I didn't know what the hell I was doing, I just got on the closest train. Pretty stupid, actually, considering the time. Line 5 on the Seoul subway cut through the heart of downtown, joining the eastern and western halves of the city, and the trains were always jammed during rush hour. I squeezed my way past the dozen people in the doorway of the last car just as the doors closed. At least the air conditioning was working in this one. Fall in Seoul was often gorgeous but today it seemed the city had forgotten to perform its blood sacrifice to the weather gods.
As I nudged my way toward the center of the car, past salarymen, ajummas, and local university students, miraculously, a seat opened up at the far end. I barely thought about moving toward it; there were plenty of people on this train before me entitled to fight over it. But as the train pulled out of the station, nobody moved to take it. I didn't even see anyone look at it.
There was no way it went unnoticed. The seat's occupant had gotten up at the last minute and exited the train just as we pulled away, but a full ten seconds had gone by, and that was plenty of time for somebody to grab it.
Yet it remained empty. I glanced at the people in its vicinity but everyone was absorbed in their phones, watching the latest K-drama or baseball highlight. So I made my way toward the seat, jostling and shifting and apologizing and generally feeling rude. But I wanted that seat. I had no idea how long I'd be on this train. I needed to get comfy.
As I arrived at the open seat, I was met by an older Korean woman who smiled at me and said something I didn’t understand. Being a Korean-American I had people speak to me in Korean all the time, only for me to frustrate them at my all-encompassing American-ness.
I pointed at the seat and asked her, in my best broken Korean, if she wanted to sit. She just continued to smile.
So I sat down, feeling like I had disturbed some natural force in the universe by doing so.
I kind of zoned out through the next few stations; how many I didn't count. I didn't have a destination in mind. I just needed to go somewhere. Hours earlier, I had been laid off from my translating job at a small financial publication, and now had thirty days to leave the country, else I become an illegal alien.
I'm not surprised I got laid off - I hated the people I worked with and they hated me. But I was good at my job and they needed the work. Better the devil you know, I suppose. However, even the “solve everything by yelling” Korean work culture has its limits. You can't hit your boss in the face with box of paperclips, even if he did threaten to throw you out the window and murder your cat. So “laid off” is probably the wrong phrase.
I sort of had a boyfriend, but things weren't exactly fine and dandy. I'd met him through a mutual friend, and we'd been dating about four months. But the idea that I wasn't going to be in Korea permanently had become more and more of an issue for him. Understandable, seeing as Korea was his home. The best I could do was tell him I cared about him and that I wanted to be with him, but that fell far short of a promise and we both knew it. I couldn't wait to tell him about losing my job.
The tragic thing is that I love Seoul and Korea. Seoul is a wild, sprawling, confounding mecca where thousands of years of culture have been smashed together with two decades of Western prosperity to forge something both foreign and familiar, old and new. The city has the fastest Internet in the world, and yet everyone still line-dries their clothes. It has the longest rail network of any city yet people still spit on crowded public sidewalks. Korea has embraced Western culture more prolifically than any other Asian country, yet is consistently ranked as the most jingoistic.
Seoul is two-faced head of this young country, yet it displays those faces for you so readily, so honestly, that you can't help but be intrigued. As a relatively migratory twenty-something, its siren call was impossible to ignore. And yet one year after settling in, I am days away from having to pick up and leave once again. All I could think of was the next destination.
At least I got a seat on the train.
We pulled to a stop inside Dongdaemun Station, a popular transfer station to Line 3. At least 90% of the car disembarked, leaving more than enough seats to be snapped up by eager entrants. Yet strangely, no one got on. It was the heart of rush hour - the queue for each car should be a dozen deep at each door. And yet, nothing. I looked through the tinted glass into the station, but didn't see much, the haze from the interior fluorescents limiting my view. How bizarre, I thought, leaning back into my seat.
The train doors closed and it pulled away. For a brief moment I wondered if they had cleared the whole train and I hadn't understood the instructions to exit. But no, there were still at least a dozen people in the car with me. There was a man two feet to my left reading what was probably a technical manual, and a few elderly hikers in full gear at the other end of the car, blissfully dozing.
