Small Gestures


“Small Gestures” came from an in-class prompt to write a scene where two people want something from each other but don’t say what it is directly. I had just come back from a year and a half in Seoul, Korea, and it seemed like a perfect setting for the scene.

Mrs. Kang peered down at her Chanel watch and realized her friend’s daughter wasn’t late after all. She sighed, admiring the clean narrow street before her. Memory, she knew, had a delicate veil that could easily slip off, the essence rearranged to suit a better kind of story. Then again, the fact the street was once a bombed out alley during the war might make the better story. She shook the thoughts from her mind and glanced at all the attractive young couples coming in and out of the cafe. In her dozens of trips to Seoul, Mrs. Kang had decided neighborhoods close to Apkujeong and Gangnam Station were the best pick for social gatherings. Just south of the river, McDonalds and multilevel Starbucks were interspersed with French bistros that offered picturesque patios for wealthy, lunching housewives. Teenagers smoked and chatted in English in front of clean, lit-up storefronts with names like Dream Cloud Purple and Elite Strawberry, sporting the latest fashion from the States. No one seemed to notice the names of the stores were nonsensical; things written in English simply sold better. But despite these obvious improvements from just forty years earlier, there were the daily reminders that not everything had reached its full potential after the war–coffee from vending machines, for one. In private, Mrs. Kang might admit that the forty-cent coffees weren’t all together bad, but in public, well, the look of the machines were entirely unacceptable with their scratched-up plastic cases and cheap fluorescent lighting, and she wished someone with some power would just ban them once and for all.

When the valet drove off, Mrs. Kang finally got a clear look at her friend’s daughter. Juhee wore a pearl necklace, a canary yellow cardigan, and white silk tuxedo pants: all terrible choices in Mrs. Kang’s opinion. Juhee had always worn the most unshapely garments, including that one summer she stayed at Mrs. Kang’s home in the States when she seemed especially fond of oversized wool sweaters that would make just about anyone look like a middle-aged librarian. Mrs. Kang’s daughters might not have Juhee’s impeccable manners, but at least they had some ounce of style.

The older woman lowered her sunglasses. “Spectacular, and your body looks just amazing. Imagine, after having a baby just a few months ago!” She walked up to her and lifted the young woman’s small breasts with the balls of her fingertips. She knew she could do this kind of thing with Juhee. Her daughters would have shoved her away and yelled something accusing and loud, but in Korea, elders, were elevated to positions with unchecked powers, and she found this to be the case whenever she came back for a visit and dealt with those younger than her. 

“Last year,” Juhee corrected. “I had the baby last year.” Her voice was calm and respectful, showing no sign of irritation at being fondled. “She’s at home with her father,” she said, as if Mrs. Kang cared to know, which she didn’t.  

“Yes, that’s right. I can’t believe it’s been two years.” Mrs. Kang rested her hands on her hips and sighed as she went on assessing the young mother’s figure from behind. “Having a baby does the most awful things to the mother’s body, doesn’t it? Even after ten years the body never goes back to being the same.” 

Mrs. Kang walked right past the tall hostess in the patio and stopped at a table framed by a tall cactus and lavender pots of lilacs. “This will do, thank you,” she announced to no one in particular. She turned around and gestured for Juhee to join her, and then took one of the young woman’s shiny black curls and gave it a playful pull. It bounced back up into Juhee’s face, and she blinked. 

Mrs. Kang took both of Juhee’s hands and they sat down, hands clasped across the table like lovers. “You look so young and healthy!” And Juhee did, in fact, look young and healthy, though not totally beautiful which Mrs. Kang had expected after she had her procedures. As a present for Juhee’s sixteenth birthday, Mrs. Kang had insisted on paying for Juhee’s nose job and double eyelid surgery. She had read all the Korean newspapers, she explained to Juhee’s parents, and they reported that western-looking eyes and noses increased young women’s chances of securing jobs at prestigious companies and husbands from good families. Juhee and her parents agreed to the operations, and Mrs. Kang complimented the young woman’s new features after the bruising went away, even though Juhee looked rather odd afterwards, like she was always surprised. Still, Juhee had her sweetness, Mrs. Kang decided, which was, after all, the most important factor in attracting a good man.  

