I couldn’t look away, so I saw clearly my father’s backhanded slap cutting across my mother’s cheek and the spittle spewing from her mouth as her head whipped to the side. But my mother kept her feet planted, squared. Her body twisted, her back arched, but she didn’t stumble. She straightened slowly, faced him again without touching her cheek. Her eyes narrowed.
Once, during another fight, I’d seen her smile with bloody teeth.
My father was short and thick with tree trunk legs, and despite his mass he was surprisingly fast. He had once been in the South Korean Special Forces, part of a commando unit that was equivalent to the U.S. Navy SEALs and had blown up bridges and interrogated POW’s during the Korean War. He died from a brain tumor about eight years ago. I hadn’t seen him since I was fourteen years old. I didn’t go to his funeral.
My mother passed away a year ago, and while she was sick she began telling me stories about herself, about my father, stories I never knew. She told me how she had learned about my father’s military background. She had known about the navy, but she hadn’t known about his reputation, his kills. She said to me on the phone, I never told you the whole story. They were at church. It was a Korean Methodist church in Costa Mesa rather than their regular church in Santa Ana. My father had fought with the reverend at the regular church—something about not being appointed a deacon and my father calling the reverend a weak shit-eating coward (in Korean, of course)—and he was asked to leave by the reverend’s wife. They quickly found this new church in Costa Mesa and dragged me there.
I wasn’t religious at all. I’m still not. I didn’t believe in God, even back then, and didn’t believe in Heaven, Hell, or any kind of afterlife. I didn’t believe in church, but I went for the girls.
The story my mother told me was of a man who had recognized my father and said to her, Do you know who your husband was during the war? This man at the Costa Mesa church, a tae kwon do teacher, a former Special Forces commando himself, apparently saw my father as soon as we climbed out of our Dodge Dart. The tae kwon do teacher stared at my father, then touched his wife’s arm. Who are they, he asked.
I don’t know, she said. New family it looks like.
And the tae kwon do teacher continued staring, then slipped out of my father’s line of sight and avoided him for the rest of the day. However, at one point he saw my mother alone and pulled her aside. He asked her, Do you know who your husband was during the war?
The sounds of my childhood were of screams in Korean and rapid, heavy footsteps as my father chased my mother on the hardwood floors. The pages of my comic books had sweaty hand prints on them. I started grinding my teeth back then and continue to do so now. It has gotten so bad that I once cracked my upper right molar, and it soon became infected. Decay seeped into my roots. I needed a $3000 emergency pulpotomy, root canal, gold crown, and resin restoration. Because I couldn’t afford another procedure like that one, I started wearing a night guard—a plastic mouthpiece—when I went to bed. Sleep is a battle.
My wife left me last year, a few months after my mother passed. I never hurt my wife as my father had hurt his—I had never even came close—but we fought as aggressively as my parents and her parents had. I am terribly saddened by this, because we tried so hard to be better, and I think we succeeded on most fronts. But we still failed on others.
No, the most violent I ever became was directed at myself. My wife was deteriorating from the stresses at work. She would stumble home crying every other night, her cheeks flushed, her eyes red-rimmed, and this misery would eventually turn to anger at her bosses, her co-workers, and invariably, as we moved through the evening, anger towards me. I was not without fault. I was not as sympathetic as I could have been. I accused her of melodrama. I urged her to quit. She retorted that I didn’t make enough money for her to quit, which of course accented my own failures, and our fights degenerated from there.
One night she seemed to be worse than usual, and I thought that she could actually have a nervous breakdown if she continued working there. She had a cold, and this, combined with some mix-up at the office being blamed on her, was too much. Her small, frail hands shook as she told me about her boss yelling at her. She began shivering. Her thin hair covered her face. She couldn’t stop crying. I told her she had to quit, she just had to. Then we began fighting. The blow-by-blow is irrelevant. It was the tone that’s important. We started screaming. I was afraid for her mental health and ordered her to write her letter of resignation tonight, now, this instant, and she said that she could not. This same argument had infected us for many months, and I knew I was not making my point clearly enough. We needed a root canal. We needed an emergency pulpotomy. I yelled, If I was hurting myself wouldn’t you want to do something to help? She replied that we were in bad financial shape and without her job we couldn’t afford the Bay Area, which we both liked. Perhaps our screaming made it difficult to get our points across.
I was crying. She was crying. I felt an utter frustration I had not felt since I was a child, and I needed to make a dramatic point. I yelled, If I was hurting myself, you’d want me to stop, wouldn’t you? We were in the kitchen. I was next to the counter. She was standing rigidly by the dining table. I yelled again, If I was hurting myself, you’d stop me.
