“Nae-il da kkeun-nat-tta,” means “Tomorrow is the end,” so I interpreted my Grandpa’s words, as he labored for breath, and believed I had one more day with him.
Grandpa came to live with us when I turned 16 and upturned everything. Suspicious, all English was gossiping about him. He slapped his cane on the dining table legs and demanded my brother and I speak Korean in front of him and scolded his 51-year-old son for raising such rootless and disrespectful kids. He took my room, I had to bunk with my younger brother, then took away my Saturday morning pick-up baseball games as I sat in a church and memorized Korean alphabets that felt like pebbles in my tongue.
“When your grandpa was your age,” my father once explained after another grandpa’s dinner rant, “He was forced to use his Japanese name and only speak Japanese.”
It was hard to see him, flat on his back, moaning and make painful something so simple as breathing. I wished he was slapping with his cane.
“Where are you going?” my father asked but I pretended not to hear him as I let the door shut behind me.
I walked to Ji-Yeon’s apartment, Noona , older female friend, who I wished would become my girl. She wasn’t like the other FOB, Fresh-Off-The-Boat girls, whose English was grammatically contorted. She spoke English properly, better than me, even quoted Shakespeare. She also smoked Marlboros, which won me over.
We walked out to her fire escape. She lived alone, came to do two years in Stuyvesant High, take SAT and make it to Harvard, that was the plan, her father’s, that is. Her father had enough money to support her studying abroad. “He is rich enough not to care about me,” is how she put it.
She lit a cig, took another one, lit the second one by kissing the tips together then puffed on the second one and handed it to me.
“Noona.” We both smiled. It was mid summer, but it rained a few hours ago, so the air was tolerably cooler and smelled of maple leaves and asphalt. A siren wailed towards some emergency.
“Did you say what we’ve been working on?”
I flicked my cig. An ember fell. A glowing red dot floated up then disappeared into the thick night as if it never existed. Smoking helped me converse because I didn’t have to talk all the time. Having something to busy my lips made silence bearable, even cool, so I said things.
“No. ’Sorry’ is such a hard word to say in Korean.”
“English too,” She said. I heard a bus trudging in, and a crowd flowed out of it then sank into the subway stations where they will take the 7 train into Manhattan to clean buildings; the fairies that keep trash cans eternally empty.
“Shouldn’t you be home?”
“He said, ‘Nae-il da kkeun-nat-tta,” you know, ‘tomorrow I’m done.’ So melodramatic! He’ll survive until tomorrow. Everything’s as he believes.”
She squashed her cig, “Those words also mean, ‘My work is done.’”
I ran home, splashing muddy puddles, past a barking pit bull. People congregated around the lights of an ambulance circling my street. I pushed through the murmuring gathering, flew up the stairs and shoved the door open. Father and brother were wailing. Grandpa was no longer there. Just his body.