(The Return is a story about love, loss, and self-discovery, and it can be found in Seoul Shorts: “Disturbing yet riveting, these short stories will take you to a place you’ve never been before.”)
His crimson robe covered pale white skin. His head was shaved, and as he bowed in front of me he held a string of wooden beads or something in steady, folded hands. Mine were shaking. He was beautiful, and our eyes met as he rose. He looked young. I wondered what he was.
The voice of the gods would have called out to me once– in a moment like this one, but I had stopped listening to them when I turned 16.
I turned away from him and entered the temple. I stayed in there for hours. I had been raised Catholic, but the thick, suffocating smell of incense was the same.
I had fallen asleep bent in half. I straightened awkwardly and rose, suddenly awake again. The steady sound of falling rain slowly reached my ears. Feeling numb, I walked stiffly to the temple doors. I looked outside, but as I looked outside I looked inside of myself. The road had disappeared. It was buried in water. The path to my childish dreams had disappeared. It was buried in tears.
A voice called out to me in accented English, soft and tranquil: “There is a boat. I take you to land?”
It was the boy, but all I could see of him from where I stood in the doorway were his feet dangling gently in the air. I could sense his calm as he sat on the rooftop and touched the sky with his limbs. Was he looking inside of himself as he looked out at the world around him?
What was it that he saw?
I was shaking and felt sick and feverish as feeling suddenly returned to my limbs. I ignored him and put on my shoes, and I had to tie the laces of my high-heeled boots tight before I stepped out of the temple completely. The rain soaked my black hair, and it fell like ink onto my skin. I pushed it out of my eyes and stumbled into the rain, into the gray world around me. The water was almost over my head now, but I could barely see the brown, earth-filled waves in front me.
Was this a dream?
I would never be able to dream, at least not here. I would never be able to drown, at least not in someone else. The rain kept falling, and the water kept rising, but I stood still and stared at the gray sky. I felt as if I would float somewhere far, far away as the water pushed and pulled against my body, but I knew that the rain would stop– that the roads would reappear– that I would have to return.
Even though there was no one waiting for me, I would have to return.
Those two words were whispers passing from my chapped, dry lips. I needed to find my belief, because I had lost it somewhere. The man I had left behind…
If I closed my eyes I saw his face and felt his breath and hands against my skin. Had he been real? I had never been able to believe in him.
The boy began to pray as I spoke those words again and again.
Had it been yesterday: The departure, the rain, the return? But, no, I could smell incense, and as I opened my eyes I saw him again: The boy. I had thought that he, too, was leaving. I remembered his limbs as they had touched the sky and his feet as they had dangled in the air above me when I had passed beneath him.
His voice pulled me from my thoughts as he said, “I saw you from far away as I sat on the roof and prayed. I prayed that you would return on your own, but you kept walking into the water. I did not save you. I only carried your body here once the rain stopped, and then I prayed that you would live.”
I coughed and coughed again. My chest hurt. My shirt was stained a faint brown, and my jeans were muddy. My feet, my face, and my hands were clean, though. He bathed me with a soft cloth that smelled faintly of lavender. Cool water rushed over the skin of my forehead.
He had changed into a different robe. It was gray and plain. His head was freshly shaved. I wondered, and then I asked, “How many days have passed?”
“Only a few hours,” he replied, and then began to pray again. His voice melted over me, rhythmic and strong.
“Stop,” I said harshly, and then more softly, “…Stop.”
He faltered, and his eyes suddenly opened wide, and his mouth suddenly opened wide, too. It hung there open and voiceless as his lower lip trembled over his angled, youthful jaw. I laughed, because he hadn’t tried to save me. I laughed, because he hadn’t tried to stop me, but soon I was lost in the sound of silence that fell over us as I stopped laughing.
My thoughts pushed me back into the water.
One toothbrush… One toothbrush… I kept staring at my toothbrush… My toothbrush without his, my life without him. I had forgotten what it felt like to be alone, although once I had told him I felt as if he didn’t exist. Unanswered phone calls, smiles that only sometimes reached his eyes, and all the times that he had never looked back to see me as I drove away had made me feel as if he didn’t exist.
I would like to take all those words back. I would like to bring him back.
I closed my eyes and turned away from the boy who hovered over me. He was silent and still as he watched me. I knew that I had shaken him from his thoughts, his prayers, and his life. I knew that I did not belong here, but I could not leave…
As I lay there, I thought of all the times I had woken up next to him and felt as if I was completely alone. He had dreamed nameless dreams beside me– dreams I would never know– dreams he would never tell me; and, I had felt as if he would never wake up– as if he would always be dreaming– as if he would always be somewhere else…
Somewhere far from me.
When had he begun to sleep with his back to me?
It must have been in those moments that he began to turn away from me, to leave.
“I’m leaving,” he had whispered as my face crumbled in on itself, folding and wrinkling. He had looked so different, and I had splintered into one thousand pieces that I would never be able to put back together.
I had looked for those pieces, though, days after as regret ate away my flesh and muscle to the bone: Regret that he had left me, or regret that I had let him, or regret that I had loved him?
Regret… Regret made me remember everything that I had tried to wash away with tears, to drown away in rain.
He had left the country but stayed in my heart and taken all of those pieces of myself with him. Months had passed, but one day I had looked at my lonely toothbrush, my lonely towel, my lonely pillow, and my lonely plate. Everything had seemed to be missing, and I realized there was nothing.
I was nothing without him.
I had booked a flight and packed my bags. I had walked the path he had walked. It took me out the door, to the airport, and I landed somewhere in Seoul. I had no way to find him, but I had woken up from my dreams quickly when he had appeared in front me and walked past me as if he did not know me, as if he did not have all those pieces and parts of me that I needed to keep living.
My heart had died as his shoulders had hunched and pushed past mine in the middle of a crowded street. I had stood utterly still, knowing it was him but unable to look back, because he had seen me– because he had walked past me– because he had turned away from me and left me again.
I had wandered and taken a wrong turn after taking the wrong bus and found myself in some beautiful countryside that had been filled with the sound of wind rustling through trees. It was a wind that had blown the tears off of my cheeks. The temple had appeared as I had walked away, knowing I would never be able to find myself– to leave him– to return.
The boy pushed me, pulling me away from my thoughts and back into the world. He had prepared some semblance of a meal. I refused it, feeling unable to eat.
The day passed away.
Delirium pushed me into a sweaty nightmare, and the boy who hadn’t saved me and the man I had once loved– who also hadn’t saved me, began to blend together. Someone began to pray– softly, so that I would not hear, but I heard him– the boy, and his rhythmic, powerful voice pulled me from my nightmare and into a deep, black sleep.
I woke up, surrounded by folds of crimson cloth on my naked skin. I looked at the boy as he hovered over me. He blushed and looked away.
“You were fevered, so I took you to the river and bathed you. This was the only clothing I had.”
“You saved me,” I whispered in a hoarse, tired voice.
“Because… Because you are the first visitor to this temple in years, and I have been alone for all those years, and I… I do not like being alone.”
His voice shook and broke, losing its rhythm and strength. His tears fell softly, and since there was no wind I wiped them away. I held him for awhile, because he had not turned away from me, because he had not left me.
We stepped out into the sunlight as morning’s dawn came. It was the only promise left unbroken. We ate on the temple steps. His robe was gray. Mine was crimson. They soon overlapped, becoming one as the sun faded– cloth that echoed with the sound of tears and laughter, cloth that hung loosely on our limbs even as we clung tightly to life.
I left the temple, my steps as I made my return were rhythmic, strong. No one would save me, but when would I stop destroying myself?