by Wyatt Hong
“It’s going to be wonderful,” she said, putting on a grey sweater. It was the day after Valentine’s Day, a Sunday, 6:15 in the evening, and in the morning, we had bought chocolate-dipped strawberries from Andronico’s Market. I was eighteen and she had just turned nineteen and we couldn’t buy the wine ourselves. During lunch, she had asked her friend over the phone to get us “something delicious, not too expensive.”
“Wear something over it. It’s chilly outside.”
“What earrings should I wear?”
“Something classy. The diamond ones.” I wasn’t sure if they were real, but they looked like they were and she had never corrected me.
We took the school shuttle to University Avenue and had bacon-wrapped dates at Lavanda and watched the eight o’ clock Sunday Flicks movie in Memorial Auditorium about a man who aged backwards and a woman who did not. They were in love. At the end of the movie, the man simply disappeared in his crib and the woman died of old age in a hospital. Walking back to her dorm in the dark, unmindful of the passing bicycles, we talked about how we liked that we were young, but how nice it’d be if we could buy the wine ourselves.
Everything was ready but she had forgotten the bottle opener. I stuck the bottle inside my shoe and tried banging the thing on the wall as I had once seen on a TV show. On our way to her friend’s room to get the bottle opener, I didn’t reply when she pointed out Orion’s Belt and how bright the stars were tonight. The stars were always bright in Northern California and had lost their appeal like the naked Playboy models on the walls of Cheever’s room at Groton. It was past eleven by the time we were back. I was upset, but when she looked at me with her signature hurt-eyes and bitten lip, I decided that I would forget it. The strawberries were sweet and the chocolate masked their aftertaste. She had also gotten cheese and crackers without telling me about it. The yellow core of the cheese rippled over the edge of the hard white peel as she sliced it with the knife she had stolen from the dining hall. She placed the ivory slice on a golden-brown cracker then put a thin slice of red-white strawberry on top of the cracker and the cheese, then she put the cracker and the cheese and the strawberry on my tongue and sealed everything with a kiss.
By midnight, we were full and it didn’t hurt to fall back on our palms. We lay facing each other on the carpeted floor of her room.
“What class do you have tomorrow?”
“Chemistry,” she said. “I don’t want to get up for it.”
“You don’t have to.”
“It doesn’t really matter. Does it?” She turned to me.
“No. We could have this every week. We could choose a day, you know.”
She looked up at the bottom of her lofted bed as if she were watching a moth midair. Her small unmoving mouth was half parted like those of the excavated statues of Pompeii, boys and girls burst into flames, immortalized into a thing of plaster.
I had a class on Robert Frost on Thursday mornings. I could read the poems during breakfast. It didn’t matter whether I knew what they were supposed to mean. If it was a good poem it should mean everything.
“Sure, sounds good.”
“Yes, really. Every Wednesday.”
Her room looked out into an inner courtyard where the trees were soundless. Their thick trunks separated into branches three feet from the ground and in the spring you could read a book leaning on the thickest bough.
“I want to say the ‘L’ word,” she said, and closed her eyes.
It was February. It had been cold, but it was going to get warmer. For Valentine’s, she had given me two glass tumblers full of red and white confetti that had our text messages written on them. The narrow strips of paper lay scattered about us. I reached for one.
The things I had lost I could only perceive through a picture and not touch with my hands. When I realized this impossibility, the clearances between the dark trees outside her window widened into the long mouth of the hallway and I became nervous. I was standing alone with a rifle on safety-catch and twenty rounds of ammo, none of which I should use, I had been told. I was told many things here and had to accept every one of them just as calmly as I had to accept that Mont Blanc was the highest summit of the Alps. When there was physical pain, I told myself that I was in a theater and turned the drill sergeants into faceless crash-dummies and gray-scaled the terrain and I could get through it all right. But when the pain left came the loneliness and it was especially difficult during my hour of duty from three to four in the morning, after I had been woken up from a dream, bound to fall into one again, in that state of weightlessness felt at the top of a swing ride, when I could see so clearly everything I had left behind. I remembered many faces during that hour. Some were too near and you could not follow them for they were like your shadow. Others led you to too many places at once and you quickly lost them. Finally, there were the silhouettes of those whom you had never met but had only heard of, whose names you might have read on a wall of a restaurant or on a list of guests. Sometimes, this silhouette of a face spoke to me in a familiar voice and, with the kind disposition of a stranger, led me to places to which all roads had been lost.
