Look of Love
My sister spent her time telling stories, with plushie animals clutched in her hands. These were careful narratives about the animals’ search for safety in an unending and mysterious war. Hopper and Strawberry Nose and Clubbed Seal were always making tunnels that led to grottoes that led to crystal caves 50,000 feet under the earth, etc.
I’m too far away, she said. I need to help Hopper and Strawberry Nose and Clubbed Seal fulfill their destiny. Her look to me said don’t follow us.
When a gun was in my hands, I had to make a huge effort to focus for those brief seconds on a point in the future. Like drawing a line, if my mind forgot what drawing was or how to do it. And all I had was this thought: the body knows what to do. An unavoidable clarity that was my only relief. I always left the range sore and dazed from holding my body with this clarity.
And the body never took me all the way there, at least not in the way I fantasized. Anger was not a great mechanism for surviving our family, and the more I lashed back the more the family had to strain its energies and blows around this wildness. In all this action, my sister was left to her underworlds.
The day I came close to reaching that destination, our mother was ranting about the Chinese. I hit her in the face. Her lips were chapped and I felt them scratch my palm. She sensed my hesitation. As if ready, she recited a series of my crimes against the family, and a pat accusation like “xenophobe” stood no chance against this litany. Everyone joined in this time because it wasn’t right to disturb the natural order of things.
You’re just as bad, my stoned aunt said afterwards while administering a sedative, smiling with her teeth. Don’t look so wronged. She was a pharmacist with a perm I remember better than her face; her hair always lifted tendrils around her face, neither firmly planted nor letting go of the ground.
My memory hasn’t survived and only comes back in these details. Not their faces, not their whole figures. My sister’s eyes. At night, the darkness is her irises pressing on my irises. I think about their opening and closing until I fall asleep; my time lapse film about flowers that only bloom at night.
I often think about filming a scene. It begins with a handheld camera close to the young actress. She’s running. We see her but in breathless, suspended pieces. The wind or force tosses her around. Short black hair fans through the air, in abstraction it looks like a skirt moving slowly through water, and the stiffness seeping into the water around the form. The image cuts out.
Then, a Steadicam sequence through the wreckage of the house. A shadow precedes a new figure. I know this sequence, the way my hands know a railing, or the way my back knows the spindles of a chair, my body grips it.
My mother begins by whipping my legs with a metal curtain rod she pulled off the window.
Coming down it looks like a line of light.
The numb and injured body staggers around the room to Lesley Gore’s “Look of Love.”
Here I am, all by myself
Watching him with someone else
And he doesn’t even know I’m here
Wish I could hold back my tears, but
Look at the way he’s kissing her (ooh-ee-ooh)
Look at him hold her tight
I remember his warm embrace
And the tender look on his face
Yes, look at the way he looks at her now
Isn’t that the look of love?
Most nights I’m trapped in the roar of an airless room. The sound before your ears pop as the plane takes off, or when you plunge into deep water. The noise of a body entering difference and not really believing it.
When the sun is on my face and the right songs play, I can safely glide through the scene as an observer and not as the body in pain. I can look into her eyes but her eyes are not for me.
When the sound arrives it also has a taste. Whatever my mother’s problems, she always made sure we ate well. She even made saltines taste good. Margarine swirled with cheap strawberry jam which masks everything. Sometimes it’s oysters, briny and sweet, and the muffled grit of shell fragments.
The movies know how air can disappear in a crisis. In a disorienting moment, all the diegetic sound cuts out into a growing rumble—it’s not the absence of sound, which would be replaced by the ambient rustlings of the theater, your heart, the person next to you and the little sweat on their neck, the glow cast on their pulse.
Lurching sweetness mixes with blood, saliva floods out all the breath.
My sister didn’t survive. A freak work accident killed her. She’d pursued her passion and was working as a consultant for mining companies on structural safety. Of course, they still cut all kinds of corners. A mine collapsed, and it took them two weeks to recover the bodies. She’d spent as much time as she could deep in the earth.
Some part of me thought if she survived our mother she could survive the earth. Our mother had her body cremated, without telling me. So even in death she did what she wanted to us. I did steal the ashes after the wake and paid one of her colleagues to bury the rosewood box in a mine that was soon to be shut down.
My sister’s resemblance of my mother and their shared beauty had allowed me to parcel and hold off those violent years. But after her death, there was so much more blood in my face and I didn’t know how to get rid of it. I kept walking around listening to songs. It wasn’t enough. This world was only getting worse.
All my gun training was only too relevant. I went from shooting commercials to shooting conflict regions. The boss at the production company thought we could expand, since the conflict zones were only getting closer every day. He was the type to think of himself as an entrepreneur-warlord, but changing the world for good. He had zero charisma, and all clothes looked bad on him. But the blood was getting louder and I raised my hand in the meeting and said I know how shoot.
