Sampung Department Store

by Jeong I-Hyeon

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

Published in Koreana: Korean Art & Culture (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 22, No.2 Summer 2008  pages 88 - 99  (See Introduction)

At 5:55pm on June 29, 1995, the Sampung department store, located in Seocho-dong in southern Seoul, collapsed without warning. It took less than one second for each floor to collapse onto the one below.

    In the spring that year I possessed a lot of things: mildly right-wing parents, a clean, super-single sized bed, a translucent green Motorola pager, and four handbags. On weekend evenings I went out with a boyfriend who had recently begun to work for a securities company. Our dates followed exactly the directions found in “Dating Manual for Model Exchanges with the Opposite Sex,” though I have not checked if such a book actually exists. I was quite convinced that I could become anything I wanted if I put my mind to it, only there was nothing that I wanted to be. The fact that we were still barely half-way through the 1990s perplexed me intensely. I was poised to say, ‘Well that was a beautiful year, wasn’t it?’ But on second thoughts I felt irresponsible, as if I had become one of those telephone-marketing agents who dial numbers at random and urge people to invest in real estate. At least, I resolved to remember to say that 1995 had been special in some way.

I had embarked upon regular education some twenty years before 1995. My mother, who nourished optimistic expectations regarding the education our country provided for small children, seized her barely four-year-old daughter’s hand and went along to visit the local nursery school. It was the place with the highest reputation in the neighborhood. The directress, butterfly-shaped horn-rimmed glasses perched on the tip of her nose, scrutinized my face carefully. ‘Why, she still looks like a baby.’ Mother’s feelings were hurt. ‘You think so? But she’s much more forward than she looks.’ I had no wish to disappoint my mother, so I kept my lips shut tight as a clam and focused all my energy into making my eyes shine. I still do the same thing, sometimes, when I want to protect myself from an adult I am meeting for the first time. As the directress agreed to take me, she uttered the following curse: ‘It’s time now to start learning about the order of life in the community.’ The mighty order of life in the community! Waking from the same dreams, shouldering the same kind of book bag, arriving at school at the same time, learning the same songs and actions, then eating the same snack menu.
    Four years old. Lateness was systematic. I was completely unable to understand why day after day I had to be forcibly wakened from sweet morning sleep by someone else. I could not accept it. Every morning mother was obliged to pick me up and go running down the alley with me on her back. Our home-help Suk-ja, who in those days worshipped the celebrity Nam Jin, ran along with us, supporting my behind with her hand. The class teacher expressed curiosity about the reason for my repeated lateness. ‘It’s not my fault, Miss. I get up as soon as the round sun rises. That’s what you taught us, isn’t it, Miss? ‘The round sun rises.’ Getting up, first I brushed my teeth, brushing my upper teeth and my lower teeth, washed my face and combed my hair before I got dressed; then I was ready for the next step, having breakfast. But, oh no, I found that mother and Suk-ja were still sound asleep. Nobody was making breakfast for me. You know, don’t you, Miss? I’m still only four. I’m much too young to prepare breakfast all on my own, aren’t I, Miss? So I woke mother, then waited for breakfast to be ready, ate it up, then set off, but I arrived late. As side dishes I had beans in soy sauce and fried dried anchovies, with seaweed soup, I like all those, Miss.’ Being legally responsible for a student who systematically arrived late for school, mother was summoned at once. She must have found it unfair, but she could not allow her daughter to be considered a failure, so mother told me she had promised that in future, come what may, she would get up before her daughter and have breakfast ready on time. Those were days when I only had to open my mouth for a flood of lies to come pouring out as if I were possessed.
    Unfortunately, my parents did not seem to take symptoms of social maladjustment, such as laziness or lying, very seriously. Rather, they very likely felt proud that my command of language was so far superior to that of other children on my age. That was especially true of my father, who was already thirty-five when his first child was born, very late for those days. His boast at his daughter’s first birthday celebration, when she managed to haul herself upright by holding on to the table, comparing her to the winner of the Olympic Marathon, was an example that remained in the memories of all the family members present at the party. Before I started school, if we had a visitor, father would summon me to the living room and make me read from the newspaper in a big voice. ‘Why, how has she mastered the alphabet so soon?’ When the visitor politely pretended to be amazed, he would modestly reply with another question: ‘Well, surely every child can do the same nowadays, can’t they?’ I shyly hid my mouth and laughed as befitted one who was ‘a prodigy, at least.’ My heart would race at the idea the guest might ask me what time it was now. Apart from the occasional Chinese characters, I could read the editorials in the morning paper quite clearly, but I was incapable of telling the time. The moment figures appeared, I suddenly used to grow dizzy like someone suffering from anemia, and the world would start to whirl about me. Likewise, for a long time I was unable to tell my left hand from my right, but that problem found a natural solution when, at the age of eight, I slashed my left wrist against a glass door.
    ‘If it had been just a fingernail’s width further up, it would have got the artery; she’s a lucky kid.’ The doctor in the neighborhood clinic, which provided a vast variety of treatments, from obstetrics and gynecology, through internal medicine, pediatrics and otorhinolaryngology to orthopedics, sewed my gaping skin together in a rough and ready manner. A long, jagged, slanting scar remained on my left wrist. ‘What ever will become of a girl with a thing like that on her body?’ Mother wept but I was happy as if I was flying. Now I no longer had to blush for shame and shoot furtive glances at my neighbor at the words, ‘Everyone raise their left hand!’ Now all I had to do was shoot up the hand with the scar on it. In later times, the scar produced by bad stitching used to enrage my friend’s boyfriend, who was a national representative for doctors specializing in orthopedics, but strange to say I never once felt ashamed of it. One day in the 1990s, in a fit of utter boredom, I even found out the length of the scar, using a tape measure; it was no less than eight centimeters long. That was about the same as the height of the platform shoes that were fashionable then. When I found myself confronted in the street with a woman wearing such shoes, a slight sense of affinity and an unexpected feeling of melancholy used to strike me.

