A soldier and a young woman in a pink dress walked past the window of the newly built coffee shop overlooking the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Soonam was waiting. She looked at the time on her mobile phone. The cashier woman was refilling a glass coffee pot.
Songhae arrived fifteen minutes later than they had planned. The Sunday service at Pongsoo Church had taken longer than usual since a humanitarian aid delegation from the United States was in town.
She said she was sorry and sat across from her friend at the small wooden table with a white finish.
“How was it?”
“Many questions … so many questions,” Songhae said, trying to catch her breath. She called out to the cashier woman and ordered a cup of coffee and a fried honey cookie.
“What did they ask about?”
“About the Lord and the resurrection.”
“Do you believe it?”
“The Lord and the resurrection.”
“The Lord is President Kim Ilsong himself. We do not believe in resurrection in a scientific age. No one can die and come to life again.”
“Did you tell them that?”
“We told them we are Christians and that we believe in the Lord. How is your father, by the way?”
“Better. Not well, but better.”
“I am sorry he is ill.”
“We have seen worse, haven’t we? Besides, father said we shouldn’t worry if anything happens.”
“And your mother and sister?”
“They are seeing him now at the hospital.”
“What did you want to see me about, Soonam?”
“I’ve just been thinking a lot, a lot about everything, really.”
“It sounds like a heavy load.”
“What kind of person are you?”
“It’s a strange question, Soonam. We have known each other since university, and it’s ten years now.”
“But I’ve never asked you before, have I?”
“No,” Songhae thought for a moment, “I don’t think so.”
“I’ve always thought you rather stubborn … like a cow,” Soonam remarked.
“I don’t think this is the most flattering image.”
“Okay, but what would you say of me?”
“Well, you’ve always gone after what you wanted since we first met. Sometimes I feel you do so because you are insecure.”
“So I’m insecure, and you’re a cow.”
“Are you trying to insult me?”
“Of course not, Songhae. I’m just joking.”
“What is bothering you, Soonam? Is it your father’s illness?”
“I don’t know what I want anymore.”
“I understand your feelings.”
“I know what it’s like to be uncertain, to be unsure, of things.”
“Maybe we are more alike than we think then.”
“I’m a practical person, as you know. We must be practical in order to get by. It’s not an easy thing.”
“You are full of practicalness, aren’t you?”
“What is bothering you, Soonam?”
“I’m thinking about him again. I cannot stop thinking about him and what I said.” Soonam was holding the sides of her coffee cup.
“Just look at it as a passing thing.”
“But it wasn’t, and that’s what saddens me the most.”
“I once had a friend, too.” Soonam was listening to the familiar intonation. “I thought I knew him, but unlike you, I never said anything. I couldn’t bring myself to it. The difference between us is that you did.”
“I don’t regret what I said. I was sincere.”
“So was he, except that he was too sincere.”
“It was an indifferent thing to do, Songhae.”
“I am not indifferent.” Her tone shifted. “I would ask you how you know you ever loved him.”
“And I would ask you why you didn’t love him when he loved you as a friend.”
“I couldn’t say it. You know that. It would have been irresponsible.”
“It wouldn’t have been a heavy baby, I think.”
“But look at yourself … look at the load you now bear.”
“Am I to believe that you aren’t bearing one yourself? A load of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens?”
“No, that’s not me. That’s your way of thinking.”
Soonam stared into the mouth of her coffee cup for a few seconds. She looked out the window. A schoolgirl in a dark blue uniform and a red neckerchief passed by, reading something in a notebook.
“Who led the delegation?” Soonam started again.
“Reverend Hamlin. It’s his fifth visit to our country now. He’s very popular in the United States. This is what our pastor and the cadres have said.”
“Why does he come here?”
“He mentioned the food shortages and said we are all neighbors under the Lord.”
“Do you trust him?”
“Was I born yesterday? His group claims to take pity on us, as a traveler who finds a man attacked on the road and left to die, and they say they would bandage our wounds and put us on a donkey and take us to an inn and tend to us until we got better.”
“I don’t understand how they could be welcome saying such things.”
“We have to survive,” Songhae responded, “but we must be careful when Americans come to our country telling such stories.”
The cashier woman went to clean a table at the other end of the coffee shop.
“Soonam,” Songhae continued, “why don’t you tell me about it?”
“Won’t it be too much?”
“No, it’s never too much.”
Soonam recalled the spring evening when he arrived on the trolleybus at the railway station bus stop and how she helped him find a small hotel. They had written to each other all through her enrollment at the foreign language university, and it was so nice to finally see him. She had brought him flowers, too.
