by Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2004. All rights reserved.
(Morning, Koje Bay, South Korea)
The early morning sea air is cool and still against my face. Still and cool is that air, all the more crisp and fresh, hanging so unstirred under the antiseptic light of a defiant moon shining so brightly for the morning hour. At first I think clearly of all I remember before the sounds of awakening life and movement begin to interrupt the solitude of my pre-dawn trek down the deserted beach at Koje Bay. The lonely spaces in between the regular almost methodical breaking of the surf at high tide are filled only with the smacking sounds of my bare feet hitting the hard wet sand on the beach just above water's final landward reach. With each stride I leave behind tiny clumps of cold coarse wetness dug out by my toes, each heel-toe step a steady percussion amidst the soft chorus murmurs of sleepy bird-talk. I distinctly hear those awakening sounds of sea gulls gathering themselves into small patient groups of six or seven birds waiting for daylight and readying themselves for flight. The gulls groom their feathers glowing silvery-blue in the clean moonlight, using dignified but quick stitching motions, one decorous group becoming to me a quiet sextet of expert beaks stroking high fast notes on violin wings as a wave drowns out the low hum of unintelligible avian whispers.
Out on the water the running lights of the shrimp trawlers anchored bow seaward in the shelter of Koje Bay, sway and rise and fall slowly to the rhythm of the sea above shimmering red- and white-haloed hues of reflection trapped like wandering spirits upon the surface of the moving water. As the morning is young and my imagination large, I spy the reflections of the lights on the water and I fancy I see a red port-side angel dip and dive towards the dark bottom of the bay, leaving behind him on the water's surface only the rose-colored serenity of a dispersed and softer self. In the same moment, lighter ghosts appear to rise up from the depths of watery graves to visit white source lamps starboard. The spirited reflections of the lights float about the surface in jealous shoals close to the boats, never escaping their stewing disunity, never breaching across the bow. The red and white reflections never mix, it is always red lights on the port side, white lights starboard. Then the weights shift upon the unbalanced seesaw supporting all floating spirits. A wave passing beneath a boat pulls a repentant red port-side angel upwards, seeking away from dim faint ambiguity towards the red glow of a fiery heaven. White angels renounce the welcoming clarity of their own heaven, leaping away and down from the lights, leaving behind only weaker phantoms of regretful hesitation to glow shimmering on the surface of the water until, forever once again, another wave passing beneath the boats commands the seesaw spirits of the sea to rise and fall another time. Between the anchored conclave of six or seven boats runs a wide bright streak rolled out upon the rippling waves from the horizon to the beach. It is a moonbeam caught upon the water, a proud reflection ever fighting to return to its maker (so defiant, so high, so bright for the morning hour) but held down jumping and kicking nonetheless by unseen jealous hands of shadowy spirits beneath the waves.
I am caught in the midst of a delusion, unable to make reasonable distinctions in spite of the fact that I have taken the correct dosage this morning. Sometimes my mood and the elements conspire with the mystical appearance of the most real things to confound all the advances of modern medicine embodied in my pills. Perhaps I will need to increase the dosage tomorrow, but for the present I allow the haze to envelope me. The world around me moves as I move through it, all movement when once touched by my glance becoming to me life as I begin to float freely between wavering worlds of sense and reflection, to understand that I am not alone this lonely early morning. Though no human walks by my side or speaks my name, I am thoroughly connected to a weighty sea smell, to the significance of the cool still air upon my face. The morning is young and my imagination large. As I walk barefoot over the cold rough sand, another winged spirit, my own phantom teacher Memory, lifts me cruelly away from the refracted liquid obscurity of the water with its floating reflections towards the stirring heights of precious perspicuity where dwells the crystal clear moon. Then she releases me and I gladly plummet through dark clouds of confusion down to a safer, calmer realm of effortless warmth and beauty. There in the misty kingdom of countless half-forgotten illusory motions, I seek refuge from the pain of understanding my mistakes, and I find under a dark heavy blanket of love and liquid blue sky, brief moments of hope beyond the perilous reach of the spirits beneath the haunted sea.
That tender hope is a memory and a vision of a woman named Blue forever above me, floating through my thoughts, a spirit, ghostlike, thin wavering phantom body, her nonexistence before me, the essence of her existence. Her wrists fit easily through the loop I make with my thumb and forefinger, the outlines of her mouth, her lips, the smile so wide and thin, simply unusual that smile never leaving her face, contagious like a baby's smile her smile. I see those lips a thousand times and never escape my ignorance of her smiling upon my smiles, smiling away all things not good in the world, her frowns underneath, all my poverty of courage in love, the hidden causes of our separation revealed to me in moments of silent darkness and pain. Once I exceeded myself and in a moment free of self-doubt promised to call her baby my baby Blue, but she was a Korean woman named Park Eun Hee. The first time I met her she told me with so much confidence, "I like the mountain more than the sea."
"I like the mountain more than the sea." She had said that on the bus from Pusan City to Chiri Mountain. It was seven years ago that I was seated in the back of that bus in South Korea.