    On June 29, 1995, the weather was stiflingly hot. At three minutes past five I entered Sampung Department Store through the front door. ‘We apologize to our customers for a failure in the store’s air-conditioning system. It will be repaired by tomorrow.’ The elevator girl spoke with a warm smile.

In the spring of that year, I was the proud owner of the email ID ‘myself,’ of twenty-four friends who were either university students, or on leave from university, or had already graduated, of the first three albums by Seotaeji, and of the latest model of the Le Mot 3 word-processor. In my desk drawer student cards issued by several well-known language institutes were rattling around. In the early 1990s, I had certainly spent far more time in English conversation institutes located near Gangnam subway station than on my university campus up in Seongbuk-gu. That was even more the case if time is not something absolute, but relative. I chose the nickname Sally for myself. My classmates in the conversation class asked if I’d taken it from the movie “When Harry met Sally” but actually it was adapted from the Japanese anime “Mahotsukai Sally.” So long as I did not have to be addressed with my real name, I felt it did not matter in the least if I was called Sally, Candy, Iraija, or even Pipi. It was the time when Jeong Hyeon-Cheol, transformed into Seotaeji, was at his height.
    1995 was the year I was ejected from the regular education system. Then as now, the fact that Seotaeji and I are the same age makes me feel proud and inferior at the same time. In March 1992 it was their first hit, ‘I know.’ In August 1994, they released ‘Dreaming of Balhae,’ ‘There’s one thing I hope for; when shall I be able to meet friends from this divided land? We lost each other as we hesitated.’ I suddenly came to my senses and realized that my last autumn in university was well advanced. ‘Now we’re going to turn into old women,’ one of my friends sighed. For some time since I had simply been watching her glistening lips. I was curious as to the brand of lipstick she was using. Someone in possession of a job and a boyfriend was a gold medallist, someone with neither was a wood medallist, for sure. Another friend cracked a cruel joke. According to her criteria, since at the same time as she was starting her final semester she had started work as an intern with a prestigious investment banking firm, and she had a boyfriend attending a national university, she was a laurel-crowned gold medallist. I could not get to sleep at night. For the past ten years, every time I applied for a part-time job I had written, without lying, that I was a ‘student.’ I had never once thought that, after graduating from high school, there might be a direction I could take other than becoming a university student or a student at a cram school before reapplying for a university the following year. It was no different now I was graduating from university. After an extensive internet search I visited the photographer who took the best ID photos in Seoul. Hoping to appear docile, reliable and sociable, I smiled at the camera and said ‘Whiskey.’ It was a method I had learned from a friend who had recently passed the exam to become an air-hostess for the national carrier. With my teeth half revealed, the corners of my mouth turning upward, it was hard to claim that the me on my curriculum vitae was not really me.
    I prepared ten copies of my personal statement on my word processor. ‘I am a solid individual.’ That was how I began the personal statement I submitted to a brick company. The statement for a stationary goods company started, ‘I have a pen made by your company beside me as I write. Then it went on: For your company, I will be like a pen, sacrificing myself when all the ink has run out.’ When it came to a company whose activities I could not in the least fathom, I wrote, ‘I was born of loving parents and grew up in an ordinary environment. I am eager to see my youthful dreams and passion ablaze in your company; please give me a chance.’ A call came from one company. It was a movie company. I could not remember what I had written in my self-introduction for them. It was only when I went for an interview that I realized why I had passed the initial screening.
    The movie company’s offices were at the top of a five-floor building with no elevator. Once past the office space, with old leather-covered sofas like those you find in estate agents’ offices, metal filing cabinets, and clustered office desks, an unexpectedly luxurious president’s office appeared. The president was a short, scrawny guy in his forties. He stared hard at my face. Have I got a spot under my eye? I’ll have to have that removed before I get married. Ah, yes, in case he asked which I would put first, marriage or a career, I resolved to reply that I figured for young women nowadays choosing between marriage and a career is no longer a problem but the question did not emerge. ‘Are you good at English?’ Ah, yes, whenever anyone had to check one of the boxes ‘good, medium, poor’ for their English ability, they always choose ‘good.’ But after all, I had graduated from the intensive English course at the Pagoda Institute. ‘Tell me now, are you any good at writing?’ The president’s tone suddenly became more familiar. I could not immediately grasp what he might mean by asking if I could write. I looked blank. ‘For goodness’ sake! I mean, when you were a kid, didn’t you ever take part in any kind of writing contest? English and writing skills, we’re looking for someone who possesses both.’ ‘Well, when I was in high school I did take a class in creative writing, and I won a prize once for some poems I’d written.’ I got that far, and began to feel extremely awkward.
    The president did not conceal his suspicions as he asked another question: ‘Okay, then what erotica made the strongest impression on you? Huh? You don’t know what erotica means? Men and women together, that kind of thing!’ ‘Ah, well, . . . ‘Nine Half Week’ and ‘Red Shoe Diary.’ The president started to smile. ‘Aha, now we’re getting somewhere.’ As the president explained at length what would be required of me if I joined the company, the implication was clearly that he wanted to hire me. ‘You’ve heard of cash-cow movies, haven’t you?’ Cash-cow movies? I had no idea, but did not dare shake my head. ‘Ultimately, our company’s aim is to import hitherto unknown art films from the Third World and introduce them to Korean audiences. At present we’re waiting for the right moment; soon specialized cinemas for art-movies will be opening. So what is most urgent first of all? Obviously, guaranteed funding. When it comes to doing business, you can’t always just go ahead and do what you want to do. There are times when you have to hold back, in order to see your dreams come true.’ After he had thus expressed in touching terms to his only job-seeker the dreams he cherished for a company engaged in importing porno movies, the president informed me that my job would be to review the draft translations of the imported movies, mostly adults-only porn which would be marketed as videos without ever going out into cinemas, smoothing them out and improving them. ‘It’s mostly groaning, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. You can start next week, can’t you? Huh? Why aren’t you saying anything?’ ‘Well, I need time to think.’ The president’s eyes widened. He took my voice full of diffidence for that of a village maid turning down an earl’s proposal. ‘Dear me, either still too young or not hungry enough yet.’ Taking the white envelope an employee held out, I left the office in some confusion. ‘Interview fee’ was written on it in large letters. It contained two stiff 10,000 Won notes. Is this normal? As I walked down the stairs from the fifth floor, I was invaded with a sense of regret that I was spurning the chance to work in such a respectable and conscientious company. I was a typically fickle kind of person then, as I still am now.