He would be in Pyongyang for two weeks, and they met three times during his stay. She took him to the gallery on Victory Street because he liked paintings, and they walked along the Taedong and ate at the bean-pancake shop where she used to go when she was a middle school student.
The night before he left, she saw him one last time at the hotel. They sat together in his room, talking for a while, remembering the letters, and laughing and joking. He said he liked walking with her. Something was bothering him, though; however, he would not say what it was.
But he finally told her about his family and the woman his parents had arranged for him to marry and that he wished things had been different. Soonam told him, in the room, that she loved him.
“Maybe you said it out of pity,” Songhae suggested.
“No, no, it wasn’t pity. I wasn’t sorry for him. I was sincere.”
“Are you still in touch?”
“I call him once every few months, but it’s just to say ‘hello.’ His son is six years old now.”
“What about his wife?”
“I don’t talk about her. I’m not interested in her.”
Songhae considered the words.
“I understand it’s hard to let go, but you must take it as a passing thing, Soonam, even if you still want—”
“I don’t know what I want. I meant what I said, but I really don’t know what I want.”
“I know your feelings, Soonam, but you mustn’t be a wandering star.”
“I doubt that you do. After all, you never told him you loved him.”
“But I asked him if he loved me. I confess that I was hurt for a while when he said he could only love me as a friend, but I hoped for a while. I did.”
“Was it your practicalness that made you throw him away after eleven years then?”
“It was only after he said he lost faith in our great father,” Songhae asserted in a whisper. “Why did he tell me this? How could he tell me this?”
“He trusted you. That’s why. That is what friends do when they love each other.”
“And what could I have done for him? Condemn us both? No, we cannot get by with such naive sincerity. It was better for us, what I did. It was better for him.”
“Have you thought about how he felt?”
“What I did was responsible, Soonam. What I did is what a responsible friend would have done for him. I am convinced of that.”
“As you see,” Soonam said, “this is why you are like a cow.”
Songhae paused and began laughing, almost uncontrollably, and clapped her hands. The cashier woman, who was now filling a pastry case, looked in the direction of the noise. They had been at the coffee shop for only ten minutes, but the time seemed much longer.
“What time is it?” Songhae asked, bringing out and looking at her mobile phone.
“Do you have to be somewhere?”
“Oh, no. There is no more choral work for me today.”
“Why don’t we get some more coffee then?” Soonam put forward.
Late-afternoon clouds passed over the coffee shop.
“It’s nice that it was built here. It’s so convenient for you, and there is such a nice view of the Taedong. Is it true that a company from the south proposed the idea?” Songhae asked.
“It’s part of a joint venture to promote national reunification,” Soonam explained. “More projects are being planned.”
“There must be so many things you hear at the foreign trade bank.”
“Yes, but I don’t like the work. It’s always the same. It’s not interesting.”
“What would you have besides it?”
“I wanted to travel. I wanted to be a flight attendant on the Air Koryo. I didn’t want to sit behind a desk and a computer and talk to foreign investors and businessmen.”
“You were assigned a good job, Soonam. It’s steady, and you have a comfortable apartment.”
“Haven’t you become tired with what you do?”
“I like it at the church. I like the songs.”
“I suppose you would.”
“You have to be realistic, Soonam. It isn’t good to always have fanciful ideas.”
“Why do I feel the way I do?” She raised the subject again. “Why couldn’t I have him?”
“You think too much about yourself,” Songhae uttered. “We have choices, but our lives have roads we must follow. I say follow your road.”
“Is that why I feel this energy … because I think too much about myself? I don’t think that’s true. I’m a romantic person.”
“I’m a romantic person, too.”
“I’m a romantic person who is a realist. I choose to be a realist because it’s better for my heart.”
“Yes. That’s why you have no one.”
Songhae was struck, and her irritation shifted into anger.
“Soonam, I didn’t come here to be insulted.” Her voice was rising, but not screaming. “Think of others before you speak. Take responsibility with what you say.”
“Sorry, sister. I am sorry.” Soonam dropped her face and hung her head deferentially.
They were quiet for a few minutes, sometimes taking awkward sips from their coffee cups.
“It was a very hurtful thing to say,” Songhae continued, more calmly this time. “Do you really think I have had no one in my life? Yes, I do not have your prettiness, and I have not known all the men you have. I do not have your beautiful white teeth and beaming smile or your deep-set round eyes and bright round face or your fair complexion. My features are not well balanced, and I do not have your tall, slender figure. You are like a dancer, like someone from a story, but I am not an incomplete person. I have feelings, too, and I have made my sacrifices. You are not the only person who has pain in this world.”
“I … I am sorry. I am sorry, but this is not what I meant, sister. Please understand me.”
