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a simple twist of fate

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            She was my twin, but I lost the ring.


            On the day Maru began his new life, Eun Gi packed up her belongings and moved out of her childhood home. Most of the rooms were already empty. On their last days, the few remaining servants had wrapped up the expensive furniture her mother had picked out and donated it. There were only three rooms left to clear out. When she came back from the airport in the morning, where she had stood at a distance and watched Maru give an uncomfortable farewell to his sister and best friend, Eun Gi began with her father’s study.

            She was going to keep everything that her father had treasured. His books would line the shelves in her office at Taesan. His desk would sit in her new apartment’s small study. Eun Gi would find a place in her new life for all of her father’s things. She would see them every day and never forget the flawed, hard man who raised her. The clock on her father’s wall ticked to mark the passing of time — time is more valuable than money and must never be wasted, he had told her — and every once in awhile, Eun Gi would look up at it and think that Maru was a little farther away from her now.

            What was he seeing? Did he look out of his window and see an endless expanse of blue sky meeting blue waters? Was he nervous at all, traveling by himself to a foreign country, with no memory of his past? Or was he relieved? Did he feel light as air soaring through the sky with no history or guilt to anchor him?

            It was already dusk when she finished with her father’s study and began her already bare bedroom. It went quickly. Outside of a few items of clothing and a blonde doll, Eun Gi did not plan on taking anything else with her. There were no sentimental tokens of friendship to pack, no birthday cards or lover’s trinket. She was never one to comfort herself with the presence of objects and, besides which, anything she ever cared enough to keep was eventually thrown out by her father. After she took her mother’s doll out of the dresser, Eun Gi placed it on her bed and petted its hair. Eun Gi touched a dirty patch on the crown of the doll’s head with the tips of her fingers and felt her throat close up. She sat on the floor and slowed her breathing.

            Where was Maru now? Was he sitting beside some beautiful woman with big, soft eyes who would sneak glances at him while he slept? Did he sleep? If he did, what did he dream of? Was it of a furious girl on a motorbike or of a short-haired noona?

            When she was done with her bedroom, Eun Gi carried all of the boxes to the ground floor. She walked past the master bedroom, the last one left to clear out, without opening the door. Someone would come tomorrow to pack up all of Han Jae Hee’s things and place it into storage. Eun Gi would do it herself, but she feared chancing upon something that could hurt her. An old photo or love letter would be hidden in a drawer like a forgotten shard of glass and, unknowingly, Eun Gi would reach in and come out bloody.

            Despite the late hour, Attorney Park came by to drive her to Choco and Jae Gil’s house.

            “Do you mind if I put on a song?” she asked.

            He nodded.

            “Why are you smiling?” she asked him.

            He stayed silent a moment, as though debating whether to tell her, before saying, “You would never have asked before.”

            He was right. She knew that he and Secretary Hyun talked about how different she was, even after she regained her memory, but she didn't feel different. She felt more like herself, as though she had walked around for decades caked in dirt and mud and, one day, a hard rain just washed it all away. When she looked in the mirror now, she thought, Ah, so this is who you are, Seo Eun Gi.

            The song began. It would be the same song for the entire car ride. She hoped Attorney Park wouldn’t mind.

            If you’re going to San Francisco...

            Eun Gi felt her eyelids grow heavy. She never used to fall asleep during car rides before, but she seemed to be doing that more and more lately. Attorney Park — no, Oppa — Oppa thought it had something to do with trust. Maybe.

            Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…

            When she woke up in the morning, Maru would be on the other side of the world. She hoped the sunrise was brighter there and the people kinder.

            The medical school placed him in an accelerated program on the basis of Doctor Suk’s recommendation and his high scores. Maru spent his first year studying in the university’s libraries or in his studio apartment. He was fluent in English, though he spoke with an accent. It wasn’t a language barrier preventing him from becoming close with his fellow classmates. Nor was it his inability to immediately recognize and distinguish their faces. It was that something in him enjoyed the solitude and the freedom solitude brought.

