Choi Jung-wha

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

To this day I regret not turning her away right then and there. How could I have been so stupid, telling her to “Please come in”? And in such a friendly way at that! But then again, it was impossible not to. It was just so cold that day. There had been a blizzard that lasted for three days, followed by a cold spell, and the streets and the whole city were completely frozen over. Her cheeks, the tip of her nose, and her ear lobes were bright red from the cold. It would’ve been difficult for anyone with a heart to turn her away.

“I came early, but I walked around for an hour to be here on time,” she said.

Her eyes seemed to reflect some kind of resentment against me, but her lips were curled up in a smile as she took off her shoes. They were a pair of black leather pumps with frayed edges from frequent usage. The soles of the heels were worn down to metal, and the sound of her heels hitting the floor tiles—click, clack—sounded harsh to my ears. I frowned without meaning to, and she saw me. Embarrassed, she dropped her head. But she took off her shoes and, a few seconds later, she walked into my apartment with her head held high.

The heels of her pumps were so worn that they slanted to the side instead of standing up straight. They seemed to be at least five years old. They were a classy pair of pumps from a brand that had been popular in the past but went bankrupt a long time ago. The leather that wrapped around the foot was all stretched out, and the metal tassel ornaments on the top had rusted. The pumps were shiny, probably because she’d polished them before coming for the interview, but the tips were worn out to the point that you could almost see the white lining underneath. Even if she hadn’t worn them to garner sympathy, it was easy to see that she wasn’t financially well-off.

She looked around the living room and gave a satisfactory smile. That was what scared me. The look of contentment on her face. There wasn’t a trace of hesitation or nervousness of a person coming for a job interview. Other emotions appeared on her face as well, like the anticipation of comfort your husband or children feel as they step into the apartment upon returning home, and the excitement of someone who’s walked into their new home for the first time. Can you imagine what her smile meant?

It seemed like she was thinking that my home—my husband, my children, and my apartment—was hers. Why else would she have smiled like that? With that smile, she was saying, “Now this is my home, and, starting now, I can be you.” Yes, that’s exactly what she said. I mean, I didn’t hear her say those words out loud, but I knew that was what she was thinking.

I became so flustered that I didn’t know what to think. I only knew that I had to get her out of my apartment at the first opportunity. My face flushed at the thought that she might see through me. I turned my back to her, and she strode into the living room. I felt as though my home had been invaded, and I became distressed the moment she set her foot in my living room. Do you think it was an overreaction? Was I too defensive? But I wasn’t, doctor. Let me tell you what she did next, and you’ll understand that I wasn’t simply being ridiculous.

She took off her coat and hung it on the coatrack. What do you mean what’s wrong with that? I’d interviewed a number of housekeepers whenever I had to be away from home, but she was the first to hang her clothes on the coatrack. Usually, people just fold it once or twice and put it next to them on the couch. Well, at least, that’s what they did if they were only staying for a few minutes. But this woman didn’t want to leave my apartment. No, no, she was planning on staying. My gosh, you have no idea how I hated myself at that moment for putting the coatrack in the living room.

Then, she walked toward the middle of the living room and took the inside seat at the table, facing the television. I had no choice but to sit on the other side, as though our roles were reversed and she was interviewing me.

But I couldn’t turn her away without an interview just because I didn’t like her smile. Especially since she said she’d spent an hour roaming the streets outside. So I decided to proceed with the interview as I’d planned.

“As I said on the phone, you’d just need to take care of chores around the house during the three weeks I’ll be gone. Vacuuming, laundry, preparing meals, and checking my children’s homework. Nothing too difficult.”

Then I asked her how long she’d been working as a housekeeper. She hesitated for a moment and answered that this would be her first time.

“But don’t worry. I was a stay-at-home mom for seven years. I only went outside to go grocery shopping or to pick up my children from school.”

“Do you mind if I ask why you’re starting out now?”