After the waiter came by to take their orders, Mrs. Kang noticed the younger woman’s eyes were moist.

“Hehjin oh-moh-nee.” The trembling in her lips was almost indiscernible.  

Mrs. Kang patted her hand. “I would prefer being called aunt. It would make me feel closer to you.” She had known Juhee’s mother since elementary school, and except for her father’s narrow nose and pronounced chin, Juhee was a spitting image of her.

Juhee nodded politely and bent her head towards her lap. She fidgeted with the clasp on her bag, eventually pulling out a slender black box, and opening it. 

“My mother always looked up to you. I know that she would have wanted you to have this,” she said quietly, presenting the gold Rolex watch to Mrs. Kang with both hands. As she did this, she turned her face away from the older woman’s face as a sign of respect. 

Mrs. Kang marveled at these small gestures. She gave up trying to teach her American-born daughters the values of etiquette and respect back in their elementary school years when they refused, once and for all, to go to Korean language school. Why teach them anything about Korea at all if they weren’t even interested in learning the language?

“Well! Your mother was the best possible friend a woman could have asked for.”

The waiter brought two plates of cheesecake and Mrs. Kang immediately plucked the glazed strawberry from her cake and bit the tip off. “Truly, it has given me nothing but pleasure to help you and your brother with your education. She pushed Juhee’s hands away. “So just go ahead and keep it. One day you might want to pass this on to your own daughter when she gets older and needs a nice watch. The day will come, believe me.” She winked. 

Juhee tried to offer the watch once more, but Mrs. Kang shook her head.

“You’re so good-hearted, just like your mother. I wish my daughters had the manners you have! But then again, they are from a different culture.” She laughed, suddenly embarrassed. After thirty years of saying the phrase, “from a different culture,” she had lost track of what it meant. She had the vague sense it used to once explain things, important things, about who she used to be and who she was becoming in her new country, but like so many other things over the years, the words felt empty, just noise in her mouth. Deja vu. The last time this happened, her daughters had been begging her to tell them about her childhood during the war when life was hungry and desperate. But why would she talk about such complicated things? She deserved to feel good. That day, the diamond helped to bring her mind and body back into focus. She stared once more into the diamond. And just like that, something mysterious clicked inside, and she felt the same self-assuredness wash over her. “As I was saying,” she continued, “they are from a different culture, and I don’t expect these things from them. Not anymore.” 

Juhee’s cell phone suddenly rang, catching both women by surprise. “Excuse me, how rude. This will just take a second.”

Mrs. Kang shook her head. “No, it’s okay! Go right ahead! Someone’s waiting for you to pick up.” Her eyes wandered over the fake ivy covering the pergola as she listened.  

“Okay, I understand. I’ll see you tonight at home, then. Don’t be out too late with your friends.” Juhee put the mobile back into her handbag and cleared her throat. “That was my younger brother, Sangyuck. He received some very good news this week, so he called to tell me he’ll be going out late tonight to celebrate.” 

“Oh?” Mrs. Kang asked innocently, putting a yellow crescent of cheesecake onto her tongue before flattening it out against the roof of her mouth. She frowned, remembering how dreadful the cheesecake was at that particular cafe.

Juhee beamed. “He has been accepted to Harvard Law with full financial benefits.” 

“Ohhhh,” Mrs. Kang replied, clasping her hands together. “I heard from your mother many months ago that he had applied. That’s just wonderful!” 

“Yes, we are all so proud,” the younger woman replied softly. Her face reddened.  “You know, Mrs. Kang, since my mother and father are no longer with us, I have to try my best to look after the well-being of my brother. I’m doing everything I can,” she said. Her face was full of a fervor Mrs. Kang found endearing and somewhat pathetic. Moments like these reminded Mrs. Kang of Juhee’s mother who was also passionate and extremely insecure. 

