Returns

Joseph Han

Yuna Pae always knows how much money she’ll make before going to work at 5 p.m. Five different customers requested clothes to be put on hold to stop by later. Sitting at her large kiosk, she double-checks KakaoTalk for their confirmation replies while the ajumma who only sells hats across the way is staring at her again. Hat Ajumma had been so kind when Yuna first moved back to Seoul with her husband Chanho and rented a space in the building to set up their wholesale shop. She brought over a welcoming gift that Yuna wore consistently for a few weeks until Yuna thought her hair suffered enough matting. The drab hat was a bowl of dust somewhere in the closet. 

She opens her phone case and turns on the front camera, tilting her head. She closes it shut. Her cheeks are looking puffy after her visit to the clinic. Swollen. Like bread, Chanho teased before she left for work. She would have to remind her son Isaac to bring more La Mer moisturizing cream and L’Occitane repairing shampoo, bottles of Sriracha and chili garlic sauce. Yuna misses buying in bulk, her trips to Costco, never running out of anything she needs. Chanho wants more cans of Axe Body Spray, the smell of which pleases him and no one else.  

The last time Hat Ajumma and Yuna spoke face-to-face, she came around saying how all the kiosks should cross-advertise and wear what one another is selling. She searched through a coat rack before telling Yuna she would gladly take one off her hands, as if she were doing Yuna the favor. She always stopped by to check what Yuna was bringing in for each season. Yuna knew very well that Hat Ajumma was studying fabrics and colors and approximating measurements. One day she swore that she heard the sound of a Galaxy camera shutter. They had the same phones, except Yuna’s wasn’t covered with a bedazzled cupcake case. She knew stories of retailers putting each other out of business by opening up competing shops. 

Hat Ajumma keeps staring. Yuna smiles and waves, and Hat Ajumma finally looks away. The business has been doing well ever since a fashion blogger named C&Y the best retail women’s clothing store in Dongdaemun, the shopping district where you could find anything for cheap—where Yuna had initially bought her Chanel knock-off before being able to afford a real Goyard St. Louis tote bag and matching pouch. C&Y wasn’t necessarily cheaper, but it was more affordable than your designer Korean brands: made with a similar but distinct style for both every day and professional wear. 

Not only did this attention allow Yuna to move the stock hanging in their closets at the apartment into a rented office space allowing room for a larger inventory, but in a few years she could expand her kiosk to take the size of two shops. In fact, Yuna was helping out everyone on the floor, many of whom came and went. Customers mostly stopped by her shop, yes, but they did manage to wander and browse both on their way to picking up their clothing and on their way out. The mistake with other shopkeepers is they play the long game of waiting. Even though she manages a physical space, Yuna and Chanho handle every transaction online. For the regulars she will be consistent about taking their hold requests, and for the Chinese tourists that learned, spoke, and started looking more Korean after visiting Gangnam, she accommodates them the most since they always pay in full South Korean won. For new customers she can’t trust, Yuna will tell them to check back later, meaning she won’t hold an item for someone who can’t pay immediately or say they might be able to stop by on such and such date. She only deals with people who make the commitment to spending their money and knowing what they want.

Yuna scrolls through the C&Y Kakao story. She likes how the photos announcing the new summer arrivals turned out. Her mint nail polish is starting to chip around the edges, a rhinestone sticker missing from her thumb. People always ask her where she gets them done and give her a look of surprise. Behind their fake delight Yuna senses both judgment, as if Yuna is too good for the salon, with both the time and skill to do it herself. She used to hang their clothes against a black background for the C&Y Kakao story, until Yuna had decided to model the clothes herself. Large black, beige, or gray overcoats and blazers in the winter, the most popular one having a leather bowtie belt. In the recent spring, she wore a light blazer that came in pastel blue or purple, a mustard trench coat, and red khakis. Of course, Yuna and Chanho had an argument about how these colors didn’t have mass appeal like beige, black, or gray, and only certain customers would want to stand out, to which she replied those were the exact people she had in mind. Not everyone is boring like you, she’d say. Yuna had a feeling that scrunched balloon sleeves would be popular, and she was right. Her husband, Chanho knew nothing. He was a man, after all. And yet his initial came first. When he didn’t believe in or understand any of her design choices, Chanho reiterated that they were running a business. There was no question who the brains and talent behind the operation was, even with Yuna’s head cropped out in every photo. 