I. A Meeting
I was sitting in the back of the bus to Chiri Mountain. I was half asleep with my eyes open, trying hard to sleep because it was so early in the morning with the big climb up Chirisan just a few hours ahead of us, but I was hearing, too clearly, Jinny laughing as she passed her bottle of fifty proof Sun Soju back and forth beneath my nose like smelling salts.
“A lucky day. Jordan. Joyful. Wake up or this drink goes up your nose,” she said.
It was pleasurable for us to be perverse and young after four months of teaching the split shift (English conversation classes starting before sunrise, an afternoon break, and classes ending at 10:00 p.m.), Monday through Saturday in the middle of South Korea's second largest city, Pusan.
Jinny was sitting across the aisle from me in the comfortable modern coach bus. Next to her, in the window seat, sat Jeff, a tall quiet inconsolable ex-graduate student still recovering from a nervous breakdown he had while working on his dissertation at The University of Chicago. Several years ago on a cold February evening in the basement of a Hyde Park research building, Jeff had locked himself into a microbiology laboratory for fourteen hours. Burrowed there deep inside the cavernous depths of a great Midwestern institution, and using only an ingeniously soaped-up Bunsen burner, Jeff melted the broken shards of twenty graduated cylinders into primitive art forms. The three of us, Jinny, Jeff, and I, Jordan Roverson, were outfitted in our summertime hiking gear of T-shirts, shorts, brown leather boots with blue-and-red cotton socks hiked up high above the calf, bandannas, and sunglasses. We looked more like the Korean college students sitting directly in front of us on the bus than the slightly older teachers we were supposed to be during the week.
What a joy it was for us Americans to leave Pusan, South Korea’s second largest city, a densely populated, poorly planned (due to its modern origins as a point of refuge for the South during the Korean War), hastily built mass of rectangular boxes the Koreans said were buildings. Unanimously, we despised those ubiquitous, identical, concrete congeries interlaced with curving traffic jams underneath which were roads weaving each dirty gray concrete jungle to the next aesthetic wasteland disturbing the morning calm quiet of the valleys and hills of Southeast Kyoungsangnamdo Province. Finally, after months of Saturday classes, we had found the time to briefly escape Pusan together, to see the countryside as we rode through it in that coach bus speeding alongside streams meandering gently through the beautiful green valleys covered with rice paddies and rectangular plots of cabbages and cherry trees rising up the terraced slopes of small mountains and hills. Our final destination was Chirisan, the greater mountain that was the centerpiece of South Korea's largest national park of the same name.
Jeff was staring directly into the back of the seat in front of him, carefully examining the Korean language newspaper that he held up against the leather seat-back with his long, delicate fingers. His eyes knowingly followed the words on the page, which may as well have been inscribed in Braille as far as Jinny and I were concerned, since neither she nor I could read Korean. Jeff fielded questions from Jinny about his Korean wife who had refused to come camping with us on our holiday in the mountains. Jinny lightly tapped Jeff's smooth cheek with two fingers of her right hand while she used her left hand to spike his twenty-ounce bottle of orange juice with a hefty shot of the fifty-proof soju.
"You'll never make it up the hill the way you look," she said to Jeff.
"Chirisan in Kyongsangnamdo is a mountain, not a hill," Jeff mumbled. He turned his gaze from the back of the leather seat in front of him, full of its recondite inscriptions, to look blankly out the window. Then Jeff carefully folded the newspaper and placed it beneath his seat. Likewise, he calmly folded his hands in his lap around the bottle of orange juice sitting there. "The peak of Chirisan is one thousand nine hundred and fifteen meters high. That hill is the highest peak on the South Korean mainland. Only the crater rim at Hallasan in Chejudo is higher."
"Save the lesson for the student," Jinny said. "You look like hell. Up all night long reading dictionaries again with the class pet?"
"She's not my student. She’s my wife," said Jeff, returning his gaze to the back of the seat in front of him.
"Right," said Jinny. "What a waste."
Jinny took the soju-orange-juice concoction out of Jeff's hands and lifted the bottle up towards his lips.
"She understands," Jeff said, almost whispering the words to himself. Jeff’s hands remained passively folded in his lap, so when he drank from the bottle Jinny held for him with two arms extended above her shoulders to reach the height of his mouth, she slowly tilted the bottle up with her fingers to make sure the soju-orange-juice mixture flowed steadily and smoothly into him. Jeff produced soft sipping noises above us from the inside of his mouth as he obediently drank down the liquid.
"What does she understand?" asked Jinny. "You are an airplane ticket."
Jeff raised his large hands slowly to gently push the bottle away from his mouth with his delicately long fingers. He turned his torso away from Jinny and looked directly out the window.
"You are a mouse," Jeff said, speaking the last word lightly against the air-conditioned window. I watched him closely as he used his long index finger to make a small downward mark like a footnote through the condensed breath on the glass.
"How high is Hallasan?" I asked from across the aisle, thoroughly awoken by the tension of these words. I knew about the romantic weekend Jeff and Jinny had shared in Seoul before Jeff had met his Korean wife. I wanted this to be a good trip.
