Pink Ribbon Days

by Gwon Yeo-seon

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

Published in Koreana, Vol. 24, No. 4 Winter 2010 pages 88 - 99.

It was late in the spring of my twenty-ninth year that I left Seoul. Then, after I had spent exactly one year living in an officetel room in a new town, I came back to Seoul late in the spring of my thirtieth year, just before the rainy season began. At the time I left Seoul I was not working and I was not meeting anybody. Or rather than saying I was not meeting anyone, it would be more correct to say that I did not really have anyone to meet. Likewise, rather than saying I was not working, it would be more truthful to say that I was not being given any work. At all events, as I was leaving Seoul there seemed to be no need to make any kind of choice or decisions, I just wanted to live an uncluttered, isolated life.
    When it comes to making friends, I tend to be demanding. Of course, I know that I am incapable of being a good friend who will satisfy other people's demanding standards. Still, what you might call a good thing about me is my capacity for comforting myself with the thought that being alone is much better than keeping company with people who are not important. This means that I know how to put up with the loneliness caused by my inability to satisfy my own high expectations. I was living a clear, transparent life without anybody else, so it is really amazing that I was unable to avoid meeting those women just as I turned thirty. Those women, those women of mine.

I brought just five things with me when I moved into the officetel room: a 20-inch television with a built-in video recorder, a computer, a wardrobe and some white plastic bookshelves, that was all. Wall space being limited, I placed the bookshelves awkwardly so that when you came in, the only thing visible was a narrow passageway.
    After moving in, I grew enamored of the large discount store that lay just a five- minute walk away. That vast open space with its huge display counters and wide aisles formed a baroque kind of contrast to my room. Almost every evening I rushed through the store pushing a cart, not to do any shopping but to instill an esoteric sense of ambition into my poor body, that was growing accustomed to my narrow, rectangular room. In my hands as I went back home I would be carrying a pack of onions, a pack of eggs, or sometimes a packet of fresh sole on sale at half-price just before closing time. It was one evening after about a month of coming and going between the bookcases with their white shelves and the display counters, not missing a single day. The rainy-season drizzle that had been falling had stopped and as the clouds thinned, the sky broke through, crimson in the sunset. I suddenly felt an intense craving for some meat, as though all the fat in my belly had vanished. In the throes of a craving for some hearty broth made from brisket and leg-bone, despite the sultry heat, I rapidly grabbed my shopping bag.
    I hovered in front of the meat corner, which if it had been a bookcase would have been high enough for the four shelves an encyclopedia took up, and after eying the price tag on some cheap brisket I was looking around in case there was something cheaper. At that moment, an unfamiliar hand was hovering over the pack of meat I had my eye on. In a flash I quickly jerked the wrapped meat into my shopping cart. My rival, showing no particular signs of surprise, went on hovering carefully above the display, intent on choosing another pack of meat with a hand sporting a simple ring and large knuckles. To my surprise, behind the bending woman's broad shoulders loomed the vivacious, triangular face of Ju, who had been my senior at university.
    "Why, Cheol-su!"
    "Oh, Yeon-hui!"
    Ju had no idea that I was engaged in a fight with his wife over meat and showed much pleasure on seeing me. That was unexpected, when I recalled the drunken, unfeeling way in which he had declared that it was over between us back in the old days. Before we had exchanged more than a couple of words, we were amazed to realize that we were neighbors, separated only by a major highway.

    He was taking some time off before starting a new job, while his wife, who looked older than him, was unwell, despite her robust appearance, and was on leave from her position as a professor. The three of us often met and went drinking together. They had been married for more than three years but they had no children. His wife seemed glad when I said I had a boyfriend. The moment I said that he was currently in Mongolia, she adopted a thoughtful expression and murmured: Mongolia? Mongolia, of all places. I was on the point of asking if she knew someone in Mongolia when Ju cleared his throat lightly:
    He spoke with eyes sparkling as if he had just had a good idea:
    "Talking of which, suppose we go and eat some Mongolian shabu-shabu? As I get older, eating tasteless food disagrees with me."
    The two of them had already explored all the local restaurants, so they took the greenhorn that I was on a tour of a few famous ones. Once we had run out of places worth eating at, they invited me to their apartment. From then on I became their regular drinking companion.
    No matter how often I begged his wife not to use a formal style when she spoke to me, she paid no attention. She was the kind of woman who would use honorifics even when she was feeding her pet puppy. He was the only person she ever spoke to without using a polite style. Even then, she did not use forthright informal language, leaving the endings indistinct.
    She never scolded him, but she did sometimes warn him about his habit of smoking cigarettes down to the very end. She herself set the example by never smoking a cigarette more than half way. She was more like a wise guardian angel than his wife.
    She was particularly skilled at cooking fish. Among the dishes she produced, my favorite was neither the grilled fish nor the fish-stew but fish broiled in soy sauce. After she had carefully blended perilla oil, vinegar and pepper paste to give the basic flavoring, no matter what kind of fish she boiled and served, it was breathtaking. By contrast, she was hopeless at vegetables, that I was good at. She said he was not particularly fond of meat and although she sometimes cooked some, the taste was nothing special.