The Q-brand outlet is located at the far end of women’s clothing. I walked past slowly but my friend R was nowhere to be seen. Another employee in a pink uniform was idly tapping on the keys of the cash register. Maybe she had gone for a snack. She liked spicy noodles with half a boiled egg perched on top. She used to complain that they always left off the egg in the store’s employees’ restaurant.

My new friend.
Nobody knew about her; I had first met her that spring.

R and I were both graduates from the same high school. While we were at school we had almost never spoken. There was no particular reason. She was so quiet you never noticed if she was there or not. In our first year, we had been in the same class but our student numbers were not close, our height or our grades were not similar, we had no close mutual friends, either, and we took different roads to and from school. Our high school was located to the north of the Han River, but for the thirty per cent of the students who lived south of the river the school operated five buses. Less than thirty months after it had been included in the eighth school district, news came it had been assigned to another district for unavoidable reasons; the parents declared they could not accept that, there was a mass movement to register their children in other schools. In order to calm things down, the school was obliged to put on a show of good faith. ‘We undertake to ensure a safe journey to and from school.’ Of course, coming home proved more problematic than going to school. ‘To avoid unfortunate incidents, the students will be dropped off on their very doorsteps.’ The moment the evening study-time ended, I was obliged to go rushing in order not to miss the school bus home. I only learned much later that R’s home lay only twenty steps away from the school’s back gate. The moment we saw each other again, we recognized one another at once. That was in February 1995.
    It was a day about one week before the graduation ceremony. A phone call came from a friend S. ‘I’m in trouble! They demand that we come to work in formal dress.’ She had told me that the employees in her finance company wore uniforms – ‘Great, isn’t it? No clothing expenses!’ I could not think of any suitable reply. ‘Well, I don’t know. Surely wearing what you like is better than everyone being dressed the same?’ ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right. By the way, what are you wearing for graduation?’ ‘What? I don’t know. Anyway there’ll be the black gown covering everything, so how can anyone see what we’re wearing?’ ‘Oh, yeah. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go and buy some clothes. I’ll be going to Sampung.’ The department store where I agreed to meet her was five minutes from my home. As I sauntered between the apartment blocks, I fingered the pager in my coat pocket. I could not feel it vibrating otherwise. I was waiting for a final decision from a magazine specializing in beauty products and a company producing tailor-made kitchen furnishings. No other company had offered an interview fee, so I was feeling an odd nostalgia for that first movie company. One evening a few days back, drunk after a few glasses of beer, I had phoned the movie company instead of the first love I had just broken up with, and listened to the phone ringing for a full five minutes. It must be a really good company, they didn’t even work late. I could not believe that after one more week, I would be an independent person.
    S wanted to try on all the clothes that the mannequins in the women’s clothes section were displaying. One maker’s velvet one-piece did not really suit her, she being on the chubby side, but she bought it anyway. ‘Q-brand slacks are always nice.’ So we headed for the Q-brand outlet. And there was R, wearing a pink uniform. ‘Why, hello!’ R greeted me first. ‘Oh, hello.’ I replied. That was our first conversation. ‘I work here,’ R stubbornly insisted on telling me something I already knew. ‘Well I never! I didn’t realize. I often pass by here.’ ‘Hmm, I recently moved here from the Lotte store in Myeong-dong.’ I felt strangely awkward. S threw me a look as if to ask ‘Who is she?’ but I pretended not to notice. There would have been no adequate explanation. I could always say: ‘We attended the same high school, we knew each other by sight.’ But there was no point in whispering something like that. S selected a pair of khaki slacks and went to the changing room to try them on. There were no other customers. R and I were alone. I laughed awkwardly. R spoke up, ‘You haven’t changed a bit. You’re still just as pretty when you laugh.’ When had R ever seen me laugh before? I had been born in the city. I had learned that if someone offers you a compliment, you should make one in return. So I said, ‘You’re a lot prettier than you used to be.’ R smiled in an off-putting manner. ‘I was rather plump when I was at school.’ In that case, she seemed to have lost a lot of weight. We fell silent again. ‘It’s odd, they seem to have changed the design of their slacks. They make me look short, don’t they?’ S was examining the clothes, turning this way and that in front of the mirror. ‘Oh no, they suit you, Miss. It’s only because they are on the long side.’ ‘I’m not sure.’ S seemed not to like what she saw of herself reflected in the mirror. “Let me try turning up the hem.’ R knelt at S’s feet in order to turn up the bottom of the slacks. The way her hair was tightly curled up and held in by a black gauze net. A few stray hairs were spread across the nape of her neck.
    In the end, S did not buy those slacks. ‘I’ll be going. Nice to see you.’ ‘Right. Enjoy the rest of your shopping today and drop by next time you’re passing.’ ‘Okay, see you later.’ ‘Hey, hang on.’ R called out to me as I was turning away. ‘Write down your pager number for me. I’ll let you know in advance if we’re having a sale with special offers.’ In return I asked for her number. She inscribed her pager number, beginning with 015, and the outlet’s phone that began with 5, on a piece of notepaper bearing the circular logo of Sampung department store. Another week passed, and there was no news from the magazine specializing in beauty products or the company producing tailor-made kitchen furnishings. I did not go to the university for the graduation ceremony. The winter vacations were long, but on the first day of what was no longer vacations I had a different feeling. In early childhood I had been briefly mistaken for ‘a prodigy, at least,’ but now my parents surely must have complex feelings about their daughter being an unemployed graduate, but they did not push me. They were sufficiently well-off not to need their daughter’s salary to supplement their income. Instead of inviting them to the graduation ceremony and having a photo taken with them wearing my mortar-board, I was able to avoid being blamed for unfilial behavior by agreeing silently to meet a possible future husband.