"Halla Mountain, the volcanic mountain located in the center of Cheju Island, is one thousand nine hundred and...."
"Go back," demanded Jinny. "You're too good for this nonsense."
"And fifty meters."
"Leave. Go back to Hyde Park," she pleaded.
"I'm not going back there," said Jeff.
His voice was disturbing to me as I reached into my pocket and felt for a small bottle of important pills to be swallowed whenever my imagination grew too large. Like Jeff, I too had once spent long hours in a basement.
"I can speak to you," Jinny whispered softly, but not so softly that I, sitting across the aisle, could not hear it. "Anyhow, forget about me. You can't stay here forever, foreigner. You are not even a real teacher. You are a gansa."
"Nanun hagwon gangsa imnida," Jeff declared in a dignified tone mimicking Confucian deference to rank. "I am an institute teacher."
Jeff spoke the Korean words too loudly. A dozen heads of black hair rose above the seats in the front of the bus. The heads turned to face us above the backs of the seats, while a half dozen more faces peered out atop craning necks into the aisles to located the ill-mannered loud gansa, the institute teacher. The Korean faces appeared variously startled, curious, amused, pleased, and scandalized. The men and older women stared openly. The college boys and soldiers on leave punched each others' shoulders with tightly clenched fists and then struggled to laugh away the pain that was obviously real. The girls and young women covered the middle of their faces with flattened hands, held palms in and fingers together, as they giggled at the remarkable sound of a foreigner speaking Korean. We were nowhere near Seoul, where foreigner sightings are more common.
A thin young woman, about twenty-five years old and very beautiful, stood up and started walking slowly towards the back of the bus. One hand covered the middle of her face, palm over her chin, her long, thin fingers reaching upwards to touch the bridge of her nose. The bus was moving too fast and the thin woman was jostled back and forth across the aisle, so when I stuck my head out sideways into the aisle to watch her more closely, her unsteadied, agitated body moved like a silkworm carefully inching its way along the top of a twig shaken by the wind. While the woman on the bus held one hand up to cover her face, she used her free hand to hold on to the tops of the seats in order to right herself as she was tossed forward and back, and shaken from side to side, each time the bus driver quickly sped up, or suddenly slowed down, or without warning, dramatically changed lanes receiving neither accolades nor censure from any of his Korean passengers.
"Look Jeff," said Jinny. "Here comes another one for you."
I sat up straight in my seat and watched the Korean woman continue to baby step her way on thin legs to the back of the bus. The head of a handsome young Korean man in green military fatigues near the front of the bus rose up quickly above a headrest while simultaneously turning mechanically to face us in the back of the bus. Then the handsome young soldier stood up with both hands gripping the top of the headrest of his seat to steady his legs and to allow himself a clearer view of the woman walking away from him and slowly down the aisle. Finally, the woman walking so precariously down the aisle reached our seats. After the Korean man watched the woman closely for a few more moments, he rubbed his eyes theatrically in disbelief, spun around quickly on his heels as though in the middle of a drill, making an about-face to the front of the bus. Then he sat down again, his head dropping out of sight below his seat quickly, machine-like, in much the same way as it had risen.
Standing at attention before us like some indefatigable troublemaker standing before the teacher's desk, the woman tried to suppress her snickering laughter by pressing her upheld hand closer in towards her face. She turned her face down to the side as she lowered her raised hand slightly so she could speak a few words of Korean to Jeff, bowing her head quickly to him and Jinny as she spoke. Jeff quickly and respectfully bowed back. Jinny sighed loudly and shook her head from side to side. The Korean woman turned to face me to give another quick nod of the head, never thinking to bow fully to a gansa and a foreigner. When she motioned and pointed with her free hand to the empty seat next to me, she lifted her other hand up again and held it stiffly higher to cover her face another time.
"Please have a seat," I said, moving over in my own seat closer to the window to allow her enough room to sit down comfortably next to me.
"Thank you. Thank you," she said as she sat down. She spoke into her palm now held directly in front of her mouth, looking first only down at the floor of the bus, but then, finally, turning her head up to look over her fingers directly at me. Boldly she moved the hand down away from her face and avowed she would talk to me because she wanted to improve her English, not because I was handsome.
"Anyounghaseo Miguksaram. Hello American. I want to talk to you for improving my English. I do not think you are handsome, so do not be confused. The first I want to say to you is that I have two names. My name first is Park Eun Hee and also my name is Blue because I like the mountain more than the sea."
(Morning, Koje Bay)
I am alone, talking to the wind.
“Blue. Eun Hee."
That's not it.
"Blue. Eun Hee."
Kojedo. Koje Island. Deserted beach. The boats are anchored in the bay but no one hears this.
"Eun Hee. Eun Hee."
Into the air. Say it again. Say it like she said it.
"I only have one name,” I said. My name is Jordan because my mother liked the name Jordan."
"Why do you come to the Korea? Do you liking the Korea?" she asked. It was a question I had heard at the institute at least four times a day for the last ten months.
"Yes, I really like Korea," I answered. "Why did you come to Korea, Blue?"
"What do you mean?" she laughed. "I am born in Korea."
