I brushed snow off my coat and shook my hair. I checked the time. A few minutes past seven. I walked toward the two-seat table far inside the restaurant. My heels clomped pleasingly on the hardwood floor.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said, sitting down.
“It’s been a while, Mr. Lee.”
“Ten years, almost.” He smiled, scanning my face. “You look the same, Haeri.”
“Still like a girl fresh out of college.” He smacked my shoe lightly with his.
I cocked my head. “And you…still look good, Mr. Lee,” I said. I let the sentence linger, recognizing his scent among grilled food smells.
I snapped up a menu. “Shall we order?”
I was in something of a limbo nine years earlier, having graduated from Harvard with a degree in literature but uncertain as to what I wanted to do next. So I took an internship at a media conglomerate in Seoul. My job was basically translating documents. The work was vapid but easy. The paychecks weren’t much but helped me rely less on my parents. Mr. Lee was then a section chief in the Publicity Department and my main supervisor. He was 36, married, had two children. For the first six months of my internship, we flirted. For the next six, we slept together. The year over, I went back to the U.S. to get a Ph.D. Mr. Lee and I exchanged occasional email greetings but mostly fell out of touch, expectedly and preferably. Then in January last year, when I had just returned to Seoul, Mr. Lee wrote me a casual how-are-you. I wrote back a casual I’m-in-Seoul. He proposed that we meet for dinner. Perfect, I thought. I had a six-week break until the start of my teaching job at Yonsei University. I didn’t like breaks. I decided that for those six weeks I would busy myself with Mr. Lee.
As I decided that, the only friend I have in Seoul, Soomi, called me and said that she was moving to Hong Kong soon because of her husband’s job. “Would you be interested in tutoring?” Soomi asked me. The student was a high school boy, a junior entering his last year. A decent kid. His father was an executive at a pharmaceutical company. Soomi charged 150,000 won, or 150 dollars, per hour, but I could certainly negotiate. I said I would do it, but only for the next six weeks. In short order I was put in touch with the student’s mother, Mrs. Hwang, and we set up a time for my first visit.
The Hwangs lived in an upscale apartment building in Apgujeong. The three of us sat in the living room, the mother and the boy on one sofa, me on the other across the coffee table. Every summer in college I had come to Seoul and made some cash tutoring, so I knew the protocol. Over a plate of persimmons and oolong tea, I presented a summary of myself, professional and personal. Mrs. Hwang nodded vigorously, repeating my words. A diplomat! Harvard! Yale! I could tell that Mrs. Hwang was one of those “skirt wind” mothers, so called because they bustle around so tirelessly for their children’s education that their skirts create a wind.
“Starting March, I will be teaching at Yonsei University,” I concluded, and sipped my tea.
“My greatest wish is for my son to enter a SKY,” Mrs. Hwang said, referring to Seoul, Korea, and Yonsei, the top three universities in the country. She wanted me to give her son “intensive” English lessons in preparation for the University Entrance Exam in November. My timing was perfect, as schools were in winter recess and Jihyuk had extra time for tutoring. “Now is the critical period that will determine his future, Ms. Haeri Jo, you understand,” Mrs. Hwang said. A skirt gale.
“I’m sure he will do well, Mrs. Hwang,” I said, turning my attention to Jihyuk. The boy had been utterly silent. His glance dropped toward the carpet at my cordial smile.
The introduction over, Jihyuk and I went to his room for our first “intensive” lesson. He was a lanky boy, rickety-seeming, as though he had grown three inches recently and couldn’t quite handle his body. He was wearing a yellow t-shirt and beige cargo shorts. His legs were pretty like a girl’s. His bare feet fidgeted in the same terrycloth slippers as I’d been given to wear. He smelled like a good child, like fresh laundry. The smell bothered me.
We sat side by side at a long wood desk overlaid with glass.
“Let me see the books you’ve been using with Soomi?” I said.
Jihyuk pulled out three books from the bookcase mounted on the desk, facing us, and placed them in front of me. Vocabulary, grammar, reading.
