novel

land of morning calm

The guidebook says that older people can be easily spotted by their light-colored traditional clothes. They travel in groups, it indicates. I imagine a slow-moving horde. “They have amazing energy, always travel in groups of all men or all women and spend their time sightseeing. They particularly like vacationing at mountains or hot springs. After a lifetime of following the strict rules of society, they are finally free to do as they wish. This may include staring straight at and talking to you.”

There is a wrestling game that is played in a sand pit. Men bind their legs tightly with cloth. They face each other, squatting and grab at each other’s thighs. Each tries to make the other lose his balance. The first to make the other fall wins. 

Do not assume that someone who smiles is happy. Do not chatter excessively. Do not carry a hereditary disease. Do not steal or lie. Do not laugh or chew with your mouth hanging open. 

Women are marriageable from 22 to 26. After 28 or 29, options drop precipitously. Older sisters marry first, then younger. 

Consult the fortune teller for the best days for the marriage. Consult the fortune teller to confirm the best possible match. 

If you have three daughters, the pillars of your house will fall down. 

Bend at the waist and bear a box of gifts on your back. You are a horse. Walk all the way to the house of the bride without speaking. Carry the box up the many flights of stairs to her apartment where her family waits. They will give you money. They will spread a feast for you. Give the money to the groom. Take some for yourself. Take your friends to the bars where you will all drink until morning. 

The groom might carry a wooden duck.

A section on Korea that is difficult to write. It goes slowly. I read travel guides and travelogues. A book about the Korean war. 

Decades ago, in the darkened gymnasium, the boy came up to me and said: I hear you are Korean. He was tall with dark hair and a broad face. Dark eyes, pale skin. He extended his hand. His name was Ken. Yes, I said. He said: I am half Japanese and half French. And if you’re Korean, you are supposed to hate me. 

At the time, I did not know about the Japanese occupation of Korea. Or about the comfort women. That would come later. At the time, I was baffled. You know, he said: Japan. The Koreans hate the Japanese. 

There are things I know that I wish I did not have to know. I read the first-person accounts of adoptees who have gone back to find their families. To try. 

There is the woman who sits across the table from the social worker. There is a file folder open between them. Your mother was twenty-seven. Your father was thirty-two. The did not have much money. You were the youngest of four daughters. They were hoping for a boy. 

There is the man who finds his mother, but his father has died. She speaks some English and says: How did you find me? I did not want you to find me. 

There is the man who goes back to Korea to live. He writes me a letter after we have not spoken in years. I found them, he writes - my mother, my father, the whole family. I lived with them for four years, then I got tired of drinking too much. I moved to Thailand to become a scuba instructor. A lifetime of searching reduced to this:

I got tired of drinking too much. 

They were hoping for a boy. 

I would come to you if you were sick. I would come there to the hospital and rush past all the people who were there for you. I would go to you, hold you in my arms, and say this is what she needs and this. The people there would ask, who are you, and I would only say this is what she needs and this. 

We are sitting at the restaurant by the water. She is holding my hands in hers. We have had too much wine.

Do you ever think it is strange, I ask, that we should have found each other? I do not believe in fate, I tell her, but look at us: You, with a daughter you could not keep. Me, running out of mothers? 

Do you have any idea how much I love you, she says. Do you know that I carry you with me all the time? 

I let the words glide past me. The sensation of floating. My cheeks are hot and I am dizzy.

You have not imagined this, she says. This is real. 

I know you. I know who you are. I see you. You are part of me. 

This is real. You have not imagined this. 

You will not lose me, she says. Know this: You will not lose me. 

A dull ache in my head. A pulsing behind my eyes. I dream that my house is filled with people I do not know. They are drinking coffee in my kitchen. They are lounging on my sofas. They are eating with their hands and laughing. I am a stranger in my house. I wander the rooms unnoticed. 

