transcending silence... 2006 Issue

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Finding Bo-bae

 

Heather McKay *

 

I can’t sleep. It’s too hot. Cody snores beside me, deep in slumber. I don’t know how long I’ve been laying here but it feels like days. I pick up his sweaty arm from my chest and set it on the bed. It was so strong and unyielding earlier, but now it’s limp and unthreatening. I stand up silently and head into the bathroom. As I wash my hands, I look into the mirror. Seeing my face somehow helps; it’s the same as always, just a little bruised. I lift my left hand and gingerly tap my purple cheek.

“Ouch!” I wince uncontrollably. In the other room, I hear Cody stir. I don’t dare breathe. I don’t want him to wake up; I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing his handprint on my face.

My hand ventures once more to my cheek, interested in feeling its swollen contours. It looks so unreal. This time, I anticipate the pain and am able to trace the edge of the bruise with a shaking finger. While doing so, the scar on my hand catches my eye. It is whiter than the rest of my skin.

I put my hand in front of my face and study it. The doctor told my parents that the burn would heal completely. Nearly sixteen years later, it still consumes half of the top of my hand. My last two fingers violated entirely; the skin on them is shiny and thin.

I let my mind wander. It travels back to my childhood. Lately, I haven’t allowed myself to think of the past. I refused to remember where this burn came from, where all the pain came from. Why dwell on things that are over and done with, after all? This time though, maybe born of a new determination or maybe just out of sheer exhaustion, I let the thoughts wash over me like an aching sea.

_________________________________

My biological mother was fifteen when she gave birth to me. She lived in North Korea. When she found out that she was pregnant, she was terrified. She tried to hide it. She would wear loose clothing and make attempts to conceal her stomach.

These were only temporary solutions, however. By her third trimester she had attempted four abortions. She’s lucky that she didn’t kill herself in the process. This is what they tell me anyway, though it seems pretty far-fetched to me.

Finally, because she couldn’t abort the pregnancy, she saw that she had no choice and told my grandparents. Her mother slapped her, her father ordered her out of his sight. She spent at least two days locked in her room, not sleeping, not eating, simply laying on the wooden floorboards listening. Her parents fought bitterly. My grandfather blamed my grandmother for teaching their daughter to be such a slut, for serving her freshwater eel, which every Korean knows is an aphrodisiac. She failed them all.

Once she could no longer listen to her parents' anguish, she climbed out of her small window and ran away. Sometimes I think about what it must have been like for her: fifteen years old, leaving her home, not having anywhere to turn. She named me Bo-bae, a Korean name which means “precious treasure”. She kept me for about a month after I was born. God only knows how she managed to find food for herself.

Eventually, her parents found her, starving, lost, and alone. They told her that they would take her back; but to save the family name, she had to get rid of me. Seeing that she could not adequately care for me, my mother had little choice. My birth was forgotten, covered up, a source of shame. I was taken to an adoption agency that sent me to the United States with hopes of a better future.

_________________________________

My adoptive parents picked me up from the agency on September 15, 1980. My new family consisted of my parents and an older brother, Keary. My brother was my hero. He would take me to the park and introduce me to all of his cool friends. He’d even play dolls from time to time if I asked real nice. He was eleven years older than I was though. This age difference was something Keary never let me forget.

My parents decided that they wanted to change my name, so the whole family sat in the living room and brainstormed. They narrowed it down to “Sabrina” and “Kate”. Keary wanted the latter, so he always called me “Kate”. My parents however preferred Sabrina, reasoning that since it means “princess,” it was perfect.

My brother wanted to know what his name meant, but our parents didn’t know.

“This is the third time, I guess we’ve gotten better at naming by now, huh?” my dad had said to him.

_________________________________

“Kate! Kate!” The voice interrupted my dreams. “Wake up! It’s Christmas!”

Registering what Keary had said, I jumped up in my “big-girl” bed. We raced down the stairs and into the living room. Everything was red and green; the tree stood proudly in the middle, presents strewn around its trunk. My thirteen year-old-brother grabbed my hand as we ran towards the gifts. I studied him; this was only my second Christmas and I wanted to do it right. He circled the splendor, turning the tags over to see for whom each present was designated.