“How much have you covered?”
He opened each book to where they had left off.
“What’s your name?” I asked to make him say something.
He glanced at me, hesitated, and answered, “Jihyuk.”
“Where do you go to school, remind me?”
“How long did you study with Soomi?”
He thought for a moment. “A year.”
“How did you get to study with her?” Try that with a word.
Jihyuk scratched his head, clearing his throat. “One of my cousins introduced her,” he said. His voice was low but creaky-edged. I didn’t like teenage boys.
“All right, let’s check your vocabulary first.”
But a job was a job, I reminded myself. Fulfill your duty. Prove your utility.
So began my six-week break. Mr. Lee and I met whenever we could. Our past dynamic revived quickly. He still charmed me, I had to give it to my old boss. He looked years younger than his 45. He dressed sharp as befit a successful corporate worker. He had plentiful hair, no paunch, a fat wallet. He spoke with a canny blend of gravity and levity. He was charming all right, in a way that left my heart alone.
On the first weekend following our reunion, we went for a drive in his slick BMW. We saw a special exhibition of René Magritte. We browsed new releases at a bookstore. We dined at a French bistro. Did everything we used to do except sleep together. That should wait a little, we both knew, of course. How Mr. Lee excused himself from his family on a weekend, I didn’t know, and didn’t need to know. I trusted his competence as a certain dissimulator. As did he mine. “You are a cool chick—a seductress inside, a prude outside,” Mr. Lee had often said of me, the fresh-faced intern fucking him on the sly. As a child of a diplomat, I had learned to mold myself according to changing environments. Speak in another language. Observe other customs. Acquire other tastes. There was an art to living unsettled, a kind of masquerade. Disengage and forget quickly. If you aren’t fine, pretend you are. Don’t make a fuss.
I taught Jihyuk three times a week, each session three hours long. Our side-by-side seating didn’t encourage eye contact, but when it occurred, Jihyuk looked away hurriedly. He had a tiny spot under his right eye. His nostrils bulged when he suppressed a yawn. He was aloof toward Mrs. Hwang but didn’t have an attitude. He called her Mom while referring to Mr. Hwang as Father. His 12-year-old brother, Jihoo, was far more spirited, greeting me in the foyer, “Hello, Teacher!” “Goodbye, Teacher!” while Jihyuk silently bowed and scratched his head. He had a stubborn cowlick.
By the third session we had settled into a routine. We took a ten-minute break when Mrs. Hwang brought in a tray of refreshments. Having them, we made small talk. I asked, Jihyuk answered.
“So you are good at math and sciences, Mrs. Hwang tells me.”
“I’m…not good at the other subjects.”
“What major are you applying for?”
“Economics, if my scores are good enough.”
“What do you want to do eventually? After school?”
“Um…probably work for a company, like Father.”
“Is that what you want to do?”
Jihyuk balled up the white veins he had removed from a tangerine. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to think about that kind of thing. I just have to get into a good university. That’s all I know for now.” He dropped the ball of veins on his saucer and sighed.
“That’s all right. You will figure it out in due time,” I said, smiling encouragingly.
“How old were you in there?” I asked, pointing at a framed picture on a bookshelf.
Jihyuk inspected it. “Four or five,” he said. “Mom is pregnant.”
“Ah, I can see that now. Is that Japan?”
“One night Mom craved miso ramen so much, we flew to Sapporo that night. I don’t remember it, but Father says so.”
“That’s nice.” I smiled.
“Aren’t you going to marry?” Jihyuk asked. He did that sometimes, surprising me with very personal questions or blunt remarks without coming across as rude.
“Someday, who knows,” I said.
“Thirty-three is pretty old,” Jihyuk said, thoughtfully.
I burst out laughing. “Well, you know, I thought that too when I was seventeen,” I said. “Thirty-something was just too far away, hard to imagine being it.” I sighed. I tossed my head. “What about you? Surely you have a girlfriend? A handsome boy like you?”
