Shadows of Seoul
By Andrew Livera
There is no greater pain than living when the person you love the most does not. Professor Moon Ji-Won sat on the dusty floor of his apartment in New York, littered with empty green soju bottles, half-eaten bowls of ramyeon, and scattered sheets of music. His apartment reeked of booze and dust cluttered every surface of the room, except for two picture frames on his night stand.
In the first picture, a happy Korean soldier in his green dress uniform hugged a slender girl in a pink dress from behind. A bright red blush covered the girl’s face as she smiled at the soldier. Above them was a banner in Hangul, the Korean writing system, which read, “Welcome back to Seoul!” Next to that photo was a wedding photo of the same couple, a younger Ji-Won kissing that beautiful girl as pink flower petals fell onto the green grass around them.
Ji-Won stared at a white envelope from the Baekje Opera Company in his hands before coughing up blood onto his wooden floor, another crimson stain among dozens of similar stains. A hacking cough echoed off the walls and he wheezed in and out, clutching the envelope with all the strength left in his quivering body. With shaking hands, he opened the letter and confetti burst out all over his skeletal frame. The brightly colored confetti mocked his pale skin that barely covered his protruding ribs. At this point, Ji-Won’s army green futon weighed more than he did.
He wiped the blood from his mouth onto his boxers, the only portion of clothing that he wore, before reading the letter itself. Ji-Won squinted at the small black print several times before his eyes widened. He stared at the opening line once more, which read, “Dear Professor Moon, the Baekje Opera Company has decided to produce your opera General Gye-Baek and our first performance will begin in the spring of 2017.”
Ji-Won prayed to his lucky stars before opening the second envelope behind the first one, which was addressed from The Vida Sagrada Clinic and Research Institute in Boston. He tore open the letter as fast as his gaunt fingers would let him. A single tear rolled down his cheek as he read the opening line, “Dear Professor Moon, the Vida Sagrada Clinic has reviewed your case history file and decided not to enroll you in the MV17F trials for Stage IV Lung Cancer patients.” His skeletal left hand gripped the envelope as tightly as his feeble strength allowed and he hurled a nearby soju bottle at the wall.
Ji-Won held his bald head in his pale hands, the last of his grey hair already lost to half a dozen chemo sessions at HeoJun Hospital. Another tear followed the first and soon a tempest of tears rained down onto the dusty floor. The sound of a wounded animal caught in a trap echoed against the thin apartment walls. His widened eyes bulged out of his emaciated head and he stared at his wedding photo.
Ji-Won sobbed as he held the last shred of hope in his hand and cried out, “Is this the American Dream? Is this what you wanted, Haneunim (God)? How could you do this to me, to Song-Hee? HOW COULD YOU, Haneunim (GOD)? All those years working on this opera that I’ll never get to see with my own eyes. All those hours studying for exams when I should have been spending it with her. Now I know what General Gye-Baek felt, dying alone on the battlefield in a place far away from home. Now I understand.”
He crawled over to his bathroom and heaved himself up onto the faded tiles of his shower. Ji-Won turned the faucet on and let the hot water run against his battered body for what seemed like hours. His tears mixed with the shower water as he let out years of frustration, his sobs echoing against the shower walls. Ji-Won’s empty eyes stared at nothing in particular—that same blank stare worn by Marines who had seen too much in war. When he had finished crying, he hauled his body out of the shower and grabbed his wooden cane from the nearby umbrella rack.
Ji-Won propped himself onto his feet and headed over to his closet, lined with seven gray suits that belonged more in 1916 than in 2016. He grabbed a random suit jacket, strapped on his black chronograph watch, and placed two things in his inner pocket: his opera acceptance letter with two enclosed tickets and a faded wedding photograph from his wallet.
Ji-Won glanced at the discolored calendar next to him between his two university degrees, one bachelor degree from Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, and the other a PhD degree from Columbia. A red circle around December 28th stood out amongst the dates and he pressed a hand against the calendar.
“Even if this body fails me, I will still make it to Yi SunShin Cemetery. It’s a promise, Song-Hee. It’s a promise,” said Ji-Won. He took one last look at his wedding photo before heading out the apartment complex and onto the snow-covered streets of New York.
A few minutes later, something pink caught Ji-Won’s eye and he whirled around towards it. A young couple sitting at the KimGu Café, a local Korean pastry shop, gazed into each other’s eyes, their love palpable in the air. His chest tightened and Ji-Won leaned down onto his cane, coughing up crimson blood onto the ivory sidewalk.
When he looked up, a younger Ji-Won and his wife, Song-Hee, sat at the table with a mochi rice cake between them—the favored Korean sweet cake of many couples. Song-Hee’s long black hair extended down past the waistline of her pink dress and her amber eyes beamed at her husband. Her ivory face could have easily been on the magazine cover of Vogue or Glamour and her slender body could have easily graced the catwalks of Paris or Milan. Every man at the café was looking at Song-Hee but she only had eyes for Ji-Won.
