Photo by MARY CELINE HARTWIG
dear chae won
Dear Chae Won,
The first day I met you I felt as though I had met you before and I am convinced it had a lot to do with your injured ankle. The introductions were made from a close distance the day of the walking tour; it had allowed me to only retain your last name and I might have addressed you by Lee for a good two weeks into the residency.
We spoke briefly one day as you sat in the corner of the sofa facing the wall of the common room, I sat in front of you and interrupted your reading with badgering questions you hadn’t seemed to mind. You handed me your book, with a look that told me that you were curious about my curiosity and I believe that was the day we became friends, because it became the day you told me that you went by Chae Won and not Lee. I nodded in agreement with a silent repetition of your name in my head, so I would remember the next time I saw you. You told me about the young Japanese writer you were reading and about how you admired her writing, but all I could admire was the layout of the book and the pinkish color that made me wish I read Korean. You pointed out a few things that are very vague now, I can’t recall word for word, but I remember exactly that you made me feel like I could also finish my book.
We exchanged nods, I left the common room.
Since that day, we might have spoken a couple of times about the program, about the weather, about the things we liked and disliked and other random issues that came to us each time we crossed paths but no specific agendas. Our conversations almost always started in the same polite manner that somehow obliged us to respect it, as though it was some sort of a ritual we secretly established. In between “How are you?” and “How is your foot today?” we would exchange a smile and a look through our spectacles that would say we had more to say to each other but maybe the reading we needed to get to would be in the way to say all of it, so the smiles said it all more often than not. A car would come for you, minutes after we had gone on foot ahead of you and you would get to whatever commitment we had only to leave in the same way we had separately arrived.
I was happy to hear that the answer to that same lame question I threw at you each time we saw one another changed to “good” from “better” one day. Maybe, secretly more for me than you, I was getting closer to why I had strongly felt as though I had met you before. So we went to lunch with Amanah and Tomoka after a Friday panel where we had consciously avoided the pizza and the lemonade for this luncheon quartet we had planned that morning. Enjoying our Chinese platters of food, where none of us were from China, had given us a trampoline to bounce off and get the conversations rolling. The common questions were thrown here and there about what was commonly cooked and eaten in our respective countries among other revelations of our homelands.That was when it had clicked to me[JJ1] .
I had a Korean friend four years ago by the name of Hyeson whom I hadn’t heard from since we last saw each other after she left for South Korea. I told you about how she had disappeared after our goodbyes at the airport in Prague and that I had tried reaching out to her in vain since then. I am not certain I told you the whole story then, so I will tell it to you in this letter; that day over lunch might not have given us enough time to go into the details.
We accidentally met with Hyeson. She occupied a room in the Residential complex I lived in, that was literally everyday I got back from Uni and it seemed different than all of the rooms in that building. You see, we lived in the oldest building of the Residence and all of the rooms were archaically similar, with the same wooden cupboard visible from outside and the same metallic window frames, which gave it more of a hospital look than a University dorm room, except for hers.
After weeks of staring at this window which promised a room far more sophisticated than the one I occupied, I approached Monique, the lady at the reception desk. I asked her what number that room was and why it was different. Monique didn’t seem concerned or shocked by my demands, as she knew me very well. She understood I was curious as I usually was. She told me the room number explaining it was one of the test run rooms for future renovation plans. I went and knocked on the door with a friend of mine from Colombia who lived on the same floor. Alejandro didn’t believe me when I told him at first until Hyeson opened the door shocked to see two weirdos at her door bearing gifts. We explained that we were intrigued by the look of her room from outside, that we were convinced that she had the best room on our floor and that we wanted to see it—we had come with gifts so she couldn’t refuse.
Indeed her room was in the 21st century. A bed that folded into the wall giving her working and even dancing space, while ours was stuck somewhere between the 15th and the 16th centuries, where we competed for space with the molds that surprisingly showed up once and again. She couldn’t understand that the other rooms could be so different. So we all went to my room for coffee and afterwards, Hyeson, Alejandro and other friends grabbed tea and coffee in my room after classes for months[JJ2] [VJJ3] [VJJ4] to follow. Our friendship grew and though we knew the possibilities of ever seeing each other afterwards were slim we became sisters, almost conjoined twins, until bedtime when she went back to her modern room and I to my morbid one.
Our time was up and we wanted to say goodbye properly so instead of hugs and gifts at the train station of the small town that was Poitiers, we had decided to take trips, each on different sides of the continent and meet in Prague where the goodbye would be turned into an “Au revoir”.