“I don’t, I’m not, I…” Jihyuk gulped his tea and coughed, blushing.
“Easy, easy, I was just teasing.” I tapped his back. I felt his spine. The warmth of his flesh rushing into my palm brought Suoh with it. He liked to doze off in the sun. Subarashii, he liked to exclaim. Splendid. Many things were subarashii for Suoh. Swiss-Japanese, lanky, with soft chestnut hair. Suoh started many books at once, rarely finished any. He swam like a dolphin, ate while walking, studied anywhere but at a desk. I liked to sit at a carrel desk in the library. Once I started a book, I finished the book. I played the piano methodically, dissected a frog precisely, tied my shoelaces in perfect 8 ribbons.
“What?” I dropped my hovering hand.
“I said something wrong…”
“Oh, no. I’m sorry, I was just… Let’s get back to work?”
Jihyuk scratched his head, meeting my eyes for a moment. For that moment I felt Suoh’s hair on my fingers, sun-warmed, smelling of fresh laundry.
Mr. Lee had asked me to come to a barbeque restaurant. When I got there, I found him with three of his colleagues. The two men were a rank below Mr. Lee in their corporate hierarchy. The woman was a newbie, probably not older than 25.
“Miss—Doctor Haeri Jo here interned in our department a long time ago,” Mr. Lee told his colleagues. “She was about Doyun’s age then.” He touched the shoulder of the woman sitting next to him. Doing so, he flicked the slightest wink at me across the table.
Doyun was a pretty young thing. Greeting her, I thought of the Korean joke I had once heard: “Women are like Christmas cakes. Past 25, nobody wants them. They go on the clearance shelf.” It was one of those sayings that, absurd as they were, and distasteful, I couldn’t altogether dismiss. I was 33. By that saying, had I been a Christmas cake, I must have long grown moldy. Doyun flipped pork belly squares before they charred and served them to the rest of us. The moment our soju glasses were emptied, she refilled them, and amiably accepted drinks from her senior colleagues. She called me “Professor Jo.” I was no stranger to the customs of my birth country. I could follow them to a tee if I needed to. Even so, they didn’t quite agree with me. Every one of the cultures I had grown up in felt like a pair of shoes a half-size too big. They were wearable all right, but never let me forget that I was wearing them.
One of the male colleagues, Mr. Koh, had gone to Yonsei University as an undergrad, so I talked with him about the school. I talked the talks and laughed the laughs. I knew the workings of my charm. Self-objectifying was second nature to me, hyper-perceptivity my primary tool in engaging with shifting rules.
“Chief Koh, aren’t you being a tad too eager with Ms. Jo?” Mr. Lee said. “You are a man just two months into the bliss of matrimony, remember?”
“Why remind me, Director Lee!” Mr. Koh clawed at his scalp and guffawed.
Mr. Lee caressed my shoe with his under the table. I continued to talk with Mr. Koh.
A couple of hours later, I got up, saying I had an early start tomorrow. To the two Chiefs I bade, “It was a pleasure meeting you,” and bowed. To Doyun I said the same without honorifics and touched her shoulder. “You are a lovely girl,” I added, and looked at Mr. Lee.
He mock-pleaded, “Haeri Jo, don’t go. It’s no good without you,” then mock-threatened, “Are you going to disobey your old boss?”
I picked up my coat, smiled, and left the table. The hall was murky from grill smoke and loud with drunk customers. I monitored my steps, making sure no unsteadiness showed. Outside the restaurant, I put on my coat and muffler. It was -10 Celsius, 15 Fahrenheit.
I turned around.
“Why don’t you stay?” Mr. Lee held my waist, but very passingly.
“I should head home. Go back inside, it’s freezing.”
“Let’s go someplace in a bit, just you and I. Say, you want to?”
He had a knack for such halfway remarks, declaration-questions in a serious-facetious manner, so he would lose nothing regardless of my reaction. If I showed interest, then he had been serious—of course. If I rolled my eyes, then he had been joking—of course.
