Charlotte slipped off her clothes in a quiet corner amid rows of lockers. Fluorescent lights overhead painted her skin whiter than it already was. Her feet, cold on the floor.
It was the only place she could come to, the only place she thought of when her husband said he was going out of town for the weekend. “Just a quick trip to Thailand,” he’d said one morning, kissing her on the head. She’d been sitting at the breakfast table, sipping a hot cup of tea. She’d asked him why she couldn’t come with, but that’s how it was sometimes. Sometimes he wanted her there; sometimes he didn’t. It was just a quick trip, after all.
She’d thought about going to a motel for the weekend, anything to get out of their big house in the middle of Seoul, his people all around, business all around, and all the etiquette and niceties and things that she should care for.
But she didn’t want to be alone. So, she’d decided on a bathhouse instead. She would just go and feel the anonymity around her. Certainly there’d be a few looks—with a head of curly red hair and freckled skin, she couldn’t escape the stares, even out on the street, even in a big city like Seoul. But she wouldn’t have to say anything or do anything. She would be a face, and she would be away. She could slip into a hot tub or the sauna and forget. Drink green tea and, finally, go to sleep on a mat on the hard floor surrounded by strangers.
She peeled away her clothes piece by piece, jammed them into a locker, and pressed the door shut. Her hand lingered on the cool metal, fingers scraping down the light blue paint until they made a fist.
At first, she found the thoughts alarming. Visions that came to her at odd times—an empty, sunny glen, or sinking into the sea, or slipping into the shadows of a mountain path. She didn’t know what they meant.
It wasn’t that she was unhappy. Korea was fascinating to her, with its spicy food, kind people, the array of enticing smells from the street vendors’ carts. And maybe it was the mountains that walled the city in, or the years she’d spent in Japan as a child, but something about Korea reminded her of home. Though, as the daughter of a Foreign Service worker, she wasn’t always entirely sure what home was.
She’d almost lost track of their posts—she and her husband. When they met, he’d already put in his dues doing low-level work in places like the Fiji Islands and Lithuania, two years here, another four there. After they married, it was Spain, then Guatemala, a few years in D.C., then Singapore. She usually couldn’t remember what came next. Was that the year that we were in—? Do you remember the Jameses who had that god-awful dog next door that would never shut up? Did we leave Singapore before or after the Cullens did?
Now it was winter in Seoul; she watched snow fall and took the subway to Insa-dong, where she visited the traditional Korean teahouses. She would bow and ask for the citron tea. The server would ask if anyone else was coming, and she’d shake her head.
They’d fallen in love in France. He was working at the embassy; she’d received a fellowship to study at a university in Paris. He wanted to change the world; she wanted to write about it. He knew there were solutions to world problems, and she loved listening to him talk about them.
They picnicked in sunny parks. They listened to music in back-alley bistros. They found the world to be a beautiful place.
The glass doors swung open to reveal a room full of small pools, steam rising from some of them. Others, she knew, would be icy cold, like diving into the sea in winter. At the far end of the room, a slender woman emerged from the door that led to the sauna, sweat slicking her forehead.
Charlotte slunk over to the showerheads. A burst of hot water shot against her scalp. She bent her head and closed her eyes, the water rushing in streams down her face, her shoulders, to the tips of her fingers. She washed herself clean and then immersed herself in the hottest pool the room had to offer.
By the shower stalls where she’d stood, two ajumma scrubbed each other’s backs until they were red, scrubbing and chatting, body fat jiggling as they laughed. In the corner, a young, bone-thin woman placed a finger in the cold-water pool, hesitated, and then climbed in. A small exclamation escaped her mouth.
Steam rose across Charlotte’s face. She let her hands float on the surface of the water, hot jets pelting her back. She drew a breath, opening her fingers as wide as possible.
She would stay here at the bathhouse, maybe for two days even—who would miss her?—and she would close her eyes and she would sleep.
When she was young, she loved a boy.
His name was Akemi, and he went to school down the street from her apartment. She’d watch him playing out in the streets with his friends on the way home. Every now and then her father would let her go outside to play with them as well, as long as she had all her homework done. She went to an international school an hour away by bus, and none of her friends lived close by. She imagined her father felt sorry for her out there, all alone. But he didn’t realize she was in love.