The guidebook offers suggestions about leaving:

Singing and drinking can continue for several hours. The longer you stay, the more you are assuring your hosts that you are enjoying yourself. When you are ready to leave, your hosts will accompany you to the door. 

Put on your shoes. Face your host and hostess, bow and say goodbye. Sometimes your host will accompany you to the front gate, or as far as the street. Other times, you will have to find your own way. 

doesn't the body betray us

Thomas gets up in the middle of the night sometimes and doesn’t come back to bed for hours. Just as I am rising, it seems, he will return. We will cross the bedroom threshold in opposite directions, silently and without acknowledgement. I stay in my studio during the day. Sometimes I can hear him moving around in the house. He will bang cabinet doors shut and drop a pot on the floor. I am convinced he does this to get my attention. To see whether I will come running back into the house, like I once would have done, to his aid. But I am tired. And find this tedious. These little games.

One night, not too long ago, I took the bait. A sudden crash – a glass falling to the floor. I hear it shatter. I come out to the kitchen and he is standing there, his feet bare, with the shards of glass all around him. Don’t move, I tell him and go for the broom. He stands still, his arms extended like a long-suffering Christ, as I sweep up around him. He watches me crouched down brushing the bits of glass into the dustpan.

You are beautiful, he whispers to the top of my head. I stop what I am doing, look up at him. You are, he says. His eyes are sunken. His skin is ashen.

Outside, it is dark. It is still. The radiator makes a steady knocking sound and then a mournful whistle.

Carefully I finish sweeping up the last bits of glass and empty the dustpan into a paper bag. I fold the bag, place it by the back door, to go out with the trash. I hang the broom and dustpan back on its hook in the pantry closet. I can feel his eyes on me.

I go back to where he is standing. Do not meet his eyes. I kneel. With my hands, I work slowly – his ankles, his calves, his thighs. And then with my mouth. I draw him down to the floor.

The sounds of his breathing – ragged and quick – and the familiar ways his hands move on me – practiced, automatic – they hit their marks, but bring tears. Doesn’t the body betray us, I think.

When I awaken, I am alone on the kitchen floor. My knees ache. I draw them up and rub them with my hands. My fingers come away covered with tiny specks of glass dust, shimmering.   

and so I did

In the white room, the daughter sits beside the bed where finally, her mother is sleeping. She calls her mother’s name, softly – once, and then again. When she is certain that her mother cannot hear her, she begins her story:

Once I waited for three hours in the lobby of a hotel to meet a man. I hardly knew him. We met once before, at a gallery party. It was so crowded. I was standing near the door, thinking about how to leave gracefully, leave the people that I had come with, and he came up to me and handed me a glass of champagne. They were passing out champagne on trays and for a moment, I thought he might be one of the staff. But then I looked up at him and he broke into this wide boyish grin. I couldn’t help but smile back. I took the glass from him and we walked around the gallery together. Thomas had been away for so long.

We stayed there for a long time. We talked about our families. It all felt easy. I felt safe. At the end of the night, he walked me to my car. I remember it had started to rain. Just a light rain, but enough to make people walk quickly. But we didn’t. We walked so slowly it was like we were hardly moving at all. When we got there, I said, I really should go. And he said yes, probably so. And I said, I don’t really want to, but I should. And he nodded, said, ok, and just like that, he was gone. I stood there at the door to my car and watched him walk away, and the rain was still falling.

Weeks passed and I thought of him sometimes. Thomas came home – just for a couple days – and then he was off again. We weren’t fighting anymore. He was so quiet. He seemed sad all the time. But this is not meant to be an excuse, an explanation. I just didn’t know where we were.

And then the man reappeared. He sent a note and said he would be passing through and wrote the name of the hotel, about thirty miles away. As soon as I saw this, I knew I would go. I didn’t know why I was going, but I knew that I would.