"I was joking," I informed her.
"Are you a funny man?" she inquired. "That is not so funny, I think. How about your think of the Korean people?"
"I really like Korean people."
"How about the Korean culture?" she asked me like a true Korean.
"We all love Korean culture," muttered Jinny from across the aisle.
"More than the Japan culture?" Blue asked.
"Come on Jeff," Jinny said loudly as she arose from her seat. "Let's go sit up in front. The ride is too bumpy back here."
Jeff, with that desperately pensive look upon his face that I had seen so much of in just four short months, stood up slowly and followed Jinny to the front of the bus while Blue and I continued our conversation.
"I've never been to Japan," I answered. "Have you ever been to Japan?"
"Why not?" I asked.
"I am Korean. Korean lives in the Korea," she stated proudly.
"Do you like Korea?" I asked, knowing well a Korean might hear this as a silly, if not an outright subversive question. Blue looked at me strangely.
"Do you think you are a funny man?" she laughed as she leaned away from me, almost as though I were potentially dangerous. "I said to you already. I am Korean. Korean loves the Korea."
"Why?" I asked.
"What do you mean, 'Why?" she asked absolutely hilarious with wonder. "Maybe you didn't eat the breakfast in this morning. That time is important for eating. What did you eat in this morning? Maybe only the soju, I think. I know. And inside that you put orange juice, so of course, absolutely, you must be a foreigner and crazy also. Do you like America?"
"Sometimes," I told the truth.
"Only sometimes? I like American movie stars," she announced.
"Who is your favorite?" I asked her.
"The Lion King," was her answer.
"Are you Japanese? You look Japanese."
"Not Japanese," she loudly countered this treacherous insinuation. I had committed a grave error.
"Korean," she cried. "Korean. I am Korean." She clenched her long thin fingers tightly together into two small fists and shook them up and down as she spoke. Calming herself down after a few extended moments of rage she politely whispered, "Don't you know? Many Korean doesn't liking a Japanese."
I knew that a history lesson about the Japanese occupation of Korea was about to begin. I had heard the same lesson from my students at the institute about four times a day over the last four months. It was an important lesson, but I changed the subject.
"Are you a fortuneteller?" I asked.
"You are so strange the man. I think next time you must be the animal. Maybe you can be a bird in next time because you like talking too fastly like a gatchie, a magpie sings. Also you fly from one the topic to another one the topic like a gatchie flies from one tree to another one tree," she said looking at me seriously for a brief moment, as if her purpose was to instruct. Then, smiling happily once more, "But don't you worry about that. The gatchie at your door in the morning is a good luck good news bird."
"Next time? You mean, after I die?" I asked.
"Yes. After you die," she answered, amused.
"So, you really are a manshin, a shaman?" I inquired.
"Sure sure," she laughed. Although she was obviously not a shaman, she took my right palm into her hands and examined it closely. "See me. I am fortuneteller."
(Morning, Koje Bay)
A wave, uncommonly large for this morning, breaks upon the shore, sending the quiet symphony of grooming gulls into a cacophony of squawking pecking disorder, carrying me back to the here and now of life. The gulls use their feet to jump, their wings to float up above the crashing foaming landward rush of seawater from the big wave. In their efforts to avoid being swept away seaward, they sometimes create spectacular near misses and disturbing collisions in flight.
Hanging in mid-air upon a momentary breeze with wide wings spread out to beat steadily a powerful malediction, a large gull swoops down threateningly at a smaller gull hovering with thinner and less impressive wings just beneath it. The smaller bird quickly submits to this display of dominance. Appeasing his attacker in the hope of avoiding serious injury, he meekly drops down just above the crashing surf to fly away bat-like, crying to be out of reach of the aggressor. Reaching a dry spot on the sandy beach far enough away from the water to be safe from any wave, the smaller gull shields itself from an expected pursuit with less splendid wings retracted inwards until they form two steep sharp V's under which the smaller bird hides its head. The larger gull follows gliding just above this exodus, its beating wings and shrieking cries warning of hostile intentions. Satisfied with its own superiority, it spirals, floating upwards, riding on a rising current of air, circling a few times high above, and flying off in the direction of the boats, becoming a winged black shadow racing across the white disc moon.
"Fortune teller Blue, do you know when you will die?" I questioned her as we sat together on the bus to Chirisan.
"Maybe never," she casually suggested.
"Never?" I asked.
"Or maybe today," she answered. "Maybe I am die today, and you are become P.O.W."
"How?" I wanted to know.
"The communism loyalty man hides in the Chirisan," she said, as capable of faking gravity as I was. "Do you know about that?"
"Sure, I've heard about the partisans. But that was a long time ago, during the war."
"I know. That's just my joke."
"Not a good joke," I stated. "I think you are a North Korean partisan. An infiltrator maybe?"
"No. I work for Samsung Company," Blue said. "I work in the Samsung Company computer software department. Do you know the Samsung Company?"
"Samsung Company is the best number one the company in the Korea," she bragged.
"Is it?" I asked.
"You are really strange man," said Blue. I know that now."