    They told me that a man studying dentistry in the United States had come back to Korea in search of a bride. He began by explaining that his own major field was going to restore dentistry’s damaged state to its former level. Stopping in the middle of the street, he pointed at a ten-story building. ‘If I treat just three patients a day, I can put up a building like that in no time at all.’ It was the first time I had ever seen someone speak with that kind of self-confidence directly, and not in a television soap. As my contempt for him grew, my mother seemed to become more enthusiastic about him. ‘Mom, are you crazy? How can you expect me to go and live in a country where I can’t communicate with people?’ ‘But haven’t you been attending English institutes all this time? After the fortune we’ve spent sending you to those classes, why can’t you communicate?’ ‘Anyway, it’s no good, I absolutely can’t go and live in another country.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I’m someone with a high command of advanced Korean.’ It was only then that I became aware that I had studied English not in order to leave Korea but in order to stay here. It was nearly March.
    I had no sooner opened my eyes in the morning than it was already past midday. I picked up a leather shoulder-bag, left home and went to the National Library in Seocho-dong. At the entrance I produced my student ID instead of my national ID. The man giving out admission tickets glanced at it without showing any interest in details like expiration dates. In the periodicals room all the magazines published in the country were available. After reading The Happy Home, Working Woman, and some literary reviews I had never heard of, the inside of my head felt numb. I had only once tried the library restaurant’s watery curry-rice consisting of nothing but potatoes and carrots. For my late lunch I ate a bowl of instant kimchi-noodles with a cup of Pocari Sweat. I did not take off my winter coat, for spring had not yet come. This was the fifth such day. In the library’s convenience store, as I poured hot water into the bowl of noodles and split apart the wooden chopsticks, I felt a chill run up my spine. The library was very cold. Simply dumping the remaining noodles into the trash bin, I left the library. I took the neighborhood bus and headed for Sampung department store.
    The spicy cold noodles on the store’s fifth floor were amazingly tasty. Squeezing a good helping of mustard onto the scarlet noodles, I stirred. It was so spicy, tears sprang to my eyes. Taking a gulp of broth, I scalded the roof of my mouth. Riding the escalator from the fifth floor, I went down one floor at a time. The fourth floor was sports goods, the third floor men’s clothes, the second women’s clothes. I explored each floor carefully. When you’re feeling bored, there is nothing better than a department store for providing a pleasant hour or two. In the outlet in the right-hand corner of the second floor, I noticed R serving a customer. Standing in front of a middle-aged woman whose large girth seemed unsuited for Q-brand clothes, which did not go beyond a size 66, she was smiling politely. I went in and tapped her lightly on the shoulder, then turned and walked away. I tested a new brand of eye shadow at a makeup counter on the first floor, fingered a pair of Hepburn-style sunglasses with round lenses, then put them down again. Going down to the fancy goods counter in the basement, I bought a pencil-case made of red cloth decorated with drawings of Winnie the Pooh. Then standing in the adjacent bookstore, I read from beginning to end a collection of works awarded a literary prize, the contents of which I have completely forgotten. Some time later, though I looked all around, there was no way of knowing how much time had passed. Then as now there are no clocks in department stores. Growling sounds were coming from my stomach. I emptied out my bag as I searched for the page R had given me. I entered a phone booth in the store’s first-floor lobby, elegantly decorated like a street in Paris, and phoned up to R on the second floor. ‘Ah, it’s you.’ R got my name right, too. ‘Only wait two hours more. If I hurry up, I can get out by eight.’ Once 1995 had faded into the remote past, I sometimes used to wonder why she replied so calmly to my call. Had she been counting on me to make the first contact? Or had she too been feeling the need for a new friend, someone who knew nothing at all about her?
    As soon as eight came, a flock of young women erupted toward the outside parking lot. The girls looked pale and lively, dressed in their everyday clothes instead of uniforms. R tapped me on the shoulder first. ‘You been waiting long?’ In her jeans with a hooded jacket, she looked exactly as she had in high school. ‘I’m starving, let’s go.’ She slid an arm through mine in an utterly natural gesture. We walked down toward the express bus terminal. We had already entered a noodle shop and ordered before I recalled that I had had noodles for lunch. ‘Wow, I’m crazy about noodles, and it sounds as if you are too! Still, you ought to avoid eating flour-based food two meals running. Otherwise your stomach gets all messed up, like mine is. People with our kind of job eat at irregular hours, we all suffer from indigestion.’ I nibbled some pickled radish and asked: ‘You been working long in department stores?’ ‘I began when I was twenty, so this’ll be the fifth year.’ After leaving high school, I had never heard even the least scrap of news about her, so of course I had not realized she had not gone on the college. ‘I see. Has it been interesting?’ ‘So-so. Earning a living’s all the same, isn’t it? They say that being in sales is like a drug. They all run around saying they’re going to quit, it’s too hard, but they’re never quite driven over the edge.’ Our noodles arrived. We silently devoured the noodles from which thick clouds of steam were rising. R did not ask me what work I was doing. She did not ask me if I had graduated, either. As we were leaving, she was carrying the bill. I quickly pulled four thousand-Won bills from my purse. That was the cost of my share of the noodles. Going Dutch, with even the small change being shared exactly, was the usual custom among girl students in the 1990s. R stubbornly refused to take them. I was obliged to put back my four thousand-Won bills. ‘Then let me pay for coffee.’ R took my arm again. ‘Frankly, I think going somewhere for coffee’s a waste of money. Shall we go to my place? There’s a direct bus from just down there.’
    We got off the bus at the stop by our old high school. Following her, I made my way through a maze of gloomy lanes until I saw the familiar wall with the back gate of the school. We had taken a shortcut. I had studied there for three years, but did not know it existed. ‘Our house is really close to the school, isn’t it?’ I nodded. ‘I reckon I was the student in the whole school who got to school quickest. Sometimes I used to be sitting in the empty classroom when the sun rose.’ She laughed shyly. To reach her home, we had to go in through the gate then climb a long flight of cement steps up one side of the main house. It was dark, and each step was quite high, so it was a bit awkward. R turned on the light switch in the hallway. The space inside was small but there was a wonderful view of the lights of Seoul stretching beyond the window. ‘Wow, what a great night-time view!’ My exclamation was a bit forced. ‘And if you look over there, that’s Namsan, isn’t it?’ R added, as if it something improper, ‘I knew you’d like it.’ The low table was covered with a piece of purple cloth. She pulled the table over in front of the window. The sweetish coffee slipped smoothly over my tongue.