Shoot guns. This was hardly better than being one of those private security mercenaries. I remembered one of the last conversations I had with my sister, I had insinuated that there were ethical problems with her job. I know, she’d said quietly, but it’s only worse if I don’t do it.
I hadn’t let it go by the time we’d said goodbye. Let’s talk soon, she’d said sounding tired, but then we didn’t talk for a year. I don’t remember anymore what that last conversation was, negotiating holiday plans, or asking for her airline miles to get to a freelance gig, something logistical like that.
My sister had always been supportive of the choices I made, even if it was not genuine support. She believed in faking it, and in getting away. As usual I was running straight into the problem. And I didn’t believe in positive thinking, you can’t really with so much poison in your face, and all that airless noise pressing in at night.
Still, I put Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” on repeat every time we rolled to another zone, just for her—
Sunny, thank you for the sunshine bouquet.
Sunny, thank you for the love you brought my way.
You gave to me your all and all, now I feel ten feet tall.
Sunny one so true, I love you.
Sunny, thank you for the truth you let me see.
Sunny, thank you for the facts from A to Z.
My life was torn like a windblown sand
And the rock was formed when you held my hand.
Sunny one so true, I love you.
Management is thrilled that I can work in double capacity as a videographer and on security detail, so much so that they choose to overlook all the ways I disappoint in both jobs. Hiring another person means a lot more hassle than simply another wage; out here every “body” must be accounted for.
I’m always assigned to film the children, and there are so many of them. Most of the refugees are young kids. They say You’re a woman, they’ll feel comforted. I can’t tell if this is true because usually the kids are so distraught. They ask for their mother, aunties, grandmother, siblings, friends. The recently departed. Most lost fathers and uncles long ago. We often ask them to do things like hug teddy bears in a well-lit warm room where they aren’t allowed to stay or carry lanterns across the camp that they’re scared to walk around in without cameras and security. We try to reassure them by pointing at all our guns.
On camera, they appear alone and scared. We feed them lines. This will help your family, we say, and the kids try hard. My sister was an angel compared to this. After one of these shoots, I put in a request for security detail or cleaning shifts or literally anything else. In meetings, they feed us the same lines: The work we do here helps to raise international awareness.
But everyone’s been pretty aware for a long time now.
I say Yes sir! Not so secretly these profiteering bleeding hearts love to play at being military. If I argue, they’ll talk to me about donors, and being roped into that is even worse than shooting these videos. I have an earnest face, and enough visible scars on my body to get away with what otherwise would get me reprimanded openly for Having a Problematic Attitude. My coworkers started a secret group chat called Having a Problematic Attitude to let off steam about work, but they didn’t add me to it.
I wake up from a nightmare: rats eating each other until the ones that survive become super-rats with crazy pale eyes, but the super-rats are all missing a leg and run around in limping circles. This goes on so long that they wear down thick circular grooves in the dirt floor. Eventually they disappear into the ground.
It’s before dawn and I open my laptop in the darkness of the bunker. There’s an encrypted email from the same colleague who helped bury my sister’s ashes. Everyone’s asleep so I decrypt. Your sister’s death was an assassination. There’s evidence. I open some attachments, there’s casual correspondence between her superiors discussing the danger she poses as a possible whistleblower. They cite the conversation we had that they picked up during a routine surveillance dragnet. FUCK is all I manage to write back.
The Shirelles come through my earbuds:
Is this a lasting treasure
Or just a moment’s pleasure
Can I believe the magic in your sighs
Will you still love me tomorrow
Tonight with words unspoken
You say that I’m the only one
But will my heart be broken
When the night meets the morning sun
When I wake up my throat is raw and I call in sick. I’ve put in enough double shifts and my voice sounds bad enough that they let me take the day. But not before guilting me about how important this shoot with the amputee children is for the cause. You’re on it tomorrow, they say. Think about how terrible these kids feel. And I think about it and I wonder why we make them shoot for hours without any breaks. Or why we sleep in bunkers while they sleep exposed in tents. I hang up.
The air tastes like omurice, yellow and plump, with a tangy layer of ketchup. My sister hated eggs. She always smelled like lemon balm muddled in clay rich soil; she always smelled elegant but country. If she had a taste it would be saffron and whipped cream. Her sound wouldn’t be of the laptop humming, the animal whimper from my stomach, or the electric buzz of the lightbulb in the room. Her sound would be of a long scraping shovel working against the rocky dirt.
Oki Sogumi was born in Seoul, South Korea as military dictatorship ended. She writes poetry and fiction, and her forthcoming speculative novella is about giant insects, migration, time travel, oceanic feelings, wellness, and both the limits and possibilities of relations like friendship. She currently resides in Philadelphia.