This is a preview of Jimin Han’s novel in progress “A Separate Inheritance”
My OBGYN says she’s not surprised that a Columbia University student was murdered by a Korean man. “Don’t you remember a while ago the same thing happened at Collins College? A Korean student held three people hostage and then killed two of them? You see, Koreans again. We Chinese are told from when we’re very young that Koreans are too passionate for their own good.”
Passionate? I’m so stunned by her words that for a moment I’m speechless. I don’t know if it’s because she’s not Korean and I am or because Dr. Chung in her glittery red shoes is the most fashionable doctor in midtown and confidence glows about her and she thinks she can talk about something she knows nothing about. Nothing
at all. Nothing. She wasn’t at Collins that year, but I was. And I couldn’t tell you anything about passion or love or Koreans or why or who could have stopped all of us from ending up in that room in December twenty years ago with a gun pointing at our heads.
Twenty seems to be magic number. Twenty years ago and now I’m nearly twenty weeks, half-way to pushing this baby out, but now I want to change docs. The baby agrees, turning his back to us. We’ve been looking at him too much anyway. Every week the portable sonogram has been wheeled in to each appointment. From a jumping lima bean to this now almond-eyed boney alien, we’ve watched everything. I’m one of those high-risk mothers. I try to calm down because just as my heart sped up so did the baby’s. I can see the numbers on the monitor climb. Pure coincidence, I tell myself. Dr. Chung is just randomly connecting two incidents. It just happens that tomorrow I’m seeing someone from my Collins College days. Someone who’s been looking for me all this time. I try not to think about it.
Dr. Chung wipes gel off my belly and takes two steps back. She says, “Meeda, listen carefully: this baby isn’t going to come out if you don’t stop eating so much. I’m ordering you: eat healthy, stop snacking.”
She holds up her hands as if she’s holding up an oxygen tank for scuba divers. “Drink a bottle, this big, everyday.”
I nod. Definitely changing docs. Dr. Chung pulls off her latex gloves with one smooth snap, and I pull myself back up to a sitting position—resist the urge to grab more paper towels to wipe the remaining gunk off my skin. I’m not shy but there’s an overflow in the waiting room and I despite fussy self-centeredness. I change back into my clothes, put on my shoes. I wave to the receptionist and hurry into the elevator. I know she expects me to make my next appointment before I leave, but I can’t explain right now how I won’t be back. It’s too bad because I don’t know whom I’ll go to now. Dr. Chung’s office is close to my apartment on 54th Street, but that’s the way I am.
My cell phone plays its song and when I answer I hear my husband’s administrative assistant’s voice, “Meeda?”
“Hi,” I say.
“Albert would like you to meet him at 6oth and 3rd Avenue at 1:15. For cribs at that French baby store since you’re having trouble finding one you like.”
Quite a mouthful. More information than an assistant should know. “Fine, I say. I’m on my way.”
Olivia says, “Thanks.”
I don’t know what to say to that. Thanks? Shouldn’t I be the one thanking her? Little things like that irritate me about her. Who belongs to whom here?
Calm down, I remind myself. “No, thank YOU,” I say.
I’m about to hang up when I hear her voice again. “Oh, and Meeda? I hope everything works out tomorrow. I really do.”
This isn’t a coincidence. Why did Albert tell his assistant? How much does she know? “Thanks,” I repeat, because there’s nothing else to say and again, like at the doc’s office, I’m speechless. First Dr. Chung and now Olivia. What is going on today?
When I see my husband in the store, he doesn’t try to kiss me hello which is not like him at all. Just as well because I’m in no mood in any case. A saleswoman makes her way over, sizing us up. At least I think she’s a saleswoman. She’s smiling at us even as she’s trying to determine income level. Does she bother to show us the expensive stuff or are we windowshopping out of curiosity? We’re a little elusive.
A pregnant Korean American couple, that’s us. 5’3” me in black tent wear over leggings and 5’10” Albert, in the standard navy pinstripe Brooks Brothers suit and red patterned silk tie of the lawyers and bankers in the city. My handbag is nondescript in a middle-income sort of way, not an expensive vintage style, and my shoes are rather simple black flats.
Albert has an amiable, relaxed air. Without even smiling, he seems approachable. It’s his warm, friendly eyes. Twenty years in the city haven’t cancelled out the previous 18 formative years in Nebraska where he grew up. He seems to have a perpetual tan too, as if he’s been outdoors or just returning from vacation in a warm place. I think that’s what happens when you grow up in the mid-west. The sun of those plains on your skin. If she were sure we were Japanese, then she’d really show us the expensive cribs first since young Japanese couples were buying up quite a bit these days. The But she’s not quite sure.
And she’s not sure about age. We both have lines in our faces that thirty-somethings usually don’t have. Maybe 44-45, she thinks. She knows about these things because she’s 47 herself and had work done last year, a little around her eyes and around her mouth. That could mean this will be our one and only and maybe we’d spend a little more.
She’s a few feet from us. “We’re fine,” I say before she even asks if we need assistance. “If you have any questions,” she says.
Albert turns to me. He says, “How was your appointment?”
“I’m not going to Dr. Chung anymore,” I say. “And I can’t believe you tell Olivia every detail about our lives. How much does she know about tomorrow?”
