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April 2019 Vol. 15 No. 1

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Richard Grahn

The Price of a Life

We met one sweltering summer evening at the bar in Rosa’s Cantina in the little village of Toko-ri, South Korea, in 1978.

“Yoboseyo GI,” she whispered with a welcoming smile.

“You want short-time or long-time?” she asked playfully.

I may have been only 18 but I knew what she was asking. The going rates were five and ten dollars respectively. I brushed her question aside and asked if I could buy her a drink. She gladly accepted. We began to talk. After a while, an older lady came over and spoke to her rather tersely in Korean and then left. The girl was visibly upset.

“Mamasan says I have to work. Do you want short-time or long-time?”

We left together as the sun was setting, winding our way through the narrow alleys to her room. I paid her the ten dollars which she quickly ran off and gave to Mamasan.

hollow moon
how the silver lining
slips through your fingers

When she came back, we began to talk again. I asked her for her name.

She replied, “Soon Ja.”

We talked some more. We talked all the way to sunrise. She told me how she came to be in Rosa’s that night and every other night for the past 2 years. Turns out that her parents “sold her” to Mamasan when she was only 16. She owed everything to her keeper and didn’t get to keep any of the money she made. Mamasan provided a roof, food, and protection, charging an exorbitant amount for the “favors.” Soon Ja would always be in debt unless somehow, someone helped her out.

Our conversation stretched over a couple more weeks. Each night I paid the ten dollars and we sat and talked. She would make bulgogi and rice and all kinds of other Korean dishes for us to share and I would often bring a bottle of wine from the PX to go with it. It was a lovely arrangement. We couldn’t help ourselves. We fell in love.

Mamasan, never one to miss an opportunity, suggested that we enter into a formal arrangement as boyfriend and girlfriend. For a price, I could have Soon Ja all to myself. Completely infatuated and with Soon Ja’s encouragement we cemented the relationship.

church bells chime
the puppeteer
sprinkles stardust

Each night, I would come home to Soon Ja. She always had a meal ready. We communicated very well given my limited Korean and her broken English. We taught each other as we went along. Our evenings and weekends together were blissful. I bought her a bed and some other furniture. She responded ecstatically to my attention.

Eventually, I had to go out for a week on field exercises. All I could do was count the minutes until I could be back with Soon Ja. It was an excruciating week but it finally ended. Back at the base, I quickly showered off the grime, then hurried to the village. She was waiting for me with a big hug, an extra-clutching hug. When we sat down for dinner, Soon Ja was uncharacteristically quiet. I asked her what was wrong.

She blurted out, “Mamasan made me go back into the club.”

Suddenly, I had no appetite. A surge of adrenaline hit me but I was frozen. I didn’t know what to say. I did my best to console her but it was clear that things had changed. I was furious. Not at her, but at Mamasan. We slept fitfully that night.

The next evening I tracked down Mamasan and confronted her. She told me to mind my own business. I went to Soon Ja’s room but she wasn’t there. I went to the club but she wasn’t there either. I waited for her all night but she never came. The next day at work was filled with angst. That night I went back to look for Soon Ja. She was nowhere to be found and the furniture I had bought her was gone. I went back to the club and started asking around.

Finally, one of her friends confided in me that Mamasan had sold her to another Mamasan. That night I drank myself into a stupor. An MP had to escort me back to my barracks. I never saw Soon Ja again.

mourning dove . . .
too many shadows
for one man to carry