Sleeping across from me was a young girl, no more than nine or ten years old. Her head was in her lap, resting on top of a large pink school bag stuffed full with books. Her ponytail was wrapped in a pink ribbon and draped down the side of her face. Even though I couldn’t see her expression, she looked absolutely exhausted. By her feet was a plastic gift bag, but it was filled with groceries. Sticking out of the top was a single long-stemmed rose.
I don't know why I was so transfixed by her. Maybe it was the fact she was alone, or so burdened with giant textbooks, or the solitary rose inside the plastic bag. What was a nine year-old doing grocery shopping by herself?
The train made a brief lurch, jostling everyone inside. The girl picked up her head, her eyes droopy. They instantly caught mine, and for a minute I felt like I knew her, though of course I didn't. Her face wore an expression that seemed to bear the weight of the world. Like her life had fast-forwarded twenty years and dumped the burden of adult responsibility onto her, her childhood and adolescence be damned. An intense pang of sadness struck me so hard my heart hurt.
The girl put her head back into her lap.
The train lurched again, this time picking up speed. I barely noticed the pillars on the platform inside Cheongjeongno Station as we flew through it. What the hell? I'd heard of express trains but this was something else.
I wasn't the only one who noticed. The grandparents at the end of the car white-knuckled the bars next to their seats, and the man next to me had put down his manual. Murmurs began to rise from the small crowd inside, those universally human sounds of "What the hell?"
Suddenly, the main lights went out. Emergency lights flared up, casting the car in a dreadful orange haze. I gasped as I realized I'd been holding my breath. A woman screamed. The level of panic continued to rise as did our speed. Wasn't there another train in front of us? Did they also have to speed up so we wouldn't hit them? And what about the train in front of that?
The girl across from me remained asleep, unaware of her increasingly grim surroundings.
I decided I should wake her up. This was not the time to play bystander. Under shaky legs, I got up out of my seat and bent over across the aisle, reaching out my hand. My fingers had barely grazed her shoulder when a great, tearing CRACK echoed through the car and the whole thing jerked to a halt. I caught a glimpse of sparks as I flew straight toward the partition at the end of car.
Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap.
Something was poking my shoulder.
Tap tap tap.
I could hear a voice, high, probably a girl's. I struggled to open my eyes.
"Can you hear me?"
The same voice. My eyes were slits, but they were open. The world outside looked mostly like shadows. Nothing moved. The light was a dull orange.
Tap tap tap.
"I see you,” the voice said. “Can you get up?"
I grunted, rubbing my eyes with my left hand. I became aware of my right hand. It was cool, touching the floor. Bare floor. The haze started to lift from in front of me. Metallic bench seats came into focus. Hand poles. A subway car it looked like.
"Sit up, please," she said.
"Where are you?" I eeked out. A young girl squatted down in front of me, smiling. Her ponytail was tied with a pink ribbon. She looked familiar.
"Um. Hi," I said.
"What's your name?"
My mouth started to move, but I realized I had nothing to say out of it. I was...I couldn't remember.
"I don't know," I said meekly.
"Hmm. Well at least sit up. My name’s Ji-Hyun, but you can call me Claire. Nice to meet you."
It dawned on me right then that we weren't speaking English. I gathered some strength and pulled myself up to a sitting position. I looked around the car. It was empty, and oddly silent.
"Good job," Claire said. "Now tell me your name."
But I still couldn't. "I don't remember."
She didn't seem bothered by this. "Doesn't matter right now, really. What is a name, anyway? But I do need to call you something. ‘Miss’ sounds weird."
"That's not the only thing."
"I guess not. Ok, well, for now we will go with 'Jae.'"
"Like the letter?"
"Good enough." I looked down at my shirt. It was a cream-colored cami, nothing special. I was wearing dark blue jeans and sneakers. I didn't remember putting these on, but I doubted that I was born in them.
"You feel okay?" Claire asked.
"I feel..." What was the word? Confused? Afraid? "Spaced out."
Claire wrinkled her nose. "I don't know what that means."
"It’s an expression. It's not important."
"So you're not hurt?"
"No. I don't think so. Are you?"
"Why would I be?"
Suddenly a flash of light dashed through my memory. A sound. A loud sound. A rending of metal.
"The crash," I spouted. "The train."
"We are on the train,” she said. “Look around."