“As you may know, orientation is in late August, which is only four months away. I am very ashamed to admit this to anyone, but I know I must for my brother’s sake.” She leaned forward. “The truth is, we do not have the money to cover his housing costs. After the IMF crisis we had some difficulties like the others, and, well—”

“Please,” Mrs. Kang said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry you’ve had to explain this far. Your brother is welcome to stay with us in Boston. We have plenty of room and there is a bus line across the street that goes directly to Harvard Square. He can stay with us, go to church with us, and maybe we can even help him find a good social life with the other Korean students so he won’t feel so homesick. How does all that sound?” 

Juhee’s eyes were bright, and she let out a long sigh. “Yes aunt, thank you, thank you so, so much, I don’t even know what to say! I have been losing nights of sleep between worrying over his future and tending to the baby.” She added quietly, “Her first teeth are coming in, and she’s been crying nonstop.”

“I know it must be hard for you to miss your mother and need her guidance, being a new mother and all.”

Juhee looked up, her eyes moist and sad. She nodded. A tear raced down her cheek.

“Juhee, you know that I have three daughters.”

Juhee wiped the tear away. “Of course. They were very good to me when I came to Boston for the summer.”

Mrs. Kang chuckled. “Oh come, you exaggerate! I scolded my daughters for months after you left because they didn’t make you feel more at home. Really, you are such a charming girl that you can’t say one bad thing about anyone. It’s just so sweet!” She remembered Juhee’s father suddenly, and how he was always saying that about Juhee’s mother when he was first getting to know her.

 It stung Mrs. Kang to hear it those first few times, what with her feelings towards him, but she knew he was right. After all these years, and she had yet to meet anyone sweeter than Juhee’s mother. She took Juhee’s pale hand and squeezed it. “Well, the youngest is twenty-two years old and I’ve been wanting to find an appropriate match for her.”

“Yes, of course you do,” Juhee said, nodding.

Mrs. Kang lifted a white shopping bag onto the table and pulled out a light blue Tiffany’s box. “I bought a little something for you for the days you forget what it is to feel like a woman, and not just a tired mother and a tired wife.”

Juhee grinned as she quickly undid the fancy knot of iridescent ribbon. There was a gold chain inside with a purple stone pendant and a green stone shaped like a leaf on top. 

“Real emerald,” Mrs. Kang cooed. “I want only the best for my dear friend’s precious daughter. And of course, for her son too.”

Juhee covered her grin with her hand. “This is too much for a young woman like me.”

Mrs. Kang motioned to the waiter at the doorway. “Another piece of cake? Shall we try the tiramisu this time?” 

Juhee nodded, still looking at the purple gem.

“I like your brother, Juhee.  I think he will do very well in Boston and I think that he should get along quite well with Kihyang. She is two years younger than him. She has interest in law as well.”  

“I see,” Juhee replied. She took another bite of the cheesecake and chewed slowly. 

 “I think they will like each other very much, and I think it will be good for both of them, my daughter, your brother.”

Juhee’s eyes darted back and forth in quick movements as if she were solving an equation in her head. “Mrs. Kang, you have been such a blessing to this family—of course you know this, it has been so obvious, your generosity’s effect on our family—but I do feel obligated to say that my little brother is seeing someone, and quite seriously for that matter.”

Mrs. Kang nodded. “Your brother is a clever young man with a bright future ahead of him. I know that he will do the right thing when he comes to America, whatever that might be.”

Juhee’s lips parted and she closed them again. “Yes, of course.” She smiled uncertainly and looked at her companion’s untouched coffee. “Oh! I’ve never noticed your ring before, auntie. You have the nicest things!”

“Oh,” Mrs. Kang chuckled, looking at the ring as if she had never realized it was there. “Well, it wasn’t always that way.” She suddenly noticed one of the prongs securing the diamond in place was missing.

“I know. My mother often told stories about you and my parents during college. How the three of you were good friends, and tried to help each other out because you were so poor.” 

