Bought a Balloon

by JO Kyung Ran (Jo Gyeong-nan)

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

Published in Koreana: Korean Art & Culture (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 23, No.1 Spring 2009  pages 88 - 99 (see Introduction)

    One day I caught sight of myself reflected in the Ray-Ban sunglasses a man was wearing. There was a tiny, wretched-looking woman with a big head like a reflection in a convex mirror. It took me quite a while to realize that the woman was me. At that moment I felt convinced that the man and I would surely part company. Assuming that I was gazing intently at him, the man adjusted his sunglasses with a swagger. The body of the woman in the lenses went soaring upward then came down again. I deliberately pretended to stagger. I was forgetting one major fact. The fact that my will was at least to some degree engaged in that encounter. Or perhaps I should rather say my heart. It was Thomas who decided that I needed a change.
    I quickly returned to my desk.
    A great work of art speaks to me although it does not know me. I reckon that the greatest artist I know is Nietzsche. It is from him that I have been seeking answers to all the many questions that I have about life. It’s a pity that he died a hundred years ago. In the autumn of 1888 he said that when the year 2000 came, people would be reading his books and discovering many things. The solitary thinker scaling rocky heights. That’s what people called him. Fully wrapped in a thick duffle-coat, I read books in a desolate, solitary land. As he said, I used to start the day at five in the morning, then when evening came I would eat a simple supper of ham and eggs and bread sprinkled with black sesame seeds. In those days I was in the springtime of my studies and reckoned I was pursuing truth like some beautiful boy. Cold and solitary though I might be, clearly human existence likewise went flowing away in mere poverty and illusion. Ten years passed in a flash, like water pouring away. Yet strange to say, I failed to gain any great courage or boldness concerning my life. All that kept coming to mind was that image of a small, impoverished-looking woman reflected in a man’s sunglasses. Supposing that I needed a change, what should it be? The moment I said I was going home, Thomas warned me. His warning was extremely brief and at first quite relaxed, but as time passed it held me by the ankle like a tightening noose. I reckoned that I needed to live more prudently. Besides, I was tired of all the time using up too much energy protecting myself. That was exactly ten years after my arrival in Heidelberg. Before leaving for home, I filled a little glass bottle with soil from the garden and sealed it tightly.

    “What’s this?”
    The boy’s finger was pointing directly at me.
    “Not ‘What’s this;’ you must ask, ‘Who is this person?’”
    Thoughtlessly, my sister-in-law could not help laughing. In fact the rest of the family were just as bad. In the past ten years I had visited Seoul just twice. The first time had been for my mother’s sixtieth birthday celebration; the other time was for my brother’s wedding. It had been a full five years since my last visit.
    “Hello. This is what is called your aunt.” Disheartened, I replied feebly.
    In the plane that was taking me home, I reflected on what I had. If I had nothing, I could make a new start any way I liked. Leaving the in-flight meal unfinished, I rubbed my eyes vigorously. My thirty-seven years felt as heavy as if I was carrying a camel on my back. Going back and growing old together with my parents might not be such a bad idea, after all. My brother, my only sibling, having moved into his own place after marrying, there should be more room at my disposal. I might even be able to have a large, high-ceilinged study like Montaigne. I went so far as to shudder with an expectation I had not felt before. That dream was shattered the moment I emerged from Incheon airport after completing the immigration formalities.
    “Let’s hope we get on well together.” My brother, who had come to meet me, squeezed my shoulders as he spoke.
    I had never seriously thought about the many changes that had occurred over the past ten years, so I just stared blankly at my now balding older brother. I had two nephews, it seemed, not just one, the first born twenty-eight months ago and already in his fourth calendar year, the second born just over a hundred days back. Brother’s mother-in-law was ailing and it was obvious that they would no longer be able to count on her to look after her daughter’s children. When my brother had suddenly quit his job and set up a joint venture with some colleagues, she had provided more than half the capital. His wife was working for a foreign pharmaceutical company with not a minute to call her own. The only people available to look after the children were my father and mother, and they accepted that as something obvious. Finally, after a month or so, my brother and sister-in-law, who had been rushing to and fro bringing and fetching the children, had packed their belongings and come back to live at home. He explained that it had all happened in the two months before my return. Removing the bookshelves and desk from my room, they had installed a cot and a chest of drawers and had the walls papered with a Winnie-the-Pooh design.
    Ten years before, when I announced that I had decided to leave for Germany, mother’s immediate reply had been: “Philosophy? What do you mean, philosophy? Tut-tut, philosophers are people who can’t see a problem when it’s right before their nose.” I stood grasping the knob of the door to what had once been a utility room.
    “Hurry up; wash your hands and eat.” My sister-in-law gave my back a brisk slap in passing as she spoke.
    It was not only the make-up of my family that had changed. I roamed in confusion across the city of Seoul, where I had spent twenty-seven years of my life, with a map of the bus-routes open like a newly-arrived tourist. Bus-card, mobile phone, there were so many new things I had to get, but there were even more things that I could no longer buy. I gazed piercingly at my reflection in shop windows as I passed, or in the mirror of café restrooms. How’s it going? Are you ok? Perhaps I was hoping someone would ask me that. With nearly all my money gone, I bought the French-brand bag I noticed most frequently in the streets. No matter how many new things I covered myself with, a squelching sound emerged from under my feet, as if I were wearing shoes soaked in water.
    Nietzsche said that people who do not have two-thirds of the day for themselves are slaves to time, but it is quite impossible to live as a free person in a house with two parents over sixty, a three-year-old nephew and a hundred-day-old baby. After eating breakfast-cum-lunch, I would escape from the house at about three. Either I took a bus and went to look around downtown or walked along briskly. I also went to visit a former fellow-student, Ch’a, now living in Anyang, who had come back three years before me. She said she had finally given up trying to find a job in a university and had opened a paper store. Well, maybe so. Though she said she’d had no choice, it looked as though some regrets remained, given that she had named her store “Doctor’s Paper Store.” Even part-time lecturing won’t be easy, she said as we were parting. Apart from her I had no-one to meet. Walking and more walking. It was the method Caesar had employed to fight off sickness and headaches. I really was suffering from migraine, and I felt that there might be no better cure than walking. I had nothing else to do. The biggest change of all was the fact that I was now completely unemployed. People of leisure, useless people. Which side was I on?
    The whole city-center grew bright like a great Christmas-tree. Everywhere was crowded with people until it became impossible to occupy a seat in a café reading a book. I had nowhere at all to go. A huge illuminated tunnel began in front of Sejong Cultural Center and the Cheonggyecheon stream. “Luminarié.” They said it meant “festival of light.” I stopped, feeling I was being swept along in a vast throng. The sound of camera shutters clicking rose continuously like a soft crackle of fire-crackers. Idly, I sprang lightly on tiptoe amidst the fragments of light.

