This Burns My Heart


Seoul, South Korea


“You tricked me,” she says, lying over a silk mat on the gold-colored floor, her husband next to her. In the dark, her words float above her, not really doing anything, without the punch and bite they have during the day. They hang there like fragments cast off from a comet, lingering over their bodies before lying down to rest.

When I could be with my father, my brothers, and waiting for my future.

She asks for closeness, for a man who pecks her on the cheek for no good reason as she walks by, or whose arm—warm, solid—is always there next to her own, his hands quick to reach for the small of her back. She hopes for the constant brushing of skin; the merging of silhouettes; the way arms and hands greet casually every day. This is what she imagines married life to be—bodies no longer separate, always feeling each other.

Instead, her husband moves around her like a child afraid of his mother, careful to avoid her space, never finding himself that near. His touch is never there, and she can feel its absence, pulling its weight down on her, leaving her cold, and with no memory of warmth. He lies next to her, still as a prowler, pretending to be asleep. He makes no noise, as if he were holding his breath.

You tricked me, you tricked me.

All she hears is the air slipping in and out of his nostrils, his face almost clenched, like a fist. He never tells her much, and she wonders where it goes, all the words and thoughts that he takes in. Maybe she, too, should lie awake, she thinks, storing pins in different parts of her body. And then when she wakes she will once again be with the quiet, distant man who writes beautiful letters but in person says nothing, looking terrified that she might hurt him. But one thing strikes her: he doesn’t deny that he tricked her.



Daegu, South Korea


chapter one

Soo-Ja knew about the stranger. The one following her for the last four blocks. She kept her pace even—her instinct in situations like this was not to be scared, but to see it as a battle of wits, as if she’d been handed a puzzle, or a task. She wanted to lose him, but do so elegantly, in the manner of a great escape artist. Her friend Jae-Hwa—walking next to her, her homemade knit scarf blowing in the brisk Siberian wind—hadn’t noticed him, and kept on chattering about the lover in the film they’d just seen.

Was the man a secret agent from the North? Soo-Ja asked herself. The war had ended only seven years ago so it was feasible. It didn’t help that the other side didn’t sit across the ocean, or on a different continent, but rather just a few hundred miles away, cordoned off by an imaginary line drawn with chalk on a map. Soo-Ja fantasized that the man mistook her for the mistress of a high-ranking official, and wanted her to carry state secrets across the 38th parallel. Would he be disappointed, she wondered, to find out she was just a college student? Daughter of a factory owner, born in the year of the tiger?

Soo-Ja pulled her compact out of her purse and looked into the round mirror. There he was, within the glimmering frame, in his white jacket and white pants. Western clothes. Appropriate, she thought. She could not imagine him in hanbok, or anything worn by her parents or her parents’ parents. From his self-satisfied grin to the rebellious extra inch of hair, this young man looked like a new species, a new breed. He walked behind her at a relaxed pace, his hands in his pockets, a bodyguard of sorts, there to protect her from men like him.

“We’re being followed,” Soo-Ja finally told Jae-Hwa, though she hadn’t decided yet how to outwit him. She wouldn’t just lose him. There had to be a scene of some kind; otherwise the anecdote was too dull, the narrative too brief. Also, he needed to be punished. Not horrendously, as he hadn’t done anything terrible, but lightly, so he’d learn that he couldn’t just go after a pretty girl like that, couldn’t simply claim her as his.

“Who’s following us?” asked Jae-Hwa, her voice panicky, vowels already in hiding, her hands hanging tightly to her friend’s arm. Was he a “spoiler”? One who damages virgins before their wedding day, rendering them useless? Jae-Hwa, with her short, boyish haircut, lacked