Ghost stories aren’t necessarily meant to frighten — often, they’re ways to explain to ourselves the living’s unresolved matters of the heart: old ambitions, old loves, old hatreds. T’s Nov. 15 Travel issue is dedicated to such tales, including three original short stories written exclusively for the magazine. Below is “Did You Die at Home?” by Alexander Chee. Read more in our letter from the editor.
SHE WAS WATCHING a movie with one of her lovers, Antoni. He had convinced her to watch it — a drama set in North Korea. A ghost story. It began with the hero making a disorienting leap from a bridge she hadn’t seen in so long it was like she had jumped, too.
“Turn it off,” she told him, and he did.
“Something else?” He seemed a little hurt. She wondered if he thought she would like the reminders of what had been her home. She didn’t usually tell people about it, even all these years later, but he was Russian and somehow she felt she could. But if he expected her to thank him for finding this film … So many of her lovers imagined she was out of place in Germany, that she longed to return home, and that if they found some reminder of where she was from, they would be greeted as heroes. What man didn’t like that? But they never actually asked her, they always guessed. They were addicted to the idea they could guess right, and not thinking about her at all. Men were always accusing women of sentimentality, but so often it came from them, in her experience. Their long fantasies of attachment and betrayal, all just one long drama about worthiness. Their worthiness, as a man. Men could be fun, but you couldn’t count on them because of this, the way everything became a game that could make them a hero, even you. You could die from it.
And so their guesses repelled her, because they told her what they thought of her.
“It’s a ghost story about haunted eyeglasses,” he said as she put her coat on and slipped her purse over her shoulder.
“Haunted eyeglasses?” she said. She shook her head and mustered half a smile for him, and then kissed him. “I don’t miss it there,” she said. “OK?”
“OK,” he said to her back, as she walked down the stairs of his building.
SHE LIVES HERE, in Leipzig. Not there. Not there in almost 40 years. She likes it here, more than Pyongyang. That country has changed so much, it isn’t worth imagining she could go back, even if she could. Which she can’t. She likes not being married, she likes German feminism, her restaurant, her son, her life here. She didn’t know if North Korean women could live like this, and she didn’t ever want to find out. Even South Korean women didn’t seem to be able to live like this. The actresses in those movies and TV shows that came so frequently now — the women were surreally beautiful — didn’t remind her of the women she knew when she’d trained for her mission, women who could clean a rifle or a gut wound. Women like her.
She’s seen the newer photos of Pyongyang, of course — her son follows an Instagram account, of all things, by a photographer now stationed inside the country. But she couldn’t follow that account. She had one account for the restaurant, to post specials and to check to see if people liked the restaurant or were complaining. She only followed her son. Sometimes, in the kitchen, he’d show her something he’d seen, and she would just nod and say, “Genau,” and he’d laugh because she didn’t really say it the way Germans did. The way he did. When she said it, she meant “enough.”
As she lives upstairs from her restaurant, she always pauses as she passes by the window when she returns. She can’t help but check to be sure the tables are clean, the water glasses filled, the people happy. She almost didn’t see him, as he sat at the restaurant’s sole window table, looking out at the street as if he was waiting for a friend. His back to the wall, as usual. She saw her son pass by him, and pass by him again and then again — he didn’t seem to see this particular guest, who lacked for water and a menu.
She stepped inside, then went over to the station, picked up a water glass and headed to the table with a menu, an apology ready. The guest’s head turned to greet her, looking through her, and then at her, recognizing her with a startled expression. It was then that she understood who he was. What he was.
She tried to remember if her mother had ever told her what to do if she saw a ghost, even as she pulled back and turned away, setting the glass and the menu back down, heading outside and quickly pounding in her door code. She pushed in and swiftly shut it behind her. Did he think she would ever speak to him again, even if he came back from the dead?
SHE POURED HERSELF a glass of Scotch in her kitchen, sat down at her table and he came in and sat across from her, because what closed door had ever kept out a ghost?
She recalled how her parents would offer spirits at Chuseok to ancestors, and poured out some whisky for herself and then a little for him. She pushed the glass to his side of the table.
“Did you die at home?”
He nodded his head.
“In Mokpo? Could you see the sea, the way you said you wanted?”
He smiled, nodding. He was older than she remembered but not as old as she thought he would be, somehow, when she imagined his life now, to the extent that she ever had. If there was any science to a ghost, they did not, she understood, ever look younger than when they died. How did she know this?
She could still remember the glow of his skin, how much she wanted to touch it the first time she saw him. Never had a man attracted her that way. They met at the North Korean embassy reception in East Berlin, where she worked as an aide to the ambassador. He and his class of exchange students, chosen for their height, good looks and marital status — to ensure they returned home at the end — had attracted so much attention. “All of those handsome, good-looking married men,” the ambassador had said to her. “Don’t touch.”
He shook his finger at her and smiled. She rolled her eyes away from him and back to the new arrivals, and they’d caught each other’s eye then. That instant understanding between them.
She stepped away to the window, and as she searched for her cigarettes, she heard a match from behind her. His handsome hand caught the light as he handed her one of his cigarettes, already lit. She took it from him, and the faint damp when she set the filter to her lips was his. Her knees had not so much buckled as glowed in anticipation. The cigarette was Chinese: expensive, excellent quality.