He began to scowl as he circled a second time. He looked up at me. His eyes were dark blue pools of anger.

“Mom!” he screamed. Our parents were making coffee in the kitchen.

Mom came running in with worry on her face. Seeing that no one was bleeding, she breathed a sigh of relief and asked Keary what was wrong.

“All of these say ‘Sabrina’!” he whined.

“Oh Keary,” Mom said, “When you were Sabrina’s age you got that many presents! You told Santa that now that you’re a teenager, you didn’t want toys!”

“Well, I didn’t mean it!” Keary shrieked back. He ran up the stairs crying.

I started to cry too, although I wasn’t exactly sure why. My mom scooped me up in her arms and brought me into the kitchen. Dad went upstairs and talked to Keary. By the time I had finished my breakfast, Keary was back. We opened our presents together and I let him play with my toys. The dollhouse was our favorite; Keary was the dad and I was the daughter. We played for hours.

After we had tired of this, Keary suggested playing airplane. Airplane was my favorite game. I giggled gleefully as I soared through the air on his feet. My toys were all around us.

“Let go of my hands, Kate,” he said, “it’s so much more fun that way; you feel like you’re really flying!”

“Call her by her name, Keary,” my mom called from the other room. “It’s not Kate - it’s Sabrina.”

I shook a little when I let go of his hands, the pressure increasing on my abdomen. I was scared, but it was Keary, so I knew I’d be safe. I felt like I really was a plane soaring through the living room.

Keary’s legs began to seem as if they were going farther forward little by little. Finally, in the excitement, he tipped too far and I went careening through the air. I flew onto the dollhouse, the chimney cutting my eyelid. We spent the rest of that Christmas in the emergency room.

Keary only apologized after Mom made him, but after all, I was the one who had let go.

_________________________________

Keary would come to my room every morning before he went to school, just to say hi. He always woke me up by hitting me; I guess he thought it was funny. One time, Keary crept in and began looking around my room, most likely for some toy to throw at me. This time though, I had already awoken, but I kept my eyes half-shut, interested to see what he had up his sleeve. The suspense was too much for my youthful anticipation, however, and I ended up screaming and scaring him so badly that he told on me.

That day, when Keary came home from middle school, I had an apology all planned. I thought he would still be angry, but he just acted as if nothing had happened. He was so nice.

About a week after this, he called me out to play in the fort that he and his friends had built on the outskirts of our parents' land. I couldn’t believe it. No one - especially a girl - was allowed back there except them. They were all there, the neighborhood boys, staring down at me as Keary and I walked towards the giant wooden structure. It took about fifteen minutes to get to, but it felt like an eternity. I never strayed that far from the house.

“So, what do you wanna do?” asked the one with buckteeth and freckles, once we had climbed up the rope ladder. The others huddled around the shack, waiting.

“Let’s play hide-and-seek,” Keary answered, looking at me. “You love that game, don’t you, Sis?”

I was too shy to respond, but it didn’t matter because most of the boys were already on the rope ladder and wouldn’t have heard my answer anyway. My brother and I were the only two left standing there.

“Well, I guess you have to count,” he said, and before I could protest, headed down the ladder behind the rest.

Sitting cross-legged on the uneven floorboards, I covered my eyes and counted to twenty. I precariously went down the rope ladder, pausing after every step. Once down safely, I turned to survey our expansive lawn. I saw no sign of the boys. I searched for what seemed like hours.

I had uncovered every nook and cranny of the lawn. The only area left unscoured was the woods. I crept slowly towards the untamed timber, but stopped when I remembered my parents' warnings. Don’t go beyond the grass, they always lectured. I was always a brave child, but disobeying my parents was a whole other issue. I turned back towards the house, and would have continued inside, but I heard a boy’s voice coming from the wooded area.

With renewed curiosity, I briskly changed direction. My brother was the only one I would do this for. It was scary in there, and every time a branch broke under my feet, it sounded like it had come from someone or something else.

