Life

The Coat

My mother, her mother, and a bargain.

Illustration of a mother with a daughter wearing a new coat.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

My mother’s regular department store was 32 floors tall. Thirty-two floors of luxury goods in Bundang, Seoul, each department happy to accept her credit cards gifted by my father’s company. Beyond the department store’s three golden, rotating entrance doors were playrooms, cafés, movie theaters, designer stores, and wedding halls. The floors above were divided into beauty, clothing, home, electronics, and books. In the basement, the discount and returns section of the store, paper won passed between shoppers and clerks. Nearby, nuptials from the hall; gunfire from the cinema.

My mother told me to call the girls working the clothing floor sisters. They greeted my mother with high, zesty voices ringing around the endless corners. The girls wore navy blue suit jackets with stiff collars and navy blue skirts and heels. Every hair was waxed, combed into a bun; every lip a bright red. The girls wore clean white gloves to handle expensive items. They turned their wrists in dove-winged gestures to direct my mother ahead, offering her a reduced price on a “hot item” bag and complimentary face masks. They said to her, “Hello again, dear customer” and “Please ask us anything” and “Come in, take your time” and “Welcome to our store” and “We have everything you’re looking for.”

I barely stood on both feet, instead shifting my weight from one to the other, and I slouched. When the girls bowed to me, their mouths could not hide their apprehension at my wrestling shoes and my hoodie. They recognized me as a wealthy daughter who studied abroad and wore torn jeans and spoke English.

I stared into the shop. Shiny displays of black dresses; cardigans for summer modesty. A feeling arose within me: I loved this place and its fineness. My heart landed on one lovely thing, then another. White scalloped tops on wooden hangers. Chiffon ruffle blouses on mannequins. Cream leather jackets with silver zippers. Meanwhile, my mother stormed through the shop as if it were a street market.

My fingertips grazed a shark tooth–patterned coat. Teal and black pulsated through the coat’s body, all of it lined in silk. The collar was stiff and structured. The sleeves widened at the bottom—a touch of whimsy.

The shopgirl came up to me. Grinning, she must have believed she had caught a fish—not the mother but her daughter. Two inches shorter than me with an uncomplicated beauty, she was better suited for the coat than I was. Folding her gloved hands at her waist, she said, “The color’s unique. It’s eye-catching, don’t you think?”

“Thank you, sister. It’s on sale,” I said to help her cause.

“Because it’s a coat from this past winter.” She raised the coat to eye level in front of us. “It’s too attractive to pass up, both the coat and the price.”

“It’s bold, sister,” I said, keeping up with her formality.

“You can’t not look at it, can you?” She showed the back of the coat. “If no one bought it, I wanted it for myself. I admired it like a lover, and here you’ve come to take it.”

“Really?” I asked.

“I’m jealous,” she said, and ran her fingers along the seam. “The coat stands out and so do you. You’re meant for each other.”

I bowed, prepared to leave her department. But my mother, far ahead on the walkway, spun around to face me. Retracing her steps, she entered the section. The girl kept her back to my mother, seemingly ignoring her, but addressing me clearly so that she could hear. “You look so young, and your Korean sounds delicate,” she said to me. “What’s your name?”

My mother laughed. “This is my daughter.”

The girl held her hands higher on her waist. “She looks just like you, ma’am.”

“Really, is that true?” my mother asked. “Of course, it makes me happy.”

“She’s not like the girls here,” she said. “Was she born here?”

“My daughter was born in America—it keeps her innocent.”

“Oh, I can see it,” the girl said. “She must have no bad thoughts at all.”

My mother clapped once. “If she got lost here, she’d be gone forever!”

The girl said, “You know how they say everything—”

“Everything comes to the surface eventually!”

My mother scrutinized the coat. She shook it out as if it was laundry fresh from the dryer. “Only my daughter would pick this one.” She was using her mother wit for a bargain, and my job was to notice it.

“Your daughter has good taste,” the girl said in reply.