            He wrote to Choco and Jae Gil every day. His amnesia wasn’t absolute. The blanket of his memory wasn’t gone; it was just full of holes. He remembered washing Choco’s underpants in his yard, but could not remember her first day of school, where she had cried and held onto his hands as though she was being dragged to execution. That’s what she told him. Don’t you remember, she asked in one email. You kissed my forehead and gave me half of a chocolate bar. You told me I could get the other half when you came to pick me up. He remembered helping Jae Gil fight off an ex-girlfriend’s older brother, but didn’t remember driving to a motel two hours outside of Seoul to pick up a recently robbed Jae Gil. It was the middle of winter and she took my pants too! Jae Gil told him during one video session.

            He remembered noona. Rather, he remembered glimpses of noona. He remembered the sight of her bruised on his floor, clutching her shoe tight in her hands, but he didn’t remember her running into his yard and asking for help. He remembered kissing her in a hotel room, but didn’t remember the long walk down the hotel hallway or the body waiting for him at the end of it. In his memories, noona was a soft, lovely ache. Jae Gil told him their entire history one night while Choco was sleeping and though he could remember parts of it, it was like remembering someone else’s life, someone else’s desperate love.

            Everywhere he went, women looked at him. Maru was not oblivious to this. Choco told him he was a player and surely that must be so. Maru felt the nervous gaze of a fellow classmate and knew just how to smile to reel her in, knew how to let his lashes fall in a moment of faux vulnerability, knew what to say to send her heart slamming like a framed convict against the prison of her chest. Knew all this and never did any of it. Women wanted Maru, but he didn’t want them. Or rather, he didn’t want most of them. Maru has only ever wanted two women in his life. Even with his memory loss, he knew this. The first woman was noona, the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood, whom he had wanted to shelter from the world. The second woman —

            No one will tell him. In his first few months, he had asked Jae Gil and Choco, but they had just looked at each other nervously and told him that this was one memory he would have to regain on his own. When he asked Doctor Suk, his mentor told him that the young lady in question requested that he not reveal her identity.

            “She wants you to have a chance at a new life,” Doctor Suk said.

            “If you remember, when you remember,” Jae Gil told him when he asked again on the night before he left the country. “I’ll fill in the holes then.”

            Maru didn’t remember her, but his heart did. Sometimes Maru would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and think, I have to get to her. I have to see her, but he couldn’t remember who it was he had to see. In the early morning hours, he would feel a feather light kiss on his brow and think, I shouldn’t tease her about this or she’ll be embarrassed but there would be no one there when he opened his eyes. She lived in the biggest holes of his memory, waiting to be stitched back into his life.

            His memory returned to him slowly, like guilty, reluctant children confessing their crimes. Maru knew that the return of her memory would bring him great pain. He could feel it on the edges of his consciousness. A year and a half after his surgery, Maru dreamt of two kisses. He dreamt of kissing a girl in a summer dress on a bridge and dreamt of kissing her on the steps in front of a police station. The dream switched from one kiss to the other and, without knowing why, Maru wanted with everything in him for the first kiss to end and for the second to go on forever. He woke up panting with tears on his face. He called Jae Gil on his phone and, after several rings, his best friend finally picked up.

            “I can’t really talk right now,” Jae Gil whispered into the phone. “I’m at Eun Seok’s school concert and — ”

            “Oppa, turn off your phone,” Maru heard Choco say.

            “I will. It’s actually — ” Jae Gil began before Maru heard the phone exchange hands and a woman’s voice say, “I’m sorry, Ahjusshi, but my brother is about to come onstage. Jae Gil will call you back later.” The line disconnected.

            When Jae Gil called him back, Maru didn’t let him get a greeting out before asking, “Was that her?”

            “Who?”

            Jae Gil was always a terrible liar, his ability to prevaricate made rusty by lack of practice. That’s one of the reasons Maru valued him so.

            “The woman who answered your phone. That was her, wasn’t it?”

