Excerpt: 'Once The Shore'

Paul Yoon's 'Once the Shore'
Once the Shore: Stories
By Paul Yoon
Paperback, 224 pages
Sarabande Books
List Price: $15.95

The Hanging Lanterns of Ido

At dusk the iron lanterns on the arches above the boardwalk began to light, one by one, starting at the wharf and trailing west along the northern coast of the island. Dim at first, they soon pulsed, like a multitude of hearts, until at last their glow turned continuous. They had been installed months ago, in the spring, the first of the many renovations planned for the port city in the new millennium. And like all the days since, from one season to the next, the visitors came steadily throughout the evening. They moved slowly down the wide path, in pockets, browsing the stalls where the merchants sold an assortment of goods, including tapestries, jewelry, and kites. Lines were formed for hot tea and noodle soups. Children, having had their share of fried dough, gathered on the shore, counting ships. The sun receded, and from the point of a promontory a lighthouse illuminated the sea.

It was October. A Saturday. This was the neighborhood of Ido in Solla City. And among the pedestrians at this hour was a young couple who had been married for several years. Their names were Isun and Taeho. They were dressed in the popular styles of that autumn, the woman wearing a long pale coat, her husband in a brown two-button suit. From afar, you would not have noticed them among the crowd. In their appearance they were no different from the other modern couples who had, in the past ten years, gained from the island's flourishing economy and who were now enjoying the evening on the boardwalk. Isun was a manager at the Lotte Hotel, which loomed above the coast. Taeho was a bookkeeper for the island's tourism bureau.

Every so often they paused beside the stalls, where miniature domes of steam hovered over the vendors as they cooked and placed their food on warm plates for display. A man wearing plastic gloves cupped a dumpling shell in his palm and scooped two fingers full of ground pork and vegetables into the shell's middle. He then lined the edges of the shell with egg yolk and closed the dumpling, pinching the ends together. He repeated the process, creating a dozen with speed and confidence, and then dropped them into a pot of boiling water.

"Do you wish I could do that?" Isun leaned toward Taeho's ear. She asked this whenever they came here, referring to her limits in the kitchen. "Admit it," she said. "A part of you wishes I could."

"Every evening," he said, and she poked his stomach with her finger.

"You're awful," she said. "An awful, awful man."

They continued their walk heading west, unhurried, Taeho with his hands clasped behind his back. Isun slipped an arm around his. The sky had finished its transition, revealing stars. The night colors arrived: office lights and streetlamps, the fluorescence of blinking storefront signs. There was a wind but they did not mind it. The walk was a habit they had formed during the weekends, a routine that marked their times of leisure. They were now deciding on where to have dinner, whether to stop at a stall or return to the boulevard in the city center. Passing under the lanterns their faces brightened then shadowed and brightened again. It was, so far, an ordinary Saturday.

In the end they decided on a Thai restaurant not far from their apartment, one they dined at often since their marriage. They were now familiar with the place. The corner booth, in their fantasies, theirs. Out of formality they opened their menus even though they already knew what they wanted. When a waitress approached them they pretended to consider the daily specials, printed on an extra sheet of paper.

And it was only when they heard a voice, "Could I get you something to drink?" that they raised their heads, and Isun said, "Iced tea, please," and Taeho realized, as his wife spoke, that the girl was new. Their eyes met and he smiled and she hesitated. "The same," he said. "Please." The girl did not reply. She stood there looking at Taeho and he continued to smile, amused, admitting that she was pretty with her small nose and dark eyes, her hair tied back and falling past her narrow shoulders. He repeated himself in case she had not heard and was waiting for him to order a drink. He spoke a third time and then a sadness fell over the girl's face, the way her lips pressed together and her eyes seemed to bare themselves and dampen.

"I'm sorry," Taeho said. "Is everything all right?" He glanced at Isun, who had returned to reading the menu and only now brought her attention upon the situation.

The girl continued to stare at him. After a moment, she said, "It's you."

"It's you," she repeated, and lifted her hand to cover her mouth as if she had spoken when she shouldn't have or that she herself was surprised at what came forth, this loosening of her tongue, the unexpected forming of words, released, and within them a recognition.

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