Half a tank of gas is also enough to get you from Yongsan Garrison, where my family was stationed in Seoul, down the peninsula to Pusan, where the Navy would have been waiting to evacuate us if North Korea had invaded South Korea back in 1987. One of the first things we learned about life on Yongsan was that having less than half a tank of gas in your car was a ticketing offense--everyone was required to be ready, at all times, to participate in a mass evacuation. I was seventeen, and a licensed driver, so I got instructions on where to report in case I was needed to drive people out of there. "We would need every vehicle, and every driver," the orientation guy said. "It might be necessary to separate you from your family. Getting everybody out might require that you drive a car full of other people's children." This scenario was both irresistible to imagine and impossible to imagine. Although the army base where we lived was in the middle of the South Korean capital, it was also within artillery range of the Demilitarized Zone. I pictured massive traffic jams, explosions, family partings of the kind I'd only seen in black and white movies about World War II, you know, the kinds of scenes that play out at train stations in Paris, like the flashbacks in Casablanca. And I suppose it might have gone that way. It was the year before the Olympics were in Seoul, and there was a week when Kim Jong-Il threatened to invade if Pyongyang didn't get to host the yacht races because, of course, the two Koreas were really one country. It was the year of South Korea's first presidential election, and nobody knew whether the outgoing dictator might not change his mind at the last minute about wanting to be the first leader of his country to leave office alive more than he wanted to stay in office a little longer. Not infrequently, tear gas drifted to our part of town from the student riots in Myongdong Square.
I'd say it was a surreal time to be an American in Seoul, but I wonder whether there's ever been a non-surreal time to be any sort of person in Seoul since the partition of the country. No doubt it's surreal for the U.S. Army families who are there right now. I wonder how long that year of my life will need to compost in my unconscious before fiction starts growing out of it.
All that year, I pined after my boyfriend back in the States. Nobody had much patience with my teenage pining. "After all," they said, "it's not as if you're someday going to marry some guy you dated in high school." The joke's on them. Twenty years later, here that same old boyfriend is, driving me to midwife appointments in the week before our child's due date, and remembering frequently to top off the gas tank.