"How do you know I am strange?"
"Because I know Samsung is good company. Samsung is the best company in Korea. Every Korean people knows that. Do you have a small CD player with you for listening to the music on the way up the Chirisan?"
"Sure I do."
"Let me see that one. Maybe that one is a bad one. You should buy another one the CD player I think. You should buy the Samsung. That is the best CD player in Korea. Everyone in Korea knows that."
"I don't like shopping. It's to much work."
"You are a crazy man, I know. That is so very easy thing, shopping. American man is very strange."
"Tell me, Samsung comrade. Why do you like the mountain more than the sea?"
"Listen to me gatchie-always-talk-a-new-talk-crazy-person American. Listen to me and stop changing our talking every time. Both the mountain and the sea are the beautiful places. But nothing is in the sky, so it is clean, and the mountain is closer to the sky than the sea is."
"What about birds?" I asked. "Aren't there birds in the sky?"
"Gatchie! So also something, and also everything is in the sky, because the sky is everywhere, over the land and the mountain and the sea. But the mountain is closer to sky than the sea, so the mountain is the better place for me. On the mountain I can feel the sky inside me."
Thus began my first encounter with Park Eun Hee, the woman I also knew as Blue. I began to listen more closely, almost without interruption, as she struggled for the next hour to convince me that the mountain and the sea are the two bluest places we can get to in this world. We sat together talking on the bus and she told me how she liked the still blue mountain sky more than the shifting blue sea since it was on top of Chirisan that the indestructible boundless sky first entered into her. She told me she had been just fourteen years old at the time, on a camping trip with relatives, when she promised to treat the world more kindly than the world had treated her. So, eleven years ago, she decided to call herself Blue, after the color of the mountain sky, not the sea. Midway through her story, she gave me her telephone number and an ambiguous promise to go out dancing with me at a nightclub called Kimmy Kim's Night back in Pusan at some undetermined point in the future.
"You are very kindness man for hearing my English speaking, I think," she said.
"You are very beautiful." Those true words escaped me.
"Don't saying that. I know your think. Because I am a fortuneteller and a mind reader, too. Remember that." For a moment her hand reached up to cover her mouth and face again, but it soon dropped away. Blue quickly resumed her discussion of the importance of Blue to Koreans, the color of the indestructible boundless sky. I remember her words when she stood up and walked away from me to sit back down next to the handsome young Korean soldier waiting for her in the front of the bus.
"I will think of you on top of the mountain. I will say about you to the sky."
Chirisan was a hard climb for me. The mountain was as big as Jeff said it was. I was a novice. More importantly, I never saw Blue or the handsome Korean soldier anyplace on the way up or down the trail. I don't remember exactly when, but at some point during the climb, during my escape from breathlessness and physical exhaustion, my contemplated daydreams of a night out dancing at Kimmy Kim's Night with a beautiful woman, were interrupted by a careless glance upwards at the trail as it rose sharply towards an outcropping ridge, over which protruded the entangled roots of a pair of juniper pines which I could not hope to reach. I saw an ocean of blue sky forever above and my arms thrashing in futility beneath a tangled mass of tall hues of dark brown trunks, entangled in a net of luscious life breathing green pine needles, beating upon a solid wall of imposing ancient gray rocks between me and those junipers and the view of the valley below possible only from where the pines stood. Like a drowning man who is sinking fast and has no hope of reaching the surface for air, I decided not to swim at all towards that air, but to accept the weaknesses inherent in my mortality. For a moment I was able to agree with Blue about the color of the mountain scenery, and in that moment the scenery changed for me. For a short time my imagination grew large, as all of nature became blue and blue was love and beauty and hope, and I was at those unreachable trees simply by seeing them there ahead of me.
When I was on the road once, years earlier, I had seen the snow-covered aspen Rockies against the background of a blue sky, and I had shuddered in awe believing all solid things were real. Now, as I write this, I close my eyes to see a vision of living pines rooted into solid inanimate Chirisan rock. The green-needled branches sway slightly in the breeze against the background of a tremendous, blue, cloudless, spectacular sky. I whisper the word Blue into the empty space before me, and I question my belief in the elements even as I thank them for conspiring to build a heart so much bigger and warmer and more tender than mine.
(Morning, Koje Bay)
I watch the gulls dancing closely in the air after another big wave. The thrilling near misses continue along the shore while the lone victor, flying high above, swings out to approach the boats. As I watch him circle above the trawlers, I hear the men below him on one boat shouting a breakfast greeting in Korean across the moonbeam road floating upon the water. I had finally learned to speak a tolerable Korean after years of intermittent study and I understood the greeting. The men on another trawler shout back a few kind words.
"Anyounghaseo. Sick sa ha shut seub mi kga? Hello. Did you have breakfast?”
"Matshiseyo. Komapsupnida. Delicious. Thank you. .
The long quiet minutes of eating and preparation for the day ahead that follow are filled from time to time by the short, happily bitter outbursts of unseen fishermen who work and live floating lives on the bay. Then I hear the ignition of diesel fuel engines. Anchors are hoisted away and the boats slowly merge towards the moonbeam highway trapped upon the surface of the sea. Soon will come the dawn.