At four o’ clock, I walked into the room where the twelve of us slept and marked the temperature and humidity using the light from my watch, then returned to my seat to undress. It usually took fifteen minutes to take off my equipment and place them in their exact places in the cabinet. The reason, our company commander said, that we were to organize our cabinets every hour was because the power might be shut-off during a war with North Korea. You should be able to arm yourselves in complete darkness, he said. When the lights went off in Luray Caverns, Virginia, you lost your hearing for the beating of your heart. It was never that dark here. The light from the hallway shone through the square slit on the door. The mattress was cold but it felt good to lie down. I could hear the soldier on duty opening each door to make sure that no one was missing. The speakers would blare at six-thirty.
The fifty-two of us in 1st Platoon, 5th Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Regiment moved in a box formation of four columns. We talked much about our past during the first week, but it was difficult to imagine the person next to you walking into a classroom or buying a bag of chips from the grocery store because you had only seen him naked or in uniform. By the second week we had stopped talking about who we had been and behaved as if we were born without the parts of us that had been lost. We talked much about our fear of throwing grenades and going in the gas chamber for our final week at boot camp. It was the same talk with every person but it was comforting to know that he was afraid just like you, and you came to know everyone very well despite the mangled surface of his appearance. Perhaps I had already learned to do this when I was eight years old, standing on the staircase of the Louvre in front of the Nike of Samothrace.
“Dad, what happened to her head and arms?”
“When the Turks invaded Greece, they cut off limbs and genitals from the statues to make a point that they were stronger than the Greeks.”
“Yes she is.”
Sometimes you felt your body disappear entirely. During the twenty-mile march, the entire battalion was divided into two parallel columns along either sides of the road. The columns extended beyond the hills you could see and beyond those you couldn’t. After a while, your legs moved without making a sound and you thought about all the places you had been to. When you glanced up to smile at a sudden recollection, you saw shivering against the red sunset a thousand black bodies.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Sakura trees flower in April when it is warm in the day but cold at night. When we were in elementary school, my parents would take me and Ryan to the cherry-blossom festival on Walker Hill, named after General Walton H. Walker of the 8th US Army. There was a Sheraton on the top of the hill where visitors from the U.S. liked to stay, so the area was well-kept and the roads around the hill were wide for the American Cadillacs. Sakura trees were planted on both sides of the road, and on the second week of April the road was closed to traffic from six in the evening and lanterns were hung from temporary snack stands that sold steamed dumplings and imported beer. Because there were no tables, the snack stands had large stainless counters that seemed to me like the arms of giant waiters from Gulliver’s Island holding silver plates of hors d’oeuvres. Liquefied gas from the metal tubes underneath the stands fueled the lanterns that blinded you when you looked up to see what your dad was paying for, and violet patches flushed your vision as he placed in your small hands a churro wrapped in white paper. The cashier machines sounded like the sound-effects in Tom & Jerry and the falling petals made everything dreamy. The petals turned pink and yellow when you stepped on them. There were so many on the ground and it was impossible not to hurt them. In the mornings, old men hired by the hotel would sweep them into large hemp bags to be burnt outside Seoul but some of them would stick to the asphalt until the monsoon season. At the end of the month, when the trees were no longer white, the stands were broken down and shelved in a warehouse behind the hotel.
In July of that year, my parents enrolled me in a private summer school near home. I had half an hour of lunchtime between English and science, and instead of going home I went to a cheap Japanese restaurant down a block that had small square tables that could hold exactly two trays of the lunch menu. The katsu there was delicious and I liked paying for the food and keeping the change for the arcades. The waitress was kind but I didn’t like how she talked to me as if I were a kid. After eating quickly, I would go to the arcades and spend all my change there and, on days when I played well, would be late for class.
Our teacher was in his late twenties and wore the same white sweater to class every day. He was tall and good-looking and taught us interesting facts like why maple leaves turned red in the fall and why your voice traveled farther at night. During our ten-minute breaks, he smoked on the stairs and blew the smoke out the window between the second and the third floor. I liked to talk to him because he did not talk to me like the waitress at the Japanese restaurant.
“I have two of the same sweater, you know,” he said. His long hair was parted sideways to show his wide forehead. Against the brown buildings outside, his pale skin made him look angelic and lost.