    Waiting for R to get back, I took the escalator down to the first floor of the basement. When it came to the structure of Sampung department store, the open spaces were all so vast you could find your way round with your eyes shut. Going to the counter selling fancy merchandise, I picked out a hard-cover diary. After hesitating between a water-drop pattern and a zebra pattern cover, I opted at the last minute for the zebra pattern. It was so stuffy that breathing was difficult. Four or five salesgirls in uniform were gathered by the cash register, chattering. ‘Have you heard? Just now the ceiling in the fifth-floor cold noodle shop collapsed. What’s going on? You don’t think it’s all going to fall down today, do you? I mustn’t die today! I wore my new pair of jeans to work!’ All the girls burst out in a shriek of laughter. It really did sound like a shriek. ‘That will be 4,900 Won, please.’ Clasping my 100-Won coin change, I walked away.

    In the early spring that year, I rapidly grew close to my new friend. Perhaps because all twenty of my other friends were busy, my green Motorola pager never rang. Also, I never made the first move to contact friends apart from R. The March daylight hours were short, as usual. I would compose one job application each day in the reading room of the National Library. I ran out of copies of the photo where the corners of my mouth were turned upward. I was obliged to take the negative of the photo taken by the best photographer in Seoul to the instant photo corner in Sampung department store and have ten more copies printed off.

