Backwards Against the Curve of Night
by Ian Christopher Hooper
She was on a plane flying over the Pacific Ocean, flying backwards against the curve of the night, beyond exhaustion, unable to sleep as the sun continually rose. Jotting down a letter, she told Tae how much she missed him already. She wrote about how he should come and visit, how he could stay for a week or a month or as long as he'd like. He studied sixty hours a week, training to be a pilot for Korean Air, and so this was actually a possibility. The paper under her hand still felt damp -- the roof in her apartment leaked and it rained so much this time of year in Korea. Last night they had just lain there in her room holding each other, worrying very little about her notebooks and pens or the dripping water.
They'd spent the last month planning out the whole scenario: he'd get himself sent to San Diego for his final six months of training, and she'd come down and see him on the weekends. Then all day yesterday they packed things up as carefully as possible, not so much because she was worried about stuff breaking -- Tae had gotten her plenty of bubble wrap and tape -- but because how else should one pack up a year of one's life? Carefully: it was a word that filled her with trepidation. Now on the plane she was working on the letter because it kept her mind off things, but when she finished there was nothing else to do but seal the envelope and neatly address it. After a while the stewardesses came round and shut all the window blinds. They dimmed the lights in the cabin and served dinner on the fold-out plastic trays and everyone tried to pretend that it was night outside. The Korean man next to her took off his shoes, then went to get his slippers down from the overhead compartment. She watched him as he did this because her bag was up there as well, stuffed full of tea sets and framed calligraphy. When she had first answered that ad in the paper, she had just been looking to do something her friends at law school would think audacious. Teach English in Korea, the ad read. It had said nothing about the strangeness of it all, the wet smells of fish and oil in the markets, the rainy season that hatched a million mosquitoes, the internet cafes and glass high-rises built in domino rows between straw-roofed apothecaries selling bear paws and powdered tiger bones. Now all that remained of that audacity jingled up there in that bag. Arriving in Los Angeles, the sun was still rising. And technically only an hour later than it had been when she left Korea. She had, literally, the whole day to live over again. She bought an LA Times and right away started looking for an apartment, because she had to get herself ready to start the new job, the offer she couldn't turn down but nearly did. That's what audacity meant to her now. She had explained this to Tae. She had never planned to stay in Korea forever.
The paper forecasted sunshine, blue skies, and dry Santa Ana winds. And it occurred to her that she was back in America for the first time in over a year. It felt great. Driving in her rental car to the hotel she could see the traffic swelling, punk rock kids heading out to Venice Beach, lawyers to their offices downtown. The streets seemed incredibly wide. Billboards proclaimed that the Cirque du Soleil was in town. There were a million things to do: find a place, buy new clothes, choose a brand of cereal, decide if she was going to stay vegetarian, remember not to stare at all the people speaking English. She passed a post office on her right and was a good two blocks past it when she stopped and went back. There was that letter, after all, already sealed and ready to go. Standing in line at the post office she examined it, the seal, the handwritten address. There were already so many miles between her and the address. How, she wondered, would their relationship look when time was added to the equation, when the x and the y axis curved upwards into, into what? It was like the change in the weather, from rainy Korea to sunny California -- it had nothing to do with love, but also everything, or at least something. She wasn't sure. But her Toyota was double parked out front and the day was really too gorgeous to spend inside re-writing letters. And then the clerk called for the next person in line, and she made her way up to the counter.
Ever so carefully, she mailed the letter.
The job was at a law firm that dealt in immigration cases, mostly middle-class Mexicans who had crossed the border years ago, raised a family, started a business, and were now trying to secure their good fortune with citizenship. It was satisfying work, even though so far she was just filing papers and researching case law. There seemed to be no doubt that she'd move up soon, but it was exactly the kind of entry-level job she'd gone to Korea to avoid. She'd skipped off before taking the bar, so there was still that to study for, but each day she was less the student who had always resisted graduating and more a woman with a plan, career goals, a job she liked. She came in early and left late and even loved the way the office smelled of paper that had gotten wet and then dried, a smell that was rich and musty like Indian summer. There were leather-bound books that lined the walls of nearly every room, so many that she wondered if the books -- and not the walls -- actually held the old building up.
She got postcards from Tae, who was in school now in Seoul. They were learning on small planes, he wrote, but the big flight simulators were still in San Diego. And how's the weather, he wrote? She wrote back about the cases she was working on, about how complicated immigration law was, and how unfair. She wrote of parties thrown by clients who were now U.S. citizens, and how they invited their extended families and their employees and how there were tamales and bubbling pots of atole and Spanish expressions to learn, like the difference between saying ándale fast or slow. There was so much to tell that she never got around to writing about the weather.
The night that everything came crashing down was the night Tae called to say that he'd been in San Diego for the last month and that Korea was a mess and that there'd been a run on the banks and could she pick him up at the bus station in L.A.. His English was good, but there was so much inside of him trying to get out that it made no sense at all. How long had he been in San Diego, she asked him -- Why hadn't he called before this? He wasn't much better in person: dark circles under his eyes, body slumped. She came to understand that it had started when the Thai currency had collapsed, followed by Indonesia's, and then the Korean won came tumbling down too, a last domino, eventually settling at two-thousand to the dollar. His family's savings were wiped out; Korean Air teetered on the brink of insolvency. This she could understand. Composed of facts, it was no different than looking
over a deposition at work. But why, she asked, why hadn?t he called before this? He answered by way of saying that the airline was sending him back to Korea; the Stateside training was too expensive now. All the trainees were going back in a day, maybe two.
"I'll still write," she said, because she of all people knew that without a job or a flush bank account, there was no way he was going to get a visa to stay. "You don't have to." "I will, if you want me to -- " "It doesn't matter anymore," he said, waving his hand around. Then she saw that he had started to cry. "All you ever write about is your job," he said angrily, "and the people you've met and how wonderful they are. But I've never met them. I don't want to meet them. I didn't want to call you if that was what you were going to talk about." Then he realized he was crying, and shut up. They were silent for the rest of the time in her car, while she drove him out to LAX. She dropped him off at the hotel where Korean Air was putting him up, then drove all the way back across town to her apartment. Home, she unpacked the box of tea sets and calligraphy that she'd been too busy to unpack before, the ones that she had brought so carefully back with her from Korea. She threw the bubble wrap all over the floor and then lined up her souvenirs on the dining room table in order from largest to smallest. She bent over each and every object and sniffed carefully. She even held up a celadon green tea cup and pressed it to her lips, but that did no good either. She would have liked to have cried, like Tae, but there didn't seem any point in it now. It had been pouring rain her last night in Korea, but now, she realized, her souvenirs all smelled of sunshine.