If You Stay


Everyone’s granted a wish on Jeongwol Daeboreum, a festival in South Korea that celebrates the first full moon of the New Year. Armed with sub-par language skills, a slowly growing acclimation to red pepper paste and a capacity to ignore the constant stares my Western appearance now brings, I followed suit, fixing my rice-paper wish to a tree flourishing with hundreds of others tied together in unison.

I feel so comfortable these days just waiting for the subway, like I’m closer to home. It’s a feeling I don’t need often anymore, but when it descends it’s penetrating. The stares don’t abate, and the train doesn’t make those noises you know I hated. I said once it was like barking, and you just laughed and barked back. But I still listen to the same playlist, and whenever that one song comes on I think of that late, desperately hot summer night as we waited ages for the L train and shared my earbuds while dancing along the platform, platforms that constantly sweat that kind of heat that rises from the tracks, confused. The kind of heat you could see shiver in the air. The brand-new tile here somehow breathes out a bitter cold. It’s dense, settles on your shoulders. But the train arrives and we all get on just the same. We all grab the metal pole and have the warmth of someone else’s imprint transferred to us. Gross, really, pathogen-wise. But otherwise comforting. A shared experience.

You would have thought interconnectivity, homogeny — all that social science — would stamp out traditions like Jeongwol Daeboreum, but they endure. We need shared experiences. The parallels connect the human condition. Like even if we know better, we all will still put stock in a wish.

As I wrote on the rice paper it was automatic. Unconscious. I like to believe that not being able to see my life clearly, to scrutinize it intelligently must mean that I am at the epicenter of it. And that couldn’t be a bad thing. But the uncertainty ahead is numbing. I have no idea how this is all going to play out.

But I didn’t wish for the future.

A little boy had been fixated on me. I bowed and backed away from the tree, and before my head rose he ran up, grabbed my paper, and, tripping over his own feet in a scurry, rejoined his gaggle of friends who all broke into a giggle as they marveled over the weird Western scrawl. A woman ran over almost immediately to quell the commotion and tugged the slip from one of their hands. I continued to look on as she mouthed the words to herself. “That time and dis-tance and cir-cum-stance will not dam…dam-pen the bonds I have with those…” she stopped abruptly and followed the boys’ wide-eyed stares up where I stood. Pausing briefly, she walked over. I remained unmoved. She hesitated with kind deliberateness, and after a moment softly said, “I do also wish that your keep who you love in your life as you endure whatever journey you are on.” She waited for any sort of response. A whirlwind of etiquette blinded my vision and my impulse as a foreigner to connect with her, engage her, was overwhelming. I wanted to tell her everything, admit my own uncertainty. But I didn’t. She let the moment politely expire, bowed slightly and turned away.

I knew New York would have a profound effect on me; anywhere you spend a significant chunk of time in your 20s will. But I didn’t realize how deeply my roots had snaked under the concrete. And that’s everyone’s story, I know. But when I made this plan, it was before you were such a part of me. I let you in, let you shape my heart, mold it. You kept some of it, and that vacancy is with me now. And I don’t want it back.

They say that it isn’t what New York gave you but what it didn’t take from you that really matters. But I think what matters is what I left there.

I hope that you’ll keep me. That I don’t just become a pleasant afterthought. One that comes up casually, when you notice how long it’s been since we last spoke. When someone asks how I am and you just don’t know. After a month, or two, or four… you may remember to follow up with me, you may not. Maybe I won’t notice if you don’t.

You made me vulnerable. I let you in. And now you scare me.

Maybe it won’t ache when you cross my mind and I’m alone. Maybe you’ll slip from my periphery. We’ll catch up, first now and then, and then not at all.

But so far you’ve selflessly cheered me on and you’ll never know what that means to me. How I’ve needed that. Now let me keep you in my life, actively. I don’t want a conduit to happy memories. I want to build you into this new life I create.

Someone told me recently that the most important things don’t always find their echo immediately.

You found me a bright but broken wanderlust, unsettled and alive and anxious. You accepted all of me. You inflated my heart after I’d let it flizzle flat for years. You gave me stability when I was hopelessly shaken.

You are different. You just are. You changed me and you weren’t supposed to. That wasn’t part of the plan. But you happened and now you’re a part of me.

I know I’m the one that left.

But I hope that you’ll stay.

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