    ‘What do you do all day long at the library?’ R asked. ‘I just read and study, that’s all.’ ‘Don’t you get bored? What are you studying all this time?’ Since I had never once studied to the point of getting bored, I felt a stab of conscience. ‘If you have nowhere to go during the day, shall I give you a key to my place?’ I had no other friend who would ever have said such a thing. I just laughed. ‘Since it’s empty in any case, you can make yourself at home, cook some instant noodles, read books. So long as you wash up the dishes you use.’ It was certainly a very simple condition for the loan of a house. As she pulled out a silver-colored key, I felt an inexpressible sense of obligation. I shook my head stubbornly. ‘No, it’s alright.’ ‘What would I do all alone in your house if you’re not there?’ ‘Still, take it. After all, you never know. Suppose I have a heart attack and die in my sleep, you can use this key to let yourself in and discover me.’ ‘Hey, why do you say such gruesome things?’ ‘Or else you can rescue me when I’ve slipped on the bathroom floor and fallen down.’ ‘Right, but before I call the emergency services, I’d better put some clothes on you.’ ‘Ha ha, sure, you’d better.’ The key transferred from her palm to mine looked small and incomplete.
    I have no memory of ever having put that key into the keyhole and entering her home on my own. When the library closed, I used to head for the Sampung department store. Either I took the neighborhood bus or, once the days grew warmer, I walked. Sometimes I would turn right from the library and go past the junipers at the Seocho station intersection; on other days, I used to cross the road in front of the library and cut across the grounds of Saint Mary’s hospital. The two or more hours I had to spend waiting for R would pass quickly. Reading books, choosing a CD, examining clothes, eating ice-cream, I did every imaginable thing you could do in such a place. That’s what a department store is for. If I was at a loss, I used to go to the Q-brand corner and assist R. Since I seemed to be a customer just like them, women who emerged from the changing room wearing clothes they were trying on would trust my comments more readily than those of R, she being a salesperson. ‘Frankly, you know, rather than an achromatic line, a pastel system suits you far better.’ ‘Rather than the gray jacket you’re wearing now, the light green coat you tried before was ten times prettier.’ ‘Even if it’s a trifle expensive, if I were you I’d surely buy that.’ Once the customer had left with her arms full of blue shopping bags, we would look at each other and grin. ‘I think you have a special talent for this kind of thing.’ She used to praise me. ‘It’s because I want you to hire me as your deputy,’ I would giggle.
    As closing time drew near, there were less and less customers. Once closing time had come, the loudspeakers began to play the song ‘Sorrowful Parting.’ Though I used to hear that tune every day, played in a quick, cheerful tempo, it always sounded strange. ‘Dear friend, whom I have frequented for so long, why talk of sorrowful parting? Is it merely a matter of going away? Go where we may, we shall never forget one another. So let us sing, looking forward to the day when our friendship will bring us together again.’ Humming the words to myself, I would leave the store first and wait for R to come out after changing into her jeans. She and I took turns paying for supper. ‘You don’t have any money.’ She used to try to stop me but I could never imagine letting someone else treat me regularly. In actual fact, my financial situation was not so bad. It might not run to pizzas or steaks in family restaurants, but when it was a matter of noodles or rice rolls, I could afford that kind of menu every day. I never told R that I was still receiving pocket money from my parents.
    After supper, we would go to R’s place and watch a video or drink beer. With the beer we would nibble peanuts or onion rings. R flatly refused to buy squid-flavored crackers. She never ate roasted dry squid, either. She said she could not stand to see the dried squid squirming around like that when it was put on top of a gas flame. I urged her to shut her eyes, ‘It’ll be ok if you don’t see, surely? I’ll roast them,’ but she pretended not to have heard me. ‘It’s too cruel, isn’t it, not only the way those squid that have been living deep in the sea get pulled up onto dry land and dried for days on end exposed to sunlight, I mean, but then the way they’re roasted over a scorching hot flame?’ Hearing her, I agreed. My longing to dip roasted squid into mayonnaise and chew on it with my molars vanished. The beer always ran out before the onion rings. Once the beer was finished, I would stand up. R used to accompany me to the bus-stop. Compared to a few days before, the evening air was getting warmer. The forsythias along the road around Namsan were starting to open their first buds. Dappled by lamplight, it was impossible to tell how yellow they really were. I was not even sure if they were forsythias or azaleas. Come to think of it, I never once saw R’s face in broad daylight.
    If I’d asked I suppose she would have told me, but I never asked R why she was living alone. According to my standards, I thought that was being polite. I felt that possibly it was something that made her feel sad. Gauging the right distance between one heart and another was something very difficult for me then, and it still is. I was curious about the poetry books in her bookshelves, too, but my lips remained sealed. The volume of selected poems by Gi Hyeong-do in a series with caramel-colored covers was a book that I also owned. ‘There was a long time when I was unable to write. The weather here was bad and I could not stand that weather. In those days, too, there were streets with cars driving along them.’ When I re-read those words on the book’s back cover in R’s house, I realized that what I could not stand was not the weather here, but myself.

    Going into a phone booth on the ground floor, I dialed R’s pager number. R had not even recorded a commonplace word of greeting. Hmm. Composing my voice, I left her a message: ‘It’s me. I dropped by but there’s no sign of you. Are you having a snack? Are you okay? I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch more often. It’s what happens when you’re working in an office. Get back home, wash, and you’re asleep in a flash. Today I managed to escape in the middle of things. I got out, only there was nowhere to go. Take care. I’ll come by again later.’ I wonder if R ever heard my message. I still don’t know.

