A smile to the shoe shine, and a warm cup of coffee, KM had made this walk before. He glided through Busan Station as if today would be just like any other, and in many ways it was.
He checked the large overhead board that listed departures and tracks. The track, train, and destination were always the same and his phone would have told him of any delays… Still, his was a world of patterns.
Such regularity had seen to a morning that was neither too rushed nor too carelessly casual. There wasn’t much longer to wait.
Through seas of similarly dressed businessmen, KM walked the platform until he reached the appropriate car, and boarded.
Removing his coat, he took his phone and a leather binder and placed them on the seat before retrieving them when he settled into this, the place that would be his for the next two hours.
Arranging the tray before him, he sipped his coffee (still too hot), opened up the binder, and removed his fountain pen.
On the page before him were notes for a meeting which had wrapped unexpectedly the night before. A moment of guilt washed over KM, but he began the task of tying off loose ends and re-checking numbers nonetheless.
He looked out the window as the train began to lurch forward. Korea’s speedy KTX had become smoother in recent years, but those initial moments of Journey were often the least predictable.
Returning to his work, KM watched as his apparently dry pen announced its noncompliance.
Studying the tiny caverns which a dry tip had carved into the paper, caverns which meaning would never fill and whose message time would soon forget, KM paused.
Closing his binder and picking up his phone, he opened a memo and began to type.
The afternoon after we met I watched a man painting poetry on the bricks with nothing more than water. As his calligraphy, exquisite, evaporated from the hot pavement, it reminded all who watched that nothing could last forever.
In his gesture I sensed urgency, I felt nervous. There was something to seize, and our window was finite.
I decided then to seek you once again, before the water of our night before could be reclaimed by reality’s searing sun.
I’m so grateful this has happened, though soon we shall have to say goodbye.
Our moments have been brief, their collected time not greatly exceeding the time I’ll spend commuting to and from you today. For one more day spent at your side, the price is, of course, negligible.
For wherever today shall end, I’m resigned to write you while still I’m allowed.
That night I met you in Xi’an, I was flailing – not outwardly broken, but not yet aware of my inner vacancy. The door you burst through, among a festive group of locals, released a wave of euphoria that begged me to enter.
We spent the night in discussion, the joyous crowd all testifying to your wonder, but before I knew it, it was late. As I left, I promised you we’d speak again. I somehow then already knew.
There were, of course, obstacles to our union. These obstacles are why today will need to be our last. For that next morning, the reasons for staying away seemed significant enough. And then I watched that lonely poet and his ephemeral verse.
And so I went to see you, to a place I knew you’d be waiting. I was intent to converse in that ancient courtyard. Was it you or that sense of urgency that led me to join you inside? We spoke, we sat, before finally I submitted. Whatever hesitation had been became more distant with each passionate expression.
As KM wrote, a message appeared on his phone.
SU-JIN: Jagi [honey], my mother is insisting on the Cathedral. I know we wanted something smaller, but remember that it’s their day too. (She’s quite persistent.) Did you eat a snack?
KM smiled. The Cathedral was important to Su-jin’s parents. For the young couple, the marriage had always been the dream, but if their families needed the wedding to play out a certain way so they could shine in front of their friends and relatives, how big a burden would that really be?
He typed a short reply, and returned to his letter.
Dubai, I almost regret. To see you again was sublime, but it ignited within me a hope that I’ve struggled to relinquish. Being there with Su-jin, the way she accepted our closeness, teased a future where these relationships would not need be kept separate. Still, she studied you like an academic, and assumed my interest in you was similar.
She felt no inspiration at how others regarded you, which though different than in China was still, for me, contagious. It became apparent, by even that evening in our hotel room, that Su-jin had assumed seeing you was just another stop on hers and my tour of someplace foreign. How far this was from the truth.
I don’t know how I can live without you. I guess in a way I never will. Still, Su-jin and I will be married in the spring, and what little time I’ve had for you will become even more sparse.
SU-JIN: Jagi, What time is your meeting? Usual train home? Shall we meet at Busan Station for a cup of coffee?
With this one, KM halted. He forwarded an image of his return ticket to Su-jin, but asked that they speak later about meeting.
