A Mystery is Solved

By Julia Pistell

Had she not been adopted, Abby's opera pictures would have been on the wall alongside her sister's. I can't remember stepping into the foyer of that apartment; in that mid-afternoon I walked my friend into the middle of her alternate life. She had known, of course, that it was there all along, waiting for her to find it; she had known her other name (Bobae Park, not a very useful clue if you know anything about common Korean names). She had known her adoption agency's address, and she had known small details about her life as a baby—malnourished and sweaty and reactive to music.

What she had not known was exactly how much family she had, beyond her biological mother. She had found this out in China, where we'd been teaching English together for a year. "I want to live there for a year and prepare myself to get to Seoul," she said in our college's student center, convincing me to go with her. I agreed without argument to be a part of this adventure—my life had taken no sudden turns like hers had, had no unwrapped packages on far continents. So I went with her to China and we spent the year preparing to be surprised. We lived in a hotel and made dumplings, we lectured about baseball and the Beatles, we learned the language of bartering to buy groceries. We flew to Shanghai and took trains to Chengdu and hiked up small mountains, all in mental preparation for the real journey.

We went to Thailand and, after a motorcycle ride, decided to hunker down in this little place and learn to scuba dive. We put on regulators and took deep breaths, pumping in oxygen and confidence. Abby was a lot better at diving in with a flourishing somersault, I was more of a plopper. Once down there, in the water, knees in the sand, we took directions in slow-motion sign language; we practiced taking off our masks and rising and sinking on the strength of our own lungs. We drifted off in pairs to see triggerfish and eels, to come close to coral. We rose out of the reef and Abby belched like a baby from all the oxygen. A few days later we slept overnight on a boat back to the mainland, rocking in a way that suggested it had capsized more than once.

Months later we walked to the adoption center. As though underwater again, Abby gasped, this time with nervous tears. Every step up to the door, every doorknob (to the lobby, to the room, to the back room where her mother was waiting) was a surprise. I – friend, nanny, witness – stayed behind in the waiting room with a glass of water and listened to mother and daughter and sister and sister cry and tell long stories and exchange forgiveness.

We took the train to their apartment and the new family scrutinized every inch of her body, comparing against theirs. Eyebrows, eyebrow hairs, feet, bellybuttons, hair, hands, calves, breasts, eyes, lips, the softness of skin. They searched for likenesses, to prove themselves related, and to catch up on the time when they could have grown up together. They proved to themselves physical reality.

We entered their apartment and there were pictures of Sunda, Abby's new and not-new sister, covering the walls floor to ceiling. Oma (Korean for "mother") had considered giving both her daughters to the adoption agency, but Sunda was nearly three, and Oma was terrified she would remember being abandoned. So she raised her alone, pouring everything she had into the daughter she could physically touch. Restored to her family, it seemed to me that Abby was transformed back into baby Bobae. Her mother touched her fingers to Bobae's arms, bought her clothes, laid pieces of fish in her mouth. Abby, unable to speak Korean, babbled. We went to a natural spa, with saunas made of clay and heated by coals, and later to a public bath. We did Korean things, pulled along like children who learn by following.

Back in the apartment in the evenings, Bobae and Sunda sat down at the piano. They found a common denominator without difficulty. Sunda played the tinny chords and they harmonized to American show tunes about love and heartbreak and silly surprise. I sat on the couch and counted resemblances, witnessing.

Julia Pistell is a writer, publicist, radio contributor, and professional improviser currently living in Hartford, Connecticut. She is the recipient of a 2010 Writers Fellowship from the Greater Hartford Arts Council. Her work has appeared in The Sunday Star-Ledger, Inertia, Writers' Houses, and other publications. Keep an ear out for a forthcoming essay on NPR's This I Believe. Find her online at www.juliapistell.com.

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