The flight to Seoul was long and quiet, but after exiting at the gate Kate expected more bustle, more noise to greet her. Sunlight emptied through a wall of windows and she crossed between rows of chairs toward the current of travelers. She felt like she moved noiselessly through the bright, scrubbed atrium, surrounded by a dull bubble of language, by people in suits and families toting children, a woman rolling a little lapdog in a wheeled carrier. The view as the plane descended had revealed a city cropped between mountains—tall and short buildings rose out of mist-draped hills—but wandering over the blank airport tile, Kate felt she could be anywhere at all.
On the flight, she’d overheard a woman talking about a storm coming to Korea. Kate was worried. She could be stuck in it, and perhaps she shouldn’t have come. Kate was certain she wasn’t a good traveler; she preferred to stay in one place, where she was. Unlike her sister Betsy, Kate didn’t need to roam the earth, forever drifting. In search of what, anyway?
At the baggage claim, Kate saw Betsy right away. Her sister wore leggings and a floral-patterned dress; her hair was cut short and jagged, peeking out of a scarf tied behind her ears. Betsy looked both familiar and strange, revised somehow, like a painting done by a stranger. Someone who didn’t know Kate’s sister at all.
Betsy rested her hand on the mound of her stomach with a tenderness Kate had never seen. Or at least never noticed.
“You’re pregnant,” Kate said. It was just like Betsy not to warn her, to let her deduce everything for herself.
“Yes.” Betsy looked down as if in reminder. She fanned her fingers one at a time against her tunic’s stretched flowers. “Six months.” She grabbed Kate’s purse and draped it over her arm. “We can talk about it later.”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“I didn’t find out.” Betsy pointed at the light indicating the baggage about to appear.
Only after Kate looked away from the surprise of Betsy’s stomach did she notice the Korean man standing slightly behind Betsy, clasping his hands together and waiting.
“Lee Jun-soo,” Betsy said, and the man bowed. “He came to see Seoul. You can call him Jun-soo.” At this, Jun-soo nodded in confirmation.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Kate said, and Jun-soo nodded again, his hands still clasped. As the baggage ran down the conveyer, Kate looked at her sister and Jun-soo, wanting to ask why he was really there with them, at the airport. Kate knew he must be somehow important, that he must figure into this strange new life, but Betsy would never just come out and say the things that needed to be said.
After Kate grabbed her suitcase, she walked behind Betsy and Jun-soo toward the exit, the little luggage wheels keeping rhythm on the grooved white floor. Betsy turned back to face Kate, round ceiling lights bouncing off the floor and glinting against her necklace, lighting up her face. “Well, happy birthday, then,” Betsy said.
Kate reached out and gently touched Betsy’s back, which Betsy either didn’t notice or didn’t acknowledge. “Happy birthday,” Kate said.
She and Betsy were both adopted. They had been adopted two years apart, two ruddy blond girls from separate birth families, but were around the same age. Kate was adopted as a newborn and then, later, Betsy was adopted at two. Their parents always celebrated their birthdays together and Kate always thought of her and her sister as twins.
“You actually came,” Betsy said, and her voice sounded just like Kate remembered it, a strained balance of charity and reprimand.
“Of course,” Kate said, though in the days leading up to the trip even she began to doubt she would go through with it. When packing she’d felt panicky, and she questioned what good visiting would even do.
Kate had come to visit her sister and to celebrate their thirtieth birthdays. That was the reason she owned outright, the reason she admitted to. What she didn’t admit was that she hoped to convince Betsy to move home. It didn’t seem right that a new decade should start with them living so scattered and apart, just the occasional e-mail between them that didn’t say much, if anything at all. Kate hadn’t seen Betsy in two years, not since Betsy had moved to South Korea to teach English after her divorce. The two years felt longer somehow, though, as if time had stretched the distance between them. Kate had hardly even seen any photos of Betsy from the last few years. Lately, when she’d imagined her sister in Korea, Betsy still appeared twenty in her mind, her body so angular and thin. That was the age Betsy had married Mark, against their parents’ wishes, when Mark and Betsy had left her family behind to travel Europe, eventually finding a way to stay and teach English in France. This trip to Korea was Kate’s first experience abroad and Betsy had suggested she stay longer, but a short trip was all that seemed manageable. Kate didn’t want to be away from home.
