The Most Important Thing (Part III)

We had our first fight because I doubted you, because Sam told me that he saw you getting in a car with a man.  You looked at me, shocked, before walking away.

But even then, which was in the middle of Myeongdong on a snow-lined street, as I held an umbrella up against the icy rain, the fog allowed us to forget moments like those quickly, in light of the coming end – which we still never addressed.  We never spoke of it again.

Sometimes the mood grew somber, and you looked into the distance with a slight smile on your face.  You were full of that grace that took nothing for granted, not desiring more than was given, knowing that there were no words that could be said.

You would nod to show that the thought had been considered, but that you would ignore it yet again.  That you would rather not say anything, and you forgot it quickly, letting a giggle or laugh escape, as if your joy were held in delicate vases to be released like strokes of pure delight.

It was in that fog that I learned the first trail of clues that would lead me back to you, years later, when you asked me what I was going to do after graduating, and I said I hadn’t figured it out yet, and you looked at me ponderously, growing quiet.

When I asked you the same question, you pursed your lips and wracked your eyebrows, stuttering out a ‘you know, I don’t know’.  I couldn’t have known it then, but now that answer makes so much sense.

It was in that fog, thick enough to provide a sense of calm, that I climbed to the top of the hill next to school one afternoon.  The air got finer and more attenuated, as I climbed over paths strewn with branches and sunken wooden steps, passing the hiking clubs in their red caps and vests and socks pulled up to the knees.

At the peak I looked out over Shillim, the neighborhood throbbed by the surging wildlife of the city, and felt a moment of peace and asked myself over and over, what if it were all lost?

What do we do when it ends?  And even when confronted by the truth, I could not even comprehend the question.

And so I ignored it, because I could not imagine anything beyond the vastness in every second of every minute.  I could not imagine the future or the past.  I felt no needs, no extraneous desires, and felt a strange sense of settling, an inevitability that I was defenseless against.

And that was what caused me to make my biggest mistake, by not ever answering the question, even when despite the fog you decided that it should be faced, and you broached it for the first and last time, and I hesitated.


During the last waning days, through that last trip to Chuncheon where we rolled in the snow and looked at the full moon rising above the valley, and through the last frantic trips to the beerhouses and bars and food courts and malls, our lives grew taut like we were dancing on the faultlines at the end of the world.

The fog carried us mercilessly right up to the end, because we didn’t know what to do or expect.

It carried us right up to the airport as I was leaving, when I said over and over that I would come back after graduating, when you walked me to the gate and pressed a note in my hand and said not to read it until I got on the plane.

There, as I passed through the sliding door my heart broke into pieces as I waved goodbye, and under the screen I saw your red sneakers stand there, and they stood in place for a while before they turned and slowly walked away.

It was in the remnants of that fog, as I ascended above it on the plane that I took out the note.

It had three characters on it.  I had already known what it would say, because it could only say one thing, and it was dated three months previously.


Then I returned to the States and stayed in my room for three straight weeks, because you wouldn’t pick up your phone, and I debated whether to quit the semester and return for you, which I would have done at the slightest sign, and I ran over and over in my head what had happened and what I had done that made you cut me out of your life.

You had decided something without me.

I played through all the images of our relationship, and I held ambivalently on to those memories, saying that if ever there had existed love then it must be made to stay.

I clutched them, although they increasingly fluttered dimly on my chest, and the days cast jaundiced light on it changing it day by day, because it had grown into a life of its own and did not need me any longer to sustain it, and I knew that its fate was to flicker silently to death.

As the weeks went on, the fog completely lifted, and the memories shuddered through me, fading as I watched, terrifyingly receding, as I sought the faintest smell and slightest gesture that would make you come back, come flooding back.

In darkness I closed my eyes, convulsing at the memories of your smile, a cold breath sweeping through me, leaving me pitted and hollow, and I waited in that darkness, for wisdom to alight drop by drop with awful grace.

Outside my window, I watched a sole leaf hang to a branch, as the weather turned cold and bitter. The wind battered it, but it kept crazily holding on.  It did not fall, though everything around it had changed.

Then the weather grew warmer and let it be.  There was budding growth, and it was fresh but the smell of newness was layered underfoot by its opposite – the smell of festering, a shriveled and ugly death. No longer was there any wind, but no longer were there other leaves, and no longer did it recognize the sun nor the love of its tree. It was alone, and alone it fell.


In the middle of the next semester as it turned to spring again, I had a dream.

A dream where I heard you before I sensed you, a warm laugh, a laugh that filled the caverns where I stayed, and I sensed you before I saw you, a sweet, full thing in that dark, dark night.

The light crept into my eyes, and I saw that it was as if a war had been fought, with debris scattered everywhere.  The wind that had battered the roofs and windows the day before had died down, and tree branches were scattered all over the ground.

