Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Deciding on our destination was her job. “This time, let’s go to the Plaza,” she said. I promptly turned on the computer. Booking was my job.
It was some four or more years ago that my wife first mentioned a hotel. When she said she wanted to spend the coming summer vacation in a downtown hotel, I chortled. What kind of vacation was that? Suggesting we go to a hotel in the very center of the town that I crossed every day on my way to and from work, rather than a resort in some nice vacation spot. What on earth were we going to do there?
But finally I went along with her proposal. On reflection, it was not something to be laughed at. Actually, since I have always been of the persuasion that the best kind of vacation consisted of dozing lazily at home during the day, watching repeats of premier league matches I had missed, going to some nearby hotel rather than a remote holiday resort was far less bother.
That was the start of our hotel outings, which became an annual event. The Sheraton Walkerhill, the Lotte Hotel, the Shilla, the Millennium Hilton . . . my wife never booked us at a hotel we had already stayed in. She rather enjoyed the process of deciding where we would go for our holiday this time. As I watched from the sidelines, I came to wonder if what she really wanted was not simply to spend vacations at a hotel, but to stay in this and that hotel far and wide until there were none left to conquer, like a master of martial arts moving about from one training school to another.
The difference in price between the lowest class of hotel room, the superior room, and the next class above, the deluxe room, was forty thousand won. The mouse pointer slid naturally toward the booking button of the deluxe room. My wife, who was standing behind me, laid a hand on my right shoulder.
“Do you know, you’ve changed?”
“What do you mean?”
I did not take my eyes off the monitor.
“You always used to complain. Asking what we were going to do in a hotel.”
Three hundred and twenty thousand won a day. With tax and service fee included I would have to pay nearly four hundred thousand won.
“Don’t you remember? You used to say that the cost of a hotel stay was the most wasteful thing in the world.”
Was that so? I suppose it was. Once you’ve seen what the hotel facilities are like, what the service is like, in the end you go there to sleep, surely? And sleeping is just the same no matter where you sleep, so that four or five years back I probably could not have seen why I should spend a small fortune to no purpose.
“You’re right. I used to say that.”
I nodded slowly.
“You know, what’s really wasteful . . . is not the cost of a hotel room.”
With that, I suddenly had the feeling I had grown very old.
In my twenties, I used to think the cost of a taxi ride was the most wasteful thing in the world. Until I came to Seoul to enter university, I had never once left my palm-sized hometown where a base taxi fare would take you anywhere, and I was appalled that in Seoul if you stayed out drinking until the buses had stopped running and went home by taxi it might cost a whopping twenty or thirty thousand won. Then if I decided to save the taxi fare by going on drinking until dawn, when the buses started running, the cost of the drinks would be more than the taxi fare. Yet I did not regret that. You still had what you’d drunk. But once I got a job and began to drive my own car, I could not help resenting paying for parking. Being asked to pay for doing nothing, just parking the car briefly, I used to feel was sheer robbery. When you drink, the drink stays inside you, and when you read a book, the book stays inside your head. But when you park briefly, there’s nothing left afterward, is there? With that illogical logic, I would willingly pay a hundred thousand won for drinks but be furious about paying ten thousand for parking.
And now I am suddenly in my mid-thirties. At present I no longer bother wondering what is most wasteful. But it certainly is not taxi fares, nor parking fees, and not hotel prices either. So what is it?
“Really, we should have gone there during the World Cup.”
Wondering what she was talking about, I glanced up at my wife.
“Then we could have looked straight down at City Hall Plaza crammed full of Red Devils.”
In front of City Hall? Hold on. What was the name of the hotel? I turned my eyes back to the screen. Right. I had failed to realize, even while I was booking, just where our destination was located. Seoul Plaza Hotel, that anyone passing near City Hall is bound to cast at least a glance at, rising majestically as though standing guard over Seoul Plaza across the road. I sniffed hard. I felt as though a fierce winter wind was blowing over the tip of my nose. The sound of a bell being rung beside a Salvation Army collection pot, drifting through the cold, bright air, echoed clearly in my ears.
