Into This World

By Sybil Baker


Engine Books
May 2012


After that first week in Seoul, Allison understood more clearly what Mina's world must have been like growing up. On the afternoons when she explored tiny alleyways of crumbling houses, the old women with their short, permed hair staring impassively at her, the men squatting in the streets smoking cigarettes and appraising her without shame, she guessed how it felt. To be the only one. To be noticed whether you wanted to or not. To not be able to disappear. Even on the main streets where Starbucks sold tiny cups of coffee for twice as much as back home and Italian bistros and Turkish kebab joints filled their seats with eager Koreans, even there, in a world she understood more, where she was greeted in English and given extra attention, she was still, quite obviously, a way-gook. Outside person. And this was how, despite her parents' efforts, Mina must have felt every day of her life.

But whenever Allison started to feel some peeling away of her resentment, a possible surrendering to her sister, she imagined Mina and Ray having sex in some hotel room or even on his desk, her lean legs spread and inviting. Yet she wasn't ready to confront her, either. So for the rest of the week, when Mina asked her to go out with them, Allison declined, blaming lingering jet lag.

Then, Friday morning, just as Allison was dressed to go out on one of her forays, Mina padded into the living room, wrapped in a towel.

"Are you ready to get naked?"

"Are you still drunk?" It was just after ten, a time when Mina was usually still sleeping off the night's fun. She worked from three to eight weekdays, a perfect schedule for nightly bar hopping.

"Nope, came home early last night so I could take you to a Korean sauna. Best thing for jet lag. Give me five minutes to dress."

Allison couldn't remember them being naked before. When Mina had first arrived, Allison said she was too old to take a bath with her little sister. Even when they shared a room in the early years, Allison had always changed in the bathroom, and when she finally got her own room, she double-checked her bedroom door lock before she undressed. Mina was the opposite. Bonnie was forever chasing her around the house with a towel after her bath, Mina's small wet feet leaving damp marks on the tiled floors. She'd run outside in her pale nightgown claiming it was a dress, or she'd insist on removing her top because Daddy wasn't wearing one.

Allison remembered her parents talking about it one night after dinner, not long after Mina had been adopted.

"Maybe she just has a wild streak," Bonnie said. "Like her father." Bonnie laughed then, but Wayne didn't.

"You don't know what those people from those little villages are like," Wayne had said. "Savages. They use human shit to fertilize their rice paddies, the boys piss wherever they want, and they all wash in one big bath house. That's where she gets it from. Give her a few more months, she'll adapt."

Now Mina met Allison at the door, her long hair pulled back and loosely piled on her head. She wore baggy, faded jeans and the same Navy hoodie that Allison had on. Presents from Wayne that last Christmas they were together. In cursive gold script the letters spelled "Daddy's Girl."

"I didn't know you still had yours," Allison said. Mina said nothing, just slipped her feet into her canvas sneakers and led her down the street.

At the front desk they were each charged six thousand won, almost six dollars, and were given two locker keys and four towels not much larger than washcloths, which, Mina explained, they were to use for washing and drying. She followed Mina to the lockers that matched the numbers on their keys. Mina pulled off her hoodie and threw it in the locker. Her rib cage was as narrow and bony as a child's.

"In LA you'd pay sixty bucks for this."

Allison still had her jacket on. "Isn't this just a little bit weird for you?"

"Why?" Mina shimmied out of her jeans. She was wearing no underwear.

"I don't know, the whole naked thing?"


Allison shrugged off her jacket and hung it on the one hanger in her locker. She took off her own hoodie and jeans so that she was just down to her beige bra and blue underwear.

"If you'd told me we were coming here, I'd at least have made sure they matched."

"Nobody cares, trust me." Mina, naked, was sitting on the bench now, crossed legs swinging impatiently. Her hand waved in the air, as if it were holding a cigarette. Like a painting: Study of naked woman smoking at a café.

Allison clamped the towel between her neck and chest as she unfastened her bra and then pulled down her underwear. She folded her clothes and stacked them in the locker.

Mina was already walking to the sauna, carrying the little packets of soaps and shampoos she'd bought at the front desk. Mina showed Allison around the sauna like a proud homeowner. "Here's the green tea pool, and the geranium pool, and the really hot pool, and the cold pool. And Hinoki tang—a pool with special Japanese wood. Then here's the crystal sauna, the mud sauna, and the salt sauna. We'll do a few of these to prepare the skin for them—the death scrubbers." She turned toward two older women whose sagging breasts were cupped in loose black bras. Their stomachs doubled over the bands of their black lace underwear, but their legs were muscular and toned. One was scooping yogurt out of a container and rubbing it on a woman's body. The other was scrubbing a woman's back with a green mitt. "But before the saunas we have to wash and ready our skin," Mina said.

"We have to wash before we're washed? Isn't that like cleaning before the maid comes?"

"Kind of. You don't want to get the pools dirty, right?"

On the left were rows of plastic stools and spigots with hoses attached. Mina placed the packets on the tile between them and sprayed the stools, which looked like chairs from a pre-school.

Through the soft filter of steam, the women's sauna looked like a straight guy's porn fantasy. Dozens of naked women showered, scrubbed, soaked, laughed, and lounged as if at a Sapphic resort. The problem was, for the porn fantasy part at least, the women were real and not blurred and steamy, and any close ups would reveal stomach scars and deflated breasts, bellies that distended and rolled like a man's. Even the good looking ones, the ones who might have made the final cut for the sauna fantasy movie scene, were not flawless. In Allison's opinion at least, their breasts were too small, the half-cone shape too pointed, the hip and shoulder bones too sharp, the skin too mottled with ghost trails of stretch marks canvassing stomachs and thighs. These women, so perfect when fully clothed, were reassuringly human—real—to Allison, although she still felt self-conscious. She was the only white woman, and her breasts, somewhat average in her opinion, looked swollen and pendulous. And the women's legs, all of them, even the older grandmothers whose stomachs doubled or trebled with hilly folds, boasted shapely calves, toned thighs, and, miraculously, no cellulite.

