Nonfiction by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

Mamihlapinatapai

“I’m going to make ddukbokki tonight,” I said. Ben stretched his length out on the black leather couch and laid his book on his stomach. He was so thin that I often caught myself staring at his chest to see if it would rise and fall with breath. I poured hot water into a mug and took down a tin. Inside were brittle gray tea flowers that looked like a ball of twine the size of a lychee. I dropped one into the mug. I read once that the Chinese tea masters commissioned glassblowers to spin iridescent liquid lumps into fishbowls with the curved necks of swans. As the tea flowers steeped in the tempered glass teapots, they bloomed into the fragrance of lovers. Sunset Oolong is lavender. Dragon Lilly looks like the anemone tail of a koi fish. Golden Jasmine tastes like a river of freedom. “What’s ddukbokki again?” Ben asked. Across the living room, I leaned back against the cherrywood table, lifted his favorite blue mug to my lips and blew the steam away from the tea, looking at his chest through the brief veil of whiteness.

*

“This is ddukbokki.” Jong-Hoon reaches under my arm to poke with his plastic training chopsticks the round white rice cakes swimming in red sauce. With my own metal chopsticks, I catch and lift a stalk of green onion unrolling itself among fish cakes and flakes of ground cayenne pepper. I can smell the spiciness even before I lay it on my tongue. It is hot at first, until the light bite of onion folds itself into the sweetness of the rice cakes. “It’s delicious,” I say. He scoots closer to me and skewers a rice cake, holding it up like a pirate might lift a slice of pork with the end of a knife. I want to sling my arm around his small drooping shoulders and pat his back, but think better of it and let my hand drop. The six-year-old only just began talking to me last week.

*

Mamihlapinatapai (n.): The Guinness Book of World Records believes this word, taken from the Yaghan language, is the most succinct word, meaning: “A look shared by two people, each wishing the other will offer something they both desire but which neither wants to begin.”

*

“I have to go to the grocery store.” I flipped through Ben’s cupboards absently, knowing I wouldn’t find anything more exotic than wheat bread and chunky peanut butter. There was an open bag of spinach in the vegetable bin, and a jar of strawberry jam on the door. For all the bachelorly sparseness of his kitchen, Ben was orderly. “I need to go to the Asian market.” I closed the cupboard and momentarily admired the emptiness of his sink. “Want to come with me?” Ben lowered his book again. I met his eyes from the kitchen doorway. “I don’t think so, dear,” he said. “I have to finish this today.” He patted the covers of his book, splayed like a bird across his chest. “Sartre?” I asked. “Barthes,” he said. “A Lover’s Discourse.”

*

Barthes: Language is a skin. […] I want to analyze, to know, to express, in another language other than mine…I want to “look in the face” what is dividing me, cutting me off.

*

We are having a staring contest. Jong-Hoon’s dorm mother says the children play this game with all the volunteer tutors at one time or another. She says it gives them a reason to interact without having to think about what to say. This is the first time Jong-Hoon has asked me to play this game with him. He doesn’t know the English words for “game” or “staring contest” so we speak with our hands and smiles and eyes. He is practicing how to push “apple” out from between closed lips. I look into Jong-Hoon’s large black eyes framed by lashes that are pulling away from each other, and see flecks of questions. He wants to know how to say “mama,” but he won’t ask. It’s such a hard word to say. He looks back at me, his mouth working soundlessly. I realize I am holding my breath when he blinks, and for an instant his lashes interlace like a zipper of prayer.

*

Cristina Calderòn shared a tongue with her sister-in-law until 2005, but today she is the last native speaker of Yaghan, a language once spoken on the southernmost tip of the world, in Tierra del Fuego. Men hunted sea lions with canoes along the veins of ocean between their islands. Women held their breath to dive for shellfish. One. Two. Three. Eighty-four. Eighty-five. Eighty-six. Cristina is still holding her breath, her language drying on her tongue because mamihlapinatapai requires two people.

*

I sat across from Ben at the cherrywood table, the steam of Korea rising from the plates between us. I hoped he wasn’t lying when he said he liked spicy food. My stomach protested at how slowly I picked through the rice cakes, looking for the sweet little stalks of green onion. “I don’t know if it’s any good,” I said. Ben’s eyes lifted with a smile. “I’m sure it’s amazing,” he said. “I thought I saw my ex at the store,” I said. Ben stuck a rice cake in his mouth and chewed slowly. He nodded at the taste and ate another one. “Was it him?” he asked after swallowing.