“Thank you,” she said, the smoke curling from her lips. The first words she ever said to him. He pulled the curtain behind them both as they stepped onto the balcony, and together they looked down at the street.
He kissed her before he asked her name.
For the first few assignations, they did not use names. It was better if he didn’t know hers, and she didn’t know his, he said. That first night, when their cigarettes were finished, he’d given her an address and a time on a piece of paper, written in pencil, and the next day, she went.
The first time she stood naked in front of him, she felt as free as she ever had in her life. A being of pure desire. No name, no history, nothing except what she wanted from him. Him on the bed of some borrowed apartment — she didn’t ask where it came from. How a man new to East Berlin suddenly had friends. She didn’t want to know.
“Good girl,” the ambassador had said to her a few weeks later, when she came to work. He often offered cryptic comments that told her he had her followed. She never knew what he meant that time, if he approved of the affair or the anonymity. She didn’t want to know. By not giving each other their names, they had become a secret only they shared.
HE LEFT PRESENTS with messages, and at first they seemed, each one, like spy pranks. The pack of his brand of cigarettes she found in her desk drawer beside her pens, newly opened, with one removed, the next address and time written on the inside of the box’s cover. The flowers on her desk, a note in a capsule in the water, the stems tied around it.
Was he in intelligence? A double agent? She didn’t want to know, but he was good at what he did.
Eventually, her curiosity got the better of her. She asked him as she dressed, preparing to leave: “Where did these apartments come from? Friends?”
“I don’t have friends,” he said. She liked him even more.
A few dates later, he told her. “I watch for signs someone is going away. I follow them, learn the patterns of the building, pick their locks, give you the address and use their apartments. There is always the chance they might return.”
“You know the person who owns this place,” he said, and picked up a photo she hadn’t realized was face down. The stern black-and-white portrait of the ambassador looked back up at her.
“But he doesn’t live — ”
“Here? No, he doesn’t. This is the apartment he keeps for meeting his lovers.” With a grin, he pulled out the drawer of the night stand and withdrew handcuffs, snapping them at her like claws as he got up and chased after her. She waited until he was close, got them from his hands and onto his wrists, and she still remembers the shocked delight in his eyes as he realized this, just as she pushed him over onto the bed.
“Does he do this to you?” she asked, and he blinked in surprise, twice, a third time, which told her the answer was probably yes. She took a pillowcase from the bed and tore it, making a blindfold for his eyes.
IN THE OFFICE for several weeks after this, she waited for the ambassador to reveal he knew what she’d done. But if he knew, he never let on. The feeling of power she felt, the exultant larceny of having her lover in his bed, of having used his handcuffs, washed her hands with his soap, the soft towels, softer than any she’d ever used. It lit her up like cocaine.
SHE HAD NOT waited for him for years. But before then, she had waited for him for years. Five years, she told herself sometimes, but maybe longer. Maybe shorter.
She had thought he was already dead.
Their plan to escape was impromptu, improvised the day the wall fell. They were in Leipzig at a hotel. It seemed almost middle-class for them, and the excitement she normally felt at being in a stranger’s apartment was missing. He had something he needed that he’d left in East Berlin. He told her he would be back in a day. He was to return with his passport and some money, and they would leave for Paris, fly from there to South Korea and apply for asylum. He would marry her, and they would live out the rest of their lives in Mokpo, at his family’s properties there in the south.
She waited each day in the Leipzig station at first, watching the crowds leaving the city now that the wall had come down.
When she ran out of money to pay for her meals, she made her way to a restaurant and, as she spoke Russian and English as well as German, was quickly given a job as a waitress. She had never served food to anyone in her life except herself, her family, a few friends and lovers — him included. The restaurant was by the train station, and she could watch out the window for him, she told herself, but she soon forgot, and then recriminated herself when she forgot, and then hated herself for forgetting, for watching, the whole thing.
That was the first year.
He had described Mokpo so well she felt sometimes she had already been. She dreamed a few times of being there, while waiting for him to return. When he told her stories of his family’s estate in Mokpo, of the barrier islands, the peculiar rocks, like enormous mushrooms along the beach, she sometimes thought of the barrackslike apartments she grew up in. She had been born in Pyongyang to anti-Japanese independence guerrillas, parents who had spent the occupation assassinating high-ranking Japanese colonial officials. She reminded herself, when she was feeling sad, that she was descended from assassins.
He had never been to Mokpo either — he was born in North Korea like her, but his parents had fed him on stories of this place, and the family he still had there.
In her dreams, she was the lady of the house. She wore clothes she’d never worn, silk hanboks. She worked with his aunt at preparing meals she’d never cooked before, her hands moving as if they knew how. She walked to the shore through a garden that extended all the way to the sea. When the dreams ended, as she woke, she knew something deeply. She didn’t want that life.
IT WAS EASY enough to find a place to stay once she could no longer stay at the hotel. The city was over half-empty within days of the fall of the wall. A ghost city. She found herself doing what he had told her he’d done: watching doorways of buildings near the restaurant for signs of activity. Following someone into the building. Picking the lock on the inside door.