“Help!” I heard a voice in the distance.

Gathering up my courage, I started towards the voice. I just kept thinking, what if something happened to them? It would be all my fault because I didn’t find them! I followed the calls until the woods thickened. It grew so dark that I could scarcely see my Velcro-sneakers on the path. I turned around in a circle looking for light but found none. Having done so, I lost my bearings. Where had I come in here? Which direction was my house?

I stood still, racking my four-year old brain for a way out. Standing there in the pitch black, I thought I heard a twig snap, but I shrugged it off. But there it was again and then a third time- that time I heard it for sure. My only hope was that whatever creature I couldn’t see, couldn’t see me either!

With tears streaming down my face, I couldn’t take it any longer. Collapsing on the mossy earth, I gave in to sobs of fear. That’s when I heard laughing. I had just enough time to look up and see the direction in which a figure ran. I followed it and found myself back in my yard, out of the woods, enveloped in the welcoming sunshine. I ran through the lawn and reached the house in a few minutes. It was quite a distance; our house wasn’t very large, but my parents took pride in the amount of land that we owned.

By the time I made it inside, I was crying so hard my mother didn’t know what to do except hug me. Later, when I was coloring at the dining room table my brother came in.

“Where were you?” he asked. “We were hiding forever and you never came.” At first I didn’t believe him, but he explained that he and his friends had hid in the front yard where I had forgotten to look. My brother is so nice, I only wished that he had been in the woods to protect me.

_________________________________

During the summer, the house across the street from ours went up for sale. Within a few weeks, the Penn family had moved in. Their son Brock was big, much bigger than any teenager should be, and mean. I was six years old.

My mom and I watched the movers work as we sat on lawn chairs on the front porch. Eventually, a brown station wagon pulled into their driveway and the Penn’s got out, one by one. Looking at me, Mom suggested that she and I bring the newcomers one of the cherry pies we had made the day before. I readily agreed and asked Keary to come too. The three of us headed over to offer our salutations.

By the time we got there, Brock was bouncing a basketball in the driveway. He offered no response to my mother’s “hello”. Keary, to my dismay, recognized that he looked to be his age and went over to play with him. His mom was helping the movers bring in box after box. She called to us, and invited my mom and me inside.

The three of us sat on cardboard boxes, drinking lemonade. Brock’s mom explained that being a single mother of five was no easy task. She worked two jobs and, unfortunately, the kids oftentimes had to fend for themselves. She had finally gotten a promotion, enabling them to move from their apartment into their first house.

That night, while my family ate dinner on our backyard deck, something was different. Keary had refused to look me in the eye all evening, it seemed. When we had nearly finished, he looked up, those dark blue eyes piercing, and said to me, “Brock says you’re a chink.”

Chaos ensued; my parents leapt up, my dad dragged Keary inside by the arm and my mom, whose gasps had turned into yells, followed. There I sat, pushing the peas around my plate with my fork, not knowing what had just happened. Not knowing what that word meant.

I guess that’s the day it got worse.

_________________________________

It was Easter. Keary and I were standing in the kitchen, waiting for the water to boil. We were going to dye Easter eggs with food coloring. Mom had stepped out to talk on the telephone with her sister. My mom and her sister always talked for a long time on the phone.

Smiling at me, Keary took my hand and put it on his pants.

“Feel that?” he asked.

I pulled my hand away but he grabbed it back.

“I said, do you feel it?” he growled.

“Keary stop!” I said, and yanked my hand away with all my might. I didn’t anticipate him letting go and my hand flew free. Before I could stop the momentum, it was in the flame under the pan. I screamed and Mom came running. I had never been hurt so badly before. My entire hand seemed like it would sting forever and my pinky was burnt nearly beyond recognition.

I cried in the emergency room, but not because of my severe burn. Keary had his arm around me the whole time. I remember thinking about how nice he usually was. He didn’t mean for me to get burned, after all.

_________________________________

Keary began to spend more and more time at the Penn’s house. My parents tried to keep him from Brock, but the pair always found some way to sneak around. Keary began talking very differently; he swore and referred to things as “gay” or “retarded”.