And so we did. I set off through the west of France, passed through Lyon, Chavanay, Annecy, Geneva and Prague. She went through Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo and then to Stockholm before getting to Prague after cancelling her trip to Helsinki. I met her in Prague, two days after she had arrived, one day earlier than expected at a friend’s apartment who was letting us stay when she traveled inland. A childhood friend was to join us the next day so I had gotten there excited to see Hyeson after weeks of travel. The backpack was getting heavy but it wasn’t as heavy as her foot with a cast as big as my back pack, high up on a pillow that laid on a chair and her sitting on the couch, back against the sofa. There was a look on her face, I couldn’t quite put a finger on. I felt sorry, sad and confused all at once. She explained a metal ball as heavy as a truck load of houses had fell on her right toes in a museum in Stockholm and that she had to cut her trip short. She couldn’t visit Helsinki but she made it to Prague because she wanted us to see each other as promised before we set off to maybe never cross paths again. I was sad and happy but mostly sorry that she had to endure the kind of pain she described with details of the state of her toes when she last saw them, the number of stitches and operations. We couldn’t see it and that was a good thing. There was something in her that had changed though, something that had died along with her canceled trip to Helsinki. I didn’t understand it then.
You see, Chae Won I was a lot younger than I am now and I wasn’t very bright or sensitive to certain things, I guess. I couldn’t know how she felt. I am not sure I do now. All of the pain and the description of the pain that hurt her and myself respectively disappeared when we laughed about so many other things that made us forget about this misfortune.
My friend, Minelik, joined us the next day and only the two of us could get food, drinks and squeeze in visits of the city because her foot wouldn’t let her move as much as she wanted to. Petra’s apartment was on the 5th floor and the building had no elevators which meant that dragging her foot or carrying herself on the crutches was very taxing for her and her motivation had flown out of the window with the cigarette buds we had thrown out the previous night. By then our periods were synchronized once more and our talks were back where we had left off and Minelik only understood half of the laughter that we shared and he'd shake his head now and again as we burst out laughing for reasons that were lost to him.
The day before she had to leave for Korea though, I decided she needed to see Prague because she had come for that. I was determined that we would stop every time she needed to, carry her when we needed to and even get a cab if necessary. She made it down the stairs and out the door but wanted to go back instantly—she had given up but I wouldn’t let her. There were no cabs in that area, the bus wouldn’t pass there and we could only ask for rides. Can you imagine two black youngsters and a young Asian girl in crutches asking for rides in Prague? Neither could the drivers that passed us without hesitation. We had to walk up and down the hill, with my friend giving her the softer encouragements when I unrelentingly insisted she had to do it with a straight face that didn’t show the pain I was feeling inside. A face I didn’t know I could pull off, I couldn’t show her weakness, she needed to feed off the staleness of my face. I don’t know if I was too hard on her when I kept saying that it was only a minute away, that we were almost there and pushed her mentally up that hill which was painful for me let alone Hyeson and her casted foot. We made it though. We then walked down what looks like the Capitol of Iowa city and landed on the main strip of Prague, the busiest street of the city.
She smiled and I smiled back, fighting the tears of regret for being rigid. We had made it, we sat at an ice cream joint and celebrated. The laughter didn’t take too much time to arrive and this time all three of us had stomach pains from laughter. We were happy, she had seen the center of the city which had everything the city had to offer; the bridge and the castles she would see another time, we were almost sure of it.
I don’t remember how we walked back to the apartment but the way back was much easier, she was bolder if I can dare say. We helped her up the stairs and probably burned all the calories up those five flights of stairs instantly. We were hungry again, so we cooked and enjoyed a good meal with good Czech beers and the laughter continued.
We got her to the airport the next day, he carried her bags and I carried her feelings. She left, leaving with me a warm hug, a smile and the remainder of her crowns. I haven’t heard from her since.
You see Chae Won, I sometimes regret not having left her resting in that apartment that day, maybe seeing the city wasn’t that important on that trip. Maybe, it was her time to sit and meditate and heal internally things I didn’t know of. Maybe, just maybe she wasn’t meant to see Prague just yet. Or maybe she was meant to and she did. I don’t know, I am unsure to this day whether or not her foot got better and I think that was probably the deeper question behind each instance I threw it at you—had she healed?
Chae Won, do you know? Can you know? Will you find out if just like you, her foot had healed and she could walk up and down the hills in South Korea?
When you see her, you would ask her for me wouldn’t you?
Ask her “How is your foot today?”