On the bus to the center of Seoul they passed twenty-story apartment buildings and factories interspersed with small rice fields. The driver wore white gloves and wove between traffic. Seoul was more metal and flash than Kate had imagined, if she ever imagined it at all. Betsy lived in Gyeongju, a few hours from Seoul in the southeast part of the country. On the train to Gyeongju, the landscape passed like the blurred memory of a recent dream. Along the way, Jun-soo quietly gestured to various things out the window, various towns they were passing, and Betsy announced the name, told Kate a little about the landscape. Kate wasn’t sure how much English Jun-soo spoke. He seemed to understand everything she and Betsy said, but responded himself with only one or two short phrases. Perhaps he was a man of few words. “See,” Jun-soo would insist as he pointed. He kept repeating that. “See.”
Betsy lived on the eleventh floor of her apartment building. When Kate entered at the ground level, there was a pervasive smell of fish. Jun-soo allowed the women to go ahead of him on the elevator, gesturing with his arm, you first.
“You get used to it,” Betsy said about the smell.
Right away, Betsy led Kate over to window in her living room and pointed to the view. “The Taebaek Mountains,” she said. “I always wanted to live near mountains.” Kate looked between the sharp and more rolling tree-covered peaks, at the way they faded in the distance—less brightly green, like ghosts standing behind their lush and closely real counterparts.
Betsy’s washing machine sat on the enclosed balcony, and she had her laundry strung up in rows drying. Across the courtyard, in another apartment building a woman hung sheets. She stopped and watched Betsy and Kate, waiting until they headed inside before she finished her task. Betsy showed Kate the bathroom: how the shower drained in the center of the room, how you could spray anywhere you wanted with water, standing in the middle of the tile.
“I didn’t want to tell you this because I was afraid you wouldn’t come, but there is a storm coming.” Betsy sprayed a little near Kate’s feet, holding up the showerhead like a weapon.
Kate jumped back from the spray. “I heard,” she said, not betraying her worry.
“It’s supposed to be pretty bad.” Betsy walked out the bathroom and toward the kitchen. “We’ll see.”
“What kind of storm?” Kate asked, but Betsy didn’t answer. She got out the kettle and boiled some water for tea on her miniature stove. Betsy’s teacups were like little delicate porcelain bowls. Jun-soo, after taking a few sips, excused himself. He closed the door quietly behind him.
“He lives close,” Betsy explained. “One day he just started walking over.”
“You didn’t even know him?” Kate set her teacup down on the counter with more force than she intended.
Betsy laughed. “No, I knew him. I’d been teaching him English. He’d recently come here from North Korea. We both had so few friends.”
“So you became close?”
“It just made sense he would walk over.” She twirled her finger in her tea, but said no more.
Mark was a Canadian man Betsy met while waitressing in Toronto, the first place she went after high school. Their elopement coincided with a crisis in Kate and Betsy’s parents’ lives. Their parents had begun orbiting each other as sudden strangers in the family’s small home. Kate had never seen this coming. To her, in all her memory, her parents seemed to get along just fine. They went about their marriage in a highly quotidian, but not entirely passionless, way. It seemed incomprehensible that they couldn’t work it out. Betsy hadn’t been around to see any of this. She was already in Toronto and then off to Europe as a young bride. Kate, though, felt like she was watching the erosion of some spectacular cliff, time-lapse photography detailing nature’s inevitable descent. It was bit by bit, fast and slow all at once, amazing something so seemingly strong could break off and fall right into the sea.