Despite this, she knows that every photo is unmistakably her. Yuna only sells what she would wear and, likewise, only wore what she sold aside from personal items of jewelry like a pearl necklace and white gold braided bracelet. White gold rings. White gold looked cleaner. It could be fashioned and made. Like the future. Yuna feels somewhat like a celebrity when she meets her customers. They recognize her as the owner, the brain and talent hovering above the cropped photo. She knows what they are thinking: that her clothes were the result of a careful eye—that their beauty, the clothes’ and their own, was only matched by the creator, their creator who would dress them in her image so they too could feel as beautiful as she believed they could be, affordable as can be. 

Yuna wonders if she will be able to fall asleep later since her medication ran out. She needs a refill immediately. She won’t get much sleep anyway because she will have to wake up early. Yuna flips through a stack of fashion magazines and taps on pages she likes, dog-earring them if she considers returning, otherwise ripping them out entirely for a separate folder to study designs and draw mock sketches later. Even though a lot of the shopkeepers wander around the floor and visit other shopkeepers to gossip during a lull in business, Yuna never leaves the C&Y kiosk. She isn’t careless. She only goes to the restroom when Chanho or her sister are there working the same shift. Yuna doesn’t need to eat much. A lot of foods upset her stomach, and when she does eat, it’s in the obligatory sense. Not even the pervasive aroma at her former Yakiniku Seoul job back in Hawaiʻi phased Yuna as she had brought banchan to the table and cut kalbi or samgyeopsal for Korean taxi drivers who came in droves after a day of golf—always loud, always hungry, hand on thigh with the other shaking an empty bottle of Chamisul Fresh, always asking for more. She hated how her clothes smelled after work. She took long showers and washed her uniform in the laundry over and over. 

Yuna looks at a flier listing phone numbers for nearby coffee shops. Maybe she will order a strawberry smoothie for delivery later. When she wakes up at three in the afternoon, she just needs a cup of Nespresso and slices of pear to cut the lingering bitterness and get going. She has regular stomach pain, never knowing whether to eat, for better or worse. Yuna can just pick at whatever is in the fridge at home.

Yuna waits on her first customer of the evening who is already late. 


 

She never stops at the first floor. There is a restaurant on the ground level where she can purchase food by scanning a key fob, tacking the bill onto the rent payment. Their building is basically a hotel, with a cafeteria serving home cooked meals and a salad bar that only offers pink dressing. The convenience is staggering to her. As she puts in the code to unlock her door, Yuna hears their white teacup Maltese, Bori, barking and yelping at her return. It was much louder when Kongi was still around too. Even though Yuna enjoyed dressing up both Bori and Kongi up, it was her black mini-poodle she loved best. Kongi looked the cutest, especially when she put a Chanel ribbon bow tie around her neck. Bori humped pillows and slept all day, while Kongi had always brought Yuna her house slippers in her mouth, pawing at Yuna’s knees. For some reason Chanho thought they could afford to move into a nicer place, but could not afford to take both dogs with them—so he gave Kongi away to a friend.