    It was not a bag that I needed at present, it was conversation and relaxation in friendship and trust. I sold the bag and used the money to buy a parrot.

    It really is hard to put up for long with the sound of a baby crying. Besides, I had never before had the experience of hearing a baby crying at such close quarters. Having nowhere to flee to, I had no choice but to listen to my nephew crying. As I did so, I made one new discovery. If I listened with sympathy to the baby crying, I could feel the dreadful psychological strength contained within a baby. At first, the baby’s crying sounds as though it means, “I am here.” But as the sound suddenly grows louder and more insistent, it gives me the feeling of a kind of fundamental fury or pain. An uncontrollable destructive urge, even. The problem was that I had too much time. The moment I grew used to living with my nephews, I grew accustomed to the crying too. The only problem was that I did not at all like the sound of crying. Because there was no kind of grammar to the crying. The children would cry for no apparent reason at any hour of the day or night. I soon learned to be clever and on days when my sister-in-law was at home I would bring out walnuts and raisins for the three-year-old and make muffins or suchlike. Although I was living in my parents’ home, I had a strong impression, rightly or wrongly, that I was there as a dependant of my brother’s family. I really have no idea.
    As before, I reckoned that Nietzsche’s life principles were my life principles. Sleeping lightly, walking with a peaceful, relaxed posture, not drinking alcohol, not covetous of honor, not indulging in greed, while always striving to accomplish something, treating myself harshly, others gently. Only at present I was in a situation where nothing that might be termed others’ lives was available. I had no friends and no former lovers who still remained friends. Seventeen years before, when I was twenty, I was alone, and I had been alone ten years before that, too. Now here I am, thirty-seven, and I am as alone as if I have just been born. Once I thought I was lucky to have a family, then suddenly mother said: “Study? What do you mean, study? Now put all that behind you and get married,” producing several photos of unfamiliar men, and that in the presence of everyone, father, brother and sister-in-law, so that I really wanted to rush out of the house, slamming the front gate behind me. But where else could I go? My sister-in-law seems to be speaking the truth. “Why, nothing else really matters, so long as your heights match.” Even though I sullenly protest, “Mother, how can you say such a thing?” I am really listening carefully to what mother and sister-in-law say. “If a man’s chin touches the girl’s forehead, it’s a sure sign of marital harmony, fine, no need to look any further, like you and dad. Oh, mother!” Come to think of it, I never met a man whose chin touched my forehead. I no longer remember how tall the first man was; the third was similar to me, a little over the average height for a woman. Nietzsche was very short. “How much longer are you going to be wandering around shaking your head like an old goat, eh?” Mother shouted behind my back as I was stealthily leaving. No matter how great a person may be, very few receive recognition from the members of their family. It was his family who first mentioned Montaigne’s distress at constantly farting in the presence of others. There was something beside getting married that I wanted to do, and my family did not know it. Even if they reckoned they knew, still they wouldn’t let on. Anyway, now let’s bake some muffins. While I mixed and kneaded flour and eggs, at my side my nephew would croon in a deliberately merry voice the theme song from a cartoon where the main character was a muffin, “Do you know Muffin Man?” When I finally pulled the baked muffins from the oven, he would ignore me completely. A muffin starring in a cartoon! There were far too many things I did not know in the world. I used to pick out the raisins and walnuts from the muffins and throw them to Hans.
    The parrot I bought was a scarlet macaw of the kind known as a hans macaw. It was only three months old, an infant but just the right age for a parrot to be taught to speak. It had a green body with big, black, intelligent eyes. I was told that when it grew bigger, red down would appear on the underside of its green wings. I called it Hans. The day I entered the house carrying the birdcage, mother pinched my forearm hard, exclaiming, “What an idea, bringing a bird into a house where there’s a baby!” and putting me down in front of my sister-in-law. If my other nephew had not gone running all over the house flapping his arms and shouting, “Yah yah yah! It’s a bird, a bird!” I might have been forced to sell Hans and give up the idea. I set my nephew on my knee and, pointing at Hans, taught him the word “friend.” But I was not the person who taught the parrot to talk, it was my nephew who had recently begun calling me “Missie!” over and over again, imitating my mother. My quick-witted nephew, perfectly aware that it was not the correct way for him to address me, was all the time shouting, “Missie, time to eat!” “Missie, time to get up!” Since my nephew liked birds, I was allowed to keep Hans, which was lucky. But I was completely at a loss as to what word I should teach Hans first and while I procrastinated I thought of Socrates before his death. Socrates, having been found guilty by the citizens of Athens, was allowed to speak in his defense before the jury for the time it took for the water in a jar to trickle down into a jar placed below it, no longer. Socrates had spoken a lot of words in his life, but the time allotted there was far too short. Language may express truth, but there are times when it brings about misunderstanding and misfortune. I needed someone to talk to, yet I felt no inclination to teach Hans to talk. Instead I decided to sing Hans a song. What would Nietzsche have thought about raising a parrot? So long as he did not start to say “Hello, Missie.”
    It was on the Wednesday of the first week in December that my friend Ch’a phoned me.
    The initial lecture was planned for the Friday of the first week of December in the culture center of a department store. An older male acquaintance of Ch’a’s had been asked to give a series of lectures on “Philosophy made easy” but it seemed that they were obliged to find a replacement on account of his having had a traffic accident. I could not decide if I should thank my friend for contacting me or pretend I had not heard and refuse. One thing was clear, I did not feel like doing it and was in a bad mood. But I concluded it was better than becoming a gardener.