I finally took a larger look at my surroundings. The car was still empty, but I could hear small clicks and buzzes of the third rail below. The doors were wide open. We were in the middle of a station. The sign on the platform column said "Mapo."
"Where is everybody?" I asked her.
"They will come when it's time. Here, try standing up."
I reached my arm out onto the bench next to me and pushed down. My legs worked, mostly, and I was able to get up. I felt weak. My stomach churned.
"Oh, God." I started to puke but she grabbed my hand and instantly the sensation ceased.
"Come on, follow me."
I did as I was told. She juggled a backpack on one shoulder and a gift bag with her other arm and we stepped out of the subway car. Silently, we climbed the steps from the platform and came into the main part of the station.
"Hungry?" Claire asked. "You want a waffle?"
"Suit yourself." She ambled over to the bakery stall just outside the ticket gates and spoke something I couldn't hear to the older woman working behind the counter. I took a minute to look around. This place felt familiar, yet I couldn't place it. I did know that its complete lack of other people, save for this waffle vendor, was strange. I couldn't place the sound of an empty subway station since I'd never heard one before. Or at least, I didn't think I had until now. It was eerie. My ears rang.
"Here you go. Eat it," Claire's soft, bird-like voice commanded. I wasn't hungry but you didn't say no to a nine year-old offering you food. I took a bite of the large Belgian-style waffle and nearly fell over.
My eyes exploded with images, flashes of standing in this very spot, surrounded by schools of people rushing in and out of the gates, talking on phones, to each other. Screaming, laughing, crying. I saw cherry red lipstick on school girls and dark bags under salarymen's eyes. The ping-ping-ping-ping music box melody of the approaching train alert echoed in my ears and through the halls.
I swallowed the bite of my waffle and it all went away.
"Good, right?" Claire asked. "I knew you'd like it."
I didn't know how to respond. Luckily, she didn't press me. She walked toward one of the station's many exits and I followed, my heels clicking over the tile floor.
Out in the street above the station, the sky was a warm blue and fall breeze eased by. I kicked a can of Pocari Sweat off the sidewalk as we walked. We didn't say much to each other, but the silence felt surprisingly comfortable. There was plenty of evidence of civilization around us - businesses, signs, parked cars, trash - but just like in the station I didn't see any people.
We walked south from the station (I had started to get my physical bearings), in the middle of the road. As we approached the Mapo Bridge across the Han River, I stopped.
"What?" Claire asked. "Why are you stopping?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Nothing, let's keep going."
I didn't want to sound like a nagging parent but people and cars or not, walking across a bridge in the middle of the road didn't seem like a good idea. But what the hell.
By about a third of the way across, it started to feel pretty good. Like, wow, who does this?
Apparently I did. But was it me doing it? Who was I? I spoke Korean and obviously knew my way around, but I couldn't remember why I was here, or even my own name. The flashes of sight and sound that hit me every so often didn't offer much help.
Claire must have noticed my reverie. "You look worried," she said. We stopped walking and leaned over the side of the bridge, the beautiful Yeouido Park across the river to our left, the sprawl of Mapogu to our right.
"I don't think I'd say I was worried." Seoul really was beautiful this time of year, I thought.
"Your face says differently."
"Maybe that's just my face all the time."
"Well that would be sad."
I was hiding, and she knew it. "I'm not worried. I'm just freaked out. Everything feels so real but I feel like a stranger in my own body. And don't get me started on the lack of people anywhere in this city of ten million people."
"How'd you know it was ten million?" she asked.
"I guess I must have read it somewhere."
"That's not really something you just read. You kind of have to be looking for it."
"So what if I was?"
"Well if you can find out why you were looking up facts about Seoul you might figure out why you're here."
"I know why I'm here. You brought me here."
She scowled. "That's not what I meant and you know it. Don't be silly."
There was something shameful about getting scolded by a nine year-old. "I'm sorry."
"It's ok. Besides, I already know some things about you."
"Like you're adventurous. Trusting. You followed me out here by yourself."
"I didn't have much choice. Besides, what about you is there to be afraid of?"
Claire didn't respond, but I could tell the gears inside her head were turning. Maybe I shouldn't have said that.
