My last day in Seoul is done.
The morning started, as usual, with Rose’s wonderful two-egg breakfast. When I leave tomorrow, I plan to present her with the necklace I bought that says “mother” in Korean characters. Rose works hard to support her two children since her husband left. Yet, she’s the picture of resiliency and humor. Like a good mother, she is a source of comfort and inspiration.
I came back to my room to get ready for my visit to ELS, which is the school where I taught English in 1988. I lay on my bed to gather some strength because, frankly, I didn’t want to go. This was the part of my trip that would bring me closest to my worst memories.
I’ll never forget the winter evening I showed up to teach my classes at ELS and was met with a message on the chalkboard saying that an EMERGENCY MEETING would be held at 5:55 PM. At that exact time, our director Jim Gillis told us that our colleague Carolyn Abel had been found dead. Her bloodied body had been discovered by two of our other colleagues. They went to check on Carolyn because she hadn’t shown up for the morning session. As the story goes, and as time ultimately told, those two had been involved in Carolyn’s murder the night before. They planned the whole cover up and next day’s “discovery” of her mutilated body.
You can imagine why I might not want to revisit the scene of the crime, so to speak. For distraction, I turned on the TV. I channel surfed until I found a Korean woman teaching English although she was speaking in Korean. The conflict between the English sentences and her Korean utterances confused me. Finally, the words on her chalkboard came into focus.
First there was something about the building of the Panama Canal–a place I visited with my family two months ago.
And then there was this sentence:
It was a complete shock to hear the news of her passing away.
I sat upright and stared at the screen. Was I seeing this correctly? Had I fallen asleep? Was I dreaming? Nope. It was real. I took a picture of the TV screen. Then, I grabbed my coat and headed out for ELS.
ELS is in Gangnam, southern Seoul. A place made famous by that guy PSY who sang “Gangnam Style.” The cab ride there took about 30 minutes and Gangam was unrecognizable to me. Busy and fancy whereas it used to be quiet and working class. ELS had moved to a new building although still in the same general area. Everything about ELS was brand-spanking new.
I felt old.
I asked to speak with Brian Speier, the academic director. I had emailed Brian to let him know that I would stop by this week. He said I’d be welcome to do so.
I found Brian’s office on the 5th floor of the spotless and high-tech facility. He greeted me nicely, but was in the middle of some kind of issue that needed his attention. We only had a few minutes to speak. I briefly explained the story. He looked ashen. He’d never heard the tale. Then, he mentioned that he’d looked my name up in the database and there was no record of me teaching at ELS.
But, he confessed, maybe there wasn’t a database back then. I can’t help but wonder if everyone who taught in 1988 got deleted.
I felt erased.
I took the subway to Jamsil where all ELS teachers lived in those days. The night she was killed, Carolyn took this subway back to her apartment in the Oh-Dun-Gee Complex.
Back then, Oh-Dun-Gee offered the best digs. Huge modern buildings, and dozens upon dozens of them. I got lost in Oh-Dun-Gee many many times. I lived, for a while, in the nearby Ee-Dun-Gee, which also was a huge complex but not as tall or as modern. Most new teachers had to live in Ee-Dun-Gee before getting upgraded to Oh-Dun-Gee.
But not Carolyn. She got to move into Oh-Dun-Gee upon arrival because a spot was open. Meanwhile, I had moved in with my boyfriend John, and we lived across the Han River in Dong-Bingo-Dong.
When I came out of the subway station, Oh-Dun-Gee was there to greet me. But the posh apartments have not aged well. Oh-Dun-Gee is dingy. Dated. Decrepit. There’s even barbed wire blocking some of the entrances. Despite its wear and tear, plenty of folks still live there.
Carolyn was killed in one of those buildings. I don’t know which one and it doesn’t matter now. All I wanted to do was get away, as fast as possible, from these Towers of Doom.
Oh-Dun-Gee had only one message for me: Carolyn is dead; and, Nancy will be one day. Time runs out on buildings and people.
I walked toward the Han River. The sight of it comforted me then, and I hoped it would do so again. I used to run along the river in the mornings before school. In those days, I raced against time and, usually, won. In fact, the reason I came to Seoul in 1988 was to see the swimming events at the Olympics. Some of my own former competitors were trying to beat the clock, as well as other countries.
Suddenly, I had the idea to take the key from the lock I’d bought for Carolyn–now hanging on a fence on Namsan Mountain–and throw it in the Han River. An homage to swimming and to the dead.
I had a mission. A conclusion. I walked a bit faster.
When I saw the Han I burst into tears. I found the perfect spot for tossing Carolyn’s key–under the Jamsil bridge. A place where the water was rushing, not stagnate.
I opened my purse to get the key. I was crying so much I couldn’t see. I fumbled around for a long time before realizing that I didn’t have it. I’d left the key to Carolyn’s lock in my hotel room.
I went from hysterical tears to hysterical laughter. This story is immune to any ending I might want. Always has and always will be.
Carolyn (and the key) remain with me. The murderer remains free. The story was never going to change.
But I have.