a game of chance

This is the way I remember it:

We take the bus to Mt. Sorak, stay in a hotel at the foot of the mountain. It is a large, sprawling place, with few other guests. The heat is oppressive, but the air conditioning inside chills us through. We move between these extremes.

In the evening, we wander in the hotel casino. I carry a cupful of plastic tokens through the cavernous room, dropping a few at a time into slot machines. The sound of the tokens falling reverberates. There is only a small group of us out tonight and we stay close together, huddled over a table or a machine as though we had been warned against separation.

T. – young, sweet, T. – asks me about my life back home. About my daughter, who has just turned four. About the man I am soon to marry. He is a writer, I tell him; he has a band. He adores my daughter. I am lucky to have found him.

His youth makes him bold. He says, “And he is lucky to have found you.” I think about the nights I keep him up, weeping. About my petulance. About wanting more from him than it is possible for a person to give. I laugh it off: “I am sure it doesn’t always feel that way.”

We spend all our tokens quickly with little to show except crumpled paper cups. We find our way to the hotel lounge, a sea of salmon pink couches and low glass tables. There are little bowls of rice crackers. We order soju, drink from shot glasses.

There is a karaoke machine in the far corner, but the screen is dark. One of us, K., perhaps – asks about it. An agreement is reached – primarily, it seems, through hand waving and vigorous nods – between the waitress and K., and soon, a swirl of color appears on the screen. Green and red lights blink frantically from a black console on wheels, and K. begins turning an impossible number of dials and knobs.

The other night, I talk with my friend L., about her on-again, off-again love. After weeks of silence, he has re-emerged. They run into each other at one of the places they used to go. “At least he wasn’t drinking,” she says, “so there’s that.”

He hasn’t left his wife, but stays most nights in his office. “His studio, really.” But then she tells me that they took a trip together – a long weekend in upstate New York, stayed at his sister’s lake house. I am at a loss for words, so she fills the silence. “I’m not getting into it, you know. Whatever.”

For all its many charms and delights, Paradise by the Dashboard Light is an impossibly long song to sing. Even fueled with too many shot glasses of soju to count, T. and I succumb long before the closing strains. Soon after he first asks, “Let me sleep on it,” we hang up our microphones, and collapse on the salmon couch. Our audience does not seem particularly disappointed.

It could be minutes that pass, or it could be hours. I wake in the darkened room still on the salmon couch, to a single blinking green light of the karaoke machine. T. is snoring, open-mouthed, his head on my shoulder.

“I feel something big is about to happen,” L. says. “I am ready to do something new.”

And what of him? I ask.

There is silence on the line, and now I am the one to rush in to fill it. “I didn’t mean…”

“It’s OK,” she breaks in. “I’m just going to go with it, you know? See what happens. Be open to life as it unfolds, isn’t that what you always say?”

I laugh. I suppose it is.

On the bus back to Seoul, T. tells me this story: He had lived with a foster family, for a few years. An older woman and her adult son. From when he was almost a year old to when he was nearly four. He says he thinks he can remember being happy there, and I don’t press him on it. Then one morning, he was out in the yard, and he saw the woman and her son leave the house through the front door. He ran out to the gate and called after them, but they were walking very quickly, with their heads down.

I called and called, but they didn’t even turn around. Not once. I sat down on the ground by the front gate. I sat there for a long time. Eventually, I fell asleep. When I woke up, there was a man in a suit, standing over me, and a woman, crouching down, saying my name. She had a blanket that she wrapped me up in and carried me out the front door. She gave me a rice ball to eat and we got into the man’s car. She sat in the back with me, held me in the blanket. I never saw that house again. And that’s all I remember.