"Anyway," she continued, "You're a seeker. You want to find out things. About you, about me, about the world. It leads you all over the place and yet you don't really know who you are. Because you're always seeking and never finding."
"Wow," I said, taking a deep breath. "Now we're getting deep."
"No. Now we're getting somewhere. Come on, the bus is here."
"What?" But before I could continue, a green public bus pulled up beside us. I peered around behind it but there were no other vehicles. I don't know how I didn't hear it coming.
Claire got on board. "You coming?"
"Umm. Yeah." I stepped up onto the bus. I felt my pockets but realized I didn't have any wallet or anything on me to pay the fare. The bus driver just waved his hand and pointed to sit down. I shrugged. When in Rome.
As the only passengers, we sat next to each other near the front and I watched as Yeouido Island came closer into view. Its sprawling river-side park greeted us as we approached.
We rode in silence for just a few minutes until the bus dropped us off a few miles from the bridge.
"Where are we going?" I asked as we disembarked.
"Why don't you just worry about where we are." It was not a question.
"Here," Claire said, reaching into her backpack. She pulled out some shrimp flavored chips. "Have some."
Dutifully I took some, and thankfully I didn't have any debilitating flashbacks this time. I swallowed as quickly as I could.
"I don't really like them," I said.
"What do you mean, 'just checking'?"
"Whether you like shrimp chips or not. It's the only snack I have. Relax, Jae."
I was on-edge, I realized. Though I didn't feel like I could be blamed.
We were atop a set of elaborately carved steps that continued for a hundred feet down to the river.
The steps were broad, dozens of feet wide and just as long. A rivulet cascaded down the middle, crossed at several points by stepping stones. The water looked warm.
"Wouldn't you like to fly along the river, like a bird?" Claire questioned, out of nowhere.
"Yeah, I mean, who wouldn't?"
She and I walked down the steps toward the river. I noticed a small kiosk off to the right, set in the middle of dozens of bikes.
"I've always wanted to fly,” she said wistfully. “I have dreams about it a lot. But I can't seem to get the hang of it in real life."
I laughed, for the first time in...I didn't know. "I once read that it was all about learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
Claire smiled too. "Douglas Adams said that.”
I realized she was right. “How do you know who that is?”
But she didn’t answer me.
It was about a hundred yards to the bike kiosk, which I assumed was our destination. Taking Claire's advice, I was trying not to worry about that too much. I was just enjoying the moment. As much as I could given the circumstances.
"You can let go of my hand if you want," she said matter-of-factly.
"Ok, suit yourself. But it's going to be hard to ride bikes and hold hands at the same time."
"Well I guess we'll just cross that bridge when we come to it."
Claire looked at me approvingly. "You should learn to like shrimp chips."
"Don't push it."
The kiosk was surrounded by bikes of all sizes and colors, including some tandem and even triple-seat bikes. That seemed a little ridiculous.
"Can you ride a bike?" Claire asked me.
"I mean, I think so. But nothing's a given anymore."
She walked over to the kiosk and gave the old man inside five-thousand won. I waved at him but he didn't seem to notice me.
"Pick one out," she told me. I headed to a ten-speed that looked like my size, but apparently that was the wrong choice.
"Let's go tandem. Otherwise I won't be able to keep up with you. I'm little."
"So basically you want me to chauffeur you around."
"I don't know what that word means, but it sounds right."
I shrugged. Alright, why not. I picked out a faded yellow two-seater. "Look good?" I asked.
"That'll do. Hold it so I can get on."
She loaded her bags into the basket up front, then hopped up on the back seat, her tiny legs dangling above the pedals. "Okay, I'm ready."
The moment of truth arrived. I swung my legs over the seat and we didn't fall over immediately, so that was a plus. It was a little awkward getting started since the bike was so long, but apparently even if you can't remember your name you can still remember how to ride a bike.
"Where to?" I wondered aloud.
"That's up to you."
Of course it was. How silly of me to ask. I pedaled us out of rental area and onto the bike path that paralleled the river. It was a gorgeous day, the world seemingly at a standstill.