So I grabbed a knife. It was the Wüstof-Trident twelve-inch cook’s knife, part of the set I had bought her for her thirtieth birthday. $250. She had read about the set in Cook’s Illustrated , her favorite magazine—she had once wanted to be a chef—and David Kimball had rated this set the best for the home professional. The six knives came with a wooden block. I had listened to her talk wistfully about a good knife set, and I wanted to make her happy. Of course we couldn’t afford it, but I had four credit cards with only two of them maxed out. I copied the article and went to the Home Store and showed the attractive clerk the article, and she smiled and recognized the clipping. She said, Oh, I just read that! She showed me the knife set. I bought it. When I presented it to my wife, she jumped up and down, her cheeks flushed, and although I saw a glimmer of concern in her eyes—the cost, she was thinking, it’s so expensive—she shook it off and kissed me, and told me she loved me. I was so happy she was so happy.
The tae kwon do teacher at the Hempstead church pulled my mother aside after the main service when the congregation moved downstairs for an extended lunch. It was a Korean church thing, everyone bringing food and socializing. My father had cornered the new reverend near the kitchen, and the tae kwon do teacher saw my mother outside alone; he hurried over to her.
Do you know who your husband was during the war?
She didn’t really know and told him so. Maybe she was even flattered by his attention because the tae kwon do teacher was handsome with an angular jaw and deep, dark eyes, and he wore a sharp tailored suit. Maybe she even smiled. The tae kwon do teacher told her who he was, a former commando who knew of her husband. Then he told her that her husband was well-known among other commando platoons because her husband was almost court- martialed for murdering North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war. The tae kwon do teacher told her that my father had interrogated and killed POW’s, and although he had not been in technical violation of the Geneva Convention, since South Korea hadn’t ratified the guidelines, his superiors did not like his methods. He was well-known because he used a seven-inch diver’s knife on his prisoners --
Stop, my mother said to the tae kwon do teacher. Stop telling me this. After her head snapped back from my father’s blow, my mother would slowly straighten up. She’d clench her fists and say something threatening to my father. Because I couldn’t understand Korean—they both spoke English to me, and I never bothered trying to learn their language—I became a great interpreter of tones and inflections. I read the stabs of animosity amidst the static of incomprehensible sounds. Back then I used to think she was saying something like, You pathetic drunk. Or: You disgusting coward. But now I realize that the tone was more like, Is that the best you can do?
Once, I saw his hand coil back, but instead of a quick hit, he shot his arm out and clamped onto her throat. She had taunted him. She had known exactly what to say to anger him even more. She then tried to laugh at him, but gagged, and ended up kicking him in the groin. He doubled over and dry-heaved. Then—and this was the only time I can remember his using martial arts on her—he gave her a forward elbow strike to her mouth, and she crumpled. That was when she slowly looked up from the ground, saw me, and smiled. Neither of them realized I had been watching. I saw her teeth outlined in blood. It was an odd, victorious smile. It was a See-Who-He-Is smile.
This happened before she learned of my father’s infamous reputation during the Korean War. Even though my mother stopped the tae kwon do teacher from telling her anything else at that time, my mother soon sought out the wife of the teacher, looking her up in the church directory. Through the wife my mother learned of my father’s misdeeds and near court martial. She learned of his seven-inch diver’s knife, which, she vaguely remembered, might actually be somewhere in the house. Hadn’t she seen it when they moved from Oakland to Irvine? Wasn’t it in that wooden chest where his manuals on outboard engine repair were stored? She was certain she had seen a long thin knife with the leather sheath and leg straps cracking and moldy.
Even with a mouth guard I wake up in the mornings with a sore jaw and a vague, humming headache. I often have dreams that I’m chewing gum. Because I wore down the mouth guards that the dentist had made for me, and because these particular guards were expensive, I’ve since begun using hockey mouth guards I buy in bulk from Target. Instead of the $50 guards from the dentist, I pay $3.95 for the hard black plastic guards that I have to boil for three minutes then shape to my upper teeth.
I am protected from flying hockey pucks in my sleep.
In the mornings, I take out my mouth guard and rub my jaw, then brush the guard clean. I spit tiny black specks into the sink—the plastic bits from my night of chewing. The black bits dot the porcelain and look alarmingly like cavities or bugs.
When my wife was still with me, she sometimes woke me up to tell me to stop grinding my teeth. Once, when this happened, she told me that I was also raking my hair back, tugging it. I saw small clumps of my hair on my pillow. I hope I don’t still do that, but I often find a lot of hair on my pillow in the mornings, and I’m not sure if I’m just experiencing normal male pattern baldness or if I’m pulling my hair out when I sleep. I am now considering wearing some kind of ski cap when I go to bed.
