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.

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