            Sensing Jae Gil getting ready to dodge the question, Maru said, “If you don’t tell me, I’ll track her down, Jae Gil. You know I can. It won’t be that difficult.”

            “No, don’t do that.”

            “It was her then?”

            There was a pause.

            “Yes.”

            Maru felt the blood pounding in his head. His hand shook when he laid it against his racing heart. Is this what those women felt when he leaned in a little too close? Surely not. Surely no one ever felt this way. Maru swallowed and steadied his breathing. He needed to know. He didn’t want to know. There was pain waiting for him, but also something else. Something infinitely sweet and enticing, a temptation too powerful to resist.

            “Did she know it was me?” he asked.

            “No,” Jae Gil answered. “I didn’t tell her. I thought it would upset her.”

            If he focused, Maru could almost see her standing in a white dress in a yellow field. He couldn’t remember her face, but he remembered how he felt the wonder of recognition tinged at the edges with regret. She’s like me, he had thought. How is it that there could be someone else in the world so like me? But why did he feel regret?

            “Who is she?”

            “Maru, no.”

            There was a glass of milk on a tray. He carried a glass of milk on a tray up a flight of stairs and felt a calm acceptance. Like Sisyphus, I will do this for as long as it takes. I will do this forever, he had thought. If it means you get better, I will carry this tray up these stairs until my legs give out. Then I will crawl.

            “Who is she?”

            “I can’t tell you.”

            There was a girl in his arms and he could not let her go. He had made a promise to someone, made a promise to leave, but why would he do that? He would not leave, he could not leave, unless she came with him. Let’s leave this all behind, he had thought. Don’t say no. Please don’t say no.

            “Why?”

            “Maru — ”

            “Fine. Tell me this. Does she remember me?”

            “Yes,” Jae Gil finally answered. “She talks about you constantly. We tell her how you’re doing. I would tell you who she is if I could, but it’s not for me or Choco to tell. She doesn’t say it, but we know she still loves you. She wants you to have a chance at a new beginning.”

            There was a bride standing in front of him. She had her back turned so he couldn’t see her face. Something told him she was waiting for another man. Was she his bride? And in his chest, a sharp pain repeated the same refrain. You must pay for your transgressions.

            “And I think,” Jae Gil’s voice reached him in the recesses of his memory. “I think she wants the same for herself.”

            Eun Gi wore a light blue dress to Choco and Jae Gil’s wedding. When she was done putting up her hair and putting on her make-up, Eun Gi looked in the mirror and saw the daughter her mother wanted — a soft, beautiful girl easy to love. Saw the girl her mother wanted and her father raised. She had stepped down formally as the Executive Director of Taesan Group just last month. Her mother had wanted a doll and her father a corporate leader. She could dress in the attire of both, but that did not mean they fitted her well. Eun Gi didn’t want beauty or wealth. All she ever wanted, though she buried it deep within herself until it began to fester, was community. Working with the unions taught her that. She wanted to belong and have a home and be of use to the people around her. From now on, she would just sit on the Board of Directors and spend her time doing what made her happy, whatever that may be. There was an empty space on the first floor of her apartment building. Maybe that could be a start.

            “You look handsome, Oppa,” she told Attorney Park when he came to pick her up. He smiled and looked away. Soon after Maru left, Attorney Park had come to her office and slid a letter of resignation across her desk.

            “What’s this?” she had asked him.

            “There’s something I must tell you, Director Seo.”

            Eun Gi had looked at the vertical envelope and felt one of her oldest ties beginning to sever.

            “No,” she said.

            “Director Seo, you must listen to me.”

            “No, Oppa,” she said again, turning her eyes up to look at Attorney Park and the hardness there startled him. “I’ve lost too many people, people I care about. People I love. I will not lose you too.”

            Eun Gi saw his eyes begin to water.

            “You will want me to leave once I tell you my secret,” he told her.

            Eun Gi stood up and walked across her desk. She picked up the letter of resignation and placed it back in his hands.

