Week 4: Leaving Seoul

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For my fourth weekly project, I’ve done something quite a bit more personal than the previous ones: I’ve written an essay about someone I once loved, and about the two biggest failures of my life.

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Duke Ellington Bridge, which connects the Adams Morgan and Woodley Park neighborhoods of Washington, DC, is edged by very tall fences, built to prevent anyone from jumping off. Taft Bridge, literally around the corner, is the same height, and has low railings that you could practically stumble over if you had a little too much to drink.

Yet, as the story goes, after the protective fences were installed on Ellington Bridge, the rate of suicides in the area decreased significantly, despite the extreme proximity of an equally practical suicide bridge. The explanation I’ve heard is that since suicide a fundamentally impulsive act, any stumbling block, any small intervention, could save a person’s life; they might never attempt it again. (Although, in this case, I imagine it’s also because no one wants to be remembered for jumping off of something called Taft Bridge.)

I was living in Woodley Park, in a tiny studio apartment that overlooked the latter, less glamorous bridge, when I met Christine. It was toward the end of my year in that home (also my first year of living in the city, after having wanted to much of my life). I’d been going on a whole lot of dates since I moved there, reveling in how easy it is to meet people when you don’t live in a personality-free bedroom suburb on the outskirts of nowhere. (And, if we’re being honest, also in how much easier it is to meet people when you’ve lost forty pounds because you’ve sold your car and have been walking everywhere.)

At this point, I’d gotten a little bored of it, having met dozens of reasonably interesting people while making few meaningful connections. I’d decided to take a break from dating for a while; Christine was the last person I agreed to meet.

We had a conventional, pleasant enough first date at a restaurant in Dupont Circle, and a a few days later a truly lovely second date wandering around the city on an unseasonably warm February night, then drinking champagne on the roof of her apartment building downtown. She was all sunshine, a smiling Texan from an immigrant family not unlike mine, full of funny stories and kind words, outgoing and sweet.

Not long after our first dates, I was asked to interview for a job by a studio in Seoul. I’d been wanting to live abroad for years; growing up in a diplomat family instilled in me a wanderlust that I often struggle with in my travel-light profession. I agreed without hesitation to fly out to Korea at the last minute to talk to them. I didn’t think I was really qualified for the position they were hiring for, but I wasn’t about to turn down a free trip.

The interview went much better than I expected, and I told Christine so: warned her that anything that developed between us might have to be temporary, because I might have to move away in a few months. She readily agreed that we could still make the best of whatever time we had, if we it came to it.

We became close quickly, and spent an increasing amount of time together. I met a bunch of her friends, and she got to know some of mine. She was sunny, enthusiastic, always bubbling with ideas about things to do and places to go; she introduced me to many of the DC spots that are still important to me, the restaurants and bars and theatres and off-the-beaten-path museums I still frequent. She encouraged my developing interest in fashion (after years of my being the jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing type); she’d recently lost a lot of weight and started dressing more stylishly herself.

At the same time, things progressed rapidly with the job prospect. Within a few weeks, I had an offer–including a surprising salary, two months in a hotel while I’d look for an apartment, and one paid flight back home every year. I was given some time to decide, but I didn’t need it; nothing could have stopped me from saying yes. I’d be flying to Seoul on June 8th, and starting work on the 15th.

Christine wasn’t thrilled when I told her, but seemed to take it in stride. We had three more months to spend together. We even planned a little trip–a long weekend in nearby old town Alexandria full of fancy restaurants. It’s hard to describe the mad, chaotic thrill of those months; with the looming life changes on the horizon, everything felt a little heightened and unreal. As much as I tried to maintain some distance, I quickly found myself falling for her.

She was easy to fall for. For my grandmother’s 85th birthday, Christine baked her a tiramisu cake (my grandmother’s favorite) completely from scratch. She spent an entire day on it, for an old lady she hardly knew. That incident represents the way she interacted with the world more than anything else I can come up with; she overwhelmed people with kindness, giving more than any person reasonably should, spreading little bits of happiness and generosity everywhere she went.

No matter how much my feelings intensified, when the subject of the future of our relationship came up, I never wavered from my insistence that it would have to end when I moved. I’d had long-distance relationships before, and I was certain that the stress of trying to maintain one combined with the stress of resettling on the other side of the planet would be far beyond what I had the capacity for. There wouldn’t even be a set end point; she had a home and a steady job in DC, and I had no intention of returning in the foreseeable future.

It was the only source of friction between us, an argument that came up repeatedly.