The older students looked surprised. It was because three of us freshmen had turned up at the freshers’ orientation, which was not the same as the matriculation ceremony, wearing suits. The three of us had in common the fact of being newly arrived from the provinces. I was ashamed of having begun college acting like a bumpkin, but I squared my shoulders, confident that my suit was the most expensive. The suit Father had ordered for me on the day the university entrance results were announced, at the only tailor’s shop in our small town, had cost three hundred thousand won, even without a waistcoat. But what interested the older students was the suit one of the others was wearing.
“It’s an Armani. It looks genuine.”
“How much, then? Two million?”
Two million? What were they talking about?
“No, just over one million.”
It was only when I heard the reply that I understood they were discussing the price of his suit. To think that there existed such expensive clothes, that there were people wearing such clothes, and that there were people recognizing them. I was not so much dejected as dumbfounded. But the attitude of the students toward that son of a local worthy was unexpectedly cold. Some even went so far as to say openly that in such times of dark despair he should be ashamed of his luxury goods. Even though I had no idea what a time of dark despair was, or what luxury goods were, that was the first insight I gained as a university student.
Ah, what an amazing place Seoul is!
That was not the only amazing thing. In university we had no homeroom teacher, no pre-assigned class schedules. The freshmen went crowding into the computer room to register for their courses. Intent on exercising in the best way the right, acquired for the first time in my life, of choosing what courses I would take, I weighed which class would be interesting, taking my time to compare each course’s goal and outline. But then, on looking around, I was surprised to find there were only three of us left in the computer room. We were all wearing suits. Upon enquiring, it appeared that unless one registered quickly the class quotas would be full, so everyone had finished in a flash and gone off for lunch. In the end we in the suits registered for any course at random and barely managed to reach nineteen credits. Since there were thirty freshmen and the quota for each class was thirty, I was unable to understand why registration was impossible for lack of room unless one registered quickly, but on seeing intellectual-looking course titles such as Introduction to Philosophy or Basic Humanities, we flattered ourselves that we had become intellectuals.
The freshmen who reached the student cafeteria first had put several tables together in a row and were eating facing each other. I sat down at one end. Looking around, I saw beside me a girl, in front of me too was a girl. I had attended middle and high schools where all the students were boys, all the teachers men, so that for the past six years I had never once been within one meter of a woman. Unable to raise my head to make eye contact, not knowing if the soup was salty or the rice properly cooked, while nobody said anything and the noise of chopsticks clashing together hovered over the table, I furtively added the sound of my chopsticks to the rest. Then the girl in front of me spoke:
“Hey, everyone, don’t eat the bean sprouts. They’ve gone bad.”
I had just picked up a clump of seasoned bean sprouts with my chopsticks and was stuffing them into my mouth. Our eyes met. I reckoned that I should say something.
“Oh, I don’t know. They seem okay.”
I was not meaning to support my words but without thinking I gulped down what I had in my mouth. With that, from all sides voices rose: They taste odd; I knew they were bad from the start; I took one mouthful and spat it out. Damnation!
“Is this the first time you’ve eaten bean sprouts?”
She spoke primly, but she was laughing. Suddenly all the strength went out of the hand holding the chopsticks. It was the first time I had ever seen a girl’s laughing face so close up. Her face was the size of a fist. Her skin was white, her eyes black, her lips red. Like Snow White, in other words. What a pretty girl, and here she was sitting across from me. So it was that I met Yun-seo, laughing at a bum who had worn a suit to freshman orientation, a half-wit who had made a mess of class registration, an idiot who could not tell when bean sprouts had gone bad.