“Doesn’t this rice cake remind you of that café back in Seoul? It’s so good!” said Song-Hee.
Ji-Won scratched his head and sighed. “It’s alright but none of the food in Koreatown seems to taste like the food back home. None of the doenjang chiggae (soybean paste soup) here have the right spices that I like.”
She placed a dainty hand on his cheek. “What’s wrong? I thought you came here because you wanted to write that opera about General Gye-Baek. After coming so far, it’s not like you can quit your PhD program at Columbia and find another position in Incheon or Busan back in Korea.”
He held her other hand. “I know that but I thought coming to a Korean community would make life easier in the States. It’s so hard to talk to my colleagues in English about simple things like the weather or the latest sports game. And I feel out of place when my colleagues talk about American football instead of soccer or baseball.”
The happy shine in his eyes dulled for a second until she said, “It’ll be fine. I’ll always be there for you, waiting to see your opera. Enough about work already. Let’s finish some of this cake before it goes stale.”
She pinched off a piece of the mochi rice cake and held it next to his lips. “Say an!”
Ji-Won rolled his eyes and opened his mouth. “Aaan!”
He chewed the rice cake, the taste of red bean paste as sweet as the fleeting moment between them. Song-Hee giggled as she fed him another piece of the cake, her radiant smile shining brighter than ten thousand light bulbs.
A truck passing by obscured their forms for a brief second and the older Ji-Won blinked. When he opened his eyes again, the younger version of himself and his wife were gone, replaced by a different young couple in the present day.
The older Ji-Won shook his head to get rid of the flashback and continued walking down West Thirty-second street, his wooden cane crunching the powdered snow covering the sidewalk. A single tear ran down his cheek and onto the frozen ground—the tear of a man who knew that his happy halcyon days were no more. A few minutes later, he crossed the street and headed over to the Sejong SunFlowers Shop, a flower shop filled with flowers of every shape and size from roses to tulips.
In front of the shop stood an older Korean woman with a curly perm wearing a green hooded parka. She was sweeping the snow away from the front door until she noticed Ji-Won. The ajumma (older woman) waved a wrinkled hand at him, “Professor Moon, is that you?”
Ji-Won gave a short bow of his head and a smile which didn’t reach his hollowed eyes. “Yes, it’s me, Kim sajang-nim (Madam Kim). I came to pick up the lilies for her anniversary. Are they ready?”
Madam Kim’s face fell. “Yes, they’re ready as usual. How many years has it been since you started coming here now? Fourteen years.”
Ji-Won’s mouth tightened to a thin line. “Fifteen years. Fifteen.”
“I see. I’ll get those lilies right away,” said Madam Kim with a frown.
She whispered to herself as she headed inside to grab the bouquet of lilies. “I can’t believe how much time has changed him. He used to come here to buy lilies for his wife and now he buys them for her grave. I never thought she would meet an untimely death like that. Such a sweet girl didn’t deserve to die so young.”
A few minutes later, she came back outside with the flowers and Ji-Won reached for the bouquet with his left hand, his right hand grasping his cane. He stumbled forward and the old lady caught his arm before he could fall onto his face. Ji-Won wheezed in and out, his chest tightening like a vise, the excruciating pain spreading out through every nerve in his aching body.
“Are you alright, Professor Moon? You don’t look so well!” said Madam Kim, her eyes widened like saucers.
He waved her off and grabbed the lilies that had fallen onto the snow. Ji-Won brushed the snow off his bouquet before replying, “I’m fine. It’s just the slippery sidewalk. I have to get going now. Take care, Madam Kim.”
“If you say so, Professor Moon. Be careful on your way to the cemetery.”
“I will,” said Ji-Won as he turned around to continue his long walk down West Thirty-second street.
A few minutes later, he passed by HeoJun Hospital, a sprawling medical complex that was home to one of the country’s most advanced pediatric departments. At the opposite ends of the crosswalk stood a young man in a grey business suit and a young woman in a pink dress. They waved at each other and smiled, the sickening sweet smell of their love filling the winter air.
A burst of pain erupted from the middle of Ji-Won’s chest and he doubled over, dropping the lilies onto the snow. His vision blurred and he shook his head to get rid of the double vision. When he looked up, the man and woman standing across from each other on the crosswalk had been replaced by a younger Ji-Won and Song-Hee.
The younger version of himself waved a letter in the air, the gold seal on his envelope glittering in the afternoon sun. Song-Hee, dressed in a white lab coat, held her hands over her mouth at the sight of his letter. When the crosswalk sign changed, the couple raced towards each other. They ignored everyone else in the crowd around them, their eyes only fixed on each other.