As I pedaled I started to feel a bit woozy. Claire hadn't said anything in a while, so I peered over my shoulder to make sure she was still there. As I did, I nearly ran us into the ditch. For a fleeting second, it wasn't Claire sitting in the seat behind me, but a girl my age. Her hair was jet black like mine and fell over the front of her shoulders past her breasts. But I couldn’t see her face, as most of her hair was blowing over her face from the wind.
I barely blinked and she was gone. Claire had replaced her, a worried look in her eye.
"You okay?" she asked. "Maybe your balance isn't so good."
"I just...I had another flashback."
"What's a flashback?
"You know, like when you see something that happened in the past."
"Like a memory?"
"Yeah I guess. But it was real. Or it felt real. As if a memory had somehow taken over my senses for a second. It happened in the train station too."
Claire seemed to ponder this for a while as I focused on pedaling forward, leading us under a giant bridge abutment that had a basketball court underneath it. Two kids played one on one. I rang the bike's bell as we whizzed by, but I couldn't tell if they heard it or not.
"What did you see?" Claire questioned.
I described the girl to her as best I could. She smiled. "She sounds pretty.”
"I--" Then I stopped the bike. I had to get off. I pulled over into a grassy patch by the river. Claire must have sensed we were stopping as she was practically off the bike by the time I stopped pedaling. I lay the bike down in the grass and sat down.
It was like I had just pulled the cork on a dam filled with water that had been building and building up pressure, just waiting to be released. People and noises and feelings and places poured forth, invading the silence inside my head and turning my mind into a soup.
"I miss you." It was my boyfriend. "I wish you could stay with me."
We were in a cafe, in Hongdae, sharing a coffee. It must have been around two in the morning. I'm sure we were drunk. It was a beautiful little space, our favorite late-nite haunt, lit with old lamps on 60’s retro tables. But the espresso filters cum decorative ceiling baubles were creeping closer by the minute.
"I can't, you know that," I had said. "I'm sorry."
The silence roared.
"This isn't my home, Jin."
"I could come with you. We could take a chance."
"You can't though. Your mom would never let you."
He nodded and took a sip of the coffee, stirring it with the little spoon after.
"I know," he said. "I know."
I held his hand and squeezed it as tight as I could, but I felt my fingers slip through his grasp, and suddenly he was gone, the cafe was gone, and I was sitting in my closet of an apartment in Bulgwang. Staring back at me was my suitcase that I'd stashed in the corner. The open zipper looked like a crooked mouth, mocking me.
A small boat motor burped and brought me back to the land of the living. Claire was down at the edge of the water, throwing small stones into the river. I stood up and walked over to her.
"I have to leave soon," she said, not looking at me.
"What do you mean?"
But she just shook her head. "What were you thinking about back there?" she asked, changing the subject.
Out on the river, I could see a party of four or five people on the back of a boat, laughing at what must have been a great joke. The sound of a child's squeal to my right caught my attention, and I turned to see a young couple tossing a toy ball with a little boy.
"My boyfriend. My life, I guess. It kind of all hit me at once."
"Yeah, I could tell. You don't have a very good poker face."
"What do you know about poker?"
"It's just an expression we learned in school. But I know what it means. It's okay, it's a good thing. People should know what you're thinking. It's not good to hide things."
"I don't really think I hide things."
"See, you're doing it again." She stepped back from the water's edge, bending over to pick up a caterpillar. "Say hello."
"Hi, Mr. Caterpillar," I responded dutifully.
Claire stooped and put him back in the grass where she'd found him. "Do you know why you're here?"
"Well, no. Not really. Not sure what you mean."
"What else do you see? Look around."
I scanned the small field that had suddenly become more populated. I spotted three high school boys playing some sort of tackling game. An elderly man doing arm swings. A few bicyclists stretching, decked out in full spandex. And then...
"It's him," I said.
And it was. I saw me and Jin sitting under a tree. He was leaning in to kiss me. This was the first place we kissed.
"It's kind of gross," Claire said.
I laughed. "Yeah." But of course it wasn't to me. He was perfect. I remembered thinking that day, probably two months into my stay in Seoul, that it all felt right, at that very moment. Why I had come, what I was doing, who I was. What had erased those feelings?
"You look tired," Claire remarked.
"How can you see that?" I asked her.
"Me. Him. All of this. Did you see the people in the subway when I ate the waffle?"