She was twenty-one, having repeated her university entrance exams. Since my birthday was early, I entered primary school when I was only seven, so I was nineteen when we met. Still, since we were beginning school in the same year, she said we should use the familiar form of address. Yun-seo-ya. Yun-seo-ya. Every time I called out her name, I had the feeling I had gained a small bonanza, like extra cash. But chances of that kind of bonanza were few and far between. Yun-seo often skipped classes. If I looked for her, she was all the time sitting in the department meeting room or hanging out at a bar in front of the school. Twenty-one-year-old men, repeat students like her, were always loitering round her. Because of them, and the way they treated us younger fellow students like children as if they alone were adults, it was not easy for me to get near Yun-seo.
Look, you guys, I didn’t repeat. And what’s so great about repeating?
Unable to say anything in their presence, I could only kick an innocent roadside pebble.
Spring days went flashing by without my knowing where they had gone. After poking my nose into this student club and that, I finally joined none of them while Yun-seo, who I had assumed would be interested in none, became a producer in the school’s radio station. Whenever I happened to hear a broadcast coming from the speakers on campus, I used to stand there with my eyes closed. It was not her voice coming out but when I thought that Yun-seo had written the text the announcer was reading, I imagined her face floating behind the words emerging from the speakers. Once, when I saw Yun-seo after listening in that way I made a great fuss about how good the program was, how fresh her commentaries, how outstanding the selection of songs, I must have sounded like a devoted listener so she could not be blamed for offering me a chance to appear as a guest.
“On the program? Me? How?”
“Just ten minutes. It’s all recorded, there’s nothing to worry about. Please.”
As part of a recent reorganization, she explained, they had been planning to include a conversation corner with schoolmates once a week, in order to get closer to them. How could I ever say no to any request from her? From that day on I consumed one raw egg a day to clear my voice. I endured agony trying to decide whether my request song should be Kim Gun-mo’s “Meeting Gone Wrong,” Lula’s “The Angel Who Lost Wings,” or R.ef’s “Formula for Parting.” On the day of the recording, I made sure to arrive ten minutes early for the recording session.
Only the segment where I appeared was totally edited out; not one second got broadcast. I could understand. Having gone there feeling I was off to a picnic, I was asked questions about the founding of the World Trade Organization, the irregular ownership succession practices of conglomerates, the liberalization of private academies — in short, questions about the age of dark despair — and grew so flustered that anyone would have thought I was mentally defective. Worse still, the guy they called the manager, who looked old enough to be a professor, would click his tongue at me with a pitying expression, as one would at a broken bowl. Instead of my request song, they played Nochatsa’s “Dry Leaf Come Back to Life.”
I ask you! How can a dry leaf come back to life? Is it Jesus?
As I listened to the broadcast, I once again kicked a guiltless roadside pebble.
The next day, Yun-seo came to apologize for not having let me know the topics for the program in advance and I got her to agree to a date, so the broadcast that ended in a fiasco turned out to be a harbinger of good things to come. After eating a pork cutlet and drinking a glass of draft beer in Myeong-dong, we decided to take a stroll. Yun-seo skillfully led the way out of Myeong-dong’s complicated network of alleys. The mere sight of streets lined with stores bearing the names of famous fashion brands, such as Get Used, Nix, Boy London, was a pleasure. High-rise buildings, fancy shop windows, strolling groups of young men and women. Every step I took was a new world. Back home, a street I walked along would look the same ten minutes before or ten minutes after; here, it seemed to change every minute. We passed the subway station at the head of Euljiro street and walked on in the direction of City Hall. That there was nowhere a familiar face to be seen was fascinating, too.
Ah, Seoul is really amazing.
Once again I was shouting to myself. And more than anything else, the way this moment, this world belonged entirely to Yun-seo and me alone was so exciting, I could not stop joking and chattering. She laughed as she listened to me relating humble memories about how I had won an anti-communist speech contest in middle school, then gone camping in high school and caught snakes barehanded. But perhaps inside herself she was thinking of other things, for the moment I paused, out of the blue she said,
“I’ve always wanted to go in there once.”
