Walking with the overflow of robe in her arm and in between the mindless refrain of a jagged hymn, she warned us, my sister and I, to “never forget the symbol of collectivism.” We were cold by then but we couldn’t voice our discomfort, young as we were, so we shivered, first timidly and then increasing the motions of our bodies so that by the time we were about to leave the hotel room, she took our spastic selves back in and asked us if we would like some “warm ersatz coffee.” Drink wouldn’t do us good—she would inevitably slip something in—but we felt obliged. The ride, the dinner. We lived here in this country, not she, but it was her habit to contrive hospitality around things she did not own. “Generosity is a trait written in my face,” she once said, and her face, our mother used to comment, was like a pumpkin, wide.
She continued dissecting her dream for us. In between sips of strong stuff, we caught bits about a room full of synchronized drummers and girls performing the splits on a riverboat and, on more traditional ground, pigs, snakes, and faeces. The positive and negative of it all confounded her. Was she lucky today or not? She’d have had to “feel the faeces to be sure”. Still, was it enough that a pig had bristled by her? Yet, she had not felt “wholly herself” in her dream. We wondered why it mattered, the day was almost over. Soon she could dream more dreams and with some luck right each wrong feeling. She might see her grown children, for instance, or visit her childhood home: these are not infrequent gifts from dreams.
“I feel strange,” she whispered into her hymn, and in a sudden move that hit us like fear through our manoeuvring inebriation, she let go of the bundled material of robe in her hands and dropped down to the ground. Couldn’t we say something about it? That was her silent question as she sought for us looking upward, her permed hair uncurtaining her face and revealing the pumpkin to be larger than we had imagined.
What could we say? We’d destroy her with our private judgment and we’d not offer her anything affective with our average manners. For a moment we stayed like this, us and she, until I felt something vibrating in my pocket. We crashed the space between crumpled body and upholstered seat, the space conserving potential for kindness, with our standing up and putting coffee cups down and talking outwards. In Korean “apologies”, and in English “our car just arrived”, “auntie” in Korean again. Gomo is what we call her, our father’s sister, although she seemed too old for that and we were afraid we were leaving out another title, which should indicate she was our great aunt and not merely our aunt. We didn’t turn around. She stayed in her forlorn position, a guest in the Raffles Hotel, the echo of her hymn catching us as we stepped into the golden corridor.
Art by George Wilson