    After a few bad experiences with soju, we gracefully changed our preference to wine. As a result, whenever I went to their place I would take along a bottle of white wine from the discount store and his wife usually prepared fish. In addition, their fridge was always richly stocked with all kinds of fruit, so I never needed to buy expensive fruit for myself. Like any middle class family, they invariably ate fruit or cake or cookies after the meal.
    All through the summer they cared for me like some kind of pet animal, trying to fatten me up, while I became their pet puppy. True, there were times when his wife's use of honorifics in speaking to me was irritating, but she was the kind of woman who would never even speak informally to her pet dog. She used regularly to ask after my boyfriend in Mongolia, always employing a very polite formal style. As women often do when they lack feelings of delicate feminine affection, she and I constantly maintained a polite distance.

After meeting the two of them, my tongue got used to luxury so it renounced its previous, abstemious diet and little by little began to follow its own imprudent desires.  It had tasted enough fish and fruit, so that meant it started to demand opportunities of tasting meat. At such times, I would buy a piece of steak the size of my palm at the store and cook that, or buy some belly or neck of pork and grill that. It felt a shame to be drinking alone when I cooked meat, but since the two of them did not like meat, I had no choice. One day, his wife heard me make some such remark and looked really sad:
    "But it's only him! I eat meat. Next time you must invite me, at least, Yeon-hui."
    To which he added:
    "I eat meat, too, I just don't enjoy it much."
    I felt that courtesy obliged, so one day I bought some tenderloin, prepared chopped steak and invited the two of them to my room. So long as the ingredients were fresh, there was no dish easier to make than chopped steak. Into a well-heated frying-pan you put meat and vegetables finely chopped with scissors, cooked them over a strong flame, added a liberal dash of steak sauce, and that was it. The couple marveled at my skill in chopping even carrots using scissors and, unexpectedly, did full justice to my cooking. They likewise manifested a vigorous appetite when I prepared fried pork with a hot pepper-paste sauce, and when I ventured as far as beef-rib stew they nearly made themselves sick with over-eating. Yet still he insisted that he did not really like meat, while his wife took care to add that she enjoyed it more than her husband did. It seemed that to them, saying that you liked meat meant that you went mad if you did not eat meat at every meal. As we went on associating, I could find nothing to prove that they liked meat any less than I did. Rather than not liking meat being a sign of belonging to the middle class, it looked as though they simply said they did not like meat.
    If there was a day when I did not go out drinking with them, I would sit at the window of my tenth-floor room and smoke as I gazed at the yellow lamp illuminating the balcony corridor of their apartment-block and the light from their fluorescent light as it streamed out through the small, rectangular window giving onto the corridor. I was imitating Gatsby, of course.
    Once, late at night, I witnessed the moment when the fluorescent light went out. That was the room that he used as his study.  I imagined the feel of his finger turning the switch off, then the feel of his bare feet walking over the wood-patterned floor toward the bedroom where his wife was. Suddenly I felt a desire to cross lightly the dividing space and hide in their dark bedroom. Then, as if quickly repenting, I wished my nonexistent boyfriend would quickly come back from Mongolia, and crossed myself like some pious Russian peasant.
    We stopped drinking at their apartment and instead went wandering round the neighborhood bars after his wife returned to work at the start of the autumn semester, or in other words after our drinking sessions began to be organized differently. It was odd, but as soon as she stopped cooking fish, I no longer felt like cooking meat. She simply stopped cooking because she was busy, I stopped cooking out of sheer idle inertia, having nothing else to do. Rather, it was Ju, who had to take care of his own meals more and more often, who quietly started to cook.
That autumn, he occasionally phoned me. After the bell rang, the automatic answering system would cut in with a programed woman's voice saying I was out, then invariably his voice would  be heard remarking jokingly that I ought to change that woman's message.
    "Yes, it's me."
    "I went shopping this morning, prices have gone up a lot."
    "That's grim news."
    "Here's a riddle! It's not as dear as you might think. It's a kind of vegetable that's very often used in Chinese cooking."
    "It can't be onions. Mushrooms?"
    "I had some fried for lunch."
    "Gingko nuts?"    
    "I quite like gingko nuts, but are they much used in Chinese cooking? This is cheese colored . . ."
    "Bamboo shoots?"
    "Are you saying you prepared Chinese-style vegetables?"
    "That's too much bother, so I just fried up some bamboo shoots. They're alright, they have a nice clean taste. Another riddle! The kind of work I want to do."
    After the new riddle, he coughed, then laughed lightly.
    "Nowadays, there are designers of all kinds of different products."
    I said nothing.
    "Designers come in all kinds but if you're going to design clothes it takes really comprehensive skills. With clothes, it's the appearance that matters most, isn't it? I've heard that nowadays there are clothes woven using perfumed thread but there are no clothes with a bitter or sweet taste, are there? This is a kind of clothing where you have to focus on appearance, smell, feel and even taste. It's not something people wear all the time, it's an item of men's wear to be worn only at decisive moments.
    I was at a loss and he laughed.
    "OK. It's condoms."
    "You mean you want be become a condom designer?"
    "It's what I keep complaining about; why are there only fruit-flavored or vanilla-flavored condoms? Are we kids?  Freshly baked garlic bread, thick bean-paste soup boiled up with clams, deep-fried prawns, steamed crab, abalone porridge: wouldn't condoms with those kinds of flavors make you die? Really hot pepper taste might be good too, but since it's such a sensitive area, we'd better avoid that. Still, a range of savory flavors would be the thing to focus on. Savory enough to make you shudder."