They moved into the new apartment a month ago, still in Ichon but in a high-rise that overlooked the Han river with a view of the Hangang bridge to the right and Dongjak bridge to the left. The apartment has porcelain floors and walls and a refrigerator with Bluetooth speakers. She wonders what other upgrades her husband has in mind aside from his large Porsche Design shades paired with a white two-seater Porsche she would never ride in. Yuna stands in front of her large windows, staring over the backdrop of white, black, and silver cars that could drive themselves and leased until a better model arrived. She never has to wonder about the lives that circulate below her or where these people are going. The reality is that everything happening in Seoul had to do with making or spending money. Keeping enough to keep doing both. Holding it in a combination safe. Her husband chuckled about how they could maybe rent out an actual store if things kept going well for the business. Just like it was before the IMF crisis made them bankrupt in 1997. The year her son turned six. It was the boy’s grandmother who said they were too young to raise their own child in South Korea. They would have to become loyal geese parents. She didn’t know where these metaphors for split families came from. There were satellite families always hovering, communicating from afar. Initially, Chanho and Yuna were eagles, when they could visit Isaac every summer, sparrows when the flights became too difficult to make. Penguins huddling in central air conditioning. 

Now it is their son who has to make visits to them, which means they happen less if at all. Yuna wonders how he will like the apartment. They live on the thirtieth floor. How nice it would be to jump and test her wings. They hadn’t spoken for a while now. Isaac would be coming in a month. She wishes they would talk more regularly, but what would they talk about? His Korean isn’t very good, so the most she can do is ask if he is eating well. Tell him to drive safely. Anything could happen to him. She didn’t even mention what happened to Kongi. Yuna paces around without her slippers. The floor tiles get cold. 

She removes her makeup and washes her face, applying an unscented whitening sleep mask after drying off. Chanho messages her that he will be back soon. He’s at a fried chicken place where they serve their own craft beer in beakers. It doesn’t matter because she never waits up for him. At their old apartment, Chanho used to sleep on the couch after the most recent night they had fought about money. Which they always did, as routine as their seasonal rotations. However, this time Yuna wept, as she pointed a kitchen knife at Chanho, an accusation that bloomed from her reddening chest and neck as she yelled: if all he cared about was money, she would burn it all just to see what else he cared about. Afterward Yuna went down to the gym to run. 

In the same way that they conducted business primarily through their phones, Yuna and Chanho would go back to messaging one another with casual affection and encouragement that each of them was doing well, asking after each other with emoticons, Chanho always the dog with the red collar, Yuna the cat with the bob cut. Better to stay in character when Isaac gets back. 

Yuna replies to Chanho that only half of the customers who reserved their orders showed up. No one dropped by to check if things were available, which a lot of returnees did during their shopping routine in Dongdaemun. Perhaps he should follow up to see if they will come in the next day during his shift. She has errands to run and won’t see him when he wakes up. Yuna slips into the bed they ordered on her insistence since it would be better for her back. It was actually just larger than what they usually slept in. She doesn’t want to have to be so near him. A foot to brush against her leg. She knows Chanho will reek when he returns.

Mrs. Pae, her mother-in-law, often reminds Yuna over Kakao to pray throughout the day, not just before meals or sleep. Always for the men in the family and less for themselves, if only to ask for more faith and forgiveness as they did what they could to correct these men. She reminds Yuna that taking too much medicine isn’t good. When they lived in Hawaiʻi, Mrs. Pae told Yuna to keep working and keep praying. That God would give her strength. On the night that should have been the best of nights, Yuna finally took home the ggeh money from work but dislocated her shoulder while shifting in her sleep. She woke up screaming, believing someone had yanked her arm off themselves. Later, they used the winning money to pay for the ambulance ride. Yuna wasn’t sure what else she could lose. A leg. Her ankles and knees were getting worse from standing and walking all evening. She had to leave Hawaiʻi if she were to remain intact. It didn’t take much for her head to plop off and roll around the way she felt dizzy all the time.

She told Isaac that you only had two big decisions to make in your life and going back to South Korea would be her second, the first having been the choice to leave. 

It was nice having Isaac around, if only because Isaac was her son, who she loved because all they had to do was leave it at that, even if they couldn’t say any more to each other. An easier love to express, which she no longer felt the need to offer Chanho. Sometimes, when he made her laugh, she would hit him on the shoulder, a quick pat, harder when they were drinking among friends and she knew Chanho could take it. 