    It was a Saturday. I had got up late and when I came out of the bathroom, the telephone number of the Q-brand outlet was showing on my pager. ‘Can you come and work here, just for today? Our manager has had to go out of town in a hurry; her grandmother’s died suddenly. The main office say they can only send someone to replace her tomorrow and it’s sales time, there’ll be lots of customers, so give me a hand for today, please.’ I replied that there was no problem. Then I opened my wardrobe. I reckoned I would do well to wear Q-brand clothes, so I took out one of their previous year’s spring models that I had bought, a white, short-sleeved sports shirt, and put it on. Beneath it I wore a black skirt I had bought at a store near Ewha Womens University, that R had once mistaken for a traditional Korean skirt, exclaiming, ‘Why, that’s our Korean style of dress!’
    At the Q-brand outlet, R was with a man I had never seen before. He turned out to be the brand’s local agent. She introduced me, ‘She’s going to be employed here just for today.’ He took my ID card and jotted down a few details. ‘Get into uniform,’ he said. R seemed more upset than I was. ‘She’s only working here for today, why does she need to wear a uniform?’ ‘It’s the rule, isn’t it?’ ‘We haven’t been following it recently.’ ‘Having people work here who weren’t wearing uniform was a mistake, that’s all.’ ‘But she’s only a student, and she’s my friend, so she’s helping me out today for one day. Let her be for just this once, please.’ Since I was no longer a student, I winced. R’s attitude hardened. Anyone passing might have thought that the agent was trying to make me wear convict’s garb, rather than the uniform of a salesgirl in Sampung department store. I interrupted R. ‘It’s fine by me. Let me go and put it on, okay?’ R looked at me. Her eyes were gentle like a cow’s. ‘Is it really alright for you?’ I laughed weakly. ‘Of course. Where is it, now?’ ‘And you must pin a label on her chest saying she’s a temporary assistant.’ The uniform was a perfect fit. My generation had been allowed whatever clothes we liked at school, so it was the first time I had been in a uniform since I wore a girl-scout uniform in my primary school days, way back. It was heavier than I had expected, oddly enough. Or that was how it felt to me.
    Compared to when I had been standing around dressed casually and saying whatever came to mind, everything was different. Once midday passed, customers began to come crowding in. Being slow-moving and with many things to do, I was clumsy. Having to find the right size in addition to selecting clothes that suited each customer, I was soon perspiring. R did all she could to cover for me, but when she was off fetching stock from the storeroom or dealing with another customer I was at a loss as to what I should do. While I was inserting pins to mark the hemline for a customer who had come in first, another who had come in after would do her best to distract me. ‘With 30% discount, how much is this blouse?’ I was at a loss how to calculate a 30% discount when the price was not 150,000 Won but 148,500 Won. After all, I’m someone whose head starts to spin at the mere sight of arabic numerals, aren’t I? I glanced toward R. She was fully occupied in selecting a coat to go with some white slacks a customer seemed to like. The cashier at the counter also looked extremely busy. ‘Come on, what’s the matter? Hurry up and tell me how much it costs. I’ll take these four, so work out how much that is with thirty percent discount.’ I carefully tapped at the keys of the calculator. The problem was that the busy cashier did not bother to check my sloppy arithmetic.
    The customer handed over a million-Won check, took the change, and left. Very soon after, she reappeared. ‘What damned idiot added up this bill?’ She swore without so much as blinking. The insult was directed at me, but I did not realize it. R stepped between us, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘It wasn’t you just now, it was that girl there who dealt with it.’ ‘Why, she’s just a temporary assistant. I’m the one you need to talk to.’ ‘What are you employing an idiot like her for? Didn’t she finish middle school? She doesn’t even know how to add and subtract! Since I was undoubtedly just an ignorant temporary assistant, I just hung my head. ‘I am so sorry. Let me quickly recalculate your bill for you.’ R bowed deeply several times. It involved adding some forty thousand Won somewhere, I couldn’t follow the process. Having received the money owed to her, the customer threw a withering glance in my direction, then pulled a scarf from the neck of one of the display mannequins. ‘I’m so furious, I’m not just going to leave like that. Because of that stupid girl there I’ve had to waste my time here, so I’m taking this as compensation. Deduct it from her wages or whatever.’ R snatched at the scarf she was holding. ‘No, that is an original design, I can’t allow that. We can give you gift vouchers instead.’ The customer grabbed the scarf again, and raised her voice. ‘Who wants your no-good gift vouchers? I’ve told you I like this, and I’m taking it, so why argue?’
    The dispute was only settled by the sudden appearance of the agent I had seen previously. The customer finally went sailing out, tucking the scarf into one corner of her bag. As she listened to his barbed scolding, R kept her lips clenched tightly. As for me, all I wanted was to go running away from there. Once the agent had left, R spoke: ‘I’m so sorry, it’s my fault.’ In hindsight, those were words I should have spoken. But I could hardly open my mouth. ‘Are you alright?’ R’s eyes were shifting quietly. ‘Of course. It’s not a big deal at all.’ She brushed some dust away from one shoulder of my uniform. ‘You worked hard today. The busiest period is over now, so you can go.’ I could not answer. ‘I’ll work out how much you’ve earned later. Hurry up and change.’ ‘Will you be alright on your own?’ ‘Yes, I’ll be fine alone; go and change quickly.’ She pushed me into one of the customer’s changing rooms. There I took off the uniform of a Sampung department store salesgirl and changed into my own clothes, a white, short-sleeved sports shirt and black skirt. Though they were not the uniform, they too felt really heavy. It was as if an iron bar was pressing down on my shoulders. Barely four hours had passed since I entered the Q-brand outlet. I left R standing there and dashed out of the store. The pink Sampung store building seemed to be pounding after me.