She befriended some anarchists who taught her to forage among the abandoned homes. Squats abounded. Many people had left as if they were coming back. In the apartments she found first, she discovered food still fresh in the icebox, ice too. Beer, wine, clothes. Sometimes only their personal papers were gone. Sometimes the papers were still there. They’d abandoned their gardens also, so she took what she wanted when she had the chance.
She missed her missing lover in her body, the ways they fit into each other. She missed his little surprises and caught herself looking for these to return, a sign he was back. She checked the flowers on the tables of the restaurants for messages, hoped to find a box of his cigarettes in her handbag.
This was their first missed assignation, the first time he had never appeared when he said he would, where he said he would. It helped, at least, that the rest of the country also fell apart. Her inner and outer world finally resembled each other.
She imagined him dead, many times and many ways. Dead at the hands of the ambassador, he having discovered the defilement of the apartment. Or even dead at the ambassador’s hands in those same cuffs — had he worn them for him also? Did he go back to East Berlin to leave with him instead? Sometimes she believed he was in jail. Or that he’d been recaptured, taken back to North Korea. Did he lie about how he found those apartments — were they the apartments of his other lovers?
Or she imagined him in the Mokpo estate from her dreams, patting his children on their heads, his wife wearing those silk hanboks instead, making their food with his aunt as she had. The life that had felt to her like a long, brightly lit tomb. The truth was, when he vanished, it seemed like he might be anywhere in the whole world, and so if he wasn’t with her, it didn’t matter where he really was.
Her next life grew up around her there. Her boss paid her in cash and gave her a shift meal also. He never seemed curious as to why his waitress had the language skills of a diplomat. He had not asked her for papers when he hired her. He admired her German and her Russian, and would speak to her in either language. She knew at some point he would proposition her.
When he finally invited her to join him in bed, she set terms with him. He accepted. They had an enjoyable affair of several years. Her son was his son. When he developed cancer — he had been an athlete, trained for the Olympics in discus and shot put, and the drugs the East German coaches gave him doomed him — he left her the restaurant and the apartment upstairs. She paid no rent — she owned the building.
“WHY HAVE YOU come,” she asked this ghost. “Why would you come now? To apologize? No point in that. To see I’m alive? How could that matter to you now?”
She paused, rolling her glass in between her palms, slowly, a half turn, a half turn back.
“What good is your ghost to me? I shaved my head for you,” she said.
The anarchists had helped her. And then she kept shaving it, for years. She liked it.
“I came to tell you a story,” he said.
She looked up at her clock. It was 8:30. The restaurant closed at 10 p.m. Her son took an hour to close up the restaurant, sometimes longer.
“You have some time,” she said.
“I know,” he said. And she knew he had watched her, as he once used to.
THE STORY HE told her was that of a young spy, skilled at his job, brought to East Germany from North Korea to train with the Stasi. He quickly determined he wasn’t being shown everything, especially when it came to how the Stasi dealt with the North Korean embassy. He had expected this. He learned their methods for disguises, their secret cameras and microphones, the swabs they ran over chairs after the occupants left, scents captured in containers for dogs to use later. He would use this training to escape them.
He had come to East Germany to defect, finally, from North Korea. He had prepared for his wife and children to escape also. He had prepared for everything except meeting her. When the wall fell, he knew how to vanish to the North Koreans. He knew how to vanish to the East Germans. He didn’t know how to vanish from her. He had even gone to the train station to meet her, watching her for a day before deciding to continue alone with his plan.
“Why tell me this?” she said.
He paused, nodding.
“Do you want to hear that I loved you?” she said. “I did. Do you think I pined for you? I suppose I did. I thought you were dead already, though I had guessed you might still be alive. Do you want me to tell you how grateful I am that you gave up on us? To say I had the better life without you? I did. There, I’ve said it.”
She stopped moving her glass and drained it. And when she put it down, she laughed.
He seemed afraid of her, and the idea that she could scare the ghost made her laugh again.
“I would never have gone to Mokpo, or I would never have stayed,” she said.
He waited, and when she said nothing more, he finished his story. He found his way back to South Korea, sought and received defector status, was reunited with his ancestral lands, his wife and children. Five years ago, he brought them to Germany, to show them this country.
He took his wife and children on the tourist excursions — the art museum, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the Stasi museum. As he went by the train station, he saw her through the window of her restaurant. He watched her as she greeted some guests and waited for her to look into the street and see him, but she did not.
The glass in her hand shot through the air, through him. Smashing on the wall behind him.
“I wanted to say goodbye. I knew we had no future,” he said. “I just wanted to say goodbye. I loved you. We had no future together.”
He stood then and with the glamour of the dead, they were on the balcony in East Berlin again, that first night, the smoke on her lips as he kissed her. They were in the ambassador’s apartment, him underneath her, his eyes tied shut. They were everywhere they had ever been, and then he was gone, and she stood in her apartment, her eyes wet with sorrow and rage but also the peculiar joy of knowing she was right. She bent over, alone at last, to pick the shards of glass up from the floor.