Yuna could always ask Isaac for help with little things, like twisting the cap off a refill when she didn’t have the strength. Since then Yuna’s added ginger-turmeric capsules, calcium, fish oil to the daily intake. A stint with red ginger and deer antler. A squirt of life-enhancing ionic ocean minerals in a cup of water, which she forgot to drink before she left for work. Yuna always worries that forgetting to take something can throw everything off. She gets out of bed and heads to the kitchen. When Isaac arrives, they will pick up her mother from the nursing home and head to e-mart to take a family photo, while her mother still remembers who they are. Yuna fears for her mother’s health. It could be the last time they are all together, and Yuna will have them dress in white. 

 

* * *

 

Yuna tells the pharmacist that she has trouble sleeping and feels nauseous. Even the thought of food makes her sick. She pulls out a note from her physician. Yuna also mentions the last medication didn’t seem to work.

The pharmacist takes the note and checks the bottle. He slides them back her way. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Pae, but I cannot help you today.”

“I told you I have a note. Look, it says right here.”

“Please forgive me, but I just cannot give you a refill today.”

“Are you saying that you’re out of stock? Shouldn’t a pharmacy in Gangnam always be able to have supply for demand?” Yuna thinks to throw one of her flats at the man. 

He sighs. “Forgive me, but if you come back next week, I’ll be able to help you.”

She doesn’t want to argue more. This is just supposed to be a transaction. An exchange. “I still don’t understand why you are making me wait and can’t just give me what I need now.” 

“Let me be clear. The suggested dosage on the bottle reveals that you should not have run out of your medicine so quickly. From what I recall, it was not that long before you were here last.”

“I’m not sure I follow what you’re suggesting, ajhussi.”

“Only if you had twice as much as what was prescribed for your daily dosage is how you could have run out this quickly.”

“O-moh,” Yuna gasps. “What kind of talk is this?”

“I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend.”

 

Yuna snatches the note and her bottle. “Consider this the last time I come to this business.” She turns to leave.

 

“Please, wait. Give me one moment.”

 

Yuna returns to the counter and the pharmacist hands her a small paper bag.

 

“I suggest following the recommended dosages. Above all, exercise, a regular eating habit, and getting well-rested is the best.”

 

There was no way he could understand, Yuna thinks. No one could. 

 

“You know what, I just remembered that I actually do still have some medicine left.” She gives him the bag. “The reason why I thought it was all gone was because I forgot that I put them in my pill organizer. How embarrassing, it must’ve slipped my mind. I’ll be back next week.”

 

Yuna walks out of the pharmacy. She feels a rash coming on her neck and collarbone. Yuna isn’t sure why she lied. She would just forget about the conversation because she has more errands to run and needs to visit the sweatshop, which she employed exclusively. Yuna stops by a GS25 convenience store to buy a case of Bacchus-F to give to Mr. Pak, who should have just completed her order on the lightweight summer coat she brought in as the sample for production. C&Y did well enough that Mr. Pak’s shop didn’t have to worry about getting commission, and she needed his loyalty. She couldn’t afford to have them work for other Dongdaemun shopkeepers and risk anyone else seeing her designs. 

 

While driving Yuna’s phone keeps going off since the group chat her old friend Gayeon invited her into is deliberating on where they should travel together in August, which would be everyone’s vacation month. Gayeon was the one who had invited Yuna to leave her waitressing job and come back to Seoul to work for her, but ever since C&Y started and grew, and eventually outshined Gayeon’s own store, they hardly spoke except within the confines of the group chat. 

 

“Paris does sound nice,” Yuna writes back. “What do you think, Gayeon? That might be too far for you since you don’t do well on long flights.”

