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Published in The Baltimore Review, Winter/Spring 2004

Lee Hwan Jae peered at himself in the dingy hotel room mirror and with his fingers swept the few remaining strands of hair from one side of his head to the other. He grinned. Perhaps years of fussing had made his hair fall out as his wife often joked.

         His wife. The words made him pause. His “other” wife, he corrected. He didn’t like to think of her that way but the distinction felt necessary, as if there weren’t enough “wife” space in his mind for both of them. Chae Sung Kyun was his “real” wife. Kwak Shin Syon, his “other” wife. One man, two wives, Lee thought. One country, two halves. Love for one, a betrayal of the other.

         For 49 years he’d thought Chae dead, static in his fading memory. Now out of the barren North she was being resurrected. His life with Kwak Shin Syon felt like a clandestine affair and this “real” wife, this other Korea, the reality he’d been avoiding.

         Lee checked his watch. Twenty more minutes. In typical North Korean fashion, the reunion was being orchestrated like an elaborate opera. Huge sets. A cast of thousands. He had to wait for his cue. Still he felt lucky. An amusing contradiction. His whole life  he’d felt lucky to have gotten out of North Korea and now, an old man, he felt lucky to be back.

         He was lucky though. Only a hundred had been chosen out of thousands. One hundred fractured families to be reunited for three days. An olive branch across the DMZ. A first step toward Korean reconciliation.

         Lee pulled a small red velvet box from his pocket and examined the gold band he’d brought for Chae. He’d never given her a ring. It wasn’t custom. But when he’d passed the jewelry mart window his first thought had been of her.

         He’d been shopping for things they’d been told their Northern relatives would need — underclothes, warm jackets, shoes. On his way out, arms heavy with bags, he saw the rings. Like a lovestruck boy he made the clerk show him each one, again and again, taking so much time to choose that he missed his train.

         But now, moments from seeing Chae in the flesh, the ring seemed wrong. Too much like a wedding band. Too full of promises. He hadn’t meant anything by it, just a gift, but now he wondered if there wasn’t more. He didn’t think he loved Chae. He couldn’t even remember her face. But there was a feeling, a debt owed.

         Often he lay awake at night thinking of her, remembering how she begged him to leave, too afraid to go with him. And as if one kind of memory had been heightened by the loss of another, her scent flooded his nostrils until he was overcome with a dull, deep ache — a longing for things unattainable. He tucked the ring back in his pocket and headed downstairs to wait with the others.

         The rest of the South Koreans were gathered outside the large meeting hall where the reunion would be held. Lee searched their ancient faces for the man he’d sat with on the plane. The man whose sister, heavy with pregnancy, had stayed behind as her brothers hurried south.

         How many others, Lee wondered, had fled the fighting like himself? How many had simply been trapped when the political partition fell like a weighted curtain between them and their families?

         And now they were all old. Friends and enemies. Old love. Old hate. Apparitions wandering the corridors. The frayed curtains and faded wallpaper of the rundown hotel suddenly appropriate. Beauty and luster hidden by worn exteriors. Chae Sung Kyun would be old, too. Seventy-six. Would he recognize her?

         The hall doors opened. The South Koreans filed in. The North Koreans, already inside, watched cautiously. The two groups squared off like opposing teams. There will be a formal introduction, Lee thought, an official beginning.

         A white-haired woman squealed. She sprang from her wheelchair and, on legs almost too frail to carry her, rushed across the floor crying, My brother, My brother. Others did the same. Chaos overtook the room.

         Lee had recognized Chae immediately but didn’t move when their eyes met. She’d lived for so long just under the surface of his skin, popping up in every quiet moment like

a flower pushing through soft dirt, that now he felt as if he were seeing a ghost. He hesitated. What would he and this ghost talk about?

         He moved forward. They embraced. Soft, saggy breasts pressed into him. Sharp shoulder blades protruded through her thin skin. His arms completely enclosed her and he worried that she might crumble like brittle bones if he squeezed.