Though I felt hurt that she had changed the subject, my curiosity was aroused. Her finger was pointing in the direction of a tall building that rose beyond the fountain in the middle of traffic in front of City Hall. At the very top, on the left-hand side, a floodlit sign sparkled golden: SEOUL PLAZA HOTEL.
The room was at the end of the corridor on the sixteenth floor. As soon as the door opened, our eyes were struck by the floor-to-ceiling plate glass window. Either because the glass was tinted or because of the rain outside, the sky had an unreal purple hue, like in a sepia-toned photo. Without even waiting to change into slippers, my wife went to the window and exclaimed:
“Why, from here we can see Deoksu Palace!”
While she was gazing at Deoksu Palace, I looked around the room. On the whole, the structure, furniture and fittings were not particularly different from other hotels we had been in. I perched on the bed. The mirror on the dressing table on the opposite side reflected the face of an office worker on the first day of his vacation. It was a face that looked as though it knew very well that the hours to be spent in this place would be less interesting and rewarding than catching up with the episodes of the “Prison Break” series missed because of being too busy recently.
No wonder. Vacations spent in hotels were always predictably similar. You check in. You eat in the hotel restaurant. You have a drink in the sky lounge bar. You go back to the room, have sex, then sleep. That was it. The next day, since you had to leave the room, you simply kicked back at the spa, then visited the fitness club or the swimming pool. As a result, none of the vacations had left me with any special memories. The hotels we had visited last year or the year before were all as alike as the eggs in a refrigerator.
The mattress was well-sprung. The sheets were fluffy and smelled like towels that had been dried in the sun. I stretched out. Air sufficiently cooled by air conditioning settled pleasingly over my face and arms. I shut my eyes. The perfect temperature, perfect humidity, perfect cleanliness, perfect service, a feeling of being perfectly pampered. Surely it’s because we like that feeling of perfection that we keep visiting hotels? Isn’t that the blessing of capitalism, to pay money and buy perfection?
My wife was arranging her possessions on the dressing table. Unlike the woman who used to wrap her luggage in bundles like a peddler even for just a single night’s outing, this time she seemed to have packed only a few cosmetics. One of the things which amazed me most after I got married was just how many women’s cosmetics there were. I had not realized they could be divided into various categories. Toner, lotion, and cream. I knew that much. Essence and serum I could understand. But that was not all. Eye cream, neck cream, hand cream, foot cream, body cream, lip cream, and so on; before the endless proliferation of species of cosmetics the human body was dissolved and segmented. Neck or hand or foot are all parts of one body, yet so divided up into different categories that you have the impression it would be a disaster to apply foot cream to the neck. When I heard that color cosmetics were distinct from basic cosmetics, I had to throw up my hands, not wanting to know anything more.
It was the same with household goods. What with humidifiers and air-conditioners and heaters and air purifiers, water purifiers, lint removers, food waste driers and dishwashers, bidets and toothbrush sterilizers, necessary items only multiplied more and more. Things you could perfectly well live without changed into things you should have or absolutely had to have. Insofar as it was a chance to get away from such things, coming to stay in a hotel was a real vacation.
What made me open my eyes again was the way everything was so quiet. I could see my wife’s back. She seemed to have finished arranging the dressing table and was looking out of the window again with folded arms.
“What are you looking at like that?”
I sat up. My wife was looking down toward the main gate of Deoksu Palace.
“I was remembering Roh Mu-hyun. That’s where the memorial altar was, isn’t it?”
It had been only a few months before. All day, the death of former president Roh Mu-hyun had been dominating the news, online and off, and that day my wife did not come home even late in the evening. She had not answered her phone all through the day. Then I saw her on the 9 p.m. TV news. She was standing in the long line of mourners stretching all the way along the walls of Deoksu Palace, holding a white chrysanthemum. Seen in a close-up, her eyes brimming with tears, she somehow looked not so much sad as weary. I later heard that she had queued for five hours to pay her respects. She must have been tired.