“Why would you have two of the same sweater?”
“Because I don’t like to do laundry. See how clean it is.” He pulled at the bottom of his sweater for me to see. It was made out of wool and woven in thick cables. The white wooly sweater fit him very well even though it was summer and I wondered how he could tell between the two. I liked his silver watch that had a big white dial with the Roman numerals III, VI, and IX instead of real numbers. He looked at it now.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked.
There was a girl in the school orchestra I liked to talk to. She had a tiny face that you could hardly see under her hair that reached a little above her waist. You could tell she was proud of her hair by the way she combed it with her fingers. My friends teased me about her often and spread rumors that we had held hands. I told them we had never, and we never had.
“What do you mean not really?”
“There’s a girl in orchestra with me and I think she’s pretty.”
“Well you should tell her.”
“I don’t actually like her. She never shares her pencils. I also heard that she hits the boys really hard when she plays ABCs.” The boys in her class liked to talk about this and I knew they all liked her.
“I think you like her,” he said and tossed his cigarette out the window. “You want to go get some sherbet?”
The sherbet shop on the first floor was called “Terra d’ Glace.” You could choose two flavors on a cone and three in a cup. During monsoon season you watched the passing umbrellas through the glass pane of the entrance.
At the half-point of the march, we put down our gear on the ground and walked into a makeshift auditorium. Each of us was given a Snickers bar. A sergeant asked the oldest recruit to stand up and sing “Dear Mother.” As he sang the most beautiful rendition of the song that all of us had learned in elementary school, everyone swallowed fast so that he would not cry. I was doing well until I saw older guys weeping. We arrived at our barracks around three in the morning. Hot porridge was served. We went to bed without washing. It was the end of training.
The train gave a nudge and it felt as if an angel had touched me on the back. The drill sergeants were standing on the platform waving their hands at us. The cold morning air carried their white breaths away. The conductor handed out MREs for us to eat during the ride and asked if anyone wanted a smoke. He pointed at the first three people from the front and they followed him out the door at end of the car. The dead rice fields seemed smaller than they had been when we had crawled across them in the rain.
“It’s finally over,” Yoon said. He had been the squad leader. That meant nothing now. We were going to Seoul.
“Damn. I feel like I’m dreaming.”
“I’d shoot myself if this was a dream.”
“I can’t believe we stayed alive in this shit-hole for six weeks.”
“Don’t remind me.” I looked at my blackened fingertips and hoped that the sense of touch would return to them by the time I could go home.
“Sucks for the guys who got stationed near the border.” The First Sergeant who had once been stationed in 3rd Division had told us that he had wanted to cut off his feet when he had stood guard in the mountains during the winter.
“Did you tell your girlfriend that you got stationed in Seoul?” I asked. The 8th US Army Base was thirty return to them by the time I could go home.
“Sucks for the guys who got stationed near the border.” The First Sergeant who had once been stationed in 3rd Division had told us that he had wanted to cut off his feet when he had stood guard in the mountains during the winter.
“Did you tell your girlfriend that you got stationed in Seoul?” I asked. The 8th US Army Base was thirty minutes from my house, in the middle of Seoul. We had heard that there was a Burger King in the base and that the burgers there were big like the ones in America. We were to serve as interpreters for twenty-one months. The English language had never done me a greater service.
“I’m going to call her as soon as we arrive. She’s going to be so happy. The base is literally fifteen minutes away from our school.”
“You never know. She might hate it.”
He snuggled into his seat and sighed as he closed his eyes. His stubble and thick eyebrows made him look older than he was. He had a clean-shaven face and brown hair in the sticker picture of him and his girl he carried in his breast pocket. They had met in an Economics class.
“I’m so glad it’s over,” he said.
The rice fields grew smaller and smaller. I unlaced my boots and leaned back on my chair. “Do you think we’ll ever see them again?” He asked.