The wind had left clairvoyance in its wake.  The air was chilly and cool, and the aching memories and pain that had been so agonizing just the day before, were muted now.

On the ground was a photograph of us, quaint, yellowed and bent.  It was nostalgia bordering on pain but it was not quite pain, it was now merely a memory, not an actual vital thing, because it was no longer part of me.

It was now possible for me to let it go, though I knew that it would stay.  The memory was benign, innocuous, replaced or wrought over with a brush, that same brush that had wrought all this, this battlefield, this life.  Then I saw you in the distance and smiled, while you approached, and we rounded each other, and it was brittle, it was sweet. Things had passed that prevented us from embracing.  But your face was a glow, at peace, and you looked at me intently.

The Most Important Thing (Part II)

After the first time, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I wouldn’t see you again.  My thoughts had been transparent, with no desire nor emotions attached to them, neither of the past nor future, just of facts, with no plans nor ends in mind, and right after I thought of you, I saw you walking through the door, like I had known everything would happen right before it actually did.

In the beginning, we talked politely about classes and about Katherine, and I got your phone number.  I made up excuses to text you questions about homework, even if I already knew the answers.

Then we started having coffee, then meals at the cafeteria, and I walked you across campus to your classes.

Then you started coming out to the bars with us.  The fog descended slowly, hiding the details which were so important but which we did not face.  There was a specter beyond that fog.  And all of a sudden it made you reconsider and stay away, choosing not to answer our phone calls.

I suspected I knew what it was.

One day in late October you changed your mind.  We were drinking deep in Yongsan on the wooden benches of a pavilion bar, where we had to take off our shoes and climb into an attic lit by paper lamps, and you showed up out of nowhere, while Yong and Jisun and I were drinking, and I took your bag and wordlessly you sat down next to me.

You had on thick pink socks.  You leaned over the table to talk to Katherine and I caught a scent of you, a whiff of meadows and delicate undergrowth, and we drank all night until the rice wine flooded our heads and the walls slurred and the ashtray sprouted legs and crawled across the table.


In that fog we scorched paths and passages, on the backs of taxicabs and subway seats.  We hiked up to the tower on Namsan past the ramparts, and even though you were in heels you never lost your poise.

There we downed beers bought with leftover bills and looked out over the inferno of the city, and you spread your arms all over it and said that you wanted to show it to me, all of it, and I felt a huge hunger that pressed against my spine, ravenous, like we were looking over a cliff.

It was in that fog, avoiding always that unavoidable question, we downed Cabernet in taxis and left our keys in their back seats, and swung our hands through Gangnam through the hordes of students exiting their academies, past the newsstands and shoeshine kiosks closing shop, and the old ladies unfurling their hotcake tents and grilling chestnuts and caramel over open flames.  I asked you questions about what is this or that.  In your limpid eyes I saw you see things as I saw them, for the first time.

In that life, long ago, a life I’ve left behind, the ground was always littered with the brochures of a thousand nightclubs, and above, the signs for the plastic surgeons were monumental, as far as the eye could see.

We sat in the coffee shops guessing who had work done on their faces, and I would lose you in the bookstores at Gyobo and Central City, finding you hunched over textbooks, your brows furrowed, and I would take you to the English section and tell you stories of all the books that you should read.

Then we booked private karaoke rooms and ducked into the wan, smoky dins of internet cafes, and joined your friends at cowboy-themed and prison bars and dives furnished in perestroika chic, then stumbled out of block parties into parks at midnight drinking soju out of paper cups, and pushed each other on old, yellow swings.

The fog made it easy to continuously speak around the inevitable question looming just beyond it, but its urgency made me blurt out that I loved you.  The first time, you were surprised, and you looked straight ahead and nodded solemnly.  Then every time after that you smiled and pushed my head away.

Hand in hand we devoured the city, hopping through construction zones over steel floorplates laid under the frozen cranes, and stood reverently in front of Gwanghwamun, and the Palace Hotel, at the Trade Tower, and in front of Parliament, where the heaving masses of cars and bikes were grand on the boulevard, energy that filled us everywhere we went.

We wandered among the Shinchon shops, and its rows of hats and scarves and socks, and through Dongdaemun’s endless floors and bins and tents, and its doorknob alleys and wire coil lanes, watching the buyers quickly load their trucks with shirts and blankets before daybreak.

That was where in those rows of accessories shops selling gloves and hats and socks, I bought a scarf for you and wrapped it around your neck, in your space, and you lowered your head every time I brought it around.  You smelled like bouquets, and I held the scarf in both hands, and at that moment you looked up at me with the look of strawberry fields and burning clouds and lights spilling from pillows stacked against unwelcome night, and you said my name for the first time, because you had been calling me the formal ‘you’, ‘you’, or not at all, as if you had been afraid at what it might evoke.