I pulled my cigarettes from my trouser pocket. I could not find my lighter. Yet I was sure I had brought it with me as we left home. Perhaps I had put it in my bag instead of my pocket?
“Do you know where my lighter is?”
My wife scowled at me and began to rummage through the bags packed away in one corner. The sky stretching outside the window sixteen floors above ground level was still purple. On the sidewalks far below varicolored umbrellas met and parted. Unexpectedly, black umbrellas were the most common. Perhaps the rain was letting up. I noticed one group of people lingering at the entrance to the plaza without umbrellas. They were all dressed in black.
“I can’t find it. What about asking the front desk to send up some matches?”
“Oh, all right. That will do.”
My wife moved toward the phone. Over her shoulder I could see Taepyeongno Street extending all the way from City Hall to Gwanghwamun Gate. The accustomed buildings, familiar streets, scenes that I could see even with my eyes shut. I pulled an umbrella out of my bag.
“No, I’ll go out and buy one. Stretch my legs at the same time.”
My wife put down the receiver, looking pleased.
“Good. And buy me an iced Americano on your way back.”
Just then the time on the bedside clock moved from 17:14 to 17:15.
The crosswalk in front of the hotel. A tour bus that had missed the signal was awkwardly parked across it. I could see the passengers dozing, their heads leaning against the windows. I wonder when I started feeling that everybody always looks weary. Why? I opened the umbrella. The rain had slackened, but not enough to walk about bareheaded. I examined the buildings beside Deoksu Palace and in the direction of Euljiro. Not one of the convenience stores you keep tripping over at any other time could be seen. I reckoned I had better look round the back of the hotel. As I walked, I glanced idly at the buses full of weary passengers. Behind there is City Hall, the subway station, the intersection, the fountain . . . and somewhere it seemed there must be Yun-seo and me.
After that first date the two of us spent time together on one other occasion. It was in May, at a demonstration demanding the truth about the violent suppression of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. I was attending it reluctantly at the insistent urging of an older member of the student association who had been kind to me. Mingling with the crowd, until we went out through the school gate I was not very impressed. But as we reached Myeong-dong I began to gape. The demonstration had grown into a huge crowd, as though all the students in Seoul were gathered there. Along the way I had intended to slip away unnoticed but we were so tightly packed in a scrum that it was not easy. After several attempts I finally succeeded in leaving the crowd. I had just set foot on the sidewalk thronged with citizens watching the demonstration when suddenly, from behind me a great roar arose. I looked back toward the roadway where I had been sitting only a short while ago. Far away, at the front of the crowd, a life-sized straw effigy of Chun Doo-hwan had appeared. Someone shouted that they were going to burn the wicked murderer at the stake. Cold sweat was running down my spine. The onlookers, intent on seeing more clearly, were jostling for a better view and standing on tiptoe.
I forced my way through the crowd, heading for the nearest subway station. My only thought was to wash my sweat-soaked body. Then, as I reached the back of the demonstration, I noticed a familiar face. It was that manager of the broadcasting system, who looked old enough to be a professor, together with two students carrying cameras, and one female student standing beside them.
“Yun-seo! Lee Yun-seo!”
She turned to look at me, tear gas grenades exploded, the riot police charged, the scrum collapsed, screams rang out. I do not know which came first. When I came to my senses I was holding Yun-seo’s hand and we were running like mad. When we stopped with shaking legs, unable to run any further, we were in front of the blood donation center. Gasping for breath, we blindly dived inside. “Come in. Welcome.” A gently smiling nurse greeted us. Inside it was snug and peaceful, totally unlike what lay outside. Seoul was really amazing.
We were both told we could not donate blood. There was no way our blood pressures could be normal just after running like mad. Yun-seo’s blood type was A, mine was O. The combination of an A-type girl and an O-type boy is supposed to be so good. My face flushed hot at the very thought. Yun-seo said nothing. She merely wiped away a drop of blood from the tip of her index finger with an alcohol swab. Then she asked,
“Later, once we’re older, will we be like those citizens back there?”