    Once, Nietsche had thought of becoming a professional gardener. You have time to spare, it does not cause mental strain, and it’s a job that leaves you feeling sufficiently tired. I needed something like that, but at present I was exhausted from wandering around helplessly downtown. The reason why Nietsche gave up the idea of becoming a gardener after three weeks was because bending over was too hard for him. If mother had known that, she would have been sure to comment: “You bookworms are all the same.” Listening to Ch’a’s voice, who clearly felt she was doing me a favor, was unbearable in just the same way. Suppressing a momentary sense of shame, I said I would teach the class. After talking with the person in charge, I changed the title to “Nietzsche made easy.” Arriving at the department store in the southern part of Seoul for my first class, I went up to the culture center on the ninth floor and found men and women in pairs performing a folk dance just in front of the lecture hall. “Safe bodyline yoga,” “Appreciating opera and the media,” “Real estate investment strategies,” “Tight skin make-up” --among such regular lecture topics, the announcement of the newly inaugurated “Nietzsche made easy” class looked as utterly out-of-place as the weeds in the garden I could not look after. Luckily there were students who had registered.
    From the second class I no longer lectured on Nietzsche’s thought and ideals. Instead of talking about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer or Nietzsche and Wagner, I talked about Nietzsche and Cosima, Nietzsche and Lou Salome. The atmosphere in the class improved immensely but I could not avoid feeling that I was munching away at an apple with a worm inside it. Would I have done better to become a gardener? Hans remained wordless. I still had five weeks of class left. Meanwhile there was the first heavy fall of snow, there were traffic accidents here and there in the downtown area, farmers’ plastic houses collapsed. That evening twenty or so people were stranded for four hours from 9:00pm in the lookout pavilion high up on the hilltop skyway overlooking Seoul and I really thought about those people. Nothing happened to me.
    My class consisted entirely of housewives living in the apartment blocks in the neighborhood of the department store. Among the twenty, he naturally stood out. First of all because he was young. From the start he sat at the very back of the class, and like the others, would nod off and then, perhaps hoping to drive away the sleepiness, join his cupped hands together and rub his face hard. When class was over the young man came up to me, explained that he had come to hear the talk in place of his mother, who had suddenly had something else to do, then asked if it would be alright for him to keep coming? I hoped he would keep coming even if I said no. I merely replied, Well . . . . Cupping his chin in his hand, he went on: Mother sent me because there are no refunds, she said there was no point in me being idle.
    As someone who is able to show us better possibilities, Nietzsche gave us three examples: the first, reconciling humanity and nature, a Rousseau-esque person who maintains that civilization must go back to nature, the second a Goethe-like person who with a deeply considerate and sagacious temperament experiences life’s various conditions without tension, and the third is like Schopenhauer, for whom all human order is tragic, and everyday life is full of conflict. The first time I saw him, I reckoned he must be the Goethe type. The fact that between him and the rest of the class there was an age gap of ten years at least, twenty years at most, seemed not to pose the slightest problem to that twenty-seven year old young man. He always behaved with deep consideration toward the members of the class who were his mother’s age, and seemed to experience no tensions. After he joined the class, we all went out to dinner together for the first time. With unconscious caution, I had my eye on him.
    My heart began to beat at a rate and rhythm I had long forgotten. Tossing a walnut to Hans, I asked: Do you know what this unusual feeling is?
    He kept attending the lectures but the dozing and waking remained constant. During class on the Friday before Christmas Eve he used a thick felt pen to draw closed eyes on his left palm, open eyes on his right palm, raised his hands to the level of his ears then began opening and closing them alternately in my direction; that was the day we went out together on our first “date.” The people I had met previously had always been reading books, liked wearing black and white clothes, and mostly had serious or stern looking faces. Perhaps I was the same. I found out a surprising number of things on that first date. Some of them were amusing and a lot of others were not. One amusing fact was that he had previously been a member of the national handball team. He told me that his position had been that of goalkeeper, with a major, decisive role in winning or losing games. At that point he adopted a slightly boasting tone. Oddly enough, men mostly tend to look the same when they are boasting. Unfortunately, I knew nothing about any ball-games and there was nothing I could say about handball. Perhaps on that account, the only thing I could find to say was, “Fantastic hands you must have.” Then during a national tournament that might have earned him a place in the Olympic team he was knocked out by a ball thrown by a member of the opposing team and they lost the match. Feeling that it had been his fault, he had given up playing. That was as much as I knew, but I had the impression he reckoned that one whole part of his life had been ruined. The problem was that so far he had not realized that there might be something more.
    I was soon obliged to revise my opinion that he was a Goethe-type. For very often people who are eager to be friends with others are incapable of believing that they have earned the other person’s trust. Mostly, people who assume trust do not greatly value friendship. As Nietzsche said, trying never to hurt another’s feelings and never to be a bother to others is not simply an inborn character-trait, it may well be a sign of great timidity. I provisionally assigned him to the pessimistic Schopenhauer-type. On that first date, neither of us seemed to have any problem. The problem emerged too quickly, though, on our second date.