To Kate it sometimes felt like her family had been purposefully scattered to far-flung locales in order to make up for the years they spent living in close quarters. Growing up, they’d lived in a two-bedroom townhouse in northern Michigan. Their condo had been built for summer travelers, not families, not for working parents and two children.
Kate’s mother had left her father for good three years ago—the year before Betsy’s own divorce. Their mom moved into a friend’s cabin in Colorado. She’d become a yoga fanatic and planned retreats, jockeying about from ashram to ashram throughout the year. After she left, Betsy and Kate’s father felt he had no reason to stay in Michigan, and he packed up for New York City as if he were in his twenties himself and desperate to live out some big-city dream.
“I’ve always wanted to,” he said when Kate asked him why on earth he was going.
Occasionally, at home, Kate would drive by the old family condo. She only lived a couple of blocks away. She would imagine the ways the new family—a summers-only trio consisting of a young couple with a small boy—changed the decoration. They probably tracked sand all over the rug. The boy’s little cars and building blocks were probably scattered on the floor. When Kate drove by in the winter, the building was dark and shuttered, the snow piled high on the sidewalk.
After Kate took a nap on Betsy’s thin couch, the sisters went outside to spend time in the warm evening air. They drank pineapple Fanta and sat in folding chairs set up at the edge of the parking lot, facing the mountains.
“Promise me you’ll eat more than rice,” Betsy said. “The food here is delicious.”
“I’ll try it,” Kate promised. “A woman on the plane said I have to try the kimchi.”
The sun was beginning to set behind the distant high-rise apartment buildings closer to the mountains. Betsy lifted her soda bottle toward the sky. “To your visit.”
Kate mimicked the action. “I’m finally here.”
Betsy pointed out where she walked most mornings, how lovely it could be in the morning mountain fog.
“So, is Jun-soo the father?” Kate asked. Raising the question felt awkward, but she didn’t know how else to do it.
Betsy paused before answering. Kate thought she heard her sigh. “He’s not. Look, we’ll talk about it later.” Betsy finished the last of her soda, shook the empty glass bottle. Kate asked her to tell her about the storm. “I heard about it on the plane,” she said.
“The worst typhoon the country has seen in a few years,” Betsy said.
“Great time for a visit.” Kate’s eyes followed a small finch flying toward the mountains.
“It will be fine. We have the whole national park between us and the coast. And we have four days before we even need to worry about it.”
“I’d like to go to the sea,” Kate said, picturing the empty expanse of park between the city and a coast she could barely imagine. “But not if it’s dangerous.”
“I figured. I thought Jun-soo might take you. You’ll be fine.”
“Jun-soo?” Kate noticed, the way she often did outside at dusk, that it felt suddenly dark and cold.
“He also loves the water, the sea.” Betsy’s English felt a little stilted as she grew tired, as if she was unused to its daily practice. “As you do,” Betsy said. Kate hoped the formal quality of their interactions would pass, that they would get used to each other and find an ease she thought she remembered.
Kate asked Betsy to tell her about Jun-soo, and Betsy explained that she had been tutoring him just over a year, how he was a refugee from North Korea and thirty-eight years old. Some Chinese missionaries had helped him escape to South Korea four years earlier, and he’d been learning English through the volunteer organization Betsy helped with.
“Why is he learning English?”
“He was a doctor in North Korea.” Betsy flung her arms up, as if to indicate elsewhere. “He had to restart medical school and they use English terms here.”
Betsy explained how Jun-soo had trouble adjusting to the twenty-four-hour lights of the city. How he’d gotten used to the blackout darkness of Chongjin, his hometown in North Korea, and how he felt most himself when it was completely black. “He turns off all of the lights in his apartment. He eats dinner in the dark.”
Betsy explained how hungry Lee Jun-soo had been as a young man and how he would steal pears to eat. She said he left North Korea one day, without telling any of his family, without even a warning. “He walked to the Tumen River and waited for nighttime, when he thought the guards might be asleep. Then, he just crossed it.”