“What do you mean? What about those citizens?”
“Will we end up just looking on calmly, saying, ‘I took part in demos a bit back in the old days’?”
“No way! There can’t be people who think like that.”
“No, I heard that just now. Some middle-aged guy said that. Young students think they know, then after they graduate they go out into society and forget it all, so why do they keep demonstrating? All they do is snarl the traffic; the world doesn’t change.”
Looking troubled, Yun-seo threw the bloody swab into the trashcan. I ripped open the wrapping of a choco-pie that was on the table and asked:
“That guy, Chun Doo-hwan, could he really be killed?”
“He can’t really be killed. That’s why they burn a straw effigy instead.”
“What I mean is, suppose he could really be killed, what would you do?”
“I . . . couldn’t do it. How could I kill somebody?
“Right. How could you kill someone?”
Yun-seo picked up the choco-pie. The nurses did not drive out the two students who, in addition to pilfering snacks despite not having donated blood, were chattering about risky topics.
Again we walked to City Hall station. As we were passing the Bank of Korea, Yun-seo asked me, as if I were someone she was meeting for the first time, whether I found living in Seoul suited me. I realized that I had already been living in Seoul for three months. It was rather different from the fantasy I nourished when I was small, if I heard Cho Yong-pil singing “Seoul, Seoul, Seoul,” or Lee Yong’s “Our Seoul,” but still it was not so bad. Yun-seo said she was born in Seoul.
“I hate it here. There are too many people, it’s too noisy. There’s nothing in the streets but apartment blocks that all look alike and the air is bad. By night it’s so light I can’t get to sleep.”
I rather liked it because of the many people and the noise. I found it exciting. No matter where you went in Seoul no two places were the same, and if you tried it was possible to plan 365 different dating courses for 365 days in a year. And because it was light at night, it made me feel less lonely. But there was no need for me to express an opinion contrary to Yun-seo’s. Rather, when it came to Yun-seo I preferred to be persuaded about everything as she wished. The side of Plaza Hotel could be seen in the distance.
“Why did you say the other day that you wanted to go there?”
Her expression grew serious.
“For one, twenty years ago I was an orphan, abandoned by my parents and adopted overseas . . . “
“Of course not. It’s just a thought.”
Her voice was low. The fact that we had been running through streets in Myeong-dong full of tear gas fog felt very remote. There were no stars in the sky, no flowers on the ground, yet I was thinking how good it would be if this walk with her along nighttime streets would never end.
“Once I turned twenty, I visited my homeland for the first time. I had come to meet my birth parents. So I stayed at the Plaza Hotel. It’s symbolic by being in the very center of Seoul. It’s right in front of City Hall and close to Point Zero. Anyway, on the evening before I was due to meet my parents, I was plunged in thought as I looked down at the capital of my native land.”
Yun-seo stopped and looked up at the sky.
“So, is that the end?”
“Yes. I was curious what that would feel like, so I wanted to go and see.”
“But that’s just a notion. You’re not an orphan.”
“In a situation like that, the Seoul being gazed at would be incredibly unfamiliar and new. Like some place I had never seen. Not the familiar native land I have suffered and lived in for twenty years but a fascinating foreign land seen for the first time, a cold-hearted city that had rejected me. I wanted to see that.”
I slowed my pace; I wanted to help somehow. I wanted to grant her wish. How much would a night in the Plaza Hotel cost? Not so easy; it looked expensive. It would be okay if I could find the money. I cleared my throat.
“What are you doing for Christmas?”
She burst out laughing. Christmas was still seven months away. I did not laugh. I slowly clenched then unclenched my fists. My palms were damp with sweat.
“If you’re doing nothing special . . . will you join me then?”
For me, it had taken a lifetime’s courage. I felt as though I had just proposed marriage. The few seconds while I waited for her reply were appallingly long.
“Okay. Let’s do that.”
