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It's the morning after your birthday. Through the curtains, a thin strand of light runs over your sleeping body. I take hold of my camera, aim, shoot. The shutter's
wakes you. You blink at me, sigh and close your eyes, permission tacitly granted. I open the curtains wider.
I chase the shadows. Down the curve of your back. Over the slope of your hips. Behind the crook in your knee. I run my fingers lightly over your skin, bite you. You roll over, curl your body into mine.
"Hey, look at these photos. You are so beautiful," I whisper.
You're mother's been calling, texting. She wants to know where you are, whom you're with, when you'll come home. An adult child living at home; it's a dating hazard in this country.
"No," I whine, "don't leave." You laugh and I stage whisper. "Wait, I have a great idea! You call your mother and tell her you've run off and joined the circus!"
I'm getting excited, "Yeah, you tell her you've joined the circus. Then we'll sneak off and get married. It's the perfect plan!"
"I can be your circus husband," you laugh and draw me closer, tighter.
We had two dates.
Coffee near my college, though I'd graduated. You brought me a book,
, and talked about living in Ukraine during the fall of communism. Second date saw fusion Japanese and a play at Seven Stages. You managed to change dinner plans with your parents to meet me when and where I wanted to meet. I was impressed.
Ten years older, divorced, Jewish in name but not faith. Nice. Your facial hair made you look older and you tasted like the smoker that you were.
You called for another date. I never responded.
Maybe I should have.
My handphone shows two texts in Korean. Not a single space in either of them. I reply, "Who are you?"
He doesn't answer. He apologizes instead.
My boyfriend translates.
It's a love letter.
"I miss you all the time...I love our time together...you are so beautiful...when I can't call you, I can't get any work done...I can't sleep...I really enjoy our time together."
Based on my uninvited peek into their love life, his girlfriend is very lucky. He is passionate. He adores her.
I wonder if she knows it.
knows it. I hope so.
For Christmas we went on a trip together. We'd been dating less than five months. We were having dinner. Over appetizers, I innocently said, "There's not enough pita bread for the two of us."
"It's not my fault."
I was surprised at how defensive you were. "I know."
You gritted your teeth and glared at me. "Jesus f'ing Christ, calm down."
When the meals came, I went to the bathroom. Washed my face, fixed my hair, redid my makeup. I refused to talk to you, to eat.
Good on paper doesn't mean good in person. You taught me that.
You came on so strong. You loved me, wanted to marry me (post-PhD, of course), wanted to live together.
A few days before the deadline I told my leasing office I wouldn't be renewing. Two days later, over barbecue dinner at your place—soon to be our place—you told me you weren't sure I should move in. No real reason why, but if I gave you a few days, you'd have a final answer.
I swallowed my anger, because I wanted you to change your mind. You were worth it. I thought.
You changed your mind.
You were practicing.
A year later, nearly to the day, you said "I'm not sure" again. This time the issue was moving to California, getting married.
This time, instead of being quiet, I pushed for a solid decision. Five days later, you dumped me. "I'm afraid of growing up." Friends told me that I should've given you time, left you alone. You'd come around.
Why? Weeks, days before the wedding you would've done it again.
Seven weeks later, I moved abroad. Months later you admitted you'd made a mistake. When was I coming home?
You didn't realize that
were no longer home.
A good, traditional Chinese-Australian man married to a Korean woman. Religious. The night of your wedding you discovered that your wife gave your money to her relatives, so you never consummated the relationship. You'd never been with a white woman and was curious. Of course, "As I told you, I am religious, so I have to draw the line in having actual sexual relations. I hope you can understand and appreciate my views."
Could it get better?
"I like Japanese porn and I want to shit and piss on you."
Which part of that was supposed to be a turn-on?
I was so sure before I met you. I had plans. Law school, travel, editing.
But then we met. I changed. Why? I don't know, but I did. And I refused to see it.
One of my dreams before meeting you was to live abroad. When we broke up, I fled across an ocean.
I made plans again. This time, when men tried to interrupt those plans—"Can't you just miss your class once?"—I didn't bother dating them.
I stayed true to myself
found a man who adored me. Now I am more sure than ever.
I teased two students at work today. Fifth grade Boy and Girl were throwing paper balls, kicking, hitting each other. I formed a heart with my hands. Boy tried to pull it apart. "Ahhh, it's too hard."
"I practice taekwondo," I whispered.
Later, a delicious, coincidental twist. Master points to his heart and refers to someone neither of has met. "Open?"
"I think. It's like this..." I squeeze my hand into tight ball, barely parting my thumb and forefinger, "little open."
"But you know taekwondo. Like this," Master says, spreading an imaginary heart open with his hands.
Open heart taekwondo.
My friend was in town, so we met her and some college classmates for dinner. My friends seated us clear across the table from each other.
You flirted with her. Blatantly. The whole time.