He wouldn’t go anywhere with me. He’d promise my mom to meet me after school and walk with me back home and never show. He got his driver’s license and Mom and Dad would suggest him taking me to get ice cream, to my dance recital, or to my gymnastics practice. Sometimes he would, but he rarely stuck around to take me home. I’d have to get rides with my friends because I didn’t know where he had gone.

Then he started to touch me more often. He would grab me, sometimes he did it softly, but other times he’d do it hard and quick so that no one saw and it hurt. He’d touch my chest and say that someday I’d be a slut because of what I’d have there. I knew it was all because of something I had done, something terrible. My best friend hated me.

He’d lock himself in his room and blast heavy metal until my parents yelled. He’d laugh at me every time I spoke. But I tried, nevertheless, to talk to him. He was my idol, my favorite person in the whole world. I just needed to show him that I was cool too and then he would be nice to me again.

_________________________________

On my seventh birthday, I had my chance. Keary was a senior in high school. He and Brock were by now best friends. My mom demanded that Keary come to my birthday party, even though he called it “stupid kid shit”.

My parents were rushing around, putting up decorations and tending to the arriving guests. My brother sat in a chair by the snacks, not talking to anyone. Seeing him just sitting there, Mom asked him to help by opening more fold-up chairs.

Dad walked out of the house towards me and yelled, “Surprise!”

I turned. He was holding a little black jewelry box. Mom came over with a grin on her face. Keary stopped mid-chair. I just stared at the box.

“Go on!” Mom prompted. “It’s for you, birthday girl!”

Taking the box from my dad, I unwrapped it with care. Inside was a locket on a gold chain. The locket was engraved with a rose. It was the most precious gift anyone had ever given me. I couldn’t believe it!

“Happy Birthday to our little princess,” Dad said, as a grin spread across my face.

Keary’s face had turned bright red. No one but me noticed when he stormed out of the back yard.

By evening, the party had quieted down. Keary had returned to the party, Brock in tow, and they sat silently on the side of the yard, out of range of the Chinese lanterns my parents had hung. My friends and their parents had all left, the presents had all been opened, but the day was not over.

My mom looked from her unruly son to me, sitting on a bench pretending to understand the grown-up’s conversation.

“Keary, why don’t you and Brock play with Sabrina?” she suggested. “It’s her birthday and you didn’t get her anything, it’s the least you could do.”

Keary looked at Brock who nodded. The three of us walked towards the vacated tree house. The grass had been overtaken with weeds back there after years of misuse. We trekked through the prickly brush, making as much noise as elephants.

“Let’s climb up to the tree house,” Brock suggested.

“Yeah, I haven’t been up there in forever,” my brother agreed.

Once we had climbed up, the three of us sat there, staring at each other. I grew nervous. I didn’t know why they were looking at me the way they were. I looked into Keary’s stormy eyes and saw the familiar jealous glare. That’s when Brock started calling me names.

He began asking me if I knew the difference between a boy and a girl. I didn’t answer; I was too scared.

“What’s the matter, Kate?” Keary chimed in. “Scared ‘cause Mommy and Daddy aren’t here to protect you? Scared because they aren’t here to call you ‘princess’ and buy you expensive jewelry?”

He grabbed the beloved necklace from around my neck and yanked. It broke and he threw it across the room as I started to cry. I don’t remember the rest, I honestly don’t. When it was all over, I listened as their voices disappeared in the distance. I stared down at my body, my violated body. My dress was shoved up to my armpits and there were splinters on the backs of my arms.

I cried for a very long time, just lying on the wooden floorboards listening. After a while, my eyes focused on the locket which was on the floor a few feet away; its chain was broken beyond repair. I scooped it up in my sweaty hand and held it tightly.

In a short while, they returned. They must have realized how much trouble they were going to get into. They climbed up and began threatening me. I tried to disappear in the corner. I wished I was just one of the boards of wood, insensitive and free.

“If you tell Mom or Dad, we will just do it again, only it will be even worse,” Keary said nervously.