    "You're a great feminist, I reckon, seeing how much you've been thinking about women's appetites."
    "I'm just being macho, really. Haven't I rejected pepper flavor although I know women are crazy about that? I'm a pepper-protectionist."
    "Peppers are part of the environment, so that makes you an eco-feminist."
    "Really? The weather's turned cool, what about having a glass of sake with an eco-feminist?"
    "Sounds good."

    I met him that late-autumn evening expecting to go and drink a glass of warm sake, but he dragged me straight off to a co-operative store. For some reason this guy who says he doesn't enjoy meat wanted to buy some milk.
    "The wife told me to buy some for her to drink tomorrow morning."
    "If she's home you should have come out together."
    "No, she phones her orders from school. Pure remote control. I want to buy it now, before I start drinking and forget."
    He used to be relatively picky when he was buying a pair of socks. It was only after he had put the salesgirl's nerves on edge by spending a full ten minutes taking out all the  different varieties of milk from the fridge, comparing the kinds and prices, that he finally deigned to choose one pack of milk that pleased him, checked the expiry date, and paid for it. Told that a bag was twenty won extra, he flatly refused to pay and stuffed the milk into his shoulder-bag.
    He rarely changed the things he used and he had a rectangular, black leather bag slung over his shoulder that he had carried about since way back. It was what was called a 'cops' bag', the kind that has pockets front and back you can fill with things without undoing the zipper, from where cops could easily take out tear-gas grenades, truncheons etc. At the sight of the bag, my palpitations as I worshiped him and anxiously sought to spot the back of his head in the scrum of a demonstration, and my bewilderment when he declared it was over between us, came welling up together.
    Finally, before we got to the bar he entered a bookstore. After picking books up then putting them down, skimming through about a fifth of their contents, he took out a book-card, exchanged the accumulated points for a gift-coupon, paid the remaining cost and bought a hardcover book about theory.

     In a simple Japanese-style restaurant we ordered sake and some snacks grilled on skewers. As he picked at some grilled gingko nuts, he talked about how in the old days they used to harvest six or seven sacks of gingko nuts from the great tree that stood in the yard of their village home. But after his father died a dispute about the inheritance had arisen between the children of his father's elder brother and his own siblings, and ownership of the house had passed into the hands of their cousins, the title to the house being in dispute. Perhaps because they felt bad about it, the cousins did not move into the house at once but neither did they demolish it; for a time they left it abandoned and empty. So when autumn arrived, like now, the villagers came flocking to the empty house and gathered the nuts, on seeing which the second son of their uncle's family had done something amazing.
    At that point, Ju drank some sake then detached one gingko nut from the skewer and ate it reverently, as though it had been harvested from that tree in his old home.
    A stormy rumor had made the rounds of the village. It asked how the sons of the elder brother had been able to grab the house where their uncle had lived for decades as soon as he was dead? Fully convinced that the villagers with this hostile attitude were intending to rob them of the house that belonged to them, the second oldest of the cousins took an ax and brutally cut down more than half of the gingko tree. Perhaps it was beyond his strength to bring down the whole trunk, or perhaps he felt he had sufficiently vented his wrath by cutting down that much, at all events, the partly felled gingko tree slowly died in that unsightly, deformed pose. He had experienced deep grief for his old home through the andante-speed withering of the gingko tree, and now it was with deep feeling that he detached another pale green nut from the skewer and ate it as if it were a symbol.
    Hearing the year in which the gingko tree had been chopped down, I realized it must have been at the time when Ju had been released from prison and gone to work as an employee in a publishing company producing an obscure quarterly poetry magazine. I could remember clearly how violent and ill-mannered he had been in those days. When I used to meet him in the basement coffee shop in the building housing the publishers, he would ignore me completely. It was not only me. In those times he showed no interest in anything, and was particularly icy regarding anything connected to the past.
    "You get nothing by looking back, nothing."
    Every time we met, he just kept repeating that, discouragingly, and when we parted he made no attempt to hide his wish not to see me again, the nuance suggesting a break-up. Come to think of it, at that time he was in his twenty-ninth autumn too.
    Stimulated by the gingko nuts, he grew quite sentimental and soon began to talk languidly about the past. I laughed, I clicked my tongue, sometimes I expressed indignation or added words when I knew the story, all the time drinking sake and nibbling at the snacks.
    It was a time when friends who prided themselves on being rebellious risked their necks playing at spies pretending they knew each other, so long as they were out of sight of the plain-clothes police in some quiet corner of the campus. They always used to have the name, meeting-time and address of anyone they were to meet written in tiny writing in a notebook, using a kind of code with abbreviations and numerals, then quickly tearing it out. On the remaining pages they used to write out sorrowfully a few lines of poetry modeled on Shin Dong-yeop's "Geum-gang River" or Kim Ji-ha's "Five Bandits." But the remaining parts of the campus were as a campus really should be. In every season the lawns were green, the shadows cast by the buildings were dark, the young folk were slender, well-behaved and hard-working. The stone steps leading to the student dining room, memories of how sometimes the sole of a loafer would strike hard against one of the irregularly set stones as he turned to offer a belated greeting to an acquaintance after walking on a few steps. Ten minutes or so spent sitting on a bench behind the Fine Arts College building, girl students cutting across the insect-filled lawns in paint-spattered aprons, sounds of instruments ringing out from time to time. A girl's soprano voice climbing gracefully step by step up the scale. The anxiety and fascination as she rose ever higher, as if on an increasingly narrow, steep ladder. The occasional solitude of the lawn in front of the College of Engineering. The rough shouts of the male students who sometimes came racing out. You really have to love those friends. The cool feeling after a hasty draw on a cigarette, overcome with emotion at unexpected memories. . . .
