Could by Me-K Ahn
She kissed him because she could, and when he told her not to meet anyone else that evening, she agreed though she knew she would meet another later. And then another after that. If she didn't agree, his middle-aged face would collapse into a little-boy pout; maybe that was why she couldn't take him seriously. She liked him and she didn't.
He took her hand into his; he was always doing this since they'd rediscovered each other a couple months earlier, along with the other siblings, just after she'd arrived in Seoul on a research fellowship, and she knew she had to be careful. One morning Ji-tae had left her apartment just minutes before her brother arrived. It surprised her how little she cared.
It's all in the timing, Ji-tae said to her as he left. And my ex is due to arrive soon. I know you wanted to see me this weekend, but there's nothing I can do.
Ji-tae had called her from a party the night before and asked her to rescue him from the swarming girls. He was drunk as usual, stumbling down the street near her place. She liked to help him when she could, but when he rolled over on her bed and passed out, it upset her. What had she expected? The sound of his snoring had bothered her enough that she left the apartment and went to the 7-11. On the sidewalk she thought she saw a reflection of her face, like a mirage; she took a quick detour for fear of running into herself.
Later the next day, her friend Kate told her she'd read a poem in which a dream had been smeared with dirt on the sidewalk.
She didn't know why Ji-tae wanted to see his ex, but he never questioned her, so she returned the favor. She had plenty of other places to go. Sang-woo's girlfriend was away for the weekend, and he'd been hinting all week about another sleepover. Which would be fine if only he didn't make those awful noises after they were done, the ones that reminded her of her father, or anyone's father -- anyone twenty years older, hacking away in the bathroom. She didn't understand why he had to be so loud.
And Min would see her any time, though her girlfriend was in town this weekend and every other weekend. One call and she would be at their favorite video bang, the one with the widescreen TV's and big beds that took up entire rooms -- beds provided for a small price (paid in money and shame) in a city where most people lived with their parents until marriage. Last time she and Min were there, she wondered how many underage girls might be getting pregnant. Min had told her that pregnancy was fast becoming an epidemic, and the pressure was on to make the abortion process a little less abusive.
Girls still don't know how they get pregnant, Min had said. They get lured here by men they meet on-line.
Min never knew about the others she'd just been with before they met at the video place. They never talked about that. More information might hamper Min's orgasm; she was the type of girl who could easily become jealous, even though she was cheating on her girlfriend. Early on, when Min had asked her about Jiwon, she'd lied and said she hadn't seen her, and then they never spoke of it again. Jiwon particularly vexed Min because they worked together and were friends, and Jiwon was younger.
So it would be Min first, then Sang-woo for the overnight.
She could feel the energy on the sidewalks as she walked to the bus stop, everyone anticipating the success or horror of the impending evening. These days had a vigor all their own, and even in her inertia she couldn't resist the way they made her socialize--more than she ever had in her life. The pace hadn't worn on her yet, as it had on the others she knew who were beginning to fatigue. Maybe it was easier because she knew her situation was temporary.
I've been dreaming of Picasso lately, Kate had said the week before.
You must be going to pieces, she'd responded.
No, maybe it was Braque, said Kate. In the dream, my face goes absurd. It seems to dilate.
Don't feel bad, she'd responded. It happens here.
The smell of the video bang was worse than usual -- a musty, used odor, along with that of cleaning products to mask it. Sometimes when she left, she thought she could taste the bleach in her mouth. Min was late, looking more disheveled than usual in her camouflage rain jacket and loose-fitting jeans.
She picked "The Matrix" because she liked sci-fi and was an aspiring filmmaker with her own female cyborg stories. Once the movie began, they started kissing, and Min finally relaxed her tongue, which was usually hard and fast and unattractive.
Do you think our reality is illusion? she asked Min as the men in suits replicated into hundreds on the screen.
Reality is reality, Min said. It's whatever you want it to be.
What if you're not real? Does it matter? Min said. She lay back on the bed with a serene smile.
I might not be real, Min continued. But you can feel my skin, right?
How can you still be with someone who can't give you an orgasm? she asked Min. You seem to require many...
It only makes it better with you, said Min.
They relaxed together for a short while, kissing and fawning over each other's soft skin. Before she went off to meet Sang-woo, they stood on the sidewalk while Min smoked a cigarette. An old man walked up and started yelling at Min, waving his cane.
She grabbed Min's hand and pulled her away. You shouldn't smoke on the street, she said.
I've been doing it for years, Min said. It's any woman's right.
You couldn't even run away from him, she said.
What do you know? Min said. You haven't lived here long.
It was low lighting with Sang-woo -- a quiet dinner at a faux traditional restaurant and then back to his place. He'd been lonely lately, even with his girlfriend of several years. So he needed all the foreplay of eating and drinking and talking, whereas she was fine with just fucking.