We hadn't been together long. I was embarrassed. But I tried to be the cool girlfriend.
In the car on the way to the bar, you offered that you'd met her before at a Halloween party. You'd tried to pick her up and failed.
At the bar you sat next to me, but you only spoke to her.
You impressed my friends.
Damn, I was stupid.
He asks to see pictures of my family. We flip through a stack, chatting.
I find a photo of you and me. On our anniversary. I freeze. My stomach flips.
How did that get there?
I pull it out, put it face down on the table.
"Who is it?" he asks.
"I think it's your ex-fiancé."
I smile and show him more photos, still feeling slightly dirty from the intrusion of you.
I am a photo destroyer. But somehow, you slipped past.
While he's brushing his teeth, I tear the photo into pieces. With satisfaction.
I feel clean again.
I pull your hairs from my pillow. Wipe my hands on your damp towel hanging from the rod. Spot your dirty fork in the sink. Touch a photo. Step over two waylaid socks on the floor. Unfold a scrap of paper with your writing on it, "PDR2." Carefully drape your undershirt over the headboard.
When you're gone, I crave your presence.
But until you return... I smell you on my skin. Gaze at the bits of you you left behind. Touch the empty space where your body should be. Inhale your scent from the bedclothes. Taste you behind my teeth.
When I dumped you, you called me a whore and threw me against the banister.
I walked upstairs, looked around the office, and thought.
What can I leave here? What
I take with me?
I reached into my filing cabinet and grabbed my passport.
I didn't study abroad because you didn't want me to (stupid me!). After I returned from my first international trip—I was smart enough to go alone—you said, "Good. Maybe the bug is out of your system."
I slipped the passport into my back pocket and walked out the door.
I didn't look back.
"How long will you stay here?"
I laugh, "I don't know. Some of my friends think I'll marry a Korean and stay here forever. Seriously, I'll go home whe—"
marry a Korean."
Her voice raises half an octave. "Do
marry a Korean. They are too conservative, too demanding. You have to serve them and do all the housework."
"If I met a Korean man who wanted to marry me..." I let my voice trail
...he'd be doing the dishes.
She freezes, turns. "You're right. Oh, you would be very lucky to marry such a non-conservative man!"
You lifted up your pen. Thirty-two strokes later you slid the paper across the table.
"Last night...I came up with something. I thought about which Chinese characters you should have. Your name means 'love,' I know. But the sound...there are many characters."
You pointed. "This means a lot of things, all good. It means 'fine,' 'elegant,' 'honest.' 'Elegance,' 'grace.'"
You pointed again. "This means 'full.' 'Abundant.' And this is similar, it means 'many,' 'abundant.'"
You shyly looked at me. "I think these are your Chinese characters."
We were eating
, shaved ice with fruit, cherry tomatoes, and red beans. I was eating around the tomatoes and beans, digging out the cubes of fermented coconut.
I was writing Chinese characters on the paper place mat. I knew nine. You were poor with Chinese characters.
I wrote your name inside of a heart. "If I were in middle school, I'd write our names like this." Korean women keep their names, but I wrote my first name and your family name together. I wrote Korean-style and Western-style.
You smiled at me, brown eyes shining.
I blushed. "What?"
You'd never met a foreigner. You were fascinated by me. You were especially interested that I was dating a Korean. You wanted to know why I loved him. Why would I date a Korean?
Why does anyone fall in love? How does anyone answer that?
I said that all countries are different. "Black people," "white people," "yellow people" are different. Different food, different language, different culture. But the
of everyone is the same.
You weren't satisfied.
I tried to explain. Again and again.
Finally I said, "Why do you fall in love?"
"Because I am a man!"
Weren't our cultures, languages, families too different?
I told you our hearts are all the same. Differences aren't important.
I said I couldn't explain why I love him.
I lied. Just a little.
Our first date was less than perfect. His skin shines golden tan against my own. He has a bruise on his eye, the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. When I am upset, he simply touches my hands and I am better. He's smart but doesn't admit it.
The differences strip us down, expose us, then tie us together. The differences are the source of the love.
A ballerina got in trouble for posing topless in an art magazine in South Korea. She posed with her boyfriend, a dancer in the same company. She was the only one who got in trouble. It was "obscene."
Kim Yong-ho, the photographer, said, "Isn’t everyone sometimes obscene when they are with their lovers?"
The acts we partake in, the things we say, the looks we share in private. Obscene? Perhaps. But private.
In public, we hold hands. You kiss me, lightly, at subway stations. We lean together, studying Korean. Occasionally people glare. Obscene? In public? In South Korea, certainly.
We're having Thanksgiving dinner. A holiday new to you, you're not quite sure why there's so much food. But you know it's important to me. "I need you to clean the bathroom. The sink, toilet, and that spot on the floor," I say, pointing.
I turned my back for a moment. When I turn around again, your pants are on the floor.