    It is not uncommon to grow apart from someone you were once close to, especially once you’ve grown up. After that incident, it was not long before I got a job with a company importing food for animals. I was amazed to discover that there were so many animals in the world. I was assigned to the marketing team and sold food for animals being used for experimental research. Hamsters have to consume 10-14 grams of calories per day and rats need 15-20 grams. Rabbits need at least 120 grams. R and I did not call one another by pager. The milk-coffee produced by the machine in the office corridor was a far fry from the coffee R used to make. I was so busy paying visits to all the hospitals and university research institutes in Seoul and the surrounding areas that used our company’s products that I did not notice the way spring was passing at a dizzying rate. I took the subway to the offices in Anguk-dong. On weekdays we had to wear formal dress but on Saturdays we could wear jeans. That was the one think I liked. Several times I lifted the phone, then put it down again.
    A boy friend appeared, too. He was newly employed in a securities company and whenever we met, we mostly talked about life in each other’s offices. He said he liked me because I was cute. ‘What do you mean, cute?’ ‘What I say. You’re not pretty but you look cute, don’t you? You’ve got pale skin and when you smile three creases appear at the corner of your eyes.’ He surely thought that Gi Hyeong-do was the name of an island somewhere off the south coast. But he was kind and bright, not bad at all. In the spring that year I possessed a lot of things: mildly right-wing parents, a clean, super-single sized bed, a translucent green Motorola pager, and four handbags. They were all obsolete. Spring had ended and, feebly, summer was coming.

    Sampung department store had opened in December 1989; it was an ultramodern building with five floors above ground and four basement levels. June 29, 1995. On that day the air conditioners were not working and it was suffocatingly hot inside. Perspiration flowed like rain. When did summer start? 5:40: I was walking up and down in the lobby, muttering. 5:43: I walked out through the front door. 5:48: I arrived home. 5:53: I opened my zebra-pattern covered diary. I had just written ‘Today I . . .’ when I heard a great crash. It was 5:55. Sampung department store had collapsed. It took less than one second for each floor to collapse onto the one below.

    Then a lot of things happened. My translucent green Motorola pager filled up with messages asking if I was alright. The woman living in the apartment below ours had gone to the supermarket in Sampung department store to buy some tofu for soup prior to making supper and did not come back. I heard that she’d left half a leek lying on her chopping board. The rainy season came. A few days later, the morning paper printed a list of the names of those dead or missing. I did not read it. On the page facing that was a special column written by a female celebrity. It suggested that the collapse of Sampung department store in the Gangnam area, reputed for its luxurious lifestyle, might be Heaven’s will, a warning to a country increasingly tainted with extravagance and pleasure. I called the newspaper’s readers’ department to protest. They replied that they could not give me the writer’s phone number. So there was no alternative and I screamed at the man in charge of the reader’s department. ‘Did that woman ever once go there? Does she know who was in there?’ I was panting hard. I felt sorry but there was no avoiding it. I still feel grateful for the way that newspaper employee kept hold of the phone without hanging up until I had stopped crying.
    On television I saw one young man being rescued after holding out for 230 hours inside the concrete wreckage. There was also a girl who emerged after 285 hours. I did nothing but watch the television. My boyfriend worried about me. ‘Once you’re born you’re bound to die. When I was doing my military service, I saw several deaths. My maternal uncle’s a general, he could have helped me avoid serving, but my dad forced me to go.’ I cannot say that was the only reason, but we eventually split up. He immediately started seeing a university student four years my junior who looked as cute as a Japanese doll. After June 29 I never once went to work at the office and soon received a dismissal notice by registered mail. The reason given was absence without leave. That was an accurate expression. 377 hours after the collapse, they discovered a nineteen-year-old girl. Her first words were, ‘What day is it?’ The total number of victims of the collapse of Sampung department store on June 29, 1995, including 30 who remained unaccounted for, was finally given as five hundred and one dead, nine hundred and thirty eight wounded. If I had been ten minutes later in leaving, that would have been that. People told me how lucky I was.

    I put the small, incomplete-looking silver-colored key in the bottom drawer of my desk and let ten years go past. I sometimes happened to open that drawer if I was looking for adhesive tape or a poultice in a hurry. I never heard from R. Her pager number and mine both vanished from the face of the earth. People kept changing toys, from pagers to mobiles, from the ‘I love school’ online community to the ‘Mini-hompi’ site.
    As I began to write this, I did a search for R’s mini-homepage using Cyworld. There were twelve girls born in 1972 with the same name as R. I clicked on the names one by one. The twelve Rs mostly seemed not to be maintaining their homepages, too busy perhaps. At the age of 33, we seemed to be passing through what might prove to be the most real moment of our lives. At the entrance to the eleventh mini-homepage there was the photo of a little girl. She looked to be about three or four years old. I enlarged the photo and gazed at it for a long time. Her eyes were gentle and large. On closer inspection, the rounded line of her jaw looked like R’s, too. I longed to see other, clearer photos but that was the only one there was. I sincerely hoped that the girl might be R’s daughter.
    Many things have changed and many have not changed. The site of Sampung department store remained empty for a long time, but in 2004 a towering complex of apartments and stores arose there. A few years before it was finished, I moved to another neighborhood, far from there. I still pass by there occasionally. Sometimes I feel a pain on one side of my chest, and sometimes not. One’s birthplace is not necessarily always a place you feel a deep nostalgia for. It was only after I left there that it became possible for me to write.