“Good night, Director Lee.” I bowed. I walked away, quite leisurely. I knew he was looking at my legs. I have nice legs.
“You need to be careful here.” I marked the question with a star. “It’s asking you the thesis of the paragraph, not the entire text. It’s designed to trip you up.”
“I hate this kind of question. It’s a trick, not fair.”
“Oh, the world is full of tricksters.” I tapped his wrist softly.
Jihyuk smiled, blushing.
When we were taking a break, he asked me, “What kind of scent are you wearing?”
Four weeks had passed since our first session and Jihyuk had grown more comfortable with me—attracted to me. Without answering him I checked my cell phone. Mr. Lee had come by two tickets for a movie premiere. Meet me at 8 at Gangnam CGV?
“Who are you texting?” Jihyuk asked.
Ok, see you there. I hit Send and looked up. “My lover,” I said.
I put my phone away. Jihyuk’s face nakedly revealed his feelings. Surprise. Confusion. A stirring of jealousy. This will be entertaining, I thought to myself. Make the boy clamor for my attention, love me in that darling teenage way.
After the lesson, as usual, Jihyuk got up with me to see me off. As he turned the doorknob, I reached for his head. “This thing never lies flat, does it?” I patted down his cowlick, laughing, and walked past him out of his room.
The I who laughed. The I who flinched at the softness of his hair. The I who noted the discrepancy and bristled. The I I I’s.
The movie was an anemic thriller padded with sex scenes.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Mr. Lee asked, leaving the theater.
“Are you? It’s kind of late but…should we grab a bite to eat?”
“I could grab a bite of you. I’ve been starving for years.” He pinched my waist.
“Ah, well.” I smiled genially. “Keep up the fasting. It has a purifying effect, they say.” I strode ahead. “Thanks for the movie. Good night!” I waved without looking back and lost myself in the crowds of Gangnam Avenue.
Let him crave a little longer, I thought. Isn’t that the fun of our game? The first time we had sex, it was on a couch in a DVD viewing room. The couch was leather. Only my panties were down. It was uncomfortable and quick. Subsequently we went to motels. They had three-hour stay deals, I suppose for the likes of us seeking expeditious sex. In the six months of our screwing around, no one at the company suspected it. Mr. Lee exuded a womanizer’s aura, he couldn’t help it. But the partner in his philandering couldn’t possibly be me, the pristine-looking intern from a reputable family with an elite education and impeccable decorum. No one could imagine that girl spreading her legs for her married boss, I knew. I made sure they couldn’t. I didn’t feel shame or guilt, either toward Mr. Lee’s wife and children or my parents who simply believed I was an exemplary daughter. I didn’t feel much of anything. Maybe some vaguely vengeful satisfaction. Vaguely, because the object was uncertain. Revenge on whom, on what grounds? My parents? Suoh? Myself? Anyway, it was an irrelevance, what I felt. What mattered was that I functioned, however I could.
I got in a taxi and groped around in my head for my new address near Yonsei University. How many addresses had I passed through? Fifteen? Twenty? I could recall one or two. My phone buzzed. I sighed, expecting some witty-flirty one-liner from Mr. Lee.
On my way home from cram school. Got 92 in the English mock exam. Sorry if it’s too late. Just wanted to tell you.
I sat up. I checked the time. 11:04. I typed a reply, reviewed it several times, and sent it.
Good boy. I’ll pat you on the head next time I see you.
Make him read and re-read those words, I thought. Make him smile and scratch his head and laugh and frown and smile again. Make him love you in his gauche and precious way. Feel good about your power over him. Then forget. Suoh was a boy you once loved, who once loved you. You once loved your slide in the yard. You once loved your hamster. You once loved Holden Caulfield and the old man at the cafeteria who served you couscous very nicely, too slowly. You once loved a lot of things. And you don’t now. Shouldn’t. They are gone.