    They say that everyone is good at something, but it looks as though I am no good at teaching. Watching me open the fridge, my nephew pointed at the cheese and asked, “What’s that?” I handed him the cheese, teaching him, “This is called cheese.” To which his reply was, “What’s cheese?” What was cheese? I was as much at a loss as if he had asked why the table had four legs. For I reckoned he would never be able to understand if I explained that cheese was made by a process that involved coagulating then fermenting milk. I gently replied to my nephew, “It’s your friend.” He repeated, “My friend,” with a satisfied smile. “Friend” was a word that served as a magic key enabling my nephew to understand everything. The Lego-built elephant or giraffe was a friend, shoes and bananas were friends, to say nothing of panties. If he wet his panties, that were decorated with cartoon characters, mother would scold him: “You’ve made Anpan Man wet, quickly, tell him you’re sorry.” Then my nephew would briefly press his puckered lips to the wet panties, repeating, “Sorry, sorry.” Therefore I unthinkingly told him that cheese was his friend. Consternation set in as soon as I cut that cheese in half and prepared to put it in my mouth. Suddenly his expression wavered, then he burst into tears. “My friend’s been cut up!” He screamed so that the whole house rang. Door after door opened, heads appeared, my parents, sister-in-law, even my brother, all of them wondering what on earth had happened now. I do not understand why these kinds of things always have to happen when my sister-in-law is home. I was sitting on a dining-chair with my head bowed, holding the two cut pieces of the cheese, one in each hand. “My friend’s been cut up, daddy, my friend’s been cut up.” He blubbered, pointing at the pieces of cheese I was holding, as he hurled himself at his father’s breast. “At least the two of them are at the same level,” my brother tutted. “Really, Missie, why must you keep teaching him that everything’s his friend?” My sister-in-law pinched my shoulder hard. I seem to be tired. If I happened to come back from shopping, it would be, “Really, you should buy mackerel with eyes wide open; really, you should buy bracken-fronds that are slender and crooked,” as if I only had to read a newspaper to know everything. Behind her, mother spoke up to say that she was a fine one to talk, she too having no idea about how to buy things properly, indirectly taking my side. There are times when I feel that I am completely useless. I cannot tell if it is only when I am with my family, or if it is simply when I am at home. After all, I spent ten years studying, didn’t I?
    My nephew gave a good kick at the birdcage holding Hans and stared at me with a triumphant air. He seemed to reckon that Hans was my friend. Once my brother went into his room carrying my nephew, the living room grew quiet again. I put the cheese I had cut into my mouth and muttered. As my sister-in-law said, I had used the word friend pointlessly. A lot of things suddenly went sweeping though my heart, as if a branch that no one could break were being shaken wildly in my breast. Furtively observing Hans out of the corner of my eye, I tried muttering, “I’m tired.” Thomas used to ask, “Is that better, then?” Saying I’m tired when I’m feeling down. I find it odd that it was Jay who made me write a letter to Thomas.
    That young man who had previously been goalkeeper in the national handball team, Jay with his longish arms and legs, who never read a book and did not look as though he would put on a dark suit to attend a wedding. Still barely twenty-seven. Yet I kept thinking of things I wanted to tell him. Will it be ok? What? Damn it! Why don’t you say something? Like my nephew, I took it out on Hans.
    We went to watch a movie.
    It was the last day of December. I followed Jay as he strode ahead, thinking that I had usually gone to watch a movie on a second date. If you have been away from Seoul for ten years and not lived there, then wonder what people mostly do together on the last day of the year, going to a cinema is not the first idea that comes to mind. Jay also admitted that because of his years of training, this would be the first time he went to a movie on the last day of December. Almost all the seats were already sold, he could not get the “aisle seats halfway back” he wanted. He was the first man I had ever heard snap out that he wanted “aisle seats halfway back” when buying the tickets.
    In the time it took to use the toilets, the lights had gone down and it was dark inside. I briefly grabbed his sleeve. Except for our seats in the middle, it was packed, the seats on either side were taken. He gave a loud gasp. As soon as we had squeezed into our seats I could feel that his back was damp and I saw that his forehead was shiny with sweat. Just as the movie was starting, he whispered in my ear, “I have a hard time when I’m in a place like this with so many people, Miss.” I thought he was joking. “Well, there sure are a lot of people.” I replied unfalteringly. “I think it will be alright if you hold my hand,” he said in a gloomy voice. “You’re a real sportsman,” I answered frivolously. I glanced at his chin, his tightly clenched lips. He was looking excessively grim for a guy who had just asked to hold my hand. After fumbling cautiously with the arm-rest he grasped my hand. His rough hand somehow reminded me of a crocodile but I kept still and did not try to pull my hand away. It was because I had a feeling that it was not about holding hands but rather a matter of grabbing at anything in order to survive. The movie began with a girl, the youngest of four siblings, discovering another world, “Narnia,” through the back of a wardrobe. The combat between the witch and the lion for control over Narnia was about to begin. I realized that the sound of Jay’s breathing was growing increasingly loud, as he continued to hold my hand. “You ok?” I asked, but he could not even say he wasn’t. Reining in the biggest gestures and obviously making a great effort not to hurry, he finally left his seat. But I had heard it all: the sound as he inhaled loudly like a suffering lion, then the sound as he exhaled, the sound of teeth being ground together in the effort not to groan aloud. I did not follow him out but stayed sitting there. The combat was beginning. Spears and arrows flew, pillars of fire leaped aloft. The witch, the lion, and the four children pursued and were pursued. Could I fight like that if I had something to protect? I recalled how one day Jay, who had been dozing during the class, had suddenly woken up with a great shriek almost like a scream. What had he shouted that day? Eyes wide with fear, that was what I thought I had seen that day. I went out. It was not just that he was afraid of crowded places, he was probably not able to go out without someone to look after him.
    He was lying almost flat, leaning his upper body against the back of an empty chair in the cinema lobby. His limbs were shaking, he was clutching his chest as he gasped for breath, huh huh huh. It was odd. I had the impression I had been seeing him like that for a long time already. Give him ten minutes, I thought to myself. I seized his great hand, which had once been capable of stopping a ball moving at 110 kph and was now clasping his chest in a panic attack. There was not much I could do to help him as he struggled with his pain. In order to get a better grip on his hand I bent my fingers so that they were nestling in his palm. Like when mountain climbers rescue one another, one pulling the other up, that was how I held on. “. . . I thought I’d got over it now,” he said as soon as the pain subsided. He also apologized to me. I reassured him. Because he had not said, “I’m going to die.” I did not let go of the hand I was holding. On account of this natural, necessary desire I somehow felt like crying a bit.