Jun-soo rolled up his pants and felt his shoes sink in the silt bottom. She said it was like he couldn’t even think; he just went, and then walked until he found someone who could speak Korean. The man took one look at Jun-soo’s skinny, malnourished frame, his flimsy synthetic clothes, and knew where he came from. He brought him to a missionary church that helped people reach South Korea.
“Just like that,” Betsy said, describing his disappearance. “Poof.” She cupped the empty glass bottle with both of her hands. “He left, and no one could know.”
Later, Kate had trouble falling asleep, her body refusing to adapt to the new time zone. Betsy had made up the couch for her in her living room and the black-fitted sheet was soft and worn, and Kate ran her foot over its pilled middle. When she turned, she felt it tear. While trying to fall asleep, she ran her foot over and over that tear.
Wide awake, she got up and walked toward the closed door down the hall that she was told would be the baby’s room. She opened the door and saw Betsy had decorated the walls with small canvas paintings of animals on bright-colored backgrounds. Below the cartoon faces of horses and frogs, Betsy had painted the Korean interpretations of their sounds in careful characters. Kate sat in the rocking chair near the crib. Betsy would have a baby in this place. She would put the baby in a high chair, feed the baby gooey spoonfuls of unfamiliar food. She would rock the baby night after night.
It was difficult to reconcile Betsy’s existence in Korea, the new life growing inside of her, with Kate’s own life. Kate thought she wanted children, but she always thought someday, someday. And she’d gotten used to the idea of living alone, never leaving her small apartment in Michigan. And yet, it didn’t seem impossible to want the chaos in which Betsy chose to live. Kate knew she was jealous, though she couldn’t imagine herself living in this place. Betsy belonged, somehow. Kate never had.
A couple of days later, Kate was still waking jet-lagged and groggy. The past few afternoons had been full of sight-seeing around Betsy’s city in the company of Jun-soo. This morning, as most mornings, Kate could hear the quiet sounds of Korean and English words drifting from the kitchen. She ambled over in her socks and pajamas toward Jun-soo and Betsy speaking in low voices. Jun-soo wore a collared shirt and pressed slacks. His black hair was slightly long and hung across his forehead. As Kate approached, she saw Jun-soo’s hands on Betsy’s stomach. He removed them and nodded at Kate when she entered. Betsy handed over a cup of coffee.
“I let you sleep.” Betsy took a sip from her own mug. “Will you be ready soon?”
“Yes.” Kate raised the mug in thanks and went to go change.
Jun-soo called after her. “I am coming.”
Kate looked back at him and smiled. “Great.” She nodded. She felt like she and Jun-soo were constantly nodding at each other, that there was this frustrating and seemingly impassable boundary between them.
“This country. So beautiful,” Jun-soo said, as if he needed to convince Kate.
“It is. It is.” Kate chided herself for the constant repetition, the saying nothing at all. “I can see that.”
In e-mails leading up to the trip, Betsy had told Kate how Gyeongju was the ancient capital of the Silla empire, which reigned over part of the Korean peninsula for nearly a thousand years. On the tourism website Betsy sent Kate, they called Gyeongju the “Museum Without Walls.” As the seat of the Silla empire, it contained Buddhist temple ruins and tombs. It was surrounded by the lowlands of the Taebaek Mountains and bordered by the Sea of Japan. The city dated back thousands of years and kings were buried there. The Silla people encased their dead rulers in tumuli, or burial mounds, in the center of town. In the e-mails, Betsy had only shared history, but somehow this interaction felt more intimate than their as-yet formal exchanges.