She smiled brightly. Just like in the student cafeteria that first day. I clenched my teeth to keep back a whoop of delight. I had kicked at a stone and it had gone flying far away.
The price of a disposable lighter was three hundred won. I hadn’t bought one for a really long time. To think that there are still things that cost only three hundred won. Even gum is five hundred won a pack. I looked down again at the transparent green lighter. Back when I was a student, it would have cost a hundred or so. Still, back then, the most wasteful thing in the world must have been the cost of the lighters that unavoidably I had to buy. Those were days when I frequently went to billiard halls and bars and there were times when the drawer in my desk held up to thirty varicolored disposable lighters I had picked up one by one in such places.
I went back toward the hotel. Now I had to buy an iced coffee. My wife had not specified any brand but she liked the Americano from Coffee Bean most of all. I recalled having once noticed a branch of Coffee Bean near the Seoul Finance Center. I stood below the traffic light, which was showing red.
On the far side of the crossing, I noticed some people dressed in black standing without umbrellas at the entrance to Seoul Plaza. They seemed to be the same people I had glimpsed from the hotel room window. At the head of the loosely formed line some women were standing. They were wearing mourning dress. Standing to the left of the women was a man whose face I seemed to have seen many times somewhere, either a politician or a social activist. Then behind them stood an old man with a bushy white beard wearing clerical garb, leaning on a walking stick. Despite the rain, the slogan on the banner the old man was holding up remained clear:
President! Apologize to the families of the dead! Resolve the Yongsan Tragedy!
The Yongsan tragedy? That was early in the year. Had it still not been settled, then? If I remembered that incident, where five evictees died — or was it six? several, anyway — it’s because I happened to pass the site with my wife that very evening. We were on our way to Ichon-dong, where her parents live. What with police buses, armed riot police and reporters camping out, traffic in the whole area round Sinyongsan station was completely blocked. Inside the car, my wife kept repeating, “Oh dear, oh dear.” There was no telling if she was referring to the Yongsan tragedy or the blocked traffic. That day we were more than an hour late reaching our destination.
The clock on the façade of City Hall marked 5:30. The women in mourning suddenly dropped to the ground. The man who looked like a politician and the white-bearded priest and the six or seven citizens beside and behind them did likewise. Three steps, then a prostration. Three more steps, then another prostration. A formal pilgrimage in Buddhist style.
The signal turned green. In a flash the sky seemed to judder and rain came pouring down. With that, strong gusts of wind came blowing. After crossing the street I stood struggling to straighten my umbrella that was being blown inside out. The rain was so heavy I could hardly see ahead. Someone offered raincoats to the women in mourning but they refused to take them. In the pouring rain without raincoats or umbrellas they made their way around the plaza, taking three steps, then making one prostration. They were few in number and those watching were few, too; it was a gloomy sight. I turned back halfway over the crossing. Coffee Bean was too far to go in this kind of rain. Besides, since my wife was not fussy about the choice of coffee, she would be fine with an Americano from the Dunkin Donuts beside Deoksu Palace.
Water was dripping from my soaked sleeves and trouser bottoms. The attentive doorman smiled as he handed me a dry towel.
Too embarrassed to explain that I was not Japanese, I replied as I handed back the towel,
He could surely not imagine that in the vacation season a Korean man could be spending his vacation in a hotel at the center of Seoul. I suppose I might be taken for a Korean who had come up to Seoul from a provincial workplace, but with my palm-tree-patterned shirt, my shorts and my leather sandals on bare feet, it was nine times out of ten more likely to mistake me for a Japanese tourist.
