The room was dimly lit, except for a little black and white tv that kept flickering. The longer I sat in the chair, the more my face flushed with fire. The kind of heat that comes out of our pores and tries to push through your ears. “Mrs. Kim, Mrs. Kim. Can you please report to security? Mrs. Kim, please report to security,” the heavy man in a dark suit repeated into the microphone. I sat in the back room of PX staring at my black patent leather shoes wondering if my mom would kill me now or wait until there were no witnesses.
I was sixteen years old and a stellar student at Hopewell High School. While my grades weren’t the best, I passed tests with extremely high scores which kept me in my in AP classes. I was winning trophies in Forensics and Debate and proudly wore the title of Vice President of SADD, Students Against Drunk Driving. And for of those of you who know me, you might be surprised that there was actually a time in my life where I had never touched a single drop of alcohol nor did I toke, smoke, or had…ok, maybe I was having a little sex.
My brother and I were the quintessential latch key kids and had been since I was about 9 years old. When my father, a soldier in the army left us, my immigrant mother had no choice but to go to work. She knew very little English and had almost no work experience when she landed a waitressing job at the Golden Dragon in Petersburg, Virginia. Monday through Saturday, my mom would start working at 10 am and return way late into the night. On Sundays, my brother and I would eat breakfast with her, run errands, and then watch her get ready for the dinner shift.
Being alone so often, we had plenty of opportunities to get in trouble, but we never did. My brother would come home and play video games, while I made sure he’d bathe, eat, and get his homework done. My evenings were mostly spent drawing and listening to old Motown records while imagining my life when I would finally meet Anthony Kiedis.
My family lived a rather modest life. We were never without, but we never really had anything beyond the essentials. Our cupboards were filled with SPAM, rice, and Ichiban instant ramen. One year someone generously gifted my mother with a microwave. Then our freezer filled up with MicroMagic french fries, MicroMagic cheeseburgers, and even MicroMagic milkshakes. Eating out was never an option. We weren’t allowed to go to McDonald’s. Once in awhile, when my mom was feeling particularly guilty about our lives, we could have a Whopper from Burger King.
My mother was proud of me and my brother, which I probably didn’t recognize as much back then. I would occasionally hear her tell her friends how impressed she was with me because, “No other daughter go to schoor, work two job, and take care of brother” the way that I did. Because she was the model example of a stoic Korean mother, she never actually said those words to me. Instead, she would make sure that I always had enough rice to eat, shoes on my feet, and a roof over my head.
Now, I sat in a dark room with two adult men looming over me calling my mother, “Mrs. Kim, Mrs. Kim. Please report to security.”
It was our regular errand running Sunday. My mom needed new black slacks for her uniform at work and maybe a blouse or two. My mother and I had decided to swing by the PX in Fort Lee. While she shopped, I fingered through new clothes and sampled perfumes I couldn’t afford. I looked through the cds stopping to admire the cover on the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album when it occurred to me that I needed a scientific calculator for class.
Standing in the school supply aisle, I looked for my calculator and it was over thirty dollars! THIRTY DOLLARS! That may not seem like a lot, but this was almost 25 years ago so in today’s numbers it would be about sixty dollars for a calculator.
As I approached my mother with the calculator in hand, I practiced the various ways I could ask her for a calculator that cost THIRTY DOLLARS. I knew the idea of using calculators in school was going to blow her mind, “Why you need carcurator? You do in head.” More importantly, I didn’t know how I was going to explain to her that I took both of my paychecks and used it to buy gas, McDonald’s and several new cds, including Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation which was something I completely needed or I would die.
When I almost reached her, her back was to me. I could hear her counting the tips she had made from the night before. The snap of the dollars as she peeled them off them one by one. She sighed and put the two blouses back on the rack. She sighed again, put her purse on her shoulder, and walked away. As I watched her leave, I slipped the calculator into my pocket.
I walked over to my mother to tell her that I was going to wait outside for her. I picked up a pack of bubblegum and went to the register. As I wished the cashier a good day and began to walk out, a man in a blue uniform stopped me, “Ma’am, can you come with me?”
“Ma’am, I think you need to come with me,” he said with a tone that made me shake. I clutched my bag of bubble gum against my chest and followed the man. When we entered the room, he asked me to open my bag. When one little packet of bubble gum fell out, he asked me to empty my pockets. I asked why. He replied simply pointed to a little television that was streaming security footage. My heart dropped into my throat as I pulled out the yellow and black calculator.
My mom appeared in the room frazzled and angry. The men took her out of the room and talked to her. I stared at the row of tiny windows that lined the top of the walls and watched the trees as I tried to compose myself and not break down. They opened the door, my mother thanked them and took me out of the building.
In the car, she didn’t say a word, which only drove tears straight to my eyes. She got out of the car, she didn’t wait for me. She opened the door and let the screen door slam behind her. Through the mesh window of our screen door, I watched her throw her keys on the table and go to her room. There are no words to describe the power of that kind of silence.
For the next six weeks, my mother did not say a word to me. Our only exchange was the few dollars she left on the kitchen table for my lunches. At night, I would lie in bed wide awake waiting to hear her come in because it was the only connection to her that I had left. My shoulders slumped and my back ached from the weight of her disappointment and hurt. I didn’t know what to do.
My mom was given a date to deal with my infringement. We drove to the military court – a space that looked more like a country town church than a courthouse. We waited in silence for the judge to appear. My mom slipped her hand on top of mine. I let it lay there and noticed her worn manicure. She moved it so that she could fully cup my hand. The judge appeared and we stood. When we sat back down, I hoped my mom would hold my hand again, but she didn’t.
The judge called my name, I stood up, and he let me go because it was my first time. My mom’s shoulders relaxed and she whispered, “Thank you, Jesus,” under her breath.
In the car, she was silent again. I didn’t know how to tell her I was sorry. I didn’t know why I started shoplifting in the first place. I was confused and wanted her to talk to me so badly but she had no words to give. I leaned my head against the window wondering how much longer this could go on and if she was going to send me away. I wasn’t sure where away was, but I knew I didn’t want to go there, “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry.”
She kept driving and looking forward. She slowed down at a light when she finally broke the six week long silence, “Risa, you berry rucky. What I do if you go to jair? Mommy could not rive with herself.”
That’s when I realized the weight of this on her. She wasn’t mad at me, she was mad at herself. Her head was filled of all the days she couldn’t be home or all the things she couldn’t afford. She questioned who she was. All she wanted was to be a good mother and my actions made her a bad mother. I wanted to tell her that she wasn’t a bad mother that I was a bad person, a stupid person, and that I never meant to hurt her. Instead, I took long deep breaths to stop myself from crying, turning to the window for strength.
We drove for what seemed like forever. When my mom skipped the turn onto the road where we lived, I knew this was the beginning of the end. She was going to either kill me or send me away, wherever away was. We pulled into the parking lot of Burger King and my mom said, “Good day for Whopper.”