    The students who used to play cards on the brightly sunlit window-seats in the dining room or on the lozenge-shaped lawn in the angle made by two buildings. The quietness with which children play when out of the sight of adults, that tenacious, innocent delight, for some reason made him feel jealous and hurt. If the plainclothes police entered the campus on account of a demonstration, or if a battalion of riot police invaded after a fight at the main gate, hurling various kinds of tear-gas grenades, as the explosions of the dreaded tear-gas canisters resonated, they would lay aside the cards, stand up, and pick up sharp stones with the hands that had held the cards.
    The saloon bars that used to be lined up near the universities even just ten years ago. The compensations he'd been forced to pay or been paid after getting into fights in various sordid room-bar-style drinking places. The story of how his student advisor, whom he had not once set eyes on after being designated a problem student, had come hand in hand with his parents, who lived in the countryside, to visit him in prison. The story of the fight he'd had with a member of the editorial staff at the publishing company he had gone to work at on the same professor's recommendation. The grotesque tale he'd heard from that same member of staff of how to cook a bear's paw.
    Stories I seemed to have heard and not to have heard came pouring in an endless stream from his lips. Yet this was the man who, even in the days when he was sharing an office with that same member of staff, had all the time repeated listlessly:
    "You get nothing by looking back, nothing."
    As we were about to part, he tipped his head back and gazed up at the dark night-sky. I looked up at the sharp right angle formed by his neck bone.
    "How can we just go home and leave that color behind? Let's have one last cigarette first, Yeon-hui."
    The two of us squatted on the pavement in front of the crossing where we would have to separate and smoked our cigarettes.
    "I don't feel I'm living in the wrong way. Yet living like this is really fearful."
    "When do you feel that?"
    He looked at me with a bewildered look.
    "It doesn't depend on the time. My lifestyle, my disposition as such make me feel apprehensive. When was my life decided? What is decided, what is undecided? A few days ago I wanted to know the answer, so I took up seven or so pages of A4 paper trying to work it out, and came to the conclusion that it was all decided very early on. The decision was not made as I entered university. Nor was it at high school, or middle school. The decision was already made by the time I started to think. Perhaps from the time I was born. If you go even farther back, from the moment I was conceived. In the beginning was the decision."
    "Hmm, Cheol-su the fatalist."
    He snorted and stubbed out his cigarette.
    "Let's call it a day. There's no end to it."
    He glanced up at the sky again and stood up, shouldering his bag. Just then I pointed at his bag in astonishment.
    "Hey, what's wrong with your bag?"
    One half of the leather bag was paler than the rest. He turned the bag over with a look that asked what I was fussing about and a cloudy liquid began dripping out. It was milk. When he had squatted down on the pavement, it looked as though he had used the bag for a cushion and squashed the pack of milk. The milk, twice the price with its added calcium etc., had soaked into the carefully chosen, hardcover book of theory and turned it to a pulp. As he stood there looking at me helplessly, I could not help laughing.
    After that I often observed, when his wife was not with him, how inside his apparently solid, flawless outside fence he kept a monster of ineptitude that only appeared when his wife was absent. Rather than the question as to when his life had been decided, I was more curious as to when it was that this stupid little goblin had settled inside his fence. If he sat down for a moment on the grass in a park his keys would fall out as he stood up and he would have to call a locksmith who would come rushing along, greeting him with, 'You've lost them again!' as he opened the door for him. He often lost his glasses, too, the reason for which was that, realizing he often lost his glasses, he always went about with a spare pair in reserve. I once read an article in a newspaper saying that the subway's lost property office was full of all kinds of things it was really difficult to lose. Reading that there were even people who lost their dentures, I found myself nodding. I felt sure that someone like him who easily lost things went about with a spare set of dentures, which he had then left behind as he got off the train.
    The autumn after I moved to the new town passed quietly and peacefully. As I recall that autumn, I find myself with the following questions: Was Su-rim another of his many careless accidents? Was I? Was his wife fully aware of all these happenings? Did he know she knew?

    Once the new year came, I spent the whole of January thinking about how I was thirty now. I smoked a lot and drank alone until late every night. For snacks I ate fish fried in a pan. I longed for the fish broiled in soy sauce his wife had made back in the summer, but that was beyond my capabilities. I consumed the sixty croakers in three packs I bought cheap at the discount store within a month. I reached the point when I knew with my eyes shut just when to turn the fish in the pan, I grew skilled at removing even the smallest bones precisely in an incredibly short time but I had no chance to show off. Then one day I was moved by the taste of a couple of strongly flavored pieces of meat from the lower part of a croaker's head and for the first time in a long while wrote a passionate poem. In what would correspond to the chin in a human being a double triangle of dark red flesh was embedded. As I succeeded in detaching it with a skillful twist of the chopsticks, I had the impression I had torn out the croaker's tongue.
