There is urine on the seat again. Every time Shaohan sees splotches of his father’s urine on the toilet seat, something clenches inside him. He doesn’t have to sit there right now, but his mother will at some point. With a heavy heart, Shaohan unravels the toilet paper, the decades-long sadness of the living situation broiling in his mind. He stops. He does not tear off a portion. Fuck it, he thinks, she’s made her bed.
Shaohan sleepily makes his way back to his bed. He can already hear the birds outside. In three hours he has to get up to drive his parents to the airport, and then he has to go open up their school.
Shaohan awakens to the sound of shouting. Same story, different morning: his father yelling at his mother for some trivial shit like burnt pancakes, or something to do with food – which really has less to do with food than his father’s underlying dissatisfaction with life here in Seoul. Shaohan has often wished that his father would leave and return to those greener pastures of Shamsbury where the man believes he’d bask in a better life.
Shaohan used to argue too, when his father started like this. He’d tell the man to stop shouting at his mother. You put yourself here, Shaohan would also retort. You chose to get married — a discreet way to remind his father that he knew the man just wanted to have sexual intercourse with a Korean woman, as if this was a bucket-list Wonder-of-the-World event the man just had to experience. On times like these dreadful mornings, Shaohan used to feel like knocking the man’s head in for that stupidity. When just to indulge in a fetish and experience some imaginary Korean-conquering orgasm, that decision made everything that resulted from it a tragedy. What a mess.
Instead, Shaohan slowly gets up, picks the crusts out from his eyes and goes to take a shower. The falling water does an almost-successful job of drowning out the shouting. Shaohan tries to focus on the sound of the water, its massaging feel on his skin and the crown of his head. Today his parents are going to Udo Island for a week, to oversee the orientation and training of new TEFL teachers. Give praise for small mercies, but not to the same god his mother takes all her silent suffering to, the one who controls the Reasons why everything unpleasant – including this marriage – is happening. Other women, Shaohan is sure, would have snapped by now.
Shaohan’s father continues his ranting as son drives parents to the airport. Shaohan focuses on the road, remaining silent, only giving his two won when something spouted definitely needed rebutting. Shaohan cared little anymore, but he wasn’t dead. He did not know the concept of emotional abuse even existed, until he felt it course through him like a disintegrative acid. That closed a lead door in him, and he thenceforth spoke to his father on a first-name basis: “Robert”.
Robert’s phone rings.
“Hello?… Yes Mr. Jong, how are you?” Robert says sweetly. Shaohan used to scowl at this hypocrisy but all he musters now is vague disdain. “Yes, yes, the textbooks have been ordered. They should be there already…Of course I relayed your cheque to Mr. Neville – and your invitation to Udo… Ha ha… Yes, I’m going over there now… well, we’ll see when we get there eh?… Yes… yes… Ok… Bye, Mr. Jong, have a good day.” Shaohan attempts to privately confer with his mother via the rearview mirror, but she is staring out the window. Her glazed-over eyes look at nothing in particular.
At the airport, Shaohan and his mother hug warmly, and he and his father hug formally. “I’ll see you in a week,” his father says. Don’t come back, okay? Shaohan wants to mutter. A porter approaches and attends to his parents’ luggage and Mr. and Mrs. Terry are pointed to the first-class passengers’ aisle. Robert Terry carries a briefcase, a cellphone and an air of busy importance: this blonde, tall man sticking out amidst the locals, one of whom he seems to have taken as a wife – though standing by him and largely ignored, she may as well have been a piece of luggage the porter forgot to take. Shaohan can picture the scene when his parents arrive in Udo: this Adam-like man winning everyone over with his celebrity smile and effortless charisma, the firm and thorough handshake shaking off the presupposition of respectful distance that people here are accustomed to and subdued by. It seemed to shake them up too, Shaohan noticed: this charmingly careless, winking prophet of the English language, the harbinger of internationality.
For Shaohan, there isn’t much – if anything – left to say to his father. As he makes his way to school he wonders, as he often does, on whether or not he’d go to his father’s funeral should the man eventually return to Shamsbury and pass on. He sees that occasion as something irrelevant to what matters in his life now. Those twenty-plus hours of flying – and then time in England – would be an unnecessary waste of his time. Shaohan feels like it’d be a slow death for him too: being bathed with earnest condolences and happy anecdotes. Funerals are like subdued parties for those who don’t have a fucking clue about who the person of the hour really was. Even this – opening up Terry’s English Academy for the day – is an unwanted obligation for Shaohan. He is one of Robert Terry’s prop crew, maintaining the theatre stage.
Some teachers are already waiting when Shaohan pulls up to the school. In the beginning he was observed with a mix of awe and curiosity whenever he was introduced to clients and teachers by his father, which caused him to feel like a marketing strategy, a mascot of sorts. But Shaohan would play along, too, and say he was a kite – Korean-white – because whorean was, well, too….