         He never held women (except for his “other” wife) this close. And for an instant — this fragile being, foreign and familiar, pressed to his chest — he wished there were no other life, no other family to return to, so that he could stay with her, the woman who should have been his wife.

         “Chae Sung Kyun. Chae Sung Kyun,” he repeated, as if spoken words made her more real. “I believed that you were dead. I thought I would have to wait for death to see you with my ancestors.”

         Chae Sung Kyun’s eyes swelled with tears. Her hunched body and thin arms trembled. Her hair, once long and dark, lay short and mostly white around her face. Just a few remnants of black, stragglers unwilling to accept defeat.

         Lee guided her to their designated table and helped her sit. A middle-aged woman hovered close by. “Are you her daughter?” he asked.

         The woman shook her head. “Niece. She is my father’s sister. She has no children.” The remark felt like an accusation.

         “Husband?” Lee questioned.

         “You are her husband.” The words stung, as they’d been meant to.

         He hadn’t asked those questions in the two letters they’d been allowed to exchange. The 49 years had made them strangers and when he found out she was alive, he assumed that, like him, she would have a new spouse, children, grandchildren.

         “Chae Sung Kyun, why did you not marry again?” he said but stopped himself from continuing. She couldn’t now bear the children she’d never had. She couldn’t live a life that wasn’t there. He patted her gray hair and smiled.

         “What a wonderful niece you have,” he said cheerfully trying to redirect the conversation. “Your brother is lucky to have such a loyal daughter.” He looked at the light brown splotches on Chae’s hand, like tiny shadows of invisible figures. He realized then that she had not spoken.

         “Isn’t it wonderful that we can be here together?” he asked. She didn’t answer.     

         “Chae Sung Kyun, are you not happy to see me?” She squeezed his hand but then turned away, tears trickling down her wrinkled cheeks. He looked to the niece. “Can she speak?” The woman nodded, but offered no encouragement. No means for getting Chae to speak.

         “Why will you not speak? I’ve waited so long to see you. I thought that you had perished at the hands of the soldiers. I tried to contact you but always I found nothing.

You saved me, my wife. I would have died. The friends of our youth, are they not all dead?”

         Chae ran a hand through his hair, brushed his forehead with her fingertips and ran them down his temples down to his lips. She laid her palm flat against his cheek and then moved it down his neck, like a blind child feeling for familiarity. Her touch was gentle but her skin rough. Lee hoped that after touching him she might speak. But she merely gripped his hands and sat.

         Lee looked at the niece. “How does she spend her days?”

         “She used to work on our farm. Now she keeps a small garden. That is why her hands are like a worker’s.” The niece picked up Chae’s hand to show him the calluses, as if Chae were a doll they were examining. This annoyed him. He wanted to scold her for not respecting her elders but didn’t.

         “Does she cook? She was a wonderful cook.”

         “She still cooks but not so much now. She becomes tired easily.”

         Lee stopped. Chae’s niece spoke of her as if she weren’t there or were an invalid. He hated it. Chae will speak tomorrow, he told himself. She is just overwhelmed.

“And what of your family? Your father?” he asked the niece.

         The rest of the meeting continued in the same vein. Chae sat mute as Lee and the niece exchanged pleasantries about her family. Lee only vaguely remembered Chae’s

brother and wasn’t particularly curious about him but when he didn’t speak the three of them sat in silence, Chae’s rough palms resting unbearably on his, Lee thinking about all that he had that she didn’t, all he’d assumed she would have.

         When he returned to his room at the end of the day he was exhausted. He washed himself in the tiny sink and fumed. Cold water. Peeling wallpaper. By North Korean standards it was probably decent but that only made him angrier. It was all a big charade and he was part of it, playing along, a fake in a show of make believe. People in North Korea were starving. The young vibrant girl he’d married had spent her life as a farmhand and turned out a spinster.