    I could not even imagine going to sleep without being drunk, immersed in the smell of fish and cigarettes that impregnated every corner of the room. There were many days when I would lie in bed feeling nauseous and not be able get to sleep until the sun had risen high in the sky. Perhaps because of all these unhealthy elements, my thoughts kept turning around the idea of being thirty without any noticeable progress. Like any natural number, all the ages I had experienced and all the ages I would experience had one characteristic in common. There was no reason why the first year of my thirties should be more significant than the eighth year of my teens or the third year of my fifties. The only special thing about thirty lay simply in the commonplace truth that every number is special. Yet even now, I still cannot help thinking that there was something special about the way I met those women one after the other when I was just thirty.
Sometimes I think I would have been happier if I had not met Ju and his wife at the meat counter in the discount store. It's futile regretting what happens by chance, of course, but saying it's futile does not stop regret arising. If I remind myself that it's futile, inside my head I remember again the sixty tiny tongue-like  pairs of red scraps of meat inside the heads of the croakers I ate all through the January of the year I turned thirty. If we had a pair of tongues, they might be less useful or they might be more so. I don't know why, but the thought comes that if I had had two tongues, my life would have been very different from what it is now.  His wife and Su-rim might perhaps have both withered away long ago until they were nothing but a trace of a pair of tongues remaining at the root of my tongue.
    I regularly cooked the croakers two at a time, so when the sixty were all gone it was January 31. From a certain moment I got into the habit of looking at the telephone just when it was time for supper. And from a certain moment I received no phone calls from him. That night I was eating a belated supper as I watched the television. The fact that there were no croakers left to cook left me feeling relieved but anxious. Just as I was about to clear the table, the telephone rang.
    "This is O Yeon-hui. I cannot take your call now. Please leave a message."
    As he had demanded, I had carefully erased the mechanical message and now it was my own voice.
    "Ah, this woman's message is different."
    He was saying it was the first time he had heard the recording of my voice, so how long had it been that he had not called, for goodness sake? I stretched out a hand and picked up the cordless phone.
    "Yes, hello. It's me."
    "Why is you voice sounding like that? Are you sick?"
    "You haven't had supper, have you?
    "I have."
    "You've already eaten?"
    He asked as though he was surprised, yet it was already past ten o'clock.
    "I'm in front of your building, I thought we could eat supper and have a drink."
    "I've already had supper."
    "Then come on down and have a drink."
    When I said nothing, he added what was clearly a lure.
    "Come and see. There's a friend I want you to meet."
    "What kind of friend?"
    "You'll see when you get here."
    "Where are you?"
    He gave the name of a fish-stew restaurant on the second floor of a building I knew. I hung up and as I glanced at the calendar I realized that not only I was one year older but I had wasted more than eight percent of the time during which I would be that age, and felt it was not fair.
    In the entrance hall of the restaurant, a pair of long woman's boots were lying askew. The woman sitting facing him had her black hair sleeked down as if she had just taken it out of water, in a style that strongly emphasized the shape of her skull. In some ways she reminded me of his wife but she looked very young, her weight and age both being less than half his wife's.
    "I told you about her, didn't I? This is Kim Su-rim."
    No, I had never heard him mention this woman. She was working at the publishing company where he had previously been employed; she told me she was in her twenties and unmarried. As he introduced her, his face was marked with a burning desire to fold her up and carry her around in his pocket like Lao Tzu's magic donkey.
    "She looks young, doesn't she?"
    He asked his question with a smug expression, as though it was all the result of    his own efforts. Before I could say anything in reply, the woman spoke.
    "Why, this friend looks young, too."
    This friend? My eyebrows rose of their own accord.
    "I don't think I look particularly young, you know."
    "Come on, use familiar-style language."
    At her insolent reply, I looked at him.
    "That's right, you're the same age after all, so you should use familiar style."
    Sensing what I was thinking, he quickly added:
    "Of course, it's a bit quick, this being your first time to meet."
    "If she doesn't do it from the start, she never will, Mr. Editor-in-Chief."
    At her pert reply he laughed stupidly.
    "That's very true. It's always the first step that counts. There's something I once heard from a professor back in the old days; I bet neither of you know how to cook a bear's paw?"
    Now I had heard that story twice at least. He was insisting he had told me things he had not told me and pretending not to have told me things he had. If you make a bear stand on a heated iron griddle, the bear will jump up and down on account of the heat. Once the bear has jumped enough, you remove it and eat the scraps of flesh from the bear's paws that have stuck to the griddle. You treat the wounded bear and then, once new flesh has grown on its paws, you put it back on the iron griddle. He told the story in an excited, flustered tone. If his wife and I had clenched our hands and started pulling at one another's hair, he would not have been as upset as we were.
    "Oh, come off it!"
    Then his wife laughed. Seeing that my reaction was likewise incredulous, he had gone on eagerly.
    "It's true, I tell you. If you have to kill a bear every time you want to cook some bear's meat, how much is that going to cost? This way you save its life. It's just the same as when you insert a tube into a bear's liver and extract its bile to drink."
