Roman Boyko CC
Wait for Me, Halmeoni
Last spring, you slipped pepper spray into your grandmother’s hand—maximum strength, quick release, belt clip for convenience.
“Just a precaution, Halmeoni,” you said, meeting her questioning gaze.
You coughed once at the grocery store, a brief expulsion that pivoted heads and halted roaming feet and turned genial eyes wary. Kimchi in one cart, frozen mochi in another, scallion pancakes in a third, and you were the devil.
Go back to your country. Vitriol, hurled at you during your morning jog. You’re the problem. Behind your mask, forbidden words hovered on your lips. You swallowed them instead, and they clattered back down, scalding your throat.
“The attack was random,” the officers tell you. “It could have happened to anyone.”
You finger the fractured face of her gold watch. A gift from your grandfather forty-four years ago, to celebrate the opening of their furniture business. Back when they practiced English through children’s books and cassette tapes, tongues tripping over l’s and r’s, f’s and v’s. Back when they learned to ignore those staring askance at the shapes of their eyes.
“No attack is random,” you say. At a lively intersection in Koreatown, she was singled out. You picture her on the sidewalk, quaking hands lifted in a futile plea. The heat of the concrete against her back, a monster’s face looming above. Shoes scurrying past, their owners evading involvement.
Your halmeoni is another number on a growing list. Chalk them up to accidents, strikes of misfortune, arbitrary acts—you know they’re anything but. A rift existed long before “six feet apart” was ever a mantra.
The watch carves trenches into your palm as you bow your head and burn.
Your grandmother is a husk, shrunken against the sheets. The angles of her cheekbones slash the air. Red blooms under her dressings. Rorschach, you think. Fallen petals, lipstick stains on tissue.
You tell her about the dog’s antics, your voice too bright against the hospital’s dreary backdrop. You tell her about your graduate thesis, on the portrayal of Asian women in literature. You tell her about the samgyetang recipe you found. Ginseng chicken soup, the most healing meal.
“You don’t need a recipe,” she whispers through peeling lips. Staccato breaths punctuate her words. “I’ll teach you.”
You find the pepper spray in the depths of her purse, under hand sanitizer, a dog-eared journal, and the wallet you gave her last year. Guilt leaves you in fragments. You should have emphasized the risks. Stay at home, Halmeoni. Wait for me.
Decades ago, in the stairwell leading to her apartment, a blade was pressed into the cushion of her neck. This money isn’t yours, the thief hissed as he emptied her bag. This is America. After, she folded into herself, heartbeat howling through her limbs, glad of the grimy steps cradling her body. Alive, alive.
“I had never been so aware of my own fragility,” she said, after recounting the horror. “I wanted to leave for Seoul that night.”
“What stopped you?” you asked.
“Hiding wasn’t the answer. I stayed to prove that I do belong here—that Los Angeles is my home.”
You were a child when she told you. For months, you scuttled past alleys and stairways, gaping maws with beasts skulking in their corners. But she had known, then, that some conversations were necessary.
As she sleeps, you stare at the ridged scar beneath her jawline. You think of the wounds she carries and how they will always remain, even as virgin skin emerges, pink and vulnerable.
You think of how she forged a life here—brick upon brick of fortitude and patience and love.
You think of her humming “Arirang” on the nights you lay awake, a centuries-old song of unity and hope. You sing it to her now, low and gentle, the familiar melody floating off your tongue. Soaring to new heights, transcending old boundaries.
Joanne Yi is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She is a former fiction editor of Lunch Ticket Literary Journal and current assistant director of NYC Midnight’s creative writing competitions. Presently, she is working on a YA novel and a series of short stories.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.