The twelve of us had shared our email addresses the night before. We promised that we would meet someday over glasses of beer and laugh about how Cho took off his mask in the gas chamber because he misheard the drill sergeant and came out crying and his face bright red, how each of us donated a liter of his blood to the Green Cross for two bite-sized whoopee pies. We were from all over the country, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine. Some of us had not gone to college. One wanted to be an actor and worked as a valet at a hotel to pay for his acting classes. One lived in Busan and went to the baseball games every Saturday to get drunk. One of us studied in the United States. One lived in Japan. One was a marathon runner. One of us wanted to work in the shipbuilding industry after the army. One of us received letters from two girls who did not know each other. Some of us had never slept with a girl. We kept no secrets among each other, but maybe that was only because we knew that we’d never meet again.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Yoon did not answer and now the train was moving very fast and the shadows of the telegraph poles passed me like some vague rhythm of a lullaby my mother used to sing me. Yoon said something back but I was in another place and did not hear him.
The buildings grew taller as the train approached the city. The train passed through several stations in the suburbs where I could see women and children standing on the platform. Soon, we passed the gigantic malls on the outskirts of the city then the large billboards near the freeway entrance with the newest celebrities holding the newest cell-phones. Finally, the train was moving parallel to the Han River. The green dome of the National House of Assembly and the gold façade of the tallest building of the city emerged behind the soundproof walls. Seoul Tower loomed over the sprawling city from the top of Mount Nam. When you looked down at the city from its viewing stand at night, the river was a dark strip between two carpets of gold; the bridges thin threads along which traveled tiny red lights of cars. The fence around the viewing stand was made out of crisscrossed wire and couples bought locks from the souvenir store next to Cold Stone Creamery and locked them onto the fence. There were very many locks and you could not count them.
In the dark you pointed out to the girl next to you the places you had taken her; the hookah bar on Rodeo Street where they sold pear martinis filled to the brim that you were careful not to spill on the fake Persian rugs; the pork-belly place with the grill in the shape of a turtle’s shell, the grease flowing down the grooves to its tail and dripping onto an oval tray made out of stone; Doksu Palace where it was rumored that lovers who walked along its stone walls would part within a month; all the metro stations on the green line and the shops underground that sold umbrellas that would break in two weeks, but you would lose them in a week, and the florists in the back alleys of Ewha Women’s Unversity who delivered the flowers for you if you paid them extra; the revolving doors of Kyobo Bookstore in the old part of the city with the entire ceiling a mirror—when you looked up, your face looked like a pebble breaking the face of a rapid ravine.
Then you pointed at the darkness and said, ‘There’s the path by the river where we walked holding hands and those are the fishing poles of the old men dozing off in their plastic chairs and there, the spiders are weaving their webs between the tall grass.’ You could point farther and say, ‘Here is my house and here, the empty lot where my friends and I used to play soccer, and that is the bench, yes the one on the left, where we threw our backpacks, and sometimes the midget Chinese delivery man joined us until he had to go pick up his dishes, and over there behind the rhododendrons is a sheltered meadow where I buried a soft yellow chick I had bought in front of my elementary school for fifty cents. I marked the place with a branch. Can you see it? Over there is the Japanese restaurant where I used to eat alone, and right next to it you might see the sherbet shop where you can choose two flavors on a cone and three in a cup.’
But she would not know the sound of a deflated soccer ball against the asphalt nor the softness of the small yellow living thing in your hands nor the discomfort of the long wooden chopsticks and no, she would not know that the lady at the sherbet shop had a daughter with six fingers who wore a white glove on her left hand even in the summer, and she would ask her about the glove just like you had. And all the places you could not point to because they were no longer there and all the places you could not point to because they were so far away; Mr. Tulp’s classroom on the second floor of the schoolhouse in Groton, Massachusetts with wooden chairs that creaked when you leaned back on them. You faced the sunfaded Vermeer if you sat near the window, and the girl in the painting seemed to want to tell you something, something special only for you to hear, and you looked at her pleading eyes wanting to apologize while the class went over Livy’s History of Rome line by line. If you sat under the painting, you looked at the green leaves outside the window trembling like plaited manes of horses and if it was Saturday you were already thinking of biking down Peabody Street, past big New England houses and fields full of goldenrod and the school pond where the trees looked like used-up pencils because of the beavers, to have pizza at Pastores’. And California, the edge of the fountain in front of Old Union where you lay on my back watching the spotlights from the frat-houses make the same ellipses around the same stars until she arrived, warm from alcohol, her breath peppermint white and her guilty perfume all over you, writing on your back with her finger that yes, she will go out with you; the Hampton Inn in upstate New York where Spencer suddenly asked you in the dark,
“Aren’t you afraid we’re going to die someday?”
“I said, aren’t you afraid that we’re going to die someday.”