 

Yuna chuckles and puts her phone away. She parks and grabs the Bacchus-F, placing an envelope of money on top. It would be rude to just bring money. Giving Mr. Pak the energy drinks mean she’s being considerate, thinking about his workers’ exhaustion. Though it never occurs to Yuna this could be considered rude. She walks up the flight of stairs leading to the workspace. The building is quiet. Usually she can hear the sound of whirring and the rhythm of needles gunning thread through fabric. When she walks in, it’s empty and all the machines are off. Not a single ajumma in sight. 

 

Strips of various colors of fabric cover the floors, which is what the sweatshop looked like after they finished an order. The summer coat is laid across Mr. Pak’s desk in a plastic garment bag. 

 

Yuna calls Mr. Pak’s number. He’s supposed to be here and Yuna doesn’t have time to wait. The call goes to voicemail. Yuna leaves a message saying that she stopped by, reminding him that he’s supposed to be here. She mentions the Bacchus-F and places the envelope underneath. None of the pieces of fabric on the floor match anything in C&Y’s current catalog. Maybe someone poached him and took everyone out to lunch. She thinks about looking into nearby restaurants to catch Mr. Pak, careful not to slip on the way out. 

 

    

A number of young attendants wearing lime green vests keep directing Yuna to move along even though she knows where she’s going. The Hyundai Department Store parking lot is full. She immediately assumes these kids didn’t study well enough in high school or probably slacked off during their tutoring at hagwon. One even has the nerve to knock on her window and startle her. 

 

“Keep moving please. This way.”

 

Yuna rolls down her window. “Is there no valet parking today?”

 

“Valet parking is full.”

 

“What is this? How can valet be full when you’re always supposed to have stalls open for people who are going to pay for a spot?”

 

“Agasshi, you’re not paying for a spot. You’re paying for someone to park your car for you. And if there is no stall, there is no one to pay to park your car. Now you can save money and look for parking yourself. Please move along since there are many people behind you waiting to look for parking as well. Thank you.”

 

Yuna circles the parking lot until something opens up. What makes these smartass kids think they can talk to her like that anyway? She’s surprised Mr. Pak didn’t call her back by now. Yuna paid him enough. A good amount considering what he should be owed for his services. Maybe enough wasn’t enough. Still, there’s the question of the fabric. She grabs the coat.

TIME is Yuna’s favorite formal wear brand, where she would have worked if she wasn’t self-employed. It is the store that C&Y would have become if it weren’t for the IMF. Yuna never paid much attention to the other South Korean designer stores on the fourth floor: GIVY, BCBG, MICHAA, or KUHO. She did stop by these stores occasionally—but only on a whim. It was never a matter of whether she could afford anything. Yuna only made choices, and purchases by extension, as investments. 

 

There was just something about the name that stood out to Yuna when she was wandering and searching, lost among a wealth of inspiration, for a brand that would serve as her departure point. She found it in TIME. Everyone there calls her sister and says flattering things about anything she is already wearing or will try on in store. Yuna spends thousands of dollars on dresses, coats, and blouses only to return them later for store credit to buy something else. She takes these clothes home and measures them. She draws sketches. She studies stitching patterns, buttons, zippers, how tight or loose or light these clothes feel and weigh. How she moves in them. How they move with her. 

 

Yuna walks toward TIME and sees Yeseul, who Yuna told in advance about returning the coat. Since Yuna had been doing this for years now, she kept a handful of items and didn’t return everything that she bought to avoid suspicion. She considered Yeseul a friend by the way they talked about their own lives as Yuna tried on clothes—as they both looked in the tall mirror after a fitting. Yuna told Yeseul about her son, her husband’s bad smoking and energy drink habit, though he did just switch to an e-cigarette but it wasn’t like those things were any better. They talked about dramas. Yeseul had recommended the Nespresso machine since everyone in Seoul was getting one. 

 

“Welcome, Unni. How are you?” 

 

“Parking was terrible today. I came here about this coat.” Yuna holds it before her. “On second thought, I just don’t think this color suits me. It’s too similar to something else I have so it doesn’t feel like I’m wearing anything particularly different.” 