The moment I entered the hotel lobby, a feeling of comfort surrounded me, like coming back home. Unlike the heat and humidity outside, which provoked an Ugh, here it was cool and comfortable enough to bring forth an Ahh. The doors of the elevator closed. Once alone, I breathed out idly. It was only as I got out on the sixteenth floor that I realized I was no longer holding the iced coffee. I had put it down briefly in the lobby while I was wiping the rain off with the towel and then forgot to bring it with me. I turned back toward the elevator. Too late. 15, 14, 13 . . . the illuminated numerals on the panel indicating which floor it was on were lighting up in descending order. I glared around. There was nobody in the corridor. I recalled a scene from a famous foreign movie I had watched one weekend on the television. In an empty hotel corridor a tubby man had charged full speed at the wall.
“I’ll show you just who I am!”
He cried. He struck the wall and passed straight through it. I stared at the wall in front of me just as I had stared at the hole through which the man had passed. More exactly, at the table placed in front of it. Or even more precisely, at the telephone lying on the table. If I picked up the receiver I knew what would emerge. Something I had heard once before, long ago. “Thank you. What can I do for you?” It would be something of that kind, but at the time I was completely incapable of understanding the fluent Japanese of the employee on the front desk at the other end of the line. That had been just as well. I had not wanted to talk, but simply reassure myself that I was not the only person in the world.
The temperature had fallen sharply that day. There were six or seven people like me waiting for someone in front of City Hall. My hands were numb, I was shivering, my teeth were chattering. Still I could not help giggling. It was my nineteenth Christmas. Soon a girl for whom it was the twenty-first Christmas would arrive. How long and how painstakingly I had prepared for this moment. The appearance of Seoul by night as I waited for the person I liked was amazingly cold and bright and beautiful. As they passed, pedestrians put money into the Salvation Army collection pot positioned on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. The sound of the hand bell being rung by a man in uniform spread limpidly through the chilly December air.
“I’ve booked a room in Plaza Hotel for you.”
Such was the Christmas present with which I was going to surprise Yun-seo. Of course, that implied that I was going to go into the hotel with her but there was no other meaning. To say that I did not want to lay a finger on her would have been a lie, but that was not what I really wanted. In that hotel room I wanted her to experience the feelings of an orphan visiting her homeland for the first time in twenty years and to long remember the sight of an unfamiliar Seoul reflected in her eyes
It was thirty minutes after the appointed time. I phoned her home. In those days there were no mobiles or pagers and as I phoned from a public phone booth I kept looking back, afraid that Yun-seo would come and we would miss each other. An hour went by. Still nobody answered the phone. Another thirty minutes passed. Finally her mother answered the phone. She said that Yun-seo had already gone out at lunchtime to meet up with her friends. She had completely forgotten her promise to me. I plodded toward the hotel. I wonder why I did not even think that I could still cancel the reservation.
Seoul seen by night from the window of a room on the sixteenth floor. Cars with their headlights shining were speeding to and fro along Taepyeongno street, that stretched from City Hall Plaza to Gwanghwamun Gate. Most of the cars were white. Having been stood up by the person I liked, the nighttime Seoul I gazed down at was still cold and bright and beautiful. And lonely. So I spent the night I had purchased with the money I had earned through many odd jobs in the course of seven months. I never told anyone about what happened that night: that I had been alone in a hotel room; that I had kept looking out of the window until at last I fell asleep; that waking early, suddenly feeling lonely, sad, desolate like an orphan returning to his homeland for the first time, I had lingered in the corridor; that there I had discovered the telephone placed on a table beside the elevator and listened to the voice of the employee at the front desk.
Later, I told Yun-seo how I had waited for her shivering in front of City Hall but did not mention the hotel. I wanted to keep the memory of that night to myself. Supposing I had told her, she might not have believed me. In those days, the price of one night in the hotel was a sum equivalent to three months’ rent for my student lodgings.
I wonder if she would believe me now, more than ten years later. Would she even remember things from back then? Could I prove that I am the same I as then, that we are just the same we as then?
I reflected that, as I handed over the iced coffee I would go and buy and bring back through the rain, I ought to mention it to my wife. It did not matter if she did not believe me. Nor would it matter if she did not remember. It was not really important. This was only the first day of our vacation, so there were still several more days left.