    So I wrote to Thomas. I wanted to be brief. I wrote about Jay. So the letter grew longer. On the envelope I painstakingly wrote Thomas’s name in neat letters.

    “Shall we talk about the movie’s plot? But we didn’t see it all, did we?”
    I dislike it when my sister treats me like an infant, yet every time I meet Jay my way of speaking heads in that direction.
    “I saw it in a book, teacher.”
    “You mean you read books?”
    “I read the Chronicles of Narnia in a comic book.”
    “My nephew likes comics, too.”
    I was about to talk about Muffin Man.
    “Do you think children have intellectual capabilities too?”
    “Do you mean me?”
    He looked at me with an expression that seemed to be asking if there was something wrong with being old.
    “No, but they do, don’t they? Children seem quite convinced that the things that frighten them really exist.”
    “Isn’t there anything you’re afraid of, Miss?”
    He was looking at me. I had no choice.
    “You’re more than half way through, it’ll be ok now. Try thinking it’s going to be ok.”
    “Teacher, do you realize just how many different kinds of fear there are in the world? There’s fear of birds. There’s fear of toads. Some people are afraid of the number 8. There are people who are afraid of women’s genitals. And there are lots of people who are afraid of paper. There really are a lot of different kinds of fear. Compared with them, mine’s nothing.”
    Since he told me he’d been receiving therapy for a long time, what he said was surely not wrong. He told me how, the previous autumn, he’d safely gone all the way to Laos, where a maternal uncle was living, six hours in a plane, after which he’d thought he was fully cured and he’d been told by the doctors that he no longer needed therapy. For someone with panic disorder, no enclosed space is more frightening than a plane. Yet I felt I was waiting for him to tell me something else. What could it be?
    “Do you know the difference between being anxious and feeling fear?”
    “Instead of asking me, it’ll be better if you just say.”
    “When you feel anxious, you’re overwhelmed by the idea that some kind of danger may be about to happen to you, but you can’t be sure, and you become tense. Whereas with fear, since the object inspiring fear is clear, you can avoid it. If the object disappears, the fear does not continue. So it’s different from anxiety, where you don’t even know what you should be avoiding.”
    “Why, I thought you only knew about Nietzsche, Miss, but you know that too?”
    If it’s merely a matter of exchanging words, a parrot could do just as well. Hoping that Jay would not notice, I laughed bitterly. Jay did not say what I was waiting to hear.
    “Take the wardrobe in that movie. Everyone seems to have at least one thing that serves as a link between reality and illusion. What about you?”
    “Do you think it would be good to have something like that?”
    “It’s not just something that appears when you’re under pressure.”
    “Can you sing that song again?”
    “What song?”
    “Why, that day, after we left the cinema and were walking along, there was a song you were singing, wasn’t there?”
    Jay wanted to see me laugh.
    “You really want to hear it?”
    One thing I hate doing when I’m drinking is thinking about the morning after, and one that I like doing is singing. I duly hummed the song: “How does it feel? How does it feel? To be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone? How does it feel?”
    “Great! Bob Dylan.”
    “Sorry, it’s the only song I know.”
    “Do you always cry so easily, Miss?”
    “Your face is redder, too.”
    “Stop looking at me, please.”
    “But it is! If something comes and hits you again, you’ll be able to be happy, thinking: I blocked a goal. One day.”
    “Do you know what the best kind of goalkeeper is?”
    “Is this a quiz game?”
    “The best goalkeeper is one who never moves, always blocks the goal. It just shows that he’s really chosen the best place.
    “Ah, there’s philosophy in that, too.”
    “Don’t worry yourself too much on my account, Miss. It’s not because of handball that I’m like this.”
    “ . . . but just supposing. If the fear vanished, what would you like to do most of all?”
    “What about you, Miss?”
    “Well, suppose we went to eat a bowl of noodles? I’ll teach you how to use chopsticks again.”
    “Really, there is something, Miss.”
    “Can you wait, even if it takes some time?”
    Then he told me about his dead father.

    A reply came from Thomas. I wondered what was the most precious thing I possessed. I decided to sell Hans. I was in the bird shop when suddenly Hans shouted, “Eat up! Eat up!” They were the first words I had ever heard him say. His manner of speaking was similar to my nephew’s, who always said everything in a single breath. What would the child say when he discovered Hans had gone? Would he say that his friend had flown away? With the money I got from selling Hans I bought balloons.