Again, silent acknowledgment.
"Wow. This is kinda weird."
"No weirder than anything else you've seen today."
Claire made her way back to the bike. Clumsily, I followed behind her, nearly tripping over some reeds. She took her backpack out of the basket and threw it over her shoulder. She grapped the gift bag and took the rose out of it, holding it out to me.
"Here. It's for you."
I was a little taken aback. But I took it.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
Claire shook her head. "We aren't going anywhere. It’s just time for me to go."
"Wait what? Did I do something wrong?"
"Not at all."
"But I like it here with you. It's the most fun I've had since...since I was here with Jin."
"If you love someone or some place so much that that's all you can think about, what do you think that means?"
"It's not that simple."
"But it can be, can't it? If I can understand it, surely you can. I see what you see. I feel what you feel. Do you get what I'm saying?"
I nodded. "But I want to stay here. With you."
"Tell me your name, Jae," Claire said.
I took a deep breath. I could feel something like a pit in my throat. I didn't want to say it.
"You have a name, don't you?"
"You remember it now?"
Claire smiled, but it was a sad smile just the same.
"Are you crying?" I asked her.
"A little. But it's okay." She turned around and headed down the path. I started after her, but I knew it was no use. I just watched her walk steadily forward, bags in tow, but still light on her feet. I didn't know where she was going, but I knew she'd be fine.
I closed my eyes for a second and took another breath, pulling the warm fall air deep into my lungs. When I opened my eyes, she was gone.
"Miss, please, can you understand me?"
My back hurt like a thousand needles were being shoved into it at once. I coughed and spat out what must have been blood, but I couldn't see it through the haze.
"Miss, can you get up? Are you okay?"
My eyes fixated on the voice coming from above me. It was a man in some sort of respirator mask. Korean police most likely. I had seen the safety videos on the station TVs and seen the masks on the train platforms.
"Do you speak English? Can you hear me?"
I nodded. "Help me up, please."
The man took my arm and I was able to stand. The demon in my back roared mightily but the muscles held to the bone. Everything stayed in the right place.
"Come with me, quickly."
"What happened?" I asked.
"It's okay, we need to get out of here." He escorted me across baggage and other rubble. Emergency lights flashed and a chorus of unintelligible Korean filled the wrecked car.
"Wait," I said, stopping. "The girl. She was right across from me."
"Come on, sir. This way."
I tried to fight him but I was too weak. I turned my head to look back but the smoke was too dense.
There were about a hundred of us out in the open air on the street above the station. The sign above me read "Mapo Exit 4." Dozens of paramedics and other emergency workers raced around the crowd, triaging the wounded and calling repeatedly to one another. I couldn't understand a word.
My bag was still around my shoulder, and although it must have taken the brunt of the collision with the train car partition, it was in remarkably good shape. I unclasped the button and opened up the top flap. Reaching in, I pulled out my phone and immediately dialed Jin.
The phone rang and rang. Did he have voicemail? I didn't even know. It had never gotten that far.
"Hello?" he said on the other line.
I was about to respond when I noticed something else in the bottom of my bag. I slid aside the packet of tissues and some discarded translation worksheets, pulling out a clump of rose petals. How had--
"Hello?" Jin said, more urgently. "Are you okay? I just heard."
"Yeah, I'm fine." I ran my thumb across the back of one of the petals. "Hey Jin?" I asked.
"I want to stay. With you."
I heard a sound echo through the speaker, but it was so loud around me I couldn't make out what it was.
"You there?" I asked.
"I'm here, I’m here." He sniffled. "Do you mean it?"
"What made you change your mind?" Her voice was hoarse.
I put the petal back in the bottom of my bag, where I'd gotten it. I took a good look around, seemingly unnoticed amongst the crowd.
"I love you, Jin."
After a few seconds, clear as day came his reply.
"I love you too, Claire."
Once again, taking some artistic inspiration from Murakami, this is one of the longer stories I've written. But it's based loosely on an experience I had in Japan in 2012. I was riding the train and saw the girl as described in the story. It's hard to explain, but I was so gutted seeing how tired/weighed down she was at only nine years old, that I ended up crying a little bit in my hostel later that day. Thankfully, the train did not crash that day. But I do always wonder what happened to her.