Ji-Won shouted to her over the crowd, “I did it. I passed my final PhD defense!”
“I can’t believe it!” said Song-Hee as she closed the gap and spread her arms out for a hug.
When he was only a footstep away from her, Song-Hee’s eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed into his arms. Ji-Won gasped and he set her down onto the crosswalk, the people around them parting like the Red Sea.
He shouted to the crowd, “I need some help over here! Somebody get help from the hospital. Help me!”
A nearby doctor dropped his briefcase onto the sidewalk, papers scattering everywhere, and raced over to them.
“What happened?” said the doctor.
Ji-Won stuttered, “I d-d-don’t know. She was fine just a minute ago. W-W-What’s wrong with her?”
The doctor pressed two fingers to her neck and then held his ear over her mouth. “I don’t feel her pulse or hear her breathing. Damnit, where are the nurses with a gurney? Somebody should be over here by now. I’ll have to start CPR. Move aside.”
He tilted her head back and started compressions, his interlaced hands pressing up and down against the middle of her chest. A few minutes later, some nurses came by with a gurney.
The doctor looked at them and said, “I’ve got a 30-year woman with no pulse and no breathing. Let’s move her to the emergency room, right away! Go, go, go!”
The nurses loaded the doctor and Song-Hee onto the gurney and the doctor continued his chest compressions as the gurney raced towards the hospital. The younger Ji-Won ran after them, letting his envelope with the gold seal float away in the wind. His arms pumped up and down as he sprinted faster than he had ever run during his service in the Korean army.
He burst through the front door of HeoJun Hospital and weaved past several patients and doctors on his way to the front desk. The receptionist wearing a coffee-stained dress shirt looked up at him with a raised eyebrow.
Ji-Won slammed a hand down onto the front desk. “My wife collapsed outside the hospital and two nurses just brought her into the emergency room. Where is she? Tell me!”
The receptionist held up her hands. “Mister, you’ll just have to wait until I can make some phone calls. I have no idea where she is right now. Why don’t you wait over in the lobby while I make those calls?”
Ji-Won sat down in a nearby chair and held his head in his hands. Tears streamed down his face and onto the polished marble tile of the hospital. Twenty minutes later, the doctor who had performed CPR came over to him with hollowed eyes.
He placed a hand onto Ji-Won’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, but we couldn’t save Dr. Moon. We’ll have to run some tests but it looks like her heart gave out due to a congenital defect. There was nothing we could do. The pediatrics department will hold a service for her later this month.”
In the present moment, a Korean teenager wearing headphones bumped into Ji-Won and shouted, “Ajeossi (old man), watch where you’re going!”
The older Ji-Won shook his head and continued his walk towards Yi SunShin Cemetery. A few minutes later, he rounded the corner and his feet traced the familiar path up the hill and towards her grave. Snow had covered the entire cemetery hill like a blanket by now and the winter wind howled at Ji-Won, but he kept going despite the pain in his chest. The frost nipped at his fingers holding the bouquet of lilies but he paid it no mind.
When he had climbed halfway up the hill, an explosion of chest pain seared every nerve in his body and his wooden cane clattered onto the ground. Ji-Won fell onto his back, his fingers clutching the flowers like a drowning sailor with a life preserver. Crimson blood from his mouth stained the surrounding snow in a polka-dotted pattern.
His eyebrows narrowed and he clenched the flower stems even tighter than before. “I can’t die here. Not now. I have to show her that I finished our dream! Move, body, move. Come on!”
He transferred the flowers to his left hand and pulled himself forward with his right hand—inch by inch and second by second. When he was almost up the hill, the shimmering form of a woman in a pink dress appeared at Song-Hee’s grave.
Ji-Won gave a rusty smile, caked blood smattered all over his teeth. “Song-Hee, it’s me, Ji-Won!”
Ji-Won reached into his inner suit pocket and pulled out his two tickets to the opera General Gye-Baek. “It took me ten years, but I finished the opera I came to America to write. I brought you a ticket so you can come with me to the opening in a few months. Let’s go there.”
Song-Hee smiled at him and held out her arms for a hug. Ji-Won dragged himself up the remainder of the hill and onto the foot of her grave. His vision blurred and the lilies slipped away from the feeble grip of his frozen fingers. Ji-Won fell onto his back with a groan, his blurry eyes focused on the winter sky. He coughed up more blood and it ran down his throat. Ji-Won gurgled on the crimson liquid but he couldn’t move a single muscle, all of them frozen to the bone. Black dots appeared around Song-Hee and the winter sky until blackness enveloped his entire visual field. He closed his eyes and let go of his blood-soaked opera tickets. Ice crystals covered the surface of his black chronograph and the watch stopped with a metallic click. As the winter wind blew his blood-stained tickets away, the names of Moon Ji-Won and General Gye-Baek faded away obscurity.