I am the cosmos, the cosmos inside me, I am the benevolence of history, I am the warmth and love of billions and souls, of an endless stream of mothers cuddling their babies on land and sea and stream, I am the product of violence and chaos, I am the swirling in the chaos, I am the baby and the womb, I am the silent whisper between lovers, the tilting, undulating breeze that brings memories of places never been, I am the cosmos that stretches with yearning, encompassing all within its arms, I am the planet, the stars, the bond that links every thing with everything, I am the seaside taste of home, the soft bosomed light, the miracles, the hand pushing you from beyond, the spirit who moves you from within you, the love that can only come from being open to great mystery, the gecko on the ceiling, the dim roar of distant waves, the streaking light, clairvoyance and conviction from the universe’s arms. I am. I will. I see. I will be.
Mia: Maybe I’m not good enough!
Sebastian: Yes, you are.
Mia: Maybe I’m not! It’s like a pipe dream.
Sebastian: This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise and it’s very, very exciting!
La La Land
During the days, you’ll strive and sweat and cry. During the nights, you’ll look out the window of your apartment or car and see the indigo darkness draped over the hills, the street lamps glowing in adagio. They’ll look like souls huddled in fervent prayer. Your dreams.
But here’s the thing. The dreams dreamed in the City of Dreams, are tricky. The City of Dreams is an illusion, a mirage in the desert.
What you dreamed of at 22, will come true.
And having what you once wanted, you’ll look back, your youth spent. You’ll think back on the City of Dreams, the feeling of being young and hungry, and every so often a desert wind will evoke false memories of bittersweet paths taken if not for a single gesture, word, or action, and you’ll wonder where the time went.
And you’ll wonder if what you got, was what you really wanted.
Or if you’d be happier young, having nothing but dreams again.
This was a while ago during a year of heartbreak.
During that year, I spent a lot of time in the water. I took a board out and sat in the middle of the sea, watching waves and getting battered by them in all sorts of conditions.
I went when it was completely flat and would bob on the water, and I went when it was choppy and would fall off every few seconds, and I went in early morning and at dusk and in 40 degree water until my fingers turned into claws, and I surfed with the dolphins and sea lions and red tide and the jellyfish.
I would sit there and look into the horizon for the one who was far away – who had gone away, and sometimes the sun would come out and break into a million pieces on the water, like an emerald hacienda, and sometimes the fog would be so thick that you couldn’t see the waves coming in except as darker fog in the distance, and you couldn’t tell where the water started and the sky began, and it felt like you were somewhere high in the clouds and angels were around you, as the water lapped gently at your board.
Sometimes it was bright, and the waves crested with white plumes, and other times when it was cloudy the waves when they opened up looked like giant maws full of death and destruction, and they closed on your head like thundering bombs.
Being heartbroken made me susceptible to faulty logic, and I reasoned that the more of these impossible waves I caught, the more worthy I was, and I would stay even during choppy conditions until I had satisfied my quota, and then would walk back in thinking I had passed a test.
I would surf in the messiest and unrelenting of conditions, waves coming in bruised and sickening colors, crashing and surging, white plumes cresting above them as they peaked, before thundering with complete and utter indifference.
Sometimes I would get caught by a rogue wave that unfurled above and smashed me into the sand, and withdrew with such force I was sucked into the water again. Flailing in the freezing water, so cold my breath was drawn out, in these times I could think of only one thing, which was that there was no malice in the water, nothing that cared enough to hate. The only feeling that the water was a force of nature, above and beyond anything in human experience and in the face of which we are just a speck of dust. Only by its endless grace are we allowed to enter it, fish it, surf it.
I was looking for answers out there, but there were none. The waves were apathetic. And I didn’t solve any problems. They were just made insignificant.
It’s always ugly.
They both knew it was over.
But, he couldn’t just let it go like this. His ego shattered, time wasted, a part of his life – gone.
In her life, ultimately, it was as if he hadn’t existed. He needed something, a piece of her. Or better yet, to leave his mark.
So he made her cry. He said savage things, half-true, ugly accusations. He made blame rain down on her, drench her, cover her. He called up bittersweet memories, detonating horrific and cloying images in front of their eyes.