When they were finally in bed, he moved around in sweeping, almost dramatic movements as they kissed. She really didn't like all his physical effort; it had little effect on her. She tried to discourage him by making her body go limp or by pinning his leg with her foot, but this only seemed to encourage him. As he entered her, he began his running commentary. She didn't like his self-conscious bravado; he was too easily confused by her detachment. She didn't know what she liked about him at all, in fact, except they'd been friends first, and then he'd begun to massage her legs under the table whenever they met. How had they hid it from their friends? Afterwards, she couldn't be in the same room with Sang-woo without wanting to feel his touch.
She left before Sang-woo woke the next morning and didn't leave a note. He'd fallen asleep after his orgasm, and his snoring was even louder than Ji-tae's. She knew Sang-woo wouldn't mind her leaving; he just wanted someone else in his bed overnight.
Back at her apartment a few hours later, she was with her brother, who was kissing her again. She had to admit she liked his kissing the best. He was by far the most experienced, though his face was the least pleasant; it was hard and pocked with sadness. They avoided eye contact, which she thought appropriate to keep a proper distance. Some days she thought the kissing would keep him closer to her, but now she felt herself resisting for the first time.
Maybe you should stop kissing me there, she said as he made his way down her body.
Maybe I should, he said, and continued kissing her.
Isn't this wrong? she said.
I need to satisfy myself too, he said.
They were at the studio apartment her other brother, the monk, had arranged for her. She'd been perfectly happy in the room she'd rented from a family, but he'd objected, saying she needed her own private entrance. He didn't like having to socialize with the family.
He'd bought her the latest model the of super-sized refrigerator, complete with a kimchi section that cooled at a certain temperature. And then the super-sized washing machine. Although she appreciated these gifts, she didn't want him to buy her anything else; she already felt beholden. But he'd insisted, and there wasn't much she could do.
Monk brother says he's sorry he can't meet with you more often, her brother said, stretching himself out on the floor mattress. Elder Sister's been bothering him, and he just doesn't have time for family. He will call soon, she said. Don't worry, her brother said. I'm going to be your father mother brother and sister. It's my responsibility.
I only want a brother, she said.
In the morning, her brother touched her hand, and she flinched. But she let him continue because she knew it would be temporary. Just like everything else in her life. Like this time in Korea. She hadn't stayed in one place for more than a year for as long as she could remember.
The research money could last a while, but the longer she stayed, the less comfort she felt, although there were moments of stasis where she felt a shaky kind of connection. Like the party the other night with Min after the Seoul Film Festival. She'd already met many of the people there and was able to make small talk, which she didn't mind so much with all the alcohol and food that kept appearing. A group of younger male filmmakers had taken to her. They shared a long series of whiskey shots, which she chose to sip.
She'd watched Ki-ho and Sae-jin get drunk. They talked about her odd, soothing voice, her long, slender fingers. But they didn't know her well enough yet to demand anything in return. Then Sae-jin walked to the center of the dance floor and urinated. Ki-ho ran over to him, zipped up his pants and escorted him out of the main room.
If she stuck around, she knew people would get increasingly curious and demand more of her. They'd tire of her evasions. They'd eventually tire of her anyway, given their attention span; they were just as quickly bored as they were intrigued.
Nothing could ever stay the same or happen the same way, which was what pulled her through each day. Her brother wouldn't always take her hand into his. Min wouldn't always orgasm on the big bed. Ji-tae wouldn't always leave her apartment at the right time.
For now, nobody knew about anybody else, though they'd all at some point accused her of infidelity. Nobody knew what she did with her days. She didn't want anyone to retrace her steps. She wanted to live in the moment and take everyone else there with her.
But her brother was ruining this. He wanted most things to stay the same, except of course the things he wanted to change – like her.
They went to his favorite sushi restaurant that evening, after shopping and a movie in the same upscale neighborhood. He ate the same slabs of silvery pink fish and sang the same sad songs in the karaoke room they rented afterwards.
Back at her studio, he began exploring her body more, and she didn't like it. The kissing was fine because it didn't really matter. But then he took her from behind, and the raw, guttural sounds that came out of his mouth made her feel as though she were floating above, looking down on herself as he pushed harder than she ever thought he could. She usually didn't mind this kind of separation from herself, especially at night in her dreams. It felt rather comforting, in fact, as if it were natural. But now, she felt other parts of herself disappearing, to the point where her vision was cracking everything to pieces and then blurring into nothing. This frightened her and angered him. He couldn't stand to be ignored.
I'm crazy, he said as he dropped down on the mattress.
You are my brother, she said, staring at the ceiling.
I'm human too, he said. I have needs.
But I'm your sister, she said. After all these years, I need a brother. I need you to stop.
I can't stop, he said. I don't know why.
You must, she wanted to say to him. I won't have a brother anymore if you don't.
But she walked out of the apartment instead and knew she wouldn't see him again, because she couldn't.