“My husband had an accident,” the woman began, in a voice that betrayed no emotion. “I was spared. I had been staying at my uncle’s house in Jeolla Province at the time for health reasons. I went home once every two weeks, and about two months into my stay, I received the call.”

A dark shadow was cast over her face as she spoke, and she must have felt it because she lifted her hand to her cheek and took a deep breath. Then she took another look around the living room. Her eyes began to sparkle, and her face brightened. My heart started to throb in fear.

“It was a car accident. Happens all the time.”

She looked straight into my eyes and smiled as though she’d gotten over her painful past. Then she let out several dry coughs, and I knew in an instant that it was an act. I should’ve offered her a warm cup of tea or something, but that meant I would have to boil the water, brew the tea, and we would have to drink it together, dragging out this interview. So I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to get this interview done and over with as soon as possible and see her out. But this woman asked for a drink.

“I’m sorry, but could I get something to drink? I’m rather thirsty.”

The moment she said those words, I got up from the table and walked into the kitchen. I poured water into a kettle, put it on the stove, and turned the burner to high.

Then I heard her voice in the living room. She was asking my youngest his name and age. Of course, he answered like the obedient child he was. I didn’t see them together, but I knew that she probably stroked his cheek or picked him up and put him on her lap. Just the thought of that made me antsy. I couldn’t wait until the water was boiled. So instead, I mixed some plum syrup in mineral water and brought it out to the living room. I served her a cold drink on such a cold winter day! The woman picked up the cup, with her fingers like frozen sticks on her hand, and gulped it down. Part of me felt guilty, but the other part of me was spiteful. I bet she felt the same.

I didn’t get to hear the rest of her story because the doorbell rang at that moment. Did she have to start working to pay for her husband’s hospital bills? Or was she now left all alone because she lost her husband in the accident? I never found out. But even if I did have the time, it would’ve been heartless to ask her those questions anyway.

My husband came home early that evening. He usually ate before coming home, but, that evening, he asked about dinner as soon as he walked into the apartment. I thought this would make a great excuse. Since it was dinnertime, she had a reason to head on back home. But my hope was shattered when my husband popped this question:

“If she hasn’t had dinner yet, why don’t we ask her to stay for dinner?”

My husband is a kind person. Kindness is ingrained in his nature. That’s why I came to like him in the first place. He’s not a calculating person, who has ulterior motives for being nice to people. There’s something habitual about his kindness, I suppose. And that night, for the first time since I met him, I resented him for his kindness.

As I’d expected, she didn’t say no. So I had to let her eat at the same table as my family. She offered to help with the cooking, but I said no. I wanted to make it clear that she was just a housekeeper who came to my apartment for an interview. I wanted to tell her to stop acting as if she was family—no, as if she was the lady of the house.

So I was in the kitchen, cooking, while my husband, our kids, and the woman sat in the living room watching TV and waiting for dinner. The moment I glanced at them in the living room, I realized that things were going the exact opposite of what I’d hoped to achieve. It was as if they were a family. I know you said that’s ridiculous, and I know it doesn’t make sense. But that’s how I felt that night. I knew I had to get the dinner ready fast so that I could stop feeling so sorry for myself. I’d gone grocery shopping during the day and bought all the ingredients to make seafood stew for dinner, but instead I heated up the jjigae I’d had for lunch. I finished setting the table as quickly as possible and called my second son.

“Tell Dad dinner’s ready.”

When our son tugged at my husband’s sleeve, he said to the woman, “Come, dinner’s ready.”

His voice sounded overly affectionate. I almost felt betrayed. He talked to her in the same tone he used with me.

“It’s tofu and mushroom jjigae! My favorite!” my son exclaimed as he climbed up on his chair and started to dance.

“Stop fussing and sit down already,” I snapped at my son, taking out my annoyance at the woman on him.

“I’m gonna go to the bathroom first.”

My son ran to the bathroom, and the woman got up to follow him.

“Where are you going?”

I felt my face flush, aware of the obvious edge in my voice.

“Oh, the restroom . . . ”

“It’s that way. On the other side. Right next to that room over there.”

