trying to distract from the way I shred the food on my plate little by little, until it seems as if my chopsticks have chewed the food and spit it back onto the plate. It’s not the best solution, but after the last few months, avoiding dinner isn’t as simple as leaving the table.
The volume suddenly dips, and I feel my parents stare. When I look up, they are watching my hands.
“Everything tastes so good,” I tell them, giving them a smile that reaches my eyes. I can’t tell if they buy it.
“You should eat more,” my dad says softly, cautiously. “Do you want some of my salad?”
I shake my head.
“I’m getting pretty full,” I say, smiling again.
“Alice,” my mother starts.
I scoot back my chair, and the screech is deafening.
“Actually, I’m kind of tired. Is it okay if I go in to do homework?”
Without waiting for an answer, I leave my mangled food to go back to the safety of my room. To forget about the scents of dinner, I lie down in my bed, stomach down, allowing the pressure to calm my hunger pangs.
Later my mom will burst into my room with a plate of food and slam it onto my table.
“Eat,” she will say before bursting into tears.
And I will stare back at her, numb from the lack of food and a lack of concern about this situation.
“I’m fine,” I’ll tell her. “It’s not a big deal.”
I won’t ever reveal that I lied to her about the things I ate earlier that day, or recount the things I’ve tried in the bathroom, all the ways I’ve tried to cleanse myself. It’ll only scare her. I’ll keep those secrets the way I was taught to do so many years ago.
“This isn’t normal,” she’ll plead with me, and I’ll simply watch her blankly, consuming my words until there is nothing left but silence.