To Korea, a Very Short Love Story
By Youngju Ryu ’97
She was my first and foolish love. In the half-light of the morning I lay awake waiting for her quiet, almost silent feet to come down the hallway, for her scent—a curious mixture of honey and peach—to part the thick air outside my room filled with the lonely smells of young men living away from home. She would pause outside my door for a moment to put on her slippers before climbing the two steps down into the kitchen, and my foolish imagination would swell with the shadowy silhouette of her lingering by my door, a phantom more real than anything I could have seen with my open eyes. Every morning, every morning, I waited like that, for the circles of azure and gold and auburn to gather like clouds inside my closed eyelids as I felt her steps down the hallway over my body, and for the clouds to burst suddenly and reveal her large and limpid eyes framed with demure lashes, the ghost of a smile on her bud-like lips. Stretching out my arms toward the naked light bulb, my eyes still closed, I would cry out love and agony, muted by my blanket—I love you more than you will ever know, your image will be a fever that will last a lifetime in my brain, your name a poem heard deep, deep inside my ears, and I will tremble with tenderness and desire fro you at a mere imagined touch of your hand, always.
And now she was sitting in front of me, no longer a phantom, stirring slowly her cup of coffee into which she had carefully dropped two cubes of sugar the minute before, the movement of her hand deliberately and grossly delicate. Into the poorly lit corners of the plush hotel lounge seeped in music, a famous violin melody with a great deal of weeping on the E-string, as impeccably made-up waitresses in fluttering hanboks of magenta and blue floated down the aisles carrying trays of fruity cocktails. The coarseness of her age shocked me. I noticed the powder on her face, spread generously and glistening now in the damp wrinkles of her skin. I saw her no longer bud-like lips, and knew without having to look that they would leave a smear on the white porcelain of her coffee cap that she would try surreptitiously to wipe off when she thought that I was not looking. The new shirt under my favorite suit derided me as I searched her face hopelessly for some faint echo, for an almost undetectable shadow of the girl whose steps had followed me into my new life in America and lulled me to sleep every night of these twenty-five odd years, the girl whose smile I greeted in the morning on my wife’s pale and lovely face.
And remembering my wife, I felt a sudden pang of homesickness for the things I never thought I would get accustomed to: the smell of Parmesan cheese sprinkled over freshly cooked pasta, the pleasure in hearing the double "r" of my adopted name pronounced effortlessly, the strength of full-flavored coffee taken black ("American-style" they called it here) in the morning, my wife’s long limbs downed softly with hair only slightly darker than the color of forsythias. What was I doing here, this middle-aged, balding man with American citizenship and an American wife, a successful doctor with a passion for tennis and a fondness for fresh salads rather than pickled cabbages? I asked myself why I was still chasing the ghost that should have dissipated away twenty-five years ago with the footsteps that failed to reach my door one early morning. The folly of this trip angered me and made me silent.
We must have sat like that across the varnished table in the coffeeshop of the fanciest hotel in Seoul, miserable strangers.
"Do you have any children?" she asked me after a very small sip from her coffee cup. She held her coffee cup with both of her hands as if it were a hot cup of tea, even though the coffee must have gone cold with all her stirring. I felt the unpleasantness of the lukewarm liquid down my throat.
"No, but you?" I asked, meeting her effort to break the embarrassed silence. Please don’t, I said to myself, please don’t tell me of your daughters and sons grown to adults even before you’ve had time to say good-bye to their baby clothes. Don’t tell me how fast saewol is, and touch the no longer firm skin of your throat with just that look in your eyes. The one you gave me when you came here into the lounge and saw me sitting here in a fancy, Western hotel that didn’t exist when I was a poor college student living in your mother’s boarding house, expecting, after a quarter of a century, for you to be what I thought you would always be—a fever in my brain.
"No," she said. "I miscarried my first and couldn’t after."
She wore a two-piece summer suit of gaudy color that I had noticed was in vogue. On the streets of Seoul that afternoon, I had seen many wearing suits just like that: slightly fluted shoulders hiding the shoulder pads, beady buttons down the front, and a skirt just above the knees. She patted the front of her dress as if to iron out any wrinkles.
"I don’t have any children."
I felt that I ought to change the subject. "And your mother?" I asked.
"She passed away years ago. Stroke."
I motioned to a smiling waitress and ordered a gin and tonic. "What about the house? Do you still keep boarders?"
"No, we had to sell it to pay the hospital bills. I live far away now. I haven’t been back to the house in ten years."