That afternoon, Jun-soo, Betsy, and Kate took a bus to the tumuli. The hills were deep green and looked like rows of grass bellies, stomachs of earth interred with Silla kings. Betsy told Kate how the tombs were mostly preserved, left untouched for centuries in the center of the city. There could be plenty of riches inside—jewelry and statues and crowns. Kate read about what was called the bone rank caste system during the dynasty. Instead of tracing ancestry through bloodlines, the Silla had used a system of sacred bone, bone belonging to those with royal ancestors on both sides of the family, and true bone, bone belonging to other royals, to represent the highest classes.
Betsy walked ahead of them through the grass hills like a guide. “I like to come here and walk between the tombs,” she said.
One of the burial mounds had been excavated and turned into a museum. Inside, there was a cross-section of the tomb, showing layers of wood and stone. Betsy waited outside while Jun-soo and Kate went in. “I’ve been a million times,” she said. “It’s very hot in there.”
Inside, another American was touring the tumulus, and Kate found it comforting and disconcerting to hear him speak, to see him point to a map and ask where he could see a particular temple. His voice sounded robotic, his accent exaggerated. She watched him wait until he thought no one was looking and place his hands on the tomb wall.
Lee Jun-soo watched the man as well, and when he saw the man touch the stone, he went over to him. “No,” Jun-soo said, reaching his hand out like he wanted to touch the man’s shirt. “No.” The American raised his arms deferentially, apologizing. Jun-soo looked like he was about to say something else, but the man was already walking away, out of the museum and back toward open air. “He touched it,” Jun-soo said to Kate. “I can’t believe his disrespect.”
This was the most Jun-soo had spoken to Kate so far, and his English was better than she’d thought. It seemed he was becoming more willing to talk to her and that perhaps their shortness with each other up to this point had been a mutual shyness.
“Do you like Gyeongju?” Kate asked him then as they walked inside the short grass hill.
“Not as much as your sister. She loves it. She doesn’t miss her home. Like I do, maybe,” he said. He looked at Kate, perhaps realizing this information might be difficult to hear. “I like the market,” he quickly added. “So many foods I’ve never eaten. Bananas, papayas, kiwi.”
“What does my sister like?”
“The history.” He stopped for a moment, thinking. “The mountains. She likes walking around and nobody looks like her.”
“I was hoping to convince her to come back home.”
At this, Jun-soo looked at Kate and then away at a plaque describing the Silla empire. She thought she saw some terror in his eyes. “I didn’t know she was so happy here,” Kate said. Betsy was right about the heat in the tomb, and Kate began to feel short of breath, surrounded by visitors speaking an assortment of languages. She walked out, leaving Jun-soo examining an artifact. Back outside, she passed a Korean mother who grabbed up her child, as if to protect him from Kate’s urgency. Kate didn’t see Betsy, and she sat in the grass for a moment, waiting for Betsy and Jun-soo to search for her. At home, whenever she felt panicky and surrounded, she located herself in relation to the lake. From Gyeongju, Lake Michigan was over 6,500 miles to the east, across the Pacific Ocean.
At home, Kate lived alone a few blocks away from the family’s abandoned condo in a small studio near a grocery store. She lived in the attic apartment of an elderly woman’s house and she worked from home copyediting scholarly books and journals. During the day, rising up from a dense manuscript on northeastern African language acquisition, she could hear the woman’s soap operas, the way she hummed, the buzzing of her oxygen tank—the dull but loud sound of it rolling over linoleum.
People were often surprised when they learned Kate and Betsy weren’t twins. Betsy was several months older than Kate, though she joined the family later. Kate wished she could remember that—gaining a big sister one day, seemingly out of the blue. Their parents told Kate she wasn’t very nice to Betsy at first, that she would reach her toddler hands toward Betsy’s face and yank on her skin, pulling at her red cheeks, her nose. It was as though, in their silent baby play, Kate understood Betsy would be sharing what was hers.
When they got back to the apartment, they saw a neighbor sweeping the front lobby. As they entered, this woman touched Betsy’s belly, and Betsy let her rest her hands there before they went inside.