“I guess I used to be. I don’t think about it that much. You?”
“Kind of. We’ve lived twenty years now. Isn’t that scary?”
“We have plenty of time. Don’t worry.”
“Screw work. Party more.”
“Anyways, let’s crush them tomorrow.” We were in upstate New York for a squash tournament at Hamilton College. The teams in the tournament were ranked much higher than us but we didn’t care.
“Obviously. We’ll break their ankles.”
At the team dinner after the tournament, Coach Talbott told us that we had given our best and that he was proud of us. On the wall of the restaurant’s bathroom was Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night. The first poem I had ever written was about that painting. In tenth grade English class, we had read Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and had to write a poem on a painting of our choice. My roommate Andrew had found the painting in the basement storage and had suggested that we put it on our wall next to the Maxim covershot of Carmen Electra. It was a nice painting and I looked at it during study hall hours when I didn’t want to work. The poem, titled “Second Movement: Lento”, began:
Light blends time in Van Gogh’s café
“We’re here, baby,” Yoon tapped me on the shoulder.
We were at the middle of a bridge over the Han. The bright sun pummeled my face in multiple directions through the lattice of the truss. That poem, what was it: something about the river and a kiss.
Mom had left to pick up David from school because it had begun to snow and he had not taken an umbrella with him. The house was quiet with all the lights off. The snow outside fell quickly and I knew that it was wet and heavy and would not last a day. It was the end of March. I had arrived early in the morning in a cab. After six weeks of training and two months as a Private Second Class, I was home on my first weekend leave.
I changed into civilian clothes and lay in bed for a very long time until I lost sense of where I was. I went to the kitchen and took out a cold bottle of milk. I sat on the side of the dining table facing the kitchen and wondered why I sat in the same place though I was alone. The trees out the window were white with snow. I got up and walked around the house looking at the photographs on the walls like I was in someone else’s house: Ryan and I in front of the Eiffel Tower, he holding a harlequin teddy-bear from the souvenir shop at the Louvre, I a rubber-band propelled plastic bird the peddlers sold at Place de la Bastille; Ryan and I with little David in the middle, all of us in pastel colored shirts the day after my graduation from Groton; mom and dad waving from a swan-boat at the Shilla Resort on Jeju Island. I had taken the picture.
Their bedroom smelled sweet and sleepy. The bed was perfectly made and all the drawers were closed with their handles aligned. The mahogany framed clock on the wall sounded like marbles falling into perfectly fitting wooden grooves. Out the window across the bed I could see the empty lot where I used to play soccer after school. Their wedding picture rested against the three-planed mirror above the dresser—dad in a black tuxedo, flowers in his breast pocket, mom on his arm, flowers in her hands. August, 1989, he young and intelligent in his gold-rimmed glasses; she beautiful in her pearl earrings and long white gloves, smiling at him; the blurry trees in the background pastel-green, and everything surrounded by an ivory frame carved in the texture of waves, grapevines, waves of wine, and the snow outside falling everywhere, on the empty lot, on David’s footsteps, on her umbrella, washing everything whiter than sakura petals, falling from the boughs of the trees into wine-dark puddles made under the tires of passing cars; the mahogany clock spilling pearls endlessly onto the floor, the smell of their bed so sweet and white, the pillows without a crease; the young man and the beautiful girl smiling at each other twenty-one summers ago.
All the stories she told me on that bed—a family of bears who got lost in a city searching for honey, breadcrumbs and moonlit stones, jealous queens, a daughter who tossed herself into the Yellow Sea for her blind father to see again; characters who were lost and found, lost again and resurrected, who walked into a black forest with the certainty that they’d return, and Hansel with the white pebbles which lay in front of his house, smooth and round from the years of sweat from his palms. And all the people I remembered, who were far away from me, eating, opening a window, or just dully walking, carried with them a thread of me tied around their ankles, dark and smooth, across the green shadows of maple leaves, so that I spread wide like a richly worked robe, the loveliest and the deepest, of the streets and the stars and the pulsing lights of all my cities. And someday I will spread so wide that I will no longer be seen.
I wasn’t afraid to listen to her with my eyes closed because I knew that she was looking at me through the dark.
“It’s time to sleep dear. It’s almost ten!”
“Just one more.”
“Okay, this is the last one.”
And the story would begin.Tags: Volume 6 Issue 2, Wyatt Hong