satisfaction

The girl steps off the plane and into the arms of her waiting mother.

I wake in the night and scribble this sentence on a scrap of paper by the bed. In the morning, it is difficult to decipher, words bleeding into words. The girl steps off the plane and into the arms of her waiting mother. Hardly an idea – a placeholder where an idea might come. A gesture toward the beginning of something. 

For a summer, I worked at a café behind a counter that was so high, I could barely see over it. People would saunter in and stand there, looking up at the chalkboard menu and when I drew myself up on tiptoe, asked to take their orders, it would startle them to see my head there, disembodied, floating.

I would pepper them with questions about their sandwiches and accompaniments, checking off boxes and circling things on my pre-printed notepad. Cheese – cheddar. Red onions – light. Potato salad. Pickle – NO.

The men I worked with were tall. They worked the slicing machines, carried things back and forth, made the sandwiches, the soup. There were three of them, and me at the register. My favorite was J. He hung his motorcycle helmet on a hook near the back door each morning and one afternoon, when it was slow, he took us all outside to admire his bike. I had no idea, really, what I was looking at, so made what I believed to be the appropriate noises. He invited me out. I said, sure. Why not?

We spent a better part of the summer together, riding around. We rode out to Sakonnet, the vineyard there, made our way back so slowly, stopping at all the roadside stands for raspberries and cheese and honey. That night, we prepared the meal together in his apartment. After coffees, after it was clear that the evening was going one way and not another, I walked home alone in the dark, the leftover raspberries tucked into my bag. He had wrapped them in a napkin, and then in a piece of butcher paper. When I got home, opened the packet, they had all been crushed. I stood there in my kitchen beneath the light of a solitary bare bulb. With one foot on the pedal of the trash can to hold the lid open, I lapped at the raspberry pulp until it was gone, dropped the napkin in the trash, and went to bed.

I landed in Seoul at night, but even in the dark, the heat was crushing. I took a taxi to the school dormitory, our accommodations. I was greeted by the two women who would remain with us for the duration of our stay. They made me tea and spicy instant noodles in a styrofoam cup and stayed with me in the lounge there, while I ate. When I was done, one of them handed me a packet of butter cookies and led me to my room. She gave me a folder with the next day’s itinerary. She squeezed my arm and said goodnight. Said: “We are so happy that you are here.”

In the morning, more heat. It settled into the skin, spreading. Sitting on the low wall in front of the dorms, we fanned ourselves with our folders. Someone said, “You know, that only makes you hotter,” and we glared at him until he wandered off.

We organized ourselves loosely by age. The youngest among us grouped together, and the oldest. As the days piled up, we broke off into smaller groups of three and four, dosing love gradually, a cautious titration.

Fragility became a kind of currency among us. There – united by a common sadness, we distinguished ourselves by degree – how old we had been at the time of separation, how many homes we had been placed in, how much information we had about our pasts. I found myself squarely in the middle-ground – not wholly one thing or another – a familiar landscape, one to which I had grown accustomed.

This morning, for reasons I cannot explain, it seems important to me to put the newspaper back into its blue plastic sleeve to carry it home from the café where we have breakfast, the boys and me. I roll it up – all the sections that had been unfolded and refolded – and try to slide it all back into the bag. Halfway through this exercise, I wonder why I had begun this at all, since really, we could carry it home in a folded stack, and as I am thinking this, the sharp corner of a particularly thick section (national? arts?) tears through the thin plastic. My son is standing by the table, his coat and hat on, waiting. I am positioned out into the space between my table and the next with this project on my lap, and between the two of us, we are effectively obstructing passage. But there are only inches to go. In my peripheral vision, I can see the bus boy approaching to clear our table, but I do not look up, do not let him pass. I stay there, my head down, and keep working at it – tugging and turning – until finally, it is done. As I walk home with the thing tucked under my arm – all tight and snug like a fat sausage in its casing, I realize that I have not felt such a sense of satisfaction – simple, self-contained, uncomplicated – in some time.

The girl steps off the plane and into the arms of her waiting mother.

The line – this one imperfect line – follows me around all day – from the café to the grocery story to the desk facing the window, where I sit, and try to make sense of it. To the kitchen sink (again, dishes) to the laundry room and back.

I imagine the plane – the enormity of it as it makes its lumbering descent into Gimpo. And the girl small against it as she disembarks, follows the carpeted path to the gate. Crossing the threshold from the walkway into the airport, her motions fluid, uninterrupted, she walks on – down the stairs, past the baggage carousels, the sounds they make – low and mournful. She continues on toward the woman, who is standing near a row of chairs. The woman holds a sign with the girl’s name printed on it. The girl walks toward her and when the woman sees her, she lets the sign drop to the floor, raises her arms up and opens them wide. Her mouth falls open, too. She holds her arms so wide apart, it seems as though she might herself be preparing for flight. And then the girl sees her, spreads her own arms open, breaks into a run.