The sun is bright, and it is cold. On the news they say it is the coldest winter of a hundred years. I don’t feel it, but the wind is dry. It’s not even at its extremity, which is predicted for next week, but my lips already chap, bleed, and sting. This is my first Korean winter. The secretary at my hagwon brings me lavender-scented hand lotion before I teach my classes. She brings me a humidifier that occasionally drips. She hands me ginseng tonic in a gold foil packet and brings me boiled water in a white mug. She tells me I look so pathetic when I’m cold. She thinks it is adorable.
My cousin points at the GPS screen. He says my name twice: “Nina, Nina.” He says my name twice because he wants to make sure I am paying attention. So I respond in kind, in double: “Yes, Yes.” He points to his GPS screen, which shows a big block of green surrounded by an infinite white. Lines lie over lines at right angles, covering the green and white spaces like graph paper. “This is your home.” He points to an empty spot in the white. I live on a street with no name, but it can be identified by its proximity to certain landmarks like Starbucks and large office buildings like the POSCO Center. “Nina, Nina, this is your home.” My cousin changes the GPS screen to the 3D setting. Flat squares begin to rise into rectangular buildings like balloons gaining air and then shape.
“This is the park.” My cousin drags his finger across from white to green. There are no street names, just buildings I do not know yet.
“See? Nina, Nina?”
Back home in Missouri, a man died on I-435. His car had broken down, and he jumped over the median, thinking there would be grass, crossed the void created between two bridges, and fell into the lower tier of highway traffic. The cause and shock of his mistake was speculated by the new anchors without a single mention of drugs, and I found that pleasant, shut my laptop, the adaptor overheating into an audible buzz, and then went to bed. There, my heart grew reptile.
My aunt shows me the cooked peppers with anchovies. The news of my health has spread to her, and she feels both resentful and obligated to show that she has done something of care for me. She is cooking it for me to take back to my apartment. I mean to say “I like this a lot” but she heard, whether or not if I truly spoke these words, “Give me a lot.” I throw it all out before I catch the train.
Oil hot and ready, smoke going, wind blighted with ice, and my whole body feels like a newly healed wound as I stand to eat roasted sweet potato, chestnuts, dried and salted fish from street vendors nowhere near my apartment. If I shift my weight to the left, I feel the pain of slight stretching. If I bounce on my feet, I feel my knees stiff against the weather. I am itchy without purpose. I took the train and then walked for some time to get away from the rectangle grid that held my life of apartment, work, and the same restaurants and bars.
The sky is white and gray. In the distance of my apartment’s window, buildings reappear like ghosts, growing more solid as the storm lifts. The buildings here are tall and plentiful like rows of teeth. I grew up in a house that looked like a face. Two windows posed like eyes over the garage, the mouth primly closed. That Midwestern square face, quietly judging. A house with a triangle top roof and uneven seamless vinyl siding. The white, the brick, the random pink, the open driveway for strangers to pull in and then reverse out, the basketball hoops weighted by bags of sand, the milk jug bird feeders, the popsicle sticks stuck in the mail boxes. It sinks from sight, over the horizon.
On cold days, I dream about wearing my socks with warm rice inside so I can walk in them until night, especially on those running days where I am an ice cube under hot water.
An EKG of my heart reveals nothing but a pounding gray. The technician presses hard, too hard on my chest, and I bite my lower lip. It is benign, I tell myself. The feeling of tightness in my chest, the occasional loss of breath, the times I’ve felt faint are hard to diagnosis. “Anxiety?” they ask. “Depression? Weight gain?” I nod, not listening and barely understanding, and wince at the additional cold jelly slapped to my chest. Before I leave, the doctor leads me to the room where nurses with masks over their mouths and gloves on their hands inject vitamin shots into my ass. The doctor tells me to smile. My sternum is tender.
When I get sick here I am convinced that I can heal myself by drinking hot liquids, cup after cup. Drinking until my belly bloats, drinking until I have drowned my mouth, drinking until I’ve made myself sick with the feeling of being roughed up by choppy waters. The progression in feeling worse is a signal that recovery is on its way, my brain tells me. The worst of the storm before the calm, the apex of fall, and I feel myself swaying.
In another dream I bite a pearl. I stole it from a fish that had been eyeing it for most of its life, and so the fish turned its eye on me as I stuck it between my front teeth and discovered the grit of all things.
The secretary at school is eager to hear about my doctor’s appointment. “We must get you feeling better, sengsinim.” I regret telling her that I was not feeling well earlier that week. Although it was true, but that one moment of weak honesty is what led to the EKG, the medicinal tea sludge, the now regular doctor visits where I sit in front of white steam smelly with herbs, and the women with masked mouths who chase me in my dreams.
Back home, a man walking in the park during the first snow was struck dead by a tree limb that could not bear its new weight. I bookmarked the article and went to bed seeing a glitter of stars.
When I am cold, I can only think of what was once warm. It is stupid like trying to find the meaning of all bad dreaming: I lift the lid from a pot and let it drop and crack. I bury the segments deep in the ground and ring a Hula-Hoop around to mark it. I hang outside on a window ledge and I drop myself so I catch myself on the next ledge. I am tucked in a drawer. I struggle to lift a hand out, and someone shushes me and shuts me in.
My doctor avoids discussing time. I ask him, “How long will this last?” He says it’s hard to say. I ask, “How long will I have to take this prescription?” He says for a while, maybe less. When I ask him if this feeling will go away, he says there’s no reason why it shouldn’t go away. I ask what is this.
On my walk home from work I pass the same arcade next to the flower shop and a parking garage. Schoolboys with giant backpacks always circle the same orange box. Its game is hidden to me, but they surround the box at all four sides and look down into the surface glass their eyes darting, their bodies shifting like they are skiing down a slope. Their faces are orange, bright orange against the gray of city concrete and faint streetlight. They look warm.
“I don’t think I’m sick,” I tell the doctor. He is massaging my lymph nodes and asks me to stop speaking. His fingertips tap under my jaw line and he leaves his thumbs at the center of my throat. They move in light concentric rotations. He sighs and then sits back on his chair. “What’s wrong with you again?” he asks while rubbing his forehead. I tell him I don’t sleep well but that is more normal, and that sometimes my chest feels tight and I can’t breathe, but it’s all becoming so normal. He presses his thumbs harder on my throat and reminds me again that he does not want me to speak, which is a shame because I had rehearsed those lines of Korean over and over and they weren’t needed.
I walk down those dreamy corridors, long and tilted and always shadowed, and then I will wake and find multiple handprints, white and heavy and my own, on the window.
In Missouri, a man was killed on his own farm by a bull. The animal was no more aggressive than any other bull, and the man was an expert cowhand in his youth. He was found dead with injuries to his head, neck, and chest.
I’ve been called cold-blooded, and that is fine. So, I am only warm when others feel warm, and I am cold when all feel cold.
The doctor decides I have stable angina pectoris, but we can’t really know for sure. It’s not a big deal, he says. He recommends I eat smaller meals and avoid emotional stress and cold weather when possible. I look up my diagnosis later, and realize how wrong I’ve been.
I can’t find the park. It seems to have disappeared, or perhaps I will always be walking to find it. It’s that kind of park. I walk along the Han River on one side and then cross to walk the other. I will know the city by foot and really know it, I tell myself, but I walk the same roads over and over again.
There is that orange of persimmons. I remember them now. Their skins and flesh so thick the universe must have fed on them to become.