It was an acceptable loss.
From the fields of Geoch’ang,
where it is impossible to scrub away the dirt from beneath your nails,
where mosquitos swarm in black clouds incessantly in the hot, humid summer,
where the dirt roads snake along the countryside in indiscernible patterns,
seeming to trap you in their clutches like the Minotaur’s maze,
like the drudgery of poverty,
he had pulled himself from that mire, scrabbled determinedly into the shiny sleekness of modernity. The first in his family to leave home for the big city, the first to spend sleepless nights beneath the sickly glow of the fluorescent lights of the university library, doggedly consuming the language of modernization:
신세계. New World Order.
IMF. International Monetary Fund.
재벌. Corporate conglomerate.
He ate them greedily, savored the salty decadence on his tongue. Nourished by the promise these words held, he felt himself transform. Like a summer cicada, he molted and emerged, refined, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan, leaving the dry husk of who he used to be clinging to the trunk of an old knotty pine that lined the dirt roads of Geoch’ang.
Through his metamorphosis, she remained. Simple. Easy. Uncomplicated. She loved him with a fierceness that he took for granted, this girl he had known since primary school. Amid the chaos of all the sparkling, glittering promise of change, she remained, steadfast, content with whatever remnants of his attention he could afford to discard.
And then things changed.
But not the ways he wanted them to.
No, in this, he desperately needed things to stay the same.
He abandoned her when she asked for more than he was willing to give. After years of quiet complacency, he turned his back, allowed his parents to dictate, and washed his hands of her. He convinced himself it was for the best. He wasn’t ready. He hadn’t asked for this. His country needed him.
Her father appeared at his door, a decorated war veteran, blinded by his country’s need. On his knees, this dignified man begged him to reconsider, to reach for her outstretched hand a complete the circle. But work-worn hands with the nails cut to the quick don’t belong entwined with ones sporting French cuffs and chrome cufflinks embellished with dazzling chips of cubic zirconium. So he closed the door and returned to dreams of the future that weren’t supposed to be put in motion yet.
He buried himself in his aspirations, turned a deaf ear when whispers about a baby girl drifted by. When friends back home shot him sidelong glances and shook their heads, he bought his parents an apartment in the city so he wouldn’t have to run into old playmates on the dirt roads of Geoch’ang. When he learned she had moved on, married, found God, bore a daughter “for keeps” this time, he shrugged. He couldn’t afford to tally the sacrifice and loss when there were plans to be made.
Time passed and life carried on, and he found himself on the corporate track with an acceptable wife, two sturdy sons, and the means to move his family into the glass skyscrapers that would protect them from the ghosts below that haunted him. Yet something still seemed lacking. Those golden days of his youth, holding hands, walking barefoot along the shore seemed so far away.
And every once in a while, he allowed himself to imagine a daughter. A quiet girl with his hands and his nose, and his youthful ideas and hopes for the future. He allowed himself to think back to his first love, who he was sure wouldn’t nag him about his cholesterol or spending too much time at the driving range and not enough time with the boys. He tried to rationalize the decisions of his past, devised a system of checks and balances to prove the gains far outweighed the losses. But somehow the ledger never came out even. Somewhere, an empty column lurked, throwing off all his calculations.
It was not a bad life he had made for himself. No, not at all. But he just wished sometimes some of the magic—the exhilaration of being young and in love—remained to carry him through those long hours at the office and into mundane nothingness of modernity.