Whenever I waited for you, for you to emerge out of that infernal, anonymous city, whether in the residential alleys and the concrete walls that lined them, neighborhoods that were just dark and isolated enough to hear scooters sputtering in the distance, or whether it was in the lobbies of hotels under grandiloquent chandeliers, in the gentle din of conversation and silverware, I always felt you like a pulse before you came.

In that fog we entered the secret gardens of Gyeongbok palace, where the gravel crunched beneath our feet as we walked between the empty pavilions, when you first asked me what I thought love is?

And I said it is, when you can give everything you have and not regret it, or something like that, something convoluted.  You nodded and said, ‘that’s about right’.

Then I asked, ‘why, what do you think it is’, and you said, ‘it is courage’, and that answer was so deft.

All I heard afterwards was the wind blow over the wall and through the shrubbery, and the soil under the plants make little sounds as time ran over them, and I saw the lake where all the streams leading into it had been frozen solid.

We woke up every day with massive cravings, and we gorged on banana milk and porridge, chicken stewed in ginseng broth, spicy rice cakes and sweet brisket, pork loin smothered in red pepper paste, toast with ham and powdered sugar over mayonnaise, curry omelets and tempura eggs, and yogurt drinks and liquor made from pomegranates, eating because our appetites were bottomless, and because we were rushing hand in hand to those frontiers of vast possibility, but always in the distance there was consequence, the end, approaching – but not yet, not just yet.

The Most Important Thing

“…but straightway there came a flood of moonlight and a gust of cold wind, and I found myself crossing a frozen lake, and my arms were empty. The wave of grief that swept through me woke me up, and I was sitting at my desk in the newspaper office in San Francisco, and I noticed by the clock that I had been asleep less than two minutes. And what was of more consequence, I was twenty-nine years old.”

My Platonic Sweetheart, Mark Twain

Part I

J—-,

On an Airbus A380 from Los Angeles I opened the newspaper, and there you were in it.

So after my meetings yesterday, I looked for you.  I don’t mean a real search – I mean I looked for you in every face and gesture and incidental place, mining the city and my memories to see what was still true.  I looked for you in alleyways and subway steps and the streets I still recognized, in tiles and textures and gestures.

The city has changed.  But the architecture of the place, its soul, still evoked a lot of memories.  After all my meetings, I took a cab down to Rodeo Street, the epicenter of Gangnam, and stood in front of the CGV movie theater.  It was where I had first met you.

The wind was a Siberian blast, the kind of wind that makes your eyes water and wonder if your face is bleeding.  The vast boulevard was awash in cars dotted by lamps as they sped under them.  The couriers flew past on their bikes, and girls in short skirts and tiaras clutched themselves as they got out of the cars that crawled slowly up the pavement.  Then they waited for other cars to pick them up.

Couples clattered by, all boots and heels, and the drunk people stumbled down the sidewalk arm in arm, holding each other up, under the enormous canopy of signs and lights, staggering in their verticality, going straight up and down that street with endless corridors and alleyways that once meant for us a possibility to quell an endless appetite.

It was a current we rode without knowing exactly where we were being taken nor how long it would take, but which now looked to me terrifying in its speed, its forgetfulness.

In that time and place, how has time passed for you?  How did you measure it?  Was it in weeks or years, was it in graduations and accomplishments, promotions, relationships?

Do we have obligations to our memories?  Do we have an obligation to keep them sacrosanct, to not destroy them?

How do you remember it?

This is how I remember it.


 

Ten years ago I came here as an exchange student.

One month into school, I met you.  My first memory of you was on that street.  It was fall and becoming brisk and the leaves were turning, and when I walked through school entire beds of them would lift up off the ground and sweep in waves between my arms and legs.

The first round of tests had just ended, and I was out with my new friends, Sam and Moon and Katherine, when I first saw you.  It was night, just like every other night in the city, when possibility hung in place, strung on the air of the night electric.

You held a bag in front of your legs, and you smiled and bent in slightly to talk to Katherine, who was your friend.  You turned to me, smiling politely, then looked away and bit your lip.

When she asked you to stay, you wavered, and I became aware of your eyebrows, so sibilantly shaped, and your ears, framed by a tantalizing glimpse of neck.

I can’t say that it was love at first sight, but I thought of you in the following weeks as the mind does when returning to thoughts that are familiar.  I knew you went to our school too, and I wondered if I might see you there.

I played the scene in front of the theater several times over the next few weeks until a shape began emerging: the vivid way you took up space, like you were aligned with something essential, a willow that would always spring back to its proper shape.