"What are you doing?"
You nod before speaking, one of your quirks. "I will get wet cleaning."
I grin, shake my head. I turn back to the stove, stir the soup.
I love this strange, strange man.
I'm perplexed. A poltergeist, perhaps?
I pick up the Diet Coke bottle. A quarter turn of the cap and it's off. The toothpaste tube is off in a sixteenth of a turn (seriously). The bottled water? An eighth of a turn.
Finally, I realize that it's you. It's your weird habit.
If you ever help me build a piece of furniture with screws in it, I'm going to have to trail behind you to make sure they're actually screwed in.
I tell you. You smile, shrug, bury your head in my neck.
You don't change.
I don't want you to.
In this crowded country where people live with their parents until marriage, I watch couples carve out private spaces in public places.
I watch the couple on the subway turn to each other, making a little circle with their bodies. They whisper and giggle, touching knees, ignoring disapproving looks.
I see the couple at the coffee shop, studying, smiles playing on their lips, their feet touching under the table.
I spy the couple at the train station, one of either side of the turnstile. Standing, chatting quietly, pretending to be silly and wave goodbye simply so they can touch hands.
Ten years older than me, formerly engaged, and you still had no clue how to dump a woman.
take her to the place you had your first date together.
obviously lie about why you're "on [my] side of town." Your silly story about your dentist and his computer is obviously a front.
drag on, sitting there, drinking coffee and asking what you'll be doing together that weekend.
dump her in her own house so she doesn't have to drive.
quit telling lies.
get it over with.
In short, man, sack up!
You told your mother about us.
were you thinking? We'd been dating a short time. In this country, telling your parents is a Very Big Deal! I was the first woman you'd ever mentioned. Of course they weren't going to be happy you were dating a foreigner.
Your mother wouldn't listen, they wanted you to leave. You fought. We cried. I refused to do long distance.
They bought you a plane ticket.
We spent evenings in love motels, hashing out plans.
Grace arrived in the mail.
Tears dried. Test passed, relationship strengthened.
Your parents still refused to meet me.
You continued to mention me to your parents. You talked to your mother about me. She finally started to crack, just a bit. Asking questions, listening to things you'd already told her. A good sign.
A few weeks later, you texted me. You talked to your parents for two and a half hours. About us, me, you. Problems I'd had living here, my career, what
I was nervous.
You called me, very late.
"They will meet you in the spring."
I could hear the joy in your voice, couldn't hide the happiness in mine.
The problem with dating people is that people linger behind. In the shadows.
I hear a song and must immediately change the station. Sweet-before-breaking-up but stupid-after-breaking-up private jokes become phrases I rarely say, or cringe to hear. A t-shirt reminds me of one man. I find old photos of us, or you, and destroy them.
I won't date Grateful Dead fans because of one ex. I won't date gamers because of another. I avoid eldest Korean sons over thirty because of too many bad first dates; they'll never leave home.
I wonder what aspect of me lingers behind for them.
"My job wants me to have an English name," you say over dinner.
You're Korean! You do tech support with Costa Ricans, Germans, Dutch! What's the point?"
You shrug and start brainstorming. "Chris."
"Nope. Brother, father. Too weird. And not Daniel. All Koreans are called 'Daniel.'"
Every name you offer I shoot down. An ex, a family member, a former student, a coworker I hated, a TV character I didn't like.
I don't tell you that I knew a Keith who was Ex-Chris' friend, still a virgin at thirty and very socially awkward.
I adore the way your skin glows golden brown against my own paleness. The shape of your eyes intrigues me. The fold that stretches across your inner eyes. How you get double eyelids when you're tired. (Not to mention that bruise on your eye. I kept myself from staring on our first date. I stare now.) Your face turns pink when you drink soju. Your skin is smooth, with very little hair. Your scent, red pepper paste.
I'm not supposed to admit this. It's not proper.
But I do love how different you are from me, and I from you.
You prop yourself up on your elbow, look at me. "Are you crazy?" That's a serious insult in this country. You're only teasing.
"Yes. Anyone who picks up and moves abroad is slightly crazy. And to
leave the country
after a breakup? Yes, that's crazy. We all hide behind our stories, 'I want to travel, learn a new language,' but it's never the real reason we come here."
You smile, "That's seventy-five percent of all the ex-pats here. They all have a story."
"I know. I'm one of the few who admits it." I pause. "But not to everyone."
We're under the covers in the middle of the daytime, enough light reaching through the white down comforter that we can see each other, chattering in Korean and English.
"I have to go," you whisper.
I pout. "No. I'm your
, I won't let you.
Kado an dae.
You can't go.
"I have to go...ride the subway with me. We can study Korean." You grin. "If you ride the subway..." We both giggle, draw together tighter. You can't even finish your sentence, our private joke.
...with a Korean man like me, it will be very good for your Korean.
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