Nostalgia. It may be natural. And I may be naturally prone to it. But I have no use for the natural I, the I steeped in irrational longing. That I can only spell dysfunction.
Jihyuk sent me a smiley face. I stuffed my phone into my bag and shut my eyes. We only had a few lessons left. Then it would be over. I would have made 8,100 dollars in six weeks.
On the last Friday of February I had my final lesson with Jihyuk. We had finished all three books. His mock exam scores had been consistently improving. I had done my job. Mrs. Hwang thanked me intensely for my intensive lessons of the past six weeks and expressed her intense wish that Jihyuk would make it into Yonsei University next year.
“Ms. Jo, if you aren’t terribly busy this evening, why don’t you have dinner with him?”
“Oh, that is a nice thought, Mrs. Hwang. But I know Jihyuk has his cram school soon.”
“He has plenty of time till then. Oh I insist.”
Mrs. Hwang gave Jihyuk her credit card, instructing him to “Treat your teacher to a nice dinner of appreciation at Hyundai Department Store. Afterwards, since you are there, get yourself that new uniform you need. Then straight to your cram school. Understand?”
Jihyuk’s kid brother whined that he wanted to come with us and eat a nice dinner too.
“Of course, we can all go together,” I said.
“She’s not your teacher,” Jihyuk snapped, poking Jihoo in the back.
Jihoo stuck out his tongue, calling Jihyuk a meanie, a pig, a bully, “crappy panties,” and relented only when Mrs. Hwang promised him pizza for dinner.
Jihyuk had good table manners and ate a lot more than I would have thought. His was a growing body. A malleable mind, intelligence yet to peak, character yet to harden. The way I operated, by contrast, was unlikely ever to change.
“Do you like living here?” Jihyuk asked.
“Korea, I mean.”
“But would you rather be in some other country?”
I looked out the foggy window. Twilight. Colors were clashing in the sky. The high-rises were silhouettes. Korea, I pronounced in my head. I felt nothing particular about it.
“I’m fine here,” I said. “But I’ll be fine in some other place too.”
“Do you have a lot of friends here?”
“Friends? No, not here, or anywhere. It’s hard to keep friends when you move often.”
Jihyuk put down his fork and knife diagonally on his plate.
“That kind of sucks,” he said.
I smiled. “Yes. That kind of sucks.”
“Must be kind of lonely.”
I must have stared at him because Jihyuk blushed, turning his face to the window.
Without him noticing I signaled for the check and sent the server away with my credit card. Jihyuk griped this was unfair, Mom would be so mad at him, why would I do this to him… I sipped my coffee.
We got on the escalator going down.
“Next time I’ll buy you dinner,” Jihyuk said.
“All right, when you’re all grown up and have your own bank account.”
“Don’t treat me like a kid.”
Jihyuk stomped down a step. My eyes came level with his head. I stopped my hand reaching for the stubborn cowlick.
We got off at the floor that sold school uniforms.
“Don’t you already have one?” I asked.
“I’ve grown out of it. It’s the fourth one I’m buying in two years. Mom is getting mad.”
I laughed. “Well, that’s a good thing. You should do all the growing while you can.”
I followed Jihyuk to the booth displaying his school’s uniform on a pair of mannequins. I brushed my hand against the boy’s, the mannequin’s. While Jihyuk tried on a couple of sizes, I waited holding his olive-green parka. The goose down was docile in my embrace. The smell was pleasing without artifice, like fresh laundry. Like Suoh.
My phone buzzed.
How about sake in Itaewon? 7:30?
“I’m done.” Jihyuk came up to me, holding a large paper bag.
I gave him his parka back.
“Off to cram school?” I said.
“Yeah, I’m taking the subway from here.”
“Good, me too.”
We headed for Apgujeong Station on the underground level.
“Where are you going?” Jihyuk asked me on the escalator.
“Oh. I’m the other direction.”