And now I’m lying to her. Xi’an was serendipity, and she was with us in Dubai. Today, I travel to you in the guise of a business trip. I figured if the world expected me to have business in Seoul anyway… though I think we both know that isn’t what today is about.
I knew I needed to see you again. To be honest, I prayed for such a chance. When one project concluded, and my trip to the capital suddenly became optional, I knew immediately what chance I’d been afforded.
It would have been lying to Su-jin regardless. But couldn’t I have met you before facing such guilt? You’ve been my North (and most certainly my West), I knew it was from you this chance had come. How could I not come to you one last time?
And why can’t I tell her? Is she too fragile or you not important enough? Neither of these is true.
Beloved, are you so universal that this tiny peninsula vexes you? (Of course this isn’t true either.)
But things in Korea, especially for a Korean, are different (which is to say they are as they’ve always been). Even if Su-jin were open to us, her family never would be. That kind of change, that kind of declaration… I’d be better to renounce being Korean itself.
And our children? How could she and I parent with you as a consideration? Happily, dammit. That’s how, happily. But it isn’t to be. It simply cannot. I should be grateful I’ll have this one last time, instead of focusing only on the impending lack.
KM stared at his phone, but perhaps this was enough for now. Whatever was left to reflect upon would not be happening for a few more hours, though that time would surely come. He turned his gaze to the window and knew from the landscape he saw on a weekly basis that he’d soon arrive in Seoul.
The train arrived at Seoul Station, and KM followed the crowd from the tracks to the main station building. He was not yet hungry and moved directly to the subway, which was located outside and down an escalator.
Oddly present for both what he’d just disclosed and that which was still to come, he reached the subway and negotiated with considerable ease the path to Itaewon, Seoul’s most international neighborhood.
Whomever else was on his carriage, he saw only others whose appearance matched his own. How he longed to see a foreigner, someone who appeared externally as strange as he felt inside.
The trip was short, but with each station, the diversity in his carriage did increase. He saw Arabs, East Africans and Southeast Asians. The men wore jeans, but some wore the long, flowing garments by which Muslims were known. The women were both covered and not, though Seoul’s comparatively large Malaysian community meant that most did wear the hijab.
There was no animosity among those who looked like KM and those who looked like the world.
This devastated him, that something like this existed only two hours from his home. He knew they all knew his beloved, that they could know her openly, and in this he felt woefully alone.
The train arrived at Itaewon station. KM checked the time. He still had an hour until their meeting. As he climbed the long escalator to the surface, he once again noted the joyous diversity. Barely lunchtime and here were parents with children, and couples walking closely to one another.
Emerging from the subway tunnel, KM felt immediately transported. Itaewon is a mixture of many cultures, so while it isn’t a feeling of any one city, a Korean can’t help but notice the overwhelming sense of Elsewhere. For KM, this was precisely why he’d come.
He walked past a man selling Turkish ice to two young women in headscarves and watched as others bartered for goods from local vendors.
He made the short walk up a hilled area, past more clothing shops, turned left and stepped into a restaurant.
KM needed to finish his letter. He ordered tea, took a table by the window, and continued.
It won’t be long now.
I sit surrounded by many who must know you, and suddenly I’m home.
Is this what the end will feel like?
As I expire, I pray that you’ll hold me.
I fear that my lesson on that day will be that you won’t have left me at all, no matter how much today’s temporary goodbye might feel definitive.
Between now and then (and it may be 60 years) a life will be lived which will be better for us having met, though I am scared both of forgetting you and of never being able to.
But tomorrow will be tomorrow (even if that will start the moment I return home). For today, we’ll meet again.
Before I delete this message (for you knew these words before ever I wrote them) forgive me for making one last request.
While one day I will be yours, please, for now, release me to be present.
Su-jin, she needs me. And I need her more than she knows.
I know you will remain in me, I know you will be there to be reached out to. Now at my most sober, before your ecstasy washes over me one last time. I beg of you to let me be… for now… until that day when I return.
As KM typed this last sentence, the call to prayer sounded from the mosque nearby. All around him, men and and women finished their tea and made their way to the door.
KM looked at the letter he’d written, smiled, and clicked delete.
He sat for a moment and listened to the song of his beloved. He rose and joined the procession, and emotion overcame him.
What was to come would be dealt with later. For now, he moved towards a final afternoon with his beloved.
He’d made this walk before.