“This looks cheap, like wholesale,” my mother said. “What’s the original price?”

The girl presented the tag with two hands.

My mother looked impressed. “This ratty old thing?”

“It’s one of a kind,” the girl said to her. “Hand-sewn.”

My mother scoured for loose threads and a discount.

“Let’s go,” I said to my mother, who was unaware of the other shoppers and their glances our way. “I don’t need it, sister. Thank you—”

My mother’s nails pinched my forearm. “Hold on,” she said to me. “Give me a second.”

The next words mattered. The girl said to her, “Your daughter is so lucky to have a mother like you.”

My mother nodded approvingly. “Let’s do a bigger cut, off the price—”

“Oh, I’m a shopgirl,” she said. “You know I can’t haggle like that—”

“Whatever you can, I’ll give you cash—”

“Please, don’t fuss. This isn’t a place for that—”

“Tell me the price again?” My mother counted new, clean bills. “I’ll come back to your shop again with my friends next week, and we’ll each buy something.”

The girl sighed. “Are you sure?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“OK, fine,” she said. “Since you’re a special customer.”

“I won’t forget it,” my mother said.

The girl wrapped the coat in a bag. “Oh, I can’t spit on a smiling face.”

“Yes, you’ve made us smile.” My mother eased up and took the girl’s hand. “You’re so smart and fast. You’re a good girl. You don’t say too much, you don’t give too much.”

The sale finished, the girl’s shoulders relaxed. She pulled me to her side, as though we were friends holding hands. I thought this was how it must feel to have a sister. “Your daughter speaks Korean?” she asked my mother. “She speaks both, it’s impressive.”

“This,” my mother said, raising the bag with the coat, “is the most expensive thing I ever bought her. She doesn’t live in California like I do here. It’s hard to take money and move it across the world. It’s easier to move people.”

“Then your daughter should wear it out.”

My mother nodded gratefully as the girl swapped my hoodie with the coat. She guided me into the sleeves, one after the other, then gave me a tie to pull my hair back.

“How is it?” the girl asked me. “Do you feel refreshed?”

“Oh, oh, she’s starting to look like me,” my mother said. “Do you see?”

“It’s her eyes,” she said. “Your daughter has the best of both. She’ll grow up to have a glamorous figure, like an American. When she came in today, I could tell she was different. She has so much ki. You can’t help but notice. The girls are curious. They were saying, ‘How mysterious!’ ‘How quiet, solemn, dark-skinned. Can she be so young?’ ”

“It’s my fault.” My mother took the bag with the hoodie, tucked it under her arm. “It’s all my doing. I made her suffer too much. I didn’t know what to give her, so I gave her pain. She’s lovely, isn’t she?”

“She is pure,” the girl comforted her.

“You’ve suffered too,” my mother said to her. “Whose poor daughter are you?”

“My parents are missionaries,” she said. “I’ll marry and move into my husband’s house to live with his parents the day before my waist thickens but no sooner.”

My mother patted her head. “You have a lucky forehead. You’ll have many suitors. And you’re right to wait. Nobody loves you like your mother. Not your father, not your husband, and not your children. While your parents are alive, eat as much of their love as you can, so it can sustain you for the rest of your life.”

In the shop’s oval mirror, the coat embraced me.

“What a reduction,” the girl said to me. “You’re lucky to have a mother like her.”

My mother said, “There was one woman, prettier than anyone. It was my own mother. Back in the old days, you couldn’t hide beauty. In those plain huts, dirt roads, can you imagine how she stood out? It was impossible to live in the countryside. She died young and tragically.” My mother squeezed my hand in hers. “I was a little girl when she died, and she left me to live without her.”

For an early dinner, we hunted for barbecued duck. My mother drove outside the city, past a construction site, onto an uphill road, through a forest of pale-limbed trees with thin branches that pointed to the sky. Where the road narrowed, we came to a hidden driveway and a two-story restaurant on wooden stilts.