    I could have done this or that, I could have lived with this person or that. But I chose to study Nietzsche and I’m alone. It’s my choice. I can’t really explain that choice, but well, suppose I put it like this. Someone I know was always full of questions about every kind of thing, from early childhood on. All those questions turned round and round and finally ended up fixing on metals, which fascinated him. Why does it shine? Why is it soft? Why is it cold? Why is it hard? In the end he became a chemist, while the guy who was devoted to the 250 tuning forks he had collected became a piano tuner. My own endless questions all ended up being about human life. People who reckon that thinking is the biggest problem in life cannot do without Nietzsche. Through him I hoped to find the answers to the problems that preoccupied me. At first Nietzsche came to me hopefully like a great door that was bound to open as I drew nearer. Like Bertrand Russell, who believed that everything was controlled by numbers. As a result, unable to become a chemist or a piano tuner, I turned into a solitary single woman, not only penniless but jobless, habitually getting slapped on the back by my family for laughing when I shouldn’t while watching soaps on television.
    After I met Jay, I found myself remembering just why, long ago, I had chosen Nietzsche among all the possible philosophers. It was because Nietzsche alone, among all the philosophers, was the only one to say that, if you were someone who demanded perfection of human life, you just had to accept completely all life’s difficulties. I was confronted by a variety of difficulties, some of which seemed insuperable. Nowadays, even without the help of philosophy, I long to acknowledge my imperfections and be reconciled with them. Because someone I want to care for has come along. In which case the arrow is going to have to turn from pointing outward to pointing inward.
    Jay began to receive therapy again. It was a bare three weeks before January 23, the day when his father had committed suicide. When he killed himself, Jay’s father had been twenty-eight and Jay had been just three; now Jay was twenty-eight. When I first saw him, the thought struck me that despite his height and bulk, he looked delicate; it was perhaps because after his father’s death he had grown up in the care of his mother and sisters alone, all those years painfully missing a man’s touch. Most men, in the absence of an exemplary father, easily fall victim to a compulsion that obliges them to create such a father for themselves. He was not inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he confessed that he had once tried to die like his father. He said it had been a short while before meeting me. I guessed that the fact of having reached his dead father’s age was now the main source of his fear. There seems to be some truth in Hippocrates’s idea about sickness, that sickness develops with time. Every disease has a so-called start, then it slowly grows worse until it reaches a crisis or climax. Just like a work of fiction, in fact. After that, he said, you reach a happy ending or a fatal ending. That was how Hippocrates introduced the notion of the “case history” into medicine. Perhaps what Jay feared was not having reached his dead father’s age, but that case history.
    It was not easy to take the subway, go to the movies, or ride an elevator with Jay, and every time we did so he would furtively be keeping an eye on me. One day when he seemed to be in a good mood, I told him what Thomas had told me about Shostakovich’s secret. The great musician Shostakovich had a piece of metal, apparently a bit of shrapnel, embedded in one side of his brain. Yet in spite of the pain, he resolutely refused to have it removed. Because it was there, he only had to tilt his head to the right and his mind would fill with new melodies. By transcribing them onto musical staves he had produced any number of classic compositions. X-rays had confirmed that whenever Shostakovich turned his head the shrapnel moved with it and pressed on the musical zone located in the temporal sphere. Luckily or not, I’m not sure, he found such tales uninteresting and had never even heard of Shostakovich. I could not figure out how best to say, “Don’t be afraid,” so I went about frowning all the time. Likewise how was I to say, “Perhaps anxiety or fear is what is currently sustaining me, and your life, too. So you see, Jay, that is why I do not want you to be completely cured. If all the fear vanishes, that may not be your real life, either”? Still, there were times when we needed to think seriously, like Epicurus, about what we needed in order to live healthy lives.
    His therapy seemed to be going neither smoothly nor easily. Among the irksome duties his therapy required, the most important was having to write a daily record card. For example, if the doctor treating him gave him the assignment to “drive once round the downtown area” that meant recording things like the time it took, who was with him, and the estimated level of anxiety he felt before doing the exercise. In addition, if he had a panic attack, how had he dealt with it. When he was given the first assignment, “drive once round the downtown area,” he drove directly to the alley where we lived, without any warning, and obliged me to get into the front seat, when I had barely woken up, was wearing horn-rimmed glasses because I had not had time to put in my lenses, and had a mismatched pair of stockings on. It was one in the afternoon. After a while, his heart began to beat faster, his neck was showing signs of growing rigid, and he was breathing harshly. It looked as though he was having a hard time keeping to his lane. I just rolled my hair round my index finger. While the other hand fumbled with a balloon I had put in my bag. We were driving along the fairly busy Dosan Street when he admitted he had a feeling that in a few minutes a huge cement-mixer truck was going to come crashing into his car. I know that hand holding the wheel is soaking wet. Look, if fear comes, try anticipating it and accepting it. Try recognizing it, waiting, then rejecting it. Try concentrating on what you can do at present. Next, acknowledge your success in enduring the fear while doing things with it, accept that as a chance for you to practice telling yourself you can endure your anxiety. Then anticipate that the fear may well come back and accept that. I rapidly poured out all the methods I knew for overcoming panic attacks. Those phrases that I had previously thought using ‘break up’ instead of ‘fear,’ I added as if joking, smiling bitterly. There are ups and down in any learning. You . . . you’re not exceptional, but I don’t realize I have my mouth tightly shut like someone furious. Because I do not know anything about how to offer comfort. It’s odd but whenever something difficult happens, I habitually start to wonder what Nietzsche would have done. Whether it’s a matter of comforting or showing kindness, things that ought to have been learned in one’s youth. I realized that I had had almost no chance to practice such feelings. In order to comfort him, I put on the warmest smile I could manage and looked at him. Fortunately he did not scold me and ask, “Do you always cry this easily, Miss?” I only saw later what he wrote in the space opposite the question, “When a feeling of anxiety arises, what is your way of dealing with it?” In large letters he had written, “A friend drives instead.”
    That day, while I was still in the car before we parted I said to Jay: “Jay, you have the right to make mistakes; the right to ask for help; the right to feel angry; the right to cry; the right to be surprised; the right to change your mind; and so long as you do not infringe on the rights of someone else, Jay, you have the right to be able to do anything that will make you happy; and you have the right to hate someone else.” Finally I said, “And Jay, you have the right to drive.”
    It was really fortunate that he showed interest in what I said. Sometimes I have the impression that I learned a lot of the things I know, not from Nietzsche but from Thomas. My friend Thomas, who used to grow ferns and eat Sunday brunch at eleven in the Café Louise wearing the fur coat his dead mother had left him. His friends could not understand the way he went around with his dead mother’s fur coat on. If we became close, it was because I understood his coat and Thomas understood the fear I had.
    One day, Thomas told me: “Buy a balloon.” It was one of the therapies recommended by Thomas, my friend and my physician, later to become a doctor in the neuropsychiatric unit of the Charité Hospital in Berlin. Every time I felt anxiety coming on, every time my breathing became irregular, breathing deeply and quickly, puff, puff, huff puff, and as I blew up the balloon, I would bring my breathing back under control. It was one form of breathing exercise designed to facilitate hyperventilation, in order to prevent a panic attack occurring even after the breathing had begun to be irregular. Thomas used to look at me absently with gloomy eyes where green and gray were intermingled. Even now, they are still the most irritating, sad eyes I ever saw, that ever looked at me. I blew up several thousand balloons.