Our deadline approached. We spent more and more time together–usually our entire weekends. It was easy to agree to such things; my job here was winding down, and I had few commitments other than packing for the trip. I moved out of Woodley Park and in with some friends near work. I got rid of most of my (already few) belongings.

We had our trip in May, and after that our last weekend as a couple. We spent the entirity of it together, a lovely, languid spring blur. She gave me, as a parting gift, a Burberry watch she’d noticed me admiring at a store; I gave her a pendant made of a piece of ancient roman glass, rough and worn with a beautiful sea-green patina that had developed over the millennia.

The deadline came. We said our goodbyes. She cried like I’d never seen; I felt awful but didn’t. At the last moment, as she started to walk away, she stopped, turned around, and asked if we maybe could spent one more day together before I left; we were both free on Wednesday. I agreed immediately, and seemingly calmed a little, she left.

The next day, Christine killed herself.

I barely lasted the summer in Seoul. It’s an incredible place, but I was in no state to enjoy it. I could hardly bring myself to leave the apartment. I’d only cried a few times in my life up to that point, but that summer I cried a lot, randomly, sometimes without warning. I wore the watch she’d given me continually, taking it off only to shower; the band grew ragged and worn. When I was out and about, or at work, I managed to more or less maintain my composure, but the moment I got to be alone, I was a mess–and yet I wanted to be alone. It took so much out of me to keep up appearances.

One warm night I found myself standing on a rooftop overlooking the gleaming, vibrant city, bustling with culture and life and music and fashion, exactly the sort of place I’d been wanting to live my whole life, but could only to think about how easy it would be to walk off the edge and fall and never have to think about what had happened again. I stood on the precipice and entertained that thought for a few bleak moments, and then decided that I didn’t want anyone I cared about to ever have to feel the way I was, if I could help it. I needed my family, my friends, something familiar and comforting, to pull me out of this. I returned to my apartment and bought a plane ticket back to Washington.

I’ve kept coming back to this passage from the novel Norwegian Wood:

No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.

Well, what I learned from Christine’s death is this: pain doesn’t always look like you expect it to. Until her last moments, I’d never known a more superficially positive, upbeat person. The deep well of sadness in her was meticulously hidden and revealed only in little glimpses you could easily miss if you weren’t paying attention–and thoughtlessly dismiss even if you were.

Some of my friends drifted away from me in the aftermath of her death. I don’t blame them; however much they might have sympathized for what I was going through, I had become completely unbearable to be around. I gradually learned to build my own façade, to try to avoid losing anyone else. It was the bandage under which I slowly healed.

Suicide survivors are often told that no one is responsible for another person’s suicide. The motives behind saying that are noble, but over the years I’ve come to think there is nonetheless something a little dishonest about it–because if you could have prevented something awful from happening by acting, and failed to act, do you not share some piece of responsibility–however small–for the consequences?

I don’t know what I should have done, but I could have done something. In those last months of her life, I was spending more time with Christine than anyone else. I failed her; it’s something I’ll carry, someday, to my grave.

I only hope that if there’s a next time (God forbid that there should be a next time) that I’m close to someone who’s at risk, I’ll better recognize the signs. Like those tall fences on Ellington Bridge, maybe I can help save someone, just by being there when they need me to be. Having seen this sorrow through to the end, I can only hope I really have learned something from it.

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This isn’t a story I’ve told publicly before, although my immediate family (who had the misfortune of having to deal with me in the days and months after) and a number of close friends have heard it. It’s not an easy story to tell; there’s so, so much I’ve left out (how Christine once rented a car and drove all the way from downtown DC to my temporary home in Rockville to surprise me with my favorite gelato when I was feeling sick; how she was a biologist, but wanted to be a writer; how she often said that we should walk around the National Mall at night, but we never got around to it, and how I finally did it, alone, when I returned; how I cried more at her memorial service than I had in my entire life up to that point; how I consider leaving Seoul the second biggest failure of my life; how, more than three years later, I still sometimes find myself missing someone I only knew for a few months; and so many more things).

More importantly, it’s not even really my story to tell; it’s hers, and my own window into it is tiny and foggy and cracked. I only knew her for a small part of her too-brief life.

I’m fine now, blessed with a great place to live, an incredible group of friends, a pretty solid life. I don’t want to feel as though all this is a secret anymore–something people only find out about me when we start to become close, usually told over drinks in a hushed voice so the people at the next table can’t hear. This story is important to me, but the truth is that I’m tired of telling it, again and again. It takes a lot out of you.


Bridge photograph: “Washington DC Duke Ellington Bridge” by Michiel1972. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.