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In Memory of Yesook Lee
written by: Joseph Amendolare
"You can keep your ID card, just wait a few days and I will get you the 1,000,000 Won", I told her. She didn't want to wait. Took me to a jewelry store on the main drag. A man brought out a solid gold medallion with a heavy chain.
I looked at her questioningly.
"1,000,000 Won", she said. "You can pay by credit card".
I guess, she intended for me to buy it, and then she would hock it to get cash. I shook my head no and we left.
It was only a couple of days. She had no idea. We were at the end of a 5-day military exercise. For 12 hours a day we carried (and wore throughout the day), some thirty pounds of chemical warfare protection, a flak vest packed with slabs of body armor, a web belt and canteen; some a 9 mm pistol, others various edged weapons. The entire week, everything that was remotely affiliated with human life evaporated; you could not get your mail out of the post office, you could not buy groceries, you couldn't ride in a taxi. And you could not go to the bank to get cash. It all shut down.
I tried to make her understand; not sure if I did.
The exercise ended; I went to the bank on a Friday night, waited in line, and took out a thousand dollars. She again offered me her Korean national ID card.
"This way, I have to pay you back", she said, "if I want to get my ID card back".
I just gave her the money and she exchanged it for Korean Won. If I could go back today, I'd give her the cash and buy her the medallion both.
I have no idea how hard her life had been. She was 30 or so when I met her. No husband, apparently (as far as I knew), no mention of any children. Years earlier, on her way to work one day, a gang abducted her off the streets, took turns raping her, and turned her into a sex slave for their needs. She had a tattoo on her thigh, the Korean character "yong": which means 'dragon'. The mark of ownership they left on her.
Still, she had a sense of goodness. Walking thru the shopping district; despite her poverty, she wanted to buy me an overcoat; "Buh-ber-ri ko-tu cho-ah?" she asked me, which means: 'do you like Burberry coats'. It was fun to waste time with her. We sampled Korean food in various places. We watched TV shows at her place. We drank, we talked for hours, we ordered Chinese. I loved to see her smile.
Many years later, I walked past her old apartment. I stood on the sidewalk where we'd once met in the rain, one late night. The place we had gone to was now a pawn shop, the streets wizened and destitute. Times had changed, for the worse.
Should it have been a better ending, I don't know. I honestly can't say the last time I saw her, or the circumstances. She was always open to me. Trying to tell me something that would not penetrate my consciousness. Or perhaps my mind was closed to any possibilities. Besides the small problem of being married: I was willing to give my body but not my heart.
For a while, I let months go by without seeing her. By chance one day, going into a grocery store to buy cigarettes, she was in line. We picked up again. She wanted me to move in with her. I couldn't. She asked me not to leave her. I had to. I gave her temporary support; a hundred here, a hundred there. Not clear in my mind, how to resolve the situation. I suppose, I was using her like the gang guys had done. And so it went, on and off, for two years.
In dreams now, she comes to me.
"What is my name?" she asks.
There is something that is both ethereal and challenging to my sensibilities as she floats the question. She asks me her name; as if I could forget her. As if, I could ever forget her.
"Ye-sook", I answer, "Ye-sook Lee".
When I knocked on her door last, a freezing January day, no one came. I tried to call her; a Korean guy answered, hung up, called back, savagely cursed me out on the phone. So. No resolution, no happy ending. No ending at all. The story just hangs there, leaving a scent of regret; and a longing to go back and make it all perfect.