To Korea, a Very Short Love Story
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
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