Months later, long after Chirisan, long after our night out dancing at Kimmy Kim's Night and after we had made love, were good times when I thought she could speak directly to me through sounds and motions emanating from her heart. Blue usually had a song in her head and she walked and moved and talked to the comforting rhythm of Hangul vowels. Daily I heard those Korean word songs. When we were standing close on the street, or in the bus, or walking down the beach and through the summertime teenage crowds and neon glare of Pusan's Kwangon Beach late in the late summer evenings, I heard the music underneath her softest breath, I saw it in the way her head swayed slowly back and forth in time like a metronome. Fluid sounds, smooth like milk, quiet but steady, came over and under and through the loud drunken bantering festivity, the guitar and Korean jang-gu drum beat led hand-clapping chanting exuberance of hundreds of vacationing college students celebrating their youth in riotous circles sitting upon the sand. To me and from me, to me and from me, the smiles and songs of a singing woman once chased away my man's fear of partnership with womanhood. There was a bridge of wanting that connected our separate words and worlds. I saw her singing and skipping, softly dancing her way towards me across that bridge, her sounds unintelligible until I closed my eyes and allowed the endless shades of dense calm serenity that were the songs of Blue entrance to my soul.
But what was a beautiful word and a song compared to self-doubt. That enemy sailed me after the pain of separation, stowing away my courage for compassion in some dark forgotten hold of the heart, leaving behind only my mind to chase away all purity of belief in Blue. I fought my imagination. I struggled against it. But whenever she was away from me my imagination grew large. Self-doubt kept that basement door open despite every pill I swallowed in order to diminish it. It forced those memories upon me, memories of that night indistinguishable from so many other nights when she had kissed me again and again in public.
The vision, some would say the delusion, always started with the two of us at the soju bar, very late, eating anju, kimchi, nakji, kim, and pajon. Blue was drinking too much soju, touching me lightly on the cheek with her warm palm in between glasses, while the Koreans at the next table glared at us in astonishment. I tried to push Blue away from me, afraid of trouble with the men who were already more drunk than we were, but she would not stop. She kissed me, daring me to be as courageous and reckless as she was, singing softly into my ear again about our first date at the nightclub and the first time I held her in my arms. But the basement door was open even while we danced.
(Morning, Koje Bay)
I am waiting for that dawn. I want to see that sun glowing like Jeff's souped up Bunsen burner, setting those boats and that sky on fire. I want to see your primitive art forms aglow and the fear in your face, Jeff, fear melting your world like the shards of glass melting in front of you. Because I know how it is, Jeff. I know how it is when the basement door is open. Where is that dawn? I am waiting for it. Just like they are waiting for you. They are waiting for me, too. They always want us to do something about it. They cry when we can't help them. But don't you worry about those people, Jeff. People like Jinny and the rest of them don't need to know us. They can never really know. I tried to tell Blue about it once. I wrote it all down and even made a graph so she could understand it. I plotted out all the data points perfectly. X-axis, time. Y-axis, the peaks of my large imagination. I was trying to prepare for permanence. I still want permanence. But voices in the confusion chamber that is my head mean the door is always open. And they cry at you when you can't help them.
V. Of Love and a Basement
That first evening at the Kwangon Beach nightclub, Kimmy Kim's Night, Blue talked sadly about another man while I sat next to her at the bar, chewing on the dried squid that the Koreans called ojinga and listening to her tell her story. I was more than curious.
"Was he riding with you last week on the bus to Chirisan?"
"Ani. I'm sorry, I mean, no in English."
Would I please, kindly, nicely, advise her how to end four years of waiting for a marriage that would never be? She told me a simple version of a story I had heard from more than a few Koreans. She was from a poor family with a questionable history. The man on the bus to Chirisan, he was handsome, but rich, from a "good" family, and unable, or unwilling to tell his parents about her. Knowing the importance of blood and lineage to Koreans, I shook my head sympathetically and poured Blue drinks from a pitcher of Hite beer.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I was telling a lie before. He was on the bus."
"Do you love him?" I asked.
"Not still now," she answered.
"Did you ever love him?"
"I will break with him."
Four beers, one for each lost year, went quickly down into her small, underweight frame. Together the loss and alcohol carried Blue through the awkward silences as we watched the young Koreans on the dance floor hip-hopping away dressed in their space-age shiny silk dance suits. Talking was not easy, so Blue asked me to dance. We were surrounded by vinyl Martian-wear mini-skirts, sun glasses worn inside at night, the commotion of the shifting, swaying happy young Korean faces bathed in a white-red-and-green laser beam disco light shower.
The music stopped at 1:00 a.m. In Korean, Kimmy Kim's DJ told everyone to take a break, and I was lost because I did not understand him. Blue's thin arms led me off the dance floor to a dark corner of the nightclub hidden away somewhat from the sleepy dancers waiting impatiently for cocktails at the bar. In broken English, terrible English really, she whispered into my ear a line from an English song I did not know. It was another one of those sentimental pop-songs those people seemed to love. I do not recall the words because I did not hear them well enough when she spoke them to me. Fortunately, my ability to understand broken English was superior because my own thoughts had often expressed themselves to me in broken images and unfinished forms. The meaning of the song was, "Come back, I will be here, I will wait for you," or some similar theme of sacrificial femininity. The words she said after the song I remember more clearly.