He conjured up anything he could to manipulate her into feeling regret – and perhaps guilt – that perhaps it really was her fault. That perhaps he really was the noble one, the one who would have wanted to keep trying when she didn’t.
An hour-long tirade, and he did everything he could to permanently embed himself into her memories.
She must be made to cry. If she cried, then she was feeling regret and guilt. If she felt regret, then he had succeeded. Then he could leave, having made his mark. And then, perhaps, he could perversely remain in her heart as a permanent burr, a tattoo.
I’ve won, he thought.
They said goodbye. She closed the door.
What he didn’t know was that her tears were not tears of regret.
They were tears of ablution, to purge herself of the guilt of not feeling very guilty or sorry at all.
Ten years! Ten years passed, and I thought I had left everything behind, embalming all these memories, leaving well enough alone.
But on the plane, I picked up a newspaper. The second page had a picture of you in it.
I could only half make out the text, so I asked a stewardess what it meant.
This person, she pointed out, was taking over her father’s company. Her father’s company owned buildings and hotels and offices, a huge portfolio of the same buildings where we had once laughed and played. Your father’s company, now your company, was a subsidiary of one of Korea’s biggest global conglomerates.
As the plane descended into the city, time and space warped and swept through me again.
I knew enough about Korean corporate culture and succession, that for this, you had to have been groomed. But starting when? From a young age? Had you grown up with chauffeurs and maids, attending school on scholarships?
Those men you got into cars with, had they been drivers in jackets, these men with whom I had accused you of cheating? Had you been thinking of this fate, all laid out for you, when you first disappeared and you reappeared again, that night we drank with Yong and Moon and Katherine?
Had you been thinking of its consequences, of this fate, every time you bit your lip or creased your eyebrows when I asked you what you were going to do after graduating?
You had to have been thinking of these things every time I asked you about what your family did and you played dumb, saying it had something to do with real estate.
Whenever I asked you where your house was, you refused, saying that it was scandalous for me to know, and whenever I said let’s meet at one of those department stores managed by your father, you started talking about that one very bad experience of customer service, making faces, saying that it had just been bad, so bad, that you would never go there again.
But surely, you had considered this life, spread out before you like a banquet, that night in Chuncheon where having drunk profusely, we stood under that full moon huge above the mountains, as if ready to be plucked right out and eaten piece by piece, where the dark valley spread out before us, gaping and vast, over a frozen river that clink clinked and echoed throughout when we threw rocks down on it, where the snow whispering under us was the only other sound.
It was that night we talked until the words themselves changed meaning, forming stars streaming across a new perfect world, when we discovered that we had been looking in exactly the same direction.
That night we covered each other with down and rolled together, and when I touched your face you curled up beside me, because it was so, so cold, and there was the landscape of your neck, alabaster sheen, and we moved together in the stillness, with slight sounds, like lotus leaves dropping slowly from the ceiling, and I laid you down on the bed, light lapping over your body as I held your thighs until they opened and something broke between us and we flowed and cried and laughed, and then we held each other and were brushed with dark fingers, fronds of a plant that grows only in the night.
That night of my mistake, that night when I hesitated, when right before the dawn shot over the hills, you looked at me soberly, from the other side of the fog, directly into my eyes, with your own eyes full of fear and watery courage and said with vicious calm:
Tell me to come with you.
You looked directly into my eyes and whispered, tell me, tell me that.
And I didn’t.
What is love?
Courage, you said.
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.
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.
“…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
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.
I promised you everything, didn’t I. With the boldness and certainty of youth, I promised you the world.
Things will be different, I said.
I remember the apartment well.
The cramped walls, the pitching carpet, the one window that let in the bark of dogs and random shouts of strangers, and the wash of tires over the street. The window that looked out onto a single lamp, glowing in adagio, bristling sounds coming from the transformer.
I remember it well because I was always looking out the window.
I lived outside that window then, in the future, where everything would be not as it was.
That future never came, but that’s not the reason we didn’t.
In those moments, you were happy and content. And I wasn’t.