During the following days, Kate watched for people preparing for the storm. She expected it to be like the news reports she saw of Florida hurricane prep in the States, all of the boarding-up of windows, the gathering of water and cans. To Kate, there seemed a lack of frenzied stockpiling and arrangements. Betsy waited until two days before the storm to tell Kate it was time for Jun-soo to take her to the sea. “Don’t worry, you’ll miss the rains,” Betsy said as she pulled pans out of the cupboard for dinner.
“I don’t want to go,” Kate said. She thumbed the bottom of her shirt as she sometimes did when she was nervous. “It seems unsafe.”
“Just go,” Betsy said. “It will be good for you.”
It made Kate furious when Betsy made such proclamations, as if everything Betsy did was right and brave—as if Betsy was the authority on what’s best—but Kate rarely spoke up about it, even when they were younger. She just wanted Betsy to stay close to her, to be like the inseparably linked twins Kate always heard about.
The next day, Kate and Jun-soo took the bus to Jeonson-ri on the coast. It was windy by the beach and Kate wrapped herself in a sweater of Betsy’s. There wasn’t really sand, just stones, and Kate took off her shoes to try and dig her feet beneath them. Two white men—tourists, Kate assumed—ran into the water in their boxers. They darted in and out, the surf splashing against their legs.
At home, Kate often biked or walked to Lake Michigan. During winter, she would drive, parking as close as she could to the water. She liked to watch the other people who went to the lake at night, or in cold weather. Lots of teenagers would gather there all year long—young boys who ran up as the waves crashed against breakers and girls who’d happily shriek.
Jun-soo stood beside Kate. Over the course of her trip, she’d gotten so used to his quiet, calming presence, but she always felt like she had no idea what he was thinking, what he made of her in general. “I love the water,” Kate told him. Why couldn’t she say anything more? Anything of consequence?
“This is the same water,” he said. “East Sea, we call it at home.” Jun-soo looked toward the faraway direction where Kate assumed Chongjin might be, north. “It has more wind and rocks. They built a fence along the rocks so no one sails away.”
On the beach, a couple in stylish black raincoats followed a toddler picking his way through the stones. They bent, reaching their hands behind him as he walked, ready to grab him if he tripped.
“I hated your sister, you know. At first.”
“I hated all Americans. They tell us to. At home. America is why we have no electricity. This is what they say.”
“There are lots of things to blame Americans for, I suppose.”
“Yes,” Jun-soo said, looking at Kate. “But different things. Not like I thought.”
They wandered quietly down the shore, the Korean couple ahead of them in the distance. They didn’t stay at the coast very long. When they’d walked as far as either of them wanted to go, they turned back to board the bus toward Betsy’s apartment. When they came in the front door, Betsy spun around, holding a spatula. “Did you two have fun?” she asked and she seemed happy to see them together. A piece of green pepper fell to the floor.
Newscasters were calling the impending weather Typhoon Dianmu. They warned of heavy rains, and they said it might be the worst typhoon in a while, the first to make landfall in Korea in three years. Kate was comforted that the storm had a name, that it could be categorized like the named hurricanes that happened on other coasts back home. The newscaster explained that “Dianmu” is Chinese for “the goddess governing thunder and lightning.”
That night, after midnight, large drops fell fast and thick. The windowpanes clattered against the building’s frame. Betsy asked Kate to come into her room, near the smaller window. Jun-soo had gone back to his apartment before the weather started. Betsy and Kate moved Betsy’s bed to the far side, near the closet, and watched the grayness of the storm outside, heard the steady rain like pouring metal hitting the side of the building, lifting the sound of everything they said and did to a higher and more frenzied register. All of the windows in the building across from them were curtained or shaded. Some people had nailed boards over their balcony doors.
Betsy wrapped her blanket around her shoulders and sat up, leaning against the closet. Kate knew that if there was a time to talk to Betsy it was now. Kate knew she should tell Betsy how much she needed her at home, how alone she really felt without their family in Michigan.
