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


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.

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