 

Yeseul nods once. “Oh, is that right? I see.” 

 

“I don’t like how the sleeves ride up when I bend my elbows, which makes them feel tight.”

 

Yuna hands Yeseul the summer coat: she doesn’t take it. 

 

Yeseul takes a step back. She turns around to look at Hyori, the store manager standing behind a counter who is busy on the phone. 

 

“Could you wait right here for a moment? I need to speak with the manager about this particular return.”

 

Yuna is confused. She knows the manager by name and wonders why Yeseul referred to Hyori as such. 

 

Yeseul walks over to Hyori and whispers behind her hand. Hyori hangs up the phone. Her eyes widen as Yeseul speaks. Yuna pulls out her phone to keep busy. A bear emoticon from Chanho saying that he missed her. 

 

They walk over together slowly. 

 

“Hyori, have you been doing well? I was just telling Yeseul—”

 

“I’m sorry,” Hyori says. “But we can’t help you.”

 

“What?” Yuna feels her neck getting warm. If she touches her collarbone at all, her skin will break out into another rash. 

 

“There will be no returns today.”

 

“What’s the difficulty? I’ve only worn this once and it’s still brand new. I’m not asking for my money back since you’ve already charged my card. Store credit as usual works for me.” Yuna puts down her clutch and starts taking off the plastic garment bag. Hyori puts her hand up.

 

“That won’t be necessary. Like I said, Unni, no returns.”

 

They stand there in silence. Yuna has no idea what to say. They aren’t even looking her in the eye. She notices that Yeseul is looking at Yuna’s outfit. 

Yuna lets out a small gasp. She looks down. The tall mirror in the store. Yuna is wearing her own clothes from C&Y—an outfit that is clearly a copy of TIME, a few alterations of course. Yuna had always made it a point to never wear C&Y when she walked into this store. 

“We had our suspicions at first,” Hyori says. “But we kept them to ourselves. You’re stealing designs.”

Yeseul points. “You run a store yourself, don’t you? A thief!” 

Yuna can’t nod or speak.

“Where? Dongdaemun? This isn’t the first time you’re wearing items that look exactly like coats or dresses you return to us months before.” 

“Exactly, Unni,” Yeseul says to Hyori, turning away from Yuna. “What should we do? Call the police? Sue?”

Upon hearing this, Yuna falls to the floor. 

“Oh no.”

Yeseul and Hyori pick her up and move her to the couch. They bring over her clutch and the coat as well.  “Maybe we should call an ambulance instead. Are you all right?”

“No, no, I’ll be fine. I’m just a little dizzy and probably just need some water. I should just get going.” 

Yuna stands. She grabs her things and starts walking out of TIME.

“Unni.” 

She turns around. Yuna is surprised that, even then, they are calling her this.

“I think it would be best if you didn’t come back here.”

Yuna walks out into the hallway. Workers in other stores are staring at her. Her stomach cramps. She is nauseous again, but this time she has a glimpse of an appetite. Though the mall is empty. She thought it was Monday, her phone displaying a message from Mr. Pak about how he thought their meeting was tomorrow, he must’ve been mistaken. 

She showed up a day early and missed church. Yuna realizes he’s right. Gayeon would have noticed, looking for Yuna in the lobby at the end of service to talk about business. 

Yuna looks at the limp coat in her hands. She wonders if she should go back inside and demand a return. It’s a nice fit, not tight around the elbows at all, but expensive. No matter how you feel inside, she once told her son, you can still control how you look. Yuna sheds the plastic garment bag and leaves it on the floor. 

She brings the coat to her face: it still smells new.

Joseph Han is the author of a debut novel, Nuclear Family, forthcoming with Counterpoint Press in Spring 2022. Currently, he is an Editor for the West region of Joyland Magazine.

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Nat. Brut is a proud winner of a 2020 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize