It’s like the face of her had changed—like she’s someone else, someone you used to know but can’t quite put your finger on.

She greets you warmly, that same smile, her hair whitened by the years, makeup covering the lines that crisscross her skin. She’s visiting her grandkids in Seoul, she says, took the train up the night before. She shows you pictures of her kids and grandkids on her phone.

You tell her her family looks beautiful.

There is so much to say, and this isn’t what you’d wanted to happen—where you imagined it happening. Here, in a busy subway station, your back aching, kids with earbuds brushing past, music blaring from the cosmetics store nearby.

She suggests you get coffee at one of the fancy coffeeshops that have popped up along Seoul’s winding streets in recent years. Her eyes search your face, asking something her words have not.

“I have a doctor’s appointment,” you say. “I’m sorry.”

She looks disappointed, but not quite.

Before you leave, she asks if you’ve quit smoking. Asks if you go to Mokpo anymore. 

“Only to visit my parents’ graves,” you say, your voice a mix of mud and gravel. 

“Well,” she answers. Trying to fill the space. Trying to remember to forget.

She touches your hand. Just her fingertips. But you can’t

forget—those hands, her face, those days in bed, those nights, sheets wrapped around your legs. Her arm in yours as you walked down the street. Your heart beating so fast you thought they’d hear it.


There was a thread strung between you. Thin and red, one heart to the other. You’d felt it since you were kids, sitting along Mokpo’s breezy coast, eating ice pops and watching the ships come in. You didn’t know if she felt it, too, until the day you told her you were moving to Seoul. 

You were both nineteen.

“I’ll get a job at a factory,” you said, “and send money home.”

“But your mother will be left here alone,” she said.

You shrugged. “Seoul is everything now. She understands.”

“And me?”

You looked at her. Her eyes were dark pools that could’ve swallowed you up. And then she leaned in, and she kissed your mouth, softly. It was something that took you by surprise but that also made sense.

“Don’t leave me,” she said.

“Come with,” you answered.

And so you left together, and you took an apartment. The landlord gave you grief at first. With your short hair and pants with suspenders, he thought you were a man, and he wasn’t going to rent to a couple if they weren’t married. But your documents said you were a woman, so he gave you the place.

People in the neighborhood didn’t know what your papers said, though, and when some of your neighbors started calling you “older brother,” you took a liking to it.

You got a factory job and wore a uniform. She became a store clerk. You held her in your arms, deep into the night. Held her to keep out whatever was out there. To keep her in.

You felt unstoppable. Whole. The center of the universe.

You found people like you—women living together—and it made others afraid, but you didn’t care. You called each other “Mr. Pants” and “Ms. Skirt” and protested for equal wages, and no one seemed to like you but each other.

When you asked her one night if she’d marry you, she laughed. “But how?” You shrugged. “Everyone thinks I’m a man, anyway. Who would know?” But she shook her head, the first lines of worry showing around her eyes.


You’d grown up in a war, your family running from bombs and gunfire. You made it as far as Mokpo—a small coastal city, almost the furthest south you could go—and you stayed in a village nearby. You were a kid then, and you didn’t understand. Your hungry belly. The worried faces of your parents. Your father disappearing one day, off to fight. Your mother’s brother in the North somewhere, never seen again.

These were things you didn’t talk about. Except with her, one night, after dinner. The face of Seoul was changing. Comfortable buildings crushed by war had grown into concrete monsters that stretched toward the sky. Meanwhile, the city’s poor huddled downtown in homes made of scrap metal.

What Seoul had seen. What you all had seen.

Your father’s grave was on a hill just outside of Mokpo. It belonged somewhere else, though, beyond a line you couldn’t cross. In the land of his father and mother and ancestors. The land of Commies and killers. So your mom laid his body in the ground, there along the southern coast, where hers would go one day, too.

You held her hand as you told her this, one night, after dinner and drinks had made you both sleepy. You told her about the North. About how your language almost gave you away. How your mom was glad when you started talking with a Jeolla-do accent, as southern as you could get. How the neighbors were nice to you but always held something away. Like there was a difference. Even though your father had died fighting the North. Even though they knew that.

These were the things you didn’t understand.

She pulled you in. Her father had fought but lived. Her family was always kind to you. She didn’t know what it was like to lose so much so quickly.

You didn’t cry but just breathed into her shoulder. When he left, you thought he’d come back.

You always thought he would come back.


And now, now you saw, on TV.

People yelling at kids holding rainbow flags who were marching down the streets of Seoul. Kids like you were a kid once, playing with the boys in the streets. Mr. Pants kissing Ms. Skirt. Her arm linked in yours. And now, angry people brandishing Bibles and singing hymns and calling these kids Reds and Commies. Saying that all this was the North’s fault. As if love could have a geography.

No, love spills over the edges. Love defies the red lines drawn to keep us separated. Love crosses rivers and mountains and floods the plains and holds all within its cupped palms.

It made you smile, these kids. The green grass in front of Seoul City Hall filled with those smiling faces. Parents giving out hugs to anyone who wanted them. The chanting and the signs: “Love conquers hate.”

You thought about her, then, and your home together in Seoul, and how things would’ve been different now. How those kids probably didn’t even know—didn’t even know what came behind them, before them. How no one had ever asked.


Her face swims before you. It always has. Walking the city streets, and when strangers call you harabeoji, grandfather, and now, as you walk away from her, the noise of the subway buzzing around. You imagine her hand in yours. You imagine standing together in front of City Hall. You imagine her head on your shoulder, watching a drag queen dancing on the jumbotron.

You grip the escalator railing with your thick fingers and emerge into the bright sunlight. Windows glint from the towering skyscrapers.

You mostly spend time with men now, smoking, drinking, talking about the past. How you miss your hometowns. Your lovers. There’d been others, and one you almost got married to. But it wasn’t the same. And now, your body aches. You cook for one. Your small apartment on the edge of the city is almost empty except for your bed rolled out on the floor and a few sets of clothes.

A bus whizzes down the street next to you, grinding to a halt at the stop nearby. You shuffle toward it, the sun hot on your neck, your cheeks. You duck under the shelter and press a hand to the plexiglass wall, barely able to breathe.

A man’s voice. “Harabeoji, are you okay?”

The bus driver’s eyes bore into you. You wave a hand at him.

Harabeoji? Are you coming?”

“I’m fine,” you say gruffly. “Go on.”

You lower yourself onto a seat. The bus doors hiss as they close. On the ground, shoes crisscross the sidewalk in front of you, trailing shadows behind them. Far away, birds sing.


We eat and drink and love and touch and grow old, you think that night, lying in bed. You imagine the sea, all the creatures in it, the way your mother’s hands looked as she chopped vegetables, steam blurring her face as she stirred boiling stew—the heat of it, the red heat of the fire, of the pepper flakes she stirred in.

Time flies like an arrow, your father once said. Meeting people part. Even husband and wife must part someday.

You think of his long arms, hefting you up into the sky. Or the long quiet walk he took you on in the mountains once, before you fled to Mokpo. You had come home with red cheeks and chapped hands, and your mom had scolded him, but the stars had been so bright that winter night that you thought he must be magic. That he’d conjured them from out of the darkness, just to give them to you.

“You have to be more careful,” your mom said to him.

“Of course,” he said, apologizing. “I will.”

Your mom wrapped you up in blankets and set you by the fire, your eyes still glowing with how big the sky could be.


She left you for a man at twenty-six—after prime marrying age but with enough time to get pregnant still, to have that family she’d always wanted.

“You understand, right?” she said as she packed up her bags. “You have to understand.”

It made her family happy. Sons and bloodlines. Her moving back to Mokpo, that sleepy town by the sea. Seoul was no place for two women living alone.

“You’re losing everything,” you said. 

“It’s for my family.”

“But what about your life?”

She threw up her hands. “And what kind of life is this? You know what they think. Of people like us.”

“Things are changing.”

She sighed, throwing a slip into the depths of her trunk. She pressed a hand to her forehead. You stepped forward, reaching for her.

“No,” she said, pulling away. “I can’t.”

Your arms fell to your sides. “I love you.”

She clenched her jaw. And then she softened. Everything softened, and her knees buckled, and then, she was on the floor, her hands covering her face. “I can’t,” she said.

You knelt next to her, pulling her into you. You felt her tears bleeding through your button-up shirt. You held and held her until they cooled.

You went to her wedding in Mokpo. Shirt well-pressed, dressed like a man.

No one was surprised—not even your mother. This was who you’d always been. That was the thing about small places. There were some things they just understood.

You gave her a hug. You wished her well. 

The next day, you took the bus back to Seoul.


In Seoul, the winter wind whips around your apartment, cutting in through the cracks between the window and sill. You pull the blankets tighter around you, the heat from the pipes in the floor seeping into your bed and your bones.

The memories are like sheets still warm from last night’s sleep. You want to curl up in them. You want to hear her voice, to stop the forgetting—what her hands felt like or the smell of her hair as she let it fall unbound to her shoulders. You want to go back to that time and rest in it, asking her to hold still.

Things are changing, you’d said.

You wonder if she thinks about it like you do. How closely you’d held each other. How your lips had felt on her skin. How things could’ve been different, but they weren’t.

Tell me that you love me still, you say into the darkness, reaching for her, the ghost of a memory.

The wind howls in return.

Alexis Stratton

Alexis is a native of Illinois but has spent their life in many homes, from New Orleans to South Korea. They received an MFA in Creative Writing  from the University of South Carolina and are currently working as a freelance writer and editor in Richmond, VA. Their fiction has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blue Mesa Review, storySouth, and Duende, among other publications, and in 2012, they won the BLOOM Chapbook Contest for Fiction.

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