I often remember the day. Outside was sunny and warm and noisy. We had gathered for a group picture in the front courtyard of our school, Pyongyang Junior Middle School No. 7, a few days before our graduation. A man with a camera was on a balcony a floor above us. He called out the motto of the Korean Children's Union—"Always ready!" And we saluted. The picture is in black and white because of our international economic and technical cooperation shortages at the time. I have saved the picture for twenty-four years.
When I was fourteen, I stored it and other small meaningful things in a sturdy black trunk at my parents' home, and when I was fifteen, I joined the Korean People's Army. In my fourteen years of service, I became an officer, and over the next seven years, I was dispatched abroad to supervise long-term foreign assignments with our military partners in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. When I came back to our country, I visited my parents' apartment in Haeju for two weeks. We had a quiet dinner. They said they found someone for me to marry. I asked about the trunk. They had put it in a storage room. I later brought out the picture and looked at it.
We are all wearing our white shirts, with red neckerchiefs, and our Children's Union badges. I am in the back between two boy classmates. I am not smiling. My gaze is hard and intent, but I am not angry. I am guarded and reserved. I was a transfer student from Puyong Junior Middle School, owing to my parents' special relocation for Party educational work, and I enrolled at Pyongyang Junior Middle School No. 7 for the final year. Afterward, we returned to our hometown. But I looked at the picture not to reflect on myself or my family. I wanted to see everyone again, everyone who I only briefly knew, and her too, Kang Winhee. She is in front, in full view, between two girl classmates. She is smiling. I have lasting memories of her.
I remember the two of us in our science class, at different desks, and in our society class, next to each other. I remember her in our school cafeteria, with her girlfriends at another table that was in the same row of tables as mine. Once at lunch, I went to her and asked if I could have back a pen she had borrowed from me in our society class. Another time, in society, before our teacher came, she was reading The Secret of Sound Wave A. I liked picture books too, so the next day, I brought my copy of Unforgettable Comrades-in-Arms. She noticed the top edge and spine sticking out from my exercise book, and she opened it. I was glad, but I did not say anything.
Somehow, I have no memory of us ever really talking, and there is a gap in my recollections until the week we were to graduate, the time of the group picture. She came to my table in the cafeteria, with a pen, and she asked me to write in her friendship book. I was in the middle of a heated, perhaps now trivial, discussion with some boys, and in a hurried moment, I took the book and the pen, signed my name, and returned everything to her. I can still see her looking down at the page. On graduation day, I was walking outside with my parents, and she said, "Goodbye, Taeoo." I said, "Goodbye, Winhee."
Although I had no romantic affections for anyone in those days, I have sometimes wished I talked to her about our shared interest in picture books. I have also wished I had written a message in her friendship book and smiled when I said goodbye.
After looking at our group picture, I searched for her on our Bright Light intranet network system. I had tried to before, from the time the intranet came when I was twenty, but I was never able to locate her. I found someone with her name, the senior account manager of the Pyongyang Diamond Cutting Factory, and her email address. I sent a brief message, asking if she was the same Kang Winhee who attended Pyongyang Junior Middle School No. 7. A week passed. I wrote again, more politely, and after a day, she replied, saying she had attended and graduated class of 1994, but she had to apologize if she could not remember who I was. "Junior middle school," she said, "was so long ago."
I told her it was my regret that it took me many years to find her. I described my appearance in our school days, and I included a URL to my official Korean People's Army officer profile and photo page. I told her about our science and society classes and when she looked at my copy of Unforgettable Comrades-in-Arms, and I said I had made a mistake by only signing my name in her friendship book when we were in the cafeteria. I thought that was what people did. I told her about when we exchanged goodbyes on graduation day. I said she did not have to worry if she did not remember me, and I mentioned the group picture we all took twenty-two years ago. She did not respond. I got married. Two years passed.
I was at my barracks office typing an email to the Haeju City Cooperative Farm management committee. There was going to be a joint army-people rally with our servicemen and the cooperative farm workers. Outside was sunny and warm and noisy. I do not know why, but I suddenly felt an urge to send a message to her again. I debated the idea for a while, and I finally decided to go with the feeling for its own sake. I said hello and mentioned that it had been a long time since our last communication. I asked how she had been. I said I was still in Haeju, busy with army work and family life, and I wished her well. She is still listed as a manager at the diamond cutting factory in Pyongyang.
Alzo David-West is a writer, poet, and academic. His creative writing appears in Antimatter, Cha, Eastlit, Grief Diaries, K'in, Missing Slate, Offcourse, Star*Line, StepAway Magazine, Tower Journal, Transnational Literature, and 365 Tomorrows. He is also the editor of scifaiku and tanka translations in Silver Blade and Star*Line.