*

Jong-Hoon’s dorm brothers, Han-Gyuel and Han-Seul, are not actually orphans. They have a father who comes once a month to visit one or the other son. Usually he doesn’t want to see Han-Gyuel. He never stays longer than twenty minutes, so I have not met him. During one such family visit, I sit on the floor in the adjoining room, teaching Jong-Hoon the alphabet song. He can pronounce all the letters well except for the f’s and r’s. They come out as “eh-puh” and “ow.” We dance around the small white-tiled room, bending our bodies into the shapes of letters. I have never seen him smile so much. When the dorm mother comes in, holding Han-Seul by the hand, I stop. Jong-Hoon stumbles into my hip and falls backward. He looks up angrily, but I am already pulling Han-Seul into my lap, trying to cradle as much of his two-year-old body as possible. “Shh,” I say. “It’ll be okay,” I say because I want it to be. Han-Gyuel comes out of the sleeping room and sits down cross-legged, facing his brother and me, silent. He has not spoken in two years. His chubby fist reaches out to poke me. Jong-Hoon pushes him over and grabs my arm. He wants to keep dancing, wants to keep singing. He fears the silence just as much as I do.

*

“Was it him?” Ben asked after swallowing his second bite of rice cakes. “In the grocery store?” I hesitated. “I don’t think so,” I said. “He didn’t have the same eyes.” Ben looked up, and we stared at each other for a long time through the steam and smell of spicy rice cakes. The gold flecks in his dark irises looked like galaxies of possibility. “Eyes can change,” he said. I wanted him to say more, but he took another bite, blinking slowly.

*

Barthes: Let us suppose that I have wept, on account of some incident of which the other has not even become aware…and that, so this cannot be seen, I put on dark glasses to mask my swollen eyes. […] I want to provoke the tender question. Thereby I gamble, I take a risk: for it is always possible that the other will simply ask no question…that the other will see, in the fact, no sign.

*

The day before my flight back to New York, I climb the mountain road to the Namsan Orphanage, wiping the sweat from my palms onto my jeans. I pass the low-roofed convenience store and the middle school with the bright yellow arch beneath which surges a flood of children in navy blue uniforms. I step around rain-filled potholes in the dirt parking lot of the orphanage, making a wide berth around the doghouse with the scrawny pale Jindo dog that hates children. When I reach the doorway and slip off my shoes, I can already see that the white-tiled playroom is empty. I set the plastic bag down on the study table and look out the window toward the back. Jong-Hoon, Han-Gyuel, and Han-Seul are playing on the swings with the dorm mother. Even from this distance through the glass, I can see that Jong-Hoon’s eyes are wide and bright. Han-Seul’s back is turned to me, and he looks so much smaller than his four-year-old brother. I wonder if they have their father’s eyes, that man who wanted his children to be fed, even if with someone else’s hands. Slowly I lay out the contents of my plastic bag on the table: three apples, three alphabet blocks, crayons, paper, and four little bottles of banana milk. Good for the body, I think. Good for the bones. I draw a heart with one of the red crayons and wad up the empty plastic bag, stuffing it into my purse. I pause at the door to grope with my bare feet for my shoes, slipping them on to step around puddles as I make my way down the mountain. I don’t look back, afraid they will notice the movement, afraid they will stop smiling to ask, “Why can’t you take me with you?”

*

We didn’t want the same thing. He wanted shrimp with the ddukbokki, wanted to lay them over a bed of coals in a pan filled with ice and watch them pop into pinkness, then peel their translucent shells from their bodies, skinny legs and all. He wanted to wrap the shrimp in a layer of crab cake, or split them open and lay them on a bed of rice. I wanted to say, Children are starving somewhere in the world. Later, as he watched a Lakers game with his housemates, he sat on the edge of the black couch, fists clenched on his knees, his back rigid and tilted toward the TV. It struck me that he had never looked at me so intently. I scrubbed harder at the black dishes, splashing soapy water onto the counter and across my stomach. The air smelled faintly of green apples. He’s a guy, I thought, pushing a pot under the water. He’s a guy and it’s a basketball game. I wanted to give him that, at least.

*

The tea master said the moon must be full when you pick the jasmine flower. Each of her buds must be torn away when her face is tilted toward the sky, not when she squints and withdraws from the sun. Don’t worry. She will bloom even after you have taken her. Spread the tea leaves evenly on a flat surface, and sprinkle the white flowers over them in the afternoon. When her broken buds blossom, she will breathe sweetness into the leaves. Repeat for several nights, until the fragrance is strong enough. Throw away the flowers, he said. Throw them away and boil cold water. Steep the leaves for a handful of minutes. Do not burn your tongue. Or do, and keep drinking. Drink it dry.

 

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox, which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and Last Train to the Midnight Market (2013), and has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the Knight Foundation, among others. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2015, Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, and more. She serves as co-founding editor for Print-Oriented Bastards, a contributing editor for Florida Book Review, and producer for The Working Poet Radio Show. Visit her at www.marcicalabretta.com.