Betsy lifted an arm out of her blanket and pointed to a map of France on the wall. “When Mark and I were in France, I took pictures of the coast at Brittany. I was going to give them to you.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Betsy laughed, running a palm over her stomach. “Why do I do anything? It made me angry at you a little, that you wouldn’t see it yourself. At the time, I thought you would never leave Michigan, not even to visit.”
This was the first time Betsy had mentioned Mark since Kate arrived, and Kate had wanted to know what happened between them—why it ended, or why it ever began. Kate had never had a serious relationship, and she needed to know how it worked for other people, why it never seemed to work for her. All of the men she’d loved had been her friends, only ever her friends. They’d never loved her back in the way she wanted them to. They’d all moved away, too.
“What happened with Mark?”
“The same thing that happened with Mom and Dad,” Betsy said. Kate nodded like she understood.
“The same thing that happened with our real parents, maybe. Who knows?”
When Betsy and Kate were fifteen, they’d had the expected amount of birth parent curiosity. They did the research and found out Kate’s had divorced and later her father had died. Kate’s mother e-mailed her a few times, but her e-mails made little sense; they spoke of astrology and theories about other worlds, realities. They scared Kate and made her wish she’d never looked for her parents at all. She never went to see her birth mother, though she lived only a state away in Indiana. Betsy’s biological mother lived in New Mexico, but she didn’t want to be contacted, and Betsy never found much out. Betsy and Kate also knew only a little about their ancestry—that Kate was part Irish and Italian; Betsy was Swedish and Greek.
When they were younger, Betsy became friends with Sarah Ashley, a girl who was in her class at school. Sarah was adopted, too—a Korean American. Betsy knew more about Korea than most seven-year-olds because Sarah’s parents wanted her to learn about her heritage, and she passed all of this information along to Betsy. Sarah relayed these facts about her country as if she thought all adopted kids came from Korea and, in some small way, she could teach Betsy about herself.
That night, as they watched the rain, Betsy shared more information with Kate. She told Kate about pregnancy in Korea. She explained how the Korean men started ignoring her after she started showing, but always gave her a seat on the bus. The older women, the ajumma, smiled and encouraged her. They gave her advice. Pregnancy seemed more matter-of-fact in South Korea, not like at home. Eat lots of kimchi, the doctor told Betsy during every visit.
“They don’t like single mothers here,” Betsy said. “I tell people I am married and that my husband is far away. When I became pregnant, I worried they would fire me, so I started telling lies.”
“Who is the father?” Kate asked again.
“An American. His name is Jake. I haven’t tried to get a hold of him. I wouldn’t even know how.”
“When will you come home?”
“I’ve told Jun-soo he can be the father. He thinks he’s the father.”
At this, Kate sat up on her elbow. “I don’t understand.”
“I mean,” she paused, looking at the ceiling. “He knows he’s not, technically, but he has no family here, and he wants to help. I’ve decided to let him.”
“But how does that work?”
“I don’t know. Our lives have been so different. I just don’t expect the things from Jun-soo that I expect from other people. I don’t expect the same . . . attachments,” she said. “He left everyone behind.” Betsy began stretching, trying to touch her knees over her stomach.
“What will you do if you have to leave, if you can’t find a new job, or they don’t let you stay?”
Betsy laughed in her patronizing way, and she patted Kate’s knee. “You’re so practical,” she said. “We’ve talked about that. I think we’ll get married. I would get free childcare. I could stay.”
Above them, Kate heard the traditional Korean folk music seep through the floor from another apartment. Despite the hammer of rain against glass, she could make out the delicate twang of some kind of string instrument, the light, high notes of a flute.
By lunchtime the next day, the weather let up. Betsy told Kate what she read in the newspaper: five people had died during the storm, mostly in Seoul, one hundred and thirty homes had been flooded, and seventy-four flights out were canceled. In Gyeongju, the storm had never become quite so threatening; it seemed like an August Michigan thunderstorm, the wind howling in just the same way.
