And so I’ve entered the height of the autumnal fray, and while I’m left pining for the proverbial hallmarks of fall — those telltale tumbling leaves in sharp shocks of red and yellow, which seem to have been stunted by the sea-strewn air — I am still consumed by the gust of nostalgia that finds me every year about this time. It finds that tender spot on my neck and I collapse my ear to my shoulder, pinching its warm muzzle. It finds the gap between my shirt and my pants and with a yelp things are tucked in and pulled up, but to no avail. The winds of memory that vacillate between hot waves of a feverish fire and the drizzle-shiver of a gray morning will not be denied.
Suddenly I’m tumbling in a half-sodden pile of leaves, squinting against a sky so bright I close my eyes instead and relish the sound of the wheelbarrow passing over rocks and roots and wait to be dumped into the pile. Fall is the Black Watch plaid of my father’s shirt, the sound of geese fleeing the scene, the maddening crunch-crunch that marks each step. It’s the yellow bus rounding the bend, a new backpack filled with the gentle spirals of an unscrawled-upon notebook, the hope that (please, please, please) that boy will finally notice me, I won’t hate math as much, and maybe my brother will discover I’ve grown incredibly cool. Ah, such are the joyful delusions of fall.
It is not on New Year’s Eve that I feel my skin shedding, but in the blustering days and shadowy evenings of autumn. This fall is perhaps one of the most poignant of my life — I find myself staring in space, recalling faces, places, moments, and knowing, truly knowing, that I’ll never see them again. That was then and this is now and oh how much is lost in the gap between. Entire people! Gobbled up. Entire relationships! Reduced to dog-eared letters. I think of a reluctant clam. Fingers straining, I still can’t pry the shell open and reclaim everything inside that’s been lost to me.
Following my six-month stint in Amagansett, fall has found me once again, and I’m reminded it’s time for a change. And while I still mourn my former city-self and the memories of those five years flicker past my eyes in the yellowed windows of a subway car, I know I can’t go back. I’ve got to be braver, more creative, more alive. I’ve got to creep closer to the horizon and taste a different sort of air, the kind that tastes a little like kimchi, perhaps.
I’ve applied to teach E.S.L. in Korea. Well, to be more accurate, because that statement indicates a level of bravery that I simply haven’t got (the dragon-slaying sort), we’ve applied to be teachers in Korea — my boyfriend and I.
I relish the reactions, which range from what you’d expect — utter enthusiasm or sheer confusion — to my grandmother’s response, which was marked by a kind of astonished repulsion, a unique combination that was especially enjoyable. She’s worried that A, my choice to move to Korea is actually a “regression,” a deathblow to my career path, and B, that Korea is simply an unsavory country.
“I could understand Europe,” she said, “Paris,” she sighed, “but Korea?” The word became a sliding sneer that slipped into her lower register, indicating that it was most likely accompanied by a saddened headshake.
Personally, as a writer, I believe an Asian adventure will serve as fantastic fodder for my memoir (albeit a dusty and disorganized piece), and that alone is reason enough to board the plane.
Now, you may be thinking this is a difficult decision but an easy process. You apply, you go. To view the situation faithfully, however, I’d suggest standing directly on your head. This was an easy decision and a difficult process. The level of hoop-jumping bureaucracy rivals a three-ring circus — Barnum and Bailey’s has nothing on EPIK (English Program in Korea). We’ve been reduced to the finest of show ponies, mincing about on our hind legs, pompoms all a-rustle. And let me tell you, the tasseled women riding on our backs weigh a ton, and the crop? It stings.
In addition to two formal applications (one to the recruiter and one to EPIK itself) and two formal interviews via Skype (one with the recruiter and one with EPIK itself), we’ve had to produce two recommendation letters, college transcripts, and our diplomas, which not only have to be notarized in the state of their origin, but also apostilled by the secretary of state.
It’s not a pretty process. The only upside is that someone totally crazy could never manage this level of organization, which significantly reduces our risk of being hacked up and put in a bubbling stew somewhere outside Seoul by a fellow teacher.
I can only hope that come January (when our background check from the F.B.I. returns — a two-month waiting period), I can tell everyone we indeed are going. While I utter with certainty the statement “I’m going to teach English in Korea,” I am simultaneously cursing my confidence. How unbelievably uncomfortable it will be to tell everyone through a smiling wince, “Yeahhh, actually, those plans didn’t work out.”
And yet we press on. When David asked me if I wanted to write an “exit Relay” — this is my last week working at The Star — I could think of no better way to exorcise the demons, to tear back the curtain and realize that fall bears me no ill will, that change is not a fanged beast. I’d be lying if I said the past wasn’t haunting, that it didn’t brush up against my legs like an arching cat — slinking, seductive, shocking in its silence — but I can also feel my excitement shooing it away.
Emboldened by love — how wonderful to clutch his sweaty palm in mine — we channel David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” stepping through the door and floating in the most peculiar way.
Catherine Tandy is a reporter at The Star.