BY JEFFREY MILLER
Joo-hee turns her head away from the man on top of her and looks beyond the nightstand to the cracked, yellowed wall. She closes her eyes and prays he finishes quickly before her baby cries again.
He’s not as rough as most men the ajumma, who work the street during the day, bring to her room through the narrow, dark labyrinth of juicy bars and cramped blocks of apartments in central Seoul. His skin is soft, but he overdid it with the aftershave. It is too sweet and makes her sick to her stomach. He told her his name was Joe.
These ajumma, middle-aged women who once themselves supported families on their backs, peddle flesh in the afternoon—selling the souls and breaking the spirits of young girls from the country; girls swallowed up by the city and its promise of a better life. At night, the girls are on their own but not out of sight and reach of the ajumma waiting for their take.
Most of the men, who end up in her room, smell of beer, soju—Korean rice wine—and stale cigarette smoke. Some have wives and families at home; others have recently arrived in country. Some are young; many are old enough to be her father. The lonely ones leave business cards and phone numbers; the drunken ones grab her arms and leave bruises. No one asks about the scar that runs the length of her arm or the baby in her crib—both the result of a boyfriend long since gone.
Joe wanted a beer and she had the ajumma run to a small convenience store across the street for a bottle. He didn’t mind paying triple. Everyone gets their cut. Joo-hee couldn’t find a bottle opener and opened it with her teeth. Some men liked that trick she picked up; but it wasn’t really a trick. The caps were not on tight.
After Joo-hee cleans herself—squatting over a plastic basin for a quick sponge bath—she checks on her baby and plays with her for a while before the next customer. This afternoon, she’s the only girl working. Two of the girls quit last week and the ajumma haven’t found replacements. One of the girls found a boyfriend. It happens.
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Originally from LaSalle, Illinois Jeffrey Miller has been living and teaching in Asia since 1989. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Artful Dodge, Bartleby Snopes, Full of Crow, Grey Sparrow Journal, Magnolia’s Press, Negative Suck, and Orion headless.