"We will be broken."
I held her hand and told her I understood, feeling good because I had discovered her, feeling terrible because I was afraid to focus on what I had discovered, feeling ridiculous because it was our first date. None of this mattered to her. She pretended we were in a movie.
"Can you help me find the new lover?"
I was an American, and the only Americans Blue had really known before me were the movie stars she had been watching all her life at the Pusan Theater, across the street from Chagalchi fish market in Nampo Dong full of its live octopus, pigs heads in buckets, and freshly skinned eels slithering half-alive over each other in pools of red raw blood. Blue sang more of the pop song to herself. "If in your weakness you betray me, I will love you with a stronger will and heart, I will win you back." This was her song, her starring role. I tried not to laugh, but I felt ridiculous. I was not a movie star. I wanted a real life. She heard me.
"Why do you laughing?" she asked me. She was afraid, but for the wrong reason, thinking I was laughing at her English, worried I would never understand her.
"I'm not Laughing," I lied.
"You are laughing, I know that," she asserted.
"I'm not laughing at you." That was true.
"Then you stop laughing. Understand me."
"I understand. I understand everything."
"What do you understand? What is the everything you understand, you who are a man?"
I became serious once again and silently watched her as she wandered away from me back to the bar. There, she sang quietly to herself over the remainder of her four drinks. I walked over and tried to console her.
"Love is understanding," I said.
"I will break with him. I will break with him."
"Are you sure he'll never marry you?" I asked.
"He understands, sure, he always says that. What is that for me? I am tired."
“Four years is a long time.”
“It is too long. He will never change his mind.”
I believe she remembered everything we said that night, every last bit of my advice, all of the senseless remarks I never believed about blood being blood and how nothing could ever hurt her for long because she was so beautiful. Remembering our conversation at Kimmy Kim's and whispering bits of it back to me at odd times on countless occasions after that night was not difficult for her because I was able to tell her so little in English that was profound. But there in the nightclub I was overtaken by moments of loneliness when I cared almost nothing about English. The sound of words was what I needed. I tried to see my way through her arduously forced smiles, to look down into the center of that woman. The sentimentality was so thick, back then when I was a fool I was tempted to call it naivete. I looked into her eyes and I saw her confusion.
"Is naivete smaller, or is it cynicism?" I asked her.
Of course she couldn't understand the words. Loneliness grew tolerable as I wondered who she really was and what would happen if we ever learned to talk and one day found out that the other one was not so big as we thought when we were forced to speak like children. My cynicism ran deep, but I kept on hoping she was above, not beneath me. I myself was guilty of being at once cynical and hopelessly naive. Those opposing tendencies had never served me well in life. Underneath my placid exterior, the conflict between the two factions of my nature had always left me alternately anxious and depressed. I laughed inside at my pathos. Then I laughed aloud, disturbed even more by my pleasure in pathos.
"Why laughing now?' she asked still a second time. "I have speaking bad English?"
"No," I answered. "I don't care about your English."
"Why laughing? say me. Say Blue why Jordan is the laughing?"
"Not about your English. Not about my English. Not about anyone's English."
"Say me. Say me Jordan. Laughing man. I will wait for you you must stop the laughing Jordan the laughing man," and more deliciously unintelligible smoothness from Blue reached me in some amazing way after only a short time standing close in the crowded nightclub. Her smiles masked tears, sending me visions of the old boyfriend in green army fatigues and adding to my inability to focus. She was pulling me away from the foolish cruelty that was my own honesty to myself.
"Not Hemingway's English you Maria Blue.'
"I am Blue. Who is Maria?"
"Another poet like you who I read about once."
"I am not a poet. Where did she live?"
"In the mountains."
“Was she Korean? Korean likes the mountain."
"She was Spanish. I don't think she wanted to live in the mountains."
"I like the mountain."
Kimmy Kim's DJ returned to change the music from dance hall disco to "blues dance." These are the words the Koreans used for any slow dance, even though "blues dance" was nothing like the blues. It was simply more sentimentality, only slower. The dance floor was nearly empty. The Korean men were too shy to ask the Korean women to dance, but the foreigners were not.
"Are you having a good time tonight?" she asked me.
"Come on," I said. "Let's dance."
As we danced to the slow blues dance, I looked into her eyes and did not speak. I promised myself I would make no decisions that night.
The time passed slowly when indecision blocked all sensation. I ceased to move to the music, and the music became rhythmless noise. Blue understood very little of my disquietude, yet I felt she sensed my hesitation. I let go of her hand, and her thin lip smiles drifting and sinking down and away were transmuted into the face of a worried human being. I attempted resistance, but the childlike beauty of her doubt was stronger than me.
"Of course. Of course I am having a good time. I am with Blue."