You’re right, doctor. I probably wanted to show her that she didn’t know anything about my apartment.

My husband, the eldest, and the youngest of our children were sitting on one side of the table, and I sat opposite them in the middle. The woman came back from the bathroom before my son did, and she took a seat on my side, across from my husband. Soon afterward, my son came running back and began to throw a tantrum, insisting that he sit next to the woman.

“I want to sit next to ajumma!”

I put my spoon down on the table. My mouth felt dry, so I gulped down a glass of water. Clueless as to what I was going through in my head, my husband did nothing other than letting out an embarrassed chuckle. I sat still, not knowing what to do.

“Did you wash your hands?” the woman asked at that moment.

My son looked down at his palms and smiled as he thrust them out for her to see. I had to grip the tablecloth with my left hand to stop myself from slapping his arms down. The spoon in my right hand trembled slightly.

“I’ll be right back!”

The woman pretended to pat my son’s butt, and my son ran toward the bathroom once again. He returned seconds later, breathless from all the running back and forth.

Then he looked at me and pointed to the chair next to mine, signaling me to move over. I moved over to the other chair. Adding insult to injury, my son pulled his chair closer to the woman. You might think I’m petty, but I felt left out. My husband and my children were acting as if I wasn’t even there. Of course, the woman was enjoying all of this. Unable to finish the meal, I stood up.

As I got up from the table, my eyes met the woman’s for a fleeting second. She immediately flicked her gaze down to her bowl, but I knew she was probably jumping up and down in joy on the inside. If I disappeared, she’d be there to take my place, leaving behind her past and starting anew in my shoes. Right then, my husband’s low, gentle voice rescued me from my nightmare and pulled me back into reality.

“Finished already? Why don’t you have some more?”

My husband spoke as he picked up a piece of pickled pepper with his chopsticks and brought it to his mouth.

“I have no appetite,” I said and headed to the living room. I turned on the TV and sat down on the sofa. Occasionally, I heard laughter coming from the dining table. I turned the volume down and stared at the screen, all the while straining to hear what they were saying in the dining room.

“If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?” my husband asked.

“I was born in May 1972.”

“I was born in May too!” exclaimed my eldest son in an all too friendly tone, as if suggesting that she could become family just by having the same birth month.

Why did she mention her birth month when all he’d asked was her age? I thought. What was she planning on doing?

“Are you also a Gemini?”

My eldest was infatuated with zodiac signs and Greek mythology at the time.

She said, “Huh, I’m not sure.”

“When’s your birthday?”

“The fifteenth.”


“Oh, that’s Teacher’s Day.”

My children burst into giggles, and my eldest said, “Then you’re a Taurus.”

I just wanted dinner to be over. But my children were ready to laugh at whatever she said until their stomachs ached, and my eldest was excited because the topic of conversation was his specialty.

“I’ll tell you about the characteristics of a Taurus,” he said and ran to his room to grab a book titled 12 Zodiac Signs and their Personalities. Back at the dinner table, he began to read it aloud.

“Why don’t you finish your dinner first and then read her your book?” said my husband, but my boy was too excited to pay attention to his father’s words.

“A Taurus is a diligent worker, committed to the tasks assigned to him. He has perfect control over his emotions and rarely gets angry. However, when a Taurus does get angry, it is best to stay out of his way or you will get trampled. A Taurus also loves to indulge in sensual pleasures.”

Then he paused a moment.

“And then it says, ‘His sensory organs are highly developed.’ Ajumma, what does sensual mean?”

I held my breath while waiting to hear her response. She hesitated, unable to answer him. Everyone always wakes up from a dream no matter how sweet it is. I thought that the book was warning us about her deceptive personality. She was hiding her true nature, but I knew it would surface one way or another. It was rather gratifying to see the euphoria that encircled the table gradually subside. The woman dropped her spoon on the floor. My husband probably knew that she did it on purpose. She bent down, reached under the table for the spoon, grasped it, and sat up. Maybe she thought things would change within those few seconds. Well, things had changed, because my husband had an answer for our child’s question.