Akemi taught her Japanese words, as did his mother whenever he invited Charlotte over for a snack, or even dinner sometimes. He pointed to the snow-capped mountains in the distance, rugged ridges striking at the sky. “Yama,” he said, scribbling on a piece of paper. She’d learned that word in school already, but it sounded better coming from his lips, his cheerful voice. She repeated the word and watched his hands point to other things—desk and pencil and chair. She learned so quickly that she even surprised her father. But she liked to kick up dust with the rest of them, to call the other boys playful names, to share fruit and ice cream bars they bought at the corner store, melted sweets making their hands sticky.
It wasn’t until she was older that she realized she was different. The boys didn’t play in the streets anymore. An arcade had moved in on the town’s main drag, and anyone who was anyone could be found there after school. Boys and girls were holding hands at the international school. Some of them teased her for her unruly hair and quiet demeanor. She felt like something needed to change, but she didn’t know what. Or maybe something had changed, and she hadn’t quite grasped hold of it.
She dreamed about holding Akemi’s hand, or maybe getting a first kiss. Her father asked her what was wrong.
“I’m just thinking,” she said as she stared out the window.
There were bodies all around her, and steam, and the low hum of voices. No, not a hum—a lilt, the way the Korean language moved over vowel and consonant. She was glad she couldn’t understand what they were saying, something about a husband or a lover or the grocery bill from last month.
In the cold pool, a mother was teaching her children how to swim. They were young, boy and girl, splashing and kicking and giggling. Charlotte leaned back in the hot tub, resting her head against the tiles, eyes closed.
A cold drip brought her back to the steamy room.
“Excuse me.” A girl’s voice.
Charlotte turned and saw the little girl who’d been swimming. “Yes?”
Water dripped down the girl’s nose; her glasses were fogged up. “What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name. My English name is Sarah. Can I sit with you?” The little girl’s mouth wrapped around the awkward English vowels, the sharp sounds that Korean lacked. Charlotte started to respond, but Sarah was already climbing into the tub. “You’re pretty. Where are you from?”
“A lot of places.”
A crease in the girl’s brow.
“The United States.”
Sarah nodded, her fingers sweeping at the hot tub’s jets. “My family used to live in the U.S. We lived in Texas. But only for one year, when I was five. Why are you in Korea? Are you an English teacher?”
“No,” Charlotte almost laughed, pulling her knees up to her chest. The water bubbled around them.
A voice from across the room reverberated along the tiled walls, the waves of water, the slippery streams of air. Sarah’s mother was shuffling over, little boy in tow. She smiled at Charlotte and said something in Korean.
“She says you’re very nice to talk to me,” Sarah translated.
The little boy reached out and touched Charlotte’s arm. He jumped back and clapped his hands together.
“Your skin is very white,” Sarah said. “And these.” Her fingers reached for Charlotte’s skin, poking into her—here, there.
“Yes.” Sarah was nodding, thoughtful, perhaps remembering. She didn’t look up again until her mother took her hand. More hurried Korean. The mother’s smile. “You will be in Seoul for a long time?”
Charlotte counted the days spinning out before her—months, years. Lines of houseguests, educational tours, site visits. On her husband’s arm, greeting them. Would you like coffee? It’s hard to find the good stuff out there. Have you tried any Korean food? The bibimbap is delicious. Oh, you already had soju cocktails last night? Laugh and smile and laugh. “I don’t know.”
“Oh.” The mother tugged on Sarah’s arm again. “Maybe I will see you again. Upstairs?”
The mother thanked her in Korean and patted her two children on the head as they bowed their goodbyes. Charlotte watched as they shuffled out the door, felt the punch of cool air that rushed in behind them.
When he asked her what was wrong, the only thing she could think of was Songni-san National Park. They’d had a conference there, met with some bright young researchers who’d been imported from the States, and while her husband was in day-long meetings, she’d taken a path up the side of the mountain just after breakfast. The sky was barely light, an ethereal fog wrapping around her. Her hiking boots were snug on her ankles; the path was empty.
Empty for hours, in fact—for miles. She began to doubt whether the hike was a good idea. She’d had a teacher in middle school who had died on a hike, died because he was alone, because no one was there to help when he fell into a crevasse and broke his leg. They found him a week later, the class heard from his fiancée, who taught down the hall.
As her hands gripped rock, as she scrabbled up a boulder, Charlotte thought of him.
But eventually, she ran into someone. She spoke enough Korean to get by, would bow hellos, allow the hikers in their stylish matching gear to pass. More than once, they asked her about being alone—honja. They seemed concerned. But all she could do was smile and say, “Yes, alone.”
