Pink Ribbon Days
by Gwon Yeo-seon
Translated by Brother Anthony of
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
"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
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.
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
"I had some fried
"I quite like
gingko nuts, but are they much used in Chinese cooking? This is cheese
colored . . ."
"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.
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
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
"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."
weather's turned cool, what about having a glass of sake with an
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"Why is you voice
sounding like that? Are you sick?"
"You haven't had
supper, have you?
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
"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
"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
"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,
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
At her insolent
reply, I looked at him.
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
"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.
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.
He seemed beside
himself with delight.
"I hate people
with artificial teeth more than anything, Mr. Editor-in-Chief."
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
"I told you to use
familiar style language. I went down to the store. You want something
"I think it'll be
hard for me to eat anything yet."
"Then go back to
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
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
"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."
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.
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,
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
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.
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
"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:
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
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?"
Her lips curled
upward in a strange smile.
"It's not curry
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.
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.♣