“It means you’re popular.”

It was perfectly timed, breaking the silence before it became too awkward.


“Right. There are boys who are popular among girls at your school, right? And there are girls who are popular with boys. That’s what it means to be sensual.”

Ajumma, were you really popular?”

“Of course,” she answered readily and smiled at my husband. I had to shake off the image of her squeezing my husband’s knee under the tablecloth.

As the dinner came to an end amidst continuous conversation, my youngest son asked for more rice. The woman got up from her chair and scooped up more rice from the rice cooker into the bowl as if she were in her own kitchen. I hated her for touching my cooking utensils, and I couldn’t stand the fact that the dinner would go on for longer. I turned up the volume on the TV, but I didn’t hear a thing.

I walked to the rack where the woman’s coat was hanging. I pulled it off the rack with my thumb and my forefinger, and the brown coat slipped down onto the floor. It looked like the shed skin of an animal. Who was this woman playing my role in my kitchen? It felt like an animal that had shed its skin was pretending to be human and bewitching my family. I was lonely, and I realized that I needed to keep my head straight at a time like this. Quietly, I picked up the coat and hung it back on the rack. That was when I heard the chair screeching on the floor and the woman’s flustered voice.

“Goodness, I’m so sorry!”

I turned my head toward the kitchen. My husband was standing slightly stooped, his chair pushed back. His pants were dripping with jjigae. To tell you the truth, I almost laughed out loud. I felt a sense of victory come over me, rising slowly from the bottom of my stomach to the surface of my skin like I’d just had a shot of liquor. I wanted to laugh in her face, reddened all the way to the top of her forehead. I wanted to reproach her, to point out how careless she was to make such a mistake. I wanted her to realize that she wasn’t very good at housekeeping. I had to bite my lip to keep myself from laughing.

Quickly the woman fetched a dishtowel and tried to pat my husband’s pants dry. When she stooped down, my husband took a step backward and politely said, “It’s okay. I think I’d better change.”

Then he turned to look at me as if he knew I’d been watching the whole scene unfold and signaled me to come with him. I followed him into our bedroom. My husband was calm and composed without a hint of anger. I felt myself relax in response to his collectedness, and I was able to shake off the chaotic feeling that had been plaguing me.

“I feel bad for her,” I said as I handed him a pair of clean cotton pants I’d taken out of the wardrobe in exchange for his wet ones.

“Her family was killed in an accident, so she’s all alone now.”

His face showed no sign of emotion.

“She lost her husband and her children at once. And she’s an orphan, so she has no other family.”

I don’t know why I said all that. Maybe I wanted to test him, or maybe it was because I hated her. I hadn’t planned on deceiving him, but lies flowed out of my mouth so naturally.

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

I felt relieved once again at the indifference in his voice and I stood still, watching him with a blank stare as he got into a new pair of pants.

“Hon, what’s on your mind?”

“I almost cried when I heard her story. I felt so tired, and I lost all my appetite.”

I was pleased with myself for coming up so quickly with a reasonable explanation.

“That’s why you didn’t eat much.”

“Do you think there’s such a thing as fate?”

“Are you talking about her?”

“Like someone who drives everyone around her to death.”

“She might hear you,” my husband lowered his voice with a slight frown. His usually kind face was marked with displeasure. He disliked irrational thoughts. I realized that I should’ve stopped after the orphan story. So I kept my mouth shut. I felt bad about lying, but I’d succeeded in feeling him out.

“You seem too sensitive these days.”

“I know. That’s why I said I’d go to Jeolla for a while, like you told me to.”

“You know I only want the best for you.”

I nodded, put the wet pants over my arm, and headed toward the door. When I placed my hand on the knob, my husband came up behind me and put his hand over my head. I leaned back against him as though I was tired, but I was cackling inside. I was overcome by a sense of superiority—I had everything that the woman outside didn’t. I’ll never let you take anything from me, I thought. You cannot replace me. And just like that, I was happy and satisfied with what was going on.