The following morning, the day Kate was scheduled to leave, many flights and airlines were back on track out of Seoul. Kate’s flight was not delayed. Before Betsy took Kate to the airport, Kate called their father in New York. It was dinnertime there, and he sounded tired, like he’d been lying on the couch all day and watching television.
“Holding down the fort?” he asked. He loved to say that. He repeated the question often after he left for New York to Kate in Michigan, alone. Kate knew he liked that she remained at home, that he could think of her near the lake. Unlike her father, her mother wanted her to move, leave the state. “You could go anywhere,” she often said to Kate, before adding, “but please don’t go to Korea.”
“Betsy’s pregnant,” Kate told her father on the phone. “She’s never coming home.”
Kate’s father tapped his fingers on the counter of his New York apartment. “Does your mother know?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone does.”
On the train ride to the airport, Betsy told Kate more commonplace things. She told her about grocery shopping and misreading the labels on the cans. She explained the technology in her classroom, how they had a green screen, how it could project her elementary students anywhere, showing them strange and foreign worlds without even leaving school walls. Betsy was more talkative than she’d been all week, like she realized their time together was almost up. Kate studied her sister closely as she was talking. She didn’t know when she would see her again. Kate didn’t know when or if she’d meet this niece or nephew. Despite the fact that she felt they needed more time, that they were finally getting somewhere, breaking through some coldness, Kate knew she would get on the plane and go back to whatever awaited her. She knew she would end up saying good-bye.
“Are you going to move?” Betsy asked Kate before they reached Seoul. The train inched along slowly as it pulled into the station. Kate told her she didn’t know, that she was thinking about it. There were so many places she might go. She was free to go. She thought maybe someday it would be possible to vanish and become someone new.
Before Kate got in the security line at the airport, Betsy gave her a hug and thanked her for visiting. She did not ask her to stay. She did not insist she come visit again. She did not even promise to send pictures of the baby. Kate was disappointed Betsy gave her so little to hold on to, disappointed that she could not insist on it herself.
On the plane, Kate proofread a little, trying to distract herself by preparing for regular life. She was not supposed to really read texts while checking them, just allow her eyes to bounce over the words looking for mistakes. Sometimes she couldn’t help it, though; she’d get caught up in the story. In one article from a couple of years before, she learned about Kijŏng-dong, the only North Korean village visible from the demilitarized zone. Before she even knew she would visit South Korea or meet Lee Jun-soo, she read about the “Propaganda Village,” built to look prosperous in the 1950s and designed to encourage South Korean defectors. People in South Korea studied the village with telescopes and discovered vacant building shells. The facades didn’t even have rooms or windowpanes. The place was even emptier than a ghost town because no one had ever lived there at all.
When Kate reached her hometown, she drove by the old condo and sat there for a moment before going to her apartment. She parked across the street and saw all the lights turned on. They illuminated the front hallway stairs, which were visible through tall, narrow windows flanking the front door. A man walked down the stairs, carrying his small boy in his arms. He walked toward the back of the house.
Kate turned off the air conditioner for a moment in her car and sat in the heat. There were tears on her face, and she allowed herself to cry, her body sinking and rising with a rare and elemental violence. Kate would go back to her apartment and sleep, but first she looked at those stairs, made emptier by the man’s absence. She would stay in this place, at least for a little while. Kate remembered how Betsy often used the stairs for exercise. She remembered her running up and down, trying to lose weight before dates and school dances. Kate listened for that sound now, willing it to appear. She listened for the steady pounding—the running up as if to greet her, the running down as if to flee.
Lindsay Tigue writes fiction and poetry and has work published or forthcoming in FiveChapters, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Rattle, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among other journals. She was a 2013 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and won the 2012 Indiana Review 1/2 K Prize. She attends the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.