September 3, 2009
The car door opened, and a man who must have been my nephew jumped out and walked fast toward me.
First, he embraced me tightly.
“The things you had to suffer . . .”
“Well . . . I managed.”
He took out a piece of tofu and shoved it into my face.
“Eat this. Mom said you have to.” (In Korea, it is a custom for a just-released prisoner to eat tofu. They say this will prevent him from going back to prison again. —Ed.)
“Tofu? That’s all superstition.”
“Mom said from now on, you do what others do.”
I understood that as her most sincere wish. The tofu was cold and unseasoned and dry; it was hard to swallow. My nephew opened the back door.
“You can spread out in the back, maybe get some sleep.”
I looked around the car with awe, as if I was touring a luxurious mansion. My nephew started the car and took the road in front of the prison to a highway. The highway was already lined with cars with lights on, coming and going. So many cars. He took out a small object that looked like a transistor and began talking.
“Mom? Yes, Uncle just got out. We’re already on our way. Yes, sure, he’s fine. Yes, yes, I’ll put him on.”
He handed me the object. I felt timid and waved it off.
“What is that thing?”
“It’s a cell phone. Don’t worry. It works just like a telephone.”
I touched the thing and put it against my ear. I tried to speak.
“Hel . . . Hello . . .?”
“Hyun Woo? My God, after all these years . . . how long has it been? Is this real? Are you really out?”
“Yes, I’m in the car, on my way.”
She was unable to talk, and began sobbing.
“Fine . . . fine . . . soon we’ll talk as much as we want. I’ll see you at home soon.”
“Yes, I’ll see you soon,” I replied evenly.
My nephew turned on the radio. A young woman cheerfully introduced light instrumental music. Because my sense of space had not fully recovered yet, it tired me to look out the window.
“It’ll take at least three hours. The road condition is bad today.”
Through the window, snowflakes blew onto the glass, some melting away, some forming a thin white line at the bottom. As the car entered the freeway, my ears were slowly deafened by the muffled noise. I was in a deep forest and the sound of the city seemed to be coming from somewhere far away. My basic instinct, the only thing that I had in solitary confinement, was self-protection. The scenery outside the window kept changing, but I couldn’t feel the car moving or tell how fast it was going. I drifted into sleep.
“Wake up, uncle.”
The car had stopped. I looked around.
“Let’s take a break at this rest stop.”
I walked toward the rest station, already full of people traveling since dawn, trying not to be separated from my nephew.
“May I go to the restroom?”
My nephew turned and laughed, startled.
“Of course you may, you’re free to do whatever you want!”
I was not yet confident enough to navigate this large space without hesitating. Looking at me frozen to the spot, my nephew reached for my hand. After using the toilet I touched the faucet to wash up and I panicked. I had never used something that looked like this. I didn’t know what to do with the hook-like handle that jutted upward, and I realized it was not something to be easily mastered when my nephew lifted it up lightly to let the water out and then twisted it precisely to get the right temperature. Then there was this machine that dried hands without towel or paper, from which warm air gushed out if you pressed something somewhere. An hour and a half earlier, before I left prison, it never occurred tome that I would have difficulties living outside. Stepping out of the restroom, my first encounter with outside culture, I was drowning in helplessness. I didn’t know what to do with my hands and feet. My nephew saw the state I was in.
“Sit here for a minute. You’re not hungry?”
“I’m fine. I don’t eat breakfast, even in there.”
“Mom has been preparing a feast for a few days. We’ll eat at home. Would you like something to drink?”
I surveyed the people eating and drinking. I saw a young woman slowly licking a coiled ice cream cone, using the tip of her tongue.
“I want that.”
”What, the corn dog or the fish cake?”
“No, ice cream.”
My nephew came back with a cup of coffee and an ice cream cone.
“By the way, when was the last time you had something like this?”
“Maybe about eleven years ago?”
“A prison officer bought me one during my furlough.”
I took the cone and, like that young woman, began licking the end of its coiled tail with the tip of my tongue. As the cream melted into cool liquid in my mouth, I saw an open window and billowing drapes printed with small flowers. The scent of acacia drifted in from outside, and honeybees buzzed by the glass window. Then came the taste of the American gumdrops my mother left for us during the war while she went out to earn money. There were red, yellow, blue, purple, and green ones, but the black one, it had a scent so exotic and distinctive. What did they use to make it so fragrant? I knew that world was gone now yet I missed it all.
Continued: “In the Photo, She Is Not Smiling”