Mrs. Kang nodded. She remembered having to eat ramen, spam and the cheapest kimbap she could find so she could afford to buy western clothes and tickets to American movies. A fly buzzed around her head, and she swatted at it several times until it landed on her head. She swatted one final time, knocking her beautiful hair bun out of its little barrettes. Her hair tumbled down like a beautiful, collapsed cake. “Oh dear.” She tried to push it back up with no success. It had been weeks since she had dyed her hair and she knew her roots were unfolding for the world to see. “Sheebal,” she muttered, clenching her teeth. Son of a bitch.

“Excuse me?”

Mrs. Kang knew the blood had risen to her face because her cheeks suddenly felt hot. She spoke just like her father until her Japanese teacher in grade school said she sounded like an uncivilized farmer and it was time to stop speaking Korean altogether. “Nothing, it’s nothing! Please, you were going to say something?” She reached into her purse and found two bobby pins which she used to promptly secure the loose strands. 

“The thing is, I want success for my brother,” Juhee continued, staring at Mrs. Kang’s barely eaten cheesecake, “but more important, I want him to be whole. To be happy.” She made a circle with her fingers. “There are some things like love that we cannot control.” 

Mrs. Kang felt a stab of sadness in her chest, watching this young woman express herself with her hands, and talking about dreams and being whole like they were real and possible things. Mrs. Kang remembered being in love once, but it was a long time ago and he had chosen someone else. The memory of the feeling tingled inside her with such strangeness, she put her hand on her breast and kept it there until the sensation vanished. “Love is a strange thing, Juhee. You’ll forget what it once meant to you as time goes on, and soon, the forgetting will take the place of this idea of love, and it will help you love new things every day.” She gestured to the waiter and looked back at Juhee who looked more confused than surprised just then. “Shall we get our check?”

“Auntie, we still have our tiramisu coming.”

Mrs. Kang caught the waiter’s eye and made a large ‘x’ with her hands. “All this coffee and conversation has gotten to my head. How about another time?” The fly had finally left, but another buzzing had begun deep inside her head, certain memories poking out from the recesses from her brain she’d rather not revisit. She desperately wanted to get away from her friend’s daughter.

It wasn’t until Mrs. Kang’s taxi had brought her through afternoon traffic and over the Han River, after the driver asked her about America and whether she liked her life there, that Mrs. Kang found herself tearing up. As she looked out the window, listening to the driver drone on about her strong Pusan accent and how badly he wanted his own children to study in America if only he could only afford a good English tutor, Mrs. Kang spotted white sailboats and yachts with varnished wood panels gliding along the river, and wondered if their owners were happy people. The thought soon disappeared, and she wiped the tears away. The old country had truly become an impressive sight.

“Did you hear about how this bridge collapsed last year?” Mrs. Kang met the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror and looked again towards the river. She shook her head. “The contractors tried to copy the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, but they cut corners in order to finish it quicker.”

 He clucked his tongue and sighed. “Sometimes I wonder why we are so impatient to forget the past.”

Mrs. Kang spent the weekend at her favorite Korean bathhouse getting a facial, and a good, hard scrubbing, and it wasn’t until Monday morning at the office of Seoul’s best jeweler, that Mrs. Kang bent over her ring with its four matching platinum prongs securely fastening her three-carat diamond in place, that she exhaled deeply, and thanked God she had something so beautiful to behold. No matter, she thought, smiling at the owner of the store and nodding, she’d simply find another match for her daughter.

Elizabeth Lee’s work has appeared in Santa Fe Noir and Pleiades Magazine and was a finalist in The Hunger Journal’s 2021 Spring Prose Contest. Ms. Lee received her BA in English at Brown University and her MFA in Creative Writing at Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. She is currently working on a novel about two sisters separated during the Japanese occupation in Korea (Island), and a memoir about trauma, womanhood, and infertility (The Remembering Body). She’s a former Fulbright scholar, documentary filmmaker, television producer, and massage therapist. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Santa Fe.