When we first met and began spending the night together, my wife and I would fall asleep in each other’s arms. But after ten years of marriage we needed to sleep not only on the opposite sides of the bed, but with two pillows between us. Sometimes I thrashed my arms when I slept, and on a few occasions I hit her accidentally and woke her up. It was a joke between us at first, but I knew it was beginning to annoy her by the end.
My mother told me she had married my father because it was the only way for her to get out of Korea—she came from a poor farming family, and she desperately wanted to emigrate to the United States. My father had already lined up a job with an engineering company and was looking for a wife. He would eventually lose that engineering job because of his drinking and would end up, after a series of progressively worse jobs, at a boat repair shop in Marina del Rey, working on outboard Evinrude motors.
She also told me about their fights, which were usually about money, his drinking, his cheating, and her anger at him for being a failure. He had promised many things to her, and except for having me, none of them had been delivered. She admitted to me that she couldn’t leave him for many years because she was scared to be alone. When I told her about my failing marriage, although my wife wouldn’t leave me for another year, my mother was quiet for a very long time. She liked my wife, even though my wife had never gone to church, and was in fact an atheist. My mother finally said, I hope my marriage to your father didn’t ruin yours.
Ruin mine? I asked. No. It didn’t. It taught me what not to do.
But you’re having problems, she said.
We’re having problems, I replied.
It never gets . . . physical, does it? she asked.
I said, Never.
Before I pulled out the twelve-inch cook’s knife in front of my wife, I tore off my shirt. I ripped it off my body. Yes, it was dramatic, but I was trying to make a dramatic point. I yelled, If I was hurting myself you’d want to help me, wouldn’t you? I guess I wasn’t being particularly rational as I reached towards the knife block.
Honestly? I had actually intended to pull out the smaller paring knife, but I had miscalculated its location in the wooden block and ended up pulling out the long cook’s knife, and of course I couldn’t replace it to find a smaller one because that would’ve defeated the drama of it all, so I continued pulling out the very long blade after tearing off my shirt. I was crying. I couldn’t handle all of this happening. I was disoriented because when I had pulled off my shirt I had twisted my head too quickly, and that, along with my blurry vision and the pounding headache from a night of teeth-grinding, made it difficult for me to steady myself. I was watching my wife to see if she was understanding what I was going to do, and yes, she did understand because she flinched as soon as I pulled out the cook’s knife, the stainless steel blade bright and freshly sharpened just that day, because my wife loved those knives. She would get them in the divorce settlement.
Perhaps my wife did not realize what was happening as I pulled out that cook’s knife, because for some reason her hand went up to her own throat and she stepped back. It was an odd reaction and I wasn’t sure what it had meant—if she was simply scared or if she was trying to protect her own throat. There was a suspended moment when both of us stopped crying simultaneously, when a brief silence fell between us, and I thought with some horror that she might actually believe that I could hurt her in some way, when in fact I would sooner kill myself than to do anything to her. I started crying again, shaking my head, thinking, It has come to this; she doesn’t know me at all.
Then she started crying again, perhaps analyzing her own reactions and seeing my reaction to her reaction, and she begged me to put the knife down. I thought of my dead mother telling me stories about my father, and I remembered how he had grabbed her throat and choked her, and how she had learned about his reputation, and I yelled, really yelled at my wife now, because I was hurt that she might worry about her own safety with me, and I brought the knife up to my own throat, and the steel was very cool against my sweating skin, and I yelled in a hoarse and desperate voice, If I was going to hurt myself, you’d want to stop me, wouldn’t you? You’d want to save me, wouldn’t you?
When my mother’s friend called me in the middle of the night a year ago to tell me the news of my mother’s death, I was grinding my teeth. I woke up with a headache. My mouth guard was soft and chewy. My wife rolled over and buried her head under her pillow as I picked up the phone, knowing what this would be. I pulled out my mouth guard and whispered a hello. My mother’s friend told me it had been painless and my mother had been calm. I thanked her and hung up. My wife asked who it was, her soft sleep-lined skin glowed from the street lamp outside our window. I kissed her forehead and told her it was a wrong number. I told her to go back to sleep because she had to go into work early tomorrow. She mumbled a thanks, and drifted off. I stroked her hair for a while, then stood up and wandered around the house, my steps creaking quietly on the hardwood floors, and I listened to my heartbeat. I put the mouth guard back into my mouth and chewed on it, feeling my jaw click and ache.