    With the cold of early January, winter seemed to be reaching its climax. Everything was frozen hard and the days passed slowly. I spent my time meeting other people more often than Jay. I say “other people,” although they were all students in my class, and there were also fun moments drinking tea together and listening to what they had to say. One said that I seemed not to know the ways of the world, and I laughed, saying that she meant well, so I would not take it seriously. Whether I was in the classroom or outside, I seemed not to look like a teacher. Nonetheless, every week I was waiting for Friday. As soon as the class was over I would always go rushing out of the room. I just hoped he could understand that if things are really difficult, there are times when it’s not good to be together. It is something different from sharing sorrow together. Sometimes I would visit “Doctor’s Paper Store” in Anyang and stay sitting there dejectedly for several hours at a stretch. If a customer came while my friend was out for a time, I even sold things like plastic trash bags. It was not a matter of twelve hours spent reading, thinking, going for walks, every twelve hours my head was on the verge of exploding from thinking about Jay.
    Seeing the empty cage, I would remember Hans. But I know that sometimes, late at night, Hans comes flying into my room and observes me as I sleep, his beak buried slantwise in his smooth plumage. At such times I suddenly turn over and ask, “You ok?” pretending to be talking in my sleep. I regret not having taught him more words. When morning comes, sometimes I find a green feather has fallen onto my pillow, but I have not been able to tell Jay that yet. Nor that whenever we meet I put a balloon in my bag before going out.
    I thought about the question Jay had thrown back at me: if the anxiety goes away, what will you do first? It was something I asked myself, and I had not realized it was such a fundamental one, or one so capable of bringing me consolation. In order to think about that, I could not help reflecting on my rights first. I still do not know exactly what it is that Jay asked me to wait for. Once he took out a pen and skillfully drew a fish in the back of my notebook. “This is a rainbow trout, miss,” and I nodded, “Ah. Let’s go and see them some day,” I responded. His ambiguous, twenty-seven year old expression where confidence and uncertainty mingles, seeming to say: “This is my dream.” The first thing I was waiting for was the anniversary of his father’s death, and that would be the first bridge Jay had to cross. He was already dreaming dreams where he was covering his face with his hands and screaming: No! A ball heading for him at 110 kph. He was going to have to field his father’s death with both hands. It’s ok, Jay, you’re already half way across. I was muttering in my dream. Fear? I was just the same.

    “Tomorrow, let’s go for a ride on line 2 of the subway,” Jay said. He explained that his new assignment was to ride one full circuit on line 2, the circle line. I was curious what he might find to write this time in the space opposite the question, “When a feeling of anxiety arises, what is your way of dealing with it?”

    The books I had sent off by surface mail before I left Heidelberg arrived four months later. When they did not come after two months, I had given them up. For a while I had a pain as though something inside me was broken. The moment I saw those nine boxes of books, that I considered priceless, piled on the living-room floor, I realized how urgently and longingly I had been waiting for them to come. I failed to see that I was consumed by fear of that self who was now incapable of reading the books with the enthusiasm and absorption that had previously filled, indeed almost devoured me. The hefty volumes occupying virtually the whole of the living room floor were coaxing and urging me on. That made me aware of two obvious facts. First, that four months had already gone by, and then that I was here and not in Heidelberg. The books seemed to have a lot of other things they wanted to say, too.
    When I came back home, I had scattered the earth in the bottle over the garden. If you often go traveling, even when you come back home you can only sleep if you lock the door of your room first. Now I no longer locked the door and I could not sleep. The multipurpose room may be small, it offers no great obstacle to reading books or thinking. I had no idea I would have to live there for so long a time.
    In my final class I talked about the idea of eternal recurrence that came to Nietsche at the rock near Surlei. Also about the meaning of the tears Nietsche shed there. I ended seven weeks of lectures by introducing the maxims Nietzsche had left behind. Then I went to a restaurant in the store with the students where we ate dumplings and drank a cup of tea. Some briefly talked about Jay, who had not come to the final class. One student, who claimed to be close to Jay’s mother, said he was in Laos. Another said she had seem him choosing a necktie on the first floor of the store just before class. After laughing about how well Jay could tell a joke, and how he was the youngest in the class, they changed the subject. I had not heard from Jay. There are things I can tell even if he says nothing but there are also things I absolutely cannot know if he does not say. Which one is it now? Every time I thought of him I found myself recalling the rainbow trout.
    My mood on January 23 was a little different from when I greeted January 22 but time passed accurately enough. At three in the afternoon the telephone rang, a wrong number, and once it was past five, somber dark green night began to fall. I was sitting on a dining-chair looking toward the window. Once my eyes were accustomed to the dark, I could see pale snowflakes beginning to fly. A cat could be heard meowing and motorbikes delivering meals sped past down the alley. It was an ordinary Sunday evening, no different from other days. I slowly stood up, made some broth with tuna, washed mushrooms, spring onions, greens and onions in cold water and wiped them dry. Once the broth began to boil, I transferred it to the middle of the table. I called out to father, mother, my brother and sister-in-law, who had been playing cards in the main bedroom while the children were asleep. The family gathered round the table. This evening I really wanted to eat dumpling soup rather than casserole, or, If you’re going to make a casserole you need to use a proper quantity of meat, surely, or, Isn’t there any soju or something to drink? Each one added a little comment as they picked up their spoons. The noise of spoons rattling against the glass table-top, the sound of broth being slurped down, the sound of water being poured into glasses, the noises succeeded one another. I took a deep breath. I felt sure that somewhere at this very moment Jay was having his supper too. It was not just wishful thinking, it was a firm belief. I made up my mind not to wait for Jay any more.
    February came. I found a job teaching basic German three times a week in an institute in Chongno street. It had been my friend Ch’a who had got me the job. “Why don’t you do it yourself?” I asked. She simply replied that running a paper store suited her personality and shook her head. What kind of person could have a character suited to running a paper store? For the first time I treated her to a meal and tea. Meanwhile, my nephew fell down in the living room, hitting his head on the corner of the table and we celebrated the offerings for paternal grandmother. On the day of the offerings, the moment father lit the candles on the table holding the offerings, my nephew, whose injured head was swathed in white gauze bandages so that it looked like a pear in a box of fruit, exclaimed, “Wow, a birthday!” and began to sing, “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you,” clapping his hands. Father did not know whether to laugh or cry, as he muttered, “Aigu, that brat!” and before he could grab his grandson, who was racing from room to room singing, his face was scarlet. I was standing behind my brother as he offered the cup of wine. It struck me that for some reason, ever since we were children, we had never been arm-in-arm or hand-in-hand, never once had any physical contact. Perhaps because in our youth we considered we were too unlike one another, and on returning after ten years away, we seemed too old for that. I did once put my arm through my brother’s, as though by accident. My brother was growing more like my father with age, and although I did not really feel it, I was probably growing more like mother. Once the offerings were over, January was finished, February was beginning. But even if one keeps standing in the same place, it will still be too sad to say that March passed and April too. Gradually the insides of my elbows felt warmer. I wondered if I might not try talking about Jay with my brother. He stared at me and laughed. “Do you think I’m going to free up my room if you talk like that?” His expression said I was being nonsensical.
    That night, Hans woke me up. He brought one piece of news.

