I was 4 years old, standing in the driveway of our old house. I remember it well, because it was the last day I lived in that house. Me and my twin brother Theo were identically dressed in denim berets, light wash overall shorts, pale yellow t-shirts, and little blue knitted baby booties. That picture is still in my drawer, faded and worn with age. In the picture, Theo is scowling darkly, his chubby little arms crossed, and I'm on his left, smiling, my own chubby little arm around him.
That morning, our mother woke us up extra early, and we got ready quickly. I was excited; I didn't know exactly why, but I knew it was a big day. Theo, however, was unhappy. We watched our father arrange boxes in our minivan's trunk, and watched the movers haul out our furniture piece by piece. It was like our house was being disemboweled. It took a long time, and Theo and I entertained ourselves by building houses out of sticks and stones.
By the time we got to our new apartment, I was disappointed. I had imagined a fancy white two-story house. Instead, it was just a small apartment, with a little built-in kitchen and a bathroom and two connected bedrooms, in a run-down, shoddy part of town.
"This is it?" I had whined, and then I saw my mother's face, her eyes sad and faraway, light wrinkles of worry staining the surface of her face. She had picked me up, and we faced the window. I wondered if somehow I had displeased her.
Instead, she had just sighed. "One day, we'll have our own house."
Then, I hadn't known what she'd meant. Now, I knew that our old house was rented, with such a mean landlord and such a high price that my parents had moved out into the apartment -- also rented, $1,200 a month, which we still struggled to pay. And though I know I should be grateful, sometimes I look around our small, clean apartment and think, this is not such a good place after all.
The first time I truly realized how poor we were was in the third grade. Back then, I still had no idea how hard my parents worked, or wondered why there was never enough money for nice furniture, or new school clothes, or rice. Our apartment was sparsely furnished with old, secondhand, dusty and half-broken things from relatives and neighbours. New clothes came the same way -- old, secondhand things no one else wanted.
I still don't know how I never thought about the rice. We had always had clean fresh bowls of white rice for dinner, along with kimchi, but some days, my father only had semi-stale old loaves of bread and muffins to bring home from the bakery where he worked at. And as days went on, my mother made less and less kimchi.
One day, I walked in to the living room and saw my father hunched over at the kitchen counter. He looked upset, and was bending over a stack of papers.
I watched him carefully. As an 8 year old, I had been thin and bow-legged, with the same pale skin, same wistful smile, same over-gelled black hair. I haven't changed much over the years. My father looked more like me, pale and thin, a slight smile waiting to pounce in the lines of his mouth. As for Theo, he was never really like me, with shaven hair, and later, none, more beigish skin than my light tone, and an imposing curved nose in contrast to my more slightly curved one. He was 2 inches shorter, standing at 5'8, and was more muscular, playing at rough and tumble sports that I only watched from the sidelines.
I think Theo didn't like that we were twins as we grew into teenagers. He did not like to be compared to me, and he never told people that we were. Sometimes, he would make a decision that was the opposite of mine just so we wouldn't be alike. It could be something so small, like the color of his cellphone or the brand of jeans he wore. And he would walk standing just a few steps away from me whenever we went somewhere, his steps firm and purposeful, different from my own gait, bow-legged and uncertain. At times like those I would wonder if people saw that we were twins. What was it that made us alike? I would think. Same single-lidded eyes, same way we put our hands in our pockets, same mole behind our ear.
Our father always told me not to worry about these things, but he would say so in a worried voice himself. I wondered what he thought.
"What are you doing, dad?" I had asked then. He looked up, startled.
"Taxes," he replied dully after a while. "I'm doing taxes."
"Oh," I said, because I hadn't known what taxes were.
"Trent," Dad said slowly, "You wouldn't mind if I borrowed some money from you?" I was confused, but said that I wouldn't mind. Dad went to my room and returned with my $500 that I had been saving and saving for an important place my mom called college.
"I'm sorry, Trent, I'll pay you back," he had said guiltily. So he did, little by little, but he would always borrow it later when he needed to pay for rent, or taxes, or bill, or the car. He took money from Theo too, but Theo got mad and wouldn't let him. Then the cycle went on and on, and every time he paid me back less and less, but I had learned not to mind so much.
The following year my brother Noah was born and my mother took up a job as a news intern for the local Korean news-channel. I began to think little ways on how to save money -- eat less rice so we could have some more another day, scour the Internet for hours to find the best deals, pretend to not need new things unless it was an absolute emergency. It was like a game to me.
As we got older and the economy went downhill, the thoughts were always there, like an instinct. I kept quiet about needing school stuff, about wanting extra helpings of food, and even about getting flu shots that our insurance didn't cover. I often went hungry, but after a while hunger became just a minor distraction not worth paying any mind to.
And later those thoughts became a constantly raging storm, keeping me up at night, pounding into my mind, after the diagnosis.