            “Then don’t tell me,” she said. “I don’t want to know. Will what you say hurt me? Will it hurt you? If it won’t be of benefit to anyone living, I don’t need to know. Yes?”

            He had looked down at the envelope in his hand and began to cry.

            “Yes,” he replied.

            Secretary Hyun met them in front of the hotel. She attempted to block Eun Gi from entering. Eun Gi knew without asking why Secretary Hyun was so concerned. Without asking for her permission, her pulse began to dance. He’s here. He’s here. He’s here.

            “It’s okay, Secretary Hyun. I anticipated this. He doesn’t remember me anyway. I won’t approach him.”

            Such an easy promise to make and one so difficult to keep. She saw him as soon as she entered. He stood beside Jae Gil’s menacing brother and greeted guests as senior members of both respective families. He was devastatingly handsome.

            Handsome men are your ideal type, aren’t they?

            “Miss?” Secretary Hyun asked.

            Without looking at them, Eun Gi said, “Go in first with Oppa. I’ll come in soon.”

            She found a spot by the wall where he couldn’t easily see her and watched him. It was as though someone had placed her emotions on mute all this time and his presence sent sound and noise and music roaring back into her ears. So this is what it felt like to be so close to him, Seo Eun Gi. How did you ever forget?

            She watched him throughout the wedding ceremony, but lost sight of him when everyone moved over to the reception hall. After offering her congratulations to Choco and Jae-Gil, Eun Gi sat on a chair at the edge of the dance floor and searched for Maru. As she laughed at the bride and groom making faces on the dance floor, a torso blocked her field of vision. Eun Gi looked up and felt her heart stop.

            “I know you, don’t I?” Maru asked, his voice anxious.

            She felt delirious with happiness. Stay. Stay right where you are. Never be farther away than you are now.

            “No,” she answered, giving him her sweetest smile.

            He looked at her, his face unreadable for a moment. Then, a full smile blossomed on his face.

            He knows his effect on women, Eun Gi thought but knew she was lost anyway. She had been lost to him for years.

            “Would you like to dance?” Maru asked.

            “Yes,” Eun Gi said.

            On the dance floor, Maru placed a hand on her hip and pulled her close. She rested her head on his shoulder and said nothing about the intimacy between supposed strangers. She knew there were eyes on her and Maru as they swayed to the music — curious and concerned and joyful. She could hear his heart pound.

            When the music stopped, Maru’s hands tightened slightly on her waist. Never let this end. Please never let this end. They stayed frozen on the dance floor until the next song began. They danced until the bride and groom left and all of the guests were gone.

            As the band packed up, Maru asked, “Who are you?”

            Instead of answering, Eun Gi asked, “You’re Choco’s brother, right?”

            He nodded.

            “You’re studying in America?”

            He nodded.

            “How many years do you have left?” she asked as if she didn’t know. Asked as if she didn’t count down the days.

            “One,” he answered, his eyes on her lips.

            “Choco knows where I live. If you decide to come back to Korea, come find me.”

            Maru’s hands held on tight to her waist. She thought, If he kisses me now, I’ll tell him everything. But he didn’t. His hands loosened and he let her go.

            Trust him, Seo Eun Gi. Trust him and do this.

            “I know you have trouble recognizing faces. It’s okay if you forget me. Just come back.”

            There was a song. Maru knew this. A few months before Choco and Jae Gil’s wedding, another memory returned to him. He was standing in an office with a phone to his ear, listening to a song that brought him such relief. She was on the other line and he could listen to that song for the rest of his life if it meant she would stay on the line.

            Maru drove straight to Choco and Jae Gil’s empty house after leaving the reception hall. After letting himself in with the spare key they gave him, he went straight to his old bedroom, a small open space connected to the living room. Underneath his twin-sized bed were boxes of his possessions from a previous life. He found the box with his CDs and played them. There was an urgency pushing him forward now. That was her tonight, he was sure of it. He first saw her while he greeted guests outside the wedding hall. She stood by the wall and watched him. She felt like his lost memory, always on the boundaries of his mind. If he looked right at her, she would disappear.