That was a stupid thing to say, I thought to myself. There must be angels like this one all over the world. And don't forget that bottle with the pills in your pocket. What would she say if she knew about your uncontrollable imagination?
Though I was tired, I was sober and I saw just how vulnerable and drunk and desperately available she was. She told me she hated the boyfriend now.
That's for sure.
She said she would speak to him no more.
You can say that again.
But I saw her holding him when she closed her eyes. I knew she hoped I didn't care because I was an American. In the movies we Americans are all easy. I tried hard to be a good American. I was not a good American. I hope she hated him. I hoped she would never see him again.
I could not foresee the next morning. There came a moment of pathos so deep that I sometimes thought I would never leave Blue. This time the pathos was real and not my imagination.
"Where is the laughing man now?" she asked me.
"I am with you Blue."
"Jordan is happy? Jordan likes Blue?"
"Yes. Jordan likes Blue."
"Good. Blue is happiness. Blue and Jordan together are the plan for make the lucky happiness."
The sentimental blues dance music played on in the nightclub. Then my hands upon her tiny waist reminded me of my loneliness, and loneliness let the thin arms rest on my shoulders and the warmest breath from the thin lips touch my neck feeling like the softest kiss.
The sun is up and I see her beauty clearly in the morning light. She is so tiny, so frail. I am afraid to touch her. We share whispers back and forth like children, but even when we are so close the meanings are often lost. She tells me she is afraid I will use her. She tells me three times she has never known her mother. Perhaps her mother is dead. I brush the hair from her face with my fingers and promise I will never hurt her. She peers at me from underneath a silky black veil of hair. I know the look. She does not understand the word, "hurt."
I knew I could have her then if I wanted her. I held her close to me on the dance floor. I was full of selfish joy, fearful of nothing but that I might break her as she had been broken before, hero fantasies born of a Western mind distorting the happiness with terrible wonderful excessive pride for the beauty that I wanted to have, that could have been mine forever.
I try to demonstrate the meaning of "hurt." I show her my hand. I squeeze my hand into a fist and I hit my biceps with my fist. She is frozen for a second. Then she turns away from me in fear, covering her face with her hands. I am confused and believe she is playing a game. Laughing, I reach for her shoulder and try to pull her closer to me. She cowers and crawls to the corner of the bed, hiding her face from me in her hands. I think maybe she is laughing, so I pry the hands away from her face. What I see sickens me and endears her to me.
All the while inside the confusion chamber the voices were whispering, "Do not let this one go like all the others. Maybe you can do it. The basement door is closed and you are on the outside. You never have to go back down the stairs." So I followed those voices and did not let go. She laughed at me and bit me on the ear. She felt the novelty of the hair on my forearm and the rough shadow beard on my cheek.
She is not laughing. She is crying and speaking to herself in Korean. I hear her but I only understand English. I am frantic. I beg her to speak English. She turns away from me again, this time burying her face in my pillow. I hear her muffled voice trying to speak English for me.
"Not you too. Not you too. No not you."
"Not what?" I ask. "Not me to what?"
I only held her tighter in the middle of that dance floor, unafraid of the disapproving eyes around us and hearing only her saying all the time into my ear, "I like this. I like this. I like this." My mind was dead after that, so I let the whole thing happen. There was no intention. There were few thoughts. A simple kiss on the cheek and again I was holding her, this time like she might have died the next moment. Then I convinced myself that if I let go she really would die.
"Not hit the face. I must go work tomorrow. Please Jordan, not hit the face."
How was it then. Was I holding her or carrying her? I will always remember it. I was lifting her and looking down and I saw her feet leave the dance floor. I closed my eyes and we were disappearing into each other, merging towards the indestructible boundless sky. I look up. Blue was kissing me.
"I promise I will never do that. I will never hurt you. I will be your mother."
She cries and laughs and laughs and cries.
"Oh you never. You never can you do that."
"Teach me how. I will be her."
"Sarang-he. Sarang-he. Never can you be her."
How the woman laughs and cries love.
"Sarang-he. Sarang-he. Never can you be."
(Koje Bay, Dawn)
The trawlers are sailing stoically down the moonbeam highway out of the bay towards the fishing grounds further out upon the open sea. The large gull circling high above the boats flies back towards the shore to join the smaller groups of his species merging together and growing restlessly louder for the work ahead. They will follow the boats and swoop down to steal the shrimp from the nets when they can. Thin ribbons of dark blue, shaded with nearly imperceptible softness into progressively lighter ribbons stretching across the horizon, inch their way up into the darkness of the fading nighttime sky. The boats sail down the moonbeam highway and at last I see only the metallic cranes for pulling in the heavy nets rocking back and forth like so many metronomes over the stern of each disappearing tiny ship. That defiant ice-colored road likewise disappears, melting into a band of golden orange-red, growing wider and wider in the distance until it lifts quickly in a short horizontal burst of color where the sea meets the sky. The boats sail out to greet the rising sun. They rock as they sail, the gulls cry waiting for the nets to swell with prawn, and high above the proud night moon silently grows ever more faint, blending into the blue-white sky of the coming day.