Ilh-eobeolin

I lose my husband in the heart of the Gwangjang Market in South Korea.

A woman stops me outside of a mattress marketplace and points at her eyes, then at mine. She is carrying a knock-off Coach purse and wearing fuzzy bunny rabbit slippers. A plume of black hair splits at the top of her scalp, the creases near her ears silver and frizzed. A cloud of onions and seafood fills my nose as I acknowledge her with a simple bow. She breaks her teeth forming English words on her tongue. “Eyes, big blue eyes, you have pretty eyes.”

I am an American on vacation, a West Virginia native with pale eyes the size of the moon, and I am lost in one of the most popular outdoor markets in Seoul.

I thank her with her language. “Kamsahamnida.”

The woman hands me a square of silk before she excuses herself and walks around me.

The silk smells like cigarette smoke and gamjajeon. I place the silk in my cardigan pocket and continue to navigate the swelling, writhing crowd in search of my husband.

As I pass a Korean barbeque station without a single empty seat, patrons flipping pork neck and marinated eel over a bed of embers and steel, an ajumma shakes a string of garlic and prawn before me. She is eager with a dewy face and apple-red lipstick. “Young girl, you look like you could use some food. Please, come sit, come sit, I will make you a bowl!” Her English is impressive. She reaches for my hand, and I hate that I have to decline her offer.

“Maybe later,” I say, my words slower than normal, “I am looking for my husband.”

She drops the bulbs of garlic and prawn on the ground, cement caked with years’ worth of city grime, food droppings, and the occasional heel of a tourist. She steps into the oncoming traffic of foreigners, males and females with platinum blonde hair and coppered skin, and she turns towards me. “Can I help you find him?” I notice the expressions of disgust and frustration on the kids she cut off. They step around her with a scoff in their noses. She counters with grunts of her own and a lip of Korean curses.

I wave her generosity away. “No, you don’t have to. I’ll just keep looking around.”

“You get hungry, you come back.” She smiles. I smile back. As I step back into the street of pedestrians and mobile sellers, she grabs the thread of garlic and prawn and shakes it in the face of another young girl. “You look hungry, come in, come in, I make you a bowl.”

An older, fragile man in a blue windbreaker offers me a seal plushie with a handkerchief sewed to its neck. When I wave him off, he spits at my feet.

I discover my husband sitting at the busiest food station. Its location is in the nucleus of the marketplace, the center of attention, a vessel throbbing with tens of people sharing plates of food, bowls of soup, and bottles of cheap soju. A young Korean couple stands behind him, both holding paper plates with bindaetteok. He is eating a bowl of manduguk, a traditional Korean soup of dumplings, mushrooms, and buchu. A half-finished bottle of grapefruit soju sits next to his bowl. I watch an ajumma ask if he wants another bowl. Full, he declines with a smile.

I wait for the Korean couple to finish their mung bean pancakes before wedging myself between the ambling crowd. My husband’s cheeks and forehead are red, the reaction of alcohol churning in his Vietnamese blood. He lights up at the sight of me. “Hey! I figured you were on the prowl for some new shoes or something.” He pats a vacant knee. I accept and receive a calculating stare from the woman sitting next to him.

“No, not really. I haven’t found anything yet.” I tell him about the man who spit at me. He laughs.

He stirs the manduguk with chopsticks. “Do you want some of this? It’s really good.”

“Nah. I’m just thirsty.”

He hands me the bottle of soju. I drink straight from the neck.

When he is finished with his food, my husband thanks the nearest ajumma. She grins while taking his plastic bowl and dropping it in a mobile cleaning station. She runs a small spray of water over the bowl before placing it on a drying rack. His chopsticks remain untouched in the bottom of the sink. She takes on the same personality as the woman I encountered minutes earlier. “You get hungry again, you come back and see me, okay?”

“Okay!” My husband stumbles his way out of the bench. We bleed into the ambling street crowd of people moving in a single line.

We browse multiple shops for nothing in particular. He finds a pair of blue and brown loafers with beige threading. I almost buy a pair of corseted ankle boots, but the composition feels weak and the heels are not as high as I would like them to be. As we exit the shoe shop, a woman yells for my attention. “Fifteen, fifteen!” She is trying to sell me the shoes that she originally told me were twenty-five. She even holds up a pair of flip-flops and suspends them in front of her nose. “These are free, free for you!”

I contemplate her offer. I need a new pair of black boots. The flip-flops are decorated with what appears to be plastic daisies. I step back into the shoe store and search for anything else that catches my attention:  blue wedges, pink heels with glitter, a pair of brown leather boots with straps on the sides. Eventually I decline her offer and admit in English, “I have to pass.” I am not even sure if she understands my phrase. So I do not disrespect her, I try again, “No shoes for me. Maybe another day.”

Her eyes narrow. I watch the folds of skin nearest her mouth tremble. She throws the flip-flops on a growing pile of shoes behind her. “Okay, okay.” She does not appear content with me. A part of me does not blame her. To her, I am just another American tourist with vacation money to spend. I am someone who has wasted her time for nothing in return. For a moment, I feel guilty at having refused her generosity.

I step back onto the street and speak to the figure leaning against a building’s side. “She wasn’t too happy with me.”

A man stares at me.

My face flushes in embarrassment. “Oh, you’re not my husband.”

He speaks in a deep voice. “Aniyo.”

I sigh. I have lost him again.

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author bio:

Amber D. Tran graduated from West Virginia University in 2012, where she specialized in lyrical non-fiction and contemporary poetry. She is the Editor-in-Chief for the Cold Creek Review literary journal. Her work has been featured in Calliope, Sonic Boom Journal, Spry Literary Journal, Cheat River Review, and more. She has work forthcoming in The Stray Branch, Mandala Journal, and more. Her first novel, Moon River, was released in September. She currently lives in Alabama with her husband and two dogs, Ahri and Ziggs.