"Now I know why you have such great legs," Allison said.

"All Korean women do," Mina said. "It helps to keep men from noticing our flat asses."

Mina and some of the other girls looked cadaverously thin to Allison. Jutting hipbones, ribs like keys on a piano. She wanted to bake something for them, a chocolate cake or apple pie, and feed them tiny forkfuls the way you might feed a baby bird through a dropper.

"Wash my back?" Mina turned so that her spine, with its knots and visible ribs, made her look from the back like an old woman. Allison dipped her scrubber into a round tub of soapy water, then gently touched her sister's back.

"Harder," Mina said. "I can't feel anything."

"You have a half moon," Allison said. She touched each of the tiny moles at the base of Mina's back.

"I say it's a dolphin. Didn't you know?"

"I guess not," Allison said.

"Okay, you don't have to scrub me raw," Mina said. "That's what the ajummas are for. Rinse me." Mina shifted forward on her stool as Allison sprayed Mina's back with bursts of warm water. "Your turn."

They changed positions. Allison braced for Mina's scraping, but her pressure was firm, not painful.

"I wish I had your skin," Mina said. "Creamy. Like milk."

"And it burns and blushes way too easily. I'll trade my skin for your body."

Mina laughed, quickly. "I guess I could finally figure out what it's like to be in yours. My body is the only one I know."

"What's it like to sleep with so many guys?" Allison said.

"You've got a lot of dead skin." Mina squirted the hose on her back, rinsing off the suds. "I don't know if it's so many. Not that I've counted. What about you? Were you a virgin when you married Ted?"

"Oh, God no."

Mina laughed. "That's good to hear."

"Have you ever slept with a married man?"

"Once or twice." Mina stood. "When I was younger. I don't pull that shit now." She took the tiny towel and wrapped it on her head. "You have a luscious body. You should experiment a little now that you're single."

"No way." Allison draped her towel in front of her.

"Whatever." Mina sounded bored with the conversation. "Let's go rub salt on ourselves then." As Allison followed her to the salt sauna, she wondered if that was true, that if Allison asked her about Ray she'd shrug her shoulders, wonder what the big deal was. That would be even worse, that Ray was so insignificant that the repercussions for Allison had never even crossed her mind. That something that Allison dreamed of having only in the darkest, quietest moments of the night was of no consequence to Mina, that to Mina Ray was just a fly, a shrug, a penny dropped on the ground not worth picking up.

Allison knew, though, that Mina understood her feelings from the day she first set foot in the office. Mina interviewed for the summer job on a rainy April morning. She'd stopped by Allison's cubicle five minutes late, dripping water from her hair onto the printout of a report Allison was editing: Mina didn't believe in umbrellas. She'd worn a sapphire silk blouse that was now clinging like a second skin, revealing the points of Mina's tiny nipples.

"Metro was delayed, as usual," Mina said. She looked around the room, stuffed with cubicles like Allison's. "So this is it, huh. Where's the all-powerful Ray's office?"

"You can't go in like that," Allison said.

"I wore a skirt like you asked me." Mina's bare legs were slick and shiny from the rain. She set her purse down next to Allison's computer. It was one of those large bucket purses with no dividers or pockets so that Mina's cigarettes, brush, makeup wallet, keys, and music player were tangled in one dark mess.

"I can see your nipples."

Mina grabbed the ends of her hair, squeezing them so that a few drops landed on Allison's report, then placed them over her breasts. "Happy?"

"Don't embarrass me."

"I won't ruin your precious little job." Mina patted her hair down. "Let's get this over with."

Afterward, Allison walked Mina to the front of the building. The rain had stopped but the streets were still wet, glistening under the sun. Mina's blouse was drying in patches so that she looked like some exotic black and blue spotted animal. Allison leaned against the brick wall, pulling her sweater tighter around her waist as she waited for Mina to light a cigarette.

"So?" Allison finally said.

"Ray's kind of weaselly. I expected a bit more from the Allison crush."

"I don't have a crush on Ray. He's a friend and my boss. And he's not weaselly."

Mina shrugged. "I've seen his type before. That ridiculous photo of his wife, like she just happened to be sitting in that field with the sun and her makeup perfect. Like that photo makes up for his fucking around on her."

Allison wanted to slap her. If they were alone, she might have, but there were too many people, some coworkers, leaving and entering the building. Instead she hugged her sweater tighter. "Just because you're a slut doesn't mean every good looking person is."

Mina opened her mouth, then closed it, shaking her head. She flicked her cigarette on the ground and rubbed it with her shoe. "I got the job."

"Please don't mess it up. Ray's opinion is important to me."

"He's a rat, Allison. He doesn't deserve your time."

"You don't know a damn thing about Ray. I do. He's a good man, honest, loyal, and hard working. He's not just my boss. He's a friend."

She looked up at Allison and studied her. "You're in love with him."

"Don't be ridiculous. I'm married. And pregnant."

"Oh God, Ally." Mina stepped over to hug her. "Congratulations. Why didn't you say something?"

"It's still early. And the last time, you know, it didn't happen." Allison swallowed.

"Look, Ted seems like a good guy. This time I'm sure it—the baby—will work out. I don't see why you can't be happy with that."

"I am." Allison bit her lip, wiped the sides of her eyes to stem the tears. "Hormones."