It suffused you.  Like you were driven by a sense of small suffering, something that pinched you just enough day after day to make you vivid, graceful.

Or maybe I’m just projecting.  At this point, my memories are what happened, because as far as I know, no one else is keeping them.

I remember – how all the departments of the school met at the student hall and commissary above the field, like spokes, and in between classes everyone passed through it.  It was rowdy and overwhelming and all the guys stood outside smoking under the trees.

Then when it got colder, they moved inside, and the break rooms were smoky and arid.

The one thing that I had learned how to do was use the vending machine to buy hot chocolate.  My Korean was broken and reading anything was stressful.  When the campus missionaries came up to me, I would just sit there and nod until they left.  When the professors called out instructions, I would turn and watch what everyone else was doing, first.

But between my classes I would perform this small ritual, putting a coin in the machine and pressing the red button, this one thing I could do confidently.

Maybe because these things have a tendency to descend on the open mind, it was in the commissary that I saw you again.  You nodded your head, hello, and I spilled hot chocolate on myself.

Fare Forward.

Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death” — that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.

Dry Salvages, T.S. Eliot

Endings

Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time

Limits, Jorge Luis Borges

It turned out, the stories you told yourself spanned several lives, the tram that you would take to the terminus, the fried fish you were going to eat by the bayside, on a sunny day, the stairs you were saving for a more inspired time.  You haven’t seen the museum exhibits, you didn’t read your meditations under the gnarled baobab, you didn’t say hi to the stranger working behind the counter at the fresh fruit stand.

And those ice cream flavors that made your mouth water – still just pastel hues and the sweet smell of butter, nothing more.  There, you were going to take your daughter on a clear day, there, you were going to take the ferry on a free day, ultimately an imaginary day free of the crush of life’s minutiae, a day that does not exist.

It has crowded you, it has covered the stuff of life, the underlying strata on which kids and babies joy.  For you, the bell rang sooner, the tram arrived and has already left.

the Ending is Also Pretty Amazing..

Now I’m hunched over a typewriter
I guess you’d call that paintin’ in a cave
And there’s a word I can’t remember
And a feeling I cannot escape
And now my ashtray’s overflowing
I’m still staring at a clean white page
Oh, and morning’s at my window
And she is sending me to bed again

Another Travelin’ Song, Bright Eyes

Anger of a Boy

No, his mom said, with a note of finality.

He was furious at the image of her saying it, the intransigence with which she said it.  He yelled and screamed, but her face was resolute and tight.

I hate you!  He said.

Later, when he was much older, he would come to know that she was not angry with him, as he had assumed.

But for now he slunk downstairs, quietly so she wouldn’t hear.  As he passed her room, he saw her through the crack in the door.

She sat at the edge of her bed.  The bed was high, so her legs dangled off the edge of it, as a child’s would.  Rounding her back, she was slumped over, clutching a book in her hands.  In the defenselessness of that look, she looked vulnerable, both a young girl, and an old woman.

His eyes welled up as he descended the stairs.

.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Aeschylus

I Am A Thief

It was on the 55th floor of the Fortune Apartment.  Units D and C faced each other, and my balcony looked into the maid’s room of the unit across from me.

Two maids bunked there, and occasionally when I took my evening tea outside, I saw them winding down after a 12-hour day, supine in exhaustion.  Maids in Hong Kong have six day weeks, 12 hour days (sometimes longer), and responsibilities ranging from food preparation to childcare, to everything in between depending on the vagaries of their employer.  All this, while having no private space to themselves except the shoebox closets beyond a slide-out door, that fit only a single bed and a bag of luggage, or two.  Sometimes households with kids employed two maids, and so they have to bunk.

The lives of the real hustlers in Hong Kong are fascinating.  The bankers who work 18-20 hour days.  The maids who worked for them, with the same hours.  The 60-year olds who worked 12 hour days collecting the trash, via stairwell, floor by floor, in 30+ level buildings.  The older storekeeps who close up their shops at 9 or 10pm, long after the regular office workers have gone home.  Hong Kong was and is and will be, a city imbued with a Southern Chinese ethic of immigrant hustle.

Try to imagine that life.  To do it every day for years without breaking down, because every Sunday you get to send your paycheck via wire back to the Philippines or Indonesia.

The only way to sustain that kind of life is with patterns of work and relief.  For young bankers, probably related to alcohol and parties and weekend getaways.  For the maids, though, what?

One night, I noticed one of the maids, she had this big open smile, this smile of pure delight as she looked down at her phone.  It looked like her fatigue fell away in a moment of release – a small, private moment that is yours alone, where after serving someone else for the majority of your life, you return to a small space that reminds you of who you are.  However small.

I quickly went back into my apartment.  It felt like I had stolen something.

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