“Yeah, you deserved it anyway,” Brock added. “You shouldn’t have let your brother be treated that way.”

They were right. I knew they were right. Mom and Dad weren’t fair. They spoiled me; Keary had been forgotten. I decided then and there that I would never tell anyone what happened to me that day in the tree house.

_________________________________

The tears streamed down my face. I slumped onto Cody’s bathroom floor. I stand and turn on the water. Cupping my hands and covering my face with it, I let the cool liquid wash over me.

I take one step back into the bedroom. Cody is obviously deep in sleep, I can tell from his breathing. I reach for my purse and jeans on a nearby chair. I unzip the secret pocket in the side of my purse and pull out my locket. The broken chain is still wrapped around it. The gold gleams in the morning sunlight seeping in from the window.

Cody snores so loudly that I glance in his direction. He does not look the same; I don’t see him the way I used to. He is not my protector like I once thought. He is just finishing what Keary began. He is just fulfilling the prophecy.

With locket and broken chain in hand and jeans slumped over my arm, I creep back into the bathroom. As I walk in, I stub my toe on the tub near the doorway. The pain is too great, spreading up my entire leg, and I cry out. Cody, ripped out of his slumber, immediately starts shouting my name out.

“Sabrina!” he yells. “Sabrina! What are you doing? Where the fuck are you?” There is no compassion in his voice. “Sabrina! Sabrina!” I cannot keep my thoughts straight; all I hear is his cold voice, screaming out that haunting name over and over. Sabrina, Sabrina, Sabrina.

I sneak a look around the door at him. He’s sitting up in bed, sheets thrown off, hands clutched into fists, his face red, veins showing in his neck as he screeches. I close my eyes. When I open them again, it is not Cody that I see, it’s Keary’s dark blue eyes piercing my soul.

“Kate!” he screams. “Get the hell in here, Kate.” I slam the bathroom door closed and turn the flimsy lock. Kate, Sabrina, Kate, Sabrina; the voices bleed together. I collapse onto the floor against the locked door.

“How could you let this happen, you whore,” my grandfather screeches at my grandmother. “You must have brought other men home, no daughter of mine would have learned this behavior any other way!”

I jump up, panting for air. I run to the mirror. My mother is there, staring back at me, tears streaming down her swollen cheeks. Her mouth is forming words but I cannot hear her over the other voices. Kate! Sabrina! You whore! Kate! The voices are close to the bathroom door now, there is knocking and banging. I see the door shake. Finally, I lean in close to the mirror and hear my mother.

“Bo-bae, my precious treasure,” she calls in a singsong voice. Bo-bae, Bo-bae, Bo-bae, her voice is quieter than the others’ are, but each syllable dances into my eardrums, resonating in my mind. Leaving the necklace on the floor where I had dropped it, I slip into my jeans as quick as I can. I climb out of the bathroom window and race down the fire escape.

As I walk out of the woods the morning sun shines on my face. I stand in the back alley outside of Cody’s apartment building, wondering what to do next. As a smile grows across my face, I realize the power I possess. I have made it and my life is mine once more. Perhaps it is mine for the very first time in my life.

I walk down the street towards city hall, my mother’s soothing voice still echoing in my ears. Mounting the stone steps, I push open the heavy wooden door.

“May I help you?” a stoic secretary looks up from her desk.

“Yes,” I reply, “I would like to change my name.”

“Fill out this paperwork, someone will see you momentarily.”

I walk over to the vinyl chairs and sit, placing the clipboard and papers in my lap. I write my name on the designated line with pride and finality:

Bo-bae

_________________________________

 

Heather McKay is a sophomore at the University at Albany. In 2008, she will complete a B.A. in Criminal Justice, with a concentration in American Government and a minor in Women’s Studies. She taught WSS101 this past year through the Women’s Studies Teaching Collective and has loved being a part of the Women’s Studies department here at UAlbany. She plans on attending law school after earning her undergraduate degree and will continue writing both fiction and nonfiction inspired by the people and places around her. (Return)

 

Edited by: Joanna Abad and Jennifer Punch

 

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