    That was it. Any human being would be quite capable of inventing that kind of cruel wisdom. Seeing the direction our expressions had taken, he was completely satisfied. Perhaps on account of that satisfaction, he had told the same story again once when we had been drinking alone. The dance on the heated iron griddle, treatment, dancing again, the meat stuck to the griddle . . . .
    As she listened to his chatter, Su-rim kept her head up and sat there looking self-possessed. As I heard him repeat his story for the third time, I could not help thinking about the fate of the bear doomed to experience that pain over and over until it died. If human beings were obliged to live imprisoned in some such repeated cycle of pain until their last day came, surely they would go mad or hang themselves. At the thought of the bear's desolate despair, unaware of death and unable to hasten toward it, I became keenly aware of what a great blessing it was that I knew how to kill myself. I longed to reverently kiss the bear's paws. In order to do that, I would have once to cook and eat bear's paw but he said he didn't like meat, so it would be impossible.

    In her closely-fitting black leather jacket, tight pants and long boots, Su-rim looked amazingly agile. As she dug the toe of a boot into the earth beneath a street-side tree, she looked like a sturdy, firmly condensed object that had been tossed into the bitter winter's cold. As he loitered smoking a cigarette, he approached me and asked me to let her sleep in my room. She never did anything for herself, she was an expert at making others do things for her.
    "It would be best if I could take her to our place but my wife seems to dislike her."
    At that moment Su-rim approached us so I had no chance to hear any reply. She had no objection to going to my room. Once she was sure I was going to let her sleep there, while we were on the way she even asked if it wouldn't be a good idea to buy something to drink and some snacks.
    In a convenience store we bought several bottles of wine, some beef jerky and some pine nuts. Like him, Su-rim did not much like meat, she said jerky was the only exception. As I opened the door and we entered the room, they both wrinkled their noses disdainfully. He said my room smelled like a vagabond who had spent half the day roaming around a fish market, then half the day chain-smoking in a sealed smoking room at the National Library before walking back home soaking in the evening fog.
    While I boiled some instant dried-pollack soup, Su-rim finished laying the table. He seemed tired and sat dozing in a corner until the drinking started, when he immediately joined in. For some reason, Su-rim suddenly grew excited, busily changing the CD, slurping down wine, smoking continuously. Then at a given moment she stared closely into his face and began to hit him with a table tennis ball-sized fist, laughing as she did so.
    "Why? Why?"
    He seemed beside himself with delight.
    "I hate people with artificial teeth more than anything, Mr. Editor-in-Chief."
    Her Editor-in-Chief  laughed through his nose, hiding his upper denture. Those were teeth that had been broken in prison. It had nothing to do with anything glorious like torture, I had heard, it was because he had been walking along with his hands behind his back when he carelessly slipped on a patch of ice. I wondered if his habit of  giving a slight laugh through his nose without opening his mouth whenever he was feeling happy or had a good idea might not have been because Su-rim disliked dentures.
    Su-rim began by reciting one poem, nodding as she did so, then she seemed to reckon that all the poetry books in my bookcase should be invited to serve during the party.  Day was already beginning to break when he went back to his apartment across the big highway and Su-rim passed out, collapsing onto my bedding. As she lay curled on the duvet cover, she looked like a black comma printed on a sheet of colored paper. Her skull, small like that of a cat, seemed to serve as a symbol of her peculiar identity. I could not rid myself of the impression that she was capricious and no-good. If I had been a bit more drunken, I might have seized her two feet in one hand, whirled her around my head and hurled her from my tenth-floor room.
    When I woke, covered by a single blanket and shivering with the cold, Su-rim had vanished. I crept under the empty quilt. The quilt smelt like a homeless vagabond, but from the pillow rose a heady, fruit-scented perfume. It was the scent of the mousse Su-rim applied like resin to her hair. I quickly turned the pillow over and fell asleep. While I was still asleep, I sensed someone come in. There was the clear sound of someone moving stealthily about the room. I leaped to my feet. As the air shifted in response to my violent movement I detected an appetizing smell of food.
    "Are you awake?"
    Something like a little black goblin leaped out from the gap between the bookshelves, making me jump.
    "Haven't you gone yet?"
    "I told you to use familiar style language. I went down to the store. You want something to eat?"
    "I think it'll be hard for me to eat anything yet."
    "Then go back to sleep, Yeon-hui."
    I felt helpless. Why did she not seem to have any thought of going home? Borrowing strength from my hangover, I went back to sleep again. Some time later Su-rim shook me awake.
    "If you sleep any longer your stomach'll go sour and that's not good for you. Try to eat, even if it's just a spoonful."
    I got up reluctantly. She had tidied the room that had been in such a mess from our all-night revels. On the dining table, that until daybreak had been a drinking table, stood a bowl of rice gruel sprinkled with sesame seed and powdered seaweed and a dish with chopped kimchi. Oddly, there was only a single set of spoon and chopsticks.
    "Won't you eat with me?"
    I was still using polite forms of speech.
    "I told you, use familiar style. I can't eat aything."
    "You mean you've made this for my sake?"
    I asked vaguely.
    "It's not like that. I don't like meat so I was going to make some vegetable gruel. But now I think about it, I'll be better off not eating."