The duck was presented in neat rows of thin slices, sunning on our floor table. Pointing to the new coat I was wearing, my mother would not let me cook. Using metal chopsticks, she rested a slice over the grill, charred it on each side, dipped the cooked slice into a sweet mustard, and fed it to me. Tender, rich, and smoky. Driving here no longer seemed out of the way. Our iced coffees were $10 each.

“Slow down,” my mother said. “You’re going to choke.”

“Let’s order more,” I said, feeling more awake. “More mustard, too.”

“Are you starving yourself at home?”

I did not tell her that I ate cookies, chips, cereal, and emptied the cupboards. Even as I felt pain in my stomach, I wanted more. The first time I made myself throw up, at the age of 16, I felt relief. From then on it was normal for me to go on eating, then undo what I had done. There were tooth marks on my knuckles; my jaw was swollen.

For all I knew, I was the only person in the world throwing up my food. Only I could feel the bones of my feet in my shoes; only I saw my nails feather at the tips and felt scared when I noticed a piece of my throat, a strip of flesh, sinking to the bottom of the toilet bowl. I had told myself that I would not do it while staying with my mother.

The waitress kneeled at our table and hugged me, causing my chopsticks to clatter to the floor. She removed new ones from her apron, set them on the table, and said, “I feel like I’m seeing a ghost. I have listened to your mother talk about you for hours. She had to bring you out here just to prove to me that you were real. She didn’t pay you, did she?”

The waitress, who looked to be in her 40s, had wrinkles around her mouth. Women with sons have this face, my mother once told me. While you can fight with your daughter, you must bite your tongue in front of your son.

She scooted right next to me and warned me about my mother’s friends, or the wives of my father’s friends: “Those people, they’ll see a girl like you, take you to a place like this, then get you drunk and bring you home to one of their mansions, and they’ll trap you and lock you in a room with one of their lonely sons!”

My mother laughed. She used to be a waitress and must often have found herself friendlier with waitstaff than she was with my father’s friends and their wives. “Young women,” she said, “are more valuable than men these days.”

“God,” the waitress said, slapping the floor. “They’d be overjoyed to get her pregnant and then force her to marry their sons. Then they’d get a daughter and a grandchild. A daughter to order around, a grandchild to show off.”

“It wasn’t always like that,” said my mother.

“Praise the Lord,” said the waitress.

“Do you like her new coat?” my mother asked.

“It’s true what they say,” the waitress said to me. “Your clothes are your wings.”

The waitress shifted from a kneel to a squat, dug into her back pocket, and slid an envelope across the floor. My mother bowed to her, gathered the envelope, and transferred it into a larger envelope inside her purse.

“My husband’s friend’s wife wants to meet my daughter tonight,” my mother said. They both acted as though the envelope had not passed between them. “She’s buying us barbecued eel. That woman has an elevator in her house!”

The waitress clapped her hands. “What a lonely woman to beg!”

“Pity is the path to mutuality,” said my mother.

“Oh, screw pity. She has an elevator!”

My mother drove to her regular bathhouse, which we entered through a parking garage so far underground that you could feel the air cooling. We emerged from an elevator. She paid at the front desk. The woman set out two sets of shirts and shorts to sweat in, and towels. We rinsed in the showers. We soaked inside the pools. The steam rose, filigree above our shoulders in the shape of white swans. On spa tables, our bodies were scrubbed raw and rolls of dead skin collected beneath us.

I asked my mother about the envelope. My mother’s friends saved for big purchases by adding each month to a pot, and one of them received the gye payout on a rotating basis. The women had chosen my mother to be their collector and distributor. She was good with numbers in her head at the market.

Her eyes were closed. “With my payout?” she asked me. “I send it to my brothers. I left you and your brother to come here and be with my side of the family. But I don’t know how their lives can be so difficult. How can they live so poorly? How can I ask your dad for money to help my brothers? My brothers are too proud.” She took a towel and put it over her face. Through the cloth, she said, “So, I send my brothers’ wives bags of rice. I give envelopes of money to their children. If our own mother hadn’t died so young, maybe things would’ve been different. How can they lead such unfortunate lives?”