Halfway up the trail, when she was taking a rest, she heard the low drone of a Buddhist chant hanging in the humid air. It surprised her. She wanted to go to it, the sound, to sit in the cool shade of a tree, of Buddha’s shadow. She closed her eyes instead and listened closely to the words she couldn’t understand.
She dressed in the clothes she’d been given at the entrance—gray cotton shorts and a pink and gray T-shirt. Men wore blue, and she found it funny that even here they knew who belonged in each color. But she knew that boundaries are thin, that one sphere cannot help but be influenced by another. They pressed in on all sides, came and went, slipped through crevices and slipped out just as easily.
She took the elevator up a floor, walked barefoot into the communal area where families sat in cross-legged circles playing games and eating snacks. A large-screen TV was perched in the corner, a loud laugh track accompanying actors’ and actresses’ slapstick stunts. A gray-haired ajumma watched the program with her head cocked to the side. She held the remote up, ready to switch, but remained frozen, waiting.
Waiting for what?
Sarah and her mother lounged in a corner, and an older man, whom Charlotte assumed was Sarah’s father, chased Sarah’s brother in small circles, the little boy giggling as he ran.
Charlotte sat against the wall opposite Sarah’s family. She held a book on her lap, but it didn’t interest her. A friend of her husband’s had recommended it—someone at some party who’d been making small talk with her. They both loved to read and were overjoyed at the commonality. They talked about the English bookstores in Itaewon and the huge English section at the Kyobo bookstore. They shared recommendations—things they knew the other would love.
Charlotte wanted to love this book. That’s why she brought it. But even the first page left a dull taste in her mouth. She opened to the beginning again, creasing back the paperback cover. She skimmed the first few paragraphs, her fingers following the sentences, but it didn’t matter. The names didn’t stick, the words became muddled in the back of her brain.
She wished she’d brought some poetry. She wanted to feel the images wash over her, the contrast of vowel and consonant, the song of her own native tongue.
Charlotte closed her eyes and tried to conjure up images, to drift into them: dragonflies dancing on mountaintops. The path opening before her. The endlessness of the winter sky.
When Charlotte and her father moved to Australia, Akemi’s little sister wrote her letters, jumbled mixes of Japanese characters and English words. Charlotte’s Japanese was rusty, she couldn’t make out all of it, but she knew enough. Akemi sometimes included a short note in the envelope—he’d been sick, in the hospital, but he was better now. Or classes were difficult. Or he hopes she’s doing well.
But the letters became sparser. School was demanding, she understood. She was finishing high school then, too. They all had big plans about the future, had to work for them.
A letter came from Akemi’s sister. Broken English and indistinguishable Japanese.
Her father came home late from work. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
She shrugged. It was summer in Australia, but she thought of mountains, the snowy caps that overlooked their town, making snow angels at the beginning of winter. The sea that hemmed
them all in.
Charlotte held her place along one of the walls in the communal area, avoiding eye contact and any stares that came her way. She felt like it was too early to go to bed, but it was too late to do much of anything else. Still, her eyelids weighed down on her eyes, and it felt like the biggest task in the world to keep them up. She thumbed the corner of her book and looked at Sarah, who was watching TV now, too. And the ajumma who still cocked her head at the screen.
Earlier, Sarah had come to speak with Charlotte again, bringing an extra ice cream bar her mom had bought. They sat cross-legged on the wooden floor, watching her brother play and yell until he was too tired to stand, until he fell asleep in his father’s arms.
“My mom is glad you talk with me. She likes when I practice English,” Sarah said, finishing off the last part of the ice cream stuck to the Popsicle stick. “English is my favorite subject, but I can’t use it very much.”
Charlotte leaned against the wall and looked at Sarah’s family across the way. The girl’s mother smiled and gave a brief nod. “Do you miss the United States?” Charlotte asked.
Sarah shrugged. “Sometimes. Do you?”
“Not really. I didn’t live there long. My family moved a lot.”
“Like my family.” Sarah fiddled with the discarded ice cream bar wrappers between them. “I like Seoul, but I want to live somewhere new. But I guess I would miss all my friends.” Sarah tapped her index finger against the hard wood, an indiscernible Morse code.
“Of course.” Charlotte pulled her knees up to her chest.
Sarah covered her mouth as she yawned.
“Are you tired?” Charlotte asked.
“No. Not when I talk English.” She looked over at her family. “But my mom will probably want my brother and me to sleep soon. Maybe I should go?”