         He thought of his youngest granddaughter. What pleasure it was just watching her, hearing her bright giggles, nodding agreeably as she imitated her physician mother, “You should drink juice, Napa. Juice has bite-a-mins.” All that Chae had been denied.

         He set the small jewelry box on the counter and looked at the ring. It seemed dimmer now than it had in the store window, smaller. A foolish trinket. They’d exchanged other gifts, the niece greedily plowing through the suitcase of clothes. He reminded himself that she was in need but her lack of manners embarrassed him. The ring he’d kept tucked in his pocket, waiting for the right moment. He wondered now if there would be one.

         Lee lay back on the bed. The fading sunlight wavered through the curtains. He wanted to call his wife. Not because he missed her but because the life he would return to in just days seemed as distant now as North Korea had for the last 49 years. He wanted to know it was still there.

         The next day was the same. Plodding. Slow. Hours of inane conversation filtered through Lee’s niece – he’d decided to consider her his niece without going as far as to tell her this. As they chatted Chae held his hand, sometimes staring at it as if she were memorizing it, a coded message she would have to recall later. Other times patting it and gazing at him.

         The morning of the third and final day, Lee had a brainstorm. He tucked a writing pad into his pocket before entering the hall. Chae was wearing clothes he’d brought. Black slacks and a white billowy man’s shirt that her tiny hands protruded out of like sticks from sand. He frowned as she set the pad aside without writing anything. She might as well be a ghost, he thought. Already gone and watching over us.

         When the attendant announced that they should prepare for the reunion to end Lee was relieved. He took the gold ring from his pocket and gave it to Chae, no longer caring whether it was the right moment or what she might think. She could sell it if she wanted or throw it away. He only wanted to go home. “I brought this for you,” he said.  

         He placed the gold band on her finger, twisting and nudging it past her swollen knuckle. Chae’s face didn’t change. She seemed to have no reaction at all, only patting his hand as she had for days, this time deliberately watching her ringed finger. Lee squeezed her hand and stood up. “I think we must prepare for our good-bye,” he said.

         A handshake seemed foolish, so he held his niece in an awkward embrace. They made more small talk, speaking hopefully about the future of Korea. When he turned back to Chae it seemed that she had not moved a centimeter, as if she were in the exact position he’d left her in, frozen.

         He hugged her. Nothing had been as he’d expected but he cried. He knew he would never see her again. They’d all lose their battle with time before the two halves of their country ended the battle-less war between them. It was like his “other” wife said, “Change grows like a vine, slowly and in unexpected directions. You cannot climb it before it is there.”

         Knowing Chae was alive was not a comfort but more like an infection, guilt, spreading through his past, eating away at the good that had happened to him. Over all his happiness this Chae would silently tower, alone, childless, loveless. He wondered if it wouldn’t have been kinder to both of them to have left this stone unturned.

         When they broke their embrace, Chae’s face was red and wet with tears though her body had been still in his arms, as if she’d silenced more than just her voice. She pressed

a folded piece of paper into his palm like a payment, an even exchange for the ring. He hadn’t seen her write anything. He tried to unfold it but she stopped him, cupping both her hands around the note like a child catching a butterfly. He must wait he realized. Wait until the meeting was over, until he was on his way home, no chance to reply, until he too was silenced.

         He hugged her again, with new warmth. The note. The note would explain things, say what she couldn’t. He cried and this time he thought he felt her sobs, faint and gentle, buried in his own.

         Lee gripped Chae’s carefully folded note in his hand as the plane returning him to the South took off. He watched North Korea shrink from the window until the buildings below looked like toys, a child’s playthings that could be picked up and moved at whim. They passed through a sheet of flat clouds, a line in the sky. The windows filled with blue. Lee unfolded the note.

         It was short. A few characters in a shaky hand. He gasped as if a hole had been punched in his lung and air were rushing out. He crushed it tightly in his fist until he could no longer feel the difference between his skin and the paper, until the ink of the words, I waited. I thought you would come for me, began to bleed into his palm.

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