“Don’t forget the call came to my office,” he answers in a clipped voice. “Olivia passed on the call, remember? Namjoon called MY office to find you.”
I had known that. But why did Olivia know when I had agreed to meet him? “How much does she know?” I repeat.
Albert shakes his head and everything about him softens. He bends towards me, squeezes my shoulder, a mini-one-handed massage. “She moved some meetings so I could be available to go with you in case you needed me. That’s all.”
“What else?” End of massage. “It was a terrible accident, what happened. I’m being available for you just in case.”
‘Terrible accident,’ he called it. I know I flinched. “I’m not nervous,” I say.
Albert’s tone changes, cooler, “Then my mistake. I had the meetings changed for nothing.”
“Right.” I turn away. “Do we have to buy a crib today? This is the third store we’ve been to this week. All of them look the same. I hate them all.” I look back through the glass doors at the people walking by. I envy them.
“We’re running out of time,” Albert answers.
“So let’s shop,” I say loudly. I make a big show of looking around at the furniture. Dozens of cribs and changing tables and armoires are planted here and there. There are four other couples in the store, smiling as if they’ve got a secret. But we know what it is, I want to shout, You’re having a baby, so what?
Albert runs his hand along the wooden rail of the crib closest to him. “All right,” he’s back to his usual ‘solicitous husband of hysterical pregnant wife’ voice, “we’ll talk about it later. What about this one?”
“I hate it. Don’t you even want to know what Dr. Chung said to me?”
“You always hate things and then you change your mind. What about this one with the mosquito net?”
“I do not. She said the Columbia murder was just like what happened at Collins.”
“I see her point. What about our couch? You hated it and now you say it’s the best thing we ever bought.”
“You do? But you just said it was an accident. It’s completely different. And we don’t have mosquitoes.” We’re circling each crib as if a different angle will make up our minds for us.
“You take it off then, Meeda. You make it what you want it to be.”
“You can’t just do that. Collins was entirely different.”
“Look, if we don’t see anything here there’s another in Stamford. We could drive out there this weekend.”
“Did Olivia tell you about Stamford?”
“Just drop it, Meeda.”
“Is her divorce final yet?”
“I don’t know. She doesn’t tell me things like that.”
“Strange, when she knows we’re picking out a crib today and where I’m going tomorrow.”
“I thought we were done with this. Why are you picking a fight with me?”
He kills me when he’s as direct as that. I want to run into his arms when he’s as direct as that. There’s no hidden agenda with him. He’s simple, honest. Albert’s a good man.
Reliable and steadfast. Loyal and true. I know I’m here right now instead of worse because of him. I swallow and say, “I’m a little nervous about tomorrow.”
Albert reaches over and tries to put his arm around me. I lean in. With his long legs and arms, he can easily wrap me up except for my belly these days. It’s awkward the way we stand. “I’ll be right there with you if you want,” he says into my hair.
It would never work. Whatever I had to say tomorrow when I meet Namjoon, Albert wouldn’t understand. I pull away. I say, “I have to go alone.”
He looks at me steadily.
“I need to do this alone.”
“You shouldn’t be upset. You or the baby.”
The glass doors of this store seem far away now. How have we made our way so deep into this maze of baby furniture in such a short time?
“What’s past is past,” he says now. “It’s been years. Another few months won’t make a difference. Wait til after the baby’s born.”
Act of passion, according to Dr. Chung. Terrible accident, according to Albert. Does he suspect even a little that’s there’s more to what happened in that room than he’s been told? There must be a part of him that does. But if he doesn’t, if there’s a chance we can get through this without any more injury. I find myself saying,“You think that way because of what happened.”
He puts his arms around me. “I think this way because I love you and because I know it’s true. As long as we have each other, nothing can hurt us.”
I want to be as confident as Albert. I hug him even tighter to me, as if he embodies the hands of time itself and if I could just keep them still, keep them from moving apart, I can stay like this—not looking back or moving forward. Because I don’t want to see. Either way, I don’t want to see.
Twenty years ago, when I was eighteen, I lost my way. I didn’t mean to open the door to recklessness. I didn’t mean to let a storm into so many lives. Suddenly, I need air and lots of it. “Albert, I’ve got to go. I can’t do this,” I say and walk away from him.
I have to pass the saleswoman at the door. I can feel her eyes on me. Bet she’s seen dozens of couples like us, smiling one moment and fighting the next. And she probably thinks we’re just like them, but we’re not.About A Separate Inheritance: My husband says I’ve written 5 novels in the 12 years it’s taken me to finish this book. Each draft has been distinctly different, distinctly not the one that captured exactly what I envisioned as THE story I wanted to tell. It has evolved from a story told by four alternating characters to one, from third person to first person point of view. It once opened with the shooting scene in the dorm which is now at the very end of the book. It was once much more about the drama of the family coping with the consequences of a tragic death. Now it is simpler. One narrator, Meeda Lee, tells the story of how she fell in love with a country, a cause, and a man, once upon a time when she was 18 years old, and how that love with its attendant passions brought about tragic consequences. To be fair, much of the political material of the pro-democracy movement in Korea during the 1980s in my novel wasn’t available until recent years and, it seems, like the narrator, for some books, I needed the perspective of many years time to have passed to tell the story that needed to be told.