“What did you mean then?”
“I meant … I mean … that it is … you have put your life in order … the order that you have … the order that … that you said you are a realist … you are on your road … you said you are following … the road … that is practical … to make choices …”
“What are you saying?”
“I cannot express myself like you, Songhae. There are some things I cannot express by putting them in order like you do, especially my feelings. Don’t think you are unattractive. You are not unattractive.”
“I understand your feelings, but I cannot understand your confusion, Soonam. I cannot understand why you are so insecure.”
“You said I’m beautiful, but beauty isn’t enough. I feel incomplete.”
“I think you underestimate your advantages and the care you receive for it all, Soonam.”
“I know I have the job and the apartment. I know I have the desirable look to work with the foreigners who come to the bank, and this work is important. But don’t you see, Songhae, my situation is not satisfying to me.”
“If you are unsatisfied, you should put in a request for a transfer.”
“Wouldn’t it be a needless complication, though, and especially now when my father is sick? Besides, where I work won’t solve my problem. It’s what I am missing. It’s what I don’t know.”
“You must let it go, Soonam. He is taken now.”
“But I cannot forget. I cannot forget him and what I said. I cannot let go of this.”
“I don’t think this is a problem about love.”
“Do you think I lust him?”
“Your insecurity has affected your love, and maybe you covet him because another woman has him. Maybe you have pinned your hopes on him because of that evening and because he has not …” Songhae interrupted herself for a moment. “I would say he has not shown a proper sense of responsibility to you or to his family. He is a married man with a child. Perhaps that is why your feelings are now tangled.”
“He hasn’t done anything wrong. He was sincere to me, and I was to him, and our friendship has continued on the basis of our affection for each other.”
“Your soul is in chains, Soonam. That is what troubles you.”
“My soul is in chains? Well, it possesses me, and it tortures me. I would prefer to be free of such a soul, but no matter what I do, I cannot get rid of it.”
“You confine it, and it preserves you, but you destroy it. It suffers your grief and your cures.”
“What can help me, Songhae? My memory, my heart will never let these things go.”
The cashier woman stepped out of the coffee shop with a broom, sweeping the dust and particles that had settled at the entrance.
Soonam and Songhae were still talking, their forms in a silent animation of gestures. One would have rightly suspected they were friends, not sisters or colleagues. Soonam’s right elbow rested on the table, the pivoting of her coffee cup marking intervals, her soft, glossy hair tied in the back like a bird’s tail.
Songhae’s left hand was planted on the white finish, and she was emphasizing something with her right hand. She wore a blue blouse and a brown skirt, but she could have been taken for a judoist, not a choralist, with her stocky build, short hair, and squarish face, with her tan complexion and small features. Soonam, in her makeup, did, indeed, look like a dancer next to her friend. She was wearing a fitted white shirt and a tight, black skirt that fell just above her knees.
The cashier woman came back into the coffee shop and said the place would be closing in half an hour. The conversation had taken a slightly different turn, and Songhae was talking about herself, as if reciting a soliloquy on an opera stage.
“We are flowers, and when men find us, should our bloom pass? We must be careful, careful of everything on the road. Does he see the wound in me that he made? I loved him for years, and my fire never waned. My faith waxed for him. And what I desired in the day, I saw in my dreams. How many times I wished not to awaken from those dreams. What more grief must I add to my sorrow for letting him go? Was it love that made him speak such dumb words? Was he unkind? Must he repent? All that time, I lived as his lover, for even though it was an unborn love, it was a real, authentic love. Now, the dreams are my torments. Must I sleep to embrace clouds? There are sacred things we must protect, even from the error of naive sincerity. I fortify myself against it. I do. Let others paint their shadows. Not me. There is always light in my life. There is always the sun. That is our faith. This is our miracle. He will get no more of me. I could cancel him as quickly as I did because my love was authentic. But do not be mistaken. There is no winter in me. I pray now that he will be worthy to our country’s name and that he will honor our great father again. We are not heartless creatures.”
Soonam wiped a tear that descended her cheek, smudging the blush, powder, and eyeliner.
“I don’t know what to say. Sister, I don’t know what to say.”
They were quiet again for a while, sitting.
“Soonam, I know it will not immediately resolve your dilemma or change your situation today, but think of what I have said; think of it as I have thought of it.”
Soonam smiled and thanked Songhae for coming, and after they got up, she hugged her friend so tightly that Songhae had to laugh, saying she could not breathe. They left the coffee shop and went their separate ways.
A few days later, there was talk that a very beautiful woman living in one of the comfortable apartments nearby hanged herself. It was because her father died of heart disease.