Our bodies were flipped onto our sides and the scrubbing resumed.

“I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said to me. “I don’t know—”

“Who cares, you feel bad,” I said.

“Listen to you,” she said, sharply. “Koreans don’t say ‘who cares’ to their mothers. One day, you’ll have a daughter who treats you like you treat me.”

We rinsed ourselves with ginseng body wash. Then, we headed to the outside main room with an ondol-heated floor in our shirts and shorts. We entered the clay room and left after a short time. We crawled into a dome-shaped stone sauna and sat on the floor. My mother apologized. “You’re old enough to be my friend,” she said.

“You have a lot of friends.”

She said, “My friend from college, Hae Won. We tried to be news anchors.”

“News anchors?” I asked. “You never talked about it.”

“Because you see me now, but if you saw me then I was good, really.” She wiped her sweat off. She motioned for me to do the same. “My mother was good at everything.”

“Did you pass the audition?”

“I did,” my mother said, “but Hae Won didn’t.”

“And you became a news anchor?”

“No, Hae Won lied. She told me I didn’t pass either.”

“What?” I said. “That makes no sense.”

“My dad never let me out of the house. Hae Won checked the results for us and said that we didn’t make it. The broadcasting station was waiting. They called me to tell me they couldn’t wait any longer. After a month, they had hired somebody else.”

“Are you still friends with her?” I asked.

“I am,” she said. “Two persimmons, getting old.”

“What—why?”

“Let’s drink something delicious,” my mother said.

She charged my sweet rice drink to her tab. The ice was refreshing in the hot rooms. I kept one cube under my tongue. My mother led me into the charcoal room. She poured water over the heated rocks in the corner. We shuffled onto the floor and sat facing one another.

“You know Hae Won? The one who lies?” my mother said after a silence. “I already told you that her daughter is a news anchor. Do you remember? We see her on TV. She has short hair and a button nose. She’s prettier in person. We watch her on variety shows and news broadcasts. I go to see Hae Won and we record them together. One time, this was in front of my friends, I asked if she thought my daughter could pass for a news anchor. Hae Won said my daughter’s face is too big for the screen. Your face needs to fit inside a CD disc to look good on television. From your forehead to your chin.”

I measured my face with my palm for the first time.

“How many people can cover their face with a disc?” she asked.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be friends.”

“You think so?”

I nodded, but she disagreed.

“God is fair,” she said, and clasped our hands together. “Hae Won had a stroke. Half her face melted off, and it sags down past her chin. When she smiles, it bends into a sneer. You see, God is vengeful so we don’t have to be.”

At the end of our time at the bathhouse, I put on my coat and followed my mother into the parking garage where she fed her ticket into a machine. We drove home in silence. After we got out of the car, we went for a walk around the Tancheon tributary.

I worried about whether I ought to take off my coat or wear it casually on the walking path along the river. I feared my mother might admire me wearing it and express her satisfaction. But I felt it would be worse to put the coat away. When I asked my mother about her own mother, she said, “How fun would it have been if my mother was here with us? We would scrub each other’s backs, like baby monkeys sitting in a neat row.”

“She would be the most beautiful.”

My mother laughed. “She had a big face, but it was a beautiful big face. And she’d never let you leave the department store with just one coat. She would’ve bought you a dozen.” Then she tugged my sleeve. “If you ever get sick of wearing this, give it to me. I’ll save it for you, and one day, you’ll think about it and ask me for it. You’ll say, ‘Oh, that coat from then!’ When you put it on, you’ll feel like it’s brand new.”

“I feel refreshed,” I said. “Do I remind you of her?”

“Your brother tells me that you’re strong and you never cry,” my mother said. She smiled sadly. “You know how my mother is dead? Do you think she feels lonely?”