Beyond the noise of the running children and laughing TV, there was a sleeping room, a quiet space where a person could get some rest. A mat on a hardwood floor wasn’t much, but that’s all Charlotte had slept on in Japan. Whole families would huddle together in their bathhouse-issued clothes, pinks and blues and grays cuddling in the dark. Charlotte wondered if things like this made Korean families closer. “Well, it was nice talking to you, Sarah.”
Sarah nodded at the floor and grasped her ice cream bar wrapper. “You, too.” She turned her head toward Charlotte and offered a smile, eyes bright behind her red-rimmed glasses. “I hope you like your time here in Korea.”
“Thank you.” She thought of her big house, and all the people coming in and out, and her husband. Greeting him when he got home, stepping into his arms for a kiss and a souvenir. “I will.”
She wondered if the mountains in China were as beautiful as those in Japan and Korea. She’d been to Beijing with her father, and then later with her husband, but she’d never gotten out of the city. But they must’ve been something, right? Rocky, jutting into the gray sky. Or forested blankets of green everywhere, the smell of leaves and grass and moss and water.
After Mr. Gentz died, she overheard another teacher say that it was foolish, practically suicide, to go hiking and rock climbing on any mountain by yourself. But something in her could understand him.
She remembered the way his fiancée had cried when they made the announcement at school, had spoken of condolences and moments of silence. Maybe the fiancée blamed him. Maybe she hated him. Charlotte didn’t know.
But she knew what it felt like to break out of the thick, tight path and into the open—cool air filling her lungs, a stream of water splitting on the stone beneath her. The leaves’ hushed whispers, the birds singing forth their first morning calls. What it felt like to stop there, to want to stay, standing in midstream as if she never had to step forward again.
She didn’t know what she dreamt of that night, but she knew it was something. An unsettling thing. A shard.
But when she awoke, she remembered nothing but that feeling of something being there. Of something not right. Of leaning and leaning and leaning.
She opened her eyes. The room was mostly dark. Gray clothes were everywhere, and she couldn’t see Sarah and her family or make out anyone else she knew or had seen. She tried to remember why she woke up. She tried to remember what she saw that made her feel that way, to make sense of it. But it was too dim, and the room was dim, too.
She breathed deeply and tried to sleep. She imagined the hot water around her, kneading out the tightness of every muscle. Imagined the mountain’s trail, the depth of the crevasse.
It was then that she felt it. A hand on the small of her back. Just the fingertips.
She kept her eyes closed. She knew this gentle touch was an accident. They slept close here. They were like family, everyone—one big family curled up on the heated floor on their small mats and hard pillows. She was here, among them, and she was amid the family and she was here.
She shifted, and the hand left, the hand of this man behind her, and she knew she must have been right. Her body relaxed. She breathed deeply, thought of how long she could sleep, and how she wouldn’t have to answer to anyone in the morning. And she thought of the past and her husband’s face. Sarah’s careful words, but the way they masked the unknowing between them. Their inability to see, to hear. But the way Sarah’s words seemed to know her perfectly. To find her hidden somewhere amid rocks and shadows.
A foot on her ankle. She looked—the ajeossi behind her, eyes closed, sleeping—as if sleeping, but—
The hot water, the gentle slipping under.
She sat up. The man shifted.
The room was quiet except for the sounds of others’ breathing alongside her own. The buzz of the dim lights. Faintly, the noise of the TV outside.
She felt words push up in her throat, syllables sticking to one another.
But they were sleeping—this big room, lights low, bodies heaving breaths in and out. And this man beside her, his flat face, closed eyes.
She wanted to wake them. To carry them to mountains. To look upon grief. To disappear with them down unknown paths.
She bunched up her hair behind her in one swift move. Her face was warm, her nondescript clothes heavy. She looked toward the door.
Just a quick trip to Thailand.
Honja? Yes, honja. Alone.
A Buddhist chant. Dragonflies painting Jackson Pollock on a white canvas sky.
The scent of soap still fresh on her skin.
Bodies all around. A jumble in the shadows.
Getting into a taxi cab, no one special, no one.
She stood and pressed herself toward the door, feet almost tripping over each other. The metal bar shuddered as she pushed through. Cool air in the common room, a slow croon from the TV’s soundtrack. A breath that would take her down the stairs, to the locker room, her clothes, her coat, her hat, her hair swirling out all around, growing. The hard sound of her shoes on the stairs, stepping out into the night, the stars above. She reached for the sky, the cold air slipping into her mouth, the late hours fizzing into her, molecule by molecule. Her chest ached, and she felt her lungs expand until her body became light, forgotten, a song floating above the trees and never falling.