We stopped between the opposite banks of turnstiles. It was rush hour. The ground vibrated from the mass of moving people. The turnstiles beeped at subway cards. The mechanical female voice announced the comings and goings of trains. Geneva Airport. Departure. Our time together had run out. I was moving to the U.S. Suoh was staying in Switzerland. We whispered, our cheeks touching, that we would be together, we would find a way, soon. Did I truly believe those words we said? Believe that roseate vision of love? I might have. I was an 18-year-old girl and my operating system was still developing. Then, I could be uncool. Now, 15 years later, my system had been perfected.
“Well, be good, Jihyuk,” I said. I smiled. I held his hand.
With the hand I had let go, Jihyuk pressed his forehead.
“I’ll keep in touch,” he said. “If that’s okay.”
“Of course,” I said, and turned around.
In the train I received a message. I will get into Yonsei.
I deleted it. I deleted all the other messages from Jihyuk. I deleted his number. I had provided my service and received my remuneration. That was all. I felt a slight pressure in my chest. But that was okay. These things pass, I reminded myself. Everything passes. Trains. Airplanes. People. Time after time. I held onto a hanging strap and focused on the subway map. Get off at Yaksoo to transfer to Line 6 to get to Itaewon. Transfer correctly. That was important.
“What is lonely?”
“Why, you feel lonely tonight, Haeri?” Mr. Lee smiled.
“It’s something my student mentioned today.” I finished my sake in one gulp. “I tried to grasp that feeling, but couldn’t.”
Mr. Lee filled my cup. “That must mean you never feel it,” he said. “Or always, so you can’t tell.”
“Do you get lonely?”
He shook his head, laughing like scoff-sighing.
“At my age, with two kids on my hands, if I moped in loneliness, that’d be plain unseemly.” He sipped his sake and bit a grilled ginkgo off its skewer.
I filled his cup. Some kindly feeling bubbled up in me. Mr. Lee would make a very different kind of father than my own, I thought. The only time I saw my father’s equanimity break was when I had told him I wanted to go to a college in Geneva instead of Harvard. He knew it was for Suoh that I wanted to do that. “Your sense has gone out of your head,” my father shouted. “If you intend to ruin your future for that clown of a boy, then you are on your own. Be out of my sight.” And I couldn’t shout back “Fine!” and jump on an uncertified track. So I hung my head, crying, and continued down the certified track. To an Ivy League. To the good graces of my parents. I hoped—probably believed—that if I couldn’t, then Suoh would figure out a way to be with me. He studied hotel management at Les Roches, lived his life, loved and married another woman. I believe that woman might well have been me had the circumstances worked out for us. But since they didn’t, Suoh moved on with his unflagging sunny spirit. Subarashii! He could embrace so much. Suoh’s huge, unsystematic heart. How I love it. How I hate it.
“You know what, Haeri?” Mr. Lee squeezed my knee. “I’m feeling unbearably lonely right now.”
“Ah, I wonder what we could do about that.”
I downed my sake and got up. “Let’s go,” I said.
He groped me under my skirt. I let him. The taxi driver drove impassively. Traffic was heavy with Friday night drinkers in transit. He nuzzled my neck, puffing sweet-bitter sake breaths. His Bvlgari crept up into my nose. A strong scent concocted to seduce. Caught in his grip, too hard and warm, my own hand felt unconnected to me.
The motel was precisely adequate. The bed was large with a purple duvet cover and didn’t creak under our jerking bodies. I glanced at the bedside table. The digital clock on it beamed 10:13 in lurid green. The bottle of water was a brand I had never tried. A plastic tray held two squat glasses, rims down.
“I’ve missed you, Haeri,” Mr. Lee said, flipped me, and fucked me from behind.
I liked that, when we made love, Suoh could turn forceful. I liked that the ever gentle boy clenched my breasts and shoved my thighs apart. The forcefulness let me know that he was a man, that I was desirable, and that I could want something so badly. He taught me desire. Suoh was my desire.
Mr. Lee flopped next to me, panting. His hand limply cupped my breast.
“Let me take a quick shower,” he said, took off his condom, and went to the bathroom.