Then all of a sudden, the awkwardness of the years spent living separate lives broke between us, and we talked of the "house" as if it had been, was still, ours. We talked of the forsythias blooming by the gates in the spring and the clay jars of kimchi buried in the backyard. I remember turning at the curve of the road, and arriving at the large, old-fashioned house with its slated roof and a huge chestnut tree rising up from behind it to cover parts of the roof. Entering through the gate, my eyes had been blinded by the sudden burst of sunlight until a dreamy image of a girl by the water pump in the middle of the front yard emerged slowly out of the sun, rotating around my suddenly feverish head and trembling like a mirage. The sleeves of her white shirt rolled up, a slender neck, black hair braided down her back in a simple plait, arms under the water falling from the mouth of the pump, glistening with the prismatic layering of light on wet skin. How could I let myself forget that image, even if I could?
"I felt sorry for you," she said, smiling now. "Your room was the last one on the hallway and next to the kitchen; mother and I made so much noise in the early mornings, the water, soups simmering, pots and pans clanging even though we tried to be quiet."
"I didn’t mind," I said, speaking the truth.
"Do you remember…"
"I remember," I answered her and got up from the cushioned seat. "Let’s go," I said, watching her still large eyes grow with surprise, "to the house."
In the cab, too busy with memory, she didn’t speak a word, but I surprised myself by remembering the address of the house. We couldn’t find it, even though we were sure we were at the right street corner. Unfamiliar, modern brick buildings were clustered where the old house had once been sprawled out, and children ran in the alleyway with the twilight on their backs, shouting once familiar names of other children that resonated weakly in my brain, "Insu-ya! Dongchul-a!" Everything had been uprooted and paved over; we couldn’t even find the chestnut tree that used to shade the house. We stood at the curve of the road where the bean-curd vendor used to rest his rickshaw and wipe off the sweat from his forehead with the towel looped around his neck. We stared together at the ground as if to trace the footprint buried under the cement. She turned around and started walking away, and I closed my eyes to the sky bleeding red with the approaching night and heard in the harsh click of her cheap high heels on the cement, an echo of her footsteps from long ago. But opening my eyes cautiously, I saw her thick waist wrapped in a gaudy suit, the age that had settled on her figure, the unnatural ahjooma curls of her short hair. I closed my eyes again and saw the house where I had once foolishly loved rise up before me, resurrecting itself by degrees, the forsythias first.
Afterwards, she led the way. We went to a small street-side restaurant where a thick-set woman with a generously stained apron served us chicken gizzards with a bottle of soju. I lit the cigarette she held out to me. Suddenly becoming voluble, with memories I never knew I had loosening in my mouth, I talked of America and the years that separated me now from that image in my brain. The radio from the kitchen spilled out old melodies with pathetic lyrics; through the weeping voice of the female singer, I made out a verse about men always leaving women. Namja-neun, namja-neun da, moduga geurukye da, ah-aaa, aaaah-a. She started singing along, crying. I told her the banal truths about my wife that embarrassed me as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Both of us were drunk on something more than the bottle of soju.
"When I first met my wife, something about her reminded me of you," I said.
"You don’t know anything about me," she said.
I thought how strange it was to sit here and watch her nostrils breathe out long plumes of coupling smoke from her cigarette, to compare her to my wife and find the original lacking.
"If you knew anything about me, you couldn’t say that your wife reminds you of me. Do you know that I never miscarried? My mother made me get an abortion when the guy who lived in the room next to yours got me pregnant and refused to marry me. " She looked at me flatly, expecting surprise. I remembered his thick and mobi
le underlip that repelled me, the showy strength of his biceps, and how he used to brag about failing the college entrance exam three times. He had lived on the monthly allowance his mother sent him out of her own small income, and all the boarders hated him. He had moved out suddenly, sometime after her footsteps stopped.
I saw them together in the empty and silent house, trapped like a pair of flies on flypaper one of those drowsy summer afternoons, listening breathlessly to the sounds of their own labored breathing. And then I understood.
The shadow of her silhouette had lingered all those mornings when I dreamed in fantastic colors, but not by my door.
Did I model my love for my wife after her, refusing to give more than what I thought I could give to the image in my brain? Was she the pure phantom I loved because I would never touch her, never allow my all too real hands to dissipate the mist? I realized I knew nothing about her at all, that underneath the wrinkles and cheap clothes and permed hair that I hated for betraying the image I made myself remember long ago, were colors of a different kind, mixed in combinations too subtle for my dream-dazed eyes, stories I couldn’t imagine. And after twenty-five years, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to hear new stories. Namja-neun da geurae. The song ended with a specious conclusion that all men are the same. The ashes from her cigarette fell onto the lap of her dress, but she didn’t bother to shake them off. In the silence that followed, I could see that she was ashamed of the wor
ds that remained bare for me to see on the table even though the song was now over. Her darkened lashes fell over her cloudy eyes, leaving smudges. They were no longer demure and I realized that perhaps they never were, but the dull ache in my heart—as banal as the word "love" in a love story—surprised me. I was moved by
what I did not remember.
"You don’t know anything about me," she said suddenly, as if to assure herself.
"Why don’t you tell me?" I asked her, reclining in the plastic chair with my eyes open, waiting for the enchantment to begin, once again.