September 9, 2009
“Uncle, we’re entering Seoul now.”
Cars were lined up, moving and stopping. I assumed we were near the tollbooth entering Seoul. I recognized the place from the days I traveled via express buses all around the south region for the organization. The entrance seemed a bit larger than it was then. After the tollbooth, cars were crawling.
After the Olympic Bypass, the car sped up again unlike those in the opposite lane, going to work. There was Youido district. Sprouting across the river was a small forest of concrete buildings. When I was a child, I could cross a dyke there and go swimming in a pool underneath the Ghost Rock every summer evening. Neither the pool nor the rock remained. The Yang Mal Hill was blasted when I was still outside. No more reed fields, no more peanut fields. I remembered the evenings I gazed at the Sam Gak Mountain colored by the sunset on the way back from fishing in that thin stream of river with my brother. From pink to red to purple, the Sam Gak and In Wang mountains changed colors and then became submerged in darkness. I sat there and watched for a long time, sitting on a warm gas pipe from the American base, until my little brother complained he was starving. Sometimes, practice planes with propellers rose from Youido Airport and flew by, shining like toys.
My sister was living in a new development at the outskirts of town. My head swam when I looked up at the twenty-story building. I followed my nephew as closely as possible, surrounded by tall buildings in every direction. We took an elevator to the fifteenth floor, and my sister ran out as soon as he rang the doorbell. My brother-in law was standing behind her. She hugged me by the neck and burst into tears.
“My God, you’re here in our house! Am I dreaming?”
It had only been a year since I’d seen my sister last. After my mother’s death she had come to visit once or twice a year. Both my sister and her husband were professors, and it was difficult for them to leave Seoul unless it was a holiday or a vacation.
Inside, my aunt and cousins were waiting for me. I didn’t feel like myself yet. Halfheartedly, I managed to break into a smile and exchange pleasantries, but their words only reverberated in my ears, and I couldn’t make out one single word properly. My brother-in-law gazed at my face and understood.
“Tired? Go lie down and rest,” he said.
“Without eating anything?”
“Uncle doesn’t eat breakfast, even in there,” my nephew answered for me.
“Is that so? Then go take a nap.”
“I guess you didn’t sleep very well last night. Go ahead.”
My brother-in-law gently pushed my back, and my sister took me to her son’s bedroom. She drew the curtains and quietly closed the door. The room was so much larger than what I was used to, I somehow felt afraid of the empty space next to the bed. I turned toward the wall. It was not a bare cement wall, but covered with wallpaper. The wall was one thing I was used to. In the middle of that wall, I pictured many things. I clearly remembered the stains all over the cell walls. There were stains on the ceiling, too. I used to remember my childhood, when I would lie in a field of grass by the river, looking at the clouds moving about on a summer sky, swept by wind, gathering and separating. I remembered imagining many stories based on their shapes.
Sometimes I had wet dreams. Women I did not know appeared. One night, bright with moonlight, I was barely asleep and opened my eyes just a slit. There was a slender woman, her body wet like a fish, standing upright and looking down upon me. Where did she come from? I was wandering around the empty, winding corridors, because I wanted to leave here, this desolate place, but I always returned to a place that looked just like the first floor of the prison building. Around the staircase was a small store like those you find in train stations, where teenage girls were gathered. They were chattering and nibbling on something. None of them looked at me as I approached. A woman in her forties, perhaps the owner of the stand, was looking at me. Her face was only darkness. When I asked her where the exit was, she laughed out loud and shouted, her voice echoing through the corridor.
Why don’t you stay here with us for a while? You wanna leave already?
That faceless woman was probably the owner of the building. But seldom did the face of someone I knew appear. I would think of one person right before going to sleep, missing her, but I never saw her.