    "My stomach's in a no-good state, too, yet you want me to eat? In that case, you should eat with me."
    "No, my stomach's fine."
    "Then why?"
    "I have a reason for not eating."
    Su-rim smiled as if to suggest she was in deep trouble; it looked like one of those bad habits women have who want to seem mysterious. Perhaps because she had just washed it, the tips of her hair were slightly moist. I had no choice but to finish a serving of gruel, then she asked if she should make some coffee. I told her to leave it. I still had no idea when she intended to leave. After I had drunk a glass of water and smoked a cigarette, she pursed her lips and out of the blue asked;
    "Lend me three hundred thousand won, Yeon-hui."
    "Three hundred thousand? But . . . . I don't have any money now."
    "You only have to go to the bank and use your card, then let me have that."
    My head reeled at her self-assured demand. Three hundred thousand won for a bowl of gruel?
    "Just now, on my way to the store, I dropped in at a pharmacy. Once I was back I did the test and it's as I thought. I really don't know why I have such bad luck. It looks as though it must be the eighth week."
    I found it impossible to believe that some kind of other life was breathing and growing inside her dry little body.
    "I intend to get rid of it now, rather than go on worrying, That's why I'm not eating anything. I'll repay you as soon as I get it from him. I've phoned but he's not answering."

    It was not only a matter of lending her the money, I was obliged to go to the hospital with her, bring her back to my room after the operation and let her sleep, then once she was awake I had to hear about the whole wonderful love affair, that she poured out in a flood of tears, during which she had twice got pregnant. While I became privy to a whole set of secrets I did not want, I was obliged to put up with her as she hung around until nine that evening.
    "I shouldn't drink, should I? I might get an infection. But Yeon-hui, I really need a drink. I don't hate the guy. I can't stand condoms, that's the problem, it's not the Editor-in-Chief's fault. Once you know him, you realize he's really a pitiful fellow. You must know that, too, Yeon-hui."
    She spoke those words courageously as she was on her way out of the door, and I was so glad to see her going that I had no time to be surprised on realizing that that pitiful fellow was none other than Ju with his dreams of being a condom designer. I simply nodded energetically to show my agreement. After seeing her off, I wandered around the room for a while, then, although there was no necessity, I put on a coat, wrote 'Refused' on a set of new-year cards sent by handicapped artists, already a month out-of-date, and went out to put that in the mailbox. I just had to do something unkind, I could not endure it otherwise. On the way back after tossing the set of cards into the mailbox I entered a noisy beerhouse, ordered a liter of beer without any snacks and downed it in three or four gulps. I deliberately staggered as I wandered the streets singing through my nose before returning to my room that seemed to be a metaphor for my small, messy soul. The moment I opened the door, the air emerging between the bookcases was thick with the usual, hard-to-take smell. Just then the telephone bell rang like a kind of signal.
    "Wow, I thought I was going to die. I slept all day. I woke up a while ago and went to eat some clam porridge with my wife as she was coming home, now I'm back. Have you had something to eat? Ah yes, did Su-rim leave in the morning? She usually can't sleep a wink in other people's homes, you know. You wouldn't believe how sensitive her nerves are. How do you find her? She's fun, right?"
    I gave a thin nasal laugh. I felt like saying something sarcastic imitating his particular style of speaking, to the effect that I had thought she was a no-good woman, and on getting to know her I found she really was a no-good woman. After hanging up, I pulled out all the poetry books that Su-rim had put back in the wrong order thinking she was tidying up and quietly rearranged them in an order corresponding to my ideas. I was putting the last volume back when I suddenly felt that I was being immoral toward myself. Perhaps my feeling was similar to the feeling he had had when he said that he felt his whole attitude was fearful. Something struck me hard as it passed. Or perhaps I had struck it hard. Something sensitive like a festering sore, something I believed I had abandoned long ago, but that had burst in some cranny and was discharging a fluid, something that filled my mouth with viscous bitterness and made me frown, something that flinched and twisted as soon as it was touched. I rested my forehead on one of the white shelves of the bookcase and wept. As I wept, I reflected that without the freshness descending on the back of my head, what on earth would this being I called 'me' be? What was I?  What was I?

Perhaps it was a butterfly.
When his wife came to visit me, I was wearing working gloves, tying up boxes of books with twine that I would twist into ornamental knots like ribbon then cut with scissors. The white plastic bookcases were emptying shelf by shelf. I was just thinking that I wanted to visit the vast display counters and wide corridors of the discount store one last time before I left the new town.
    "You're moving out? Without a word to anyone?"
    His wife looked at me as she asked, without displaying any great surprise or blame. I had not yet packed the kitchen things and I was able to boil water in the kettle so we could drink some coffee.
    "He's pitiful, yes, I know that. But still . . . ."
    I intuitively knew what she was talking about. I remembered hearing something of the kind from Su-rim herself. Finally, she added as though putting a stamp on things:
    "We've decided to get divorced. It's what he wants."
    I adopted a resigned expression. I considered their decision to be something I could not change. Without saying anything, I nodded at this aging woman who was still his wife. An ashen shadow like the fatigue of a warrior at sunset lay over her brow. She stubbed out her less than half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray and simply asked:
    "Is your fiancé still in Mongolia?"
    Unsure of her intentions, my expression hardened.