Parents and students soon arrive, and Shaohan greets them. He explains that he’s now the interim guy while Mr. and Mrs. Terry are temporarily away. It is during these extended times with students and parents that Shaohan is recipient to the effusive praise and high regard that they all hold for his father, and today is no different. Shaohan hears how Mr. Terry! is the reason they and their children passed the English exams to study overseas, Mr. Terry! is the reason they sealed deals with foreign businesses, Mr. Terry! is the reason they could now travel to Australia or New Zealand or Canada and recognize signs, book hotels! Take public transit, order food! Make friends with others, get on with the locals! To Shaohan, here at the school, it was like his father never even left. And now that these kindly folk knew Shaohan would be alone for a week, they’d fuss and bring him tasty home-cooked meals, arranged carefully and aesthetically in airtight containers. Yes, it was like Robert Terry never even left, and not only did Shaohan have to hear about his father’s hypocrisy, he’d have to eat it too.
Shaohan saw his mother first. She was sitting dolefully at the small kitchen table, her hands clasping a small teacup. There was no steam coming out of the cup; no scent of ginger in the air.
“Hi Mom,” Shaohan said.
“Hi Shao…” his mother replied, sounding like an out-of-tune instrument.
“What’s the matter?”
Jae-eun Terry’s lower lip quivered. Her biting down on it didn’t help. “Robert had a woman for s-seventeen years right after he married me,” she stammered, letting herself cry. “Even while you were born.”
Shaohan paused. He stared at his mother in sad compassion and took her hands in his. His father was like the news coming out of a perpetually messed-up land: amidst all the usual chaos and madness, something else uniquely shocking and fucked-up was sure to arise.
Through intermittent crying, Shaohan’s trembling mother revealed how she and Shaohan’s father had been in their hotel room on Udo, where again she was being yelled at for the man’s discontent. From a painful, tortuous understanding inside her, she had asked: “Robert…do you hate me?” And in the exchange that followed, the story of Robert Terry’s infidelity to his wife was revealed.
Shaohan could picture with his own sense of sadness the millions of internalized hurts that had accumulated within his mother, to create a pain so dense that she had to name it. He thought he should feel angry about these revelations, but he had internalized enough reason to disconnect from his father a long time ago. A natural possibility was how Shaohan saw himself; a biological given. Male and female engage in sexual intercourse, resulting in offspring. Nature before nurture, and sentiments irrelevant.
But Shaohan still yet had sentiments regarding the effects of his parents’ marriage, and he didn’t want his encroaching indifference to blanket these permanently. Not only did Shaohan seldom defend his mother anymore, he also hardly called his father out on the smaller, maddening everyday irritants and negligences that made him want to curse at best, and punch walls at worst.
Jae-eun Terry and Robert Terry now slept in separate bedrooms, speaking little to each other. Shaohan’s mother would tell her son that there were many times when she’d want to tear off her clothes, burst out the front door and run naked through the streets, screaming and bawling in grief and pain. Shaohan would acknowledge his father with a scowl, and stopped talking to him on principle. Robert Terry didn’t say anything to this, nor to his wife’s injured reactions of blame and hurt. Irreparability and separation were obvious, but divorce was not. Mr. and Mrs. Terry had amassed much while married: a property in Seoul, a property in Shamsbury, a small network of schools, cars, joint-accounts and lines of credit, memberships, public and educational reputations and of course, Shaohan. What hope did Jae-eun’s health have against these monuments and the inevitable legalities of dividing them between her and her potential ex-husband? And she had long unquestioningly incorporated the caretaking responsibilites for these possessions as a given into her life. Yet all she really needed for herself, Shaohan was convinced, was just one apartment.
Shaohan still tried to minimize his mother’s sense of obligation to all the materiality. If there were dishes in the kitchen sink at the end of the day, he would wash them. He would then sweep the kitchen floors and tidy the living room so that his mother would not see any unkemptness upon arising the next day, lest she slip into mindless cleaning yet again. And still beneath that hope, Shaohan was urged on by the thought that if his mother saw nothing immediate to attend to, she would indeed one day burst out the front door – sufficiently clothed – and never return, focused now on herself.
In the early hours of the morning as his mother and father sleep, Shaohan gets up from his bed and makes his way to the bathroom. There is urine on the toilet seat again; definitely his father’s. Shaohan wipes it away. When he climbs back into bed, he hears the awakening birds outside, whistling and chirping. The sky is soft; streaked and raw. Every morning is a chance for a new life.
Born in Trinidad, Tristan now resides in Toronto. He thanks you for reading.
Featured Image via Shutterstock