So when the night came, I drove out there. I brought a book and sat in the lobby. And I watched the people ride the elevator up and down. And I waited. I would get up and walk around sometimes. I would read. I bought a cup of coffee from the cart in the lobby. And I waited.

Do you know how sometimes you can look at someone and see how inside, they are so alive and they glow with this white hot light? They are radiant? And then you look at someone else and can see how small and dry and ashy they are inside? How it seems like whatever light there once was has just been stamped out of them? I was standing by the elevators and when the doors opened, I saw myself in the mirrored walls of the elevator car and I nearly gasped out loud. All I could see was this hollowed out shell of a person. Like if you opened me up all you’d find is a pile of ashes and dust.

I thought: My god, I have to go home. What am I doing waiting here for a man I don’t know. What do I think is going to happen?

And as I headed toward the door, you know, of course, what happened. There he was, just coming in. So I stopped and stood there, let him come toward me. I told him I was just about to leave. That I had been waiting so long. I told him I was crazy to come out here and crazy to wait as long as I had, and couldn’t he have called so that I didn’t have to just sit there waiting like a fool, like a crazy, hollowed-out shell of a woman who has nothing inside her but dust and ash.

And he said I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. He said: Please stay.

Please. Stay.

And so I did. 

and the fading light

From her bed, the woman dictates to her daughter.

She says: Write this down. And when I am gone, take it to him. Promise me that you will find him. Promise this.

Do you know that still you come to me in dreams? Do you know that you stand here near the bed and you feed me ripe persimmons? You bring me anjou pears. Plump purple figs.

I tell you bring the chair here and you do. You sit by my bed and read to me from the books you love. You bring your mouth close to my ear so that I can hear you even when you whisper. And you whisper when you say the words you love most.

You say: “and the body is dedicated / to you full of armfuls of you.”

You say: “ecstaticness”

You whisper: “and the sea / with no reason, swells, and the river, from it, grows / and falls and the bridge over which even Hart Crane / could not throw himself today, draws cars and trains / and cars and trains and cars and trains over / the water, calls them deep into the hapless city.”

Are you writing, daughter?

Yes.

I walk through the rooms of my house, down the long hallways. There are corridors I have not seen before. It is like this house is not my house. What is behind this door, I wonder. As if I have not known it my whole life.

Outside the window of this room – this room where in dreams you come to me – there are forsythia bushes – wild and leggy branches reaching out in all directions. They are bare now, save for a yellow bud or two that remains – clinging – a last gesture of hope in this cold. This cold that is now settling in to this city. The long days of summer are gone. We are left with cold and the yellow buds that still cling to these branches. A reminder that once there were blooms here. The fallen leaves collect and swirl along the ground. A brittle papery sound. I can hear them sometimes if I am very still.

Do you remember the summer? Do you remember the way the heat of it settled into our skin? The salt and sand of days spent by the ocean, where we watched as the light faded? Didn’t it seem like those days would never end? That we could hold them somehow in our hands?

And the fading light.

But the nights too had their glow. Didn’t we stretch out the hours?

You whisper: “incandescent.”

They were building a bridge that summer. At night, the sound of jackhammers pierced the stillness. Short bursts of it would wake me. I would sit up, stunned by the white light in the distance. One night, I got out of bed. Went downstairs to the kitchen. To the sink for a glass of water. Out the kitchen window, I saw a woman sweeping at the ground with a broom in the yard next door. She was illuminated by the light that spilled from her house and I watched her there as she shuffled back and forth moving her broom across the pavement.

Where did you go?

In those long months and years when we did not speak. Not a phone call, not a letter, not a postcard with only a stamp on it and my name. Or yours. Where were you? What did you see? What did you think as you moved through your days? Was it my voice that you carried with you?

When you come, bring me pears. Bring me the softest persimmons you can find. And we will share them here, in this room.

Together, we will eat until we can no longer remember hunger.

I am tired. I sleep lightly. I think I hear wind even when there is none. And rain. I hear rain fall all the time.