Collecting my clothes, I saw the condom, flaccid in the trash can. I swallowed a reflux of acid mixed with sake. Mr. Lee’s phone rattled on the bedside table. A message alert had popped up on the screen. The sender was Doyun. I quickly dressed and left.
I clutched the collar of my coat. The cold stung my hand until numbness set in. The wind slapped my face and flung my hair everywhere. Here and there street vendors sold roasted chestnuts and egg bread, casting flashes of warmth. In my head I was repeating, I need to find a taxi, I need to find a taxi… Taxis pulled up by the sidewalk and dropped off passengers. I kept on walking. At some point I came to a subway station.
Inside the train was toasty. Not many seats were occupied. My hands thawed, numbness turning to prickling pain. I pulled out my phone from my bag. 10:52.
Get home safe.
Revulsion surged up my throat and I thought I would be sick. But it went away. Then something else surged, I didn’t know what. It filled up my chest and I bent forward. I looked through the text messages on my phone. I was looking for something, though I didn’t realize it. When I realized it, I also realized what I was looking for, and that I had deleted him.
That’s okay. Hold yourself together. This will pass. Everything passes.
I sat up and joined my knees tightly. I aligned my shoes. The seat facing me across the aisle was empty. I smiled at it. I kept rigidly smiling. But my body parts wouldn’t sustain the tensions I had assigned them, and again, I slumped in my seat.
I got off at Apgujeong Station. I climbed up the stairs, passed a turnstile, climbed down the stairs, and entered the opposite platform. A small number of people were waiting. The tracking board showed the next train’s progression on Line 3. When the train arrived and let passengers out, I scanned the platform as far and fast as I could. I couldn’t know which one of the four staircases he would take, granted he was among the people that had gotten off. He might have left his cram school early. He might have taken the bus instead.
The train left, trundling, then gliding down the track. For half a minute no one else was on the platform. I looked at the long, neat tunnel of emptiness.
I staggered and hit the wall behind me.
Pathetic. Get a grip on yourself. Haeri Jo, you are fine. Shut up. Stop saying fine. I’m fine, spectacularly fine, all the fucking time. Calm down. I am calm. Stop moping, it’s unseemly. Let me get out of here. Where is the exit, I need to find the exit, the exit…
The alert bell rang and the mechanical female voice announced the approaching of a train. Cool air gushed into the platform. I shut my eyes.
…you are a cool chick…full of tricksters…your sense has gone out of your… subarashii…we’ll be together, we’ll find a way…must mean you never feel it or…
I opened my eyes. Slowly, I turned to the voice. I saw the olive-green parka. I saw the paper bag. He had grown out of three uniforms in two years, his mother was getting mad. I laughed.
“Are you okay?”
Jihyuk came closer to me. I tried to back away but hit the wall. I moved a step sideways. He stood awkwardly, chewing his lip. He glanced at me. He looked down. He looked up and stared at me.
Don’t. Don’t look at me. Don’t come near me. I’m dirty.
Jihyuk looked away, scratching his head.
Don’t. Don’t look away. Don’t go. Don’t leave me.
I reached out and touched him. “This thing never lies flat, does it,” I said, pressing down on the unruly sprig of hair. Jihyuk patted the same spot many times.
“I didn’t know it caused you that much grief…”
I laughed. I held up my bag and hid my face behind it. I had forgotten how it felt to cry. Now I was remembering. The tingling surrounding my eyeballs. The sting in my nose bridge. The saltiness licking my throat. How hot the first tear. And how uncontrollable thereafter.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Jihyuk said over and over.
Then he stopped. He held my shoulders.
I dropped my bag.
A year later, on the first day of my third term, I take attendance. Thirty students are registered for the class. Toward the end of the list, the tip of my pen comes to a name. It makes me pause. I call the name. I hear his voice. I find him to my right in the front row. He smiles, scratching his head. Professor Jo moves on, adding a checkmark. The natural I, memory-bound, lingers.