When we headed out to the living room, my children were hassling her.

Ajumma, stay the night with us!”

“Aw, you want me to stay?” the woman said, as she lightly pinched my youngest on the cheek. I hadn’t noticed until then, but a dimple formed on her cheek when she smiled. She had a pleasant face. She definitely didn’t seem like someone who would harm others. Her face was still flustered from what happened just a few minutes ago. I felt bad for her, and guilty about the feelings that had seized me.

“We have a guest room,” said my eldest son rather bluntly, which was unusual as he never asked anyone for much. “You can sleep there.”

“I have to sleep at my own house,” she said as she bent down to meet them at their eye level. Then she patted each one on the head. I watched them with a generous smile on my face. My children are outgoing and affectionate, so they make friends easily, even with adults. I felt a lot of love for my angels, and I imagined it probably made her happy to be surrounded by my beautiful children. Her smile only confirmed the happiness of my life, and it felt ridiculous to have worried about her taking my place. The woman put her hands on my children’s shoulders and gave me a slight bow.

“Please give me a call back.”

“I will, as soon as we make the decision.”

I was going to see her out to the door, but she told me there was no need. So I let the children follow her out to say goodbye and headed to the kitchen to clear the table. I felt as though I’d just finished hosting a huge party, so I put my hands on the edge of the sink and heaved a sigh of relief. I was going to clean up the kitchen and head to bed early.

But the table had already been cleared. And there were no dishes in the sink. I leaned against the table and looked around the kitchen and the dining room. Everything was neat and tidy. A chuckle escaped my lips. I decided then to call her the next day and ask her to take care of the house for the three weeks I’d be gone.

My husband was watching the news, and our children seemed to have left the door open and gone out to the elevator to see her off.

“All right children, go on in,” her voice rang through the hallway. Just like they do for their father when he leaves for work, they probably stood in front of the elevator and waved goodbye until the doors closed. I could see them doing just that in my head.

“Seems like she’d be okay, right?”

“She’s not bad,” my husband said, his eyes glued to the TV screen. His voice was kind, but I knew he would agree with me whether I told him I wanted to interview more people or hire her. My youngest child climbed up onto my lap, and I hugged his small back from behind.

The next morning, I woke up early and made the seafood soup I’d planned on making the evening before. The children were still asleep, so my husband and I ate and talked, keeping our voices low.

“Now I really want to go. I want to see my uncle too.”

“Yeah, and you’ll feel better once you get some air.”

“Well, don’t blame me if I don’t come home soon.”

He let out a hearty chuckle.

“You know, he loved me more than any of my cousins when I was little. My aunt almost hated me because he adored me more than his own son. He used to call me his ‘rice mouse.’”

“Rice mouse?”

“Because my skin was too pale. That was the first nickname I ever had.”

We also discussed hiring a housekeeper. I told him that there were two more people I had planned on interviewing, but since it was so cold, I felt bad for making them come out all the way. My husband agreed to cancel the interviews, saying that the woman from yesterday seemed like a nice person. So we decided to call her in the afternoon and ask her to come to work starting next Tuesday. Our conversation ran a bit late, and he left immediately upon finishing the breakfast. I straightened his hair and clothes, and saw him out to the elevator as usual and returned inside.

When I stepped into the apartment, feeling much happier than I did the evening before, a strange sensation compelled me to glance down at the floor. The woman’s shoes were still there. I made my way to the kitchen and gulped down a glass of water first. Then I went back to the entrance and squatted down in front of the shoes. They were in the exact same position in which she’d left them the night before. The more I stared at the shoes slightly slanted to the side, the more ominous they seemed. I wanted to get rid of them right away, but I didn’t even want to touch them.

I’m totally fine if she took my shoes because she wanted them. I mean, they’re just a pair of shoes. But you know, I can’t help myself but think . . . that she left with my shoes because she’d mistaken herself for me.

translated from the Korean by Stella Kim