    Just as philosophy for Nietzsche was like voluntarily living on an ice-covered mountain, for me that was what life was like. There were fears I had escaped from and those I had not, but I always wanted to stay here, it was my choice. I did ask, but by now I knew that there was no way I could enter his garden. I had not been able to find the truth and I had not been able to jump. As Nietzsche said, no river can become large and abundant on its own. Absorbing many tributaries and constantly flowing on, that is what makes a river. I was discovering that greatness of mind was a matter, not of giving the right answer to questions, but of indicating a direction. In which case, the great artist who showed me my life’s direction was none other than Nietzsche. I began to think about a life in which one has to endure, in which one has to cultivate, in which one has to tend, a life bringing harmony. Concerning the unhappy events, the predicaments, that arise in our lives, Nietzsche did not just think they were bad and had to be eliminated. He said we had to tend our own misfortunes and difficulties as we tend roots. That was the philosophy that Nietzsche transmitted through his experience as a gardener.
    Pay heed to the commands of reason. Nietzsche told me.
    I thought about the rights I had. I have the right to say I am sick; I have the right to read books; so long as I do not infringe on the rights of another, I have the right to rely on that person; I have the right to speak the truth; I have the right to sleep. I have the right to resist Thomas’s comfort and advice; I have the right to no longer feel sorry; I have the right to think about Jay. I had to think a lot of other thoughts. Then finally I began to think deeply about the arrow-like question I had fired at Jay and he had turned back on me. Suppose that fear goes away . . .

“I want to write a book,” I said to Jay.
“I knew as much,” Jay replied brightly.
“I told you I knew you would be waiting.”
“How’s it been, meanwhile?”
“I counted backward from a hundred, subtracting three each time: ninety-seven, ninety-four, ninety-one . . . . I did that every time things got difficult. I’ve already ridden the subway alone three times, Miss.”
“Subtracting three, starting with one hundred?”
“Yes, it’s a really good method. When you have a headache from reading, you should try it.”
“It’s good, surely, but suppose, um, we blow up a balloon?”
“Like those people who forget everything the moment they start flying a kite? Hey, I’d feel stupid, what do you mean, a balloon?”
“Huff, puff, come on, blow hard, puff, puff, puff . . .”
“Huff, puff, like this?”
“One boy, one girl, huff, puff.”
“Is that, huff, puff, a happy ending? Puff, puff.”
“It’s called, huff, puff, love.”
“It’s been a long time, huff, puff, since I blew up a balloon. Puff, puff.”
“There was a guy, huff, puff, who was really scared of heights, puff, puff, puff. Then once he fell in love, huff, huff, he became a really great rock-climber.”
“Who was it? Huff, puff.”
“Huff, puff, my friend. Puff.”
    Jay and I stood watching as one yellow balloon and one red balloon went wafting up into the sky. The wind is blowing. The day Thomas succeeded his rock-climb, his whole body was shining a coconut brown color. Before I left Heidelberg, he advised me: “You have an advantage, in that you are not influenced by the outside world. That will serve as a really big advantage if you plan to be a scholar. Only precisely because of it, you may well find yourself fated to live in isolation, for ever.”
    For a long time, the little village and school where I used to live were my whole world. The distant world outside was a frightening, unknown world. Now it’s as though the knot that had been tied round one ankle is loosening, I feel as though my soul is rising higher little by little, like that yellow balloon and red balloon. Thomas? There are two mysterious kinds of power in that knot. For some people, the power can for ever be a curse. But for others, it can be a blessing. Just like the system of rope-knot notation for the ancients. Will Thomas understand if I talk like this? Thomas likes Wittgenstein, who said that humanity has no gesture expressing hope. It is easy to act like someone angry. Acting like someone happy is easy, acting like someone overwhelmed with sorrow is easy. But hope? He declared it was difficult. If Thomas could see Jay now he has blown up and loosed his balloon, what would he say about him? And if he could see me, standing here beside him?
    “Miss, are you crying again?”
    Jay’s rough hand brushed my cheek.
    “Don’t sway about like that, stand straight for once.”
    I seized Jay’s wrists with both hands and stood facing him. He looked a bit stressed out. When Nietzsche wept by the rock at Surlei, it was not simply from the joy of making a discovery; they were tears of certainty as to the theory’s existential effect, a groan of conviction. If ever I am fated to live in isolation, it will be because of that that I have my individuality. I reckon that such things are only produced from within. The balloons were gradually drifting further away in the sky. The path to overcoming fear is not something to look back on, it is something leading ahead, Jay. It may well mean changing. If there is a special purpose in life that I could not discover for myself, it may be something round and needing to be inflated like a balloon. To bring my forehead against his chin, I cautiously raise myself on tiptoe.