            When everyone filed into the reception hall, he found a dark corner of his own and watched her. It was her. He was sure of it. He didn’t remember her name, but —

            My heart remembers you.

            While they danced, he thought of all the charm he could muster, all the tricks he knew like the back of his hand, all the incentives he could offer her. He would convince her to give him her name, to give him a smile, to give him another dance and a kiss and a lingering touch. He would convince her to come back with him to the empty brown and orange house and lay down with him on his small bed. He would convince her to come back to the States with him and give him her days and her nights, her laughter, and her memories. He would convince her to give him everything.

            When I look at her, father, I see myself.

            But when she said it’s okay if you forget me, just come back, all of that felt like cheating somehow and her eyes begged him not to cheat. If he had to remember her in order to see her again, so be it.

            It was morning when he heard it. On his bed, Maru watched the shadows slowly edge away as sunlight filled the house.

            You’re going to meet some gentle people there.

            His memories came to him then, soft and slow, painful and sweet. He felt tears slide down his cheeks, but even that was a blessing.

            Summertime will be a love-in there.

            Seo Eun Gi in the passenger seat of his car. Seo Eun Gi in his arms on a plane. Seo Eun Gi dripping wet in a lake. Seo Eun Gi confessing in the rain. Eun Gi wrapped in a comforter, Eun Gi sobbing upstairs, Eun Gi pointing at wedding dresses and leaning over to kiss him and waiting to apologize by a grieving father’s gate and lying through her teeth and holding him on a crosswalk and loving him and loving him and loving him. If she wanted a new beginning, he would give her that. He would give her anything she asked. He would give her everything.

            Gentle people with flowers in their hair.

            Maru did return. After his year was over, he transferred to an internship at a hospital in Seoul. He bought a house down the road from where she lived with Eun Seok and came to her bakery every day.

            On the first day he arrived, he went up to where she was working the counter and ordered sandwiches and drinks. She smiled at him tentatively, but his face showed no recognition.

            “By chance, do you remember me?” she finally asked as she handed him his order.

            His brow furrowed before he launched into a well-practiced explanation of his inability to recognize faces.

            “We met at Choco’s wedding,” she prompted.

            “Oh, yes. You were the beautiful woman in blue.”

            He grinned at her and Eun Gi flushed. Player.

            “I’m moving in down the street,” Maru said. “I’m thinking of opening up a clinic in this village when my internship finishes. I grew up here.”

            I know.

            “Do you live here?”

            Eun Gi nodded and said, “I live upstairs with my brother. This is my bakery.”

            “It’s wonderful. I don’t know why, but it makes me feel at home. I’ll have to come back, Miss — ”

            He paused for her name.

            “Eun Gi,” she said. “Seo Eun Gi.”

            Maru’s grin widened.

            “I’ll have to come back then, Miss Seo Eun Gi.”

            Most lovers only get one first meeting, one first impression, but Maru is sure he has met Eun Gi for the first time more times than he knows. He wonders how many times he must have passed by her during their undergraduate years, when they were both their department’s top students at Seoul University. They were only one year apart. Surely he must have seen her in a library or walking to class, back when his entire world was Jae Hee noona and her entire world was Taesan. He did not know her then.

            With every first meeting — on planes and motorbike trails, by walls lined with chalk and on benches in front of hospitals, in wedding halls and small cafes — Maru knew Eun Gi better and better and, in knowing her better, he found that he knew himself better too. When Eun Gi said that she didn’t care if she self-destructed so long as she took him down with her, Maru thought, I would do the same. When he heard that she was willing to give up wealth and social standing to save him, Maru thought, I would do the same.   

            So it is of no surprise to him when Eun Gi picks up the box of couple rings and whispers an echo of his own prayers.

            “Thank you.”

            Years later he won't remember who said it. Maybe they both say it. Maybe neither of them do. Maybe they both thought it for years and then finally it came true.

           I waited and you came.