    "It seems he's going to India."
    I curtly sent my imaginary sweetheart off to India.
    "India? India, of all places."
    Again, she added that ambiguous 'of all places.' But I did not ask her if she knew someone in India. We stayed sitting in silence for a moment. Suddenly a fit of curiosity flashed into my mind.
    "By the way, you remember that fish broiled in soy sauce?"
    "I wonder, did you add curry powder?"
    "Curry powder?"
    Her lips curled upward in a strange smile.
    "It's not curry powder."
    She did not look inclined to tell me the secret of her broiled fish. Such stinginess was not like her. Perhaps it was her heart wanting to put what had happened in the summer and autumn of the previous year then through the winter and this year's spring in parentheses. I was the same. One such period of total idleness and silence and smells was quite enough. Anyway, she said it wasn't curry powder. Then what was it? Pepper? Bay leaves? But I could not ask anything more.
    As she stood up after finishing her coffee, her gaze shifted about anxiously. In the entrance, as she stirred with the toe of her shoe the bits of twine that were lying about she raised her head and for the first time addressed me using familiar style language:
    "Was I so docile, to you others?"
    I intended to offer some kind of excuse but my throat clamped shut with tension, it was as though the roots of my tongue were being cut in two, and I could not speak a word on account of the pain. Finally the roots of my tongue burst open like a cocoon and two flapping wings emerged. The two tongues wound round one another and tangled together like ribbons. Words came bursting forth, there was no telling if they came from her or from me. Our shoulders rose and fell on account of our madly beating hearts. Like the day in childhood when we first learned the words prick and pussy and merely kept repeating them over and over again mentally, the words poured out fresh and clear.
    Wicked creature. Vulgar scum. Birdbrain, thinking of nothing but doing that, day and night. You cheap, shameless hussy, with men that's all you're capable of doing, with women that's all you're capable of talking about, sticking your mouth up there, down there. Have you ever really beaten your breast and cried? Have you ever cursed life until your lips turn pale, not because of a man or a broken heart but because of your own insignificance, your own stupidity, your own incorrigible wickedness? Have you ever sunk to the very bottom and felt intensely that you have nothing left but death, that dreadful emptiness? Have you ever lived the life of a corpse where opening your eyes each morning is hell? Have you ever had a notion of the desolate sorrow where you cannot live and cannot die without that? Surely not. There's no reason why you should. You, you just go about treating that one special hole and the skin around it like some kind of sacred relic; you, the only thing you're capable of is taking good care of your body then throwing it as food to the men like a pimp; with you, whether it's reading and writing poetry, or crying as you listen to jazz, or having a drink while you recall your student days as if you're squandering your savings, even your preferences, disliking or liking meat or fish, it's all done in order to make a really good impression on men; you've replaced the child's up-stretched arms begging: Hug me, just once, just once, with an up-stretched crotch begging: Do it, just once, just once; with you, you, there's no way.
    Once his wife had left I sat near the window smoking a cigarette. It was somewhat misty, that their apartment across the street could not be seen clearly. Was that a butterfly? Something fluttered past me. I opened the window and poked my head out. There was no sign of a pale fluttering object anywhere. In the flowerbeds of the officetel's parking area seen from the tenth floor, red roses stood like stab-wounds above a thick growth of dark green leaves. Plop! A raindrop fell on my nose. It was about the size of the drop of spittle that had leaped from Ju's lips as he made his impassioned speech. As on that occasion, I laughed as I wiped my nose and flinched. Rain had soaked the bright red palm of my cotton gloves, looking like blood. I realize that what I had been waiting for was not my boyfriend in Mongolia but some kind of dramatic closure. I had deceived his wife while addressing her affectionately as 'elder sister'. I had thrust my crotch at the watchful Ju. I had utterly despised Su-rim the sex fiend, yet I had always been so jealous of her. I had disclosed knowledge I did not have. Behind a pretext of isolation I had all the time been dreaming of a dirty complicity.
     By the time I resumed my packing, my tongue was stuck together neatly as before. In reality, I do not have two tongues in one mouth. As I tied the twine tightly in ribbon-style knots, I reflected that if the tongue really were double, if there really were a pair of divided desires allowing a moment's respite in which, even if it hurt, my tongue could stand on alternate feet like a pair of bear's feet when a bear dances on an iron griddle, my life would be very different from what it is now. I stood at a crossroads with half my thirtieth year gone and half remaining.

    Some years later I heard from an acquaintance that they had not divorced. They had been on their way back after visiting his original home, where there was a withered gingko tree, for some reason. Given his character, that put value on symbolic rituals, perhaps they had gone to announce their decision to divorce in front of his father's grave. On the expressway as they were driving back, one of their jeep's rear wheels came off, the vehicle crossed the central dividing line, made a complete turn and fell on its side. It was very strange. He was driving and he had a twisted arm; his wife who was in the passenger seat fainted briefly then recovered, and that was all. I gathered that the mechanics who arrived to tow the car away, and even the paramedics, looked slightly disappointed by their minor injuries. They underwent thorough examinations in two different hospitals but apart from a minute crack in his arm, there was nothing. I learned that they continued to live together in that new town and still have no children. That's really good, extremely fortunate, my relaxed tongue murmured again and again.♣